Dear Joint Accounts,
My boyfriend works part-time and doesn’t make much money, by choice — he’s a computer scientist and electrical engineer by training, so he could be making much more if he wanted to. I work full-time and currently make about twice as much as he does. We plan on moving in together in the next few years, once all our kids are out of the house, and I think he should take on more work to make our salaries more equitable.
The conundrum: His retirement account is fully funded due to the many years he spent at stressful but high-paying jobs. Mine, on the other hand, is woefully under-funded. Is it fair to ask him to earn more now if he might end up supporting me later on?
Begrudged Breadwinner

I understand your hesitation: On paper, it might not sound fair to ask someone to fund your own financial goals. But relationships are complicated, and so is money. Funding your retirement should be a savings priority, and depending on your relationship situation, yes, that might mean your boyfriend needs to work more. It’s important to make sure you’re financially prepared for retirement, but that’s true whether you’re in a relationship or not.

But your boyfriend can help you with retirement savings even if your salaries aren’t equitable, so I’m curious as to why you called that out specifically as something you want. Why is it important to you that your boyfriend earn as much money as you do? Are you concerned he won’t be contributing enough to your joint expenses? Or that you won’t be able to afford retirement contributions on your own? Or do you begrudge him for having the luxury of being able to work less? There’s no wrong answer, but it’d be helpful for you to figure out why this is a concern for you in the first place, beyond the obvious.

If your boyfriend is in a financial position where he can afford to sacrifice earning potential in exchange for free time, that’s not a bad thing. Money matters, but time is a precious resource, too. And in a relationship, equity isn’t always about money. There are other ways for partners to contribute to the partnership: housework, raising children, managing household schedules. In other words, just because one partner doesn’t work a traditional 9-to-5 job, that doesn’t mean they aren’t pulling their weight

On the other hand, you did say your retirement is woefully underfunded. If you’re planning on still being together when you retire, this is indeed something you should both be focused on fixing. It’s okay for one partner’s goals to take priority for a while; that’s part of the give-and-take of relationships. For example, when a friend of mine was going back to college for an advanced degree, her husband became the breadwinner and took care of most of the household chores. Things weren’t exactly equal, but then she graduated and got a higher paying job, and the priorities shifted to him and investing for his future. Your retirement might work the same way: Your boyfriend’s is already funded, so it’s time to focus on yours.

So before you move in together, come up with a plan for how you’ll each contribute your money to joint expenses and savings goals, and your time to household projects and chores. You might work out a plan in which your boyfriend decides to take on more work to help fund your joint lifestyle, or you might decide to cut back on your lifestyle while he manages the home and you remain the breadwinner. Either way, make sure he’s on board with the fact that your goal is to contribute to your retirement savings — and come up with a specific dollar amount that you plan to save for this each month.

Whatever plan you come up with, you’re already in a good position. Things will continue to evolve and change even after you move in together, but getting everything sorted out as much as you can before that happens already gives your relationship a head start.