Money, thanks to centuries of cultural taboos that I’m not even going to begin to unpack here, is never an easy topic to discuss. 

“We are taught not to talk about money,” says Miranda Filamini, LCSW, and marriage and family therapy associate. “We are taught it is crude or even unromantic — that it’s untrusting — to talk about income with our dating partners. So we don’t bring it up until, in many cases, it is too late.”

But from who picks up the tab at dinner to how to divvy up shared living expenses, it’s an inevitable — and sometimes tense — part of all relationships. 

That’s particularly acute when the members of a couple are in unequal financial standing. It can skew power dynamics and a sense of self-worth. When you add into the mix gender, race, sexual orientation, and other facets of identity, this just gets stickier. 

Members of these four couples have vastly different incomes than their partners, and each has figured out their own way of contributing financially to the relationship. However, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.

Veronica, 26, unemployed and applying to graduate school

“I moved to Europe a few months ago to be with my partner after three years of long-distance dating. In order to come here, I had to quit my job in the U.S., and I applied to graduate programs in Copenhagen, where I now live. I am also looking for a part-time job, but not speaking the language (Danish) is making it difficult. The good thing is that I was able to save up some money at my previous job. My partner, on the other hand, has the security of a stable job but massive student-loan debt. 

The fact that I have a bit of savings but no income and he has an income but no savings often leaves us with the slightly awkward question of who should pay for this? I pay 30% of our rent, and he pays 70%. Once I get a stable job, I think we will split it halfway. I am not sure, though, what will happen once he pays off his debt (which should happen in the next five years) — will he pay more if his job is bringing in more money than mine, which I kind of expect will be the case? I feel that gender plays a role in this, too. 

We try to be as transparent as possible, which is very comforting for the long run, even though it means having some conversations that might feel uncomfortable. Finances are a constant discussion, but we are still really happy living a low-budget life. We cook at home almost every day, which brings us closer. We live in a collective, which is cheaper and has helped me make friends. We enjoy going to parks and swimming in the ocean instead of going out for dinner or buying things. We are even into fixing up free or cheap second hand furniture.”

Derek, 29, production assistant 

“I don’t make a huge income, but I definitely make more than my partner. He has struggled with mental health and drug addiction, so it’s difficult for him to hold down a job. He’ll work restaurant jobs here and there, but they usually don’t last too long. He sometimes gets money sent to him by relatives, so that helps. But he does go through many phases of unemployment or infrequent work.

We both feel pretty bad about our financial situation; our combined income is fairly low, especially for where we live (in Los Angeles). I make around $40k, and my partner makes probably under $10k a year. I don’t mind paying more — for rent, food, and activities — but it can be draining to essentially support two people. My partner often feels guilty and tries to save money by suggesting we not eat out or spend as much as I’d like to. This is fine, though, because it holds me accountable to stay within my budget. While my partner doesn’t help out financially as much as I’d like, he keeps me grounded when it comes to spending. 

We have frequent fights about money and finances. I try to push him to find a more stable job so he can have a better income and contribute more financially to the relationship. He’s making progress (he’s held down a job as a server for a few months), but I sometimes worry about the long-term. He’s looking into careers that are a bit higher-paying, like administrative office jobs, but it may take a while before he finds one. For now, things are OK, but I hope he can bring in more money in the long run, if we get to that point.” 

Madison, 25, model and influencer

“Currently, my husband works full time in animation and films, and he makes around $1,500 a week. I am a model and do influencer work. My jobs and income fluctuate. One month I could make $3,000, and the next I could make $50. 

We both want to have more time together and have more financial freedom. We are working on starting our own business, which would allow us to carry the workload evenly and have more family time — we also have a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter.

My husband handles the finances. I typically become anxious dealing with numbers, as I have to get through some personal blockages. He is great at figuring out budgeting and getting things paid on time. I feel it is fair — most weeks my husband will give a budget of what we can spend and what we should save, and I dictate groceries and purchases for our daughter. 

We used to [fight about money when we were] first starting out as a couple, but I think it was because we didn’t know what to expect. Now that we are used to our spending and needs, it is not usually an issue, unless one of us is wanting to splurge on an experience or luxury item. It is frustrating, at times, to disagree about how to spend, but we both know that the other is thinking about the future. My advice is to talk openly about a budget. Respect each other’s necessities and figure out a way to compromise. It’s definitely a work in progress every day, but if you really care about making it work, you can make it work.”

Jazmin, 22, unemployed

“I am currently unemployed and being financially assisted by my mom when necessary, although she is also struggling financially. My girlfriend has a full-time job, and we split our rent. Sometimes she pays for groceries when I am low on cash.

This financial situation makes me feel guilty and shitty, and I think it feeds my depression and anxiety, because I can’t fulfill my half of the financial portion of the relationship. My girlfriend feels as though it affects me negatively during moments of financial decision-making, such as whether to go out or not, but says she feels fine about it. She thinks [how we pay for things] should be based on what we can provide in that moment — and that we should never keep track of what we’re paying for because it always eventually evens out.

We used to have fights about money, probably twice a month or so, because I am frustrated by the fact that she wants to do certain things that require money, and I do not want her to pay for me — but also don’t want to stop her from doing what she wants to do. These fights were typically resolved because we realized that we were both in a tough spot and that fighting wasn’t really going to get us anywhere. [To improve our situation], I am now selling various possessions and interviewing for jobs.”