Two Incomes are Better Than One*

* as long as the kids get the time and attention they need.

Two-income families get divorced WAY LESS than single-earner households. Here’s why two incomes can lead to more fulfillment and lower stress. 

As these Muppets will tell you, two heads, er, incomes are better than one

(disclaimer- my philosophy on marriages/families is that couples need to discuss and choose an arrangement that works best for the family. There are many different ways to be successful, and it is not my intent to criticize or denigrate anyone’s choice or the way they structure their work in and out of the home. Your mileage may vary. Please keep this in mind as you read)

You have a job you don’t like, a boss who’s a jerk, few advancement opportunities on the horizon, and it’s a tough economy to find a comparable job somewhere else.

You have a great idea for a new business. You’d be great at it, and you’d feel so much better about yourself. You’d love to escape the hamster-wheel you are on and pursue your professional goals…

But, you have a wife and two kids. They rely 100% on your income, and on your employer’s health insurance plan. You have a mortgage, car payments, and you are desperately trying to put aside some money for college and retirement.

So, what do you do?

Well, you probably suck it up, and do what you have to for your family- after all, their needs come first.

But this comes at a cost. You are a more stressed, less happy person. You have all the pressure to provide for your family on your shoulders- and of course, even this job you don’t like doesn’t come with guarantees.  Your wife is also probably frustrated about being trapped in the house and stressed about finances, too.

In his fantastic article, Jayson Gaddis identifies Why Men Get Trapped in Soul Sucking Jobs. Some common reasons include:

  • “It’s not really what I want to do, but it pays the bills.”
  • “It’s not really my ideal job, but the benefits are good,”
  • “Hey, working for the man pays the bills.”
  • “I don’t have time to find work I’m happy about.”
  • “Yeah, wait till you have a family and then let’s talk about your ideal job.”

You are far more likely to be stuck in a job if it is the only financial lifeline for your family. And considering you spend more time in your adult life working than anything else (besides sleeping), a soul-sucking job can have huge emotional and physical consequences.

So what can you do about it? I may be an ivory-tower idealist*, but even I can’t advocate risking your family’s financial future on taking a huge leap into the unknown (especially as the vast majority of small businesses fail) without building a safety-net first.

Maybe the best solution isn’t what you do. Instead, maybe it is what your spouse can do. And that may very well be to get a job (Ladies- I am not denigrating unpaid housework or the contribution of primary caretakers/homemakers, please hear me out!).

Depending on your family situation (having pre-school age children may prevent this, for example), having a second income can improve a marriage and a family in many ways.

The benefits of dual-incomes are best articulated in the book Getting to 50/50 by Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober. The book is primarily focused on women’s issues, but is even-handed, appreciative of good husbands, and has lots of implications for men.

Meers and Strober assert that one of the best things women can do, both for themselves and their families, is to get at least a part-time job outside the home. They cite the following (from the American Journal of Sociology):

Marriages in which there is a sole breadwinner get divorced at a rate 14% above average, the highest of any income split. This is likely due to the fact that 100/0 marriages are more likely to have less income, more financial stressors, a more stressed-out provider, and a home-maker who is also probably overstressed and frustrated at being restricted to a single role.

Further, they state that if both spouses work at least some outside the home, they have more common experiences, have more to talk about, and can better relate to each other’s problems and emotions (as opposed to “my wife doesn’t understand my work pressures and need to relax some when I get home” and “my husband doesn’t recognize all the work I do all day and that I need a break when he gets home.The book also talks about the positives for children, especially girls, but that’s another article).

This second job doesn’t have to be equally lucrative or demanding to bring these benefits. A 20-hour a week part-time job brings extra income and psychic benefits to both partners. In fact, balancing one high-income, demanding career job, with a second job that is more family- and lifestyle-friendly, seems to be the best match, especially if the secondary income has health insurance.

In fact, despite the book title, the presented evidence indicates that couples who have a roughly 62/38 split on income (and roughly the opposite proportion of housework/child care) exhibit the lowest levels of divorce (an amazing 51% below the average!!! and 65% below 100/0 marriages).

Further evidence comes from Kathleen Gerson’s 2010 book, The Unfinished Revolution, that discussed how, among those under 30, about 80% of women and 70% of men desire an egalitarian marriage in which both partners share breadwinning, housekeeping, and child rearing. This finding is echoed by Boston College’s New Dads study, which found 70% of men aspired to shared providing/caretaking. (in reality, this  egalitarian ideal is difficult to attain- to be discussed in future posts).

And I’ve seen this play out in a few of my friends’ lives.

  • I have a friend who left his ok job and went into business for himself, thanks to the fact that his wife is a state employee with a good enough income and great family benefits that allowed him to make the leap
  • I have a friend who was able to leave his job and enter a training program in a different field, and now he is working at a job he loves (and that can eventually lead to very high income), because his wife is a federal employee with great benefits
  • I have a friend who was unexpectedly laid off. He found work relatively quickly, but having the financial buffer of his wife’s career meant they stayed afloat
  • I have a friend who became a stay-at-home-dad and started a home-based business after their daughter was born. His wife had the more stable job/income to allow this to happen.
  • I have a friend who was able to leave a pressurized full-time job for a dream 18-month consulting opportunity because his wife took a job with benefits

From where I sit (and you never really know about people’s marriages from the outside), these families seem happier than they did before the career switches. In many ways, happier parents make better, more involved parents, and everyone, especially the kids, gain from this (more on the benefits to kids of two involved parents- both mom and dad, in future posts)

* actual recent quote

So what do you think about the benefits of two incomes? The potential drawbacks? What is your experience? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

This article was reprinted at the Good Men Project online men’s magazine.

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21 thoughts on “Two Incomes are Better Than One*

  1. My dad once gave me the advice “No matter what you do for work, you’re going to hate it at one point or another. You might as well hate it and get paid a lot of money.”

    Reading the quote doesn’t ring true to actually hearing it from him, without the vocal nuances and the winks/smile that carry so much more than text ever could. But there is a little nugget of truth there.

    The grass is always greener. It’s part of human nature to think that way. I’ve got a job I don’t hate, and I might even like. But it isn’t my dream job. Not by a long shot. I’m a dentist, and I make enough money to support my family on a single income. We’re very lucky and I’m very grateful. But if I had my druthers, if money wasn’t a factor, I’d be teaching middle school science (like I did before dental school)… or maybe I’d even be a Muppetteer (I know. Random, right?).

    The way I look at it, the thing I love most is being a husband and a father. If I have to take a 2nd choice job that doesn’t *COMPLETELY* light up my days, but allows me to support my family, video tape dance recitals, coach little league, and get home in time for dinner every night — in other words, to be a husband and a father — then I’m lucky. I’ll suck it up. It’s a means to an end. I’ll deal with moody patients and sh*tty insurance plans and not be completely in love with my job, if it means I get to do something better.

    -Dork Dad

    • Hi DD- Thanks for reading and for your comment! There’s a reason it’s called work- for 99% of us, work entails at least some stuff we wouldn’t otherwise want to do. And there is something to be said for doing your providing duties.

      I couldn’t agree more with your statement- “the thing I love most is being a husband and a father. If I have to take a 2nd choice job that doesn’t *COMPLETELY* light up my days, but allows me to support my family, video tape dance recitals, coach little league, and get home in time for dinner every night — in other words, to be a husband and a father — then I’m lucky”, and AMEN to that. I applaud you for living your priorities.

      Many don’t have what you and I have, and live (work)lives of quiet frustration. A second income could give them more options to be fulfilled.

      Thanks again!!!

  2. Scott I am totally with you on the benefits of having a two-income household. When I decided to leave a good-paying corporate job to return to school and pursue my Ph.D., my wife’s job made that transition much easier. Granted, this was before we had kids, but I was able to live comfortably and not be stressed about money (unlike most of my fellow doctoral students) because of her support. I’m SO much happier now in my academic career and I honestly don’t know if I would have made the change on my own.

    It just seems to make sense to have two incomes and thus more flexibility to respond to all kinds of issues — layoffs, career transitions, and even possible health problems that could take someone out of work for a while. Plus, I agree with Meers and Strober’s finding that spouses who both work can relate to each other better and have more common ground. I am always fascinated by my wife’s work projects and her stories from the office.

  3. A couple should try just having to live off the income of one person working. The worker should have a good job with a good pension and good benefits. Get used to living within your means and NO DEBT.

    • There’s lots of different ways to structure your family. As long as the kids get what they need, the parents should also have what they want in their lives- if this is work outside the home, great. There’s no one best way.

      Sadly, great job security and benefits are harder and harder to find.

      I do agree that folks need to keep their finances in better shape and avoid debt. For example, even though my family has two incomes, we arrange our finances as if we only can rely on mine (this meant a smaller house, etc.). This way, we don’t over-extend, and we can use the money my wife makes for savings or occasional splurges.

  4. Great article. Very fundamental to how my wife and I have structured our lives. Treat your marriage and family like a business and do what works for you both, always live below your means, save 15%-20% of what you make, and spend as much quality time with your kids and/or your spouse as possible. Follow these simple rules and you will be much more likely to lead a happy and fulfilling life.

  5. I need some good advice. My wife recently was offered an amazing opportunity to become a sales rep at the place I work and possibly make $70- $80k per year. Without overtime I will make a little more than that. She works part time now, making around $25,000 a year. However, no 401k and no vacation, paid holidays, etc. I work as much overtime as I possibly can, just so we can pay the bills and take care of our 2 daughters. It’s unbelievable to think they income stated on my W-2 is not enough to start saving any money. I feel completely stressed and struggle to be the father and husband my family deserves, at times. We do not lead extravagant lifestyles. However, like so many other families we happen to be in credit card debt as well as the other household expenses, mortgage, car bills, groceries etc.

    The job my wife was offered is about 45 minutes away. She will be able to get the kids to school and get home in time to see them before bed. I see this as an opportunity for us to climb out of debt and build up our equity. She is about 50/50. Some days she is pumped, others not so much. I know she wants this job, but is worried about missing our children. This will lead to a more fulfilling and stress reduced life. I tell her, the time we spend together as a family will be more enriching and loving. I guess what my long winded question is, am I a horrible father/husband to ask my wife to work full time to earn $40k more per year?

    • No, you are not a bad dad/guy/husband. The road to a good work-family balance can sometimes take a lot of time, work and planning. It is very possible that this extra income is what can lead to a more sustainable balance for your family. Or not. But if you and your wife talk it through openly, I trust you’ll make the right decision. There are definitely pros and cons to her accepting this job- a lot more would fall on you, and you wife will miss things.

      Also, I really empathize with your financial struggles that are far too common these days. And I understand the pressure you must feel about providing for your family and climbing out of this financial hole. You may want to consider talking to a financial planner

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