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Deciding What’s Financially Fair With Your Partner

(Hint: It's rarely 50/50)

What’s fair when it comes to money in a relationship? 50/50?

What about the fact that women generally earn $0.82 for every $1 men earn?

Or what if your financial compensation doesn’t match your real-world impact (looking at you teachers, nurses, school bus drivers)?

What if you earn no money but your (more than) full-time occupation is taking care of your kids and the household?

Wait, what if you can’t clean a dish, drive anyone to soccer, or draw a salary because you’re ill or disabled?

“Fair” is in the eye of the beholder. The truth is that financial fairness has to be negotiated between partners—and then renegotiated—as circumstances and feelings change. There are myriad ways to contribute in a relationship. 

What happens when partners don’t communicate about money is that cultural expectations—that we may not even agree with—fill the vacuum.

When earning money comes off the table

My income crashed in my mid-20s, about a year into dating my now-wife. Within the span of several months, I developed a medical condition in which I could barely use my arms and lost my job as a result.

She paid for everything: rent, groceries, my mounting medical bills. And I couldn’t even help much with dishes, cooking, or cleaning. She’d come home from a long day at work, drop her bag, and immediately start on the dishes I had dirtied during the day. 

I never let go of the expectation that I should be contributing (at least) 50% of the money coming into the household, even though that was impossible at the moment. I became obsessed with earning money to feel more useful, likable.

Eventually, at my insistence, we went to couples therapy to address my fear that because of money imbalances, our relationship was intrinsically a bad deal for my wife. We had to talk and surface all the different ways that people can contribute outside of money, or even physical ability: things like listening, asking questions, sending loving and supportive texts in the middle of the day, helping decide what meals to cook for the week. 

An unexpected way to help 

There was one way, even with my limited health, that I could help with money. In 2014, I decided to download YNAB to help us navigate our constant money stress. 

Even if I wasn’t bringing home the bacon, I could help decide how it was being divvied up. I could plan so that we had enough money for upcoming bills and expenses. Even help set aside a little money for morale-boosters like a coffee date or movie tickets.

One big pot of money

YNAB wasn’t just an opportunity for me to contribute to managing our household finances. It also framed our money in a way that’s very useful for partners. YNAB is a zero-based system, which means all your money goes into one big conceptual pile, which you then divide up to all your needs and wants until every dollar is spoken for.

Importantly, in the YNAB app, you see your money organized by priority, not by who earned it. (To be clear, each partner can—and probably should–have some individual categories for guilt-free spending.) 

The YNAB app takes away blame and shame, allowing you to see money as one big bucket of shared responsibilities and possibilities.

The size of a paycheck is decided by so many factors: the job market, someone’s education or experience, gender and race, how many hours one can work outside of the home. But in YNAB, you both can decide how much money goes into each category. You decide what’s important, not the economy at large.

You and your partner can feel like things are financially fair in your relationship regardless of how much or how little money you earn. But maybe “fair” isn’t enough; maybe you can set your sights higher. More than fair, you want to feel supported and appreciated by each other. Whatever your demographic or tax bracket, this is a challenge that you both were made for.

You're in this together, so let's get you two all set up in YNAB! We’ll show you the step-by-step mechanics and outline how to have conversations about your money.  

YNAB IRL: When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get YNAB

Dedicated YNABer Amelia and her husband self-relocated, then had their income drastically lowered, then paid off $17k in credit card debt.

Following our wedding in 2018, we self-relocated across the country so my husband could pursue his dream of working in the aerospace industry. Our wedding, honeymoon in Indonesia and the self-move were expensive, and we were in $17k of credit card debt when my previously lucrative freelance work dried up. We'd never before had credit card debt and we were determined to pay it off.

YNAB helped us be honest about our debt and confront it head on. At our tightest point in February 2019, our dining out budget was a hamburger for my husband and a bagel for me. YNAB kept us accountable to pay off our debt, and when my husband lost that hard-won aerospace job in the summer of 2020, our credit card debt was gone and we were ready to tighten the belt again.

Today, we are both employed and YNAB is helping us track our savings for a house and getting us excited to tackle my husband's student loans when they kick back in.

Going from a modest income to one that might be considered upper-middle class, my biggest fear was lifestyle creep. With YNAB, our spending is under control and we can still splurge guilt-free on our shared love of travel.
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Deciding What’s Financially Fair With Your Partner