Today, one in three working women earns more than her husband, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's a big leap from the one in four that reported doing so back in 1987. There's no denying what's behind it: Education. Today, more women than men enroll in college and apply to many graduate schools — including medical school.
You'd think households across America would be happy to have the extra income (no matter who's earning it). But the fact that so many more women are finally bringing home the bacon (whether or not they're frying it up in a pan) has its problems as well. And it's not just men who are bothered by the differential in their take-home pay.
When wives earn roughly equal or higher salaries than their husbands, the women become less committed to the union, although the husbands do not, says Steven Nock, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia. Nock's research shows these higher-earning wives are also more likely than those who don't out-earn their husbands to initiate divorce.
Randi Minetor, author of "Breadwinner Wives and the Men They Marry," (New Horizon, 2002) found women to be the agitators as well. The problem is not, she says, that men's egos are "so fragile they can't tolerate their wives being successful," she says. "More women are frustrated with their relationships than men."
With bonuses just around the corner — and raises (hopefully) coming into view — how do you maneuver if you find you're among this growing sector of the population?
Talk about what's happening. Couples happiest in a she-earns-more situation tend to be the ones that planned that this is the way it would be going in. She went to law school. He went to art school. It was always pretty clear who was going to earn more.
Yet what happens in many homes is that the situation sneaks up on couples. Men who initially expected to be the primary breadwinner find themselves outearned and, they often feel, outshined. The reaction, particularly of women — who are afraid that confronting the issue head-on will wound their already fragile husbands — is to tiptoe around it. Big mistake.
Talk both about the numbers — the actual dollars — coming in the door, and how they make both of you feel. You may both be more OK with the status quo than either of you anticipated. Or one or both of you may be uncomfortable. Then it's time to:
Consider alternative arrangements. If neither spouse likes this balance of power (or if one is particularly unhappy) take some steps to try to change it. This may mean seeking career help or additional education to increase the husband's earning capacity. It may mean downscaling your lifestyle so that he can stay home part-time with the kids.
If this new earning trend has taught us anything, it's that in each individual household anything is possible as long as both spouses buy in. That may mean, however, that you have to:
Redefine your roles. A big complaint of women who outearn their spouses: He doesn't do enough work around the house, says Ginny Graves, co-author of "Bringing Home the Bacon: Making Marriage Work When She Makes More Money" (William Morrow, 2005).
"The couples that were happiest don't necessarily divide household responsibilities 50/50, but they split things in a way that felt fair with both partners and both could live with," says Graves. So sit down as a couple outside the house, without the kids. Each spouse should make a list of the top three chores that make them nuts. The other can agree which to take on and which to delegate. It may mean hiring outside help. But once those pet peeves are covered, everything else should fall into place.
Finally, you'll have to figure out a way to deal with the money:
Consider becoming co-CFOs. The temptation of many higher earning women is to bring home their paycheck, then hand it over and abdicate control. They feel so guilty about outearning their husbands that they just give it to the man to manage.
No matter who earns the money, you both need to know where it goes. A system of yours, mine and ours accounts often works best, so that each of you has freedom to spend what you need to individually, but also the ability to consider yourself a team and plan for joint and family goals.Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money Magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life Magazine. She is the author of four books, including 2004's "Pay it Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio). To find out more, visit her Web site, .