When the Breadwinner Gets Crusty

Entrepreneurial families, in the early stages, may have the stress of a two-income family, but the income of only one.


Couples in which one spouse owns a business and the other spouse is working to support the family and/or the business face distinct challenges. First, they have the stresses of two‑income families but the income only of one. Second, usually when one spouse works and the other does not, the nonworking spouse can help pick up the slack at home. But in this situation where one spouse owns a business the spouse who’s working to bring in the income and usually the health benefits as well, doesn’t reap any of that stay‑at‑home spouse benefit. Third, often and in my experience having interviewed many spouses who work and helped to support the family and the business, they often report feeling professionally trapped and somewhat jealous of their entrepreneurial spouses who are out there pursuing their dream.

And finally, often gender stereotypes will rear their head. I interviewed a woman who works and her husband has launched a business. And they were out to dinner together and he compulsively grabbed the check to pay for the dinner. Even though she was the one who was bringing in the income. And she said she had a moment where she looked at him and thought, wow, are you useless financially. And often these gender stereotypes will plague, if the entrepreneur is a male, they will plague the man as well who feels he should be supporting the family and bringing in the income.

The situation can get exacerbated when the spouse who’s working is not only supporting the family but is also supporting the business and funding the business. Usually when an entrepreneur starts a business the couple is careful to try to keep the family’s finances separate from those of the business. But startups are like baby birds yapping all the time for additional infusions of cash. So quickly those lines become blurred.

I spoke with a woman who was working as an attorney to try to finance her husband’s business, a construction business. Her name is Andrea. She said for many years B of A stood for Bank of Andrea. She kept bankrolling his business. And she said that she reported some resentment about that because she said that her husband told her at one time he was so grateful that he didn’t have to be out there as a wage slave “working for the man.” But she felt well, here I am “working for the man” to bring in money to fund your dream and to pay for our health insurance and our family. 

It’s really dicey to ask your spouse to work overtime so that you can realize your dream. And this can also distort the couple’s relationship. I interviewed a woman who said that she was trying to travel less and be more accommodating and challenge her husband less because she was afraid that he would stop bankrolling her business. I think that there are some potential solutions to this quandary that couples face in this situation. If the entrepreneur looks at the spouse’s infusion of cash as an investment in which they are both investing in the business, it’s not seen as a donation of some sort, or something that is just done because the working spouse is trying to be nice, but they are actually investing in the business. And I spoke with a couple for whom that was very helpful. And she started looking at her business more that way, looking at herself as an investor and her husband as an investor. And consequently she started becoming more frugal and bootstrapping. She said it was no coincidence that once she had that attitude her company quickly reached break even.

Another way to mitigate this is at a certain point for, when it’s possible, for the entrepreneur to start putting some of the profits back into the family’s well being. And then that, that ends that kind of dynamic of the entrepreneur, the spouse works and the entrepreneur takes.

As difficult as our early years were, our startup years, in the net being involved and connected with the business has been really exciting for me and really fun. It’s been‑‑ for one thing it’s never boring. It’s always been interesting. We traveled a ton and met a lot of interesting people because of the business. We’ve been able to involve our children in the business, which has been a tremendous education for them. We’ve been very, very proud of our product and of our company along the way. And ultimately it was lucrative for us. There are a lot of potential benefits for the spouse and family. And it’s hard to see those initially during the startup years. But I think it’s helpful if the spouse and entrepreneur can try to take the long view. Because the early years are really all about the debits. You know, they can be about the down side, about the fear, the anxieties as you’re trying to reach break even and prove your concept. But if you really believe in the product and what you’re doing, if you can just hang in there long enough to see it come to fruition, there’s just so much gratitude and benefit that both spouses will feel. Plus it’s something that they’ve created really together in different ways with different roles, but you can really feel a great sense of achievement as the spouse. 

Suggested Readings

Founders School || Surviving the Entrepreneurial Life || When the Breadwinner Gets Crusty || Impact Guide (PDF).

Meg Cadoux Hirshberg. “When The Breadwinner Gets Crusty”, Inc. April 3, 2012.

Meg Cadoux Hirshberg. For Better or for Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and their Families. An Inc. Original, 2012, Chapter 15.

Questions for You

How can I support the breadwinner?

Tools and exercises

Discuss the financing of the entrepreneurial venture. What works for your family in terms of personal versus business financing. What happens to any profits?