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.

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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.

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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.

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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.