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How to Split the Bills When Spouses Have Unequal Pay

This will be the first of an occasional column devoted to relationship advice around money [1]. No stock tips, no tax advice, just relationship advice as it relates to finances.

When Spouses Have Unequal Pay

A reader recently asked:

What percentage should I pay if I make 400 more than my spouse?

There are a lot going on with this question. First is it $400 more a week? a month? a year? Actually the amount more is less important than what to do when you have unequal salaries.

How to Split Expenses When Spouses Have Unequal Pay

This is almost a universal question because chances are if you’re in a relationship you will at some point have unequal salaries. (The chances of starting at the exact same salary and having the exact same raises over time are pretty slim.) The difference might be small or huge (one person not working) but the issue is the same.

Percentage Method. As the person above alludes to, one way to handle this is by percentages. Each person pays the same percentage of their salary to cover joint expenses. While this seems like a reasonable approach it doesn’t feel that great to me. The problem I have with this method is that the person with the larger salary ends up with more of their own money. While this could be a great method for roommates I don’t think it works for committed couples. It might feel ok that a friend has a lot more spending money than you but your own spouse? This is an issue that could quickly lead to resentment.

Allowance Method. The way I prefer is that each spouse gets their own set “allowance [2]” or spending money. The amount is less important than the fact that it is jointly decided upon and is not based on who earns more. What expenses “allowance” should be used for should also be the same for both people (i.e. – one person shouldn’t be expected to cover groceries with their spending money if the other doesn’t have to.) In many cases it would be the same amount “We each have $100 in spending money” but in some cases fair does not mean equal.

Perhaps you each play a sport. You both are equally committed to your sport and spend similar amounts of time on it. You both think that your spending money should support these sports. Seems fair but what if one of you plays hockey (expensive equipment and ice time) and the other plays soccer (much less expensive). It would be reasonable to say that the person with more expensive sport needs more money to support that hobby. In this case an unequal amount of spending cash could still be “fair”.

Switch Your Viewpoint

If you make more money than your spouse, try to put yourself in the position of the lower paid [3] spouse. What if your partner suddenly got a huge raise and now had a lot more spending money then you? What if they were living on a doctor’s pay while you were living a bus driver’s pay? Would that feel good? Would that feel like you were a team? Probably not.

However you decide to handle your differences in salary make sure it’s something that feels right for both of you.

Do you have a question about money and relationships? Leave your questions in the comments and you might have it answered in an upcoming article.

More Money Topics for Spouses