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It's harder than ever before for families to get by on a single income

Despite the rising rates of women in the workforce throughout the past century, many millennials grew up in a time where it still seemed like a mother's choice to work or stay at home. But as we start families of our own, the reality can be harsh: It feels nearly impossible to make ends meet on a single income.

So where does that leave women who want to be stay-at-home mothers? In a difficult position, says Erin Odom, a mother of four in North Carolina, who left her job shortly after her first child was born. "We pinched our pennies, I say, until they bled," Odom says of trying to get by on her husband's salary from teaching. The Odoms eventually sought help from a financial advisor, who looked through their income and expenses. "At the end of the day he said, 'Look, you guys don't have a spending problem. But you do have an income problem. You don't have enough money to live.'"

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They aren't alone: The fact is the rising cost of living in the United States continues to outpace inflation—which makes it difficult for young adults to build their bank accounts, let alone nest eggs for the future.

And more people are starting out in the hole: According to a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center, the likelihood of college students taking out loans grew by 40% between 1993 and 2012. Among that majority of students who did borrow, the standard amount of debt more than doubled during that time period to an average $26,885 for the class of 2011-2012.

While much has also been said about millennials' low rates of homeownership, that's yet another goal that is simply harder to obtain today. As United States Census Bureau data shows, the median home price in America in 1940 was $2,930. Adjusted for inflation, that should have been just over $30,000 by 2000. Instead it was $119,000—which jumped close to $200,000 by 2017.

The costs of other essentials are escalating, too, from health care ( average annual costs of $10,345 in 2016) to groceries (average weekly cost of $170 in 2017 for families with children) to rent (average monthly cost of $910 in 2017). Add to that the common expenses we have today that didn't exist just two decades ago—like cell phones, internet and streaming services—and it's little wonder that we need more money to stay afloat.

How this is driving more parents into the workforce

As expenses have been rising, so have the rates of two-income households. According to a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center, 60% of families had dual earners in 2012 versus just 25% in 1960.

For many reasons, this statistic is something to be celebrated: Women today now have more options and more empowerment in the ways they continue their careers after having children. As that same report shows, the more educated a woman is, the more likely she is to continue working after children—suggesting this is largely a decision of her own volition.

But what the statistics don't reflect is how many of those women would prefer to stay at home.

"Staying at home with your child can be an amazing and nurturing experience, but it can come at a financial cost," Jennifer E. Myers, certified financial planner and president of SageVest Wealth Management, tells Motherly.

That's no small consideration. According to a calculator developed by the Center for American Progress, a 30-year-old woman who makes $55,000 each year could expect to lose $539,795 by staying at home with a child for five years—due to the combination of lost wages, lost wage growth and lost retirement assets.

Between the immediate loss of income and that long-term dilution of family earnings for women who step back from the workplace while children are young, Myers says families really need to evaluate their financial priorities before making the decision.

Although she always imagined she would stay home, Kristin Rampton, a mother of one in Kansas, made the decision to continue working full-time as a teacher after her daughter's birth in order to have a job with family healthcare benefits, which weren't offered by her husband's job.

"I always really struggled when people just assumed that it was a choice that I made when really it wasn't like a choice," Rampton tells Motherly. "That doesn't mean that there's not joy in it, in that role. It just means that the reason women work is not necessarily because they want that career kind of lifestyle."

The rise of side gigs

For the first time in decades, the number of stay-at-home moms is back on the rise, but what this doesn't reflect are how many of those moms are actually earning incomes from home on a part-time basis.

Now among this group is Odom, who details her experience in her new book, You Can Stay Home With Your Kids: 100 Tips, Tricks and Ways to Make it Work on a Budget. But the beginning of her journey wasn't easy.

"Once we got into it we realized, 'Wow, it's going to take more money than we realized. What can we do?'" Odom tells Motherly, explaining the budget felt much thinner once their second, third and then fourth child came along.

The Odoms began by curbing spending as much as possible, such as with cutting cable, shopping at discount grocers and accepting they couldn't take as many vacations. But her husband's salary still didn't seem to go far enough and their meeting with the financial advisor served as a wake-up call.

"Did I go to work full-time outside the home? Did my husband change careers and still support us? Or could I learn how to create an income from home?" Odom says. "That's what I ended up doing to be able to afford to stay at home with my kids."

She now advises other families on ways to earn supplemental income from the home, whether with blogging, creating products for sale, offering lessons or more creative ideas that make use of individual strengths.

Coming to terms with today

For families who want to make it work with fewer work hours, Myers of SageVest Wealth Management says some "serious prioritization" should happen—as well as accounting for unexpected expenses in the budget.

"If saving for things like family vacations, retirement, college funding and more are strong objectives, then you need to set a budget that covers the day-to-day expenses, plus the bigger and longer-term items," Myers says. "This is where most budgets fail. Too often, people only focus on the monthly items, forgetting about new tires, braces, car repairs, home repairs, etc. These items become budget busters and infringe upon longer-term saving objectives."

Often, cutting out lattes or manicures—the "money saving tips" that are commonly suggested on places like Pinterest—only goes so far.

"If you need to cut back on expenses, the first thing to do is understand how much you need to cut required relative to your overall spending," Myers says. "If it's a larger amount, you need to be more aggressive beyond simply changing your cable service."

For parents who are reluctantly sent back into the workforce or are burning the midnight oil to make ends meet, licensed marriage and family therapist Heidi McBain says to think about what you are providing to the family rather than the ways reality is different from your expectations.

"Often people confuse quantity time with quality time. People can spend a lot of time in the same space as their kids, but be on their phone or emotionally tuned out," she tells Motherly. "However, if it's a shorter amount of time but the mom is totally focused on their kids, this makes the kids feel important and cared about, which is really the bigger goal here."

As a working mother with a growing daughter, Rampton also hopes her daughter will take note. "I also have spent a lot of time thinking about the example that I'm modeling for her just by being a teacher and loving on kids and working really hard to achieve goals and all of those things I think she'll see one day and she'll think, 'Oh, my mom works really hard.'"

And, in the short-term, Rampton says she finds peace in knowing this arrangement is best for her marriage as well as her child.

"I think about the situation we're in with our student loans, with healthcare. I had to weigh the costs and the benefits of me working on my marriage," she says. "It just really is the best thing for my child, to be able to provide these things for, and it's the best thing for our marriage."

The reality is that even with the number of two-income families on the rise, working motherhood might not be every mom's first choice—but that doesn't make it the wrong choice or even the forever choice. We're all just trying our best to discover what's right for our families and our futures, and that means finding the best work-life balance is always going to be a work in progress.

[Originally published on April 24th, 2018]

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