Here's the Thing: Money, Money, Money
A BIG SWEETIE:
I started dating someone new in January. It got serious very quick because we're both crazy about each other and we clicked instantly; we like the same things, have the same values, communicate openly, etc. etc. All the good stuff. Now we're moving in together in December. I'm super super excited about this because we spend a ton of time together and coming home to him every day is so thrilling to me.
What I'm concerned about is that he makes a LOT more money than me. For context, we're both well off compared to median income of the area or whatever, but we have different backgrounds: we both grew up pretty poor, but I went to university and worked retail all through school, worked at a non-profit for 4+ years and made a pittance, and now I work in at a clothing company's head office. So I'm doing well NOW, but for a very long time, I ate toast for dinner, lived in shitty basement suites, moved around a lot, etc.
On the other hand, he got hired at a big tech company right out of school and now he makes six figures which is more money than, frankly, anyone his age should be making. WITH THAT BEING SAID: he's extremely down-to-earth about it. He's neither ostentatious nor stingy, we split costs of some things and other things he pays for because he realizes that he makes over twice what I do. I think we've handled money talks very realistically so far and there haven't been any red flags in his behaviour.
BUT: the fact remains that he's allowing me to live in a level of luxury I never would have without him, and this is where I'm nervous. The place we're moving into has a dishwasher and in-suite laundry, which I've never had. He loves to cook and gets fancier groceries than I ever would get and makes these amazing meals (which is largely where money stuff comes up, in food). I'm worried that I'll get weird and subservient about it because I feel bad about the inequality.
For example: if he makes dinner, I clean the entire kitchen after because I'm grateful. Should I be grateful? Should I be cleaning the kitchen? I secretly feel like I'm indebted to him because he does so much for me. I worry this will continue when we live together, where I'll either constantly feel that I "owe him" for providing these things for me, or otherwise I'll DEMAND that we split everything evenly and I'll be living way above my means and get into financial trouble.
Should I ask him to spend less of his own money so it's closer to what I'm able to spend (on food, life, everything shared)? Should I get comfortable spending more? Am I being overly anxious when in reality I just have a nice supportive partner and money is always a LITTLE stressful?
One short caveat here is that I've been in a lot of relationships and most of them have been with people who couldn't really take care of themselves emotionally or financially, so I'm not used to being... doted on. I'm always the doter, not the dotee. Do I have to get over this?
Oh lucky lucky lucky me!!!! A TOPIC I HAVE STRONG OPINIONS ON! I’m ecstatic.
For the rest of this piece, I’m going to set aside Wealth As a Concept to deal with the question at hand, but I would like to still acknowledge that wealth (as in having lots of money) is morally dicey. No one deserves wealth any more than anyone deserves poverty. We all deserve to be taken care of, to have our needs met. So I’m not going to tell you that you both deserve this money and should enjoy it guilt free with no thought of others ever. That said, I don’t think that either of you is doing that!! You both sound like lovely, thoughtful people. I don’t think you two seem like the kind of people who would ignore the ethical imperative to help others.
The fact that hoarding massive amounts of wealth is problematic does not mean that you need to punish yourself or withhold minor luxuries from yourself to make a point or to be a good person. There is a vast vast difference between being able to afford good housing and being a billionaire, ok??!
OK, NOW ONTO THE ADVICE:
I have dated someone who have made 3+ times as much as I have and I have dated someone who made virtually no money and had to help support his family that made very little money; money is incredibly sensitive and tricky to navigate. I think it’s fabulous that you two have already had some conversations about money, and pretty much no matter what, more talks are coming, so you’re going to have to do the brave, excruciating, embarrassing thing and keep talking about.
Continue to have honest conversations about how things cost different amounts for both of you, about what your values are, about what your savings goals are. Things that cost the same are going to take up a bigger percentage of your income than they do of his. Be open about what your boundaries are. You can (and will) still decide what you do and don’t want to spend your money on, just as you are now. If you can’t afford to go on a vacation that he wants to take, he can go alone or with another friend, or he can offer to pay for the difference between what you can afford to pay and what the trip costs. That’s perfectly reasonable. That isn’t pathetic or parasitic. It’s how normal, loving couples navigate income disparity. Many many many couples I know split rent and bills by income (see what percentage of your combined incomes you make, and then pay that much of the rent). There are super common solutions to some of these questions and they will often mean him paying more. THAT IS FINE. You aren’t asking him to pay more than his fair share. You aren’t even asking for a specific lifestyle from him.
Just be honest with each other and open. Admit when something is too expensive for you or when you’re feeling the disparity. You shouldn’t be asking for him to buy you things out of your budget or anything, but you can say a simple, “Oh that sounds really fun, but I can’t afford it. What about X instead?” And if he’s dead set on the more expensive option, I promise he’ll come up with a solution.
One key to this, however, is that you both have to trust each other to be honest. You need to agree to trust that if he offers to pay for something or pick up a tab, that he is ok with doing that and does not feel resentful. Resentment and poor power dynamics come into play when you’re not being honest with each other. Talk to each other NOW before you move in so that you both can agree to just push through any awkwardness and have the hard conversations as soon as they come up. You’re a team; act like one.
ONTO SOME THINGS YOU SAID THAT I MUST SHOUT ABOUT:
“The place we're moving into has a dishwasher and in-suite laundry, which I've never had.” OK GREAT!!!! That is going to be very nice for when you have to wash dishes and clothes. I’m envious. That sounds very very nice. There is nothing to feel guilty about here. Put that feeling down.
Should I ask him to spend less of his own money so it's closer to what I'm able to spend (on food, life, everything shared)? No!!! He is in charge of how he’d like to spend his money. If you don’t want to spend your money on something, do not spend it. If your groceries are not from the same store as his when/if you cook, that’s fine. But if the boy likes fancy butter, let him go off. If you two are going to split something, either split it based on your incomes rather than 50/50 OR decide on an option that you can afford to go 50/50 on.
Should I be grateful? Should I be cleaning the kitchen? Yes, you should be grateful that your partner cooks, just like any of us would be grateful for our partners to cook. You DON’T, however, need to feel extra grateful or flagellate yourself in order to prove how kind it is of him to buy more expensive asparagus or whatever. Regardless of income disparity, most couples I know have an agreement that if one person cooks, the other cleans up. That said, if that arrangement doesn’t work for you two, THEN TALK ABOUT IT. You do not owe him extra unpaid labor to make up for him happening to make more money than you.
Here is where I really thing your issues lie:
🚨DING DING🚨: I'm worried that I'll get weird and subservient about it because I feel bad about the inequality.
🚨DING DING PART 2 🚨: I worry this will continue when we live together, where I'll either constantly feel that I "owe him" for providing these things for me, or otherwise I'll DEMAND that we split everything evenly and I'll be living way above my means and get into financial trouble.
We are not going to let you do either of those things. Both of those options are ridiculous! (That isn’t to say they aren’t common. A LOT of people fall into the exact dynamics you describe, but those dynamics are harmful, and for that reason, we are not giving into them).
You do not owe him simply because his job makes more money than you. He is not worth more than you in any way. He’s a person. You’re a person. How much jobs pay is incredibly arbitrary and false. If it weren’t, minimum wage would actually allow people to live in the areas they work in and be able to afford food. The wages people get paid are bullshit. So you absolutely do not owe HIM for his company deciding to pay him more than your company does. Nonsense.
YOU ARE NOT SPLITTING THINGS WITH HIM DOWN THE MIDDLE THAT YOU CANNOT AFFORD. There will be dinners that you pick up and gifts you buy and ways you contribute to the house that he doesn’t. But that will also be the case for him. And he will pick up more because he earns more. If you were starving and you came across someone who had a plate of food and someone who had 7,294 plates of food, would you expect them to both share half a meal with you so that you could have a whole meal? NO. You’d expect the dude with 7,294 plates of food to give you one because what the fuck does he need it for???! Equal and fair are different things. You two need to build a fair life, not an equal one.
One shitty thing that happens a lot in couples in capitalistic societies is that the person who earns more hears the messaging (and starts to believe) that they are worth more and that therefore their time is worth more. I want you to hear this: your time is of equal importance. A task that would take you 12 minutes would also take him 12 minutes. You are not to become his maid for the sake of making up to him some imaginary unearned income. That is an evil way to treat a partner, and you two are not going fall into that trap. You’re both people. You’re both alive. You both have free time and money that you get to decide what to do with. Be generous with one another, be loving.
When you really get stuck emotionally (whether it be with guilt or resentment or feelings of unworthiness) think about what you would do should the incomes be reversed, or if your best friend were in your situation. You would not want your boyfriend for a moment to feel indebted to you or resentful. You would not want your best friend to feel like a burden. Give yourself that same amount of kindness.
Enjoy yourself; enjoy your damn dishwasher. Feeling guilty will not raise anyone else up out of poverty and will only reinforce any harmful dynamics you’re afraid of establishing. Let yourself live without the pressure of guilt. Your boyfriend is not paying extra for things he wants in order to make you feel bad. If he were, you wouldn’t be with him. Let go of guilt and shame. Put them down, and in their place pick up nicer things to do with your extra money or time. Things like generosity and gratitude.
Just talk to him. Let him pay more sometimes. Assuage your guilt by simply being a lovely, kind, generous person.
Sophia Benoit writes this very newsletter; she also writes about sex & relationships for GQ, tries to write about Fleetwood Mac for GQ, avoids writing by tweeting at @1followernodad, works full-time as a researcher for Lights Out With David Spade, and has had bylines in The Guardian, Reductress, Refinery29, Allure, and The Cut. You can reach her or yell at her at firstname.lastname@example.org.