Dual Income, One Household: How to Make Love and Money Work

Adam Putterman
February 26th, 2021 | 5 min
Image by AliceBC0 for Pixabay
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American households no longer single-income endeavors. A Pew survey found that in nearly half of all American households, both parents work and bring in two incomes. That doesn’t mean that couples and families have it all figured out. A quick glance around Reddit and Quora shows that this shift has led to plenty of questions and challenges around how working couples split paychecks and combine finances.

For many, there’s no model on how to make it work. Many couples grew up in a household with only one working parent. This means that the examples they may have seen for how a relationship grows and changes and thrives over time don’t necessarily apply to them. We often learn best by imitation and it can be particularly hard for couples to chart new paths and deal with challenges they’ve never experienced.

The first and most important step in preventing or fixing a problem is to understand it. So let’s dig into some of the unique questions and challenges that dual-career couples may face.

Whose career comes first?

Careers are ever-changing and opportunities will come and go. When you’re both working, there may come a time when what’s best for one of your careers will actively harm the other's. Maybe it’s moving to a new city or it’s investing time and money into learning a new skill–many couples struggle to find an answer that feels right and fair. Further, it can be particularly tough to avoid feelings of resentment or power imbalances as income, ambition, and success fluctuate.

How do we find time together?

Whether you have different work schedules or are simply exhausted after a long day, when both couples work it can be even harder to make time for "us". Dedicated time together is a key foundation of any healthy relationship and many dual-income couples can struggle to find the energy and ability to protect that special time together. This can be particularly hard when one person is prioritizing their career or faces a sudden schedule change at work.

How do we split household work and decide what to outsource?

Maintaining a home and a life outside of work is never ending. There are chores around the house, taking care of your health, groceries, taxes... the list is endless. All of this still needs to get done regardless of whether you’re both working. It’s often difficult to decide who does what and where you’ll be comfortable paying for help. This can be particularly tough when one person ends up taking on more work and feels resentful of their partner.

Who takes care of the kids?

Not every couple wants kids, but, when they do, figuring out childcare with two working parents can be very difficult. Particularly early on, many couples struggle with having one partner stay at home and take on most of the housework. There’s no right answer and it can be particularly tough when you layer on recent career changes, self-employment or freelance struggles, income inequality and different upbringings).

Although the rise of dual-working couples can cause challenges, it also comes with clear benefits like higher income (obviously) and healthy independence and autonomy for both partners. More importantly, many of these challenges can be addressed proactively.

Tools and tips to navigate these issues

Some researchers have found that dual-career couples do better when they explicitly acknowledge these challenges and build informal "contracts" around their changing lives together.

Jennifer Petriglieri, associate professor at INSEAD and the author of Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work told The Atlantic that “it starts at home, with both partners making commitments and a plan to challenge society’s endless pulls. Couples need to develop the habit of having conversations about what really matters to them and how they support each other’s ambitions. It’s a hard battle, requiring honesty and stamina to triumph, but it is a worthy one to fight for a happy work and family life.”

Many couples can also benefit from more intentional financial planning. Tools like Zeta can be particularly helpful for dual-career couples to better understand and plan for their future. Having data, history, and goals for your future make questions around outsourcing and changing careers much more tangible.

Just like couples may go to an expert for financial planning, many couples seek an expert for relationship support. Whether it’s virtual couples therapy, a relationship coach, or a great book, there’s always something to be found in learning from others.

In particular, many therapists recommend addressing these challenges as early as possible. One of the highest predictors of success in couples therapy is how long the couple waits before getting help - the shorter the better.

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