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My Advice to a Future Stay-At-Home Parent

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.”

What advice do you have for a stay-at-home mom/dad? If you are planning to stay at home, what steps are you taking right now?

  • BudgetBabe - I really appreciate this post – right now, I'm 38 weeks pregnant with mine and my husband's first child, and we are grappling with what to do.

    I think one thing that is important to note is that many people don't have the luxury to choose to be a stay at home parent, but it is almost necessary to keep up with the rising cost of childcare. I'm a nonprofit program manager in Seattle, and my salary barely covers the cost of childcare. I would have enough leftover for a car payment and a week's worth of groceries.

    I do think it's important to bring up the current lack of respect for the decision to be a stay at home parent. I think it's a personal decision for every family, but every SAH parent I know works just as hard (if not harder) than most of my friends with jobs. Being a SAH parent is a 24/7 job with no lunch breaks or 401Ks, but the benefits are priceless. Many of my coworkers have considered coming back to work a "break" from the responsibilities at home.

    I'm hoping more parents chime in – I'd love to hear how people decided to make their decisions. ReplyCancel

    • WellHeeled - The childcare issue is a big one. Especially with families living so far apart from one another, there really isn't a chance for grandparents to help out (which is what happened when I was a baby). I do think that while childcare is finite (i.e. for the first 5 years, say), a career can be an investment that pays off for decades. So if a parent is truly engaged in the work that he/she does, I don't think they should feel bad about childcare eating up their pay for a few years. Childcare will eventually end, but hopefully the career (and income) will keep growing. ReplyCancel

  • moralia - My best advice, always live within your means, and don't worry about what the "Joneses" have. ūüėČ ReplyCancel

  • MoneyCone - The spousal IRA is a very good tip for all stay at home moms and dads. Another avenue for tax free growth of your funds. ReplyCancel

  • Matt - This is such an important post..because many people go from two incomes to one with very little preparation. This is one of my larger concerns of the future. My wife and I are getting used to living at a particular pay scale, and that will be cut in half when we have children. So my hope to go a year (like you mentioned) on one pay check prior to having children. That way it is of no surprise to our budget or to us. ReplyCancel

    • Shauna - A good way to prepare for that, without having one of you quit your job now, is to put the entire paycheck of whoever is slated to stay at home in a savings account and don't touch it. That way, you can see if you can if you can live off the one income, without the risk of quitting, and build a sizeable disaster buffer at the same time. ReplyCancel

  • fabulouslyfrugirl - My mom stayed at home with my sisters and I. She also ran a mini-daycare out of our home.

    One of the things that I really admire about my parents is that there was always mutual respect for both parties. My dad always recognized that my mom worked really really hard, and vice versa for my mom. There was a lot of negativity from relatives and their views that a SAH doesn't have to work, but I am glad that my parents knew the truth and ignored them. ReplyCancel

  • savinginCO - I'd always planned on being a SAHM. Just turned 31 and have saved most of my salary for 10 years in preparation (we've lived off DH's similar salary all along). Now my son is 9 months old and I feel I have the best of both worlds. I work at home, so does my husband. We have a full time nanny that teaches our son all day. We can pop in to see him and give him love at any point during the day or head to the gym for an hour. At night we are excited to be with him after our professional break during the work day. I am thankful I saved in preparation and now have the flexibility to do what works for our family. ReplyCancel

    • WellHeeled - That is wonderful. If you are interested, I would much enjoy having you do a guest post on that topic. I think many of my readers would find it useful as well. ReplyCancel

      • savinginCO - Would love to. Any specific questions/parameters?

  • Jeff Sustainlife - Great work WH. I think that if it's important for the parent (whichever one) to stay at home, then they should work towards that. I think that resentment of duties can be a big problem though. I currently work at home 1 day per week, and I often feel like I should be doing housework while I'm at home (instead of paid work)…It's difficult to get past at first, but once you do, everything goes well. ReplyCancel

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  • Pamela - I became a part time stay at home mother. My husband and I have managed to live off 1 salary or 1.5 salary. I put one paycheck a month into a special account. I set aside this personal account so that I would never have to feel like I was spending HIS money. Then I went to my manager and told him what I wanted to do. He suggested that I work part time! So now, I get to keep myself current in the industry (Information Technology) plus I get to spend time with my kids and volunteer at their school.

    I would recommend that for anyone who is a full-time stay at home mom that you volunteer your services (even if it is just one day a week) somewhere so that you can have something to put on your resume. Once your children are in school, I would suggest volunteering to chair a committee on the PTA – so that you have something to put on your resume. Being a room parent – you can be the "parent coordinator" – in charge of all the volunteers in the classroom. Assigning tasks, coordinating schedules – all of that shows management skills that will become valuable on your resume once you decide you want to return to the workforce. ReplyCancel

  • Guest - When I was pregnant I swore up and down that I would never want to be a SAHM–I loved my career and felt fulfilled in the office. However, when my son came, he changed everything. I couldn't bear the thought of leaving him all day, so after years of planning to be a 2-income family, my husband and I completely rearranged our lifestyle so I could freelance write/edit from the house. I work mostly nights and weekends, and my income is less than I would have made had I gone back to work. We don't eat out nearly as often, and we have cut back on some other nonessentials. In the end, I earn probably close to what I would have made after you factor in daycare, and they psychological/emotional payoff for my son, me, and my husband is worth every penny we might be missing due to our decision. ReplyCancel

    • Susie - I have had a similar experience. I became a SAHM more than a decade ago, and there was such a psychological payoff for me to be at home but also to continue to work.

      It's a piece of advice I often share with moms who are thinking of starting a new life as a SAHM: Consider starting a small work at home business, on the side. When my kids were babies, and I decided to be a stay-at-home mom, I started a small home business (more of a hobby at the time.) This was just something related to my previous profession and was really just something that I did to help me stay connected to my professional identity, which can be a sort of lifesaver on those days when you feel like you are doing nothing but wiping noses and cleaning messes.

      As the kids grew, so did the time available for me to work. Now that my kids are in school full time, I have a very flexible job arrangement, and I make a good income doing something I love to do. While the home business took nearly a decade to build, it was a decade that was well spent doing something else even more important. ReplyCancel

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