A reader asked me what advice I would have if she wanted to stay home after she has children. The whole working-parent vs. non-wage-earning-but-still-working parent can be a touchy subject, and there is a potential for misunderstanding and hurt feelings on both side of the debate. But I think it’s GREAT that this reader is thinking ahead and trying to make a plan to minimize her risk and give her plan the best possible chance of success.
Given that I am not a mother and that I don’t personally know any stay-at-home parents, I am not quite sure I am qualified to give advice (I just want to be a guiltless mom). So I decided to make my answer into a post, and get all of your feedback on what advice you would have for someone who wants to become a stay-at-home parent. If I have any stay-at-home mom’s or dad’s out there, please chime in!
1. Make sure that your position at home is equally respected as that of an outside wage earner
The decision for one person to stay home requires sacrifices from (and of course, brings rewards to) everyone. So it’s a decision that needs buy-in from both partners. There has to be mutual respect for the different but equally-important roles that both partners play. There is nothing like resentment and money to eat away at even the strongest relationships. And unfortunately, the stay-at-home partner’s financial situation tends to be more precarious if the relationship fails (unless, of course, the SAH parent has independent financial resources).
2. Live on partner’s income and save your income for 6 months (ideally 12 months)
I am ONE person living on one income and even I find it hard sometimes! Okay, all kidding aside, I can only imagine how difficult it would be to have a family -especially a large family- and live on one income. Before you take that big step, make sure you understand what you would have to do to make it possible. Plus, the 6-months or 12-months of saving 1 salary will result in a nice emergency fund when you do make the transition from paid work to just plain work.
3. Make a plan to stay engaged in the workforce
I think the time of when someone (historically a woman) who leaves the workforce permanently at age 30 to raise a family is probably over. Some people step out of the workforce for 5 years, some for 10, some for 15. But at some point, most stay-at-home parents will have to seek paid work again because of financial reasons or because their children are grown and they want to reenter the workplace. It’s important to stay engaged in the workforce by maintaining your network of professional contacts (alumni associations, volunteer organizations, professional groups), perhaps doing some consulting or freelance work, or taking on some pro bono work. Keep an updated resume and be sure to take some time to go out for informational interviews to keep your toes in the market.
4. Spousal IRAs: Insist on them so you don’t neglect your own retirement
A stay-at-home mom or dad’s ability to contribute to tax-advantaged retirement funds are drastically diminished (unless you have self-employment income, but then in which case you wouldn’t be a non-wage-earning spouse).
One way the IRS allows spouses to save for retirement is with the existence of Spousal IRAs. A Spousal IRA allows a stay-at-home spouse contribute the full amount ($5,000 or $6,000 for those older than 50) in a year as long as their spouse earns enough to cover that contribution. The money in a Spousal IRA belongs to the stay-at-home spouse and can be an important way to save for retirement. This is so important, in fact, I will advocate that the Spousal IRA should be funded as a first priority after saving enough for the employer 401K match.
If you are a stay-at-home partner, insist on Spousal IRAs.
Note 1: Even though traditionally the stay-at-home parent has been a mother, I tried to make this post gender-neutral, because I think these are things that both men and women should think about before they decide to step out of the workforce, and because I don’t think there is any reason why one partner should be automatically viewed as the stay-at-home parent just because of the gender.
Note 2: I realize that I have used the terms “stay-at-home” and “non-wage-earning” interchangeably. They are obviously not the same thing as many people work from home full-time or part-time. However, in general I take the term “stay-at-home” to mean a parent/spouse whose primary responsibilities are to run the household / take care of children and has little or no responsibility for generating income. I wouldn’t think of a consultant who works 60 hours a week from home as a “stay-at-home” parent, even though she may be technically “at home.”