What Is a Breadwinner?

Parent carrying child and a bag of groceries
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DEFINITION
A breadwinner refers to an income earner in a household, and in many cases, that person is the primary or sole breadwinner. This distinction can be used in the context of determining head of household status for tax filing purposes, or it might come into play in other financial or legal areas, such as qualifying for certain types of assistance.

A breadwinner generally refers to an income earner in a household, and in many cases, that person is the primary or sole breadwinner. This distinction can be used in the context of determining head of household status for tax filing purposes, or it might come into play in other financial or legal areas, such as qualifying for certain types of assistance.

Definition and Examples of a Breadwinner

The term “breadwinner” often is used when referring to someone who earns part or most of the income for a household, such as if one parent works outside the house while the other provides primary caregiving responsibilities. A couple might be considered to be co-breadwinners if they both earn income, although the person who earns more might still be referred to as the primary breadwinner.

  • Alternative names: Sole provider, primary income earner

This concept of being a breadwinner can come into play for tax purposes. For example, a single parent might be the breadwinner of their home. In this case, they might qualify to file as head of household for tax purposes. Still, they would need to meet certain conditions, such as paying more than half the costs—e.g., rent and utilities—to keep up a home.

Being a breadwinner also can affect other areas, such as qualifying for Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA). This program from the Department of Labor provides assistance to those whose jobs have been affected by major disasters such as hurricanes, yet they don’t qualify for regular unemployment assistance.

If the head of household dies as a direct result of a qualifying disaster and someone then becomes the breadwinner, they might qualify for DUA.

How Being a Breadwinner Works

Although the exact meaning and associated rules can vary based on the context, being a breadwinner often works by earning money for a family or household.

In the case where an unmarried parent is a breadwinner and takes on the majority of the cost of keeping up a home for a qualifying dependent person, such as a young child, they could potentially qualify as head of household for federal and state tax filing purposes. Doing so could enable the breadwinner to save money on their taxes by taking a standard deduction that's larger than what they'd get as a single individual.

If someone is a breadwinner but still considered married (by IRS standards), they would not be able to claim head of household filing status, even if they meet other requirements.

However, being a primary breadwinner within a marriage can still provide certain tax benefits.  That’s because those who file jointly as a married couple can take advantage of things such as increased income-tax-bracket ranges and standard deductions for those whose status is married filing jointly as opposed to those who file as single individuals. So, a primary breadwinner who is married might end up paying a lower effective tax rate than a single filer who earns the same amount of money.

What a Breadwinner Means for Individuals

Aside from any social or cultural implications that may come along with the role, being the primary breadwinner has additional meaning when it leads to head of household status. Understanding what a breadwinner is can make a difference to individuals when it comes to areas such as filing taxes and qualifying for certain programs like DUA.

However, it’s important to realize that just because you’re the primary breadwinner for your family, that doesn’t necessarily mean you automatically qualify as head of household for tax purposes. While that’s part of it, you would still need to meet other requirements, such as having a qualifying person living with you for most of the tax year. If you’re married or considered married for tax purposes, you wouldn’t qualify for this filing status.

Key Takeaways

  • The term “breadwinner” relates to earning money for your household, and is often used in the context of being a primary or sole earner, such as if you work outside the home and your spouse doesn’t.
  • An unmarried breadwinner might be eligible to file as head of household for federal and state taxes, provided certain conditions are met, which can lead to some tax savings.
  • Being a breadwinner can also potentially make someone eligible for other benefits such as certain types of federal assistance programs.

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