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Couples With Big Income Gaps Talk About Money Problems

“I think her salary just makes me feel inferior, and like we’re less equal partners.”

by Laura Bell
Aug 17 2018, 2:52pm

Image source: Adobe Stock. 

There’s an unspoken advantage to being equally broke in a relationship. I grew up being told that any talk about money was “crass” so perhaps it’s lucky that my past significant others have all been types that would rather have ten drinks on a Tuesday night than buy groceries. We never had to talk about it. However, for a lot of couples this isn’t the case.

An estimated two out of three Canadian couples have some kind of income disparity, according to a 2015 study—not too surprising when you consider, on average, women still earn 83 percent of what an average man makes, and only 24 percent of married women are estimated to earn more than their husbands. (That figure was only seven percent in 1970, so at least that's progress?) Plus, along with a gender pay gap, a racial income disparity is still prevalent throughout North America with a 2016 consensus revealing university-educated Canadian-born members of a visible minority earned, on average, 87.4 cents for every dollar earned by their Caucasian peers.

All this means that well over half of North American couples will be dealing with an income gap, and are having to factor in income discrepancy issues into their relationship. So, what does it look like when one person makes several times more than the other? What happens when one person actually wants to buy groceries? Whether the disparity in income is something you chose to acknowledge, ignore, or make into some kind of sexy play, most couples do have to deal with it in some way. So I approached four couples with hefty income gaps to find out their strategies in keeping the peace and not fighting over those pennies.

Oh, and just a heads up, if you thought asking couples to talk about money on the phone with a stranger wouldn't be excruciatingly awkward, then you would be wrong.

Lucy, 38, and Shiva, 29

VICE: Hey ladies, can you tell me a bit about your situation?
Luce: I’m a freelance yoga instructor and Shivs works for a big tech company.
Shiva: Our incomes work out at around 70:30 in terms of a ratio.

Is money something you are comfortable talking about?
Luce: Shivs had zero money when we first met as she was a student, so we spoke about that immediately. I got it, she was a student, and I had a job, that was fine, and I liked looking after her.
Shiva: I think when you’re dating a student it’s like an unspoken thing. I was eating dry packet ramen on our first date, it’s just a fact of life.
Luce: But the fact that you were broke still gives you no excuse for why you were eating it dry.

Are things much different now the gap has shifted?
Luce: Honestly, I was much more comfortable with it when Shivs was broke. Now, I think her salary just makes me feel inferior, and like we’re less equal partners. I have never ever been motivated by money, like duh I’m a yoga instructor, but just seeing what Shivs is bringing home these days makes me feel tiny. Plus, now I’m thinking about money way more which I hate; money is evil man.
Shiva: Luce has always taken a more caring role in the relationship, she’s such a nurturer. I think you might be uncomfortable now that financially I’m in a position where I should take care of you—do you think?
Luce: Yeah, I think you’re right.

Have you found your roles in the relationship are affected by the income gap?
Shiva: It affects people’s perceptions of our relationship, but it doesn’t affect us too much. People get confused that in a lesbian relationship there has to be a guy and a girl, which is funny for us. Now I’m earning a good salary people see me as more of the “guy” because I’m in a financial position whereby I could support both of us. But, if we’re going on the archaic perception that the “male” role is to look after the other, even though that’s dumb, then Luce naturally fits that role more than I do.
Luce: Yep, I’m the broke “dude” of this relationship—you’re one lucky lady.

Do you find you have to talk about money more than other couples because of it?
Shiva: We fight about money a lot more than other couples for sure, it’s just a point of tension for both of us.
Luce: I think couples always have their thing that they clash over. I would say we have some sort of money related argument once a week.

What are some things that you fight about?
Shiva: Mainly what we can and can’t do. I want to go out and celebrate and go for nice dinners and holidays, but Luce is very stubborn about what she can afford, and she doesn't like me treating her, even though I would love to.
Luce: I just hate now that I feel like a burden, like we’re not financially compatible anymore. The only way we can go out for dinner more than once a week is if Shiva pays for me, and I hate that. It makes me feel very unequal. I am working on those insecurities and recently I’ve let Shivs take me out more, starting at In-N-Out burger though.

What advice do you have for couples who also have an income gap?
Luce: Be honest, never use it at bait in an argument. Just be open about it and know it’s not your partners fault.
Shiva: Yeah honesty is the key. Just chat about it before it becomes a problem otherwise you can sit and stew and that initial expensive bottle of champagne that you bought as a nice gift for your girlfriend will become a huge blow out.

Luce: You can’t see but she’s raising her eyebrows at me, yes Shivs I know you’re talking about me.

Daniella, 25, and Josh, 25

VICE: Hey Daniella and Josh, let’s talk about money!
Daniella: Well, I earn quite good money and Josh earns less money.

Has this ever caused issues in your relationship?
Daniella: Josh is very generous and wants to pay for a lot of stuff, but when we first got together Josh was unemployed and that was quite hard because he didn’t have money to pay for things, so I guess we did less things and he was annoyed because he couldn’t pay.

And Josh since getting a job have these issues been ironed out?
Josh: I still earn a lot less than Daniella, so the income gap is still there. I was annoyed recently when she made a big deal about my promotion, because she’s still earning 10k more than me after the raise. It felt a bit patronizing because I know how much Daniella earns, and also I wasn’t happy about my minuscule pay rise.

So does the fact that Daniella earns more bring out any insecurities?
Josh: I don’t think it matters that she earns more because I know she’s more qualified and probably better than me, for me that’s not the problem. I’m not mad about what she earns, I’m mad about what I earn. If I was earning a salary that I was happy with then it wouldn’t be an issue. It has nothing to do with Daniella and she knows that.

Does the gap have any impact on your roles in the relationship?
Daniella: It’s not really a thing. I guess if we had kids it might be different because that depends on who’s working and who’s looking after them.
Josh: I’ve said a few times to her that I know she’ll always earn more than me and I’m not bothered, I’m proud of her for it. I know I would be happy with being a stay at home dad.

Is it something your friends are aware of?
Daniella: My friends know I earn quite well, and Josh doesn’t care, it’s not a secret and he’s not embarrassed about it. If Josh earned more than me, we probably wouldn’t talk about it though which annoys me.

What advice do you have for couples who also have an income gap?
Daniella: You just have to be comfortable and not misogynistic and not have expectations that anyone should earn more than the other. I also think it’s important to be honest about how much you earn.

Ross, 32, and Troy, 37

VICE: Hey boys, can you explain a little bit about your situation?
Troy: Well we both worked at the same company until I was let go last year. So now I’m, what do people call it?
Ross: Funemployed?
Troy: Funemployed, yes.

Oh eek—I’m guessing this is having a less-than-fun impact on your relationship then?
Troy: Yes! We used to be two guys earning a large combined salary, we didn’t really limit ourselves, we just partied when we wanted to party and ate where we wanted to eat. We went on vacation, we did whatever. We didn’t think about it. If we wanted that second margarita—
Ross: Or sixth.
Troy: Exactly, if we wanted that sixth margarita we just did it without thinking too much. I think we’ve lost a lot of the spontaneity in our relationship now I’m not earning what I used to earn which is the suckiest part.

Do you find you have to talk about money more than other couples now?
Troy: Well essentially all the money I spend now is Ross’ money, so we do have to talk about it.
Ross: I’m his sugar daddy now.
Troy: He is, but it’s sad, not hot.

Is it something your friends are aware of?
Ross: Yes, they all know how hard it’s been, especially with Troy still looking for work.
Troy: We do go big on the whole “daddy” thing while we’re out, too. “You gonna pay for this daddy?”
Ross: People hate it.
Troy: They do they get very uncomfortable—but it’s our coping mechanism!

Was “sugar daddy” ever a role Ross took before?
Troy: Not really. I did like it when he took care of me, but it was never in a financial way. Now it has become more financial and I’m starting to feel like a kept 50s housewife.
Ross: You do act differently as well, like I find you asking permission more for stuff, or booking stuff, whereas before you didn’t you just went ahead and did it.
Troy: Well yes babe when it’s your money buying the tickets I have to ask. The fact that Ross is earning and I’m not just makes me very cautious with how much I can take when I’m not giving anything back. I don’t want to be a freeloader in my own relationship.
Ross: You’re normally such a giver.
Troy: You know I am!

What about birthdays?
Troy: Ross had his birthday a few of months ago. Luckily, we had booked a trip to Mexico before I lost my job that was all paid for. He had to buy his own birthday meal though.
Ross: I didn’t care, I think you cared more than I did.
Troy: I cried [laughs]

How do you make sure you don't fight about it?
Troy: We’ve stayed lighthearted about the whole thing, we have no space for ugly feelings like resentment in this relationship, so we would talk about any issues like that immediately.
Ross: I also think the sugar daddy play has actually helped.
Troy: Yep it’s definitely spiced up a fucking car crash of a year.

Orla, 28, and Theo, 31

VICE: Can you explain a little bit about your situation?
Orla: Well, we’ve been dating for six months.

And what about your money situation?
Orla: Oh! Mine’s fine, Theo’s is a bit better.
Theo: I’m earning around $160K a year.
Orla: Fuck, I didn’t know it was that much!

Oops, so is money not something you’d broached yet?
Orla: Well we kinda had. I knew Theo earned a lot but I didn’t know the exact figure.
Theo: I obviously haven't told her “FYI I’m making this much a year” but she knows I work in investment banking, and I always go to our dates in expensive suits so we spoke a bit about it.

Is the income gap something you notice?
Orla: I noticed first when Theo would always be like lets go to this place, or this place, like really fancy places and I thought “fucking hell who does he think I am?” So at first I felt a bit awkward and thought if I suggested less fancy places he would judge me.
Theo: I don’t notice it really, but I’m careful to pick less extravagant places now because we always go Dutch.

You split the bill, whose idea was that?
Orla: I always split the bill, I think it’s weird not too. I’ve never been in the situation before where someone I’m dating is earning like…four times as much as I am, fuck sorry I just did the math—it’s a lot! So yeah, I’ve never not split the bill, but then people I’ve dated before were on pitiful salaries just like me so that’s just what we did.
Theo: I don't mind splitting it, it’s not something I get too offended by. In the past I have had girlfriends who like to be treated and those who don’t. I know some guys who insist on paying, like its their personal right to. I think it’s a choice and its whatever you both are comfortable with. From date one Orla has never let me pay.

Even on a birthday?
Theo: We haven't had one of those yet so I don’t know.

What are some things that are affected by the income gap?
Orla: Mainly what we do on our dates. We’re still pretty new so we go out a lot, and I think we’re going to a lot more grungy places now because of me. Less city rooftops and more drinking hovels in dirty East London.
Theo: Hardly dirty! I’m glad to be getting out of the city and seeing new places. Both my previous girlfriends also worked in the city so this is a bit different.

Does the gap have any impact on your roles in the relationship?
Orla: I don’t think so, I think down the line it might but neither of us are thinking too much about that.

What advice do you have for couples who also have an income gap?
Orla: Just be honest. If I had agreed to all the expensive places Theo was suggesting when we first started dating I’d be broke AF, so I just had to say “look I can’t afford it,” and it was fine!
Theo: Yep, make sure you don’t make it something neither of you are comfortable discussing. I think people get so uncomfortable talking about money, but really it’s a practicality thing. So keep those lines of communication open. I don’t miss those $600 dinners, I’m just happy to be spending time with Orla.
Orla: $600?! Fuck, I would.

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