How Couples Live On A Single Income

Surviving on a single income. Couples take turns at earning and learning.

How Couples Live On A Single Income

You've got to hand it to Bill and Hillary Clinton: Despite all their bad behavior, they do know how to take turns. When Bill headed off to Washington for his first term as president, Hillary left her law practice and followed. When their time at the White House was up and Hillary ran for Senate, Bill embraced his role as a spouse. And a fine political husband he has been, showing up for fundraisers, waving and smiling, and praising his gal at every opportunity.


Taking turns is a skill we learn early on at the playground but allow to erode as adults. You rarely see couples making magnanimous offers like “You swing first, and then I’ll take a turn.” Instead, partners hook up while both are working and either live out their years on two incomes or permanently split duties between primary earner and child-rearer.

While the world makes all sorts of progress around us, we keep recycling the tired argument about whether women should work or be moms. The perpetual either/or of early feminism has trapped us in a worn-out dilemma of choosing to be dreary homemakers or depleted professionals.


I’d like to kill off that debate for eternity. Let’s ask not which to be, but when. This is a far more freeing question; it’s predicated on the belief that men and women can both work hard and both take breaks—and improve their marriages in the process.

Here’s an example: Mark P., a software project manager, and Cris G., a technical writer, have been together for 19 years, over the course of which they’ve swapped the role of major earner several times. In 1988, Cris’s mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s; to care for her, someone needed to research services, hire helpers, and make financial arrangements. “Cris did that, while I worked,” says Mark. A decade later, laid off during the technology bust, Mark decided to spend a year writing a novel.

Since then Mark and Cris have traded off one more time. At 52, Cris stopped working, and she has just finished her first year of law school. “I knew Cris had always wanted to study law,” Mark says. “So I told her, ‘This is your chance to do something for yourself. Why don’t you do it?’”Was this an easy choice? Sure, they both say. “It’s never been a question of one works while the other loafs,” says Cris. “We’re not the type of people to sit around. And neither of us has ego about being the money earner.”

Ruth Hayden, a leading voice on the subject of personal finance, believes taking turns earning is “the wave of the future.” Author of For Richer, Not Poorer: The Money Book for Couples, Hayden is a passionate advocate for the power of flexibility to preserve and improve marriages, especially in an era of increasing longevity when the feasible age for retirement is being pushed upwards into the seventies. “When we’re going to live as long as we are, neither one of us can stay stuck in a job that we don’t like,” she argues. “If you’re going to be a long-term couple, you have to be willing and prepared to take turns holding the responsibility for the financial support. One of the primary reasons for divorce,” she adds, “is that people feel trapped, and they think if they leave the marriage, they’ll feel free again.”


Steve H. felt extremely trapped. A graphic designer at a slick magazine, he began feeling less and less satisfied at his job and more and more interested in his church activities. “It got to the point,” he says, “that I was taking a portable CD player to work and listening to Russian church music in order to distract myself.”

His wife, Clancy D., was sympathetic. An editor of books and newsletters for a research institute, Clancy could provide health insurance for both Steve and their baby boy if Steve were to make a change. And she had always seen her income as family income. “She has consistently said, ‘Look, this is our money,’” Steve explains. So, after testing the waters with a job in a church office, Steve applied to a nearby seminary, and today is studying to become a priest.

When he’s ordained, Clancy will enjoy the same freedom to change careers or take a break. “Part of the calculus of this setup is that there will be a good job for me on the other side,” Steve says, “and then Clancy can see what moves her.”

Yet solutions like Steve and Clancy’s are rare. Sheryl Garrett, a certified financial planner who has just published Money Without Matrimony: The Unmarried Couples’ Guide to Financial Security, says she counts just one client out of 50 who has taken this sort of leap. Couples simply don’t plan for big change, generally, unless they are faced with a crisis like layoffs or problems with the kids.The reasons for this rigidity are threefold. First, says Garrett, we fear exclusion: that if we leave a job for six months or two years, we’ll be forgotten; we’ll lose our contacts and our credibility. “People worry,” she says, “that they won’t get back into the workforce. But that’s not the case if they have marketable skills. And if they don’t,” she adds, “they can put acquiring them into their long-range plan.”


Garrett’s view is that doing something exciting and new for a period of time—“Go to the Galapagos! Take up piano!”—can actually be a plus for returning to the workforce. “If I were asked in an interview what I’ve been doing for the last year,” she hypothesizes, “I would make the year sound so damn fabulous and refreshing that it would be the envy of anyone who’s interviewing me!”

More frightening to most people than any difficulty re-entering the job market, however, is surviving on a single paycheck while you’re out of it. Overcoming this concern is at the heart of adopting the taking-turns mentality. No two-income couple can choose the trade-off route without cutting back. Cris and Mark sold off a car. Another couple, Debbie and Pat E., drink cheaper wine. Laura M. and Graham C. go to fewer concerts; they’ve quit shopping at the upscale market; and if they eat out, says Laura, “it’s the burrito thing.”

The trouble is that, for many, such cutbacks are far from enough. “The problem of couples today,” says financial expert Hayden, who has a two-and-a-half year waiting list for her consulting services, “is that they spend up to what they make when they’re both working.” With rent and clothes and loan payments already demanding two salaries, how do you get down to one? “I talk to my clients about what I call under-consuming, a concept they don’t even think of.” In short, “you need to make sure that your lifestyle isn’t leveraging both incomes.”

It’s a difficult proposition these days. But couples who plan for time-outs and life-changes find ways to beat the need for double paychecks. “When we bought a house in 1993,” says Cris G., “we went against the prevailing advice, which was to buy as much house as you could afford. Even though we were both working, we bought a house we could afford on one income.”


Steve H. and Clancy D. landed subsidized housing provided by the seminary, and Debbie E. and her husband had spent so many exhausting years climbing their professional ladders, they’d accumulated enough savings to accommodate a change. There’s a third great obstacle, however, to the taking-turns lifestyle: Evidently, many modern couples are still years away from transcending old-fashioned gender roles. Even when women work, both men and women tend to see the woman’s income as discretionary—as, in Hayden’s words, “volunteer work with a bonus.” To achieve the flexibility Hayden espouses, women may face new pressures to earn more. Desperate Housewives fans will remember the look of shock on Lynette Scavo’s face when her husband, Tom, announced he’d start doing the rough work of taking care of the home while she went back to her high-powered career. But for guys, the take-turns approach can be impossible to imagine. “A lot of times they react with disbelief,” says Hayden. “They just don’t believe taking time off is possible. Sometimes they laugh and get nervous, but after we talk about it, they experience relief.”

Luckily, we’re not all still oppressed by ’50s stereotyping. When Debbie E., whose tech startup was wooing her to increase her commitment and become president, and her husband, a reluctant attorney, decided that one of them needed to slow down and take care of the rest of their lives, they deliberated for months over who it would be.

“There had never been a question of whether or not I worked,” says Debbie about their conundrum. “That’s who I was. That’s who he fell in love with.” So when Pat agonized over whether he should leave a job he didn’t love or hang on to his hard-won law practice, Debbie finally said, “Honey, you’ve got to pick one!”


In the end, they decided Debbie would take a break—and she’s loving it. But she’s spending a good deal of time fantasizing about how, in the future, they’ll flip-flop. Whether it’s a sabbatical in a low-cost country or starting a business of his own, Pat will get his chance at freedom.

That back-and-forth might be one of the healthiest things he and Debbie ever do for their marriage. As Ruth Hayden puts it, “Something else happens when couples take turns: They can really see themselves in the long term.”