When the Wife Earns the Bucks

01/25/2010 12:01 am EST

Focus: MARKETS

Terry Savage

Author, The Savage Truth on Money

I can hear my grandmother’s words ringing in my ears. She regularly reminded me: “It’s just as easy to marry a rich man as a poor man!” It was a strategy that worked for women in America for more than 100 years.  

But it’s a trend that seems to be reversing, according to the latest Pew Research Center report.

Its findings show that  “a larger share of today's men, compared with their 1970 counterparts, are married to women whose education and income exceed their own—and a larger share of women are married to men with less education and income.”

The report attributes the change to gains in higher education by women over the past 40 years.  The report's authors, Richard Fry and D'Vera Cohn, are calling it a “gender role reversal.” 

They add: "In the past, when relatively few wives worked, marriage enhanced the economic status of women more than that of men. In recent decades, however, the economic gains associated with marriage have been greater for men."

Median household income statistics bear this out. According to the report, median household income rose 60% between 1970 and 2007 for married men, married women and unmarried women, but only 16% for unmarried men.

This role reversal has been several generations in arriving. Author Dalma Heyn commented on the origins of the “fairer sex” in her 1999 bestseller, Marriage Shock: The Transformation of Women into Wives.  

She explained that that until the Victorian era, with its smelling salts and tight bodices, women worked alongside men. They trekked across the prairies of America in wagon trains, where they chopped wood and helped build log cabins. Now, we’re heading back to the role of women as bread-winner and earner.

So, what are the lessons for singles out there? For men, it clearly shows the demise of the stigma that used to be attached to earning less than your spouse. Anyone who watched Sex and the City watched that change play out for Miranda a decade ago. For women, it opens the “pool” of available spouses so they can cast a much wider net.

But what does it mean for your financial planning?

For starters, we see single women as home-buyers—not waiting to take my grandma’s advice.  But we also see the need for both men and women to plan their finances as if there would be no “rescue” from a spouse. That means setting aside more for retirement. (Two can live cheaper than one in retirement!) It means planning for care in our old age. Without a spouse, you are definitely in need of long-term care insurance.

And the Pew Report opens the door for more conversation about money management for those who are married—especially if the woman is the higher earner in the marriage. Because even if a woman earns more, odds are it’s still a touchy subject. What do you think? Please have your say and join the conversation.

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