Here’s the right way to split expenses when you’re traveling with a partner

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Traveling with a romantic partner can be extremely rewarding. Traveling with a partner who makes significantly more money than you, however, can lead to disaster — if you don’t steel yourself for awkwardness and have a frank budget discussion beforehand.

In a recent Reddit post in the subreddit AITA (which stands for Am I The Asshole and is a place for people to be publicly judged on their actions), travel finances take center stage. An IT consultant making $150,000 took his girlfriend of two years on a family vacation. His girlfriend is a teacher making $45,000, and he describes his family as “pretty affluent,” which seems to be, from the perspective of a writer who doesn’t come from such a background, a term only the upper crust of the upper-upper-upper-middle class would self-identify with. Those “pretty affluent” people planned the trip, but he doesn’t reveal where the trip took place.

This IT consultant expected his girlfriend to split trip expenses 50-50, and she took on a second job waitressing for a few months to pay for the predictable expenses. Long story short, it didn’t go well. She ate two meals a day because she couldn’t afford a third and went on only half of the excursions (which presumably means she was left behind to entertain herself while the rest of the family had a blast). His response: “I feel bad that I did not pick up on her discomfort sooner. But we did agree to split everything 50/50 and I don’t know why she agreed to come if the cost was an issue.”

Clearly the IT consultant who posted this story is nothing short of an asshole, as confirmed by everyone in the AITA subreddit. Commenters replied with things like “My heart broke for this girl,” and that if he wants to stay with her, “he needs to smarten up quick and realize that a partnership and building a life together is way more than only 50/50.” Another provided a simple solution: “Don’t plan for your budget when you know she makes so much less than you.”

The editorial team at Matador had a similar response about the lack of communication — or the willingness to use broken communication as an excuse for doing what you want without thinking about the other person.

Discussing travel expenses is a necessary evil. While it can seem like money talk spoils the excitement of trip planning, having a quick conversation ahead of time about who pays for what makes for a much smoother, enjoyable, and conflict-free trip. My fiancée, whom I’ve been with for 12 years, is a dentist. I’m a writer and editor balancing multiple freelance contracts. It doesn’t take much knowledge of either industry to know that there’s a wide pay gap there. Both of our incomes vary year by year and month by month, but I make about three times less than my fiancée. Talking about money is key for us to travel smoothly.

Travel is a major part of our lives. We fall more on the side of spenders than savers when booking travel, though a recent home purchase, for which she covered the vast majority of the down payment, has slowed how much we have on hand to spend. Still, our money discussions when we travel are much like they’ve always been: I’m thankful when she covers the costs for things like kayak trips through France’s Calanques National Park, I keep the sugar mama jokes to a minimum, and she almost always offers to pay and consistently checks in before making joint money decisions.

Regardless of where we’re going, we have an agreement that’s become so de rigueur over the past decade together that it largely goes without saying: We split the things we can and one of us pays for the things the other person either can’t afford or is more interested in doing. Most importantly, we’re open about where we can each afford to go and what we can do before we book anything.

This can mean some concessions on her side. Sometimes she buys my plane ticket or pays for the gas on a road trip, or we settle on a place to stay that I would assume is far less fancy than what people making dentist-level salaries normally opt for. If there’s something she really wants to do that I’m not all that into, she pays for it. The same is true on the other side — we’re thankfully both the type of people who travel for the food so we usually split restaurant bills, but I’ll pick up the full bar tab or pay at cannabis dispensaries since those activities fall more into the categories that I’m interested in.

Open communication is key here. That IT consultant somehow had zero questions in the moment that his girlfriend was going hungry because his family favors “more high-end (*expensive*) places” (and only later assumed that she had an eating disorder instead of being clued into his own keyword of “expensive”). He also didn’t consider the pressure she might be under to agree to a trip she clearly couldn’t afford, and she clearly didn’t feel comfortable about confiding in a partner who is so blasé about money.

The most important thing a couple can do before booking a trip is to have an honest conversation about money. Neither me nor my fiancée are ever surprised when we have to pay for something, and she knows where I’m at in terms of what I can afford. We share what each of us are thinking when it comes to a trip’s overall budget and plan accordingly. It’s not knowledge and planning displayed in the AITA post, where the girlfriend felt forced to take on a second job to prepare. It’s knowledge that if one of us wants to do something, and we want to do it together, then there needs to be a plan in place to pay for it. Sometimes it ends up being a 50-50 split, sometimes it doesn’t. The point is, we always talk over our expectations beforehand.

We wouldn’t have lasted a dozen years together traveling around the country and the world if we didn’t talk. An income and savings gap doesn’t need to be an issue that keeps a couple homebound if the couple keeps lines of communication open.

Perhaps that IT consultant already knew the answer to whether he was an asshole or not when he made his post. He did, afterall, readily admit that she didn’t know if the relationship would work long term if she was expected to go on, and pay for, vacations that she can’t afford. Few experiences can bond a couple like travel, but when there’s no communication, understanding, or empathy, it’s time to move on.