The Two-Career Assumption

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1935 by David Silvette, Oil on canvas by cliff1066 on Flickr!One of the biggest assumptions I see in married couples my age is that both partners must be pursuing a career. In almost every married couple I know, both partners are engaged in full-time employment, attempting to earn the largest combined wage possible.

Sometimes, it’s necessary. One of our closest friends earns about $13 an hour at her full time job, roughly the same as her husband makes, but they have three children at home and a mortgage and it’s simply impossible for either one of them to consider something else. If only one of them were employed, they would barely miss some of the cutoffs for government aid, so that’s not an option for them, either. In fact, they’re only able to make ends meet thanks to a relative who is providing extremely cheap day care just for their kids.

Most of the time, though, it’s not necessary – it’s just an assumed choice. A young couple I know are consciously living a debt free life and are actually spending about 40% of their income (my estimate based on some of their comments) – not much at all. The rest goes into the bank. The drawback? They don’t get to spend as much time together as they’d like and they spend a lot of extra money eating out quite often, simply because neither one of them wants to lose time together in conversation doing meal preparation.

In both cases – and in almost every married couple I know – the basic assumption is that both partners will work and contribute directly to the income of the family. In virtually every case, this state of affairs was simply assumed at the start of the relationship, was never really discussed in detail, and continued out of inertia – and a high standard of living – into having children.

In some ways, this was true of our own relationship. We never really discussed the idea of one of us staying at home until our financial turnaround began and our second child was on the horizon, mostly because that was the first time it even seemed possible. Had I not been engaged in some serious life re-evaluation at the time, I’m not sure it would have been discussed at that point, either.

I’m not arguing that having both partners in a marriage chasing a career is a bad thing. Instead, I argue that simply assuming that this will be the order of things in a marriage can be restrictive – it limits the possibilities of what your marriage might be like. You might find that, if you consider the alternatives carefully, there might be a personally and financially rewarding solution for adopting an alternative arrangement.

If you’re involved in a serious relationship with someone, whether it be prior to marriage or after, consider discussing these four questions.

First, could we survive financially without that second income? Consider all the factors – the money you would save by not having one partner working, the reduced taxation of your income, and the savings that would come from one partner being at home. You might save on food costs (eating at home all the time), child care costs, transportation costs, taxes, clothing costs, and so on. It’s not simply a matter of having one income disappear.

Second, would one partner be happier in a different situation? It might be that one partner might actually be happier not being involved in the career chase. He/she might prefer to be a stay-at-home parent, or to have the opportunity to chase an alternative and highly flexible career. To a degree, this was a big key in our discussion – I took up writing, which was a much more flexible career.

Third, what would be the expectations if we made such a change? Would one partner be expected to handle a larger portion of household chores – cooking, cleaning, and so forth? Most married couples where both partners are employed full-time split such tasks, but after a change, the expectations of one or both partners might change. Talk these through before you make the leap, or you might find yourself in a very unhappy marriage.

Finally, how would this change our long-term goals? Would such a choice cause you to choose a different house to purchase or change your timeline? Would it cause you to accelerate your plans for children? Might it push one partner to focus more intently on their career plans?

All of these questions can lead to important discussions about your relationship and your financial state, regardless of whether you’re both happy with the current situation or not.

Remember, if you do something just because it seems like the “normal” thing to do or because everyone else is doing it, you very well might be missing out on the best option for you and your family. Have that discussion – it’s an important one and it might lead to a better life for both you and your partner.

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