My ex-boyfriend and I contributed to our household based on our salaries. I’m now owed $23K in back pay. Do I pay him back?

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Dear Moneyist,

Recently, I was notified by my employer of five years that my initial salary placement was incorrect, and I am due a fairly large amount of retroactive pay. After taxes, it comes to about $23,000.

About a year ago, I ended a long-term relationship wherein my former partner — who I was not married to or in a legal domestic partnership with — and I split up our rent and home-related finances on a pro-rata basis.

He made slightly more money than I did (at that time), so he contributed about $150 a month more than I did to this joint account. We had agreed to this arrangement for four years of our relationship before parting ways. I’ve done the math and this comes to $7,200 that he paid more than me in total.


Do I have any ethical obligation to pay him back that money, or to at least give him the option of accepting some of the money I was retroactively paid?


— Ex-Girlfriend

My question is: Now that my salary has been retroactively adjusted by way of lump sum — to the same amount his salary was during our relationship — do I have any ethical obligation to pay him back that money, or to at least give him the option of accepting some of the money I was retroactively paid?

As a side note/more context, during our relationship my former partner did receive a net family inheritance of $40,000, which we did not split up, nor did we adjust our rent or home expenses based on his inheritance.

We had been planning on eventually purchasing a home together, so the plan was that he would put his inheritance in a savings account for the eventual down payment on the home. When we broke up, he kept all that inherited money, to which I had no objection.

He and I don’t really talk anymore, but we ended on relatively good terms, and I want to do the right thing.

Ex-Girlfriend

Dear Ex-Girlfriend,

What a refreshing and welcome letter to get from someone who wishes to do the right thing. You acted in good faith at the time, and you and your ex-boyfriend divided your financial responsibilities equitably and fairly. I applaud you then, and I applaud you now.

It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but riddle me this. What would have happened if you received that $23,000 during the last year of your relationship? My guess: You would have put in a bank account, just like he did with the $40,000, and adjusted your pay going forward. I don’t think you would have given him $7,200 and just kept the rest. This is another windfall, and one that will be recorded in your income-tax return next year.


‘It’s one thing to pay a little more every month; it’s quite another to take one-third of a modest windfall and allocate it to a life that never came to fruition.’


— The Moneyist

You could ask 10 people and get 10 different answers. Give him half! Keep it! Insist he take $7,200! Pay him, plus interest! And so on. People generally bring their own relationships (and grievances) to the table. Your male friends may also have a different answer from your female friends.

In fact, you likely owe him less than $7,200 (four years multiplied by $150 per month). If you and your boyfriend earned the same income, he would pay $75 per month less and you would pay $75 more. That brings the total to $3,600. This may or may not make your decision easier.

For all of the above reasons, I see this $23,000 dropping in your lap as the universe gifting you a secret savings account that you can put toward a down payment, or some other life goal. You have both moved on. This money appeared in your celestial piggy bank for a reason. Look yonder, to the future, not to the past.

You are under no ethical obligation to give him money. You could not use this money during your relationship. It’s one thing to pay more when you are planning a future together; it’s quite another to take one-third of a modest windfall and allocate it to a life that never came to fruition.

The past is another country. Enjoy your personal and financial freedom guilt-free, Ex-Girlfriend. I don’t think either of you would enjoy dusting off your old household budget in an effort to balance those books. That life is over and, for better or for worse, that domestic ledger no longer exists.

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com

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