When She Makes More Money: Adjusting to an Unexpected Financial Change

How to deal with the emotions and anxiety that may arise when women become the family's sole breadwinner

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Ask the experts and opinions will vary on the psychological and emotional effect on spouses, when one has a significantly larger salary — or the only salary in the family — especially when that partner is the woman and when couples encounter these unequal circumstances unexpectedly.

I vividly remember a tearful conversation I had with a young woman during the height of the recent recession. A working woman and mother of two, she came to me seeking a listening ear. Her husband had been laid off several months earlier and she was struggling with a very new type of pressure: that of the sole breadwinner. She had always planned to have a career and contribute financially to her family, but she didn’t ever think she’d be responsible for everything.

This scenario has become increasingly common for women, particularly since men lost twice as many jobs as women did during the recession. Other economic shifts, including women’s advancement in the workforce, are also changing the traditional breadwinning roles in many marriages. The average annual income of working women has increased 74% over the last 30 years, and females now make up 52% of all employees in managerial roles.

(MORE: Postponing Retirement: Will You Have to Work Forever?)

What does that mean? Working women are more likely than ever to bring home the biggest (or the only) paycheck in the family. That profound cultural shift has fueled endless national discussions about men, women, money and power — a debate that was reignited further just yesterday, with the release of journalist Hanna Rosin’s much anticipated book The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, which examines women’s rise to the top.

As Rosin notes, however, for many working women, including the young mother I spoke with, there are any number of mixed emotions and anxieties that come along with that ascendance. There’s a subtle but important distinction between contributing to the family bank account and accepting full accountability for putting dinner on the table: the woman I counseled was not only concerned with how her family’s budget might change, but she was also spilling over with fear and quite a bit of self-doubt.

Many women may similarly regard their role as financial head of the household with unease and discomfort, regardless of the amount of responsibility they have at work and in their personal lives. My friend’s story is just one example, but research continues to show that in general, women are much less likely than men to feel confident about meeting financial goals overall and much less optimistic about their own financial futures.

(MORE: Stay-at-Home Parents: Six Money Tips for Families Shifting to One Income)

For families who are moving from two incomes to one, there are steps they can take to help make appropriate budget adjustments (see my previous column on that issue here). The emotional aspects of one partner unexpectedly becoming the sole provider, however, can be more complex. Here are some helpful tips for dealing with the change:

Be honest. If you’re experiencing intense feelings or struggling emotionally with your new breadwinning responsibility, be open with your spouse. He may also be working through his own emotions after a job loss or career change.

Have a plan before you talk. If money isn’t something you’re used to talking about, do some pre-planning: settle on an objective for your conversations and set aside a specific time and place that will be most appropriate and conducive to talking with your spouse and reviewing your finances.

Be assertive — and inclusive. Preparing for how the various aspects of your financial situation may change, and becoming more vocal about these decisions if your spouse was previously the primary decision maker, can help you feel more comfortable in your new role. In contrast, if you’ve generally been the spouse who handles money matters, ask your spouse about how he would like to be involved as you both adjust to your new financial roles.

Bring in an expert. Family money conversations — especially when there are strong emotions involved — can be tough, so an objective third party can be a big help in facilitating the conversation. You may consider working with a financial adviser or other trusted professional. Having short- and long-term plans in place for financial matters, and having the opportunity to be open about your feelings or concerns can help you feel more at ease as your family undergoes this financial transition.

(MORE: Kids and Money: Is It O.K. to Play Financial Favorites?)

No matter what your emotions may be about becoming solely responsible for the family’s income — whether it’s temporary or long-term — talking about it regularly will help you gain confidence as you and your spouse prepare for your financial future.

De Baca is vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial.

SAP Training
SAP Training

I thought this only happens in highly conservative regions like Asia.  This is too hyped up. Most men don't have the traditional preconception about gender roles anymore, and I'm glad. Once a man gets ticked about who is taking in more money, I always look at their sexuality and how comfortable they are about being a 'man'.  


Here is the key to fixing every household situation. Women, stop being a martyr, men start picking up the slack. The fact is that if there is a stay at home spouse they should be doing more work. Mind you not all of it. A 30 % and 60 % percent split is reasonable no matter what the gender. The difference between going to work and staying at home is that at least the worker gets a change of scenery everyday. 

As for situations were both are working full time split the chores evenly, and just not inside outside chores. Outside chores might be more back breaking, but the in door chores are more often and constant. 

Lina Merchan
Lina Merchan

In an ideal world that would be perfect, but men and women are wired differently. Women are  good at multitasking, men are not.

I am currently a scientist and sole bread winner of my home, and I do most of the cooking, cleaning, laundry and dishes. My husband helps a little whenever he remembers. He is in charge of the children and supervising their homework.

I do ask for his help but I decided that I was just faster and more efficient than him. I am happier just doing the things myself and not nagging my husband to do it. I am fine with that. Does my sister and mom approve of it? No. But after almost 10 years of marriage, I have come to realize that some times in a marriage someone will give more and at other times the other will contribute more. My husband has been out of work for 3 months and it is just recovering emotionally from the fact that he does not earn a paycheck. It would be very insensitive of me to demand that he does the chores because I work. I encourage him to do volunteer work to keep himself busy and feeling productive.

The way I deal with it, is I pray to God and ask Him for strength to do all that I have to do, while being pregnant with our third child. All marriages need love and compassion.

Hugh Jass
Hugh Jass

If you're a "scientist" then you should know that s0-called "multitasking" is a myth. What it really means is that women tend to switch from one task to another mid-task, actually taking longer to get any one task done, while men tend to focus on one task only and get that task done before moving on to something else.


Anyway, I digress.

The answer to this question is: Get used to it and get over it. Most men have an ego and it must be fed by feeling useful. The key is to get unstuck from the simplistic idea that the only way to be useful in a family is to earn money. Once that paradigm shift in thought and attitude occurs, almost anything is possible, most certain among them a happy and satisfying marriage.


I don't even think it is a stroking the ego thing. It it just men when they are boys are told they don't have to do house stuff and it doesn't translate well into adulthood. My mother did everything for my brothers and they didn't learn how to do laundry or dishes until college. In contrast a family friends taught there son's to do all kinds of chores when they were young, and as adults they actually enjoy ironing there clothes.

Lina Merchan
Lina Merchan

The problem is that most house chores take some time to be done. So it is not efficient to do them sequentially. Yes, I do a task for a few minutes before moving to the next.

For example, I can ask my children about their day while I sort laundry in colors. I then load the washer, then put a pot of water to boil to prepare pasta and while the water heats up, I can chop some vegetables. After putting the pasta in the boiling water, I can load the dishwater. When the dishwasher is full, I can saute the vegetables. I can go back to mixing the cooked pasta with the vegetables. By then the washer has finished so I can load the dryer,  all the while while I can check my daughters multiplication tables. I might cut into pieces some cooked chicken from the day before that I knew I was going to use today with the pasta.  Then serve dinner.  So in 60 minutes I had prepared a meal, done the dishes, done a load of laundry, interacted with my children, and perhaps thought about what I will pack for tomorrow's lunches. By the time I have finished eating, the dryer finishes, I get up for 7 minutes and I fold the large items, and put the rest in a basket for the little things. I can sit again at the table and talk to my family while I fold socks, underwear, pijamas and random stuff.

My husband is probably better at some things but he likes to finish one thing before moving to the next. So he would cook for 60 minutes, load the dishwasher and wait for it to be done (60 min), do a washer and dryer load (1:15 minutes), check homework (1.5 hrs) . So it just takes him much longer, so I rather do them myself.

I have worked full time since my children where born, done all the chores and I still managed  to teach my children how to read, add and substract before they learned it in school, just by maximizing the use of my hands and my tongue while I'm at home.