Does your spouse vastly out-earn you? Does it matter?

united states currency seal - IMG_7366_web
united states currency seal – IMG_7366_web (Photo credit: kevindean)

Maybe it’s your wife who’s out-earning you, a trend in the United States, where one-third of women now make more money than their husbands.

Here’s today’s New York Times Magazine cover story on the subject, by Hannah Rosin, about the new “middle class matriarchy.”

What we’re really talking about is income disparity, a proxy for the very real issue in every marriage — power: who has it, who has more of it, who uses it and some who, in a nasty fight, abuse it.

Marriage, to me, ideally means two people helping one another to shoulder their burdens, but is it anymore?

Here’s a recent blog post by a fellow freelance writer on this subject:

I realize that I don’t really want to “have it all.” Or, rather, the phrase “having it all” is different for everyone. For me, it means having a balanced life, as a writer and wife and mother and woman. A high-powered career doesn’t interest me, though I wouldn’t want to stop working completely.

Michael and I have always wanted the same, basic things: marriage, children, a house, fulfilling careers. When I was 5 years old, I wanted to be a writer. When I was in college, I wanted to be a writer. Now? I’m a writer…

But then I think about how Michael’s carrying me. How he’s carrying us. And not wanting “it all” (in the conventional six-figure sense) makes me feel guilty.

This writer says she makes about $30,000 a year, working mostly part-time.

That’s a fortune to some people, but not in many parts of the United States, unless you own your home outright, pay almost no property tax and feed your family from your own food production.

Without a significant additional income from your spouse, you’re going nowhere fast.

And husbands know it.

Her post spoke to me because my annual income for two years, also as a freelance writer, was less than $30,000. Things have improved for me since then — my income doubled between 2008 and 2009, and I’m up 11 percent over 2011, with four months’ additional earning power before year’s end.

I still earn far less than my husband — who, thanks to his newspaper union, is stuck with measly 3 percent raises year after year.

So, who’s more “successful”?

Is money our only, our most accurate, measure of worth?

Ask a teacher or those working at lower wages doing essential work…

I began writing for a living in 1978, in my final years of college. Back then, $1/word was normal pay. It was also plenty — my share of the rent was about $300/month and my only other bills were food and phone. Today, costs are way up, I want to retire, (i.e. must save a ton of dough), and many editors pay the exact same wage. Many talented, experienced writers are hustling harder than ever for less money than we made a decade ago.

But many of us, watching some of our peers hit the Today show or best-seller lists, also feel driven to make big bucks, with or without kids, because we can. Our incomes prove our bona fides as smart, ambitious, driven, feminist.

What if we don’t want to?

That’s a pretty radical statement for women daily exhorted on all sides to Do It All. As many women doing it all know, (those without 24/7 nanny care or family support), it can be a recipe for exhaustion.

We don’t have kids, (by choice), nor must we support broke parents; my father and mother are well-financed and Jose’s parents long dead.

So whatever income we scrape together is up to us to negotiate. In our early years, we had some very bitter fights over my inability to earn a lot more than I do. Now Jose gratefully accepts what I earn, even if it’s less than my income from 2000, when we met, and I had a $1,200/month client for about a year. I recently — after many tough years without one — snagged another.

It’s difficult not to feel really frustrated sometimes. We’re in our 50s, not 20s or 30s with decades ahead of us in which we want to workworkworkworkwork.

Like many people our age, and in our industry, we’re both doing our best to adapt, but we’re weary of trimming our sails or savaging one another for our stagnant/falling incomes. It’s been too easy to turn that frustration on one another.

From The New York Times:

In the first quarter of this year, per capita disposable personal income was up just 4.7 percent from four years ago. That is the smallest such gain since the late 1940s, when the number was influenced by the fall in government spending after World War II. Adjusted for inflation, the average American now has income that is 2.1 percent lower than four years ago.

Do you significantly out-earn your husband or vice versa?

How’s that affecting your marriage?

12 thoughts on “Does your spouse vastly out-earn you? Does it matter?

  1. I make the only income in our family currently. It will probably switch here in the next year when J. starts working, but I hope to find a job in London quickly.

    We decided early on that we would not think of money as “I earned it,” but that “we earned.” I have never taken the position that because I make the money, I make the decisions regarding it, and J. knows that if the situations were reversed he would not either. We make all financial decisions together, and money has never been an issue (except that even with good budgeting we often wished we had a little more of it).

    1. It’s a dealbreaker for a marriage if money gets used as a weapon, that’s for sure. Jose and I now see the money we earn as family income, but we also keep separate bank accounts and retirement funds. I think having been divorced (as we both were) makes you warier. But we’re candid about what we make, save and invest.

  2. I’m not married, so it doesn’t matter and my parents are divorced, but my dad is remarried and my mom is living in a committed relationship with a wonderful woman. Personally, I don’t think either of my parents would care one way or another; they’re just like that. Plus raising your kids and giving them an education kind of makes it a moot point.

  3. I have always out-earned my spouse, and yes, it’s been the cause of some very nasty fights over the nearly 25 years we’ve been together. But the tide may be shifting soon. I’m looking at an opportunity to go back full-time in radio, at a salary that’s less than two-thirds what I make at my current job. For the first time, EVER, my spouse would earn more than me. The responsibility scares him a bit but I’m at the point in my life where to do what I WANT to do for a living seems more important than what I HAVE to do to make a living. There’s something to be said for that kind of satisfaction, the kind that doesn’t come from a big fat paycheck. Great post as always.

    1. Glad this resonated for you…

      We’re lucky that my husband still enjoys what he does. The idea of him making anything less is too grim to contemplate as I feel I’ll lose my health if I have to make a lot more. I already feel like I am running hard enough as it is. Our ugliest fights have been him telling me to “get a job”, which, in your 50s in journalism, is extraordinarily difficult, as we well know. So I just get up every day and try to earn a little more.

  4. Great post. I currently out-earn my husband, but we’re still quite young and for the nine years we’ve been together, most of the time either one or both of us has been in school (both undergrad and post-grad). Really, if I had to wager a guess – there has only been about one year of that time where we have both been working full-time jobs! Boy was that ever glorious.

    However, I feel as though having had this experience where we have both supported each other financially while the other pursues their education has been – and will continue to be – a huge boon. It really helped cement our understanding of how important partnership, support, and balance is in our life together.

  5. I wonder if, like C and J, marrying young and supporting one another (financially and emotionally) through education (which you hope will boost your lifetime earnings) makes a difference. It must! I admire you all tremendously for your generosity and trust.

    I married the first time at 35, to a man just finishing medical training (through loans) and had to sacrifice my own career goals for a few years to his…then he walked out. Without a pre-nup, it could have been disastrous for me financially.

    I remarried last year at 54, but my husband and I are very clear about our shared financial goals and how we hope to achieve them. Knowing someone has your back, and vice versa, is huge.

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. Finding the balance is difficult, and the casual ignorance of the use of this kind of power, the unrecognised use is what causes problems for us usually. A throwaway remark that can linger, trouble, thats money for you.

  7. Thanks for your candid and thought-provoking post.

    I am the sole provider in my family; I am a high school English teacher. My husband stays at home and takes care of our two children (6 & 9). I would like him to be more ambitious, work outside the house, and earn money. He doesn’t want to work for anyone and is trying to start a business. (I consider that stubborn.)

    We don’t argue about who’s bringing home the bacon, but sometimes I feel that he’s not pulling his weight. The thing is if it were the other way around (I was the housewife), it wouldn’t be viewed as a big deal. I don’t know. I waffle on this–should I care or not care that I am providing financially for the family and not him. Marriage is a partnership. I don’t want to be tallying exactly who’s doing what (or not doing what) in the family. I go back and forth on this. I’m conflicted.

    Some people say if my husband’s at home, he should pull his weight in domestic duties then. I do more cleaning (I have higher standards of keeping house) and the food shopping than he does. He cooks more. He does the pick-up and drop-off of kids at school. He manages the kids’ schoolwork/homework. He does a lot too, but what he does is not measured financially.

    I live a different life from my friends. Their husbands are the breadwinners and don’t stay at home to care of the children. I feel like the odd one sometimes. It’s hard to be different, the “odd couple.”

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I knew this would hit hard for a few people…

      It’s very tough. Jose (my husband) and I fought a lot about this for years as he has never freelanced and I’ve spent probably 3/4 of my career working at home. I’ve had jobs, and some with a big paycheck. But was often bullied by bosses. He sees how happy I am at home, but he also knows I work my ass off! One big help was my decision to hire a maid about 6 months ago; twice a month for $115 total. I pay her. It stops me procrastinating from work by doing housework; she does a fantastic job so I literally do almost nothing in between (we have no pets or kids) and it frees me up to focus 100% on my work.

      But it also killed my resentment that he did very little around the house. He does (even working, with a long commute) do all the laundry; I iron. We split the grocery shopping and cooking.

      I think having small kids makes everything much, much harder. Their needs never stop and you’re already pooped after a long day at school. The “I want to start a business” thing is very difficult if he’s not, now, adding any cash to your income and yet you feel he’s not pulling his weight there either.

      Your statement has a lot in it: be more ambitious; work outside the home; make money. I suspect (?) if he were doing a lot more or a better job of his current duties, your feelings might soften on these. It’s between you two to define “ambitious” and how much $$$ would then offset having to hire and pay for someone to pick up and drop off your kids. Why “outside the home”? I know freelancers making $60-100k+ working at home…

      Jose knows I’m insanely ambitious (still, in my mid-50s) and that working outside our home is not usually a good fit for me, even if costs me the additional 50% of what someone else would likely pay me. (If we get Malled sold to TV, we’ll be fine.) But I’m also usually home (and relaxed) when we arrives, happy to see him, ready to enjoy dinner together…not worn out from my own commute and office politics, paying $300 a month to get to an office and an insecure job.

      My husband works his butt off as well. One thing I admire in our marriage is our shared work ethic. I’ve seen “slacker” husbands kill a marriage.

  8. Reblogged this on Intro to Extro and commented:
    A really interesting article. Reminds of a conversation I had recently with two men (in their mid-twenties) who said they wouldn’t be able to ‘tolerate’ it if their partners out-earned them!

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