Best of Both Worlds podcast: Thinking like a breadwinner with Jennifer Barrett

These days, the majority of women assume they will be part of the paid labor force in some capacity. But men and women still grow up with different messages about what that involvement should be, and the financial ramifications of those choices.

In today’s episode, we welcome Jennifer Barrett, who is the Head of Content at Fidelity, and the author of the book Think Like a Breadwinner. In her book, Jennifer argues that few women grow up thinking that their family’s standard of living will depend on them. This can lead to being less careful about negotiating initial salaries, and investing for retirement later and in lower dollar amounts. She talks about how she learned to think like a breadwinner, and how other women can too, whether they ever wind up being breadwinners in their families or not.

In the Q&A section we tackle a very on-topic question: A woman who has been her family’s sole breadwinner for years while the kids were little would like her husband to go back to work. She asks our advice on the right strategy for talking about this. See what you think about our answer!

Our Patreon community requested Jennifer as a guest and we obliged! If you’d like to join the Patreon community, and participate in our monthly online gatherings, we’d love to have you; you can sign up here.

8 thoughts on “Best of Both Worlds podcast: Thinking like a breadwinner with Jennifer Barrett

  1. To answer Sarah’s question in the intro, I’m an older millenial (almost 42) and I think my parents overdid the “do what you love and the money will follow” mantra of the 80’s and 90’s. I went to architecture school, and at some point realized that a starting salary of $35,000 a year was not going to cut it if I wanted a family. My now-husband came to the same conclusion separately, and by the time we met, we were each focusing on real estate development within the architecture graduate school we attended. Looking back, had we truly become practicing architects I think we would have been ok financially, but we would have stopped after 2 children. As it is now, we have 6 kids, and incredible flexibility with our time and the financial capacity to do more than we imagined. We are trying to talk to our children about doing something that you both enjoy, that is lucrative financially, and will allow for your lifestyle of choice, whether that be children or time flexibility or travel.

    1. @Jessica – I think a key lesson (as I try to figure this out too, and what we tell our kids) is that certain skills can be deployed in different ways. If I thought of writing as requiring “being on staff at a publication” it would be hard to make much money (or have much flexibility for that matter). Performance likewise looks different if you’re talking stage acting vs. corporate and conference speaking. If your desired lifestyle is going to require money and you don’t have an obvious plan (my 6-year-old announced that he planned to marry a billionaire…not sure where he got that idea but he does watch YouTube…) and you’re interested in a field not known for high pay then you might need to be flexible about the particulars.

  2. That’s really interesting, I think I internalised the message that I should do what I liked but also, the things I liked weren’t likely to make me tons of money. But my parents lived quite modestly so I never felt like I needed tons of money? I lived in SF post-college and I wonder if I had stayed, if that would have changed, because life would have been so hard on my nonprofit salary?

    But I moved to the UK at 27 for grad school, I got married at 29, when I was halfway through a PhD programme. Now, post-PhD, my husband and I make within a few thousand £ of each other. We don’t have loads of money – academia and civil service and in the UK where salaries are significantly lower – but are very fortunate and very comfortable.

    I think having very comparable salaries helps us balance things in our relationship – both our careers are important, there is no assumption that the lower earner will be the one to take sick days, etc. We split these evenly, and work in workplaces where flexible working is increasingly the norm/no one could fault you for taking dependents leave. We could pay eek out our mortgage and childcare costs on a single salary, but also have very good protections in case of illness or disability, so that’s less of a concern.

    I liked the interview but wonder if sometimes these personal solutions “thinking like a breadwinner” “leaning in” etc place the blame on individuals for the fact that women still face significant barriers to entry in many professions, education is filled with biases, the gender wage gap is a stark reality etc. We should be negotiating salaries AND fighting for structural change.

    1. I could’ve written all of this. Husband and I both have public-sector jobs. Our income isn’t quite 50/50, but it’s close enough that nobody’s career comes first. Though, DH has more long-term earning potential than I do because of the field he’s in. We have a comfortable life, but we also both grew up in modest environments, so our concept of “enough” seems to be right-sized for us.

      Agree with your point that shifting the mindset to the individual gets sort of … grating? the more often you hear it. However, you never know how life’s twists and turns will go, and earlier in my career, I probably could’ve used the advice to think like a breadwinner. Not because I was waiting for a husband to rescue me, but because I’d never been taught those skills — or even to think about them. (I know. But I’m the first woman in my family to have a professional career.)

    2. It’s interesting that you find this perspective on the individual puts the blame there, rather than focusing on societal / structural changes for all. Because when I hear advice like Jennifer’s, I think of it as what I can do for myself NOW while the world slowly changes for my young daughter and her generation. I want to see the impact in my own life, even if it is harder for me than it will be for my daughter. I’m about to take maternity leave after recently taking a promotion within my company – I will get 16 weeks of paid leave and my federal government-employed husband will also get the same amount of paid leave, only four weeks of which are from his sick time bank. My mom only had six weeks of leave for my sister and me when she was a federal government employee in the 80s, and my dad got nothing. So we’ve come a long way! I hope my daughter is able to make similar comparisons.

  3. This was a really thought provoking episode. I’m a old millenial, too – almost 41 – but I did not get that ‘do what you love’ message from my parents. They were always very focused on what I was going to do to support myself. I got a degree in math and they were supportive but there is not a clear career path for math majors, aside from education (high school or collegiate-level) so they were always saying – ‘ok, but what are you going to DO with your math major.’ I grew up in a really traditional family in some ways as my mom did all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc, but my parents ran a business together and my mom was the office manager and managed their finances. So they were not traditional in terms of who managed/handled the money. They taught us to live within but ideally below our means and to not use credit cards. They had some really lean years early in their marriage where my mom sewed clothes for my dad and brother and they just barely scraped by so I think those stories really stuck with me? I didn’t get married until I was 36, so I was the breadwinner for many years, and now I am probably like Sarah’s household w/ the income split, although I’m the 60% earner probably (have not done the math as it gets complicated with my husbands pay structure since he owns shares in the small company he works for). Either of us could support our family on our own and being FI is important to us because of the volatility of our industry. I tend to do more of the child care things because I have way more flexibility and back-up coverage at work since I work for a huge company and he works for a tiny company. But he does things like the grocery shopping and cleaning so he does what he can to make up for the gap in caring for the kids (which is really bad in the first years of life, especially if you are beastfeeding/pumping…).

    I wasn’t pushed to invest by my parents, but neither were my siblings. My parents saved well and contributed to their retirement accounts and they emphasized that we needed to put as much as possible in our 401k, etc, but that was the extent of their investment advice. So it wasn’t gendered and it’s crazy to me to think that parents would advise their sons and daughters differently?? I have 2 sons so gender doesn’t enter how we will raise them but if we had one of each gender, we’d suggest the same things to them.

  4. My husband and I earn the same salary but growing up, I always assumed I would be the secondary earner/stay at home spouse. My parents never said that but I think church/religion really encouraged that mindset. We went to a progressive church but any sermon about family held up men as providers. I bet that message is the same for a lot of religions.

  5. I’m a daughter of a single mom. I learned the lesson early on you need to support yourself and not to rely on your partner to be the breadwinner (and my partner is not the breadwinner).

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