Stay-at-Home Parenting: Why Aren’t We Talking About the Financial Costs?


This story is part of So moneyan online community dedicated to financial empowerment and advice, led by CNET Editor at Large and So Money podcast host Farnoosh Torabi.

Welcome to So Money Hot Mic, a weekly column covering my latest financial thoughts.

I’m new to TikTok and the algorithm doesn’t quite know me yet. It keeps feeding me stay-at-home mom content. The hashtag #stayathomemomlife is trending with over 778 million views of content from full-time caregivers. Some parents share struggles like loneliness. Others show how they structure their days to include a workout.

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Then there’s one from the husband of a stay-at-home housewife with nearly a million “likes.” He gets poetic about why wives should stay home to “do business,” saying, “I don’t want her to work.” And while acknowledging the tremendous responsibility of being a “housewife,” he ends with a snide comment that most stay-at-home women are smart enough to “keep it quiet and let that man out there making all the dough think he’s running sh– .”

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Whether you choose to stay at home because of personal values, cultural pressures, or the high cost of childcare (or all of the above) is a real attraction that I understand and respect. Without extensive programs for free preschoolers and paid parental leave, the current system does little to support working parents.

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My husband and I have two young children, and we occasionally talk about how life could be easier if one of us left our job and became the primary caregiver. It’s usually after a long week without childcare, a sick child, and a pile of dirty laundry.

Farnoosh on the floor with her two children climbing on top of her with toys

Happy parenting. Me with my two children.

@farnooshtorabi Instagram

But if you’ve been following my podcast, you’ll know my take on this, which isn’t always popular: Stay-at-home parenting is a risky move that I don’t like to recommend.

Why? Basically, it’s because financial independence is important to me. In many cases, the partner who doesn’t earn a paycheck (usually a woman) has little to no financial autonomy in the relationship. And while I understand that not everyone can or wants to prioritize their financial freedom, I get nervous about any household model that leaves an adult financially vulnerable and dependent.

I occasionally get emails from my audience with questions like these:

  • I think staying home is the best move for my family both personally and financially, but am I making the right decision for myself?
  • What if my spouse gets sick and suddenly I’m responsible for paying the bills?
  • What if we get divorced and because I shifted all finances to my working spouse I’m lost and stuck?

I recently got a message from Sabrina, a 50-year-old mother of three from California. She separated from her husband, but had not earned any money of her own during the marriage. “I was first and foremost a stay-at-home mom, which left me financially crippled for such cliche reasons. I am in the process of getting a divorce. My ex’s career is soaring while I feel like a 1950’s housewife…in the dark and starting over,” she wrote.

According to a 2016 study by Pew Research, approximately 11 million people, or one in five parents, in the United States are homemakers. In recent years, especially with the restrictions on working life imposed by the pandemic, stay-at-home parenting has been on the rise. If you’re in this camp — or are inclined to fill that role — here are some key considerations for your financial health.

1. Know the financial power you bring to the family

Stay-at-home parenting is a relentless job that involves countless chores and amounts to a six-figure salary, according to at least one 2019 study. The Mom Salary Survey estimated the median annual value of a stay-at-home parent at $178,201.

It is important to place financial value on your household contributions as a primary caregiver. Adopting the adage “money is power” can often make a spouse who doesn’t earn a paycheck feel like they can’t (or shouldn’t) have an equal voice in the financial affairs of the household.

As I wrote in my last book When she does more, the partner earning less (or no money) deserves a central and active seat at the table. They should have a say in how household money is spent, saved and invested. Any resistance from the main breadwinner is a red flag in my opinion.

There are other ways you can stay financially active. Conduct routine budget meetings with your spouse. Check monthly bank statements and credit reports. Contact financial planners and accountants and review all tax records.

2. Understand the financial tradeoffs

Is home parenting a step you can afford? As a finance advocate, I always tell people to check the numbers. If you don’t earn a paycheck, you not only lose income – you lose the compound growth of that income as well as future retirement savings. For example, a 32-year-old woman who makes $60,000 a year and stops working for five years to become a housewife will lose $300,000 in wages, as well as another $400,000 in lost wage growth and pension payments for a total over $700,000. This calculator from the Center for American Progress helps parents understand the long-term costs of full-time care.

For some, the math will make them stop and reconsider. For others it will make no difference. My insistence on weighing those long-term financial implications has rubbed some people the wrong way. This summer I received an angry email from a stay-at-home mom who had been listening to my podcast on the subject. “I choose to sacrifice for my children, not at the altar of financial success,” she wrote.

To be clear, my argument is Not that money is more important than children. My main point is that our choices have trade-offs. As with any financial decision, it’s important to understand the costs and approach them with an open mind.

3. Have your own financial profile

Investing your own money — either through a part-time job or by taking an allocation from your spouse’s income and putting it into your own account — can ensure some financial independence as a stay-at-home parent, experts say.

According to Tracy Coenen, a forensic accountant who has worked on many divorce cases, having your own money is crucial during a marriage and in the event of a divorce. “You need to be able to make some autonomous spending decisions,” she recently said on my podcast. “It’s also important because if the marriage ever goes wrong, you need to have a source of money to pay a lawyer, to file for divorce, possibly get your own apartment, and support yourself.”

One of the most heartbreaking things Coenen sees during a divorce is when the working spouse cuts off the stay-at-home parent. No one should feel trapped in a marriage because they don’t have the resources to survive on their own, she said.

In this sense, a personal credit card ensures that the non-working partner has access to their own emergency line of credit in the event of a breakup. And it’s better to apply right away, Coenen said, “as long as you have your spouse’s earnings to help you qualify for this credit card.”

4. Have a plan for getting back into work

If you’re a stay-at-home parent, it’s a good idea to prepare for re-entering the workforce later on. In her book Off Ramps and On Ramps, author Sylvia Ann Hewlett found in her research that a large majority of women who leave the labor market want to return to their jobs and careers at some point.

Regardless of why you want to return to the workforce — whether it’s because you’ve changed your mind or your kids are grown — one of the best ways to prepare is to invest in your education and skills. This will increase your chances of meeting the qualifications and getting hired. You can learn in your free time through free online programs and courses, and stay connected in your field through networking, social media, and LinkedIn.

Or you can do what Sabrina, my podcast listener, did. She invested time and money during her marriage to earn a master’s degree in mental health, which took her seven years, while also taking care of the chores at home. Now she is in a position to end their relationship with some professional momentum and hopes to establish a practice and get a return on the investment.

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