The number of women breadwinners in the U.S. has continued to rise over the last two decades, jumping from 37% in 2000 to 49% in 2018.

While gender equality in the workplace has much room for improvement, the rising share of women breadwinners is indicative of changing social dynamics that have become apparent in the work I do.

With most of the couples I work with, the woman makes more, and I’ve noticed that it can bring up specific personal, professional and financial challenges. Some of these challenges may be exacerbated by the global pandemic with everyone cooped up at home and/or experiencing fluctuating income.

For the full-length discussion on the Corporate Hostage, No More! podcast click here.

If that sounds familiar and you too are struggling with this, here are the top five challenges that come with being your household’s breadwinner and tips to overcome them.

Challenge #1: Negotiating how to combine finances and/or split expenses with your spouse

As the breadwinner, it’s not uncommon to have guilt around how much you make or you might be concerned with the dynamic it creates in the household.   Often, there’s extra concern if the lower-earning partner is also the one that doesn’t plan as much for the future.   It’s actually quite rare for both spouses to be planners that are constantly thinking about the future or big picture things when it comes to money. So, this tip applies to most couples no matter who makes what.

Develop a “Your’s, Mine, and Ours” system that makes sense for you.

No matter who makes what, you don’t have to share every dollar. I find that my clients have a lot of success when the develop a “yours, mine and ours” formula.  Neither of you want to be in a position to police the other’s spending on hobbies, gadgets, gifts for each other, or self care, etc.  So, I often propose that you look at joint household expenses first and consider what each partner’s contribution to the household will be.  If the pay disparity is wide, you might consider making each spouse’s contribution proportional to their income.  If the pay disparity isn’t so wide, or you just like the idea of splitting things 50/50, then you can determine an even split.  Here are two options for implementing the formula:

  • Option 1: Your paychecks keep flowing into individual accounts, but you set up an auto-transfer to fund a joint checking and savings account for household expenses and joint future savings goals (such as travel, house purchase, a big move across the country, etc.). You may even choose (after experimenting with the bank accounts) to get a joint credit card for the times you eat out together or travel together.  Anything left over after you make the joint account contribution is yours individually and you can choose what you do with it. This approach requires you to review joint expenses and joint goals periodically so you can update the monthly contribution when necessary.
  • Option 2: Your paychecks flow into a central jointly-held checking account. You set up auto bill pay out of this central account, have an automated monthly transfer to a jointly held savings account for long-term needs. Then you have a second automated transfer to separate accounts for each of you.  The amount that goes to you as individuals can be the same or different depending on salary, goals, process, etc.

What might work best for you?  Think through the dynamics of your relationship and talk about what feels comfortable.  Developing and maintaining either approach has pros and cons.  Either way, it typically means you keep more accounts such as joint AND individual checking/savings and credit cards.

Who manages the system?  Inevitably, any system you choose is going to need to be maintained and someone has to review and pay the bills.  I typically advocate for auto paying and auto saving so it takes a lot of the work out of it.  However, while it may be tempting to “specialize” in the areas where you have expertise or comfort, managing money can’t be a one-person job. At the very least, it needs to be recurring, joint conversation. But ideally you share in the management of the system to some degree.

Challenge #2: The pressure to stay in an unfulfilling job

So…you’re unhappy with current job, but as the primary earner, the money is too good to consider making a change.

Like many in your high-paying track, you may have scaled up your lifestyle relative to your income — so much so that it feels impossible to break free from the “golden handcuffs.” Fortunately, many people have been in your position, taken decisive action and landed in a much better place.

The process begins, like most important decisions, with a bit of self reflection.

Start by determining the source of your discontent. Is it your job or your career?

Sometimes, your dissatisfaction stems from an intolerable boss or a toxic work environment, in which case the problem can be resolved by seeking employment at a different company.

However, if through your time of reflection you’ve determined that what you’re experiencing is the nature of the industry, you may need to make a bigger shift.

Build a support system of others in a similar situation

Although the number of breadwinning women in the U.S. is growing, being the sole or primary income earner is still relatively new territory for women—and that can make you feel lost in trying to navigate this role. However, you can find support by reaching out to your personal network to identify role models or other women in similar positions.

Finding solidarity with other women has several major benefits, namely:

  • It provides a channel for emotional support in that you can air grievances that other friends and relatives cannot relate to.
  • You’ll be able to talk through your frustrations and concerns, which in turn, can help with processing your stress (as opposed to holding it in privately).
  • Women who understand how you feel may be better equipped to give advice and provide helpful solutions for coping.
  • You can share successes or improvements you’ve made that might be helpful others.

Challenge #3: The reality of having a stay-at-home spouse

Despite increasing numbers, stay-at-home husbands are still a relatively rare breed. Because of this scarcity, it’s not uncommon for them to have unrealistic expectations about what it’s like to stay at home. They may also have fewer support networks than their women counterparts.  As such, there’s a high probability of feeling isolated from the outside world — which can quickly lead to resentment if left to fester.

Make open communication a priority.

Given traditional social expectations of men and women, you may encounter tension with your partner over the subject of work and finances. In some cases, your partner may be envious or even resentful of your success.

Needless to say, this can be toxic for your relationship. Oftentimes these feelings are rooted in something deeper, like insecurity, fear or shame.

Defuse this tension by communicating openly.

It’s important that each spouse feels like an equal partner in the relationship.

For optimal communication, consider scheduling regular weekly “family meeting” check-ins as open forums to discuss feelings, concerns, and needs.

Set expectations that this a safe time during the week to bring up topics that may be challenging.  But it doesn’t always have to be challenging – you can also spend time taking turns reviewing wins and successes.

Challenge #4: The need to save more now so you can step back later to take time off or start a business

As women, we are often the ones who take time away from the workforce to raise kids and care for aging parents but as the primary income earner, this is not as simple as just taking an extended leave of absence.

Providing the lion’s share of your household’s earnings means that taking time away from work — whether for family obligations, to pursue entrepreneurial aspirations, or just to improve your quality of life — requires significant consideration and financial planning.

Identify your long-term financial goals and then reframe them into smaller, more manageable steps.

Saving now, so you can take a step back in the future may feel like an impossible goal regardless of whether or not your partner assist in contributing to them.

To prevent yourself from feeling overwhelmed, reframe your goals as smaller, more digestible ones. For instance, if you want to take a 9-month maternity leave, consider calculating the total cost of your leave and divide it up over a 12-36 month savings target.  ([Total take home pay / 12] X 9 months. Then divide this number by the number of months you have to save). This is often a great way to “practice” paying for childcare as the amount you need to save monthly usually is right around the amount child care will cost.

Alternatively, consider consulting a professional for financial planning services. A Certified Financial Planner® can act as an objective voice of reason in helping map out your priorities and reduce your financial stress.

Challenge #5: Balancing future needs/goals with current needs/goals

When it comes to decision-making, it’s often difficult to strike a healthy balance between our current needs/goals and our future needs/goals. For example, our future self may want to retire early and fill our free time by working on passion projects, while our current self enjoys a full social calendar, lots of eating out, and traveling outside of the country as often as possible.

This can be extra challenging when your long-term goals differ from your partner’s

Fortunately, we don’t have to choose one over the other. In fact, there is one strategy you can begin using immediately as a couple to help your current self enjoy life now while still setting your future self up for the life you envision.

Embrace visualization.

Research has suggested that preparing for our future needs and goals is difficult because we are missing a psychological connection with our future self.

In fact, neurological studies have found that our brain activity when thinking about our future selves closely resembles the thought patterns observed when thinking about other people. One way to address this disconnect between the present and future is to simply visualize your future self as an important person that you want to impress — since visual information is typically much easier to grasp than abstract concepts.  You can use this concept in visualizations together – what do you want for you as a couple in the next 5 years or 10 years?  How does it jive with your individual goals? Do you want eachother’s goals to succeed?

Conclusion

Financial stress is a given for anyone in a breadwinning role, but it can be exacerbated by family dynamics like money history, personalities, and communication challenges.  Prioritize your well-being by acknowledging the aforementioned challenges and using one or more of the strategies to manage your stress, prevent burnout and help you find more peace of mind.

What’s your favorite outlet for relieving financial stress?

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