Being breadwinner

can be stressful

Right now #2 and I are both breadwinners of our respective family units.  In case you were wondering about #2, after her FIL died, her DH got very depressed and is taking a break from paid employment.  There’s probably a bit more than that, but it’s not my story to tell.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been the sole income of the family– if you recall, DH quit his tenure-track job without anything lined up, so for a few months we weren’t sure what our income situation was going to be like until he got employed.

One of the first things I’ve noticed about being breadwinner is that I feel the need to increase my income.  Asking for raises, getting grants, taking consulting opportunities, all of these seem to be more important now than when DH is also bringing in cash.  Getting my research done and out so that I can be more attractive should we need to move takes on greater urgency.

Combined with this, I let DH take on greater responsibilities at home.  We already have a pretty egalitarian household, and when DH isn’t earning, he starts taking care of more of the daily and weekly chores, especially kitchen stuff and chauffeuring.  And I feel less guilty about him doing so.  I imagine this is how some women get shunted into home production even when things start out equivalent.  I do spend more time on our finances when I’m the only one earning, but it doesn’t make up for the time I’m no longer spending on regular chores.

I do like having DH take care of things at home, but I also like the stress of not being the only person earning money.  I think I like it best when we’re both enjoying our jobs and earning a lot of money.  I would like it least if I disliked my job but had to keep my job because mine was the only income.  My next least favorite would be being the homemaker if DH was the sole breadwinner and hated his job.  I’m not sure how I would rate hating my job vs. being a homemaker if DH was happy with his job.  I guess it might depend on how easily I could find a new job in that situation.  I suspect that I would rather have each of us make 150K than have DH make 300K with me required to make nothing.  I might prefer making 300K myself and having DH at home to either scenario though.  (Note:  I am happy to test any of these three propositions!)  Smaller dollar amounts would probably lead to different preferred combinations.

As we’ve noted before, this time we’re in a better position than last time DH stopped bringing in income.  As I look through that old post discussing what to do with finances, I am happy that we don’t have to move so much around.  There’s no mortgage to stop prepayment on.  No private school to save tuition for, no mother’s helpers to pay (though we do have summer camp and daycare throughout the summer).  No IRAs to fund (though if DH’s jobless situation continues, I will be eligible to contribute again).  And we have a nice cash cushion.  My plan is to convert this cash cushion into tax-deferred savings (by continuing to max out my 403(b) and 457, even as we dip into savings) with the thought that doing so will make us more likely to be eligible for financial aid when DC1 goes off to college.

I also don’t know how long I am going to be the breadwinner.  DH’s company is supposed to be getting back on track in July, but i’s have not yet been dotted nor t’s crossed on the contract that will put the company back to work for the next couple of years.  We can wait, as can DH’s direct boss, but much of the rest of the company cannot afford to take more than one month unpaid.  If waiting for the contract lasts too long, the company might just go under and the contract will fall through entirely.  My bread-winning this time around may end up being longer term than we had hoped.

Have you ever been the sole breadwinner of a multiple-person household?  How do things change?  Do you feel stressed?  Do you have a family income combination that you prefer (breadwinner/homemaker/dual-income, etc)?

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37 Responses to “Being breadwinner”

  1. KeAnne Says:

    DH was laid off for 6 months last year & I was the breadwinner. It was nice because we remodeled a bathroom, and he was able to supervise (took longer than anticipated) and able to pick up our son from school, which was really helpful because things were super crazy at my job at that time.

  2. Mary Says:

    We’ve always both worked. I make X, while DH makes 2X. The numerical value of X has increased over time, but our relative earnings have been pretty consistent. In theory, 3X is a more-than-comfortable amount, but we’ve made choices (very high cost of living area, private school for the kids) that eat up a lot of that income.

    The income distribution doesn’t really bother me. But the fact that DH works so many fewer hours than I do (and gets paid so much more) kind of annoys me. I mean, it’s nice that one of us only works 20 hours or so per week. I just wish it were me.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Does he do more home production stuff because he’s working fewer hours or does he do less home production stuff because he’s making more money? Or do you do equal amounts regardless?

      • Mary Says:

        That’s a hard question to answer. He does more home improvement projects and more kid pick-up/drop offs. I do more shopping, cooking, and planning. But I’d probably prefer it if our positions were switched as to work hours, so I continued to make less than DH, but had more free time and could pick up more household work.

  3. Leigh Says:

    Over the time we’ve been together, our combined income has varied from 250k up to 400k. We’ve also varied in who made more, though when I made more, it was a much smaller difference than as he has been making more lately. Personally, I think I prefer either me making more, having a small difference in income, or one of us making nothing than one of us making a far larger sum. I had a lot of feelings about him making substantially more than me in the last couple of years, which is probably also largely related to the fact that we are in the same field and I have (well before I took this year off) more experience than him. When I was making more, it was around $20-35k more than him, whereas he is making about $100k more than I have been.

    Since grad school is time consuming between classes, RA, and a conference, took on a role on our condo board (which has been consuming 10-15 hours a week right now), have been volunteering doing taxes (I was doing 1-2 shifts a week), and have been handling a substantial amount of the wedding reception planning and research, we’ve kept the house cleaner and kept similar household duties. If I wasn’t in grad school or planning the wedding reception, I probably would have taken on more of the household duties. I’m really curious to see how things end up changing if and when I find a full-time job again.

    At the same time though, based on how we share our finances, my husband isn’t really the breadwinner because I’m living off of my savings at the moment / some of his condo buy-in money if my existing runway ends or I’d rather not sell taxable stocks. When we do our June money check-in, I would like to double check that we are spending less than his base salary after maxing out his 401(k) because even if we’re not logistically living off of his income, I think it should be financially possible. (I think we are at least close to that, if we’re not there.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Does he also do a backdoor 401k?

      • Leigh Says:

        No, his company doesn’t allow it. They don’t have a safe harbor plan, so I’m pretty sure he’s going to start getting kicked 401(k) contributions kicked out in the next couple of years with how his compensation is going. He does backdoor Roth IRAs, but he started them only after we started dating, so his retirement accounts are much smaller than mine but while still healthy for his age. (He has just less than half what I do in retirement accounts.) His taxable account is really healthy to compensate…

  4. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    The last time I wasn’t the sole breadwinner for my parents-sibling family was high school. It was incredibly stressful in my early 20s and was the direct motivation for all the times I pressed for raises, promotions, and more raises. The stress peaked when I was jobless during the Recession in 2009 because I was going to be the reason that 4 people plus dogs were homeless if I didn’t manage to get a job before my savings and unemployment ran out. That was a pretty bad time. Then it peaked again just a little bit when PiC’s work situation was so bad that he considered leaving without another job, but he didn’t.

    The idea of being the sole breadwinner so that he could stay home with the kids was once appealing but now I see that neither of us would be great at being home with the kids as a full time gig. I think it’d be best if we were both part time or retired entirely *and* had a bit of help with childcare.

    I wonder what it’d feel like to only be financially responsible for the three of us.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      *hug* for younger you
      And you would not have been the reason even if you didn’t save the day.

    • Rosa Says:

      I have had several friends who were responsible for parents/grandparents/siblings, starting at a young age, and it’s so stressful. I’m glad it fueled your ambition, but things shouldn’t be so hard.

  5. Katherine Says:

    I’m the primary breadwinner right now, and have been for a few years. For the first few years of our marriage, we earned exactly equal salaries (grad school). If my DH gets a job in industry, he will earn much more than I do, and that would make me very happy.

    My salary is just enough for us to live on, which stresses me out a lot because I really want to make progress towards long-term financial goals. He seems less stressed about that but more depressed being a non-breadwinning man because our patriarchal society has socialized him to feel worthless about it.

    I would prefer making equal salaries or him making more than me, with each of us individually making enough to support the family. I love my job, so I would keep doing it even if I didn’t need the money, although I don’t think I would hate being a homemaker.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      As a female academic I am very lucky that my DH doesn’t worry his pretty head about money and is so covered in fur that nobody would ever question his masculinity.

      Yay loving your job!

  6. gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

    I have been sole breadwinner for about 20 out of 30 years of my marriage. My wife is currently employed, but makes about 10% of what I make (and our household income is not as large as many of those mentioned here—we don’t come close to $200k, and only recently have we gotten over $150k as household income). My wife did the lion’s share of the cooking and child rearing, and still does almost all the cooking (6 meals a week for the family—the rest we either prepare for ourselves or go out to eat).

      • gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

        Yes, it is nice to be able to live on one partner’s income and for the other partner to be willing to do most of the unpaid work at home—especially in California, where many couples find it necessary for both to work full time in order to afford to live here.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I was thinking more having someone else doing all the home stuff.

      • gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

        Other than cooking, we split the home stuff more or less equally. But cooking is the majority of what takes time at our house (neither of us spends much time on housekeeping), so my wife is doing more than 50% of the at-home work.

    • Rosa Says:

      that is the situation we’re in (actually, last year I made more like 5% of our household income, and we are just under $150K – which, given where we live and the headstart of not having had student debt, feels like nearly infinite amounts of money to me.)

      I do see my husband being extra stressed when I’m not working, even if our cashflow is barely affected. It’s a big part of why I work (the other part is to keep my resume up to date, and sometimes for the personal validation/social affirmation. It is SO NICE having colleagues instead of only seeing other adults whose kids happen to do stuff with my kid.)

  7. Taylor Lee @ Yuppie Millennial Says:

    I paid twice as much in taxes what BF makes in a year gross. He is going to be a SAHD when we have kids since it’ll be cheaper than daycare. Also I am the safety net for my mother and brother. I am constantly stressed about it.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Wow, that’s a big difference.

      Being the safety net for other adults must be stressful. We’re fortunate that we’re at cousin level rather than parent/sibling level with DH’s relatives who are worst off.

  8. chacha1 Says:

    Before I moved to California I lived in a two-income unmarried household. After we moved it was one income: mine. That continued for 2 years during which the other party’s side of the bargain was spectacularly unfulfilled. The relationship ended, unsurprisingly, after nearly another whole year of extremely stressful shenanigans including death threats, suicide threats, a trip to my bank where he literally stood at my back while I took cash advances on six credit cards to the tune of $30K, and eventually me paying to rent the @&%$&! moving van to get him and most of MY furniture out of the apartment and into his sister’s.

    NEVER. AGAIN. If my much-loved husband couldn’t work, I don’t know what we’d do. If he just DIDN’T work, it’s very likely there would be a divorce.

    The longest I have ever been out of work was about four months after a layoff, and I had a ten-week temp assignment during that time, and was collecting unemployment the rest of the time. Absent the kind of financial stability you have achieved, there is no room for a non-working adult in my house.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That sounds horrible! Thank goodness you escaped that relationship and have a great husband now! I feel sorry for that guy’s sister.

      • chacha1 Says:

        They kind of deserved each other. … I’ve known several people (women and men) in California with similar stories and they were the ones who did NOT ask me “why didn’t you file a police report.” They know. If you’re cohabiting with someone and they extort money from you, they pretty much get to keep that money. And of course once he had the money I couldn’t afford to move out. Stupid.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        How awful. I’m glad you’re in so much of a better place now!

  9. Linda Says:

    Yes, in my last relationship before I left Chicago I ended up being the sole breadwinner when my partner lost his job and burned through all of unemployment and limited savings in short order. I wouldn’t have minded it as much if he had been taking on more household work or projects, but he didn’t. I was not only working full time in a demanding job, I was handling all the household planning, paying for all the home maintenance chores/handyman work, doing more than half of the household chores, and doing almost 100% of the emotional labor. I just didn’t see an end to it if I stayed in the relationship, so I decided to not do so.

    Other than that one, I’ve in been in a relationship where I was not working and was doing the home care thing (I was living with a boyfriend in a country where I had no work visa), and in a relationship where we were both working and there was little to no income disparity (my marriage). I vastly prefer the latter. It’s not that I don’t enjoy doing home care type things, but I enjoy the flexibility that money gives more. Sometimes in a relationship one partner likes (or at least doesn’t mind) doing the chores the other partner intensely dislikes, or simply can’t manage. But you can’t count on that, and so it’s nice to have money to pay others to do them for you.

    As a single person, I have to do work full time to support my household (me, my dog, and my future self) and do all the chores, or make enough extra money to hire chores out. It’s stressful, but certainly less so than supporting a non-working partner who isn’t doing anything and is adding even more work and stress.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s the worst– if only one person is working in a partnership, the other one (assuming capable) should be making it easier at home. Being single definitely seems better than taking care of an adult toddler.

      • Linda Says:

        My mental antenna quivered a bit when I read the first paragraph of this post. My former partner also suffered from depression and it just got worse after his father died. I hung in for so long because I thought he just needed time to get better. He was already on meds, had regular check-ins with a prescribing psychiatrist, and was going to talk therapy regularly. When he was faced with the challenge of how to to pay for his healthcare (which he certainly needed), I ended up adding him to my plan as a domestic partner and paying for that, too. I really did a lot for him, yet when I continued to prompt him about job searching or asking for additional help around the house he’d give me the sad eyes and say he just couldn’t do that. I felt sort of heartless, but when I really sat down to think about what I was personally getting from that five-year relationship (Emotional support? No. Financial support? No. Physical intimacy or sex? Rarely. Household support? Somewhat. Companionship? Yes.) it wasn’t really enough: a warm body to sleep next to, and someone to watch TV with at night.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        #1 here, I don’t think that’s going to happen with #2– If nothing else, they can’t live in Paradise on her salary alone so they’d have to move after his savings wore out. It’s my understanding that he’s got money from stock options etc. from a previous job that are letting him take a break right now. (Plus he was breadwinner for a full year while she was job hunting!)

    • eemusings Says:

      +10000 to everything Linda said.

      The tale to our ending is that he eventually stepped up and sorted his shit out, but I will never do it again, for anyone.

  10. Debbie M Says:

    I have generally had a paying roommate or, during tough times, lived with my parents.

    My current boyfriend has been jobless three times, but I have not really had to be the sole breadwinner because he has savings and/or unemployment compensation and/or small jobs. We’re currently in this position and I’m paying for all the housing and utility costs plus one meal out per week (because he loves eating out).

    Normally he makes about twice what I do and we share household expenses 50/50, he pays for restaurants, and I pay for movies. Oh, and we always each pay for our own food. (I’m a super picky eater and he’s a snooty eater, ahem, gourmand, so it’s best if we each just cook what we like. We do occasionally share and always give each other tastes–it works for us.)

    It bugs me that I can’t afford to support us both without him having to dig into his savings, and I’ve even done some job hunting (since I’m now retired) but we both suck at job hunting and I’ve gotten super picky. If he ran out of savings, that would be very bad. We would both grab whatever jobs we could find, but I’ve heard you can’t always even get retail or fast food jobs because you’re overqualified and will quit at your first opportunity or something.

    As far has housework, neither of us does enough. I do the dishes because it hurts his back to do them. He takes out the trash and mows the lawn because he thinks the man should do it and I’ve told him I disagree, but I don’t really want to argue too much, you know? He does most of the repairing and maintenance of things because he likes to, but I help with brainstorming the problem and (if it’s the house or my car) I pay for the tools. I do laundry because I can’t stand how he does it and we like to have just one laundry rack out, which is enough for one load.

    My philosophy is that whoever has more time should do more housework regardless of money, but if you make a lot more money, of course you could hire out your chores. I’ve mostly had separate finances because I’ve just had regular roommates. With this particular boyfriend, we do better if we each control our own finances; we kind of fear a tragedy of the commons scenario. Our motivation is just better if we keep things separate.

    In my ideal world, I’m making a pile of money and whoever I’m with is making even more. But really I just want us to both be basically happy in our jobs and have enough to live on plus a few luxuries. Okay, a lot of luxuries (indoor plumbing!! electricity!! etc.).

  11. Cardinal Says:

    For the last several years, I earned about twice what my partner did, but both our jobs were fairly demanding in terms of time & mental/emotional energy. In particular, her job involved a lot of evening & weekend stuff that put demands on family time. During those years, we developed a fairly equal sharing of household responsibilities.

    About a year ago, she quit her job and, after a few months of unemployed recovery time, started a small business. She works 16-20 hours a week and brings in about 1/5 of what I do. Since then I have been shifting a lot of my household tasks to her. I still do all finances, most laundry, and all baking, but where we used to share cooking & kitchen clean-up, she now does 90% of that, plus 99% of school pick-ups, dealing with teachers, kid medical appointments & haircuts, etc., and 95% of house cleaning.

    One of the things I like best about our new arrangement is that I no longer feel guilty about whether I’m pulling my weight!

  12. Rosa Says:

    My preference would be for both of us to work part time if we’re going to sustain the level of parenting, extended family obligations, and DIY we’d prefer. We know a few couples like this and it really looks ideal. But it’s really hard to achieve – part time work that is professional or pays decently is really hard to find! And self-employed people have a really hard time containing their work hours. Or at least the ones we know do.

    Things were pretty great when our incomes were equal! But my husband loves his job and works a lot of hours by choice (def. by choice. He loses vacation time every year to use-it-or-lose-it). He’s gradually given up some of the DIY projects, though mostly they just don’t get done because he still won’t let me hire people for them or do them myself to my own satisfaction instead of his. So we have for more than a decade now done the thing where he works 60 hours a week and I work 20 or so, and now we have a big imbalance in our earnings, so it’s not going to get better in at least the near future.

    I think we even out to equal amounts of housework, if you ignore parenting work. But I do end up doing the bulk of the parenting because I’m the one who’s around. Not the important emotional parts, that’s still pretty equal. But the “be home before the school bus” “be late to work if the bus no-shows in the morning” “take the child to the doctor” “make sure permission slips are signed” parenting stuff. And of course if I made more money I’d have more persuasive power to hire people to do some of the work he’s doing.

  13. SP Says:

    We haven’t been in this situation yet. I made significantly more while my husband was in grad school, but he still contributed, and we had a fine life. For now, I like dual income. In the long run, I’d like to have a bit less (self-inflicted) pressure on my career if we have kids, but I don’t expect either of us would be a homemaker long term.

  14. Obnoxious post: things that being rich (and high income) makes easier | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] they’ve been big things like not having to worry so much about stuff, being able to ignore (or being highly focused on) work pressures, being able to pay (or not) to make big problems go away, and then being able to […]


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