Female-breadwinner model: how to make the most of it

Sun Nov 21, 2010 4:49am EST

A customer pays her lunch bill at the Other Side Cafe in Boston, Massachusetts October 1, 2009. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

A customer pays her lunch bill at the Other Side Cafe in Boston, Massachusetts October 1, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi

(Reuters) - She makes more than he does, in one out of three American households. That's a break from tradition that requires adjustments in everything from the family budget to how spouses talk to each other.

"It's a big emotional thing," says Theresa Krueg, a financial advisor in Chandler, Arizona, who outearns her husband. "The women don't always want it, they take it, and the responsibility can be difficult on a marriage."

Not that she's complaining. Krueg became her family's top earner when her husband, Jeff Krueg, decided to turn down a transfer and walk away from his travel-all-the-time job so they could spend more time together and as a family with their four children. He stayed home for a year and she stepped into a more competitive and high-paying job. Now, he's an executive at WealthTrust Arizona, the same place she works, and she still outearns him.

The Kruegs are getting more typical every day. Women are graduating from college in greater numbers than men and are also less likely to interrupt their careers to raise children for as long as they once did. So the female-breadwinner model may be coming soon to a family near you. Here's how to make the most of it.

Enjoy the cash. Dual career couples can enjoy luxuries like extra vacations, bigger retirement savings, and a nicer house. Of course, in some families, the woman is the only earner so the extra cash isn't there. But the bottom line is that a family with two wage earners in which the woman earns good money can usually afford a better lifestyle than families in which the woman doesn't work for pay or makes a minimal amount of money.

Use some of it to buy your way out of fights. In many marriages, spouses do have different standards of housekeeping. If both partners are working, it's not all going to get done, at least not without major exhaustion. Use some of that extra income to pay for housecleaning, or cooking, or lawn mowing, or whatever the job is that neither of you wants to do.

Share authority and expertise. If he's home all day with the kids, it's not fair for her to come home and complain about the way he's diapering or dispensing parental care. If one person is the career expert and the homemaking expert and the parenting expert, it upsets the balance of power in the marriage in ways that can be very detrimental. "You have to be careful that you don't turn into the boss," says Krueg. "It's not fair to say ‘you stay home and take care of the kids, but I want it done my way.'"

Upgrade her disability coverage. Women are more likely to become disabled than men are. If the family's counting on her salary, make sure you've covered it with adequate life insurance (which most people think of) and disability insurance (which most people don't.) Krueg doubled her life insurance when she became the main breadwinner.

Upgrade his retirement savings. If he's staying home with the kids or making small amounts at work, make sure the family is contributing to a spousal IRA or other retirement account for him.

Try to keep your money talks as dispassionate as possible. The Kruegs tend to discuss their budget issues with paper; she shows him the bills she's paid, they'll make a list of what needs to get paid, and so on. She also suggests that couples who feel the need to iron out financial differences should do so in the morning, over coffee, instead of at night, over wine.

Separate some money. It's good for each partner to have a separate checking account and some money that's theirs alone, says Krueg. If nothing else, this will prevent spouses from each using their debit card on the same day to overdraw the account. It gives each partner the dignity to buy something without having to ask for money. It also allows each partner to build a bit of financial security. Discuss how much you each should be able to control and spend without asking the other.

Be proud. The high-earning mom is smart and capable, the lower-earning dad is comfortable with himself, and they're both modeling good stuff for their kids. Even if you both have pangs of wanting to go back to the pin-money mom model, just suppress them and they'll pass.

Know that everything has a cost, and make your peace with what you're giving up. The 70-hour-a-week career track mom may not be around to bake cookies and dad may not bake as well as she does. She may get tougher, as Krueg says she did, from having the midnight pressures of being the main support of her family.

Get used to it. Most couples in which women outlearn men continue that way, according to a Princeton study. And despite a recent report that the post-college "wage gap" between men and women persists, there are more younger women out earning their husbands than there used to be. Perhaps in the future, the issue won't even be worth writing about.