Fairness is baked into our DNA. Have you ever tried to give a brother and sister the same number of M&M’s? One of them will complain, “She has more red ones than me. I WANT MORE RED M&M’S!”
It can be a struggle for some couples to manage money when one of them earns a much larger paycheck. We want to be fair, but how? Is splitting the bills 50/50 even doable? What is fair? How do other couples work it out?
The solution is a mixture of three different ideas.
Part 1: Shift Your Thinking to “Our Money”
The first key is to stop thinking in terms of “my money and his money.” After you’re married (or engaged), it’s time to shift away from thinking as individuals. You’re a team now–a family! From now on, decisions are made to create a stronger, healthier, and happier family.
Subtle shifts in your language help a lot.
- Instead of “Did you pay the water bill?” you could ask “Did the water bill get paid?”
- Instead of “You spent too much eating out,” you could say “Our overspending is hurting our goals.”
- Instead of “I need to pay my half of the mortgage,” you could say “Do we have enough to pay the mortgage?”
Over time, these differences show that you care more about the family as a unit rather than trying to decide what’s fair for each of you. This helps you “talk the talk.” (Part 2 is about “walking the walk.”)
When my clients start thinking about money as a team, they stop caring about who brings home a bigger paycheck.
- All paychecks are for the family, no matter where they come from.
- All savings are for the family, no matter which financial goal it is.
- All spending is for the family, no matter where the money goes.
Keep in mind that this is a mental shift, so you don’t have to run out and open a slew of joint bank accounts. Next, I explain how communicating is far more important than the financial logistics.
Part 2: Stay on the Same Page
Money fights happen due to mistakes or miscommunication. One of us goes over some “fairness line,” and all hell breaks loose. The dishes didn’t get done fast enough, or someone left laundry in the washing machine.
We’re human. It happens!
When there’s an income gap, it gets harder to know where that “fairness line” is. Worse yet, that line can move at any time. Every couple needs to have regular, money conversations to stay in touch. The ultimate goal is to have a monthly budget for the family.
If monthly budgeting together seems too complicated, talk through these four topics instead. This is where you start “walking the walk.”
Topic #1: Talk about your long-term goals.
Since you’re a team now, decide how you want to win with money.
- Are there some debts you want to pay off?
- Are you hoping to buy a house soon?
- Do you need a vacation?
Write down some long-term goals that you both want.
Topic #2: Talk about any upcoming, large purchases.
It’s okay to want new furniture or spend some serious cash. But if you come home having spent hundreds (or thousands!) of dollars without checking in with your spouse, you may have stepped over the “fairness line.”
Discussing large purchases ahead of time keeps couples on the same page. But don’t let this be about control. Instead, remember that you are working together as a team to life better. As long as a big purchase isn’t jeopardizing your long-term goals, go nuts!
Topic #3: Decide on individual “fun money.”
Each month, talk about how much “fun money” each of you gets. This is like giving each other an allowance. It’s money you spend without permission from your spouse.
Your “fun money” is also a promise to each other. If you spend more than you agree on, you’re breaking your word. Staying within your budget isn’t about controlling each other. It’s setting a boundary to know how much fun you can have without cutting into your family goals.
Topic #4: Review basic finances.
Since this isn’t full-fledged budgeting, check to see if there’s more money going out than coming in. The goal would be to pay the bills, make progress on your goals, and have some fun without overextending. Otherwise, you have to go into more debt to make it work.
The more accounts there are, the harder it is to keep your lives organized. This final topic is also a good place to talk about combining your money into joint bank accounts.
If you are still wary about combining your money, a baby step is to share a budgeting app account. For example, create a Mint account that keeps track of all your bank accounts in one spot. If you don’t like using Mint, my next suggestions for budgeting apps are:
Part 3: Don’t Make It a Big Deal
As a guest on the podcast, Bridechilla, I was answering questions from Aleisha’s fans about this very topic. I make about three times as much as my wife, but we never fight about money. To prepare for the podcast, I asked Allison for her thoughts.
My wife said, “Well, I do sometimes feel guilty about spending a lot of money when I don’t contribute as much to the family income as you do. But I feel a lot better about it because you don’t make it a big deal. We’re always planning our spending together, and it’s always about the family.”
You and your spouse will be making a lot of decisions together from now on. You will make mistakes–as individuals and as a couple. If you want to keep a long and happy marriage, be sure to forgive each other and learn from your mistakes.
Is 50/50 always the right way to look at things? No! When you try to negotiate a fair agreement, you turn each other into enemies. Instead, you are a team, and it’s time to start making decisions that are best for the family.
How do you decide what’s fair? It’s easy to know what is fair in sports because there are rules and boundaries. If you want to win as a couple, decide what goals you want to achieve. This will create a barrier–a “fairness line”–to keep you accountable. Anything within that line is fair game.
How do other couples work it out? They talk on a regular basis. The ultimate goal is to budget monthly, or you can have simple “money meetings” every month. Use my four topics above to get started right away!
Editor's note: Due to the pandemic, some of the general wedding planning advice we share may not be applicable or possible due to restrictions on events. Please adhere to all current regulations and stay safe and healthy! Get more resources for planning a pandemic wedding here.