I Accidentally Saw My Girlfriend’s Tax Return—and Learned She’d Been Keeping a Huge Secret About Her Salary

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Dear Pay Dirt,

My partner and I have been together for eight years. We are committed to each other, but neither of us wants to get married. We keep our finances separate and pay housing expenses based on a ratio of who makes more. When we moved in together and decided on this split, I made significantly more than my partner and paid a higher percentage (65/45). Over the past few years, I have gotten normal raises (think the regular 3 percent to 5 percent) and I thought she did, too, as she never said anything different. I got two big bonuses over the past few years and disclosed them both to her, and she has disclosed her bonuses to me.

We use the same accountant and last week, the accountant accidentally sent my partner’s tax return to me instead of her. I didn’t realize it until I opened it up and the numbers didn’t seem right. It took me a few minutes to realize I had the wrong tax return. I was shocked to see that my partner’s income has more than doubled since we decided on our 65/45 split of expenses. When I asked her about it, she first accused me of violating her privacy, then said that I never asked how much her raises were and she figured that the split was fine. We should have been paying 50/50 about a year after we moved in together, and she should now be paying about 70/30. I know she got a promotion around a year after we moved in together, but she downplayed it at the time as a “change in title.”

I feel really betrayed. She is now proposing a 50/50 split, but I don’t think that is fair or equitable. Part of me wants her to reimburse me the money she should’ve been paying the past few years, and part of me just wants her to pay 70/30. She says I am being stingy and that I feel threatened because she makes more than me. I am rethinking our relationship—not only because she lied by omission but because she is accusing me of being misogynistic and is not seeing the ethical and moral failing on her part. She thinks I am making too big a deal out of this and we just need to move on. I don’t feel like she is trustworthy. I am out of town for 10 days on business, then she goes on a girls’ trip the day I get back, so everything seems to be on pause until then. Part of me wants to just find a new place, move out, and have separate household expenses going forward, and part of me wants to just move out and break up. Am I overreacting?

—Betrayed in Boston

Dear Betrayed in Boston,

There’s a name for what you’re experiencing: financial infidelity. That is, hiding or lying about financial information or behavior with your partner, whether it’s racking up credit card debt, overspending, or, yes, getting a huge salary bump and keeping quiet about it. Whether she intended to hide her salary from you is another (very serious!) matter, but the bottom line is that it feels like a betrayal. It’s hard enough to feel taken advantage of by a stranger, but when it’s your partner, that undermines any sense of trust you two have.

Your situation is an example of why being transparent about money is so important in relationships, even when partners keep their finances separate. You both tried to establish this from the start, but you assumed that transparency was there, while she was on a different page. That said, the fact that she’s now willing to pay 50/50 suggests that she at least knows that transparency was probably the right thing to do in the first place. Your partner has her side of the story, but if she does feel you’re threatened by her earning potential, that’s another issue. She may have had her own reasons for keeping the information to herself. That doesn’t excuse the lies, but those reasons need to be unpacked, ideally with a couples therapist, if this relationship is going to move forward.

It’s not up to me to decide whether your reaction is proportional to the offense. It sounds as if there were already some much deeper issues in your relationship that you needed to work through: issues with resentment, commitment, and trust. If those issues weren’t there before, they’re certainly present now, and they’ll take time to deal with. If you don’t get to a place where you both feel you’ve dealt with the issue, the resentment will only grow. The time apart will give you both space to think about all of this, and if you decide you want to work it out, I suggest leaving some room in your budget for those counseling sessions.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

In the past few years, I’ve gotten a large financial settlement that I mostly ignore. It’s from frankly upsetting circumstances, so I’ve squirreled it away in some high-yield savings accounts and continued to live comfortably off my regular income. But my best friend recently told me she and her wife are having money issues, to the point where they’re contemplating getting second jobs. I’d like to help them out—with a loan, or even a gift—but she doesn’t know I have this money (or she knows, generally, that I’ve received a settlement but doesn’t know the actual amount). I’m worried she’ll be uncomfortable or even angry if I offer to help out. I already know she doesn’t want to accept a loan from her family (in part for pride reasons, and in part because their relationship isn’t great). I don’t want this to change things between us. But at the same time … they need this money, and I really don’t! They have three kids. I don’t have any. Is it patronizing or kind to offer something? How can I do this in a way that doesn’t make her see me differently—or does it matter if she does if she gets the help?

—Secret Rich Friend

Dear Secret Rich Friend,

What a kind gesture! If your goal was to flaunt your wealth, that would be patronizing, sure, but it seems clear that you simply want to help a good friend in need. Chances are, your friend will be touched that you offered this and not at all offended.

There are, however, some practical things to consider before you present the idea to your friend: The IRS has rules for how much you can gift someone before it has to be reported on your taxes. (For 2024, the limit is $18,000.) And if you lend the money to your friend, establishing some ground rules can help avoid any potential awkwardness in the future.

If your friend wants to take you up on your offer but is bashful about doing so, the way you present it might help nudge her to say yes. At first, your friend might feel ashamed, overwhelmed, or just plain shy about being presented with this offer. So when you tell her you want to help her out, focus on what you have in common rather than any financial disparity between the two of you. You could tell her, “I know you’d do the same for me,” for example, or “I didn’t expect this windfall, so it would mean a lot if I could share it.” You could also explain that the circumstances upon receiving the money were unsettling, so you’ve been disinclined to use it, and gifting it feels like a way that you could change the feelings associated with it. Presented this way, it almost feels as if she’s doing you a kindness too.

Money can change friendships, but strong ones can withstand any potential awkwardness this conversation might kick up. And if your friend is close enough that you want to make her life better this way, it’s probably safe to say the two of you are pretty tight.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

My spouse and I are both public servants who had student loan debt from the graduate education required for our roles. We had an inexpensive wedding, skipped a honeymoon, and bought a house in our late 20s, all on our own. We’re proud of what we’ve managed to do, but it would have been easier with some family support. I come from a working-class family.

My spouse’s younger brother has a corporate position with a salary that is about what my spouse and I earn together. His wife also has a corporate job that pays about what I make. They had an expensive wedding and honeymoon. My in-laws contributed more to their wedding than they did to ours, but we understood that it was because that wedding was larger (250 guests) and they were able to invite more of their friends/family, while our wedding was significantly smaller (30 guests) and not everyone could be accommodated. My mother-in-law recently accidentally let it slip that she and my father-in-law are contributing a substantial five-figure sum to my spouse’s younger brother’s down payment. They’ve decided that this is fair because my siblings-in-law are planning to have children. My spouse and I intended to adopt due to health issues that have prevented us from having biological children. We’ve since learned about the unethical adoption system and decided that path isn’t for us, especially given that we are both autistic and parenting requires emotional resources we don’t have to spare. We received no family help with our down payment.

I am frustrated on my spouse’s behalf; they feel less loved by their parents, who have never been as supportive of their path in life as they have been of their neurotypical, high-earner brother. My spouse’s solution is to simply engage less to avoid repeatedly feeling hurt. They’ve said that when their parents are unable to live on their own or when one of them is widowed, they’ll have to live with their other child because that’s the home they’ve invested in. The question has become what to do with our own assets. We’ve paid off our student loans and are on track to have the mortgage on our modest home paid off when we’re in our mid-40s. We also have retirement accounts. Currently, we have set things up for an equitable division between my (much older, single-mother) sister and his brother. My sister’s daughters are now young adults, and we are revising our estate plan to leave that share to our nieces instead of my sister.

However, we’re stumped about what to do with the other half of the money. Given this recent slight, and given that my brother-in-law’s yet-to-be-conceived future children will benefit from a head start beginning with their grandparents’ contribution to their parents’ home purchase, we are leaning toward leaving the entire estate, including the house, to our nieces on my side. Although they are 20-plus years older than our hypothetical future niblings, they were raised working class by a single mom, and an inheritance that hopefully won’t come until they are well into their own middle age could be helpful with home improvements, retirement, or any future grand-nibling’s educations. We are involved with their lives. Is this an ethical choice, or are we simply acting on our current emotions?

—Aunt Uncertain

Dear Aunt Uncertain,

This seems like a case of “both things can be true.” This could be an ethical (and logical) choice as well as an emotional one. In other words, just because your choice makes you feel a certain way (vindicated, perhaps?) doesn’t mean that it’s the wrong decision.

That said, you don’t want to take your frustrations out on kids who aren’t even here yet, so emotions aside, the question you might want to focus on is: Who would benefit most from this money? It sounds as if you already have a hunch about the answer, but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can divide the other half of your assets and leave a greater share to the kids you think will benefit most. Of course, you have no way of knowing what the future will look like (after all, your brother-in-law’s kids don’t even exist yet!), but if you’re trying to make things equitable, it’s perfectly reasonable to leave a larger financial share of your estate to the folks you think could use it most. And if things change in the future, you can always update your will.

In the meantime, your spouse might want to have a conversation with their parents if they haven’t already. There are some big feelings here that shouldn’t get swept under the rug. If your in-laws don’t know that you both feel hurt—and I can see why you would, especially after struggling with fertility issues—it might come as a surprise to them to hear it. Who knows how they’ll take it? But relationships can’t be repaired if the people in them don’t know they’re harmed to begin with.

Dear Pay Dirt,

I always see those no-interest, pay-over-time programs when shopping online, like Klarna and Afterpay. I’ve always been tempted to use them—I use the “pay half now, pay the other half later” option on Airbnb, for example, religiously and it works out great. But I’ve heard so much about not using these programs because you can fall into debt. Is there ever a good time to use it, or is it best to steer clear?

—Pay Later?

Dear Pay Later,

The programs you’re describing are called “Buy Now, Pay Later,” and they’re essentially short-term loans. You pay off your purchase in a series of interest-free payments over the course of a couple of months. They make money from merchant fees, but they also profit from consumer late fees and interest. In other words, while they give you flexibility over how to pay off your purchase, they also charge fees and possibly interest if you don’t pay it back on time.

Worst-case scenario? That interest compounds and you’re stuck paying off the debt for months or even years longer than you expected. With interest rates ranging from single digits to about 36 percent, these types of services are about the same as most credit cards, as far as interest goes.

In 2022 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a report on these types of services and warned of three potential harms. One potential pitfall is overextension, which is the problem of taking on too much debt or getting stuck in debt over time, which I described above. The second is “operational hurdles,” which describes the hurdles BNPL consumers have to jump over to accomplish basic tasks: resolving disputes and opting into autopay, for example. And finally, there’s the problem of data harvesting. Like most digital platforms, these lenders often collect your data to use for marketing, product features, or other purposes.

These programs have been widely criticized for targeting financially vulnerable people, but others argue that they offer credit to those who wouldn’t otherwise have access. If you’re concerned about the ethics of such practices, you might consider these arguments in your decision about whether to use them.

The appeal, of course, is that you can buy something now and pay for it later without accruing interest (as long as you’re careful). You might do this if you can’t afford something but think you might be able to afford it in the near future. If you find yourself in need of, I don’t know, a new refrigerator, a suit for a job interview, or maybe even groceries, you can give yourself some wiggle room in your budget and let your future self figure out how to pay it all off. The problem is, if your future self doesn’t have the money to pay for the item, you run the risk of not having that money in six weeks either. It seems like a big risk, and if you’re already in a financially precarious position, these programs might just make things much, much worse.


Back in September a friend of mine and I ended a yearslong on-again, off-again fling. We had been very close for a long time, and I didn’t want the romantic part of our relationship to end, but he told me that he did not “have enough” to give me, and wanted time to himself. He wanted to continue to be friends, but I felt too hurt to hang out with him. That same month he began working in the small kitchen where I am a manager.