Demographics dictate today’s advisors have to manage client situations their mentors rarely encountered.

Topping the list is the changing nature of breadwinner roles and the emotional tensions they often produce. Here’s how to handle three increasingly common scenarios.*

Scenario 1: The switch

Tina Tehranchian, a senior financial planner at Assante Capital Management, relates the case of an affluent couple that experienced a breadwinner role reversal—twice.

It was 1997. Things were going well for Simar, an IT contractor making $350,000 a year, and his wife, Paula, a consultancy business owner who pulled in around $400,000. They were in their mid-fifties, and both had university-aged children from previous marriages.

Then, the tech bubble popped and Simar couldn’t land a contract for more than three years. During this time, Paula was responsible for supporting the family. But Simar didn’t modify his lifestyle. An avid golfer, he continued to hit the links and buy the latest equipment. The family budget could easily handle it, but Paula became resentful, says Tehranchian, who’s based in Richmond Hill, Ont.


When meeting with a couple, Don’t assume the husband is the decision-maker.

“She felt there was too much pressure on her to be the breadwinner. I sympathized with the fact that she had kids in university and a husband who wasn’t pitching in.”

Still, Tehranchian told Paula that part of being an equal member of a couple is realizing that breadwinning roles are flexible, so it’s necessary to adapt emotionally when income responsibilities shift. Paula listened carefully but her attitude didn’t change.

She adds, “On numerous occasions I told her that if the roles were reversed, I doubt her husband would have complained as much as she did.”

It wouldn’t be long before she could test her prediction. Simar finally landed a lucrative contract and Paula sold her business because she “felt she deserved a break after supporting the family for those years,” says Tehranchian. Paula now relies on her husband’s income for her lifestyle spending, which includes high-end music gear. And Tehranchian was right. Simar never complained about the role reversal.

On the planning side, Tehranchian says she made no consequential changes to the couple’s investment strategy. “In both situations [the sole breadwinner] had enough earning power to handle expenses without dipping into savings. Of course they didn’t save as much as when both were working, but even with one income they could meet spending and retirement goals.”

One reason the couple was in such strong financial shape is they capitalized on the real estate boom of the 1990s. They own several rental properties that produce a steady stream of cash.

Andrew Lorriman, a portfolio manager with Turner Lorriman Wealth Management Group at National Bank Financial in Barrie, Ont., also explains how he handled a breadwinner role reversal for a younger couple.

Frank and Oksana have two small children. Frank’s the breadwinner, earning six figures in a salaried position with a large firm. They live in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood, with a home valued at $450,000. Oksana’s just graduated from medical school and started her own practice. “Once she started working full-time she said, ‘Why are we both doing this? Why don’t you stay home and raise the kids?’ ”

Oksana earns about $5,000 a year more than her husband, but she would soon dwarf his income because she’s an in-demand specialist. By contrast, Frank only expected incremental increases.

So having him stay home with the kids made financial sense—a role the adoring father embraced.

Planning adjustments are needed in Frank and Oksana’s case, Lorriman says. Frank was loaded up with life and disability insurance; after the role reversal it made sense to roll both back and increase Oksana’s coverage.

On the investment front, there were no alterations because the couple’s conservative approach meant their objectives remained the same.

Not all new stay-at-home dads enjoy such emotionally seamless transitions, notes Lorriman. For some, being the breadwinner is a major part of their identity, so losing that role can require an emotional adjustment. He says advisors can help these clients by reminding them of the positives that led them to make the change. “Focus on how he gets the opportunity to spend a lot of time with his young children, which a lot of people don’t have.”

And stay-at-home dads can face a peculiar problem: discrimination. They’re often shunned on the playground by the moms they encounter, says Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, an industry consultant at KBK Wealth Connection in Easton, Mass. “They tend to assume he’s a slacker or has lost his job,” she says, adding that traditional conceptions of gender roles are the likely cause of the misunderstanding.

Lorriman says these role-reversal cases sometimes involve a shift in financial decision-making power. This is exactly what happened in the case of Frank and Oksana. “She’s now calling the shots […] on some of the bigger investment and planning decisions,” he says, adding advisors should be sensitive to these shifts and ensure they stay neutral, treating each member of the couple as an equal (see “DOs and DON’Ts of advising couples,” right).

And being the breadwinner doesn’t always mean control of financial decisions, notes Kingsbury.

“Even if the female breadwinner works in finance, don’t assume she’ll handle investment decisions. Her spouse may also have a strong understanding of this area and they may have agreed to work collaboratively. Be sure to ask.”

Scenario 2: Two incomes or one?

Belinda and Jeev are married and have two young children.

Jeev has a stable job that pays $80,000 a year, and Belinda’s a stay-at-home mom. But she got the itch to go back to work as an interior designer—this time as an entrepreneur. Her decision’s been a boon for the family coffers, but Tehranchian notes stress levels shot up almost immediately.

“There’s a lot of pressure on both spouses to manage the chores, and mornings are hectic getting the kids to school.” Belinda’s schedule is flexible because she’s self-employed, so she picks up the kids. “But to make up for that time she has to work a little in the evenings, and that puts stress on the whole family.”

The first year was the hardest—so hard that Belinda considered folding her business. But before she and Jeev made a decision, they turned to Tehranchian for advice.

Doris Gulick and Philip Porado, Sr.

Women breadwinners are nothing new. Doris Gulick (above; pictured at her office in Bridgeport, Conn. in 1945) took on the role of breadwinner when her father died in 1942. When kids came along in the ’50s, husband Philip Porado, Sr. (below) took an active role in parenting, and professional bookkeeper Doris managed the couple’s finances and investments.

She examined the situation in the context of the couple’s broader financial plan. “We started with cash-flow needs and long-term goals, and based on that we identified what monthly savings would have to be to reach those goals. It became clear that most would be unachievable if [Belinda] didn’t bring in the extra income.”

The couple’s retirement savings would be cut in half, and they wouldn’t be able to fully cover the kids’ university tuition and other expenses. They also wanted to send the kids to a private high school, which couldn’t happen if Belinda stayed home. Tehranchian stresses it’s not just about money. “I show them the financial consequences of the various options, but only they can decide which of those options is acceptable from an emotional standpoint.”

Belinda and Jeev decided it would be best for Belinda to keep working.

Tehranchian adds a key pitfall in these situations is failing to plan for long-term goals. “People often look to the next 12 months. They don’t think about the impact over the next 20 to 30 years.”

Scenario 3: Loss of income

Hadarah and Ricardo both work and have two small children. Hadarah’s a teacher, earning just over $60,000; Ricardo’s a line supervisor at a major automaker, earning $70,000. He recently became seriously ill, and while his condition is curable, he’ll be unable to work for at least a year.

“In a situation like this, budget is everything; it needs to be revised as soon as possible,” says Lorriman.


Being the breadwinner doesn’t always mean control of financial decisions. So have an open dialogue with both parties.

The first step is identifying income streams that will replace Ricardo’s salary, including disability coverage through his employer. “How long does it last, and how much does it cover? Work that into the income side of the budget, then you can pin down what you need to cut, and when.”

Ricardo has both short- and long-term disability through his employer, which covers 70% of his earnings. Ninety percent of his medication costs are also covered.

The couple’s finances were already stretched with daycare costs, and mortgage and car payments. Even with Ricardo’s excellent coverage, they need additional cash flow to meet expenses.

One option is to take out a line of credit, says Lorriman. Clients who recoil at the idea of adding debt should dip into TFSAs instead of RRSPs. “It comes out tax-free and you get to put that money back.”

Tehranchian says clients should avoid pulling money from investments in choppy or declining markets. “If it’s a bull market, consider a systematic withdrawal plan. You can set up a T-SWP with [a wide range] of funds.” It’s a tax-advantaged option because the income stream is part return of capital and part capital gains.

Lorriman adds cash and money market positions should be used first if the couple has to pull from the portfolio.

And people in Hadarah and Ricardo’s circumstances may need to tweak their asset mixes. “Their risk tolerance could come down, so it’s necessary to make the allocation more conservative.”

There are also non-financial ways an advisor can help.

“I may help them find a nanny or get [him] in with a doctor client,” says Lorriman. “Pull on some of the favours you have to help a client like this get through a tough time.”

Fun Facts

Almost two-thirds (60%) of women say they are the primary breadwinners in their households, according to the Women, Money, and Power Study from Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America.

Further, the majority of households surveyed say they have at least one non-traditional element (i.e., single mother, same-sex couple, parent or adult children in the home), creating new demands and new roles for women.

And nearly two-thirds (62%) of women express strong interest in learning more about finances and retirement planning.

*All client names have been changed.