What do you do if you disagree about whether or not the wife should work?
We talk a lot about the “mommy wars” between stay at home moms and working moms. But I’ve had a number of women in a different predicament: They really want to stay at home with their kids, but their husband really feels as if they have to work to get some money coming in.
Often the problem goes the other way–he wants her to stay at home, and she wants to work. But today, as we’re tackling balancing the load this month on the blog, I thought I’d try to address some general principles here that may help you as you try to navigate these big decisions.
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And I want to say that I am biased. I really do think that, in general, kids do better if they don’t have to be in full-time childcare. I had a wonderful time as a stay-at-home mom, and chose to give up my career dreams when my kids were born, even if that meant living in a cramped apartment and having no car for four years. At the same time, we were able to do that because Keith had an okay-but-low income job, but we also knew his income would be increasing later, so I know we were very fortunate.
But we also spent 6 months with Keith working half time and me working half time. I have other family members where the dad is the primary caregiver. Families do things differently, but I did want to state my biases up front. I completely understand the urge to stay at home, and I’m also flabbergasted by America’s lack of maternity leave policy where you have to return to work just weeks after the birth of a baby (I continue to believe that that is inhumane and actually violates basic human rights). So I’d like to help people figure out how a parent can be at home, and that’s what I’m hoping to look at now.
Before you start a discussion on whether she should work, acknowledge that you each have valid points.
Often these conversations are very fraught with tension, though, because we’re approaching them differently. One person is primarily worried about money, and feels they’re just trying to be realistic, and the other is working from what they feel are their values about staying home with kids and their desire to stay home. So before you start, say something like this to each other:
As a family, we need to be responsible with money, and it’s good that we’re concerned about that. We also need to value how our kids are raised, and it does matter what we want. These are all good things. So let’s take a step back and look at the big picture, and see what’s possible.
Don’t get into a power struggle about who’s right. You both have a point; now let’s examine it. There’s no point getting into an argument about whether or not you should work without first doing the homework and seeing what you’re actually dealing with. Sometimes we go around and around on issues but we don’t face the numbers. First things first.
Figure out what kind of lifestyle you’re comfortable with
Remember that whether or not the family needs anyone to work is entirely dependent on how much income the family needs. So figuring out what your family needs is the first step in figuring out if you can afford to stay home. You need to ask questions like:
- What’s the minimum lifestyle that you are comfortable with?
- Is it okay to live in apartments until the kids are older?
- Is it okay to use public transit?
- Do you need a car? Do you need two?
- How many bedrooms do you need? Can the kids share?
- How often do you want to eat out?
- How low are you comfortable with your clothing budget going?
And as you’re figuring this out, put everything on the table. Remember that one of the biggest determinants of how much money you need is where you choose to live. in Toronto, we were paying more for our two-bedroom apartment than we were for our mortgage, utilities, and property taxes on the 1500 square foot home we bought in the small town we eventually moved to.
Keith and I own a rental property in Ottawa. It’s a little townhome, with one parking spot. We figured out that for a family to be able to afford to live in that townhouse and to have a car, and still be able to live life and save a bit of money, the family would need to bring in about $72,000 a year. The thing is, though, families don’t need to live there right from day one. You can raise babies in an apartment. You can move up slowly but surely over the next few years. Decide what you’re willing to settle for now.
Write a detailed budget of how much you need to sustain that lifestyle
Once you figure out what kind of lifestyle you’d be comfortable with–what kind of housing, vehicle, where you’d want to live, etc.–then it’s time to make a detailed budget of your expenses. Now, normally I recommend starting with your income figure when drawing up a budget, and then you divide your income out from there. But in this case, it’s the income that’s the variable, rather than the expenses, so we’re going to do this a bit backwards. We’re going to figure out how much income you actually need to live the minimum lifestyle you’re comfortable with.
Remember to include an emergency fund in your budget to take care of expenses that you don’t foresee. And if you have children, please also budget for life insurance for both of you. Finally, put aside some money every month for long term savings, even if it’s just a little bit, and for debt repayment, if you have any debt.
To help you with that, here are some budgeting worksheets you can use.
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If there’s a shortfall, figure out how much that shortfall is and brainstorm ways to fill it
Now that you’ve calculated how much money you need to sustain your lifestyle, you can start doing the real math. What is your current income? How much can the husband (assuming it’s the husband who is working) earn? Do you have a shortfall?
If your lifestyle requires $48,000 a year, and your husband makes $40,000, then you have a shortfall of $8000. That sounds like a part-time job or small business could likely recoup those costs. If your lifestyle costs $62,000, and your husband brings in $30,000, then that’s a different story.
Once you’ve figured out your shortfall, then, brainstorm ways to make it up. Do you need a full-time second job? Do you have any skills that could earn you some money part-time? My girls, for instance, if they ever needed to, could each teach piano through private lessons. It wouldn’t take many lessons a week to make $8000 a year. They’ve also both worked as lifeguards, and it wouldn’t take long to re-certify and do a shift or two a week at the gym to earn that $8000, or even more.
Determine the cost of a second job
If you decide that a second job is necessary, remember that that job will have costs associated with it. Baby-sitting, for instance, is a huge cost. I know some families who have tried to avoid this by having one spouse work full-time and the other work part-time at alternate hours. That can work, but in the long run it’s very difficult on a marriage, because you so rarely have time alone.
Also, what’s the cost of transportation to that job? Do you need a second car? Do you need work clothes? Remember, too, that if you work, you’re more likely to order in for dinner because you’re tired, or to buy lunch (or even coffee) out.
When Connor stopped working outside the home and started running the technical side of To Love, Honor and Vacuum, he was able to work from home. And we discovered something surprising. We ended up saving between $225 and $375 a month simply by using less gas and by eating more at home. When I had to pick up Connor from work every night, it was way too easy to stop in and order Chinese food or shawarma for dinner. But when we were at home, going for shawarma would require getting changed out of our pyjama pants. So we ate through our fridge! Also, we were surprised how much we were spending on coffee everyday.
Determine the savings of staying at home
Having one spouse stay at home also can have financial benefits to the family–if the spouse sees that as part of the job!
My daughter Katie, for instance, has chosen to stay at home because her husband David is in the military and is often out on exercises, and when he is home, she wants to also be there to spend time with him. His schedule is so random that there was no way to plan work around it.
So she’s made it her mission to save money on absolutely everything. If they need car repairs done or they need to renegotiate any car leases, she researches beforehand and comes armed with data. She makes wedding shower gifts (she often knits amazing blankets in the couple’s colours) or baby shower gifts. She cooks everything from scratch. And it’s allowed them to live on very little money and save the rest.
We have to weigh the relationship cost of a second job, given my husband’s long and erratic work hours. When he gets a weekend off, I want to know that I can be home too.
As such, we both agreed (which is the key) that our lifestyle is a one-income lifestyle, not a dual-income lifestyle. We don’t go on vacations. We don’t eat out at restaurants unless it’s a special occasion. We don’t buy the $12 block of artisan cheddar; we buy the $6 Cracker Barrel.
We always say that David makes the money, and I make the money stretch.
Is there a chance for him to stay at home at times as well?
If we’re putting everything out on the table, let’s consider this one, too. A lot of men would love the chance to spend more time with the kids, and it may be that a better arrangement for all of you would be to have both parents work 1/2-2/3 time, rather than one parent work 100% of the time and one parent be home 100% of the time.
In some families, the husband wants the wife to work because she actually can earn more money, and so he’d rather be the one to stay home so that they’re on better financial footing. I know a number of millennial couples where she is a nurse or a doctor, earning quite large salary, while he is working a much lower-paying job. Though she would love to stay at home, when you run the numbers, it just doesn’t make sense.
That’s a tough one for many women, I know. Many of us had a dream of being a stay-at-home mom. But if you are the primary breadwinner, that may not be an option. You may, however, be able to work reduced hours. My cousin is a physician, and she arranges her schedule where she works full-time, with call, for a week at a time, but then she’s off for several weeks. Her husband works a few days a week all the time, so they only need childcare on the days he works when she’s also working. They could be earning a lot more money than they are, but they’d rather have less money and have more time with the kids.
Are you PeaceKEEPING or PeaceMAKING?
Can you plan work in two-year time frames?
As you’re making these huge decisions, too, remember that you don’t need to decide what you’re going to do forever. You only have to decide what you’re going to do next. Maybe you have a lot of debt that needs to be paid off, and so you will work hard for a few years, but then you’ll plan to stay at home. Maybe you’ll work hard for a few years because your husband is retraining, and you need your income. But then things may look different. Plan what you’re going to do now, but then also plan a time to re-evaluate.
Every family is different. There isn’t one right way to do things.
Millennials and Generation Z parents seem to value time with each other and with kids far more than they value large homes and cars, if you compare them to my generation, and I think that’s a good thing. And millennials are well-known for being extremely flexible as a generation, too. So use that flexibility and creativity and see what options you can come up with that work for you.
After all is said and done, though, my biggest recommendation is this one:
Look critically at what lifestyle you honestly want. The choice of what city you will live in and what kind of housing you’re willing to accept is the biggest determinant of what income you will need. If we take time to make these intentional decisions, rather than just doing what’s expected of us, we can often find solutions we didn’t even realize were right in front of us.
What do you think? Were you able to come up with creative ways to balance work and family? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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