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?