Coping With Financial Inequality

Sometimes financial disparity can be a major problem in a relationship.

Coping With Financial Inequality

Once, I dated a man, who was very, very poor. That’s what he said, and I believed him. Why wouldn’t I? He had wads of medical bills left over from a bout with cancer; he had child support; he had business expenses; and—oh, yes—he had the Chinese symbol for money tattooed on his Achilles tendon.

Since I lived in Manhattan and he was in North Carolina, we spent much of our relationship commuting. Plane tickets cost money, and though we tried to split the fares, I ended up paying for the bulk of them.


I didn’t really mind. He’d had a hard couple of years; I’d just sold a book and had some extra cash, and I wanted to see him. I was hardly wealthy, but if I had to shell out more money than he did, so be it. He wasn’t so happy about the financial disparity.

Though he would never admit it, much of his masculinity was tied up in his wallet; he felt less virile for not being able to pay his (and my) way. And I’ll confess: sometimes, it bothered me too. Such as the time I eyed a $70 dollar bracelet in a store window hoping he would buy it for me (he didn’t), and when I wondered how we would afford to have kids if we ever reached that point (we didn’t).


But for the most part, our money issues weren’t a problem for me. That is, until he canceled a trip we’d planned to Panama— after I paid for the tickets, mind you—pleading poverty. A few weeks later, he mysteriously found the resources to buy a brand new motorcycle.

I was livid; I was hurt. I couldn’t believe he’d canceled our plans, especially when he knew how important they were to me. And for a motorcycle! “I thought you didn’t have any money!” I said. “I put it on my credit card,” he replied. “I can always sell it. You can sell an object. You can’t sell a trip.”

And that’s when I realized that our issues weren’t about money. They were about priorities and power and his need to assert himself in a situation where he felt inferior. The one way he could do it? By hitting me where he knew I’d feel it.

It goes without saying that relationships are tough work, filled with endless compromises—and many couples feel the challenges smack in their billfolds.


According to a 2006 Money magazine poll, 84 percent of respondents reported that finances caused tension in their marriages, and 15 percent said they fought about money several times a month. Sharyn Sooho, a Boston divorce attorney and cofounder of, notes that one spouse earning significantly more than the other—or experiencing overwhelming success—is a leading cause of divorce.

If you think about it, that’s actually not too surprising. Wealth, and one’s association with it, alters the balance of power in any interaction; it follows that those who have grown up around money, or earn a lot of it, or have piles of it at their disposal, view the world differently than their less fortunate counterparts. While riches might not buy happiness, they do buy freedom, and the bottom line is that the person with more freedom has more options.

“Money is like an engine, it drives other things,” notes Helga Hayse, author of Don’t Worry About A Thing, Dear: Why Women Need Financial Intimacy. “People make assumptions about money, but in my experience, whoever has more of it has more leverage in the relationship.

Lola Smith, 35, is living proof. The pharmaceutical representative from Arlington, VA, once dated a man with an exceedingly large trust fund; he wooed her with expensive dinners and lavish gifts, and flew her around the country in his private plane.


Although Smith grew up in an upper-middle-class household, she was not used to such extravagances. “I always tried to pay my own way with him,” she says. “I didn’t want him to think I was with him just for his money. I also knew that if I let him pay for me all the time, he’d feel a certain amount of control over me. I didn’t want to feel like he owned me.”

Losing leverage in a relationship can be unsettling. James Willis, a 37-year-old theater director, comes from a very well-to-do family. He has always been financially generous with his lovers, many of whom have abused his impulse. Once, when he had forgotten his wallet at dinner, a boyfriend said to him, pointblank, “Well, I expect you to reimburse me. You have way more money than I do.”

Willis was furious. “It wasn’t about the money—it was about the effort and the expectation,” he said. “Why did I have to pay all the time?” He felt taken advantage of. Did people become involved with him solely because of his deep pockets?

But he also felt guilty. Who was he kidding? A hundred bucks was no big deal to him, whereas he knew it was a significant sum of money to his boyfriend. He broke off the relationship, and decided to not be so forthcoming about his finances in the future. “I just figured it was best to make sure people were with me for me, and not because I had money,” he explains.


As often as not, issues of wealth disparity can become complicated by traditional gender roles. “It’s a cultural expectation that men are going to be the breadwinners,” says Ginny Graves, co-author of For Richer or Poorer: Keeping Your Marriage Happy When She’s Making More Money. But today, when 35 percent of married working women earn more than their husbands, that expectation plays out in complex ways.

David Zweifler met his wife, Sarah, in 1997. Zweifler, now 34, was a research analyst for Bear Stearns; Sarah was head of marketing for a multinational law firm, raking in $30,000 more a year than he did. “I respected the fact that she was earning that much money,” he says. “But I made a point of covering at least half of the dates and dinners—and probably a little bit more, because I’m the guy.”

Sometimes, money issues can stop a relationship in its tracks. For five years, Sheila Velazques, 30, lived with a man who was unemployed for most of their time together. Part of the problem, she admits, was that he didn’t actively seek work—and by default she ended up paying his way. “It was a huge turnoff,” she says. “He had no ambition, and didn’t show any signs of changing. What if I had wanted to stay home with our kids?”

Melissa Jacobs, 34, had a more successful experience. The social worker from Greenville, SC, married a man whose family has considerably less money than hers (his father was a transit worker; hers was a lawyer). They met in college, and since he was working to pay the bills, she would pay when they went out on dates.


“I had everything handed to me and he didn’t—and I knew that if I wanted us to do things, I’d have to pay,” she says. She didn’t mind—but she does resent paying for things when they go out with his family. “They never reciprocate!” she says. “We fly to see them, and we’ll buy them dinner. I keep thinking it’s because they don’t have anything, but it bothers me.” Does she say anything to her husband about her feelings? “Absolutely not!” she says. “We just come from different cultures, and he’s not going to change his parents at this point. I have to pick my battles.”

Just as every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, every financially unequal partnership has its own special set of problems—and solutions. And just as it tends to be easier to date someone from a similar cultural, religious, and educational background, it’s often easier to be with someone who has similar attitudes about money.

“Wealth-management people call it financial incompatibility, and it’s a very real issue,” says Helga Hayse. “Money is the one remaining taboo in marriage. It used to be sex, but no more.


Everyone goes into marriage expecting a good sex life. But they don’t talk about money.” (Nearly two-thirds of married couples who responded to a 2006 USA Today poll said they had talked “a little bit or “not at all” about finances before committing to one another).

So, is your relationship doomed if you come from different financial backgrounds? Or if you can’t discuss your feelings about money? Mine clearly was (perhaps because, as financial guru Suze Orman puts it, “Opposites may attract, but I wouldn’t put my money on a relationship between financial opposites.”)

Ultimately, a successful union is about more than the size of one’s wallet. But here’s a tip: next time your partner despairs about the size of his billfold, tell him you’ve never seen anything so big in your life.