Breadwinner: What It Means, Word Origin, and Examples

What Is a Breadwinner?

A breadwinner is a colloquial term for the primary or sole income earner in a household. Breadwinners, by contributing the largest portion of household income, generally cover most household expenses and financially support their dependents.

Key Takeaways

  • A breadwinner is a person in a household who brings in the lion's share of income and thus supports the family financially.
  • In the past, the breadwinner referred mainly to a single-income family where the other spouse remained at home.
  • Today, breadwinners can be women or men, or both together.
  • Depending on how income is produced, taxes levied on the breadwinner(s) can differ.

Understanding a Breadwinner

The term breadwinner is sometimes used to refer to single-income families in which one of the members works to generate income and the other stays at home to care for dependents. In other situations, a household may be a dual-income household but have only one breadwinner.

In dual-income households, the breadwinner is the one with the more profitable and economically sound job. The other income earner, who may be working part-time or can afford to leave the workforce, is simply “earning,” but not necessarily a breadwinner.

Breadwinner as Head of Household

For tax purposes, a breadwinner may file their taxes as head of household. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) defines a head of household as a single or unmarried taxpayer who pays at least 50% of the costs of supporting a household and provides support to other qualifying family members living under the same roof for more than half of the year.

This means that the breadwinner must have paid more than half of the total household bills, including rent or mortgage, utility bills, insurance, property taxes, groceries, and repairs. Some examples of qualifying family members include a dependent child, grandchild, brother, sister, grandparent, or anyone else you can claim as an exemption.

Heads of households benefit from a lower tax rate. For instance, in 2022, the 12% tax bracket applies to single filers with an adjusted gross income (AGI) of between $10,275 and $41,775 for the tax year (increasing to $11,000 and $44,725 in 2023). Meanwhile, the 12% tax bracket for heads of households applies to AGI between $14,650 and $55,900 (increasing to $15,700 and $59,850 in 2023). In other words, an individual that earns $50,000 will pay 12% income tax as a head of household and 22% if filing as a single individual.

For 2022, the head of household standard deduction is $19,400 (increasing to $20,800 in 2023), which is significantly higher than the $12,950 (increasing to $13,850 in 2023) standard deduction single filers and married individuals who file separate returns can claim. Married taxpayers who file joint returns get a $25,900 deduction (increasing to $27,700 in 2023). This works out as a $12,950 deduction for each of them, still well below the head of household amount.

Married Breadwinner Filing Jointly or Separately

Tax law was designed to benefit married couples with one main breadwinner and one stay-at-home spouse. If one spouse isn’t working or was starting a business and had losses, the couple will benefit when filing jointly.

A married taxpayer who is the breadwinner of the household may choose to file taxes jointly with their spouse, rather than separately, to reduce the tax liability. Breadwinners may find that they are in a higher tax bracket if they file taxes separately—the higher the tax bracket, the higher the tax bill.

As you can see in the table below, a breadwinner who earns $78,000 in annual income and files jointly with a stay-at-home spouse will land in the 12% tax bracket. Should, however, the same breadwinner choose to file separately, the maximum tax rate applied to this income would be 22% instead.

2022 Tax Brackets
 Tax Rate  Married Filing Jointly  Married Filing Separately
  10% $0 - $20,550 $0 - $10,275
  12% $20,551 - $83,550 $10,276 - $41,775
  22% $83,551 - $178,150 $41,776 - $89,075
  24% $178,151 - $340,100 $89,076 - $170,050
  32% $340,101 - $431,900 $170,051 - $215,950
  35% $431,901 - $647,850 $215,951 - $539,900
  37% $647,851 + $539,901 +
Source: Internal Revenue Service
2023 Tax Brackets
 Tax Rate Married Filing Jointly  Married Filing Separately
 10% $0 - $22,000 $0-$11,000 
 12% $22,001-$89,450  $11,001-$44,725
 22% $89,451-$190,750  $44,726-$95,375
 24% $190,751-$364,200  $95,376-$182,100
 32% $364,201-$462,500  $182,101-231,250
 35% $462,501-$693,750  $231,250-$578,125
 37% $693,750 +  $578,126 +
Source: Internal Revenue Service

There are times when filing separately from a spouse makes the most sense, such as when one person has expensive costs related to deductions based on AGI. For instance, medical expenses can only be deducted if they exceed 7.5% of your AGI. If a spouse has high medical bills, the joint income may be high enough that the breadwinner is unable to take advantage of that deduction. In such cases, filing separately might be appropriate.

Why Is It Called a "Breadwinner"?

The term is thought to have originated in the U.K. in the 1820s. At the time, and even today, bread is considered a staple food item. As such, the person who brought home the bulk of the money for a family, therefore, was bringing home the bread, so to speak.

What Is a Head of Household?

Head of household is a qualifier designated by the Internal Revenue Service that refers to an individual in a home that is single or unmarried, pays 50% or more of expenses, and has dependents. A head of household pays lower taxes than a regular single filer and has higher standard deductions.

What Is a Qualifying Dependent for Head of Household?

A qualifying dependent for a head of household is most often a child. This can be a biological child or step-child, however, it does not only have to be a child. It can be a sibling, step-sibling, a niece or nephew, and in general anyone that is dependent on you.

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  2. Internal Revenue Service. "Rev. Proc. 2022-38," Page 6.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Rev. Proc. 2021-45," Pages 5-8.

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2023."

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2023."

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2022."

  7. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 501: Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information," Page 6.

  8. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2023."

  9. Internal Revenue Service. "Topic No. 502 Medical and Dental Expenses."

  10. Online Etymology Dictionary. "Breadwinner."