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When One Partner Earns More

How do you navigate a relationship when one partner contributes significantly more to the family finances? Ben Tutty finds it could be an accident waiting to happen.

16 February 2022

Money is a significant source of stress in many relationships.

In fact, a recent survey of 3,000 Kiwis found that one in five couples have relationship problems because of their finances.

That number can be even higher when partners contribute unequally to the joint coffers or when they have different attitudes about money, for example, when one partner’s a saver and the other’s a spender – or when one partner earns more than the other.

While money is definitely important (this is an investment magazine, after all), surely our relationships should be the priority?

Why do these differences cause us so much trouble and what can we do about it?

Why money isn’t everything

Unpaid labour comprises a huge proportion of the work we all do, from looking after children and disabled family members to housework, studying and training.

It may be unpaid but does that mean it’s any less valuable?

The United Nations estimates that unpaid work (such as these examples) would make up 10 to 39 per cent of global GDP if it were fairly compensated. Without it, the world would grind to a halt.

That said, when one partner is doing unpaid work while the other brings home the bread, it can still be a source of tension in a relationship.

At least it is for Sarah*, a 32-year-old psychotherapist from West Auckland who took a break to study while her partner continued to work.

“My partner, Jessie, who runs his own business, could see I was burning out working and studying six to seven days a week.

“He wanted me to be more present, so he suggested that I stop working and focus on studying alone. He said what I was doing was more important than money.”

Since then, Sarah has been getting straight A’s and has almost completed her masters’ degree. Despite the success, she says she still feels bad.

“I feel uncomfortable, like I’m not contributing.

“I always think I can’t spend money because I don’t make it, but Jessie tells me not to worry.

“Our mortgage broker keeps asking when I’m going to get a job and I know buying a home would be easier if we had two incomes.”

Sarah feels incredibly lucky to be able to live on her partner’s salary and realises that isn’t possible for many people.

“Jessie is great every time we talk about it and that’s mind-blowing to me. I’ve come to think of it like we’re a team, I contribute in other ways and if we had money troubles, I would 100 per cent go back to earning.”

Laying a financial foundation

Many couples aren’t as lucky as Jessie and Sarah, who navigated a financial and lifestyle change without running into relationship trouble.

Angela Rennie is an Auckland counsellor behind Intimacy Counselling, a practice in Auckland (and online) which focuses on enhancing and improving clients’ relationships. She says money problems like these are extremely common.

“Money is one of the top five conflict areas I encounter in relationships. In most cases the stress and power struggles over spending or managing money come down to underlying anxieties,” said Rennie.

“That may be an underlying anxiety about your financial position, or your beliefs about money.”

Rennie adds that (within reason) having conflict about money isn’t necessarily even a bad thing.

“Most conflicts never get fully resolved, so it’s about learning techniques for healthy dialogue. From conflict comes growth and compromise.

“The key is not to fight and get angry because, when that happens, a gridlock can occur, where neither partner will budge.”

Honey, let’s talk about money

Conflict can be constructive, but it’s not always necessary.

Lynda Moore (The Money Mentalist), a financial adviser and ex-accountant with a postgraduate diploma in psychology, says simply talking to your partner gently and honestly can be a great way to reconcile differences and anxieties about money.

“Ease in gently and prepare them for the fact that you want to talk.

“Never talk about your relationship at first, distance yourself from the conversation and keep it light.”

Moore adds that understanding your partner’s money behaviours early in a relationship can set a healthy financial foundation for a relationship.

“If you see or hear behaviours that make you uncomfortable, whatever they are, talk about it right away. Then you can decide whether it’s a non-negotiable.”

Talking about money is vital to ensure it doesn’t become a problem in any relationship, especially when one partner earns more or has different financial priorities.

Change perspective

But by the sounds of Sarah’s experience, a change in your perspective can be what it takes to put relationships first and tackle money problems as a team.

“I always thought that since I finished school, earning as much money as possible was the only way to live.

“Then I got older and realised that being happy and healthy and having good relationships is far more important.”

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