Dual Earner Incomes - Is It Worth The Cost?

Dual earner families come into existence

A few decades ago it was very rare to find a dual earner income family in the US. And yes, I know that to some readers that will be ancient history, but to me it was yesterday. Then came WWII and Rosie the Riveter and the world has not been the same since. Dual earner incomes have spread throughout the world to the point that the US may or may not be the leader in this practice. Women have entered the formal workplace with its time cards, office politics and all the rest of it for good. When you consider that some 44% of families now have dual wage earners and that much of what is left is composed of either single parents or no earner families (unemployed perhaps, or retired) it is apparent that most people find it advantageous. But is it really worth the cost? Lets look at some of those costs as well as some of the "profits" of an average, two parent family with two children.


More Toys from a Second Income

Certainly everybody needs a second home
Certainly everybody needs a second home
A little fun on the water
A little fun on the water
How about a new car?
How about a new car?

Reasons for a dual earner family

The obvious reason for a non-working spouse to take a job is money. That money is a large factor in what is driving our economy now. It has had a significant effect on the standard of living, allowing us to buy more toys (RV, snowmobile), more gadgets (big screen TV, microwaves, cell phones), bigger homes (290 square feet per occupant in 1950 to 893 square feet per occupant in 2006). We take a family cruise to foreign countries instead of packing a tent and heading for the hills for a few days.

So how much money can the second half of the two earner income expect to bring home? Median income for the US (male) is around $45,000. Let’s assume that figure for the primary wage earner regardless of their sex. The second earner is more likely to earn less; although certainly not unheard of, it would be unusual for a second wage to be as high as the primary earner. Let’s assume $35,000 for the second earner. Of that, about 30% will disappear as federal, state and FICA taxes, leaving about $25,000 to take home but of course that’s not the end of it. Daycare expenses average around $650 for an infant/toddler and $500 for a preschool child. If the cost for the two children is $1000 per month that leaves $13,000 to take home. There will be commuting, additional clothing, and other non-reimbursed work expenses. Perhaps a total of $250 per month - that leaves just $10,000 take home pay. When both parents work there is a strong tendency to purchase extra services for the house - both parents have an extra work load and are tired and don’t want to cook every night, don’t want to fix the broken faucet, don’t want to mow the lawn. To eat out three or four times a week and hire some handyman work around the house could very easily come to $300 per month, leaving $6400 take home pay for the year. Now that is a significant figure, but consider that it is only $3.07 per hour! Is the dual earner concept still worth it to have the extra toys and such? Of course, you may fall from the current concept of (gasp!) the middle class.

Money isn’t the ONLY reason to work, though. The dual earner income phenomenon is so common that there is beginning to be some social stigmata against the spouse that stays home. "He just watches TV all day and changes a couple of diapers. Big deal!". Some people do not find being a homemaker to be particularly fulfilling - their satisfaction comes from a paycheck or other recognition and accomplishments at the job. For some it may be not so much the money, but that it enables them to "keep up with the Joneses" - the social climber needs the appearance of whatever it is money can give.

Family time with games may become a thing of the past with dual earner families
Family time with games may become a thing of the past with dual earner families

Why NOT have dual earners?

At the same time the low hourly return on work is not the only reason NOT to work. It might be possible with a little effort to save nearly as much money as the second earner actually brings in and with less than 40 hours per week of work.

There is little doubt that children suffer from lack of good parental time and instruction in everything from school work to moral and ethical training to religious training. Working parents simply don’t have the time and energy to maintain the good family relationships, both with immediate family and more extended family, that they should, and that includes quality time with each other. More toys from the extra income don’t make up for it and certainly the fancy BMW and 60" TV can’t hold a candle to parents attention and love. In past years parents were often caretakers for their own elderly parents and that is no longer possible, either (although maybe a reason to work!).

A final statistical oddity; our hypothetical dual earner family is 75% more likely to file bankruptcy than is the single earner family. Sounds strange, but consider that people live to their means - the two earner couple saves very little more than the single earner family. All the extra money is spent on toys and fun things to do; that’s mostly what it’s about! At the same time, when there are two earners there is twice the probability that one will lose their job from a layoff, sickness, injury, etc. The one earner family has a major plus in that there is one able and skilled adult that can help fill the void when the income stops or decreases; that second adult is a great safety net.

Should YOU be a dual earner family?

In the final analysis it is a very personal decision whether or not both spouses should work. Only they can make the decision - only they know their own wants, needs, desires. Only they can recognize whether or not the extra job justifies the costs. A note of caution here, though. Be careful that you don't simply make up a lie about either needing or not needing to work to justify your actions; use your critical thinking skills to their utmost. Don't compromise your own personal integrity, even to yourself, to simply get out of the house or to stay home if you don't really want to work. Hopefully I have given those people trying to decide which way to go a little food for thought, a little extra ammunition for their decision. It is not an easy decision to make and most couples today face the decision at some time in their life.

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Comments 27 comments

leftshoe 6 years ago

while I doubt that the average second earner in a marriage makes $35k, your point is well taken even with your more liberal estimate: The second job's purpose is not to pay the bills. Husbands/wives, quit using it as an excuse to escape the kids and 'fess up :)


wilderness profile image

wilderness 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

I think you're right - most second incomes won't be that high, but it still makes the point.

Thanks for the comment.


Asahd2 profile image

Asahd2 6 years ago from USA

Great hub from a perspective more people need to think about. People deceive themselves to justify a myriad of things. In lots of families children are raising themselves and parents just want to be their kids friend. I enjoyed reading this and thanks for commenting on my hub.


wilderness profile image

wilderness 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

You are most welcome for the comment - I found it interesting.

And yes, people very often believe what they want to believe; the power of rationalization is incredible and must be fought continuously if we want decisions based on reality.


earthbound1974 profile image

earthbound1974 6 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

In a Third World country like Philippines, work is very much needed especially if you're a single parent with one daughter to attend to...even it only brings meager income.

Thanks for this hub, wilderness.

I am new in HP due to the request of my brother that I should also write my experiences, my life. So here I am. lolz ^-^.


wilderness profile image

wilderness 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

Certainly a single parent must work - it is the family with two earners that often has one parent working just to buy toys and good times that I question. Children and family are usually more important than bigger and better toys.


ktrapp profile image

ktrapp 5 years ago from Illinois

The math you did for figuring what the second income earner is exactly what I did almost twenty years ago. I really wanted to be able to stay home with my newborn baby as my husband continued to work but didn't think I could afford to give up my income. I sat down and figured the additional taxes we paid on that income, the cost of daycare, work attire, and commuting expenses. We have survived all the years with some additional income from my web design business and now that the kids are basically both in college I am back to work, albeit part time, next week. It can be done. I think this is very useful information for a lot of young couples and so I am voting it up and useful.


wilderness profile image

wilderness 5 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

Yes it can. My wife tried working when our 2 were small but quickly found it to be a losing proposition. Her next job was at the school they eventually attended and she did not leave there until both children had moved on to middle school, when she took a part time job elsewhere.

It can definitely be done, and is in general better for the children - it is mostly just a willingness to give up luxuries and toys. Those that truly need additional income need to take a hard look before committing to a job.


Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

I absolutely agree it is better for the children if at least one parent can be home during the crucial early years. Although I have enjoyed my career, my original goal was to stay home and care for my sons. Unfortunately, I ended up being a single mom while they were still quite young, and I had no choice but to enter the work world. I don't regret having a career, but I often wonder what their childhood would have been like had things been different. Thanks for this thoughtful take on both sides of the story.


wilderness profile image

wilderness 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

Mary, there are almost always two sides to each decision - very little in our life is as clear cut as a single parent having to work.

The biggest problem is that we very often let our wants and desires override our rational thoughts, usually with regrettable results. If a family is to have a second earner, fine, but make sure it is for the right reasons. There will be some negative results to such an action and we need to be sure we are willing to pay those costs, be them financial, emotional, or something else.


denisemai profile image

denisemai 4 years ago from Idaho

The cost of daycare was certainly one of the factors in my decision to stay home. Now that the kids are in high school, I can return to work and not incur any additional costs. Money is my deciding factor. College is just around the corner and I doubt my kids will qualify for much financial aid. Each family must make the decision based upon their needs. There is no right or wrong.


ThePracticalMommy profile image

ThePracticalMommy 4 years ago from United States

Like the others who decided to stay home, I too considered the costs of day care plus the cost of gas when my husband and I decided it would be best if I stayed home. We were both teachers at the time, and I actually was making just as much as my husband, but it still wasn't enough to pay the costs of daycare for two kids and gas. My paycheck would basically have gone to those two things, so it wasn't worth it to keep working, even though I loved my job. While it was hard to leave work, it was definitely worth the opportunity to be able to spend time with my kids, which is so precious when they are young.

To each their own. Some people didn't understand why I gave up my job, but being a stay at home parent isn't for everyone. We can't afford to go out all the time or to go on vacations, but we are rich in spending time together and creating our own awesome memories from the simple things in life and our imaginations.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK

I grew up in a dual-income household, but I was fortunate that my mother was a teacher - when I was two, I simply joined her reception class and when I went to school myself she was always home when I was home. I gave up my career and retrained when I had my daughter. I now work in my local secondary school - not nearly so much money, but I think my daughter benefits (as do I). She might disagree when she wants a new gadget and I don't have the money!


izettl profile image

izettl 4 years ago from The Great Northwest

I just have one question, if dual income earners make more money (and they do of course) then why are dual income earners just as likely, if not more, to be in debt through credit cards, loans, etc? I hear the argument that dual income earners allow people to afford "toys, gadgets" but so many are still in debt so obviously even a dual income is not enough for greed and the inevitable cycle of getting more and wanting more-so my argument is NO the dual income earner does not bring in extra income- it brings in more gadgets, yes, but not more money. A lady who was about 20 yrs my senior when I was about 20 gave me very true advice- the more you earn the more you spend and the more you want.

Now that my husband is the main breadwinner and I got laid off during the recession, we are less in debt. We are more disciplined in our spending- now I say...make more, want more. It's true. I see a dual income as a major setback of our economy and social structure as well- I think there is a definte benefit of mom or a dad staying home with children and I think that people making more led to a false swing in our economy because people bought more yes, but they also put more on credit too. More wasn't enough.

Our decision to not be a dual income earner was quite by mistake, but I couldn't be happier about it. Our income was literally cut in half when I got laid off- actually I made more than my husband but we made it work so it's no excuse for others to make it work...if they want to.


isenhower33 profile image

isenhower33 4 years ago from Crothersville, IN

That depends on the person. Does anyone know Orrin Woodward? Now a multi Millionaire, when he started making money, he wanted to buy a new Cadillac but he waited until he had triple the amount of money it would cost to get the car. Another leader Bill Lewis waited till he had cash to buy that new car he wanted. Its not that dual incomes cause more debt because it doesn't. Its peoples decisions that cause that. Bill Gates is another that did stuff the same way Orrin and Bill did. My dad never said son try not to make too much money so you don't blow it all on gadgets. He said don't ever get a credit card in the first place, and always save up to buy what you want not put it on credit or loans. Now that's good advice. And I got much more by listening to Orrin and Bill which both are in the top 10 in leadership in the world and both are from the same program. Its the only business to have 2 people in the top 25 in the same business. Now that's leadership and advice that needs to be listened to. Money isn't the root of all evil, the root of all evil is the greed for money.


wilderness profile image

wilderness 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

@ Denise, Practical Mommy; Absolutely many second earners can find their income disappearing as a result of day care, car expense, work clothing and all the other costs associated with a job, but many don't even try to factor those costs into their decision. It's a major mistake.

@izzetl; Most people live at the very end of their financial capability, and you're right - that means a second income buys toys instead of money or savings. The cost is less family time, the gain is toys and play, and for many the cost is completely worth it. Losing the toys is horrifying, but losing time with children is OK. The toys are supposed to make up for it.

@isenhower33; While a second income is a necessity for some families to provide shelter and food, for most it is simply greed for money and the things money can buy, just as you say. People really need to take a hard look at that before they spend the only thing anyone has - their time - on getting more material things.


izettl profile image

izettl 4 years ago from The Great Northwest

isenhower~ I agree to a certain point. I have a background in psychology and I know that for many people a basic behavior is when they get more, they want more- it's a fundamental aspect of human behavior. We've heard...keeping up wit hthe Jones'. It's practically ingrained in American culture. You mention Orrin and Bill and "top ten in leaderhsip", etc. Well that's a much shorter list and rather the outliers than the average. So my bet is on majority of people- getting more invokes wanting more.

It's almost an instinct- I see it every year with my (now) 5 yr old at birthdays and Christmas- wanting more right after getting a bunch of presents.

You, the Bills, and Orrin are not the majority. People are finding comfort in things, not necessarily actual money in the bank. No I don't think money is the root of evil, but rather things and stuff and gadgets. You don't think business capitalizes on wanting more? It's more like wanting the newest- do you suppose there will be an iPad 20? The latest and newest...I don't even think its greed as much as self-esteem, keeping up with the Jones', being worthy. I'm not usually subject to that sort of stuff, but wow do i feel weird sometimes being the only person without some sort of smartphone (smile).Maybe there's an App for parents spending more time with their kids.

Wilderness~ exactly. Now that I stay home with my two kids, I see that toys are not worth it. cant buy time.


isenhower33 profile image

isenhower33 4 years ago from Crothersville, IN

I've never had much of that stuff so it doesn't bother me to go without it. I've learned a lesson the hard way, and I teach others not to do that. Too bad we don't have free college like some colleges do lol I have to wait to go back to college because right now it's not economically smart to go back yet. After I get a few more bills paid off then I'll go back. One guy I know really well that works at a car dealership eats PB and Jelly every day at work. Does he think that some people look at him weird, yea he knows they do but while their pigging out on their Mcdonalds and expensive restaurant items and making it from paycheck to paycheck. He's saving a ton of money and going to New York to visit people in the business we're in and all over the place to make his own business grow. I remember we drove to Gary Indiana to show a plan at 11, then someone wanted us to go to Chicago to show a plan so right after the one we went to the other, and didn't get back till 5 in the morning and we had to be at work at 6 lol But he saves so much money on not eating what he wants to eat that he can do stuff like that and travel everywhere without breaking the bank.


isenhower33 profile image

isenhower33 4 years ago from Crothersville, IN

Stick to this advice and you'll never have a money problem. Only go in debt for two things. A house, and college. I understand that sometimes unexpected things come up and you have to get another car or something. That doesn't mean you have to buy the nicest car on the market. Buy something that has good MPG and doesn't cost a lot. My buddy bought a car that gets 32MPG and he bought the car for 1500. He got it cheap because it's not the greatest looking car, but it drives good. Its an old chevy cav. And he makes more money than most people I know. A problem with some people is they follow the wrong people. If your dad uncle brother mom or whoever is giving you advice about Money when they are twice as bad as you are with it, why listen? Find someone like I did like Orrin or Bill and listen. And take the steps they took to get where they are. Theres a reason why you say only a few can do that its cause only a few actually listen to the people that are walking the advice given.


GoodLady profile image

GoodLady 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

Everyone has to work here in Italy. My sons, their wives. It's tragic because the children get brought up by a babysitter. It's the only way they can have 'security'. We live in a sadly changed world here. It's a good debate.


wilderness profile image

wilderness 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

isenhower, the richest man I ever called friend came out of the army with a small armload of money - he never bought the junk overseas that others did - and started a business with it. 25 years later he retired with millions in investments.

Nevertheless he drove two vehicles; a 20 year old T-bird and a small 15 year old motorhome to go camping in. Quite satisfied with both - they both ran well and he saw no reason to keep up with Joneses with a new Mercedes each year, although he certainly could have. Money didn't buy him things; it bought him time - time to enjoy himself and those around him. I learned something from his example.


wilderness profile image

wilderness 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

@goodlady; there absolutely are those that require a two earner income just to get by - in the US many are earning the minimum legal wage and it isn't enough to buy food for a family with.

There are often alternatives, though. My mother stayed at home (working was unusual for women then) but "worked" a huge half acre garden that provided vegetables for the year. Meat was from hunting, and that provided most of the meat we ate. A small fixer-upper home that Mom and Dad worked on, sold and bought a larger one to fix. People are seldom willing to perform those kinds of "work" today - it is only through the workplace that they can find the income to survive.


Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii

This is a really interesting analysis of the situation! I think a lot of folks do not consider all of the costs when both spouses decide to work. I had a stay at home dad for a while, so most of the time during my elementary and middle school years we did not have a dual income family.


jellygator profile image

jellygator 4 years ago from USA

I always thought dual income families had it better. I've found a lot of advantages lately to NOT working. At the same time, though, my mind keeps pushing me to get back to the labor force.


wilderness profile image

wilderness 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

No argument either way. In some ways and some of the time dual earners DO have it easier; certainly extra income is always welcome even though it makes more work at home when you're off the clock.

Add in that some people just aren't happy being a homemaker - they don't feel like they are contributing anything - and the decision is seldom clear. It will always be a very personal choice and for different reasons.


SAHMofTHREE 4 years ago

It also greatly depends on where you live. For example I live in a suburb of NYC and both my husband and I HAD TO work to pay our outrageous mortgage for our small house. Then because of work we relocated to a suburb outside Chicago and I gave up my job. We live in a bigger house and now have 3 kids...living on one income. Sometimes couples HAVE NO CHOICE but to have both parents working....and it's to survive not for "extras", vacations or toys. Just my 2 cents!


wilderness profile image

wilderness 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

Absolutely, SAHM, there are times and couples for whom a second job is utter necessity. That, however, is relatively rare, meaning that there are far more for whom that second job pays for something else. In your case it was living in NYC, and when you gave that up you were also able to give up the second earner.

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