Written by: Gail Hicks
It’s a question almost every soon-to-be parent ponders: should I stay at home after the baby is born?
And if so, for how long? Even for the most career-driven parent, it can be a very emotional decision. To come up with the right answer for you, step beyond a basic pros-and-cons list. Be certain you’re considering every piece of the puzzle before making a choice—and do all you can to be sure that choice balances your emotions with what’s best for the long-term financial stability of your family.
If you think that puzzle is a simple one, think again.
It’s easy to look at the high cost of childcare and assume that those costs, combined with the savings on everything from dry cleaning to taxes to eating out after a long day at the office, make staying at home the most cost-effective option. That’s rarely the case.The truth is in the data. According to a recent study by the think tank Center for American Progress (CAP), the average 26-year-old woman who takes a 5-year break from her career will lose much more than five years of her salary. In fact, when considering lost income, wage growth, and retirement assets and benefits during just five years, she’ll lose a whopping $467,000 over her lifetime. A man of the same age will lose even more: just under $600,000. To make those numbers more personal (especially knowing that Orange County is one of the most expensive places to live in the US) assume that staying at home will cost up to five times your annual salary for every year you’re out of the workforce. According to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Expenditures on Children by Families report, households with income over $105,000 should be prepared to spend at least $400,000 to raise a child to age 18. With that price tag in mind, it’s a challenge to make staying at home an affordable option!
Of course for some parents, the math isn’t enough to sway the emotional desire to stay home with children. For others, there are family and cultural biases that strongly influence the decision. But it’s vital to look closely at the reality of your choice before opting to leave the workforce. As someone who has been there myself, I know the real-world challenges all too well.
When my husband and I were contemplating expanding our family from one child to two, we remembered the toll my job took on my health during my first pregnancy, including a very frightening pre-term labor that resulted in being put on bed rest at seven months. The high cost of childcare and the fact that we had no family in the area to help out were also factors to consider as we considered our options. We did the math (it’s what I do, after all!), and determined that with our savings and the extra income from my husband’s side business, we could make it work. We knew there would be sacrifices, but it was an important—and yes, emotional—decision for us both. So I walked away from a high-paying corporate job and walked into stay-at-home parenthood.
Unfortunately, the decision didn’t play out in real life as well as it had on paper. First, our second son was born with a mild disability. That alone tipped the financial and emotional scales. Jumping through hoops to get a diagnosis and then therapy two or three times a week was hard. Soon afterward, the recession hit, and with it came the end of the consulting income we had counted on to help replace my salary. Even worse, my husband didn’t want to add any more stress to an already high-stress situation, so he postponed admitting that his side business had completely dried up. Our plan of just breaking even quickly turned into the reality of taking on debt. Now the numbers didn’t make sense. How could I go back to work when my younger son needed me at home and my older son had grown accustomed to having me at home with him too?
At the same time, I was in a world of the unknown. I’d been a businesswoman my entire life. I was home with a special-needs child, I knew only a handful of my neighbors, and the few stay-at-home moms I was able to meet had never worked, so our experiences were completely different. I felt isolated and alone. And while it was a difficult choice to go back to work, money was just one piece of the equation. I was confident my choice would be best for our whole family, and it truly was. Within months of going back to work, I felt we had found balance again. Yes, I missed the time with my sons, but I knew I was a better mother when we were together as I watched the financial and emotional stresses wash away.
Everyone’s situation is different.
The key to making the best choice for you is to understand the true financial impact of staying at home, and then to decide what makes sense for you and your family—both today and over the long term. How can you be sure your emotions aren’t overriding your common sense? Work with a professional advisor to help you crunch the numbers and be sure you’re really considering every piece of the puzzle.
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