Sunday, April 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Ask Carrie: If one of you makes more, can you still be financial equals?

If you agree on these general principles, the next step is to look at your budget and find a way to share—and divide—your money that feels right to each of you.
If you agree on these general principles, the next step is to look at your budget and find a way to share—and divide—your money that feels right to each of you.

Dear Carrie,

In the two years we’ve been married, my husband and I have pretty much split the bills. But soon I’ll be a full-time grad student with limited income, so I’ll be contributing less. I’m worried about feeling too dependent. How can we avoid this?

—A Reader

Dear Reader,

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  • Great question, and one that most couples deal with at some point. During the course of a marriage, it’s very likely that at any given time one person will make more money than the other—and that you’ll trade off being the primary breadwinner. In your case, your income may be smaller while you’re in school, but you could end up with a higher salary later on. This is something you and your husband should acknowledge right off the bat.

    At the same time, bring up any concerns before your situation changes—and before they become a problem. You’re worried about feeling dependent, but your husband may have his own worries about picking up the slack. Once you put these things on the table, it will be easier to come up with a plan to handle them.

    Before you get into the specifics, I’d make sure you agree on a couple of points that have to do with your values as a couple. First, no matter who’s making the most money, are you committed to sharing your financial resources and helping each other achieve your goals? Second, is financial independence equally important to both of you?

    If you agree on these general principles, the next step is to look at your budget and find a way to share—and divide—your money that feels right to each of you. There are several ways to go about it, and you’ll have to figure out your own details, but here’s an idea that has worked especially well for couples I know:

    • Put all your income in a communal pot.
    • Subtract your monthly expenses—rent, food, utilities, insurance, shared credit balances, etc.
    • Determine how much you can save each month, both for an emergency fund and ideally for retirement contributions.
    • Agree on an amount you’ll each have to spend (it probably should be equal) on personal things like clothes, gym memberships, lunches, etc.
    • Spend the balance together for things like entertainment and vacations.

    This is one approach to managing monthly income and expenses. Some couples may prefer to divvy things up on a percentage basis, with the higher earner handling a higher percentage of the bills. But you get the idea. The goal is to cover the basics, save a bit for the future, and give each of you some personal money to spend with no strings attached. 

    Whatever approach you choose, it may feel uncomfortable at first, so check in with each other often. And don’t be afraid to bring up any issues. The last thing you want is for you to feel guilty about spending money or for your husband to feel resentful that he’s bearing the bigger financial burden.

    Remember that things may very well change in the future as your roles and responsibilities change, so be open and flexible. Because it’s not just about today’s money concerns. It’s also about how you’re working together as a couple to achieve your dreams for tomorrow. Best of luck.

    This column is no substitute for an individualized recommendation, tax, legal or personalized investment advice. COPYRIGHT 2013 CHARLES SCHWAB & CO., INC. MEMBER SIPC. (1213-8232)

    Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz
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