When the Woman is the Breadwinner: 3 Men Tell Us What It’s Like
During our first five years together, my partner Stefan and I contributed pretty evenly to our meager budget.
He was a touring stand-up comedian, and I was a freelance blogger.
Each comes with income ebbs and flows, and we just hoped one would flow if the other was ebbing.
By the time I started a full-time job that moved us to a new city in August 2015, he was ready to get out of comedy, but not sure what to do next.
He’d been sort of out of the workforce for almost five years and working for himself, so he didn’t want to just jump back into a full-time job working for someone else.
“I realized how much I liked having the freedom to work on creative projects at my own pace,” he explained. “Any kind of restaurant job or office job is just not the kind of life I want to live, so if I have the ability and the opportunity to have my creative freedom and also live a decent life, it’s kind of hard to pass up.”
“Creative freedom” also meant not needing to hustle in another creative career after clawing his way up through the last one for years.
We came up with the perfect solution for both of us: Instead of getting a job, he’d stay home and take care of the house — and me.
My new salary doubled what the two of us had been earning together. Even though our household budget remains well below average, living on one income has hardly been a financial concern.
I was more worried about the stigma of a man in his 30s staying home while his partner worked full time.
I love our life, but I know it’s not typical. I come from a blue-collar background, where a job is considered a necessary hardship of adulthood.
My traditional roots had me wondering if we were doing it wrong. Shouldn’t we be like other couples, who both find time to work, take care of the house, raise kids, feed pets and water plants together?
Stefan doesn’t worry as much about the stigma, though.
“I don’t ever feel guilty about not working. (Our relationship) is a pretty good balance,” he explained.
“She doesn’t want me to work, and I don’t really want to work. I do check in every couple of months (to see if I should get a job). She likes the dishes to be cleaned and dinner on the table at 5:30 p.m.”
And we have time to spend with each other, which I hear a lot of couples with plants and kids and everything struggle to find.
When Your Partner is the Breadwinner
Stefan also doesn’t think our situation is so out of the ordinary.
“Everyone knows at least one family (now) that has a stay-at-home dad or a stay-at-home husband,” he said.
His understanding of what “everyone knows” is probably influenced by his progressive parents, though. His mom, Jacque Preston, works full-time as a professor at Utah Valley University, while his stepdad, Brad Fraley, is a stay-at-home husband.
Brad’s reasoning behind their decision mirrors our own:
“[My wife] can really give 110% to a job she likes,” he pointed out. And, “she’s got business ideas that she’s spinning off. The only way that works is if she has nothing else she has to do, and the two of us can really relax when she has time off. We can just hang out. That’s the life we want to live.”
Brad has been “fully supported” for about four years. Before he and Jacque met, he’d been a Tai Chi teacher in Ohio for 10 years, a job that supported him but only required a commitment of about 25 hours per week.
“When I met Jacque, I had already established a lifestyle of minimal work … I really had no intentions of working a full-time job or doing something that I didn’t enjoy for money,” he explained.
Brad said she respected that, and it was simple to negotiate into their relationship.
When his wife started graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin, he moved with her and cut his teaching down to part-time, periodically traveling back to Ohio to run workshops. Not working gave him time to assist his wife with her graduate studies and to audit classes himself.
In Madison, the couple were living on Brad’s part-time income, plus his wife’s student loans and stipend as a teaching assistant.
When I asked him if this move meant a big cut in income for them, he said casually, “Yeah, I’d say so. We were probably living on less money.”
When she took a full-time job with UVU, the couple moved to Utah, and Brad “went full-time retirement.”
At first, this move posed more of a strain on their budget.
“We were pretty broke, but within about a year we had gotten to a point where we were comfortable,” he said.
They rented cheaply, cut costs for a while, and were able to save and pay off bills as Jacque’s new full-time income boosted their budget.
“I think there are times when we both realize it would be nice to have more money, especially when we think about the future, but I think we imagine my having a job and how that would change everything, that does not seem very appealing at all.”
Stefan and I echo that sentiment. Sure, more money would always be welcome. But it would mean a lifestyle neither of us wants to live.
What Does a Stay-at-Home Husband Do All Day?
We do make what some people would consider sacrifices to live our single-income lifestyles.
We rent instead of owning homes — not so unusual for us millennials, but atypical for Brad and Jacque, each in their 50s. Each couple has a single used car. Brad and Stefan, respectively, often handle car repairs, a money-saving benefit we might not have if the men worked.
I asked Brad if he faces any stigma for the lifestyle. He responded to this just as casually as to questions about money, “I think that there probably are some, but I don’t notice them.”
“Maybe I’m just thick-skinned,” he added. “I’ve always been alternative. I’ve always lived an alternative lifestyle and lived in alternative communities.”
When people ask what he does for a living — the standard get-to-know-you question — he either says he’s a “stay-at-home husband” or a “retired Tai Chi teacher.” Sometimes, he said, “You notice them straining to be polite or accepting of that.”
Stefan answers the question more plainly. “I say I do the dishes and cook dinner, and my girlfriend works, and people get it.”
Brad also pointed out, “I actually have projects that I work on,” mostly reading, research and writing. “They just don’t make money, so I don’t go into details about the things that I like to read, or my passion studies. I just feel like I’ve got a whole life of stuff I’m doing.”
Stefan’s days are similar, though his projects are different. He takes care of the house, but, “I have a lot of free time. There are no kids here, so it’s not like I have a ton of work to do. I work on creative projects for most of my day.”
Since our move, he’s been able to pick up the hobbies he neglected for years when our nomadic lifestyle didn’t allow time or money for them: music and video production, photography, animation and graphic design.
Not working, and talking to people about not working, makes Brad realize just “how much making money is a part of a justification for being alive.”
“I actually have gotten to the point where I feel almost guilty that I’ve managed to construct my life in such a way that I’m not being ground down by excessive labor,” he told me.
But, his guilt is quickly assuaged.
“I guess I feel like other people should be more careful not to get stuck in jobs they don’t like” — but he said he tends to keep that thought to himself in polite conversation.
When You CAN’T Go to Work
While Stefan and I, and Brad and Jacque, love our respective lifestyles, I know some people simply prefer to work. And I can’t ignore those couples or families who are forced to live on a single income.
Ryan Gurnett and his wife Kelly are stuck in that situation. Ryan has been out of work for three and a half years, but not by choice.
He has a disease called Mitochondrial Dysfunction, which affects cognitive skills and energy and causes pain and gastrointestinal problems.
The disease requires energy management, so he can only be active for about an hour at a time. He’s applied for disability insurance, but that doesn’t come quick.
“Disability takes forever,” he told me. “I’ve been waiting for three and a half years, and probably still have another two years of waiting.”
What do you do when living on a single income is thrust upon you?
He’s able to get things done during the day as long as he manages his energy.
He operates on a “one hour on, one hour off” schedule — going shopping, taking care of the house or working online to earn money for an hour, then recovering for an hour.
Gurnett also started a support group for people around his age who are not working because of chronic illness. The group meets during the day to provide some of that community he misses from work, and they watch movies, play board games, or do arts and crafts.
“I hate not working,” Gurnett said. “When other people ask me about whether or not they should leave work and apply for disability, I always tell them to work as long as they’re able to, because once you leave [the workforce], it’s hard to get back in.”
Unlike Stefan and Brad, Gurnett would prefer a traditional workday.
“It’s weird not having co-workers around,” he said. “It can feel very isolating. It can also be strange not having any structure to your day. When you’re at work, at many jobs, you know what you’ll be doing. … Once you leave work, it’s all free time.”
And he does feel the stigma associated with his situation.
“Explaining to other people that you’re not working and your spouse is supporting the household can be humiliating,” he said.
He’s been told, “You’re lucky you have a wife to take care of you,” and he’s not happy to hear it.
Ryan’s inability to have a job is pinching the couple’s budget while they await approval for disability income.
“We are in the red most months,” he told me. “Our savings is gone and our credit is most likely permanently damaged. We now have to sell our house, and we’re moving into my parents’ basement while we wait for my disability to come through.”
To stretch their tight budget, “We’ve had to cut more coupons, shop more thriftily and often find ourselves having to decline invitations to go out with friends because we can’t afford the activities they can.”
His wife, however, understands the illness and knows he’s doing what he can.
“My wife is the reason I get off the couch every day,” he told me. “The thought of me sitting on my (butt) while she works all day helps motivate me to get what I can done.”
Your Turn: Do you know a stay-at-home husband?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).