Sad fact: The gender wealth gap is still a thing. And it's gotten even worse because of the pandemic. (Hey, shecession.) One thing that could help close it? A breadwinner's mindset, says Jennifer Barrett, chief education officer of investing app Acorns and author of "Think Like a Breadwinner." We talked to Barrett about what that means and why she thinks it's the key to building real wealth.
I define [it] as making the kinds of money choices that will ensure you can provide the life you want for yourself – and maybe for others, too – without needing to depend on anyone else. That means planning your career strategically. And negotiating to be sure you are earning the most you can in any role. It’s about establishing great credit – and avoiding credit card debt – so that you’ll be able to qualify for the best terms on a mortgage to buy a home one day. Or to take a loan out to start your own business. Investing not just for retirement, but for the goals you have in the decades before.
Most women were not raised to think this way. And the cultural messaging we get tends to reinforce these ideas that our income is less important, that wealth-building is not for us, and that we are more likely to manage the household budget than the investments. That may help explain why the gender wealth gap is still so big.
Closing that gap requires advocating for ourselves to earn the most we can in our careers. [It also requires] looking at our paychecks as more than a means to cover the bills and buy the things we need and want now, but as an opportunity to build wealth for the future.
As a culture, we still tend to see men as breadwinners and women as caregivers. But the reality is: those roles are shifting in millions of households today. Many couples are trying to determine a breakdown of household, caregiving, and financial responsibilities that feels fair and works for them – rather than just rely on cultural expectations.
But it can be difficult to challenge cultural norms. I interviewed more than 100 women for my book, and I spoke to many whose partners were picking up more of the caregiving responsibilities since they had the better-paying or less flexible jobs. That often required some candid conversations about each partner’s expectations, assumptions, and needs. But it’s entirely doable and can ultimately benefit both partners.
The costs of stepping out of the workforce go well beyond missing out on paychecks. Stepping back means missing out on retirement contributions, too, and on potential promotions and pay raises. It can also affect the amount of Social Security a woman will get in retirement. And if a woman is out for a significant length of time, it can be challenging to re-enter the workforce at the same level or higher.
I would encourage women to talk candidly with their partner (if they have one) before giving birth to determine the course of action that makes the most sense. It can also help to plan ahead financially for this possibility ahead of time. Whatever choice a couple ultimately makes, it should be an informed one.
Jennifer Barrett says thinking like a breadwinner means making financial decisions that put you in the best possible position to take care of yourself. And maybe a family one day. For every woman who adopts this money mindset, we get one person closer to saying...what wealth gap?
Psst: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Stacy Rapacon, Ivana Pino, Casey Bond, and Elyse Steinhaus