Financial Planning

When Mom is the Family’s Primary Breadwinner

Working mother walking outside with smiling daughter

Fifty years ago, only 12 percent of US families had a woman as primary breadwinner (earning more than 50 percent of the family’s income). That number today is nearing half (42 percent) and continuing to climb.1 The current gender breakdown of bachelor’s and master’s degree recipients skews decidedly female (60/40), and women now hold more than half of all professional/managerial jobs and own 30 percent of all private businesses in this country. 2

In fact, nearly all income growth in the US over the past 15-20 years is attributable to women—while men have seen flat or even declining incomes. By around 2028, the average American woman is projected to earn more than the average man. 3 The transition from stay-at-home mom to independent working woman and now primary family breadwinner has been a remarkable evolution.

Relationship dynamics and communication

As women continue to climb the economic ladder, the nature of the financial management and caretaker roles within the family also need to evolve. For that to effectively happen, however, a great deal of open and honest communication must occur. It’s vital that you and your spouse be on the same page financially—especially since men and women tend to have widely different values, priorities and practices when it comes to money.

You need to be able to count on your spouse, so don’t fall into the common trap of avoiding these types of conversations out of fear of injuring their ego or pride. There’s no question that financial conversations can sometimes be awkward and uncomfortable. Having a clear understanding of your total financial picture and creating a basic saving, spending and investing plan that you both can live with, however, will help head off future conflicts and minimize the likelihood of unexpected and unwelcome surprises.

The need for more thoughtful planning

Advanced degrees and demanding careers mean that a greater percentage of women are delaying major life events such as marriage and having children. According to Pew Research, fewer than 20 percent of 18-29 year-olds are married today compared with well over half of them (59 percent) in 1960. Two years ago (2016) marked the first time in our nation’s history that women in their 30s gave birth to more children than those in their 20s.4

How does this impact your financial plan? As the earning and economic power of women continues to rise, it’s even more important for your voice to be heard at the financial planning table. Delaying milestones like marriage and children can help you save early in life for important goals such as college funding, retirement and long-term care. It can even provide you with the flexibility to take a couple of mid-life sabbaticals for a year or two. But to achieve these dreams, you need to focus on planning early on.

Realize that your time is worth considerable money and start prioritizing those tasks—such as taking an active role in financial planning—that will benefit your family most. You may want to consider hiring childcare providers, a cleaning service and/or meal delivery service to free up additional time.

Even with help, however, time management can at times become overwhelming. That’s why you need to be confident that you’re working with a trusted advisor who values open, honest communication. Too many advisors still focus their attention and direct their conversations toward the male partner in a couple, overlooking the importance of the entire household.

Women have unique financial challenges—from longer life expectancies (which require different retirement planning considerations that may run counter to your more conservative investment inclinations) to a different emphasis on planning priorities. Make sure you’re working with an advisor who understands the multitude of pressures that women breadwinners face and is supported by a team who can relieve the time and stress involved in making and implementing financial decisions.

Whether you’re interested in learning more about a specific financial topic, want to discuss a new financial challenge or are seeking advice on ways to impart strong financial values to the next generation, the key is to start getting more personally engaged with your advisor.

Even if you and your spouse opt to divide household and financial responsibilities, you can’t afford to be in the dark about where and how your money is invested. There have been far too many instances of women not fully realizing the amount of investment risk in their portfolio until they’re suddenly faced with an emotional or financial crisis. It’s your life, your future and your money. Now is the time to get more actively engaged with it.

Get more involved in your financial plan 

Your SunTrust Private Wealth advisor can help you become more engaged with your family’s financial plan.

1 Center for American Progress, December 2016

2 Center for American Progress, The Women’s Leadership Gap, 2015

3 Brookings Institute, Social Mobility Memo, 2018

4 U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 2017

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