The beginning of the year is the perfect time for divorce lawyers and relationship counsellors to cash in big time, because after blowing scary amounts of cash on Christmas presents, we all start reflecting on our relationships. Case in point: I've been with my boyfriend for nearly four years since uni, where we both lived off Sainsbury’s Basics. But now, his salary as a lawyer is nearly twice as much as mine as a journalist.
As a naturally competitive person, this imbalance makes me feel lesser – even though I love my job - and I’m not alone in my insecurity. 'The difference is particularly obvious in restaurants,' says Matthew Bailey, 22, a marketing assistant whose girlfriend earns three times his salary as an occupational therapist. 'Especially when the menu is presented and a bottle of wine costs over £30. She loves to flash her debit card and when she offers to pay, it’s more than embarrassing.'
While the average starting salary for most UK graduates is between £18-£24k, those who swoop straight into the City can earn up to £40k from the start. And it may be 2015, but there’s also still the gender pay gap to consider. Plus when you're in your 20s, and just starting out, you might not have made the sort of what's-mine-is-yours commitment to each other that stops a pay disparity being an issue. In fact you might not even be living together. So, is a big salary gap a recipe for disaster? Not necessarily, say experts and couples whose romances continue to thrive. But money is still a weirdly sensitive subject - in fact, so many people I spoke to wanted to stay anonymous.
1. Be open and communicate
'It’s rare that a couple earn the same salary, so there’s always potential for gripes over money issues,' says Rick Hughes, a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). 'Most people cope, but for others it’s when issues aren’t openly discussed that problems fester and cause resentment.
'It’s frustrating that he doesn't value money the way I do,' says Leanne (not her real name), 29, a legal aid solicitor, whose fiancé earns double her salary as a soldier. 'Once, he spent thousands on a shotgun and I blew my lid. We argued but then talked it through and I persuaded him to see sense.'
Communication breakdown is common where money is concerned, says a Relate spokesperson. 'We hear things like, ‘he or she doesn’t understand how much things cost.' But what they’re really saying is, ‘he or she doesn’t hear me’ or ‘I don’t feel listened to’.'
It’s also OK (and natural) to envy your partner’s salary, but explain this to them, advises Shirlee Kay, a psychotherapist at counselling network Coupleworks. This will reduce the risk of your feelings affecting your behaviour.
2. Team work
With a big income disparity, the higher earner might end up paying for most things. But this isn't sustainable and the lower earner will end up feeling constantly indebted – hardly a turn on. Instead, contribute amounts proportional to your salaries. 'If you live together, have a shared pot of money for bills that you both contribute towards', advises Leila Collins, a chartered counselling psychologist.
'When I inherited some money I put it straight into the home we jointly own,' says Leanne. 'We’ve always taken the view that our situation will eventually even out, but we'd rather one of us earns well for now.'
Kim Stephenson, a financial psychologist and author, says: 'If you're competing to see who’s the "top dog" you end up as a couple of bitches.' Work out your shared goals and aim for them: do you want holidays? A house? A family eventually? 'That way, you build a strong relationship and the fact that one earns more doesn't matter.'
Be prepared to make concessions – whether by allowing yourself to be treated or by swallowing your pride occasionally. Sian (not her real name), 26, a data scientist, earns over three times more than her boyfriend. 'We’re going travelling around the world together next year and I’ll be paying for most of that, because I can save several thousands per month,' she says.
Management trainee James (who also wished to remain anonymous), 23, and his girlfriend, take turns to pay for food when they’re at each other’s places, but he pays for meals out. 'I'm happy to whack it on my credit card because I earn more, plus I enjoy spending money on us doing things together.'
4. Don’t be a dick
Things got tense between Matthew and his girlfriend over Christmas when she tried to allocate £4k for joint presents. 'She wanted to buy concert tickets for her mum – at a whopping £150, plus Chanel perfume. We argued over the budget and eventually I spent the night at my parents’ house cooling off.'
If you respect your partner, you obviously shouldn’t force them to pay for stuff they can’t afford. 'My girlfriend tells me to stop worrying about money and live a little,' says Matthew. 'But how can you when you’re earning to pay rent and bills? I try to save money, but she wants to spend it while she has it and tells me to stop being a stiff about things. It can hurt.'
5. Look on the bright side
If your partner’s loaded, they’re probably working long and hard hours for it. Be grateful if your job is more chilled, regardless of the pay. Andy (yep, he wanted a pseudonym too), 22, a trainee solicitor who earns twice as much as his girlfriend, says: 'It seems unfair because I don't think I’ll be working twice as hard or be twice as valuable to my company. Then again, she’s doing something she enjoys, so I may end up being the jealous one.'
Because Sian earns so much more than her boyfriend, he was frustrated at first, but now loves his job and has got used to the situation. 'If anything, my earning power has affected our relationship in a good way because we've been able to buy a flat together. And he did all the mortgage paperwork, which put me to sleep!'
6. Stop worrying
Fretting over the long-term impact money might have on your relationship is pointless, says Kim, the financial psychologist. Thornton worries that his girlfriend won’t be able to afford rent or lavish holidays. 'I may want to spend more than she can afford because I’ll have such little time off – especially if it's holidays with friends in similar jobs.'
But be mindful and focus on your relationship as it is, advises Kim. 'Do things you both value – share experiences, holidays, social events or just time together. Enjoy today rather than worrying about the past or fearing the future.' Good point, I’ve still got 11 months to save up for that Christmas present. I’m not stressing just yet.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.