Couple standing next to each other.

Overcoming financial inequalities to thrive as a couple

How to bridge the income gap in your relationship and lay the groundwork for a more stable financial future.

6 min read

Sharing finances can be a great way for couples to boost their collective purchasing power and strengthen their communication. But what happens if one partner makes six figures and the other is barely scraping by? Even if the income gap isn’t that large, it’s not uncommon for disagreements to arise in a relationship when one person is the clear breadwinner. And it’s not just different spending habits that can create conflict: Financial inequality can be connected to deep issues like debt or financial shame. But income disparity doesn’t have to signal disaster — with a little empathy and strong communication, couples can build toward shared financial success.

How financial inequality can lead to conflict

According to a German survey by Verivox and Parship, 35% of adults say that money is a major source of conflict in their romantic relationship. Although these financial conflicts don’t necessarily drive couples to break up, money is still a difficult topic to address. Financial inequality is one of the most common causes of tension, and the complex issues that arise from it can strain any partnership. Sometimes, it can create an imbalance of power, where one partner makes most of the financial decisions without consulting their significant other. Guilt and shame might also creep into the relationship. As tricky as it is, understanding the different factors that can exacerbate financial inequality is half the battle to finding a peaceful solution.

Unequal power dynamics

Utopian visions aside, the reality is that different career paths come with vastly different salaries. On top of that, many people need to balance work and family commitments, which can impact take-home pay. For some couples, this can lead to an imbalanced power dynamic where the higher-earning partner takes on a more authoritative role in the financial decision-making. Without open and equal discussions with their partner, the breadwinner may — consciously or not — dictate how the couple’s money should be managed, leaving their partner feeling powerless. This power struggle can creep into other areas of the relationship, affecting the overall dynamic and creating resentment.

Financial secrecy

Some people react to financial inequality by becoming secretive about money. Insecurities surrounding income, or even guilt about earning more than a partner, can make it more difficult to open up about money. While it’s important that both partners maintain a sense of financial independence, secrecy about finances can erode trust and strain the bond between partners over time.  

Dealing with guilt and shame

Financial inequality can also give rise to feelings of guilt and shame within a relationship. The partner who earns more may feel guilty about their status and success in climbing the career ladder. Or, the lower-earning partner may feel guilty for not contributing as much to the household finances and might try to bridge the income gap by sacrificing their personal needs or wants. Either way, if these feelings go unaddressed, they could eventually develop into resentment and anger.

The weight of gender norms

Gender norms die hard: According to research from the University of Bath, heterosexual cisgendered men typically find it challenging if their partner is the breadwinner. The study followed 6,000 heterosexual couples over a 15-year period and discovered that cis-men are happier when both partners contribute financially — but only up to a point. Once their female partners earned more than 40% of the household income, the men’s stress increased. A recent YouGov poll also found that 60% of cis-men in heterosexual relationships earned more than their female partners, and 40% felt it was their responsibility to be the main breadwinner. 

Not only can this societal pressure cause cis-men in heterosexual relationships a lot of stress, but it can also lead to them feeling threatened by the success and achievements of their female partner. Ultimately, that’s a lose-lose situation.

Financial inequality —  how to close the gap

While financial inequality can create challenges, overcoming these difficulties and growing stronger as a couple is completely possible. Prioritizing open communication, getting to grips with each other's financial perspectives, and finding opportunities for compromise are all key ingredients. With these things in place, couples can start building an equitable financial future together — with or without an income gap. Let’s take a closer look.

1. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Good communication is essential when tackling financial inequality. Open conversations can help to address any anxieties, discomfort, resentments, or other uncomfortable emotions that income disparity brings up. Plus, strong communication is a prerequisite for other strategies that couples might use to bridge an income gap. Avoiding discussions just prolongs the problem.

2. Be honest and empathetic

Again, income disparity can bring up some pretty difficult feelings. It’s important for both partners to be able to admit and express their emotions, no matter how messy. This requires courage, honesty, and a non-judgmental attitude from both sides. By sharing experiences and perspectives, couples can gain a deeper understanding of the impact that financial inequality has on their relationship. Remember to listen actively and ask meaningful questions, too. Approaching financial conversations with empathy can help to defuse conflict and reduce tension.

3. Reach a common understanding

To find common ground as a couple, be curious about the different beliefs and attitudes toward money that each partner has. It’s crucial to talk about how each person views money, how they feel and think about their spending habits, and how money makes them feel. This can help both parties understand how to support each other better. 

By sharing their personal experiences, couples can then get to grips with the underlying motivations behind their different approaches to money. It’s important to understand the different financial boundaries that partners may have, what their expectations are, and how much autonomy each person needs. In turn, this allows couples to find mutually beneficial approaches to managing their finances. It’s all about aligning and moving forward together.

4. Create a shared and equitable budget

Creating a shared budget is a great way to foster a sense of equality and collaboration as a couple. However, with a significant income disparity, it may be challenging for the lower earner to pitch in the same amount toward shared expenses. A fairer approach for some couples may be for each partner to contribute the same percentage of their take-home pay. Paying for shared expenses proportionally can help both individuals feel like equal contributors, even if the amounts are different.

Make sure to revisit the budget if and when circumstances change. It’s important for both parties to feel that the budget fairly reflects the realities of the relationship. Any shared budget should also take individual financial goals into account, so that both partners can maintain a sense of financial independence.

5. Recognize non-monetary contributions 

Financial contributions are just one of many ways an individual can bring value to a relationship. A lower-earning partner may bring in less money each month, but they may make valuable contributions in other areas, such as childcare, domestic tasks like cleaning and managing the household, or cooking incredible meals. There’s so much more that goes into maintaining a relationship and a household than money alone. Understanding and recognizing these non-financial contributions can help both partners feel appreciated. 

Your money at N26

With N26, balancing both individual and shared finances is beautifully simple. Spaces sub-accounts let you allocate money toward specific targets — and even save as a team toward a shared goal. Thanks to Insights, you can organize your finances, track your spending, and set budgets. Plus, push notifications help you monitor your account activity in real-time, empowering you to take care of your financial well-being. Opening an account with N26 takes minutes, and there’s no pesky paperwork. Achieve your goals and build a more secure future today with an N26 account.

By N26

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