I Make More Money Than My Boyfriend — And It's a Problem
Petty Cash is a weekly advice column where the experts (plus a millennial InStyle editor well-versed in pettiness) weigh in on your awkward and annoying financial faux pas.
DEAR PETTY CASH,
My boyfriend and I have been together for five years, and our relationship is pretty solid. The one thing that causes tension between us is our disparate incomes. I make a lot more money than him, and that makes going out together a problem. I always feel guilty suggesting fancier places that I want to go to, but at the same time, I have no problem paying. However, he desperately wants to treat me — but because I know how little he makes, that makes me feel guilty, too.
How can I tell him that I’d rather pay for both of us and have him save his money? Should I just let him treat me and not worry what it does to his bank account?
ALEXA, PLAY "MONEY" BY CARDI B.
If only that song were the soundtrack to all of our lives — then we wouldn’t have to worry about navigating complicated money situations with our loved ones. We could just put our money in a large pile and roll around in it together.
At different times in my life, I’ve had the displeasure of being both the flush partner in a relationship and the broke one. I say displeasure in both circumstances because within these relationships, communication was generally okay, but when it came to the disparity between our incomes, it always got a little bit...tense. In fact, there were times when money was the classic elephant in the room, only the elephant is made of stacks of cash tied together with the stiff twine of bitter resentment.
If you’ve felt that resentment — either as the Have or the Have Not — don’t worry: Discomfort and conflict around finances are pretty normal in relationships. When there’s an income disparity between partners, there are generally a lot of insecurities, feelings, and projections involved. Money is oft-cited as the number one thing couples fight about. Financial education company Ramsey Solutions found in a 2018 study that money fights are the second leading cause of divorce, behind infidelity. The results of that research also show that poor communication causes major stress and anxiety between couples — and that 87 percent who say their marriage is “great” also say they set long-term financial goals together. You two aren’t married, but you can see what I’m getting at here.
And then there’s the matter of income disparity between millennials, specifically. Though our generation is disproportionately more burdened by debt than any previous generation, the 2018 global wealth report from Credit Suisse shows that millennials in the US could experience the worst income inequality of any generation. This disparity is apparent within my own friend groups as well: Some of us are don’t know if we’ll ever see the end of our crushing student loans, while other are purchasing their first apartments in high-rent cities.
All of that is to say that in this situation, I have nothing but sympathy and understanding for both of you — hope you have some of that for each other, too. But there’s more to finding a solution than simply acknowledging your differing points of view.
“From your perspective, you want to be able to enjoy what you want and not feel guilty about it,” says Dr. Natalia Peart, a psychologist and author of Future Proofed: How To Navigate Disruptive Change, Find Calm in Chaos, and Succeed in Work & Life. “From your boyfriend's perspective, this is about his being able to treat you to something you enjoy, but it’s also about how the financial decisions in your relationship get made.”
And therein lies the challenge for you, as the one with the money. You might think that simply offering to pay is the solution to your boyfriend’s problem, but for him, it could be less about the money itself, and more about you deciding what’s best without his input. Put yourself in his shoes: If he were deciding where to go and how much to spend on your behalf, and shushed you when you started to voice your concerns, would you feel good about it? Or would you feel like he equating “having more money” with “being in charge,” even if that meant minimizing your feelings of insecurity and discomfort?
You might feel obligated to offer to pay — and eventually, you might resent the fact that you do. Meanwhile, your boyfriend might feel like your constant push to foot the bill is insulting, even if you insist in the sweetest of ways. When you’re broke, it’s hard not to feel like you’re a burden on the other person, financially, even if they insist it’s no big deal. That unsettling feeling could spark your boyfriend’s urge to pay for things he can’t actually afford.
Alternatively, he pays for the dates he can afford, and you stay in and order pizza on Friday night instead of hitting up the restaurants you prefer. As uncomfortable as it might be to admit, money has a very specific type of power in our relationships — the power to make everyone involved feel like shit.
But there are steps you can take to make sure you’re both heard.
“Let's say the two of you go out three times a month,” Dr. Peart suggests. “One time you choose, and you pay. The second time he chooses, and he pays. The third time you both decide where you go, and you split the bill. The point I am making is, find a way to share the decision-making that leaves you both feeling like you can get what you need and give what you want to each other in a mutually satisfying way.”
Like so much in a relationship, the problem here isn't the money, it's the conversation. So talk it out. If that doesn't lead to a solution that works for both of you, maybe it's the relationship that's broke.