Women, money, and what it covers

I know — from surveys, and the comments — that the vast majority of my readers are women. Most are working for pay in some capacity. So I’m curious to hear people’s memories on what they learned about future careers and incomes when they were growing up. What advice did you families give you? How do you remember thinking about career choice, and how much you might, potentially, earn?

I have been thinking of these questions because I recently read Jennifer Barrett’s new book, Think Like a Breadwinner. (She was also a guest on the How to Money podcast this week, if people want to listen to that!)

In this book, Jennifer argues that a great many women do not grow up thinking that their personal career and money choices might determine their family’s living standards. She didn’t. She spent her younger years in fairly low-paying jobs, figuring if she was keeping up with the bills, she was OK. Then — in a dark-night-of-the-soul, middle-of-the-night crisis — she realized that she wanted to buy a home and have a second baby. Her husband, who’d experienced some recent career setbacks, wasn’t particularly poised to make that happen. Cue the angst until she discovered…oh wait. He’s not the only adult around here. She made some career moves that allowed her to earn more and create the life she wanted for her family, in the process re-examining many of the money scripts she hadn’t questioned until then.

For many women, growing up, the assumption — of what is the norm, the default — is that there will be another adult in the household who earns more. This guides all sorts of choices — of careers, of the acceptability of certain salaries, of the desirability of flexible jobs vs. ones with higher earning potential. Many men, on the other hand, grow up believing that their income, and quite possibly their income alone, could determine their family’s living standards. Sometimes this is even explicit. I know I’ve talked to a lot of young men who mention wanting to earn enough “so my wife doesn’t need to work if she doesn’t want to.” If the person is entering a job not known for high pay, he might figure out other income streams (Joel on How to Money, for instance, has talked about aiming, early on, to augment his radio business salary with rental income). I cannot recall a young woman saying that so clearly.

There is nothing wrong with the family structure where the male half of a heterosexual couple happens to out-earn the female half (I live in one such family!) The issue is that a reasonable number of families will wind up with a female breadwinner at some point, whether by circumstance or because Mom turns out to be much, much better at money-generation. When this reality bangs up against a lot of cultural conditioning, this can be jarring for all involved. I wrote, a great many years ago, about a strange “money success story” of a family accepting a reduced standard of living because they found it so critical that Dad be the breadwinner.

In any case, Jennifer encourages women to develop more of a breadwinner mindset — taking your income growth, wealth building, and career development seriously as a way to serve your family. While I found parts of the book meandering, I did appreciate that this is a not-so-common message. A lot of personal finance literature aimed at women is about cutting back (so you can work less and live on your husband’s income) or about saving up for that pair of shoes or a girl’s get-away. Some of the advanced stuff talks about saving for retirement in your company’s 401k. It’s rarely about increasing your income potential and wealth building with the goal of giving your family the life you want long before retirement.

What money stories did you grow up with? If you are female, how much weight did you give income, and the need to support a family, when thinking about career possibilities?

 

51 thoughts on “Women, money, and what it covers

  1. I grew up in a family where my parents both earned good salaries, but my mom was the main bread winner. This was in the 1970s, mind you, where I think such an arrangement was rarer than it is now. My parents also have three kids.

    One illustrative story comes to mind. I remember my dad was embroiled in some sort of office conflict. When he would discuss this, he would say, in a kind way, “Do what you will! My wife makes more money than I do!” The lesson or money story being that a dual income household made the mom and dad more secure, as well as us kids.

    I also recall my mom telling me that when we first moved to the suburban home where us kids all grew up, she often got negative comments about her job. We had a full-time nanny and my mom worked as a physician. Most other women in the neighborhood did not have traditional jobs would make comments about whether she was spending enough time with her kids, how she “felt” about having our nanny raise us, and those sort of passive aggressive comments centered around how she placed her career above her children. (All totally untrue, of course. She was and is a great mom!)

    My mom also repeatedly encouraged us kids (all girls) to have and pursue careers. While no dollars or cents were ever discussed– at least not as children– we were taught that being able to make your own way was a good way to establish independence, both in your own capabilities as a person and as someone who can provide for their family.

    1. This: “My mom also repeatedly encouraged us kids (all girls) to have and pursue careers. While no dollars or cents were ever discussed– at least not as children– we were taught that being able to make your own way was a good way to establish independence, both in your own capabilities as a person and as someone who can provide for their family.”

      My parents divorced when I was four, and we lived very close to the poverty line. We were taught that it was CRITICAL for both women and men to be economically self-sufficient. I got a job, saved money, and became a single parent by choice.

  2. I grew up with two parents who both worked full time for my early-mid childhood, though my mom dropped to part-time in late middle or high school. While working full-time, they both made good salaries (my mom not as high as my dad, but not too discrepant). However, my mom was clearly the ‘default parent’ who was called when I was sick, did most of the running around, etc. – that’s probably why she was the one to drop to part-time.

    I was always (always!) raised with the mindset of being able to support myself and my child(ren) independently if I had to. It never occurred to me to not work and being a full-time SAHM does not appeal to me now (though working less than 40 hours a week does…). I always knew I would go into the sciences with a graduate degree, so also (correctly) assumed that I would make enough to be financially independent. I didn’t choose my field for this reason, but knew it was a convenient perk, as my parents are also scientists with graduate degrees – so it seemed like a natural progression. Currently, I make a good salary (allied health at a major research hospital/university setting) and could definitely support myself independently.

    That being said, I happened to marry someone who easily makes 3x what I do and it is a really uncomfortable feeling because I could NOT support our current lifestyle by myself. (we aren’t lavish at all, but we are living within our combined means rather than mine alone, if that makes sense?) I think the narrative that I grew up with really ingrained in me the idea of not living beyond MY OWN means, even if the family means are higher. I’m not sure if this matters in any tangible way, but I do think about it often and struggle with guilt of feeling like I don’t deserve some of our lifestyle because it wasn’t personally earned by me.

    So – I think the story I was told as a kid about the importance of having my own financial independence was a good one, but I didn’t expect the guilt that came with ‘marrying up’ (financially)!

  3. I grew up with a mom who was a housewife and a dad who worked (nonstop) as a physician. My mom was a fantastic mother- nurturing, attentive, warm. My dad came to my sports events and loved me but really wasn’t very present in the day-to-day. Sometimes my mom did some part-time work but it always seemed like that was more of a hobby for her than a need. She made a lot of comments about feeling sorry for kids who were in day care etc.
    I grew up wanting to be a doctor like my dad but completely unaware really of the financial aspects of it. TV portrays doctors as a bunch of rich dudes but the compensation really varies widely, depending on specialty. I chose a lower-paying specialty that allows me more flexibility, and have chosen to work part-time. My ability to “choose” this is largely because my husband provides most of our income. We were married when I was in medical school-if I hadn’t had the security of a partner with a high income I might have chosen to pursue a more lucrative specialty myself. Who knows?
    Despite being a professional woman myself, I think I retain many “old-fashioned” ideas about what marriage should look like.

    1. Exactly. My mom told me that she picked her specialty (physiatry) in part because of the good work-life balance. She was also interested in pediatrics but didn’t want so much on-call time.

  4. This is an interesting topic. I grew up without a work or career orientation, though I knew I would go to college (my parents and grandparents were college grads, it was what one did after high school). But that began to change in my later teen years. I graduated from HS in 1976, switched my major to marketing at the end of my freshman year in college, and became very career oriented. But it was not about money as I was basically clueless about that. My girl friends ran the gamut, with me at the career oriented end, others just wanting to be wives and mothers, and every spot in between; I think that was common to our era. As I was nearing graduation, my dad did try to impart some information about earnings, pointing out that I had expensive tastes. I wound up going on to get an MBA.

    When my now husband and I got serious, we had a discussion about money and our thoughts about our planned lifestyle together. At the time we got married, I earned about 3X what he did so I was the primary earner for the family. He had no issue or embarrassment with this and always made it clear to our daughter that it was my hard work and job that made our lifestyle – the house, the travel, all the enrichment activities – possible, and she never resented that I was working though I think she still got lots of attention from me.

    From our talks, I know that a lot of my female friends had a fantasy or day dream about being able to chuck the job for an “easy” life as a stay-at-home mom with household help. I knew this would not be possible for me both because we relied on my earnings and because I liked work too much. Until one day, I wasn’t loving it so much so I retired at age 61.

  5. When I was in middle school, my dad and I worked out a budget that encompassed most of my financial needs and was designed to give me control over everything from my toiletries to my clothing to gifts for friends to my charitable giving. They would give me money each month but I had to provide an accounting of where it went. After a year of being “self-sufficient,” I was desperate to earn more money. Strangely enough, when my younger sister went on the same program, she became an epic saver.

    Even though I was raised in a house with a stay at home mom and a high earning father, I somehow internalized that if a high net worth was important to me, it was up to me to build it. I knew I wanted a flexible career and so didn’t become an attorney like my dad and I did all sorts of mental gymnastics when my kids were small and I was trying to work while being their primary caregiver. But it all paid off– I built my business while we lived on my husband’s income in the nonprofit sector and as soon as I made enough to support us, he quit and started working for me.

  6. Love this topic.
    I grew up up in a household where it was definitely my mom that had the career, although both parents worked. My dad even took a work leave of absence for 5 years when my little sister was born to be at home with us. And that was in the late 80’s.
    The messaging from my mom has always been that household finances are a team thing BUT that you (as a woman) should be able to do something to support the family. Job loss, divorce, death all mean that you never know when that one income house hold could become a no income house hold. My mom’s dad (the single earner) died suddenly when she was 17, so I am sure this largely contributed to this way of thinking.
    As an adult, both my husband and I work full time but I make 3x his salary. This doesn’t bother my husband at all. Household finances are a joint affair. I honestly have no guilty feelings about not being home with the kids. I wouldn’t be a good SAHM and life would suck on one salary. Plus I know how much time I spend with them doing quality activities and it is a lot.
    I do however live some where with government subsidized day care (it costs the parents 8.25$/day) so most families here are two income households. I don’t really feel there is any stigma about being a working mom.

  7. I’m in my mid twenties, and I don’t think my brother and I were given different perspectives on earning. Which is interesting, because my mother intentionally chose a flexible career to follow her husband, went part time when kids were young, etc, and my dad was relatively high income and career focused. I never thought of it as a woman’s role. I grew up seeing my dad enjoy his job a lot and my mom dislike her jobs, so if anything their arrangement steered me towards his career, engineering, which is now my career as well.

    I imagine that having parents divorce also influenced this perspective. I have never planned to rely on a partner for income.

  8. Very interesting discussion. I grew up in the 1980s in a very traditional family with a stay at home mom and a high earning father. I was explicitly given the message that my income would supplement that of my future family at most. I decided to pursue a PhD in English literature as a passion in part because as I graduated from college I didn’t think it mattered much that I earn a lot. This seems crazy in retrospect but made sense at the time given the way that I had grown up.

    Fast forward almost 20 years after I graduated college and I am a tenured professor with a very good salary married to another prof. I got lucky in the end, but there were a few years in there in untenured positions that did not pay well while my husband was on the tenure track and I was set to put my career second. Finances weren’t the main reason I pursued a tenured position. But one thing I didn’t expect was how absolutely amazing it would feel to earn a good salary in my own right. There is a huge amount of security that comes with knowing that I could take care of my family financially on my own if need be. My husband also comments that it takes a lot of pressure off of him that we earn about the same amount of money.

    I definitely now tell my five year old daughter that I do my job because our family needs money for our house, food and clothes as well as because I love it.

    1. @Karen – yep, earning good money on your own really does feel good. Families need time and money and a good career allows you to contribute both.

  9. My mother worked in finance in the 1960s and 70s and was the first woman at her company in a non-secretarial role. I grew up hearing stories about how her male coworkers talked openly about how hot female job applicants were, how she didn’t get paid (or her bonus) the year I was born, and how the men in her office referred to her as The Big Mamoo, you know, like a cow, right after I was born. She made more money than my father and was heavily ostracized by… most other women. However when she met my father she said to him on her first date, “I hope you don’t mind going out with a woman who makes more money than you.” My father reports feeling relieved that he didn’t have the pressure of being the primary breadwinner. So clearly it was a match made in heaven. 🙂

    As with several of your other readers she received endless commentary about her priorities, and how she was a bad mother. Her own family had no appreciation of what she had managed to do, and were instead fixated on her inability to find a husband before age 29. Suffice to say, I emerged from her body with my brassiere already in flames.

    I recall at age four coming home from work after hearing about Sally Ride, and I said that I also wanted to be the first woman to do something. She said, “No dear, you want to be the first PERSON, to do something.” My mother is an amazing person.

    She made it clear at various points in my life that it was important to be self sufficient because one simply could not rely on a man for support, and encouraged me to aim high with my career choice. This has been so engrained into me that I do have difficulty understanding how some women are comfortable leaving the workplace forever, as if nothing bad can ever happen to them.

    1. Wanted to add that I finally FINALLY out-earn my husband, which means… we get to make family decisions based on my career, not just his. It was incredibly uncomfortable for me during residency when I didn’t make enough to support myself and daughter without my husband’s help, although I suppose I could have taken out loans to do it. I hated feeling tethered to him. Being equal parters is incredibly important to me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    2. @OMDG – Your mom does sound amazing! As for people feeling comfortable leaving forever, I think it’s a combo of thinking nothing bad will ever happen to them in the future (short term thinking is pretty common in general) and thinking something bad *is* currently happening because some people believe that if a mother isn’t with her children 24/7 they’re being irreparably harmed.

      1. Yes, of course! I do feel like in many (most?) circles it has at least become acceptable for a woman to work and be a non, although most people still think women should take less demanding jobs and not be *too* ambitious, lest it take too much time away from the kids. I hope one day we will be in a place where it’s ok to want different things.

  10. I’m 60 years old and I’m a nurse. I always assumed that I would marry someone who made more than me. I decided in junior high that I wanted to be nurse. I remember a relative asking me in high school why I wasn’t interested in medicine since I was such a good student. I answered that I wanted a career where I could work part time when I had kids. It was unheard of in the 70s for a doctor to work part time. I can see now how I assumed that my husband would be the main earner. It did work out well for us. He recently took early retirement and I’m the main earner now.

    1. I forgot to add that my dad was an engineer and my mom stayed home until I was in high school when she went to work as a secretary. So it was a pretty traditional middle class upbringing for the time. I knew few mothers who worked.

  11. My mother’s dad died from tuberculosis when she was twelve after several years of illness. It was made very clear that if my grandma wasn’t an RN, the family would have been sunk. As it was, things were tight. I grew up with a very clear idea that women needed to be fixated and have the capability to support themselves. Never assume that someone else’s salary would support the family. Hence an engineering degree for me. I teach high school science now, partly for the work/parenting balance, but I don’t regret the degree or the five years I spent as an engineer. In college I heard someone refer to an MRS degree and was flabbergasted that anyone’s plan for college would be to get a husband.

    1. @Bridget – one upside of the rising age of first marriage is that I imagine fewer people view college as a place to get the MRS degree. “Ring by spring” (of senior year) as they used to say would seem preposterously young to many people now.

  12. This is such an interesting topic! My mom was a stay at home parent and my dad made an average salary through most of my childhood. My parents never really said anything to us directly about earning an income, other than we need to have an education or skills so that we can always depend on ourselves in the event we don’t have someone supporting us. My dad insisted my mom finish college and get her teaching certificate so that she’d have a stable job if he passed first. I am law firm partner and my husband stays home, although he does have his college degree. We have ended up being like my parents but with the gender roles reversed.

  13. Very interesting topic and responses. My dad was a big city newspaper reporter, and my mom stayed at home until the rising cost of living in our area basically forced a second income. She worked at non-profits and did really cool and glamorous things like work on Star Wars movies as an on set minder for animals; she also often served as a spokesperson for issues related to animal rights and I remember news crews coming to our house to interview her. My dad in his career was taken to an undisclosed location to interview Salman Rushdie during the death threat days, witnessed a failed attempt to assassinate a president and narrowly escaped going to Jonestown in that awful trap that killed other reporters and a Congress member. My parents were passionate about what they did and that stuck with me. But. What also stuck with me was how mediocre the pay was unfortunately, as they struggled financially. So I decided making good money would be a priority for me. My career was chosen solely with this in mind, and without any consideration of marriage or kids. I am still in my field (although I did take time off to stay home with my kids when they were little) and it is a high paying career. Oddly I’m lucky enough to feel passionately about it. The work isn’t as cool or glamorous as what my parents did, but it is varied and I work with brilliant people who push me intellectually.

    1. @Jjiraffe – journalism, done well, is utterly fascinating. And yep, it pays crap. This is pretty close to what Jennifer was dealing with in her story. Loved the work of journalism, but there was no real viable path to supporting a family, well, on what it pays. So people go into PR, or go more into the executive/sales side of it, or try to become a name known for either expertise (which is hard) or just having a lot of opinions (much easier…so guess which people go for!)

  14. I was raised Mormon, where the cultural assumption is that the woman will stay at home and raise the kids. However, I am Black, and the obvious message I learned from society is that no one is coming to save me, and I have to be able to save myself. My parents never spoke explicitly about careers and incomes, but I learned so much from watching what they did rather than what they said. Both ultimately became public school music teachers (my mother after getting an MBA and working unhappily in banking for a short while), and had relatively modest incomes. They were passionate about their work and it gave them great joy even though it was demanding and not very lucrative. Both had stints of staying at home with their eight children rather than working. My father early in my childhood while my mom was still in finance and made enough to support everyone, and also in my high school years, when his Vietnam related injuries forced an early retirement (and a 5yr fight for VA benefits). For my most aware money years, my dad was a superbly capable stay at home dad, and my mom was the breadwinner. We were poor by virtue of the size of my family, but my mother is incredibly good with money and our needs and our priorities like music lessons and appropriate, sometimes private, schools were met as well. My best friend came from an incredibly wealthy and also dysfunctional family. I deeply internalized that money doesn’t solve all problems, and poverty doesn’t mean deprivation or the lack of loving stability. So although I knew that, as a Black woman, I couldn’t count on anyone to save me, I also learned I didn’t have to make an insane amount of money to have a good life. I went to law school because I thought I would be good at it, not because I thought it was a path to wealth. In law school, I neither prioritized a big law job (where I could make a lot of money if I was willing to sell my life and my soul to make rich white men richer), or non-profit work (where there wasn’t a cause that I cared enough about that I was willing to be underpaid and risk my own financial security). I got very very lucky and landed a job with the Federal government. It wasn’t my goal in law school, because there was no sure path to land a Fed gov’t job. They had 1300+ applicants for 12 hires across the country the year I applied. In my practice area, which is quite specific and what my resume going back to college was clearly geared towards, most jobs are with non-profits and my salary would probably cap out at half of what I make now. So I can’t discount the luck of my salary at all.

    My husband, in comparison, was told explicitly by his father to think of his career and supporting a family as he studied religion and bioethics at Brown. What he says now is that he should have told him that he intended to marry well instead. He earns half of what I do, and has no qualms or ego about it at all. I credit Brown with him being so open-minded about it all (the world would be a wonderful place if all men got a Brown education), because he grew up with a stay at home mom for most of his childhood. My husband hates thinking about money, and would have hated the pressure of being the primary or sole breadwinner. As a public defender, that would have been a struggle for him. Although he could easily out-earn me as private criminal defense attorney, he literally doesn’t want to charge people for his services, or have to deal with money at all. Being a public defender is truly the only job he is passionate about having. And I’m grateful that my job allows him to do work that he’s passionate about.

    1. @Alyce – I love the image of your husband telling his father, when he complained about the religion major, that he intended to marry well. (Maybe getting his MR degree…?) As you point out, in some families, the female half is just far more oriented toward making money. This can work great, as long as people don’t get caught up in feeling that something is wrong because it goes against dominant cultural narratives.

  15. Like others, I find this fascinating. Both of my parents worked full-time and earned similar incomes. My dad did the bulk of the cooking, gardening, grocery shopping and other domestic tasks. He worked in the evenings while my mother worked days so dad took us to appointments and chaperoned school field trips. I was a child in the 1980s and my family’s situation was not the norm. I grew up believing that I would have to find a career with which I could support myself. I did not grow up in a family where it was assumed I would marry or have children so the breadwinner model seemed rather remote. My brother and a I wound up in the same profession (law). I am married and have children despite growing up in an environment where I was never expected to marry or have children. My husband and I are lawyers and have similar incomes. As I write this, my family seems kind of progressive but I never thought of them as such.

  16. Wow. There are a lot of great comments here! Let me represent the other side. I was raised on a farm where dad did most of the farm work and mom worked in the home (7 kids plus foster kids) and volunteered. It was never explicitly stated but I definitely never got the message that I should be actively pursuing a way to support myself. I did internalize that it is a partnership; perhaps bc so much of the “income work” was done at home–there was much less of a home/work split.

    With 5 girls and 2 boys, we girls definitely did farm work and learned to work, but notably, my brothers did not do housework and we were only paid for the farm work. That definitely sent a message!

    I have worked full time until recently and always had jobs while in school, but really just bc that was what I was raised to expect (good old “protestant work ethic” being ingrained pretty deep). I never enjoyed working. (I enjoyed doing a good job at what I did but not working itself.) I lacked the ambition to really push for a career and never found or thought of something that I wanted to do.

    I didn’t want kids and haven’t had any but always said if I had one, I would stay home for at least the early years. The juggling of work and kids just felt impossible to me. (Reading your work, Laura, has changed my mind about the wisdom of that!)

    I worry about my nieces being raised with the same assumptions, but one just insisted on leaving her parents home after college didn’t work out, supporting herself and being on her own. So I guess she did not get the message to wait until she was married to be “independent”! If she’s not making enough at her current work, she’ll learn soon enough!

  17. This is such an important point. I am noticing that girls choose careers that are notoriously low-paying and I am convinced that they do this in such a carefree manner because consciously or subconsciously they think someone else will provide for them and a potential family. When I tell young girls who are interested in such careers that they are very not lucrative, the reply is “Money isn’t that important to me”. Well, you can only say that if you expect someone else to be there…I never hear young men say that. Also, I think it is simply unfair that men are expected to guarantee the income. That’s a burden that seems strange to me in the 21st century.
    I was raised with the clear message that a woman needs her own income and preferably one to survive on. However, part of my growing up, my mother was a single parent so that’s a special situation.

    1. @Maggie – I agree that this is unfair to men, and requires them to attach an importance to money that they might not naturally desire either. I’m familiar with a few situations where the male half of a heterosexual couple has wound up leaving a much-enjoyed job (something they were good at!) because the pay was modest and the family convinced themselves that both parents working full time would be a tragedy.

  18. I grew up in the 80s, but with VERY young parents. My mom was in school (albeit slowly and while mostly being at home with my sibs and I) for much of my childhood. She went to work when I was in middle school and at that time my Dad started working from home (you can telecommute, as it was called then pretty easily when you are a telecom engineer even in 1990). He was the breadwinner, but he also had the more flexible job so he was pretty adept at styling little girls’ hair and making dinner. Because my parents were so young (they were 20 when I was born) I grew up in a pretty frugal home, but they were also a great financial team. The money was always just the money, it went into a single pot. And they always fostered a sense of communal contribution. There was never a discussion of who’s contribution was larger or more important. I always assumed my dad was the breadwinner–I was right, but I think that was not because of my parents’ own attitudes but because it was the 80s.

    Interestingly, when I was in medical school I constantly heard from established physicians that a physician’s salary is a “great second income.” While my fulltime physician salary is the smaller income in our household (my husband is a lawyer), we really rely on both our contributions to reach our financial goals. We really have my parents’ attitude that the money is the money and no one’s contribution is more important that the others. It works for us.

    1. @Gillian – that is fascinating that people talked about a physician’s salary as a great second income. Were they saying this to male and female medical students??

      1. @Laura Somehow I doubt it. The assumption always seemed to be that if I had a corporate lawyer husband (I was married the summer before I started medical school) then going to medical school must be a hobby…I can say I never once thought of it that way myself!

  19. I grew up with my mom running a small business and taking a lot of pride in her career – it honestly never occurred to be that I should not be a breadwinner or at least an equal contributor to our family’s income. I have definitely made more than my husband at times (and my salary made his mid-life career pivot possible while maintaining our standard of living). Great conversation!

  20. Oh this is super fascinating, I’ve loved reading all the replies. I grew up with a somewhat unusual situation of my mom making significantly more money than my dad, and things being quite tight at points. So I just assumed that was normal. I never thought I’d make loads of money – nonprofit work followed by academia, but I always assumed that I’d have an equal contribution to the household budget. Now my husband and I make within a few thousand £ of one another, so things are equal, except in the sense that my job is contract, and his is open-ended. Weirdly, this means we prioritise my job when it comes to caring responsibilities as I really need to perform well to get a new job + he’s a civil servant in a very family friendly environment, no one is going to fire or penalise him if he has to duck out due to a sick kid. His job tends to be more urgent though, and we’ve had to adjust particularly in the absence of childcare during the pandemic.

  21. My parents were both blue collar workers in the 70s and 80s. My dad belonged to a union so made better money but the work was seasonal.
    However, they also had an unhappy marriage at times. The only message I got from my mother was to go to college and make sure I had a career where I could support myself and any children without financial help. But neither of us knew how to do that. I was the first in my family to go to college and my parents had sticker shock paying for tuition (and this was in the 80s!) so I didn’t think anything beyond a BA was a possibility.
    It took me awhile after college to figure out a career I liked and paid well. I figured it out before my children were born. It would not have been the same lifestyle that we had with my husband, but I could have supported us (they are 20 and 22 now).
    My dad’s sole financial advice was to “pay yourself first”. That one took a long time to put into practice though.

  22. I’m a 1st American-born child of immigrant parents. My parents are both from Cuba, and their mindset is that they struggled to make new lives here (they had nothing when they arrived) so that their children’s lives would be better.
    I was raised with a constant push to do well in school. Getting my homework and school projects done was #1 priority, over housework or anything else (not that I didn’t have chores. I did, but school was first). I got straight-As for the longest time, and my grandmother would always exclaim, “You’re gonna work for NASA!” (in Spanish, of course). My gender didn’t matter. I didn’t end up working for NASA, but I did end up in the field as an aerospace engineer.
    While I myself have never stepped foot on the island, and was born and raised 100% American, I mention the immigrant background because I think immigrant parents (at least from certain cultures) have a unique mindset with respect to pushing their kids to succeed. My husband is also a child of immigrant parents from Eastern Europe, and we joke how no immigrant parents would ever let their kid major in liberal arts or pursue anything that isn’t lucrative.

    1. Yes, I think my mother’s perspective was definitely colored by her upbringing in the Soviet Bloc. Growing up with food insecurities, shelter insecurities, and general anxiety about your future is something that heavily influenced her to pursue medicine. Her parents, my grandparents, were insistent that the kids all had scientific education as, the family lore goes, “they can’t take your knowledge away from you.”

      While my sisters and I were not so sternly guided in our studies, it was always very important that we become educated and we were expected that we would be able to take care of ourselves and our loved ones.

  23. My mum never worked after having children and my dad was a high earner. This was pretty much true of all my friends. However, I vividly remember at age 13 queueing in the supermarket one day with my mum behind a woman that we vaguely knew who was struggling to pay for her shopping and crying. It turned out her husband had left her and frozen their accounts, leaving her no money. My mum paid for her shopping and once we got in the car turned and looked at me and said “Don’t you ever, ever, be in that position in your life”. This had a profound effect on me, much more so than any careers advice. I’ve been happily married for 11 years and my husband does earn more than me but if he upped and left tomorrow, my income would more than pay the bills. The problem with relying on someone else to provide for you is that you are then heavily dependent on them to continue doing so and, if I had a daughter, I’d certainly be making that abundantly clear.

  24. This is fascinating. I did not grow up with such money stories, my father worked full time when I was growing up, and my mother interestingly enough put herself through law school when I was born, graduated when I was 4, worked in an office for a few years, then became a stay at home mom for the rest of her career. Despite that, or in spite of that, I have never taken my husbands earning potential into consideration with my career. I work and earn as though I am the only income earner. He was actually unemployed when we met, and more years than not I have outearned him. I think nothing of this- we are partners and as long as we are provided for, I assume the incomes will fluctuate over the years with both of us earning very well (6 figures each). He recently had a health scare and is unemployed again. I am grateful that I have never relied on him to support our family single-handed as we would be in a really scary place right now…. he has a big daunting diagnosis and I can’t imagine how stressed I would be if we had chosen for me to leave the workplace when I no longer “had” to work.

  25. This is such an interesting and under-discussed topic! My parents ran a business together and worked very very hard. I had no idea how much money they made – I think they were middle class. I never wanted for anything and we lived pretty frugally. They focused on teaching us to work hard and spend less than we make. There are 3 girls and 2 boys in our family and their message around money was the same for us. My mom managed and still does manage my parents money. They meet with their financial advisor together but my mom manages the day to day stuff so I always had the impression that money wasn’t a gendered issue. They also encouraged us to do whatever we felt driven to do. There was no mention of us girls not needing to work. My mom worked so I always assumed I would when/if I had kids.

    I married late in life at age 36 so I spent a good chunk of my career thinking I would not have a 2nd income. I bought my first home on my own, too. It is very nice to have a 2nd income now. We both work for asset management companies so there is a lot of volatility in our industry and it’s likely that one or both of us will lose our job at some point due to downsizing or something along those lines. So it’s nice to have another income to fall back on. I earn more than my husband but we don’t talk about who contributes more. But my husband is very happy that I earn more and doesn’t feel any sort of resentment or insecurity. I could not be with someone who felt that way. He is very good at what he does but works for a smaller company that hasn’t grown as much as the large company I work for. So I attribute my higher salary in the same industry to luck but am glad that he’s thrilled that I make more!

  26. I grew up in the 80’s with a mainly SAHM and father who originally was a teacher but moved into banking to better provide but never enjoyed his job. My parents didn’t talk to us about jobs and income earning aspect but with two older brothers I was always trying to keep up with them which drives a lot of my worldview and feminism. I currently make 4x what my husband does and have many friends where the female partner is the breadwinner. I’m not sure where it came from but I always think of jobs in terms of: enjoyment, money and time. You can usually optimize for two of the three. I’m someone who generally likes her job but also views it as I’d rather work no more than 40 hours for a good salary than feel extremely passionate about my job. Whereas my husband really needs to enjoy his job which leads to less income. Great topic which is making me think I should ponder how to talk to my kids about it. The goal of work is $$ IMO and to contribute but work is not volunteering so how to communicate the value.

  27. My parents always encouraged me to think about careers with high earning potential. I was good in math and science so engineering was pushed pretty hard. I ended up in science and earned a PhD (through an engineering program to my parent’s credit) and make a respectable salary as a government scientist. I could have made much more if I went into industry, but I lean heavily towards environmentalism and protecting our resources – so my job is a perfect match. I’m recently facing being single again and it is comforting to know that my daughter and I can live on my income and I believe, with good budgeting, we will be able to do a lot of what we want. I recently met with a financial planner and I’m excited to begin making my money work harder for me. This was something I didn’t learn a great deal about growing up and I wish I had so I could have started earlier. Usually tasks like investing are left to the man of the house and so for me it never happened outside my employees retirement options.
    Educating women about money and encouraging women to have self supporting careers is essential in my opinion.

  28. Fascinating. I grew up in the Fifties. My mother gave up a job at a as a reporter for a national newspaper to join my father in his role as a diplomat. Nonetheless, my sibs and I were all encouraged to work and be financially– not independent, but at least capable.
    My parents had an unspoken judgment about money: too much was frowned upon. One sister became a social worker, another a Presbyterian minister (though later the CEO of her church in NYC), the third a teacher. I went into business as a training consultant/coach, and eventually did very well, but not for a long time. My husband and I are now wealthy, but it had more to do with real estate and investments than earnings, and we both give each other credit. We bought a home in Palo Alto (my decision; he went along with it) during a relative economic dip, and sold it a number of years later at a huge profit. Later bought and remodeled a house in Mexico, where we live part-time. We are naturally budget-conscious so we can live on our savings.
    A few years ago my husband bought a Bitcoin when it cost very little. He wanted to understand cryptocurrency in order to write a column about it. Bit by bit (as it were!) we bought more…and well, now, we have way more than we need and are giving it away. I don’t talk about it with my friends, because many of them don’t have a lot of savings. i wish I could.
    I am grateful that the year after the IRA was created, my father advised my husband and me to get IRAs since we were self-employed. I had almost nothing to put in mine, but I did. I wish my parents had encouraged me at a younger age about investments.

  29. Such an interesting topic. I have a very egalitarian marriage, but it’s surprisingly important to my husband that he can support our family on his salary. He technically could… if you take out childcare, our housekeeper, laundry service, new cars, delivery, vacations and the other splurges and conveniences we choose to pay for as a busy two career family. He’s very supportive of my work (I own a business and have out earned him for most of our relationship). It sometimes feels a little silly to talk as if he supports our family while my income goes to “extras,” but he also tells me I’m beautiful when I’m hugely pregnant with bad skin, so I consider these little delusions gifts we give to each other;)

  30. My family growing up definitely fell into that classic structure as dad as breadwinner and mum working part-time and as primary caregiver. They told us my brothers and I could be whatever we wanted and I did believe that but I’d also internalised the story that after getting married and having kids my job would be the one to be flexible and my husbands would be the main earner. It’s only recently with our second child that we’ve realised it makes more sense for me to be the breadwinner because although my husband has earning capacity, he hates his industry, and I also earn well and love mine. In fact it took much longer than it should have to reach that conclusion because of our inbuilt mindsets about gender roles. So my husband is caring for our 5 month old son for a few months while I go back to work, and his job may well remain the flexible one once he’s back at work. It is liberating and honestly so far when I tell people they think it’s great! I think people love the example of families being modern and choosing to mix up the parenting roles. At least my friends and family, I’m sure others in the community would disagree, but no point paying attention to those people, it’s working for us. Makes me glad I chose to spend my time building my professional career so we have that option now, I know many women who don’t.

  31. My mom raised my older sister and me with little child support from our dad. They were divorced before I was three years old, so I grew up with the guiding principle that it’s up to you to get whatever you want out of life. My mom babysat when we were really young, worked in an educational bookstore and later as a administrative assistant for a school district. She was always balancing her job and her family, finding the right fit for the phase we were in as a family. To be honest, money was often tight, but we were always overflowing in love. My first thought about the earning potential of a job was during the summers of college when I had to decide between unpaid/lower-paying jobs good for the resume, tourist-industry jobs with high volatility in hours/income (tips-based) or higher-paying job of mowing parks. I went for the stability of a guaranteed 40-hour work week. Today I work part-time and my husband definitely out earns me. I’m fine with it because I know that should anything ever happen to him/us, I’m capable of getting our two kids and me through it. It’s the lesson I learned from my mom, that financial independence is important but so too is making sure you have your priorities straight, that you get to decide what family lifestyle to support.

  32. It’s funny that I stumbled on this particular blog post, because I have been thinking about my own career path lately, and how I might be more intentional with it. I grew up in a single-parent home after age 8, when my parents divorced. While I was growing up, my parents both worked full-time in grocery stores–my dad as a union baker, my mom mostly as a cashier, until my dad got white lung and decided to go back to school for IT during my last year of high school. I always had pretty decent grades in school and I wanted to go to college to study foreign languages, but my parents didn’t save anything for myself or my sister to go to college. My mom always encouraged me to pursue my interests, but my dad said that college was ‘stupid’ (at least, until he went back to school, ha ha!). In any case, I was well-aware that I had to pay for it somehow without their help, but working while going through college became very difficult, because I had terrible back pain from scoliosis ever since my late teens. I’m now married to a man from another culture (he grew up in the USSR), who was raised by a single mom. During the first several years of our marriage, I had to work because he was dealing with health issues and had trouble finding a job when we moved to an area where he had no connections. He’s since found steady employment doing something he more or less enjoys, but ever since I quit my job a couple of years ago for health reasons, it’s become more evident just how much he had the idea in him that we would both be working and the burden of being the provider would not be solely on him. In fact, even after going through physical therapy this past year, it’s been really hard for ME to get used to the idea that I may not be physically able to produce a significant income for our family anymore, or at least until I can figure out how to monetize my skills (I have been trying to work as a linguist, but it’s been hard to make money at it without putting in a lot of hours). Growing up, most of my relatives emphasized getting a career in government or some ‘stable’ job as a way for me to support myself, which never appealed to me, so I thought going to college would be a better idea. However, I was never told that I should be a homemaker or housewife (one grandmother is–the other went back to work out of financial necessity after 14 years of being a SAHM), and the event of disability was definitely never discussed or planned for on the part of my parents. I don’t think that they all really agree with the path that I took (except mom), but I was the first in my family (both sides) to go to college beyond a 2-year degree, so I know that they are proud of me for achieving that goal.

  33. I graduated high school in the 80s. Neither of my parents attended college. I wasn’t a good student but nevertheless I won a major scholarship solely due to having the highest ACT score at my high school. I thought then I might want to go to college. The scholarship did not cover 100 percent of the costs however, and my mother was against it. She suggested I just marry my slightly older boy friend instead. I went to school for one year, bombed horribly, and then joined the army. I married a fellow soldier, and after 2 kids and a divorce, I realized that the only one that was going to take care of me and my children was me. I researched the programs at a local community college and picked the one I thought had the highest job opportunity and promised the best income. I have remarried and had two more children since then, but I have worked ever since. Now that we are looking forward to retiring in a few years, my husband and I are grateful for my pension and social security contributions. I have tried to teach my daughters that having a career is important not only for today but also for the retirement ramifications.

  34. It is really surprising to me that there are women today who expect that the man will be the breadwinner. It seems so old fashioned. My mom (a child of 60s and 70s) made it very clear that you had to go to college, get a good job, and be independent from a man. It’s strange to me that everyone wasn’t raised that way. My mom was a divorced mom with two kids who worked second jobs, but I still would have thought that the idea that a man would support a woman would have been lost long ago. I get if it works out logistically (I secretely loved it when my husband was not working out of the home full time – it makes life so much easier), but that the assumption still exists is so weird to me.

    As a kid, though, I didn’t think about supporting a family because I didn’t think I would get married and have kids, but I did. I also thought that there was having a job you loved was at odds with making lots of money – I’m not sure where I picked that up from; perhaps growing up in an affluent town as a working class kid made me feel like I had to be against money because I didn’t like how it seemed to make people shallow. I think the thing I didn’t figure out until I was much older is that money can support your values. It’s not that “Oh, I don’t need money because I don’t need fancy cars and fancy jeans.” It’s that money allows me to have vacations with my family. It makes it possible for me to leave a job if I hate it. It is relief from having to juggle the basics, like car payments and mortgage payments, but it also gives you a lot of power to do what you want. And I agree that to spend time thinking about how to cut might not be as productive as thinking about how to increase your earning potential through promotions, investments, etc. I do think that women are conditioned to not ask for more. There’s lots of research on the impact of women on asking for raises or negotiating hire packages. This is doubly so when you look at jobs that are typically women’s work – child care givers, teachers – they are expected to do this work out of a love for children and not ask for more money, and teachers unions are always attacked when they ask for things.

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