In her latest book, "When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women," Farnoosh Torabi explores how women who out-earn their male counterparts face unique emotional and relationship challenges.
We interviewed Torabi for her thoughts on the reversal of gender roles, the emotional implications of money, and how to thrive as a couple no matter who brings home the bigger paycheck.
Q: What was your inspiration for the book?
A: I make more than my husband in my own relationship. I've been covering the financial space for over 10 years and felt for the first time in my career at a financial crossroads. Here was this seemingly normal circumstance of being financially independent, but making it work within a relationship has emotional complexities. Culturally, this wasn't expected of me. It's unorthodox to be the one who is bringing home the bacon, so I've had to reconcile that with my own family.
Q: What makes being the breadwinner -- especially as a woman -- so challenging?
A: It's a lot of responsibility for anyone who's the breadwinner. But for women, there's another layer of challenge. While we're tasked with bringing home the larger paycheck, when we come home, we're still designed to feel the instinct to be at the forefront of other tasks like motherhood and household responsibilities. It can cause a feeling of being overwhelmed, or flat-out burned out. However, it's especially tough if you don't have the support of a partner that can celebrate what you do.
Q: Do men in this day and age really care whose paycheck is bigger?
A: Research has shown that women who make more are more vulnerable to divorce and infidelity. Men can feel overlooked and start to question their identity because providing has always been something men have traditionally taken care of. For some men, [having a spouse who earns more] can be emasculating. The good news is someone is financially supporting the other person, but that brings with it so much baggage, and we haven't learned how to manage the emotional consequences that sometimes come with the circumstances.
That's where the book comes in. It's not just stories from couples and women, but gender experts, psychotherapists, plus results from a huge nationwide survey. From there, I was able to adapt some rules for making these types of relationships work.
Q: What about society in general? Are we headed into unexplored territory?
A: Certainly, we've come a long way. Had I decided to do this book even five years ago, people might have been more resistant. It brings up a whole vat of emotion and discomfort in some cases. In career and politics and government, we're seeing more women in leadership roles. And in the household, we see men taking on more. So it shouldn't come to a surprise that this trend is growing. The younger generations have more of an awareness or an acceptance of this trend. It takes a little more effort for the older generations to wrap their brains around it. A lot of it depends on how you were raised, and if you saw your parents transcend gender roles.
Q: How do you recommend couples deal with the household budget when the woman makes more?
A: There are a lot of schools of thought on this. Some couples put all the money in one pot. I'm not as romantic. I think some portion of your money should be shared, but you should each have your own accounts. This ultimately provides each person in the relationship with financial autonomy. We know that couples often break up over money, but it's really more of a power issue. My "three bucket system" allows for individual financial independence.
As for sharing expenses, it's important for couples to be able to communicate. One strategy is to put the same percentage of your income in the shared account to create an equanimity. Having one person in charge of most of the financial administration stuff is fine, but everyone should be involved in the decision-making.
If there's a huge income disparity, the one with the bigger paycheck might want to take on the biggest expenses. But the person who makes less needs to feel his or her financial contributions are important, too. Perhaps that person making less can put 20 percent of their income toward family vacations or retirement. When the family has something fun to enjoy, they can look back and say, dad (or mom) paid for that, and it can be perceived a huge contribution to the family.
Q: What about managing old debt?
A: Debt needs to be a personally resolved issue. The other spouse needs to be very forthcoming and say that while it's a mutual effort to erase existing debt, she shouldn't put her name on that debt. Rolling someone else's debt into your financial profile isn't wise.
However, you might both need good credit to qualify for a loan, so you can say something like: "I'll pay the rent for the next six months, but you need to put your portion of rent toward your balances." That way you're helping without becoming a co-debtor.
Q: At what stage in the relationship should couples have "the money talk"?
A: It's not like a light-bulb moment will come and you'll say, "Let's talk about our finances." But you can open the dialogue by talking about your upbringing. What were your exposures to money growing up? How did you parents communicate about money? Did your mom work? If you understand where each other comes from, it gives really good context for later on.
When I was a year into dating my husband, we went to a really familiar and safe environment -- the old bar down the street -- and we talked about money. We wrote down our incomes, and how much debt we were in, and we traded. It was kind of a playful thing, but it was an important moment in our relationship. Before you move to that "next level," it's a good time to come clean about finances so you can work things out together.
Q: What are some suggestions when it comes to outside criticisms of your money dynamic?
A: First of all, be careful about what you share with people. Don't disclose everything about your finances.
Certainly it's true that when you're a woman who does well financially, it only becomes an issue when you're in a relationship with a man who makes less. It wasn't until I was paired up with a guy who makes less than me that people went, "Oh." The judgment was as much on him as me. A lot of the judgment imposed on women is that she's the one wearing the pants, and/or he doesn't have any say in the relationship.
From the outside in, whoever is holding the bigger paycheck is perceived to hold the power. If you are someone who believes that, who worships money as power, you're going to have a lot of problems in your own relationships. As we know people can lose their jobs, or become incapable of making that paycheck, because of health, the economy. Things can change at any time.
The couple who thrives in these financial scenarios are those who see money as more of a utility and less as a source of power and status, and perceive who's making more as a matter of circumstance.
Q: So how does your husband feel about your book's topic?
A: He's so proud of me. I'm very lucky to have a husband who is really excited to celebrate this with me. He knows this is a hard topic for me to talk about, but over time, I have matured and evolved, and begun to articulate what I'm processing. If I were to tell you that I wouldn't long for the day in which he makes more, I'd be totally lying. While I love and take pride in being the breadwinner today, I would love for him to experience that as well. We have conversations all the time about how he can take his career to the next level, and he finds inspiration in the risks I take. As long as we're open with each other as a couple, we'll be OK.