Think Like a Breadwinner: A Wealth-Building Manifesto for Women Who Want to Earn More (and Worry Less)

Think Like a Breadwinner: A Wealth-Building Manifesto for Women Who Want to Earn More (and Worry Less)

by Jennifer Barrett
Think Like a Breadwinner: A Wealth-Building Manifesto for Women Who Want to Earn More (and Worry Less)

Think Like a Breadwinner: A Wealth-Building Manifesto for Women Who Want to Earn More (and Worry Less)

by Jennifer Barrett


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A new kind of manifesto for the working woman, with tips on building wealth and finding balance, as well as inspiration for harnessing the freedom and power that comes from a breadwinning mindset.

Nearly half of working women in the United States are now their household's main breadwinner. And yet, the majority of women still aren't being brought up to think like breadwinners. In fact, they're actually discouraged—by institutional bias and subconscious beliefs—from building their own wealth, pursuing their full earning potential, and providing for themselves and others financially. The result is that women earn less, owe more, and have significantly less money saved and invested for the future than men do. And if women do end up the main breadwinners, they've been conditioned to feel reluctant and unprepared to manage the role.

In Think Like a Breadwinner, financial expert Jennifer Barrett reframes what it really means to be a breadwinner. By dismantling the narrative that women don't—and shouldn't—take full financial responsibility to create the lives they want, she reveals not only the importance of women building their own wealth, but also the freedom and power that comes with it. With concrete practical tools, as well as examples from her own journey, Barrett encourages women to reclaim, rejoice in, and aspire to the role of breadwinner like never before.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593327890
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/06/2021
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 1,144,785
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Jennifer Barrett is the Head of Content at Fidelity Investments. Previously, she was the Chief Education Officer at the investing app Acorns, Personal Finance Editor at CNBC and a GM at Hearst Digital. A veteran financial journalist, she has written for publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Money, and Newsweek, where she was a staff writer and editor. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Breadwinner Next Door

The New Face of Today's

Primary Provider

If we can see past preconceived limitations, then the possibilities are endless.-Amy Purdy, Paralympian and entrepreneur

Hold up. Rewind. So how did I get to that middle-of-the-night money epiphany that I described in the introduction? The same way most of us reach our financial breaking point: slowly, then all at once.

By the time I reached my late twenties, I was a staff writer at a national news magazine, living in a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood. I had a killer wardrobe and a full social calendar. From the outside, I looked like I had it all together.

But it was an illusion. The truth was, I was broke.

I'd cashed out my first 401(k) retirement account, racked up more than a thousand dollars in credit card debt, and had only a few hundred dollars to my name. I was focused mostly on keeping my head above water financially and getting from one paycheck to the next. I wasn't thinking about how much I needed to save or invest for my future because I assumed I'd be sharing it with someone else who was thinking about all that. I wasn't worrying about how to earn enough to provide for a family because I assumed my future spouse would be the main earner.

I remember feeling tangible relief when I moved in with the man who would become my husband. Victor was then a research analyst at a startup, earning quite a bit more than I was. He had no debt. He was investing-not just in a retirement plan at work but in an E*TRADE account. And as I saw his investment balance rise each month, I felt assured that things would be fine.

So for the first few years of our relationship, I coasted. Victor was the one who found the great deal on the one-bedroom apartment we shared in Brooklyn. When we got married, he planned and paid for most of our honeymoon to Greece. And it was fantastic. While we split the rent and the cost of groceries down the middle, he managed and paid most of our bills. And I knew if I hit a rough patch, he would cover the rent.

I tried to save some money from each check, but if an unplanned expense came up-a gift for a colleague's baby shower or an unexpected trip to urgent care-I often tapped that meager savings or used my credit card. When we moved in together, I had a new 401(k) plan through work, but I was contributing the 3 percent default amount my company had selected and not a penny more. I had no clue whether that would be enough to cover my retirement. It didn't seem all that important at the time. Like a lot of women my age, I figured I had decades of steadily growing paychecks ahead-plus a partner who was already investing for both of us.

Then something happened that I hadn't counted on. Victor started having financial challenges of his own. The startup went under and he took a series of lower-paying contract jobs. He eventually got a full-time offer from a magazine he loved, but not for the job or the salary he wanted. Suddenly it seemed like we were struggling to get by rather than getting ahead. The relief that I'd felt when we first moved in together was replaced by anxiety. How had I not planned for this possibility?

It hadn't occurred to me that the man I married, who had an MBA and a better-paying job when we got engaged, might not always be in a position to take the lead in our financial lives. Or maybe I didn't want to consider that possibility because I wasn't sure I could (or wanted to) fill that role.

Even after my midnight wake-up call, when I realized I'd need to step up financially, I still struggled emotionally with the fact that I hadn't prepared for this scenario. All my life, I'd gotten the message that I didn't need to worry too much about money as long as I could cover my bills and save a little for a rainy day. That I didn't need to think like a breadwinner because I would marry someone who did.

Now, for the first time, I began to grasp the hazards of that assumption.

The Accidental Breadwinners

Some women have a breadwinning mindset from the start and make the kinds of money choices that will set them up for life. (We'll meet a lot of them in this book!) But a lot of us still aren't raised that way, so we start thinking about how to support our future, or a family, only when it becomes necessary. And that can feel pretty jarring at first.

Around the same time I had my awakening, I started to notice other women around my age having similar revelations-finding themselves in situations they never expected to face.

One evening I was having cocktails downtown with a former magazine colleague, a bright blonde in her midthirties who was a successful editor, and single. When I asked her how work was going, she looked me in the eye. "I'm exhausted, Jenn. I have worked my butt off for nearly fifteen years without a break," she said, tears suddenly welling up in her eyes. "Am I going to have to do this for the rest of my life?"

The possibility that she might have to support herself for life had only recently occurred to her. By this point, she told me, she'd expected to be married with kids-not playing the dating game in New York City, an increasingly high-stakes exercise that often ended in frustration. I knew the long hours she worked and the effort she'd already put into her career to get where she was. But while her job came with prestige, plus the pressure to be well coiffed and well dressed, it did not come with a huge salary. She was largely still living paycheck to paycheck. She'd seen marriage as offering relief from that cycle, so she hadn't set aside much money for her future. Now when she looked ahead, she saw years of work and financial catch-up ahead of her. "I feel like I'm on a hamster wheel and I can't get off," she said. "I never expected it to be like this."

Not long after, over dinner one night at a French bistro in midtown Manhattan, my friend Jessica told me that the man she'd been dating didn't want to have kids. But she did. Initially, she'd thought she might convince him to change his mind. But she'd recently come to terms with the fact that if she wanted a baby, she might need to have and raise that child herself-something she had not prepared for financially. She was worried that she couldn't support a child on her own, but at thirty-eight, she didn't feel she had much more time to think about it.

Within months of our conversation, Jessica had broken up with her boyfriend and gone to a sperm bank. She left her job at a daily newspaper to take a public relations role at a hospital that paid more and offered better benefits and a more predictable work schedule. She had her son just before she turned forty. And-poof-just like that, she became a breadwinning single mom, a role she never expected to be in. She loved being a mom but confided later that she was still surprised at the way it had unfolded. "I never planned for this," she told me.

In the months that followed, I began to take note of other women I knew, not just in New York but around the country, faced with responsibilities and circumstances they hadn't expected. In the span of a year, two more friends in their late thirties became single moms, a transition that wasn't easy for either financially. Two other friends were in the midst of getting a divorce, each with young kids they would need to support. Another friend's husband lost his job, and her salary, which was considerably lower, became the only source of income for their family of four for several months-requiring the family to move to a smaller apartment and cut many of their expenses.

Even friends who weren't shouldering all the financial responsibilities were feeling like they should play a more active role in their household finances.

Diane, a senior manager at a telecom company, said her husband had initially taken the lead in managing their investments. "He said he was building wealth for our future, and I wanted to believe what he was saying. But I should have pushed him for more details earlier," she told me. She later learned that they weren't earning nearly as much as he'd implied from the investments and that their financial situation wasn't as secure as she'd thought. "I had a very different perception of our net worth than turned out to be the case," said Diane. "Had I known, I would have made some very different money decisions."

I soon discovered these sorts of conversations were happening among women all over the country as we realized that this narrative many of us were fed-that we don't have to take full financial responsibility for ourselves-had left us vulnerable and without real agency over our lives.

What Changed?

What was going on here? How was it that so many smart, ambitious, well-educated women were finding themselves in situations they hadn't prepared for? It was as if we'd all wandered blithely through our twenties and into our thirties, working hard in our careers, yes, but with the underlying assumption that at some point we'd be able to slow down. At some point we'd have a partner to help cover the bills and future plans.

We'd saved money, but mostly for short-term goals-like a new couch or a flight to visit family for the holidays. We weren't thinking about saving money for a retirement we might be primarily responsible for covering, or to pay all the bills if a spouse lost a job, or to be able to afford to have and raise a baby solo. We weren't thinking about preparing financially for the possibility of supporting ourselves for the long term-much less supporting anyone else.

And yet, as we entered our midthirties or forties, we found ourselves facing one of those scenarios. And we were left reeling. It felt as if someone had unexpectedly changed the plotline halfway through our story and left us wondering, How did I end up here?

As a financial journalist, my instinct was to take a deep dive into the data to look for clues. I spent hours poring over U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Labor reports, studying demographic trends. I started asking questions-of friends, coworkers, gender studies experts, and financial advisors-trying to determine where our assumptions had come from and what they were based on, if not reality.

What I discovered is that for many women raised in a middle-class household-whether we were born in the 1970s or the '90s-a lot of the ideas and expectations we picked up around money aren't just disempowering; they're outdated. Our parents may have passed along what they'd experienced or believed would be true for us. But many of the long-standing assumptions upon which their ideas were based no longer apply.

In 1960, nearly three-quarters of the U.S. adult population was married, and divorce rates were relatively low. So it made sense to count on getting and staying married. But since the 1980s, the marriage rate has been on the decline. By 2014, single Americans actually outnumbered married ones for the first time in history! More than half of Americans between eighteen and thirty-four today say they aren't in a relationship-a record high.

The average age of first-time mothers in the United States has also risen, from twenty-one years old in 1972 to twenty-seven today-and to thirty for women with a college degree. And more of us are raising those kids by ourselves.Nearly one in four kids in this country is growing up with a single mom-an unprecedented number. Data show there are actually more single millennial moms than married ones!

What's particularly telling is that the birth rate for unmarried teens and single moms without a college degree-historically the group with the highest rates of single motherhood-has actually decreased sharply over the last decade. Meanwhile, birth rates have grown among unmarried women thirty-five years or older. "I don't think people realize that there are a lot of older women now who are having babies deliberately, single mothers by choice," Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the New York Times in 2015.

Of course, when we're fantasizing about our futures, we probably aren't picturing ourselves among those numbers. Jessica and my other friends certainly weren't. Who wants to believe that we may not find a partner as early as we hope or that we may end up raising kids on our own? Most of us are still trying to wrap our heads around the idea of being financially responsible for ourselves. This doesn't mean we're all destined to end up divorced or to stay single a lot longer than we'd planned. But it means we can't necessarily count on a partner picking up most of the expenses or the financial responsibility for our future-even if we were raised to believe we could.

Taking Charge of Our Own Destiny

It's not just that men are trained from a young age to be providers, but that women are actually discouraged from thinking of ourselves as breadwinners every step of the way-steered into lower-paying fields and urged to spend money on disposable items that make us more attractive rather than investing in assets that can grow in value and make us wealthy. Billions of marketing dollars and years of cultural conditioning are still aimed at keeping women in debt and focused on spending; thinking of ourselves as consumers, not providers; and equating dependency with security.

"But if I become the breadwinner, who will take care of me?" one thirty-five-year-old marketing manager asked me when we discussed the likely possibility that she would outearn a partner. And I get it. Millions of us have been brought up to believe that "being taken care of" by a man means he's carrying the bulk of the financial responsibilities.

The fantasy of being taken care of financially is seductive-on the surface anyway. That's one reason it's persisted for so long, even in the face of shifting data. A 2015 Georgetown study, "Who Should Bring Home the Bacon?," found that even with the rise of dual-income households, the majority of men and women still said they prefer the husband to be the primary earner.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Introduction The Breadwinner Revelation 1

Part I The Breadwinner Evolution

Chapter 1 The Breadwinner Next Door: The New Face of Today's Primary Provider 11

Chapter 2 What's Been Baked into Us: Questioning Our Assumptions About Money 24

Chapter 3 The Joy of Breadwinning: The Underreported Upside of Making More Dough 37

Chapter 4 Dream Bigger. Visualizing the Financial Future You Deserve 54

Part II Breadwinning Basics

Chapter 5 More Savings = More Choices: Why Building a Safety Net Is Key 73

Chapter 6 Give Yourself Some Credit: How to Leverage It Responsibly to Your Advantage 89

Chapter 7 Invest in Your Future: How to Make Your Money Work for You 109

Part III The Breadwinner Mindset

Chapter 8 Getting the Dough You Deserve: How to Negotiate for More 143

Chapter 9 Do Less, Achieve More: How to Focus on Work That Will Actually Help Your Career 164

Chapter 10 Beyond Passion: How to Do What You Love and Get Paid (Well) for It 185

Part IV The Breadwinning Life

Chapter 11 Now What? What Happens When We Earn More 203

Chapter 12 Letting Go: How to Free Yourself from Expectations That Hold You Back at Home 220

Chapter 13 Beyond "Having It All": What Do Working Women Really Need to Succeed? 242

Chapter 14 Find Your Allies: How to Cultivate a Network of Wealth-Building Women 271

Conclusion Beyond Breadwinning: Creating the Life You Want 291

Acknowledgments 299

Notes 301

Index 331

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