Personal Finance 

Does Your Significant Other Out Earn You?

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I think there is still an overwhelming belief in American society, despite how far we’ve come in gender equality (19th amendment, women’s suffrage, is less than a hundred years old), that the male is the breadwinner and the female is the homemaker – which leads to some consternation when the female out-earns the male. Despite the gender neutral title, I think this question is more acute if you’re in a heterosexual relationship and you’re a guy who comes from a more fairly traditional family with a single breadwinner, your father. (I don’t know the dynamics of homosexual relationships, but it would be nice if someone from Queer Cents could share their two cents on this)

So, if you’re the guy and your girlfriend, fiancée, or wife made more money than you, would you be bothered by it? If you’re the girl and your boyfriend, fiancé or husband made less money than you, would you be bothered by it, insomuch that you’d be afraid of making him feel bad?

I’d say that in my situation, I’d be okay with it in part because I see it more like “us” and less like “me and her,” if that makes sense. One of my friends and his wife, I know that very soon one day the wife will out earn the husband. The husband is perfectly fine with that because he sees it as a team so there is never the consideration of “her” out earning “him,” it’s “they” out earning “old they.” I think that’s healthy but not necessarily the average reaction.

I also think it’s perfectly acceptable to be bothered by it for a variety of reasons. If you and your SO one day want to drop to one income and raise children, just so one of you can stay home with the kids, I do believe that the mother is better at raising children than the father (before you scream gender discrimination, just consider the biological advantages of mothers). If the mother out earns the father, it’s harder to replace the higher income and so there’s no doubt in my mind that the father feels pressure.


{ 38 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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38 Responses to “Does Your Significant Other Out Earn You?”

  1. cami says:

    I think that the biological advantages of mothers, only last for the first year or so of the child’s life, then it’s equal opportunity. Honestly, I think that a lot of men are bothered by it, as I’ve noticed (anecdotally) that higher earning/educated women seem to experience more frustrations in the partner acquisition area. I can’t help but feeling that part of it is that some men think that high earning/powered woman are less likely to stay home, which is what want their want their wives to do.

    I may be opening a can of worms here, but since you think that “it’s perfectly acceptable to be bothered by it”, would recommendations might you suggest to help ameliorate the situation?

  2. Courtney says:

    I out earn my husband, always have. He’s not bothered by it in the least. I’m not bothered by it either.

    As to the comment about the woman being better to stay at home to raise the kids. We’ve had in depth discussions and we both feel he would be a better fit. I need adult interactions more than he does and he has more patience with the kids.

  3. FMF says:

    I think it depends on 1) the size of the difference and 2) the amount made to some degree. For instance, consider these situations:

    Situation A

    Husband earns: $30,000
    Wife earns: $35,000

    Situation B

    Husband earns: $125,000
    Wife earns: $130,000

    Situation C

    Husband earns: $30,000
    Wife earns: $130,000

    THink the same people would feel differently based on which situation they were in? I’m not sure, but I think “C” could be an issue for many people.

    • Katia says:

      I have situation C. I love him, but I think he is very concern about it. What should be done?

      • dan says:

        I’m the guy in C. We’ve only been together for a couple of months, but it’s already been discussed many times. She has absolutely no problem with it. I know it is all me, much like your case. In my opinion, the best you can do it communicate. Otherwise he may resent you.

  4. cami says:

    FMF, I think it would depend a lot on the circumstances surrounding “C”. If the husband in C used to work a high stress job making $95k, but is now doing something he loves or going back to school to pursue a field of interest, then maybe not. On the other hand if the wife was a highly paid consultant and the husband was an English teacher, it could cause tension, I don’t know. I think it would depend to some extent on how satisfied each person was with their job and the amount of time that was being devoted to their relationship/family (by the other person).

    • HMG says:

      I agree with this. I have known many people in the industry that I work in to “downshift” their jobs to something less stressful.

      It may also be interesting to look at lifetime earnings as well as how stable the incomes are. A lower salary that is very stable may be more valuable to a family than a higher paying volatile one.

  5. Brad says:

    My girlfriend outearns me by about 15%, and if she takes a job that she’s up for right now, it will be more like 50%. It doesn’t bother me in the least. If I’m unhappy about what I make, than that’s one thing (and to some degree I am), but there’s no reason to be upset that she makes more. She works hard and is good at what she does. Why should that bother me? I make a good living anyway.

    If I don’t like what I make, then I should try to do something to fix that problem. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t like that your wife/gf makes more than you, beyond being unhappy with your salary, then you have a problem, IMO.

  6. Nina says:

    Here’s my queer cents… I once asked the bisexual daughter of Alice Walker (in our Ten Money Questions series) if she thinks people assume roles in relationships based more on earnings or gender?

    She’s had long term relationships with both men and women and her answer: earnings!

    For me personally, I have to agree that the person making the most money in the relationship maintains a certain amount of control and leverage with a lot of the decisions… primarily because money permeates practically every aspect of life.

    I once dated a very wealthy woman and witnessed a major shift in power over time. It was subtle at first. I was taken by the gifts, the expensive dinners, and nice vacations. But then all of a sudden I found myself in a relationship where she held the power and control.

    I agree with FMF above in that the size and amount of the difference matters. Lorna Wendt who founded the Equality in Marriage Institute suggests that people answer these questions with regards to being a financial equal in a partnership:

    Does one partner bring more money into the relationship?
    Are both of you comfortable with this situation?
    Are you aware of your partner’s assets, debts and spending habits?
    Do you find it difficult to discuss financial issues with your partner?

    So the net for me… it has less to do with gender and more to do with honest and open communication. With this approach, issues can be resolved.

  7. alex says:

    I wish my wife out-earned me!

    That would be a wonderful financial bonus and would have great carry over effects in terms of retirement.

  8. My wife may one day out-earn me, but the only time that she did was when I was still in college and she was working in Chicago. We weren’t going to meet for another 3 or 4 years, so it was a moot point.

    Our incomes were pretty similar until we got married; I was about 5-10% higher than her, maybe. A week after we got married, though, she quit her job and went back to school, so we are only on one income now.

    We don’t consider it my income, though. She works her ass off “being useless”, and I work my ass off bringing in an income. Once she passes the bar, then our roles will probably reverse to some degree. All money that comes in goes into a joint account, and we don’t consider “his or her” for any of the funds. The only his and her are our individual retirement accounts and her savings that remain after we bought our house that she had brought into the relationship.

    (As for the “being useless” comment, that is her take. She has worked for immigration law firms for the last 8 years with one two year break to work for the workers compensation office. Now that she is in school full time, she spends all of her time either sitting on her ass in class, or sitting on her ass at home. In neither place is she helping other people, which is very frustrating for somebody like her. Her education is very important, but it is still very difficult to keep from going stir crazy when you don’t actually “produce” anything for 9 months straight.)

  9. Amanda says:

    I don’t really discuss it on my blog, but I out-earn my husband by about 15% and always have. I don’t know whether or not it will always be like this, but thus far, it has not caused any problems.

    Every now and then, I think it may bother him, but it hasn’t been an issue since we got married and merged money. I too think of it as “Us” rather than “Him and Me”.

    As for the staying at home question, I’ve always wanted to continue to work even when we are parents, as does my husband, so I don’t think that we’re going to have to deal with the losing an income situation.

  10. Chris says:

    I don’t think men are as upset about it as we are led to believe. If the wife used it as a position of power over her husband I’m sure he’d be upset. I think women are the ones more upset over it. There were studies that have shown college educated women are less likely to marry someone with a lower job than them, or a man having less education. Far fewer men would reject a potential spouse based on education/income. Maybe the men who are upset about it are afraid their wives will leave them for someone more successful! Just brainstorming here.

  11. Luke [also Zook] says:

    If when you get married, you are truly a team, then why does it matter who makes less or more? My wife just got her masters and is going for her doctorate and will soon destroy my earning potential and what I make. I was there to support her and do the little things and she understands that. It might not show up in my salary, but it makes a big difference.

  12. KittyKat07 says:

    I have to agree with Nina on this subject. Money does affect alot of our decision making and the one who makes the most holds a lot of decision making power.

    I’m currently in a relationship where I am the breadwinner and my fiance is not. It really isn’t an issue in our relationship at this point because we both share equal responsibilities when it comes to our home life. That to me is the most important thing. However, it does become an issue at times when outside influence from friends, family, or society says it does not conform to the norm.

  13. I guess me and my wife were lucky in this one in that I significantly out-earn her, so her staying home when the baby comes in August doesn’t mean we will lose much income.

    My brother in law had my sister out earn him for a little while, and although he really was OK with it, he admitted that there was this part in the back of his head that said he should be earning more. He got another raise not too long after that, so he didn’t have to worry about it anymore. =)

  14. plonkee says:

    Funnily enough, I don’t think I would like being with someone who earned a lot more than me (I’m a girl) and I think thats down to the power thing. But I’m prepared to accept being odd in this way.

  15. Marc Delphine says:

    I wish I had someone to make more or less than me! But if I did, (and I am gay) I would want him to at least have an income. Making more carries power but responsibility. Making less is humbling, yet less pressure.

  16. liz says:

    I used to outearn my husband by about 50K, and it definitly bothered him. I took a job that paid less, with more flexible hours so we can start a family. I now find myself resenting him more and more and wanting kids less and less. I still make more than him, but giving up that earning potential is something I wouldn’t repeat. I would tell him if he wanted a family he can quit his job or take a career demotion (don’t worry, I plan on working through these issues before we have a kid).

  17. Shana says:

    I earn $170,000 a year at my job (I’m a doctor), my husband earns $80,000 – there’s even more inequity because I have a lot of family money, and my percentage of the investments have been pulling in another hundred thousand or so each year.

    My husband doesn’t mind one bit.

  18. lg says:


    That’s a good problem for your husband to have!

  19. jake says:

    For me, it depends on her occupation.

    I’m a senior computer programmer making about $140K. That’s probably the most I’ll ever get as a programmer. The only way to make more is if I move up to management. So if my wife were also in the tech field making more than me, then I would be a little … eh… I guess upset.

    But if she was in some other field, like a doctor, lawyer, non-tech-ish related, then I wouldn’t care if she made more than me.

    Strange, I guess…

  20. Hawkmoon Nine says:

    My wife out earns me, doesn’t bother either one of us. I’m the one who does the budget and the bills and I give her monthly updates (that’s about as much financial stuff she can take while I enjoy it). We’ve been married about 3 years now. She makes about 3 times what I do, though I did have a sizable chunk of change to my name when we wed and she only had a couple thousand.

  21. My wife doesn’t work so it’s not an issue for us. If she ever work and she makes more that I do, I don’t think it would bother me either. It’ll actually help us both economically in the long run.

  22. throughout our careers my wife has out-earned me at certain given points, and it has never bothered me. right now, my base salary is higher than hers (marginally), but she often gets an annual bonus that is a real treat. we don’t look at our salaries as any type of measuring stick, nor do we feel any way competitive about them. for us, it’s a non-issue, but i don’t know that we are in the majority or not.

  23. Kara says:

    I don’t think in a married couple it’s a problem, but have found it to be in dating. The man I thought I would marry (dated for more than 10 years) came from a hugely traditional family where it was still thought women simply shouldn’t work. He was terribly bothered by the fact that I out-earned him. It was too bad as well because I was happy to let him manage the finances (I don’t enjoy it and he is incredibly good at it and loves figuring out where every penny goes) and coming in to the marriage he would have had more money to his name than I because he had been working longer, had some family money, and didn’t have any college loan debt (which I had). Oh well.

  24. Caroline says:

    I currently earn more than my boyfriend because he is still studying. I also bought the house we are living in before we started going out. He has a Phd and I don’t, so he will out-earn me soon.

    The problem is, my mother earnt a lot more than my father. She has a Phd and he didn’t finish high school. Because of that, I feel like I should be the breadwinner. I like the current situation and I’m a bit fearful of the “power-shift” that will take place in the next few years.

    He would also much rather stay home with the kids than I would, but financially I don’t think we’ll be able to justify that.

  25. Jill says:

    I make more than my boyfriend does, but I also have student loans when he doesn’t so at the end of the day we’re equally broke.

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