He Makes the Money, She Spends It
These next three sections describe different household money management models with specific issues and challenges tied to the question of which partner serves as breadwinner. It's another area of marriage, like the legal status of women, that remains in confusion and flux after decades of intense change.
Today, 61 percent of married women work outside the home. That means 39 percent of married women do not. Their reasons for staying home vary. Perhaps a woman is unable to find a job, or she and her spouse made a joint decision that she stay home to care for children or an elderly relative, or the husband earns sufficient salary for the household.
Regardless of the specific reason, in this first model the household depends primarily on the traditional family structure of a single male breadwinner.
The past century has seen a huge increase in the number of married women working outside the home. According to the U.S. Census, between 1955 and 2005, labor force participation by married women rose from 30 to 61 percent, with the largest change occurring between 1970 and 1990.
Despite the fact that the number of households where the husband earns all the family income while his wife stays home is now a minority, the cultural stereotype that extols its virtues remains in place.,p>At its least accurate or helpful, this stereotype paints a picture of a hardworking husband slaving to bring home the bacon, while his self-indulgent wife spends her time thumbing through catalogs to find ways to spend his money. This negative slant on the single male breadwinner household, if it ever existed outside of classic TV sitcoms, is archaic and yet it persists. Why?
In part, it's because America's cultural perceptions on personal economic matters often lag far behind the financial realities of the majority of its citizens. For example, the fact that real household income has not kept pace with inflation for the last two decades is rarely factored into discussions about why people don't save more. It's also not helpful that money (like sex) has long been considered a taboo subject for polite conversation, even within families.
The issue here is not whether men and women should or shouldn't desire the traditional model of the single male breadwinner. The problem lies with the negative consequences that stem from setting up a family money system that doesn't reflect the financial realities by which husbands and wives actually live. Two common mistakes that result from this disconnect between reality and fantasy are:
• Mistake 1: Handing over the purse strings to the primary breadwinner
Ignorance is not bliss. By not fully engaging in the family finances, a stay-at-home spouse can set herself up for hardships, such as a husband's extravagant spending outside of her purview. Both partners should attend meetings with insurance agents, accountants, financial planners, and lawyers. Nonworking wives should also look over monthly bank statements and credit-card bills. Couples should also make a list of all bank and brokerage accounts and insurance policies and keep it with other important documents, such as wills and medical directives.
• Mistake 2: Losing your (financial) identity
The woman who doesn't bring home a paycheck can make the mistake of not establishing credit in her own name. The reality is that after not having your own individual credit cards for a period of six months, credit bureaus are unwilling to calculate your credit score as an individual. This leaves a spouse vulnerable to having no credit identity when she's on her own due to divorce or death of a partner. It is considered wise financial planning for each spouse to maintain separate credit cards regardless of who makes the money.
A Changing Money Model
The number of mothers working outside the home is now trending downward. According to the U.S. Census, married mothers of infants working outside the home (part time, full time, or looking for work) peaked in 1998 at 58.7 percent and decreased to 53.7 percent in 2004. The number of working mothers of older children, which stood at 63 percent in 2000, fell to 60 percent in 2003.
The consequences of being rigidly tied to outmoded stereotypes for household money management can be negative for the breadwinner, too. In a 2008 online survey of 74,000 men and women on the subject of work, a quarter of the men in the survey said their wives were not working outside the home. Of these respondents, 40 percent said he wished his wife did. Of the approximately 75 percent of men whose wives worked outside the home, only 5 percent said they wished she was at home.
These data support a reality that marriage therapists see in their offices on a daily basis: Many men are harboring unexpressed feelings, including resentment, about handling the lion's share of breadwinning duties. One reason for their reticence to express such feelings and thus clear the air and come to a more satisfactory distribution of marital responsibilities is the traditional view of marriage in which the man must shoulder the sole responsibility for earning the household income.
These issues may end up being settled by the changing economy, which is once again making it necessary for both partners in the marriage to contribute to household income just to make ends meet.