From The Straits Times    |

Credit: 123rf

“When I go on dates, I am open to talking about my salary range and expectations up front,” says senior designer Felicia*, 32, who’s single and dating. “It’s not something I’d bring up during the early stages of dating, but I am clear on how much both of us should have in terms of spending power before getting married. Since I want to have kids, I’m also clear on how much I think we should both earn before starting a family.” 

Dating a man who’s earning less than she does is not an instant deal-breaker, but it would factor into her decision about the longevity of the relationship. “I work hard and have seen my salary triple over the years, which has empowered me to spend on a lifestyle that I enjoy. Being in a relationship is about being on the same team, and I would want both of us to work towards a common goal with similar values and lifestyle preferences. Besides, living standards are getting more expensive, and if we have a family, the cost of living will continue to go up,” she says, declining to reveal details about her salary. 

It has also dawned on Felicia that as passionate as she is about her career, she might want to take a year or two off work to focus on being a mum. If that happens, it would fall on her partner to be the sole breadwinner, so it’s important that he can handle the financial responsibility of raising a family. Ideally, they’d both earn $10,000 each when tying the knot, and $15,000 individually when starting a family. 

Financial independence does matter in the long run 

On the other hand, some couples might not see any need to disclose or combine finances. From the onset of their relationship, Deborah Tan-Pink and her husband were clear that they did not want a joint account. 

“We never planned to have kids, and by the time we got married, I already had my own property, so my husband and I did not need to buy a marital home together. I think these factors made it easier for us to be very clear-cut that our money is our own,” she says. 

Would you be ok if your partner earned less than you?

Now in her 40s and a senior vice-president at a digital asset firm, Deborah says she doesn’t know the exact amount that her husband makes, but she has a rough idea, and thinks she earns about two and a half times more. 

“We only briefly shared how much we were earning when I asked him to move in together with me,” says Deborah. “Even after we got married, it was pretty straightforward how we dealt with bills and loans. Since my property is mine, I paid the mortgage. 

He then offered to pay the utility bills and conservancy charges. 

“Since I earn more and I wanted a car, I pay for the car loan, road tax, and insurance, while he pays for things like petrol, Nets Cashcard and season parking fees. I think that while there is no stigma in a woman earning more than her husband, the husband is often the one who has difficulty confessing that he earns less,” says Deborah. 

Cultural norms might have something to do with it. She believes that the fact that her husband is not Singaporean helps, as he is not very bothered by their unequal income. 

“I’m also not the type who would complain about my husband earning less than me, because I’ve always been an independent person. If I wanted to treat myself to some nice stuff, I would pay for it myself.

“It is a matter of personal pride that I do not need to depend on a man to take care of me. Growing up, I was always told that I should never be reliant on another person to meet my basic needs. Sometimes, I joke about wanting to be a tai tai, but I know that deep down, I never wanted wealth or money to be a factor in my relationships,” shares Deborah. She does however expect her partner to be able to look after himself. 

Melissa*, 31, works for her family business, and has always out-earned her boyfriends in present and past relationships. She says: “In a way, it is empowering that I can take care of myself. [I am also aware that] if we have too vast a gap, he might be used to a lifestyle that I can’t afford, and I might feel pressured to keep up with that. I’ve also heard of friends having to ask their husband whenever they want to buy something, and I don’t think my pride could take that sort of an arrangement.” 

Still, she admits that it would be nice to share the load: “I know this doesn’t sound very progressive of me, but a part of me wants him to earn more so that if we do settle down, the financial burden won’t rest so heavily on me.” 

For her, it’s important that her boyfriend is ambitious and is actively working towards his career goals. She recognises that she’s privileged thanks to being able to work for her family business, while her current partner is in the early days of setting up his own business. This means his income fluctuates. 

For now, as they have yet to buy a home together or start a family, the income disparity hasn’t been much of an issue. But in the long run, she hopes to be able to see that he is reliable, and that there is greater stability in his line of work.

Melissa makes an interesting point, however: Mismatched wealth can create a power imbalance. 

Gail Wong, financial wellness coach and healer at Live True, says: “It can get problematic when trade-offs come into play and create an unspoken power dynamic. Whose career comes first? Whose needs come first? Or tellingly, who calls the shots?” 

Typically, such decisions tend to prioritise the family’s collective “rice bowl”, hence the higher earner. 

The psychological discomfort of women out-earning husbands

Andrea*, 32, recently scored a promotion that led to her earning more than her husband. She has observed that it has put a slight strain on their relationship as his insecurities have taken a hit. 

It began with him telling her not to worry so much at work, which she found unsettling because he’d insinuate that she was stressed out even when she didn’t think she was. It’s something that they’re actively working on through couples counselling. She can see that he’s trying to say the right things and be supportive, but he’s also wrestling with having expected to be the more financially successful one. 

It partly stems from having always been a high-achiever in school, and growing up in a household where his dad was the main breadwinner.

“The psychological or sociological discomfort arises from our unconscious associations with earnings,” says Live True’s Gail. Often, we question: What does my income reflect about my worth, or how does this make me dependent on my partner?

It’s not very romantic, but it’s important to be on the same page about money when starting a relationship

“The psychological impact results from an individual’s beliefs, rather than the other person’s pay cheque. It is not just the cliched hunter-gatherer stereotype – in which the man’s role is to provide – that is being disrupted. When a woman out-earns a man, it can activate deep internal challenges at the ‘identity’ level for both parties. It would be natural for a man to question: What is my value in this world, family, relationship, if I am not providing for the family? And the anticipation of such shame can also show up in women, who guiltily overcompensate when the traditional power dynamics shift, for instance, by taking on even more unpaid work,” says Gail.  

“It is important for both to work through these questions and find equilibrium as a couple. Unresolved, this power imbalance can breed resentment, contempt and conflict.”

Gail shares that when working with clients on difficult emotions, she’d ask: “Whose shame is that?” The shame could stem from the man or woman holding on to traditional beliefs or focusing on what’s quantifiable, such as a higher pay, rather than the intangible value that one brings to a relationship. 

Speaking from personal experience, when Gail and her husband Jeremy got engaged 20 years ago, he was a student with a big loan, while she was a Wall Street banker. He took the gap lightly, and would humorously proclaim: “I married up!”

 For Gail, it demonstrated his self-confidence, and his ability to separate the provider stereotype from shame. 

There’s no denying, though, that living in a world still mostly led by patriarchal values can be insidious and pervasive. Dealing with in-laws from the older generation, who might hold on to “traditional” mindsets in terms of gender roles, can be challenging: There is often the assumption that men never choose to earn less, which makes low-income earners look as if they are less capable. 

Redefining success and relationship contributions

Does this call for a need to redefine success and contributions in a relationship? As we deviate from traditional household gender roles, and recognise the value of mental and emotional labour in relationships, it’s worth thinking about contributions beyond money. Communicating one’s relationship expectations, as well as financial needs and wants, is also key, especially if contemplating marriage or starting a family.

It’s important that both parties in a relationship feel secure and treat one another with respect, never mind who makes more money, says Cindy Leong, Enneagram relationship coach at Relationship Studio. “There can be a problematic mismatch if either party is brought up in very traditional families, and the man is taught that being the higher income earner and paying the bills is a sign of shouldering responsibility and power, yet he lacks the ability or opportunity to do so.”

Arguably, a shift is already underway. According to data from the last Census of Population 2020 report, slightly over one in four married couples in Singapore had wives who out earn their husbands. The data was based on married couples in resident households where both spouses were employed. 

In another shift, men are increasingly encouraged to take on more of a caregiving role. For instance, it was announced this year that working fathers of Singapore children born on or after Jan 1, 2024 can take more government-paid paternity leave, depending on their employers. The paid paternity leave would double from two weeks to four weeks. 

Cindy adds that she has seen an increasing openness among couples where wives shoulder the heavier financial burden these days, while husbands take on more of a caregiver role. “We see more and more hands-on dads and husbands who are happy to have wives who earn more than they do, as it lightens their financial burden,” she says. 

One such example would be entrepreneur Jane* and IT engineer John*, who are in their 40s and parents to young kids. At the start of her entrepreneurship journey in 2013, Jane had an unstable income, and even had to borrow $500 from John to tide through two months. But 10 years on, she now makes 20 per cent more than him. 

“I am sometimes out late at night, while he takes care of the house and kids. For us, it’s about being partners in life, and sharing responsibilities can come in different forms,” she says. 

John says: “Seeing my wife work hard and succeed makes me feel proud. Marriage to me is not a competition about who’s doing better. It’s about loving and supporting one another, and what kind of a husband would I be if I didn’t want the best for her? 

“It’s about mutual leadership. We both lead in areas we are good at. No one person is good at everything. This way, we get the best of both worlds.” 

*Names have been changed