Varied Incomes Within Relationships—Three Approaches

Shefali Lohia
September 30th, 2021 | 6 mins

Couples have a lot to think about during their love and money journey. One major question we discuss often is whether couples should keep their money totally separate, merge it completely, or find a happy medium. (Spoiler alert: all answers are acceptable.) Related to this is another important question—what if two people in a relationship don’t earn the same amount? How should they handle their varied incomes?

As always, we’ll start with: there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but there is a solution that will work for you now (and yes, something different might work for you further down the road).

The fact of the matter is that couples often have greatly varied incomes, with one partner earning significantly more or less. Whether you're the one earning more or less, there is often some discomfort about what or how you might want to spend your money. If you have entirely merged finances, the lower earning partner can feel guilty about spending money they didn't earn, while the bigger earner could become resentful of contributing more. Whatever the situation, this is a delicate scenario that requires couples to get on the same page, discuss their options, and make a decision as a team.

Option 1: Split shared expenses 50/50.

How does splitting shared expenses 50/50 work?

In this approach, couples with varied incomes contribute equally to a shared pool of money and pay for all expenses through it. The most common ways to do this is through a shared checking account or through a Zeta Joint Cards account, or by trading off bills.

Who does the 50/50 approach work well for?

This works well for two-income couples, but it has limitations when it comes to major expenses (like buying a home or going on a vacation). Some couples solve that by splitting large purchases proportionally, but continue to split fixed expenses down the middle.

Option 2: Split shared expenses proportionally to income.

How does splitting shared expenses proportionally work?

In this approach, partners with varied incomes contribute a percentage of their income towards shared expenses based on the total income of the couple.

Each partner’s proportion or percentage can be calculated by first, totaling the combined income of both partners, and then by dividing each partner’s income by the total income.

Example: Let’s say Partner 1 and Partner 2 are in a relationship:

  • Partner 1 earns $50,000 and Partner 2 earns $100,000
  • Their total combined income is $50,000 + $100,000 = $150,000
  • Partner 1’s proportion or percentage is equal to $50,000 divided by $150,000, which comes out to 33.3%
  • Partner 2’s proportion or percentage is equal to $100,000 divided by $150,000, which comes out to 66.6%
  • This means that Partner 1 will pay for 33.3% of shared expenses and P2 will pay for 66.6% of shared expenses

Who does the proportional split approach work well for?

This approach works well if the higher earning partner wants to spend more without making the other person like they’re living beyond their means.

Option 3: Merge everything together.

How does merging all your income work?

Some couples with greatly varied incomes still choose to merge their incomes completely. If you merge everything, then you combine all your income, and draw from one pool to cover shared expenses. In some ways, this is the simplest approach (less math!), but also a complicated choice.

Who does the total merge approach work well for?

This approach can make sense if one partner is staying home to take care of the kids, is in school, or is otherwise not earning an income.

Varied incomes are just one thing you need to navigate as a couple.

If you’re still at the beginning of your love and money journey, don’t forget that figuring out how to approach your varied incomes with your partner is just one piece of the puzzle. You also have to figure out how you’re going to approach and combine your finances. For example, if you’re splitting your expenses 50/50 or proportionally, are you combining the money you use for shared expenses, and then keeping the rest separate? Or are you taking turns paying for bills? Or divvying up bills and sending each other payments? There are lots of ways to approach these questions. If it feels overwhelming, we hope you can take comfort in knowing you’re not alone, and we urge you to look at our Guide to Combining Finances.

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