Nearly a decade ago, I graduated from college and started a career in state government and public policy. I had resigned myself to the fact that my career would likely be a personally fulfilling one, it certainly wouldn’t be a lucrative one, as I’m sure others who work in public service can relate to.
But like many post-grads, it only took about five years to realize the field I started in wouldn’t be the one I stayed in. And alongside my full-time job, I began to grow a flourishing freelance writing business.
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Over the next few years, my writing income exceeded the income at my full-time job several times over, I left my job to run my business full-time, and I got married. And like millions of other women in the United States, I out-earn my husband.
The numbers on female breadwinners
The data shows I’m not alone in being a female breadwinner, but you might be surprised just how little progress has been made.
According to the US Census Bureau, 29.2% of women out-earned their husbands in 2019, which is nearly double the 15.9% of women who earned more in 1981.
But here’s where the data gets a bit strange. While it seems like we’ve made a lot of progress over the past four decades. But the numbers haven’t improved at all over the past decade. In fact, the percentage of women out-earning their husbands in 2019 was exactly the same as it was in 2010. And the rate actually declined from 2018 to 2019.
And considering the staggering numbers of women who left the workforce during the pandemic, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the numbers decrease yet again.
How income disparities affect marriages
It’s no secret that there are some structural hurdles that make it more difficult for women to earn more. In 2021, women still make 82 cents for every dollar that a man earns. And the disparity is even greater for women of color.
But the stagnant numbers on female breadwinners likely aren’t solely because of the wage gap and may have something to do with the backlash women tend to face at home and in their social circles when they earn more than their husbands.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m incredibly privileged to have a husband who is fully supportive of my career and proud of what I’ve accomplished, both financially and otherwise. And I also know that many women aren’t so lucky.
In general, mens’ self-esteem takes a hit when their partners succeed, according to data from the American Psychological Association. Women’s self-esteem, on the other hand, is unaffected by their partner’s success or failure.
And in the case of income disparities, the effects can be even more drastic. Marriages where the wife earns more than her husband are statistically more likely to be less satisfying and more likely to end in divorce. Similarly, men were more likely to cheat on their partners if they were financially dependent on them.
And for women, the pressure doesn’t just come from husbands. A study by Pew Research found that a large majority of people believe that it’s important for a man to financially support his family to be a good partner. But less than half of people felt the same way about women.
Marriage with a female breadwinner
Reading the data above, it’s easy to imagine why there aren’t more female breadwinners. And if I’m being honest, I’ve read the statistics and have wondered whether my career success would take a toll on my own marriage.
But women don’t have to choose between career success and marriage bliss. Here are a few things couples can do to help prevent income disparities from taking a toll.
Celebrate your success together
The data around female breadwinners makes it easy to feel that we should be embarrassed to earn more than our husbands or should hide it.
I say, do the opposite. Celebrate it. And celebrate it together.
Make a concerted effort in your relationship to celebrate every win, whether it be a raise at work or a major project that your partner completed successfully. Celebrate the financial and non-financial wins alike.
In my own marriage, it’s been easy to celebrate our financial success because of the impact it will have on our future. My earnings are allowing us to reach our financial goals more quickly, which is something we’re both excited about.
Treat everyone’s time as equally valuable
One of the most important guidelines I’ve tried to maintain in our home is that when we’re off work, it doesn’t matter who brings home more money or gets paid more for their time. In our home and our marriage, our time is equally valuable.
So what does this mean? When it comes to housework, for example, income doesn’t make a difference. We’ve already talked about how in relationships where women make more, they also end up doing more of the housework than women who earn less than their husbands.
I was determined that wouldn’t be the case in my marriage, and luckily my husband makes that easy. But I’m also careful not to create a disparity in the other direction. Just because I bring home more money doesn’t mean I shouldn’t also be contributing just as much around the home.
Share in the financial decisions
My husband and I have shared finances, which means that as soon as the income arrives in our bank account, it no longer matters who earned it. It all goes toward paying our joint bills and funding our financial goals.
Not only does all of our income go toward funding our life together, but we also decide together what we’ll spend it on.
This was particularly important to me because I’ve been in a marriage where I was on the other side of the equation. In my first marriage, my husband earned significantly more than I did. And when it came to setting financial goals and planning our spending, he reminded me of it.
Whether it’s choosing the next apartment we’ll live in, planning a vacation, or deciding what long-term goals to save for, our financial decisions are all joint ones.
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This one piece of advice can apply to just about any hurdle a couple might come across in marriage: Communicate.
It’s been important to my husband and I from the start that if there’s an issue arising, financial or otherwise, we bring it up early to prevent it from growing into a bigger problem.
Money is certainly one of the topics we communicate often about (though if you ask my husband, we probably communicate more often about money than is necessary, which all of my fellow budgeting nerds will understand).
So far, our open communication has helped to prevent money from becoming a sticking point in our marriage.
Enlist the help of a professional
I truly believe that every female breadwinner deserves to have a supportive partner cheering her on. But I also understand that’s not the case for everyone. And in relationships where the income disparity has become a major issue, a professional can help.
A marriage therapist, financial advisor, or couples money coach can help you and your partner wade through some of the deeper issues around your marriage and finances.
If your income has become a source of contention in your marriage, it’s important to remember that your income isn’t the problem. It’s okay to celebrate your own success while still working to address the problems that may be popping in your marriage related to it.
Author is not a client of Personal Capital Advisors Corporation and is compensated for the content contained in this article.
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