Nov 30, 2022

The Breadwinner Dynamic: Achieving Balance & Equity in a Financially Disparate Partnership

Nov 30, 2022
Leigh Shimamoto – JD, CFP®
Wealth Architect
Many of my clients earn significantly more money than their partners. In my work, I’ve witnessed relationships fraught with tension over this. It can breed insecurity, resentment and power struggles. I’ve also had clients who have worked out a healthy balance and mindset. They’ve successfully done (and do) the work to maintain their version of a fair and equal partnership, despite unequal incomes.

As a wealth advisor, a mother, and a wife who earns more than her husband, I’ve found this interpersonal aspect of finance fascinating. I dug into it more to better understand how those of us in such scenarios can best set ourselves up for success. Based on research, my clients’ stories and my own personal experiences, I’ve deduced five fundamental elements that help couples effectively navigate the “breadwinner dynamic.”

1. Establishing top priorities and values in your partnership

It’s always been really important to me and my husband that we feel like we’re truly in this together; that we’re actively collaborating to achieve our shared vision. Before we could start building toward that vision, though, we needed to figure out what it was. For us, we discovered that outlining our highest priority goals together was a critical first step; then, we were able to determine how each of us would best contribute to those goals.

I encourage my clients to do the same by setting aside time to clearly lay out what their main objectives are in their partnership and lives and then identify what resources are needed to make it happen. I suggest they talk through which major purchases they hope to make and when (e.g. buying or renovating a house or vacation home, starting a new business, supporting family members, investing in their portfolios) and what lifestyle they envision for their children, if they have them or plan to (e.g. private school and/or college, summer camp, family vacations, expensive extracurriculars, a certain type of neighborhood, lots of hands-on time with one or both parents).

Alternatively, if your priorities don’t include many major purchases, but rather, maximizing time spent with each other and/or on passions outside of work, that will require less income and more schedule flexibility. If one of you wants to start a new business or go back to school, you can discuss whether it makes sense to add that on top of your day job or resign. Consider whether you are both comfortable with the financial responsibility resting primarily with one partner. These are just some of the topics you might touch on when establishing priorities.

2. Divvying up responsibilities

In partnerships where one person is earning all or most of the income, it’s not uncommon for that person to develop resentment as “the only one working” and for the lesser-earner to feel inadequate or overly dependent. Try changing that narrative by creating a system to equalize the workload as much as possible. Now that you’ve laid out your priorities, how can each of you best pitch in? 

There are endless ways to divide and conquer; the idea is to come up with the right formula that works for your unique circumstances. You might conclude that you’d most benefit from two full incomes–generating more money, but leaving you with less time outside of work and possibly necessitating a budget for housekeeping and childcare. Or perhaps it best serves you to have one partner leave their job or work part-time to take on those logistical duties themself–contributing their time, rather than income. 

Since I work more hours than my husband, I don’t have the same bandwidth outside the office that he does, so we agreed that he would be the one to prepare most family meals and drive our son to and from school. This was a huge relief for me, but I felt guilty sometimes. When my husband told me he was the only dad among moms volunteering at school one day, gender stereotypes gnawed at me…I’m the Mom, I should be cooking and carpooling and serving on the PTA. I had to come to terms with the fact that I simply couldn’t be the best mom I could be if I was running myself ragged trying to do everything. For our family, optimal division of labor meant my husband taking on more childcare and household tasks and me learning to let go of them. 

3. Financial ownership for the lesser-earner   

All of the expenses don’t have to fall on the breadwinner. You can share financial responsibility by having both partners put a percentage of their respective money into one account, from which you can fund shared expenses. I’ve noticed that assigning specific financial categories to each partner can be particularly effective, so that each has their own areas to oversee. Having agency over designated financial decisions can make the lesser-earner feel more empowered and their financial contributions more apparent.

Here are some examples of how some of my clients have divvied up their expenses:

Home mortgage Utilities
Vacation accommodations and activities Flights
Child’s school and necessities Child’s extracurricular activities
Restaurants Groceries

Splitting finances and responsibilities can get complex, especially when you have children. It helps to get a third-party involved, such as a Certified Financial Planner™, to make recommendations and guide your financial choices. Planners can also help bridge communication gaps and develop a structure that fits your needs. 

4. Mutual decision-making

For a lot of couples, the breadwinner often becomes the default decision-maker for spending. While I understand this inclination, I think it can be dangerous territory. It’s advisable that both parties get a say in decisions that affect the partnership and family. Among my clients, I’ve observed how meaningful it can be when the breadwinner makes a point to solicit their partner’s opinions and invite them into our financial planning conversations.

In cases where one partner has minimal or zero income, some of my clients have found success with an “allowance” system to help level the power dynamic and workload. With that money, the recipient is responsible for handling the household budget and logistics and ensuring everything runs smoothly. If you think of the breadwinner as the family CEO, then their partner might be seen as the CFO/COO, a vital role that naturally comes with decision-making. Duties might include taking care of the bills, home upkeep, grocery shopping, children’s expenses, scheduling, and so on–a demanding job and major contribution to the (likely time-strapped and energy-depleted) CEO. I recommend having a conversation about which types of decisions you two feel should be made jointly and which ones you’re comfortable deferring to one spouse or the other.

5. Check-ins and recalibration

Your goals and how you go about reaching them will change over time. This isn’t a one-and-done conversation, but an ongoing journey requiring regular check-ins and adjustments. My clients’ priorities shift all the time and I’m there to guide them and help them pivot along the way. We can’t always have every item on our wishlist, but being intentional about that and collaborating as a team and with a planner on the big financial decisions can give you the assurance that you’re doing the most with the resources you have.

I’ve found from personal experience that being as transparent as possible with your feelings, expectations and what’s on your plate can prevent those negative feelings from creeping in. If you’re overwhelmed, I’d urge you to express that right away. Try to avoid bottling things up or “keeping score.” In short: it’s all about open communication.

Consider putting time in your calendars – maybe it’s once a month or once a quarter – to reconvene, discuss how things are going and go over your high-priority to do’s. This doesn’t have to be a dreaded chore; you can make a nice routine out of it–perhaps it’s Sunday mornings on the patio over coffee. Reviewing what each person is working on highlights the effort the other is putting in. I believe that awareness of what’s going on in your partner’s world can foster a shared sense of responsibility, as opposed to one person feeling like it’s all on them. It can further provide an opportunity for swapping ideas and offering to help each other out. You might also use this time to periodically reevaluate your priorities, well-being, the division of labor, your pace toward reaching your goals and if anything needs to change.

When there’s a major income difference, maintaining a thriving relationship and family ecosystem is absolutely doable with a concerted effort. Try to keep in mind that money itself is not the end goal. Money is one valuable resource, of many, that can help us get to what we’re really seeking: fulfilling lives doing the things that bring us and our loved ones the most joy.


Further reading/listening:

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