See the results of our 2022 Personal Finance Study!
Should Income Matter When Choosing a Partner?
When it comes to dating, everybody has their dealbreakers, like people who chew too loud or folks who are rude to waitstaff. But what about income? Is that something you factor in when deciding whether or not someone can be a long-term romantic partner—or maybe even the fabled “one?”
There are lots of folks who would balk at the idea of factoring in income when determining a partner. And not without good reason. It would mean they’re shallow, right? Well, not necessarily.
While we’re not saying that you should set a hard line on how much a potential partner has to earn, income is certainly one factor out of many that are fine for a person to consider. But even more important than income is what a person does with the money they earn—whether it’s a little or a lot.
Love, marriage, and money are all complicated.
If the idea of taking money into account at all when deciding on a future partner makes your teeth itch, we’ve got some news for you: Money is going to be an issue in your relationship whether you want it to be or not.
“Figuring out who you want to spend your life with is a multi-faceted decision,” said marriage and family therapist Jill Whitney. “Despite what you see in Disney movies and romcoms, it takes more than love to make a solid, long-term relationship.
“Love, caring, and attraction definitely matter, but they're not enough. You also need common values and life goals—and compatibility about money.”
Even if you don’t want to factor in a person’s income, you should definitely think about whether you two are money-compatible. After all, spending your life together means making all kinds of financial decisions, both large and small, together as well.
“Marriage is as much a business relationship as it is a romantic relationship. Far too many people don't realize this, or they forget about it in the thrill of romantic attraction,” said writer and sociologist BJ Gallagher. She went on to provide numerous examples of the kinds of money decisions that you and your partner will have to make:
“Marriage involves paying for living expenses, saving for retirement, the huge expense of raising children if the couple plans to have them, home ownership, insurance, inheritances, and handling financial emergencies when they occur. Student loans are often involved. Eldercare responsibilities later in life. There are dozens of financial aspects to a marriage or long-term living together arrangement.”
“You absolutely want to have some sense of your partner's earning potential, based on his or her career,” she cautioned. “Your own financial future is going to be intertwined with this other person so if you're smart, you'll pay attention not just to their current income but the likelihood of their future income as well. Your own financial well-being depends on it.”
Planning for the future means being able to factor in future earnings. If your plans and your partner’s income don’t match, that’s something you’ll have to discuss. It’s not a dealbreaker, but some deal amendments might certainly be in order.
Everyone has a relationship with money.
Unless you’re a hermit who lives in the woods (which you probably aren’t because then how would be reading this), money plays a big role in your life. You have a relationship with it, the same way that you have a relationship with your partner—and the same holds true for them.
These relationships will impact each other. And if you choose to ignore them, the odds are good that the impact will be negative.
“Sadly, income and finances are the biggest reasons couples fight or even break up, so discussing finances is such an important conversation,” said Denise Nostrom ChFC, CLU; Founder and Owner of Diversified Financial Solutions in Medford, NY. “It happens to be one of those taboo topics that we tend to not talk about, but not talking about it before committing to someone for the long term is a big mistake.”
“Take some time to think about your own financial style and your partner's,” Whitney counseled. “What does money mean to each of you? To what extent is money for security, fun, status, or indulgence? What's worth spending money on and what's less important? How much of a financial cushion would make each of you feel comfortable?
“How would each of you prioritize spending options—say, having money for nice vacations versus having a larger house? How would you dial back expenses if one of you lost a job or if your investments took a hit?”
Earnings aside, how much do they spend?
“As I like to tell clients who are considering getting married, this person could ruin your credit rating,” said Whitney. “A spouse who spends more than the two of you can afford can undermine an otherwise strong relationship. Even if the two of you are high earners, it's possible to spend more than you make.
“At best that's stressful, and at worst it can lead to financial ruin. If you earn more ordinary incomes, overspending is likely to lead to lots of conflict and heartache. On the other hand, a partner who never wants to spend at all might make you feel constricted and resentful.
The one thing you shouldn’t do is look at income as the only factor to consider—or even the most important financial factor. As Whitney cautioned, even people with high incomes can run their finances into the ground if they spend beyond their means.
“I don't think income matters as much as having compatible habits and goals,” said certified financial educator Maggie Germano. "Even folks who make lots of money can have conflicts if the money isn't going towards things that they agree on. It's important to be aligned with your partner about what you will be spending money on or saving for."
Whitney offered a similar perspective: “A potential partner's financial style is more important than their earnings. High earnings are great, but what's more important is how the person balances spending and saving.”
You can’t act without solid information.
Neither you nor your partner is psychic. This means that you’re going to have to talk to them about money stuff. And it’s going to mean spilling some cold, hard numbers as well.
"As early as you can, see what this person's relationship is to money,” advised Nathalie Noisette, owner of Credit Conversion. “Find out what their credit score is, how much debt they have, what are their spending habits, and how much they know about managing money. Once you get married you are now assuming this as your own."
Once you’ve got a good sense of how your partner handles money, you can set about determining your next steps. Maybe they’re great with money and you don’t have to do much else! Maybe they’re … not.
“If habit or credit is less than great, are they willing to do something about it?” said Noisette. “Get real with yourself. Are you willing to pay higher interest rates till death do you part if your partner's credit is not good?
“Having financial struggles can largely impact your life. Sure, there are things that are outside of your control (natural disasters and declining health), but the factors that are within your power should be known before you say ‘I do.’”
According to the Noisette, the bottom line here is to “get in the know.”
Do they have a budget? What about financial goals?
Two great ways to figure out a person’s relationship with money beyond just their income is to answer these two questions: Do they have a budget, and what are their long-term financial goals?
“You really need to know how your partner feels about money and if they have a budget,” said Nostrom. Her recommended follow-up questions include:
- “Do they know what they spend each month or do they just spend everything they earn and yearn for their next paycheck?
- “Do they have any money in savings or do they live paycheck to paycheck?
- “Are they ‘paying themselves first’ and putting money away each month into a savings account or into some type of investment vehicle?
- “Do they participate in their company retirement plan like a 401K plan?”
“You may also want to talk to them about their financial goals to see if they are similar to your own financial goals,” she added. If your goals are very different, this may not be a good sign for future success as a couple.”
If this sounds like a lot, well, that’s because it is. This conversation isn’t worth having even though it’s hard; it’s worth having because it’s hard.
“For many people, this is an overwhelming conversation, so you may want to consider meeting with an objective third party, like a financial advisor,” said Nostrom. “This may be a good first step and definitely worth your time to make sure that you know the finances of the person you may be spending the rest of your life with.
“It is better to know the situation, good or bad, to make sure you are going into a long term commitment with your eyes wide open.”
Consider dividing up your living expenses.
Florida attorney Miguel A. Suro, who also blogs about lifestyle and personal finance topics at RichMiser.com, had some great advice to help partners with different incomes levels decide whether to bridge the gap or go their separate ways:
“If you are accustomed to or expect an expensive lifestyle. If your partner’s lower income will make that lifestyle unattainable, be very sure that you are fine with that,” he said.
“If there is a large income disparity between partners (and you are the higher-income partner), be sure that you will be happy making the biggest contribution to your household’s finances. Financially supporting a partner against your wishes can be a major source of tension and resentment in a relationship.
“Conversely,” added Suro, “if you are the lower-income partner, be sure that you can accept that you will contribute less to household finances.”
“Talk to your partner about how you'd divide living expenses. Early in a relationship, it's reasonable for each person to pay half. But in a long-term relationship, especially a marriage, you're in this together and you need to be equal partners, even if your incomes are different.
“In sum,” he concluded, “running a household is very hard, and fighting over money can lead to an unraveling relationship. So, talk it over extensively before marriage or cohabitation, and make very sure that you’re both on the same page before making a deeper commitment”
Using joint and separate accounts could help.
Whitney recommended using joint and separate bank accounts to help couples navigate between shared financial responsibilities and their own financial independence:
“I often suggest that couples have a joint account for most expenses, like mortgage and utilities, and also smaller, separate accounts for personal expenses like clothes, gifts for each other, and hobbies,” she said.
“Each partner should have the same monthly amount in their personal account regardless of earnings because you're equal partners. This approach lets you work as a team for most things but also gives you the ability to make individual spending choices.”
Don't forget to factor in their debt.
Don’t let a focus on your partner’s income blind you to other important financial factors: Namely, how much debt they owe. Bringing home a larger income while carrying an even larger debt load is something you’ll need to figure out
“Another thing to be aware of is the debt that your partner has, and you should be honest about your own,” said Germano. “Debt can significantly impact the decisions you're able to make in your life, so you'll want to be fully informed.”
“If a partner will bring debt into a marriage, I think it’s ‘cleaner’ if that partner’s income is sufficient to repay that debt,” recommended Suro. “Although it’s possible for one partner to pay the other’s debt, make sure that both of you are fine with that and that it will not cause resentments.”
Make sure you two talk about the future.
If you and your partner plan on spending the rest of your life together, you two would do well to talk about the kinds of financial decisions that will occur further on down the line—especially potential scenarios that might take you by surprise.
“It's essential to talk about possible future scenarios that would affect your financial life," said Whitney. “If you plan to have children, would one of you quit your outside job, switch to part-time, or move to a more flexible but less lucrative career?”
“Which of you would make the change? How would you adjust to the decreased income? Do you plan to retire early, on time, or late? What if one person wanted to retire early but that meant a significant change in lifestyle?”
Suro also noted that deciding whether or not to have kids can have huge financial ramifications, the kinds that are best discussed ahead of time:
“Having children oftentimes will mean that one partner will have to switch to part-time work, or that you may need to hire paid help. Therefore, consider if that will be your situation, and whether your combined incomes would allow for it.”
Remember, this is just the beginning.
Talking to your partner about money issues and your mutual incomes is great. But it’s not like a single conversation is going to solve this issue forever. You two have a lifetime of communicating with one another to look forward too.
“Have money conversations early on in your relationship to make sure your visions align. But having the conversation once doesn't mean you are done," said Germano. “It's something that should be discussed regularly, especially if your financial situation is changing in any way. Schedule a weekly ‘money date’ with your partner to make sure both people are informed and feeling good about your money."
“Ascertaining your future partner’s earning potential is a good start, but it's just a start,” advised Gallagher. “You want to have conversations with the other person about their attitudes about money, about their views on consumer debt, about their spending habits and their savings habits, about their level of generosity and sharing with others, and so much more.”
BJ Gallagher (@BJ_Gallagher) is a sociologist and the author of numerous business books, women's books, self-help, and inspirational gift books. Her titles include: "Why Don't I Do the Things I Know Are Good for Me?" (Berkley), "The Power of Positive Doing" (Simple Truths), and "It's Never Too Late To Be What You Might Have Been" (Viva Editions). Her newest book, "Your Life Is Your Prayer" (Mango Publishing) will be out in April 2019.
Maggie Germano (@MaggieGermano) is a Certified Financial Education Instructor and financial coach for women. Her mission is to give women the support and tools that they need to take control of their money, break the taboo of discussing debt and income, and achieve their goals and dreams. She does this through one-on-one financial coaching, monthly Money Circle gatherings, her weekly Money Monday newsletter, and speaking engagements. To learn more, or to schedule a free discovery call, visit MaggieGermano.com.
Nathalie Noisette is the Founder of Credit Conversion (@credconversion), a credit counseling, and repair company located in Avon, MA. Credit Conversion uses principles of behavioral change to not only allow clients to improve their score but understand the habits that lend to poor credit. “Through our repair and training, it is our vision to see all of our clients repair and maintain near perfect credit scores.”
Denise Nostrom ChF CLU is Founder and Owner of Diversified Financial Solutions (@diversifiedfinancialsolutions) in Medford, NY. Denise’s philosophy is that with time, discipline, and determination you can reach your financial goals and dreams. She is also the Founder and President of a not-for-profit organization, POWER of Women Exchanging Resources, Inc. Denise’s goal with her organization is to raise women up to become more successful in their lives, in and out of the business world.
Miguel A. Suro is a Florida attorney and personal finance and lifestyle blogger at The Rich Miser (@therichmiser), which he runs with his wife Lily Rodriguez. With a tone that is both realistic and aspirational, The Rich Miser is aimed at those who want to elevate their lifestyle while building wealth and spending far less than they thought possible. The Rich Miser has been featured on major outlets such as MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, and NBC.
Jill Whitney is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Connecticut. She does therapy with couples and individuals and writes about relationships, parenting, and sexuality at KeepTheTalkGoing.com.