Women and money. Why being the breadwinner changes things.

According to The Shriver Report, a joint study by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, nearly four in 10 mothers are primary breadwinners – which means they bring the bulk of the income into the household – and two-thirds are breadwinners or co-breadwinners, defined as bringing home at least a quarter of the family’s earnings.

I wish the situation had equalized, but the fact is on average, women are still paid much less than men. One study from this year (also from the Center for American Progress) found that 97% of full-time working women were in jobs that typically paid men more. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists 534 occupations; women earn more than men in only seven of them.

Jan says she’s seeing more and more of her friends become the primary breadwinner in their homes, and of course as a single women, she’s almost solely responsible for her own financial future. Both scenarios come with increased pressure, but also an increased sense of security: As she noted, we hear so many stories of women being left high and dry after a divorce. If you’re bringing home a good chunk of the bacon – and putting your hand in the day-to-day family finances – that’s less likely to happen to you.

Being the breadwinner impacts your life in other ways, too:

You can take responsibility for your financial future. You’re more likely to be able to open a 401(k) and contribute, which means you can work your way toward a secure retirement. Though it should be noted that women (and men!) who don’t work outside of the home can still contribute to an IRA, as long as your contributions don’t exceed the working partner’s income and you file a joint tax return. In 2013 you can contribute up to $5500. It’s always worth having retirement savings of your own.

You feel more responsibility for your current finances – and that can weigh heavily. Believe it or not, making the bulk of your household’s money can be a burden, in that you feel the pressure to provide. Protecting yourself with disability and life insurance is key, but so is keeping your skills and network sharp, in case your job runs dry. Finally, be sure to keep the lines of communication open with your spouse or partner – discuss your feelings, and how your partner can help alleviate some of the pressure. Make sure your relationship has balance.

You’re invested in your financial life. The doomsday divorce scenario that I mentioned earlier – which is all too common – is very often the result of one spouse being unaware of the financial state of the union. Sometimes the husband is struggling to keep up financially and doesn’t want to share the burden; other times, the finances are actually fine but when the marriage dissolves, you’re left unable to handle basic financial tasks because you’ve never done them before. It’s important to have a stake in the game. Even if one partner manages most of the money, sit down with him or her and learn the ropes.

Jean Chatzky

About Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky, the financial editor for NBC’s TODAY show, is an award-winning personal finance journalist, AARP’s personal finance ambassador, and a contributing editor for Fortune magazine. Jean is a best-selling author; her eighth and most recent book is Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security. She believes knowing how to manage our money is one of the most important life skills for people at every age and has made it her mission to help simplify money matters, increasing financial literacy both now and for the future. In April 2013 Jean launched Jean Chatzky's Money School , a series of college-style, interactive online personal finance courses that give men and women across the country the opportunity to learn from and interact directly with her. Jean lives with her family in Westchester County, New York.
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