Wealth is complex. There are many different factors in determining if someone is “wealthy.” They could have a job in a high-salaried career field, they may have invested wisely from a young age, or maybe they’ve recently inherited a large lump-sum. But even if a partner has a high income or net worth, if they spend more than they make or more than their assets can keep up with, they will be poor in due time.
In financial planning, we often talk about how everyone has a unique money situation. This remains true for the two individuals that make up a couple, or who are in a long-term relationship together. Just because you share a life with one another doesn’t necessarily mean your financial life is the same – and this can cause some tricky dynamics in your relationship.
If one of you has more money, either in annual salary or as a result of some kind of savings, there are a few technical and emotional financial hurdles you’re going to have to face down at some point. As a fee-only, Certified Financial PlannerTM professional, I help clients maneuver through a wealth gap and all the problems it can cause. That being said, these four roadblocks tend to be recurring.
1. Who controls the money?
This is by far the most common money-strain on a relationship where there’s a wealth gap. Some couples choose to address this by keeping their finances separate and contributing an equal amount to monthly shared expenses. More commonly, the couple has combined finances, but the wealthier of the two carries most of the weight of paying the bills, saving for financial goals, etc.
As a result of having more money, the wealthiest person in the relationship often controls the money, as well. This might leave the less-wealthy member of the couple feeling isolated and disempowered. They may not feel as though their voice is heard in financial decisions and may feel out of control about their financial future. All of these situations can put a strain on the relationship.
The Fix: No couple is the same, but in these wealth-gap situations, it’s best for the both members of the relationship to feel equally “in charge” when it comes to making money decisions. This is especially important when creating a budget that reflects your values, or making big financial decisions that involve investments, retirement, or estate planning.
2. Are you adequately insured to support your spouse or partner?
If there’s a wealth gap in your relationship but you share finances, insurance becomes especially important. I specifically recommend considering life insurance and long-term disability coverage. Nobody likes to plan for the worst-case scenario, but if something were to happen to the wealthier person in your relationship and you didn’t have adequate insurance to make up for lost income in the case of death or disability, your spouse’s lifestyle could be dramatically impacted. If they don’t have the same savings you have, or don’t have the same income, they could be forced to relocate to a less expensive area, postpone their retirement plans, and redirect their financial goals.
Keep in mind that not everyone will require the same amount of coverage. Speaking to a financial planning professional can help you ensure that you have the right amount to protect you and your partner.
The Fix: Regularly review your insurance coverage and beneficiaries. If you have shared finances, you’ll need to decide what extent you want one another to be cared for – and how that translates to life and long term disability insurance coverage.
3. Do you have a plan for retirement?
When one person has more money in a relationship, retirement planning can be impacted. Of the two of you, the wealthier individual may have the flexibility to retire earlier than planned. Alternatively, the less wealthy individual may not be able to retire until much later if they don’t have an adequate savings.
When you’re trying to plan a future together, this discrepancy can be difficult to maneuver. Couples often work to plan a retirement that serves both of their lifestyle goals – they want to travel together, visit grandchildren, or enjoy their mutual hobbies. Having a wealth gap can throw a wrench in these plans, especially if one of you will need to continue working for a while.
The Fix: Get clear on what kind of retirement you want together. As a couple, you may think you’re on the same page here – but more often than not, there are mismatched expectations. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to work into your retirement years, but it needs to be designed as part of an overall plan agreed upon by both parties.
4. Are both people in the relationship equally engaged in their financial planning experience?
Unfortunately, when there is a wealth gap between couples, the wealthier of the two in the relationship tends to be more involved in their financial planning process. This is problematic as a couple starts to set short and long term financial goals, begins to plan what kind of retirement lifestyle they want, and decides how they want their money to be used.
Having equality in your financial planning is critical to making decisions that will serve both of you right now and in the future. When one member of your relationship doesn’t feel that their voice has been heard during the creation of a financial plan, the plan itself is less likely to work. It might fail because they’re not committed to savings or budgeting goals, or it may backfire when they decide that a goal they hadn’t previously voiced is more important than the current strategy that is in in place.
The Fix: Both people in a relationship need to be equally involved in their financial planning journey – regardless of whether you have a gap in wealth or not. If planning becomes one-sided, you can’t guarantee that both people in a relationship are feeling emotionally fulfilled by the financial decisions that are being made. Make sure that each of you take a moment to sit back and listen. Sometimes taking turns offering up opinions on each subject you cover is a good idea to create balance.
Having a gap in your wealth can present some unique financial planning challenges as a couple, and it may require more work in some situations than others. Your money is just an extension of your relationship – the more communication you have, and the more you approach money questions as a united front, the more successful you’ll be.