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Should there only be one breadwinner in the family?

An interesting post states that from a rational, economic standpoint, there should only be ONE breadwinner in a family, not two:

While many will argue that the theory of Comparative Advantage is too simple to hold for such complex systems as global economics, they do hold true on a smaller scale – such as within the system that is a family.


If we look at a family as a system, we have to agree that the parents are what allow a family to continue to function.

They make money.

They take care of the children. They take care of the home.

They purchase goods for the family, as well as feed and clothe the members of the family.

Without parents, there is no family.

The parents play a vital role because they make sure that the family stays both healthy and happy.

For this to happen – minimally – the parents have to do only two things: make money and raise the children.

The article goes on to state that one parent should make money and the other should raise children (whether it’s the father or mother is up for debate).

The other point the article makes is that since women TEND to be penalized for being mothers, and make less money then men (unable to climb the career ladder), it makes rational sense then, that men should be the breadwinners to do what they (on average) do best: make money and women should stay at home and raise the children.


Think about it — the cost of daycare is prohibitive, at around $1200 – $1500 a month, it’s really quite expensive to go to work and leave your child with someone else.

Unless you are making MORE than the cost of daycare and possibly a second car, gas, car insurance and so on to actually work, it may be cheaper to have one parent stay at home.

Men also do make more money, but that’s partly because women choose lower-paying fields to work in, don’t negotiate as often as they should, and they’re also kept at lower wage levels due to systemic discrimination that’s baked in and ingrained in the mindsets of (almost) every company and its leaders.

Still, men DO make more money than women overall.

Ergo, men should be the ones working and the women staying at home.

Logically, it all makes sense.

(Not Baby Bun, but he is JUST as adorable! I love this Flickr photoscream by Wesley Armson)


Pursuant (look at me and my fancy words!) to the argument above, I think one major factor missing from all of this is how well-off or educated a mother is.

I am not going to talk about fathers staying at home because I’ll assume that we’re following the model above, and that the father would naturally be the breadwinner as a result, so the point of contention would be whether the mother should work as well.

I read somewhere that richer mothers tend to go back to work sooner rather than deciding to stay at home, whereas poorer families with mothers who may only be able to make minimum wage, tend to stay at home because the cost of daycare doesn’t make sense.

So if you’re educated and rich, you can afford daycare/nannies and all that other stuff because you have a job that pays more than enough. If you are not educated and perhaps also a single mother, the odds are stacked so high against you succeeding, it’s scary.

(Much respect to all single mothers out there.. seriously!)


Which brings me to this conclusion: the best solution would be to have parents alternate the roles and see who fits in which role the best.

Actually, this is what we’re doing — alternating the role of the breadwinner (even though technically we are each responsible for 50% of the expenses, regardless of if we work or don’t work).

Funny story: My mother-in-law when I was pregnant, told me “don’t worry about working, make HIM work and he’ll pay for everything. Just focus on the baby and taking care of him.”

I wanted to laugh because that’s not our situation at all.

No matter if I don’t work or work, I am still on the hook to pay 50% of all the expenses. He is not and has never been subsidizing or paying for me while on maternity leave or post-birth.

If one of us has to work and the other is benched or off without a contract, then that free person stays at home with Baby Bun.


If we BOTH have to work / both get contracts, then we’ll pay for private daycare.

The reason why this works is for these major reasons:

  1. I make good money and can afford to do this.
  2. My partner makes good money. Slightly better than me, if I am to be honest, but he’s also older.
  3. Either one of us can stay at home without trouble to take care of Baby Bun during the day.

If I didn’t make as good money, I don’t know if I’d feel the same way. We’d have to re-evaluate our situation.

I know some mothers might say: Oh my partner is useless. He can’t really take care of the baby, he doesn’t do this, or that, or this and that… and …[insert more babbling about how incompetent the guy is].

I don’t spout this rhetoric at all because it’s self-fulfilling.

Yes, I am a better caretaker of Baby Bun right now but it’s only because I’ve had a lot more experience than he has with a baby, seeing as I was his only parent around for the first few months of his life.

I don’t think I’m any better or worse than my partner at taking care of a child, seeing as Baby Bun is the first baby I’ve ever taken care of and held for more than 15 minutes.

I also don’t think it’s helpful or useful to say things like: Women are just naturally better at caring for children, because it makes something that isn’t true, become true.

Just like how you wouldn’t tell your child every day that they’re useless and stupid, you wouldn’t want to keep saying how awful your partner is at being a father, because he might just end up believing it, and frustrated, decide to give up and not bother.

I bite my tongue when I see certain things happen because that’s just his way of dealing with Baby Bun, and it may not be the way I would do it, but unless it’s something actually wrong (like the diaper is inside out or backwards), I don’t say anything.

I want him to feel confident that he can take care of a baby all by himself and not rely on me at all so that we’re able to alternate being breadwinners.



  • Anonymous

    This is such a tricky issue and it depends on what the families needs and wants are like Mr. Engen whose wife has MS.

    Honestly, I want to keep working. That New York Times article about women opting out and then trying to get back in but not really succeeding just scared me to the core.

    I want to have some kind of income coming in whether that is with a company or entrepreneurial. I like creating my own financial security that no one can touch. I hear so many stories in the media about women getting married and divorced, then not having any savings of their own.

    Not just in the media but irl, last year I met a woman who was going through a very nasty divorce, and when they were married, the bank account was in his name only and he locked her out of their finances during the divorce.

    She was devastated by this and it was a good thing she had a job with our company, that’s how she was surviving. My heart went out to her and I vowed that would never happen to me.

    I came across this Yahoo story of a woman who knew she wanted out but because she had a disabled child, she stayed in her marriage for twenty + years. Then got a divorce when her husband’s pension kicked in. I felt kind of sick reading this because she was basically a gold digger even though she had a disabled kid.

    Why didn’t she go to community college and go to college for 2 years, and get something simple like a CNA or nursing certification? I think CNA certs only takes a few weeks. Nurses can make good money even with a 2 year degree.

    She must have felt that she was in prison for staying married to someone that long. The whole story sickens me but when I saw that I *knew* I never wanted to be in that situation either.–the-financial-hazards-174525953.html

    • save. spend. splurge.

      This is why my finances are separate from my partners. It’s not that I don’t trust him. I put him as the sole heir and executor of my estate in trust for Baby Bun, but my money is my money until I die.

  • Robb Engen

    My wife stays home full time and looks after our two daughters, 5 and 2. She was diagnosed with MS in 2008, which meant we had to readjust our life goals. We decided to slow down and start a family right away. I left a busy career in hospitality and moved over to the public sector where the slower pace allows me to spend more time at home with her and the kids.

    I’m very much involved with raising the kids and doing household chores – going to special days at preschool and taking the kids to various activities throughout the week.

    My wife is happy staying at home for now, but I can see her going back to work at some point once our youngest is in school full time. Daycare in Alberta is about $900 per month (for one kid). Not as bad as Ontario, but still enough to make you pause and do the math.

    We’ve managed to replace her income now with the projects I do outside my day job (blogging, freelance writing, financial planning), so it has worked out well. It’s nice that I’m able to do those things from the comfort of home so I can still be with my family.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      I think you’ve made the best decision for your family and situation. The $900/month daycare is really a prohibitive cost that I can’t imagine other families covering if their spouse doesn’t make enough to even cover that. :/

  • Tania

    It’s up to each individual family but I think the healthiest is when “both” parents raise the children. I’ve seen families where the father does nothing more than bring home the bacon and it’s not pretty. It is usually an unhappy marriage. Breadwinning? It depends, as you stated and could change throughout the child’s life. As for me, no kids but I’ve always made just as much or even much more than the men in my life.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      I’d agree with this. I wouldn’t want an unfair division of household tasks either. When I go back to work, we will have to transition Baby Bun off to his father, which I foresee being a bit of a problem (he’s super sensitive / attached to me)…

      I too have always made as much or more than the guys in my life.

  • SP

    This is always an interesting question, so far hypothetical for me…

    I have a corporate job right now, and some opportunities to chase either more of the same (either in corp. or startup) or go down to a lower gear path (still v. technical and high paid by most standards, but not as high paid as other opportunities by a factor of up to 20%). The lower gear path is also more niche, and it might be a hard decision to reverse. But for kids, there is a lot of reasons it would be better, and I’d be able to keep a career with a family. Some of the other paths, I have no idea how it could possibly work.

    In short, for me it feels too risky to have one breadwinner permanently (both due to less excess cash and due to less diversity of cash flow). Alternating breadwinners is an awesome solution, but not very workable in practice for most people. I don’t know that either of us would like to give up our careers.

    But I also am surprised when fathers aren’t able to care for their kids unsupervised. It is more common than I thought, but my family is pretty egalitarian, so i just expect the men to be able to care for the babies and kids.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      I think alternating breadwinners is the best option but certainly not doable for many families (most?)

      It’s surprising but true. A lot of fathers don’t watch babies alone. Little kids maybe, but not babies. Even in the show Modern Family, an old episode was playing and Claire (the mother) basically ripped Phil (the father) a new one for “watching” the teenagers his way. One was drugged out on painkillers (I think or cough medicine, he gave her too much), the other ended up losing $900 of her friends’ cash for fake IDs, and the boy had a black eye from his father accidentally hitting him.

      That kind of stereotypical attitude in TV Series perpetuates the myth that men are incompetent at watching children.

  • Money PIncher

    Though my husband and I don’t have kids yet, but are planning to be parents, we did talk about how we should manage our finances when we start our family.

    I am lucky to be working in a place where I will be able to receive top-up during my maternity leave and will be able to take a one year non-paid leave after that and still get my job back. So it would make sense for me to stay at home with the baby for the first year.

    As for the second year, I probably will go back to work and will let the husband decide if he wants to stay at home to be a stay at home dad and take up contract work or put our kid into daycare.

    We’ve pretty much agreed that if one of us become the breadwinner, the other person will still need to work part-time so that whoever wants to be the stay at home mom / dad will still be in touch with the work-force.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      That’s a good thing, to talk about what to do when you have kids. I only wish that men had the same options without the stigma to stay at home and be the one taking that unpaid leave for a year.

      Working part time at least is a good idea.

  • debt debs

    I think it is ideal if one parent can stay at home. It requires a lot of sacrifices to make it work, and even still it may not be possible. My husband was sort of part time stay at home part time working after he lost his job. We racked up a lot of debt during that period though so it’s looking back now I’m struggling with saying if it was worth it. If we were careful with our money it might have been, but we were not budgeting at the time.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      Did you rack up a lot of debt because you didn’t budget AND weren’t aware that with the loss of a full-time income, it was making a difference?

      We are good with money, but we would both rather be working than at home. BF especially. HE wants to retire soon.

  • Kirsten

    To follow up on your reply, I’ve blogged about the tons of reasons I’d like to stay home. It started with a miscarriage which opened my eyes up to how much I want kids and how I really want to be there for them. Also, without family nearby, we have to pay for someone to watch them for years to come. We have long hours, so our kids will be cared for by “strangers” 5 days a week and only ever see us on the weekends. I just think that’s crappy. Once I had my first child, I became very disinterested in my career. I’m still a top performer at work, but I just don’t care. I don’t see it as a career sacrifice (although I know it is), and I don’t *think* I’m pretending (but might not realize what I’m in for, I grant that).

    • save. spend. splurge.

      That makes sense. For me, I really love my job which is why I am loathe to give it up, but if you stopped caring about your career as much as you want to stay at home, that’s a good motivator to want to stay at home.

      Have you ever thought about a live-in nanny? My brother did that and liked it.

  • Daisy

    I earn more than my husband but if I were to be the ONLY breadwinner we would have to sacrifice a lot of our lifestyle and I don’t think I’d be happy. Happiness and contentment counts for something in this argument.

  • AdinaJ

    This is just anecdata, but almost all the highly successful, high-earning people I know who have kids, also have spouses (male or female) who either stay home full time, or work very very flexible hours. There are a few exceptions, and they have mentioned how difficult it can still be to juggle two highly demanding careers with child-rearing, even if they have the resources for daycare or nannies, etc.

    So, at some level, I tend to agree with this theory. Of course, I disagree entirely with the proposition that it should ALWAYS be the mother who stays home. The woman might still be the lower-income partner 6 or 7 times out of 10, but it’s nowhere near 100% of the time anymore. Get with the times, people!

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure your solution would work for most couples, since most people are not (very high-earning) freelancers who can regulate their work lives to the extent you and your BF can. Taking extended leaves (outside of mat/pat leave, which can still be problematic in some professions, especially for men) will often come at a cost to career advancement. This may not be true in all professions, so YMMV.

    The other thing to consider is that not everyone is suited to the SaHP lifestyle/role. I don’t mean that they can’t do it (whether male or female), but that they dont find it as personally fulfilling as being a working parent. To ask someone who loves and enjoys their career/work to give it up, simply because they happen to be the lower-earning spouse, strikes me as extreme, unless there truly is no other way to get affordable childcare.

    Anyway, lots of food for thought. Great post!

    • save. spend. splurge.

      That’s what I am thinking too. A lot of executives, CEOs.. they all (the men anyway) have wives at home, and the women who are high-level executives interestingly enough, have nannies who stay at home rather than husbands, although there was an article from Toronto Life in this summer of 2014 that talked about breadwinner wives. I have a post on those wives coming up soon I think.. somewhere in the next few months (LOL)!

      It’s definitely difficult to make sure your child is properly cared for in a daycare or with a nanny when you are first starting out and aren’t sure what that is like.. it’s great if you can find an awesome nanny or daycare, but the chances of that… well. 🙁 I’ve seen at least 5 daycares so far and only one looked good.

      Yes that’s true. I forgot to mention that my situation with BF is really really unusual and perfect for us because we are both high-earners who have flexible schedules, but maybe a solution for those who aren’t in our position is to do telecommuting one half of the week, and the other to take the last half of the week telecommuting.

      I really think employers should think about flexible hours for work, telecommuting.. all these things to accommodate parents.

      Oh yeah. I’d agree with not being a stay at home parent. I can do it for short stints at a time but not full-time, day in, day out.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      I love this from your article:

      “Cost of work – cost of daycare + happiness from working – disutility from working > Cost of staying at home + happiness from staying at home – disutility from staying at home, then you should continue to work. If the sign flips, then you should stay at home.”

      • nicoleandmaggie

        @save. spend. splurge.: But, of course, that’s not enough! Because that’s only the point in time analysis. There’s also the present discounted value of future earnings streams (aka, lost of human capital), benefits, RISK of having only one breadwinner and losing skills, etc.

  • femmefrugality

    I think that women staying at home for the sake of the argument of the original post only furthers the social injustice of the pay gap. While skipping maternity leave has absolutely nothing to do with that gap if we look at countries and their practices on both fronts, completely abstaining from the workforce does. If you want to stay home, by all means do so, but don’t do it because men earn more. Otherwise we are saying it’s okay, and women will never be treated as equals.

  • Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life

    Both of my parents worked big time corporate jobs during my childhood, but I think because they were both high enough up on the ladder, they were able to negotiate a lot of personal time. Even though we had a full time nanny, my parents were at every performance, every game, every everything. I can’t imagine them being much more involved than they were. I kinda had it all 🙂

    • save. spend. splurge.

      LUCKY. My parents never came to anything, because my mom was not working but going to school full-time, but my dad was part-time and had plenty of time but always disappeared for most of the day and left me alone with my siblings. You’re lucky you had such involved parents.. I want to be just like that. Not overly involved, mind you.

  • Alicia

    I’m the main breadwinner in our household, and that has definitely come up in discussions we’ve had recently about planning the future. Considering I have top-up to 95% of my salary for at least 4 months, then it becomes a question after that point if I go back to work. The way our careers are set up, he will likely always be the trailing spouse, because my field is more specific… so I need to take what I can get that’s a good job.

    I do like the idea of an alternating breadwinner situation, but when I make double what he does, and even if he does get raises, the disparity won’t get any smaller… it looks like we’ll be bucking the trend a bit and have the father staying home.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      You’d be the breadwinner wife. Why not? If he loves kids.. I say go for it. I’m going to see how BF deals with being with Baby Bun full-time. I think he feels like it’s easy but it really isn’t… Some days are easier than others, other days you just lose it.

  • Charlotte

    I like the idea of being alternate breadwinners so that both parents get a chance to keep working and take care of the child. I’m not sure how well this would work for individuals who don’t have contract work, however. You’ve brought up some very good arguments here and I think it really depends on every family and what’s best for them. Right now I’m single and don’t have a kid so I don’t have a whole lot to contribute to this discussion…what I believe now might be very different from my reality in a few years!
    Great post, SSS.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      Trust me, if you do have kids, it will come up. I had a single friend go on a blind date, and before she went on it (or was it after?) the guy brought up this topic right away, saying: We have high-powered careers, who stays at home?

      She said: We both make it work because I love my job.

      He never called her back.

  • SarahN

    I think the problem with some of the women/earning capacity and the ‘going backwards’ with childcare costs – it doesn’t factor in the costs of not working, and trying to get a job all those years later, and not being able to get anywhere near as much, as your skills might be dulled/aged :p So, irrespective if I end up at net $0 for childcare, I’ll probably still do it, pay for childcare and work. but we’ll see

  • Louise @ Good Financial Choices

    I vote for Alternating Breadwinner Status… although I don’t think there only needs to be one breadwinner at a time.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      Hear hear. BF tried desperately to get a contract but he may not see anything until end of the year, or early next year.. so in the meantime, I told him to enjoy Baby Bun.

  • Kirsten

    Some interesting arguments here. One thing that wasn’t brought up is how many men feel about the prospect of staying home.

    When I realized during the late stages of our pregnancy with baby #1 that I might actually like to stay home, I ran a bunch of numbers. But we couldn’t do without my income. I made 50% more than my husband (I was an aerospace engineer at NASA – so I fit your highly-educated-woman bill). I gingerly approached him with the idea that he could stay home but his response was “no way”. I think he’d like to do it and would be fairly good at it, but his problem is in what others would think.

    If you ask me, that’s a stupid reason to pay $20k a year in daycare costs 🙂

    • save. spend. splurge.

      Holy brains 🙂

      I do have to ask though, if the tables were flipped, would you have said: “no way” to staying at home the way your husband did? I find this interesting because a lot of men don’t expect to be the ones to stay at home so they don’t think about it, whereas I find some women tend to quietly sacrifice their careers for the sake of their children/family and stay at home, or pretend to want to stay at home.

      Not that I am saying you are pretending or wrong for wanting to stay at home, I am just wondering what your reasoning was to decide to stay at home (or try it, at least).

      Honestly, men shouldn’t feel threatened or penalized for wanting to stay at home with their kids. I’d switch it around and call it “early retirement” 😉 😉

  • NZ Muse

    I just finished reading The XX Factor, which actually covers off the same points about careers/childcare for high earning vs low earning women.

    For us there is no obvious answer – I earn more but not enough to support a family. He’s great with kids and cooking, terrible with housekeeping.

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