Money is usually one of the things we first discuss with a potential partner, even if we do so indirectly. You suggest a new French restaurant for a first date, they gently say they’d rather grab a burger. Or, more awkwardly, you get the bill and one of you hasn’t even got the money to go Dutch, let alone offer to pay for the lot. Although the last problem is more associated with “straight” dates, where many people go along with the old-fashioned stereotype of the man forking out, a wage gap can still cause hassle in any kind of couple or polyamorous group.
In a 2017 report entitled It Takes Two, charities Relate, Marriage Care and Relationships Scotland asked over 5,000 people what the main issues in their relationship were. Money came top of the list, with 26 per cent of respondents admitting that it was a problem, compared with 20 per cent citing a lack of understanding, 20 per cent blaming mismatched libidos, 17 per cent a lack of work/life balance (in itself related to income issues) and 16 per cent different interests.
Open and honest
“We see in the counselling room every day how much conflict money can cause in relationships, so knowing how to manage your finances together is important for heading off arguments before they begin,” says Relate counsellor Arabella Russell. “The key is to be completely open and honest with each other about your values, feelings and spending habits. Make sure you’re both clear on how you plan to share finances, pay bills and manage your spending.”
Marriage Care Counsellor and Director of Client Services Jenny Porter agrees that it’s usually not just about how much money each partner earns. “Usually when couples argue over money, it is because both individuals have very different spending habits,” she says. “For example, one person may be more risk-averse and want to put more money away for retirement, while the other person may be more focused on spending for today. Although many couples find it awkward to talk about finances, it is essential […] to ensure both partners are on the same wavelength and to prevent problems from escalating.”
Hannah, 49, is in a “V” relationship with her partner Maggie, 31, who is also with Tasha, 40, making Tasha Hannah’s “metamour”. The three women all live together. “Tasha and I work and have fairly similar incomes but Maggie has just finished her OU degree and is looking for a job,” Hannah explains. “I think it’s important for the partner/s with more money not to use this as a bargaining chip. Maggie doesn’t feel bad about not making a financial contribution and I know that when she has money she shares it – she had a small inheritance which was spent on our holiday. Maggie does a lot more around the house and also to support me. I have chronic health problems and her contributions really make my life easier.”
“I’ve never made as much money as Tasha or Hannah, and the fact that I am dependent on my partners for money hasn’t been a problem,” says Maggie. “I do feel bad sometimes that I can’t contribute more. I also feel bad when I have to ask for money for my credit card. That said, I try to keep my spending reined in. I’m happy to make the odd small purchases without asking, but if I want to get something a bit bigger, I ask first. I have some savings and I have contributed money from those savings for stuff.” Maggie believes that the women’s commitment to “doing all they can for the good of… the group as a whole” is the key to their success in dealing with financial issues. “I’m not sure there’s practical steps so much as a vibe. My partners trust that I’m not taking them for granted and that I don’t enjoy living off of them. I trust that they don’t resent me for needing to rely on them for financial support now.” Maggie is adamant that she would “do the same” for Hannah and Tasha if the tables were turned.
Francesca, 60, has been with her 69-year-old wife for 12 years. “There has always been a big income gap,” she tells OutNewsGlobal. “While still working, my wife was upper-level management at a non-profit organisation. I do (and have done) various types of low-paying teaching work. I am currently working as a freelance dance, fitness, and Tai Chi teacher, at several different community centres. My wife retired in 2019, but, even in retirement (with Social Security, plus a pension from her time in the army) her income is much higher than mine.” Francesca and her wife make their relationship work by keeping their contributions “proportionate”, with each giving what they can afford. “She pays all of our major bills (mortgage and maintenance, plus utilities.) I buy food for us and our cats, but don’t actually pay any of the bills. It works because she understands the reasons (differing access to formal education and the fact that I grew up poor) for my lower earning capacity, and she doesn’t blame me for it. She feels respected, because I don’t just sponge off her and I feel respected because she treats me as an equal.”
Unfortunately some relationships just can’t survive a wage gap. “My ex (Alex, 26) was out almost every evening partying, which isn’t really my bag, but that wasn’t all that bothered me,” says Alan, 29. “He worked part-time in a bar and I’m a lawyer, so our incomes weren’t exactly matched. He moved into my flat a bit quicker than I might have liked, although he went out so much after work that I barely saw him except when he wanted money,” Alan recalls. “It soon felt like all his Sambuca shots came from the Bank of Alan. He’d plead with me and flirt with me and nine times out of 10 I fell for it. It took nearly a year of this before I finally got irritated and began refusing to give him money. He stormed out of my flat and I never saw him again!” Alex did, however, text Alan a week after he left, claiming to have found a “better man”. Alan wasn’t fooled. “By better I’m sure he meant richer!”
The last taboo?
A study conducted last year by Fidelity Investments found that an alarming 40 per cent of American couples don’t know what their partner earns. That said, most people are probably highly aware shortly into the dating process whether their partner is “rich,” “poor,” or somewhere in the middle. One of the first things we usually ask people is “What do you do?” If you say you’re job searching, or a student, the assumption will be that you’re living a frugal lifestyle. However, say that you’re an investment banker and it’s a given that you are well-off. So why don’t we want to share our financial information with a person we’re physically and emotionally intimate with? Is money the last taboo in relationships?