One Household, One Income: Challenges of the Sole Financial Provider

breadwinnerBeing the breadwinner – and the sole financial provider at that, is not a choice especially in these hard and trying times. The unstable job market, changes in family structure with more and more single-parent households, and the practicality of having one parent stay home and care for children are all factors in being a single-income household.

For most Americans in double-income households, it’s a tough act to combine average monthly earnings, make both ends meet and still come up with a good enough savings. Imagine the burden if you are a sole breadwinner, what with a queue of financial obligations like paying all sorts of utility bills, buying the family’s daily needs, fulfilling major payouts like mortgage and children’s school fees, not to mention  shelling out some good dollars for unplanned expenses when sickness, injury or disability occurs.

American household income level (combined incomes of all people earning in one family) is at its all time low this decade. The 2011 median income (use to gauge the wealth of the citizens) of $50,054 was already adjusted for inflation and was 8 percent lower in the decade peak of $54,489 recorded in 2007. On the other hand, mean household income (take-home pay after taxes and other mandatory contributions and is use to gauge the standard of living) is even lower at $32,195. Overall, there is little optimism that incomes will grow again like it used to before the 2009 crisis.

With an income-earning scenario like this, it is definitely true when we say that it’s tough being the only person who earns money to support an entire family.


How can one claim that he or she is the breadwinner in the family? What if more than one family member gets to earn and contribute to bringing home the bacon? First, it is important to understand that “breadwinning” and “employment” are two very different things.  With this, the concept of shared-breadwinning roles and especially “sole breadwinner” can be better understood.

Being a breadwinner does not equate to simply being employed – there must be a special meaning attached to that employment, a significant level of importance to being employed which boils down to survival. Simply put, a breadwinner has a duty to work and leaving work even for a short time is not an option.

In this light, there may be a two-income household but only one breadwinner. The breadwinner is the one with the more profitable and economically sound job, while the other who can afford to leave the workforce is simply “earning,” but not necessarily a breadwinner. The same is true in families where there are multiple earning members like grownup children working part-time but their earnings are not enough to take care of all family financial obligations, or even few of these.

If both jobs rank in equal importance (not necessarily equal pay) where they are complementing incomes and carry the family through, and both earners cannot afford to leave their jobs at any time, then there is a shared breadwinner role.

The sole breadwinner then is someone who has the single responsibility and full duty to work for the family and does not have an option to leave the workforce at any time in the future.


The sole breadwinner is actually not a new phenomenon. It has been a traditional setup in pre-industrialization time. What’s actually new is the dramatic change in gender expectation and traditional family roles where work and being a financial provider are concerned. That is, more women are now sole breadwinners, while there are also children (meaning children that is of age and working) that have also taken up the financial responsibility for the family.

In preindustrial times, the economy was a domestic economy, meaning every member of the family contributed to the production of goods needed for the family survival – sewing, making soap, salt or cheese, planting, raising animals. As the economy shifts to industrialization, the production of goods moved out of households and into factories. A clear change is that the workers who produced goods in factories create them not for their families, but for sale, ushering the money economy. For the skill and effort in production, the workers were paid wages used to buy the things they need in other markets.

With “production for home” moving out of households, and shifting to “production for others” now done in factories, there emerged a distinction between home and work and women and men roles. During this time, women bore the traditional domestic responsibility while the men were relegated the special responsibility of being the “breadwinner,” bringing home the bread from the income he received from producing goods outside the home. It was this “special responsibility” of being the breadwinner that associated men in this role.


rolesWhile the father as man of the house is often the breadwinner, in today’s changing world, mothers can be the sole financial provider while the husband stays at home taking charge of domestic affairs. There are also instances too when a child of age and with job becomes the sole breadwinner, especially when parents are too old to work or are sickly.

Sociologist Jessie Bernard has argued that the concept of breadwinning first emerged as a distinctive male responsibility in the United States in the 1830s and that, from then on until the late 1970s, a “good” provider or breadwinner was defined as a “man whose wife did not have to enter the labor force.”

This was the idea although in reality even at that time, the husband’s income is supplemented by the wife or by the children from non-formal work that earns them payment. At the peak of industrialization, women’s incomes have also moved from the household into a more formal participation in the labor force. By the 1960s and 1970s, the contribution of women’s incomes were clearly reflected in the household (combined) income and in the 1980s, over half of families in the US have both husband and wife working.

Another respected sociologist Jean L. Potuchek, in his book Who Supports the Family? Gender and Breadwinning in Dual-Earner Marriages, said that “gender expectation were undergoing fairly dramatic change from traditional to more egalitarian forms, that it was primarily women who were pushing for these changes, and that the young, the well-educated, and the upper-middle-class dual-career couples were at the vanguard of change.”

This change has no doubt fully come.  In the 2013 Annual Mother’s Day  Survey by Career Builder which included 411 working mothers and 420 working fathers with children 18 and under living with them, the results showed that there are almost as many working moms who are the sole financial provider (34 percent) as there are working dads as sole breadwinners (39 percent).


Money views can be a complicated thing. There are varying opinions about it, and that includes the concept of the breadwinner role when it shifts from the conventional father role and responsibility. But one thing is certain. Being an average American, that is, hovering around  middle to low income brackets  and being the sole breadwinner is tough in these hard and trying times.

The stress and unusual demand of being the sole breadwinner, especially when one takes on multiple jobs to provide adequately, has serious negative effects manifested outside of work.


Despite drastic changes in gender role expectations, most studies on gender and income show that the majority (both men and women) still associate men to breadwinning roles and expect them to be good providers. In this regard, the negative effects on marriage would lean more towards situations when the wife is the breadwinner.

A 2012 research by the Prudential Financial group found that over half of American women or 53 percent are primary or sole breadwinners in their households. The research further shows that these women are either single or divorced and support themselves entirely, while 22 percent of married women earn more than their husbands.

Breadwinning wives are even more common in families with lower incomes. Seven in 10 working wives earn as much or more than their husbands in the bottom 20 percent of income distribution and about half of working wives are breadwinners in the middle income distribution.


Despite not being conventional, there has been openness about non-male breadwinning roles, given economic circumstances as well as the practicality of the arrangement when called for. Also, there are many families with non-traditional breadwinning roles where harmony, peace and domestic bliss exist, not to mention pride for both the mom and the dad.

The ugly horns of the non-male breadwinning role shows up when important conditions are not met. Foremost of these is when there is no accompanying shift in family roles – the woman is the breadwinner and at the same time still has to take full charge of the home and children. Another is when there are lies woven around the real family financial situation, tolerated by either one of the couple or both.

This was the case for advertising executive Betsy, clearly the sole breadwinner for the longest time but not with the “official” role, whose husband just went about the house on the pretext of being an “artist” – predominantly in his own mind, with not a single gallery show or a paid commission to show for his talent. “We were really dysfunctional. We acted as if we were a two-income family. He was in denial, and I was sort of protecting him. He’d pay for groceries. He was running up credit card debt to make it appear he had more money,” Betsy shares.

For women, such situations lead them to appraise their partner, and realizations often follow separation and divorce if there is no change.

And what about the husbands?  Family psychologists noted that as the wives grow more confident with their earning abilities, their husbands often seem to diminish in terms of self-worth and in being man of the house. There is little evidence to show that as women acquire earning power, relations between men and women have evolved successfully. In most cases, both the man and the woman are not comfortable with this role reversal.


In the same CareerBuilder survey, 17 percent of working moms shared working for the family has negatively impacted their relationship with their children, while 12 percent shared that their work has negatively impacted relationship with their spouse or partner. Working moms struggle to deal with finding balance between work and home, often compromising quality time with the family.

Likewise, on-call work practices where the employee can be called in for work at any time, preventing them to attend to important household concerns and carry out or even plan quality family time. While men and women deal with their own separate issues of being sole breadwinners, children deal not just with economic strains but with complex emotional and psychological effects.

Living in an atmosphere where money worries is a consistent issue  and especially hearing arguments about money have negative effects on children’s sense of security and how they view money.

Parents’ financial stress negatively impacts their children. Studies show that children do feel and carry with them the strain, even if the parents are discreet in talking about the situation. In a research, parents that experienced financial strain were less connected to their children, which can affect the kid’s school performance and relationships with others. They were also less likely to engage in positive social behaviors like helping others and volunteering.

In cases where men in the family don’t work, have no sense of co-shared responsibility and slack around while women take on breadwinning responsibilities, children can acquire their own values about work, money and entitlements from the financial situation in their households.

Daughters see their mothers work hard and resolve to do the same, exhibiting responsibility in duties and relationships, while sons, seeing that their fathers do not work,  rarely do household chores or schoolworks and expect to get everything even if they don’t work for it. Of course, this is not the case for all families, with many factors at play on how children acquire money and work values from parents as role models.


The National Center for Children in Poverty said that single-parent families are at greater risk of economic hardship than two-parent families, largely because the latter have twice the earnings potential.

The Institution also mentioned that middle- and especially upper-income families receive numerous government benefits that help them maintain and improve their standard of living, three times in value than poorer families. These benefits are largely not available to low-income families –  tax-subsidized benefits by employers like health insurance and retirement funds, home ownership tax breaks, child and child care tax credits.

These non-access to employment-based and assets-based tax benefits coupled with stagnant incomes and the high cost of basic necessities have made it difficult for families with sole breadwinners to get by, and they often resort to staggering debts as solution to emergency money problems. On the larger picture, unpaid debts have played central role in perpetuating recessions.

Likewise, individuals in poorer, single-income households are at a disadvantage in terms of health, education and socio-economic opportunities. The economic cost of being the sole breadwinner especially with middle, low-income and poor families is no different than the economic costs of the general poverty situation and income inequality.


personNeedless to say, being the sole breadwinner is a huge responsibility and can inflict negative effects on the sole financial provider if the stress becomes too much and was not handled appropriately.

Health. There is always the potential negative health impacts of being the sole breadwinner due to unusually long and extended periods of working hours, as in the case of those who round up multiple jobs or those who work overtime on single jobs.

Emotional state. But aside from physical effects, just the thought of being the sole breadwinner and the responsibility that comes with providing enough, for everyone, all the time, can already strain one’s mental, emotional and psychological health. There will always be fears lurking in the mind of the family member whom everyone depends on – what if I screw at work, what if there’s a layoff, what if my company shuts, what if something happens to me? These  are big life questions that the sole breadwinner struggles with in dealing with the financial insecurity brought by having no help or partner in earning money.

Occupational stress. Sole breadwinners in big and extended families exhibit occupational stress like lack of concentration and focus, agitation, anxiety and deteriorating performance level in the workplace(s).

Self-limiting behaviors. Because of the overwhelming responsibility confined on the shoulders of the sole breadwinner, self-sacrifices concerning money can be just a natural thing. Because desires are infinite, but the resources are not, the logical decision is to prioritize the urgent and important need. As such, self-improvement aspirations like higher education or becoming a small-scale entrepreneur, self-fulfilment  plans like marriage (for the single breadwinner) or travel, and even self-enhancement wishes as simple as renewing a season’s wardrobe and a little self-pampering all fly to the window.

Read SURVIVAL TIPS FOR THE SOLE BREADWINNER to find even more useful tips!

James Anthony

By James Anthony

A senior FinancesOnline writer on SaaS and B2B topics, James Anthony passion is keeping abreast of the industry’s cutting-edge practices (other than writing personal blog posts on why Firefly needs to be renewed). He has written extensively on these two subjects, being a firm believer in SaaS to PaaS migration and how this inevitable transition would impact economies of scale. With reviews and analyses spanning a breadth of topics from software to learning models, James is one of FinancesOnline’s most creative resources on and off the office.

seth says:

many women (not all) are finding out how hard it is to work full time.
those who do work often leave work early or don't come in at all to take care of child illness and the men cover for them

I've had to cover for my female coworkers for my entire 25 years with the military so they could leave to take care of child issues. one coworker came in at 9 and left at 4 every workday for the 5 years that she was in my office, making the SAME amount of money as someone who came in at 730 and stayed till 5.

I work 60 hours per week as a surgeon and my wife stays home, yet she claims to be just as tired as I am even though our kids are 22 and 24.

Reply to this comment »
Donna says:

This has to be the best article that I've read about the dynamics of money in a household. It is very challenging (and frustrating!) in today's economy where many jobs have been shipped overseas or a $10-12 hour job requires a bachelor's degree, which is absolutely ridiculous. Pensions have disappeared and retirement burdens have shifted to employee/employer match 401k accounts (if you are lucky to even have a job with that benefit). My hubby hasn't had a raise since before 2008 and neither has anyone else who is still working where he does.
Thank goodness we finally got ourselves into a situation where we've tried to live on one income a long time ago. The other income was to pay down our only credit card, save for the next car, pay for a simple family vacation or two, or beef up our savings. We've been living on that one income flout of necessity since my job dried up 3 years ago. The news will tell you that the economy is improving. Yeah right. What a joke.

Reply to this comment »

Leave a comment!

Add your comment below.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.


Why is FinancesOnline free? Why is FinancesOnline free?

FinancesOnline is available for free for all business professionals interested in an efficient way to find top-notch SaaS solutions. We are able to keep our service free of charge thanks to cooperation with some of the vendors, who are willing to pay us for traffic and sales opportunities provided by our website. Please note, that FinancesOnline lists all vendors, we’re not limited only to the ones that pay us, and all software providers have an equal opportunity to get featured in our rankings and comparisons, win awards, gather user reviews, all in our effort to give you reliable advice that will enable you to make well-informed purchase decisions.