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MP Dunleavey

The Basics

Survival guide for breadwinner wives

Women who earn more than their husbands are hardly rare, but that doesn't mean it's a comfortable role for them (or their spouses). Here are 3 tips to make it easier.

By MP Dunleavey
MSN Money

My breadwinner days are numbered: My husband is going back to work. I never thought I would say this, but I'll be sad to surrender my role as household chief financial officer.

It was a job I signed up for willingly three years ago -- so brave! so forward-thinking! -- but then I swiftly resented the financial strain of being the provider, the time away from my then-newborn son, the baffling changes to my marriage.

Despite the rocky start, I am proud of having been something of a pioneer in a vast new territory -- sort of like being a female astronaut.

The breadwinner wives I've interviewed agree: This job is daunting, thrilling and stomach-churning all at once. If you're doing it, you're among an increasing number of women. Here are some thoughts on how to thrive in a role that requires you to ditch tradition, trust yourself and keep a parachute handy.

Gains at work, struggles at home

How many women are a significant source of financial support for their families? The numbers are growing, says Ellen Galinski, a co-author of "Times Are Changing: Gender and Generation at Work and Home (.pdf file)," a 2008 study by the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization in New York.

Among dual-income couples in 1997, just 15% of women were earning significantly (at least 10 percentage points) more than their spouses or partners, according to the report, which relies on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2006, 26% of women were earning more.

"This is a sea change," Galinski says. A number of forces have converged, putting more women in the primary earner role:

  • Women are better educated. Women were earning 58% of all bachelor's degrees and 60% of all master's degrees as of 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

  • Men have lost more jobs. Unemployment data from January 2008 through January 2009 suggest that recent layoffs have hit male-dominated professions (e.g., construction and manufacturing) harder, leaving more women to bring home the bacon.

  • Women are profitable. Several studies indicate the presence of women in executive positions is linked to better company performance, according to the best seller "Womenomics" by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay. "The companies with the very best records of promoting women beat the industry average by 116 percent in terms of equity, 46 percent in terms of revenue, and 41 percent in terms of assets," the authors write, referring to a 19-year study of more than 200 Fortune 500 companies conducted by researchers at Pepperdine University.

All those statistics sound empowering because they focus on the gains women are seeing professionally. But they're not the whole story.

The bigger, continuing struggle for most breadwinner women and their mates is adapting to changing roles and expectations on the home front, especially regarding conflicts around household chores, child care and money.

Galinsky says that as difficult as these changes are for women, "they're even more painful for men."

Finding some sort of equilibrium emotionally and financially requires many steps and stumbles, a willingness to be creative and three essential adjustments.

1. Give up on 'Father Knows Best'

There is a belief in our society that money is power, and when your income is bigger, there's a tendency to want to call the shots. The male breadwinner model says, "You should be in charge." But this can backfire when a woman is at the helm.

"I've become the drill sergeant, and it has become a huge problem," says Jennifer Owen, a mother of two who commutes four hours round trip each day to her job as a corporate trainer in New York City. She earns more than double the salary of her husband, a former actor, who has just started a job in sales.

"When I would come home, in the beginning, I couldn't understand why he didn't have dinner done," she says.

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At times, she also resents how he spends money. "I'm working my butt off to provide for the family, so I feel that I have the authority to say things like 'You shouldn't be spending money on that,' even though I know that's totally unfair."

Taking that kind of control grew stressful for both. The solution for Ann (she didn't want her last name used), an interior designer in New York who is the primary earner in her relationship, was to define a new, more collaborative dynamic with her spouse, "so that you're not the bitchy breadwinner or the dictator."

I agree: My marriage improved 600% when I stopped trying to rule the roost. But true collaboration, I found, can't be in spirit only; partners have to find fair ways to renegotiate the balance between paid and unpaid work.

Continued: Split the work fairly

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