The True Cost of a Second Income

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Photo Credit: Mindy Rainey Creative

Last week I started responding to the idea that women simply can’t afford to stay home with their children and that only the pampered few could make it on one income.  Please see that post for the obvious caveats regarding single mothers, etc.

My husband and I knew from our first date that I would always stay home with our children, so our career, budget, and education decisions were made with the expectation that we’d only ever live on one income. I worked to support him through law school rather than getting a masters I knew I wouldn’t use very long, then had T and stayed home once my husband started working. After having so many people tell me they just couldn’t afford to make it on one income like we do, I decided to sit down and actually crunch the numbers.  I was surprised to find that my return to the workplace full-time would actually be a net income loss for our family.

If I went back to work, I’d be teaching high school English. I looked up starting salary for a high school teacher in CA, and it’s about $43K, with an average salary of $69K. (That seems high—I have a relative who was a high school teacher and varsity coach with a masters degree and four years of high school experience and made probably half of that in the Midwest.) We homeschool our older two kids now but would have to put them into school if I were working. The tuition at the only classical school in the area that mirrors our educational philosophy would be $7000/apiece. (Now that we’ve moved, it would also be a 50 minute drive each way every day—62 miles round trip times an estimated total driving cost of $.65/mile in a minivan, times 180 days of school is an additional $6,975 a year.)  Average daycare costs in our area are $1000/month per child. That’s $24K/year for my two little girls! So I’d be looking at $45K just for childcare/school, not counting taxes, buying a work-appropriate wardrobe (because I outgrew my pre-kids work wardrobe after #1), not having time to bargain shop or cook from scratch, etc.  And as some of my teacher friends have noted, school district schedules can vary quite a bit, so I’d also be needing to find daycare for my school aged children on random days throughout the year when they were out of school and I still had to work.  Assuming that $43K starting salary, it wouldn’t make any financial sense for me to go back to work right now, even if I wanted to and had a teaching certificate in CA (adding a two-year masters to get certified out here would be even more my husband would have to bankroll!).  I love teaching and couldn’t see myself in any other career (other than raising my own children), but I couldn’t afford to do it again full-time until our kids are all out of the home, whether in public school (which may be an option later) or off to college. You read that right–I couldn’t afford not to stay home with my kids I’m actually saving us money by staying home rather than working!

It’s not easy to monetize the health costs to us of me no longer having the time to cook from scratch, the increased stress levels for my husband (having to make his paycheck stretch thousands of dollars more than it does now) and for me (because trying to have it all is not exactly fun), or the radically altered nature of my relationship with my kids if I only spent 2 hours rather than 12 hours a day with them.  Suffice to say, in financial, emotional, and quality-of-life terms, such a trade-off holds no appeal to me.

Well, Emily, readers might protest, you’re a special case.  I realize that we’re in a very high cost of living area, have a distinct educational philosophy (thus would have our kids in a private classical school versus traditional public or private school if we weren’t homeschooling), have a “large” family of four children, and I have a pretty un-lucrative potential career path (though teaching is touted as one of the best careers for mothers, because you get the summers off).  Of course, I could shop around for the absolute cheapest daycare option available, perhaps for a bit less than that $1000/month, and be prepared to deal with the chronic illness that my friends with kids in daycare just accept as a matter of course, and I could dump my kids in the local public schools with the spoiled rotten children of the movie stars and porn stars who live in our town, saving us another $20,000/year but sacrificing everything my husband and I believe about the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional formation of our children.  Many of my working mom friends have family nearby and don’t share my concerns with using Grandma as a “free” primary caregiver, so they’re not factoring in the cost of childcare into the equation, and as I’ve pointed out, that is a pretty big deal for our family.  If I started from the assumption that I have to work, I could indeed compromise many of my values and beliefs, but this would entail a far greater sacrifice for our family than our current “sacrifice” of living on one income and having the freedom to raise our children in line with our convictions.

Of course, before I offend my friends who gallantly stay home with their little ones but sigh with relief as they send them off to kindergarten, I do realize that not everyone is called to homeschool, and a brick-and-mortar school may very well be the best option for others, especially if there are not tabloid reporters hanging around outside the school or crazy movie star parents telling their millions of twitter followers to go dump dog poop in front of the school where their ex is sending the kids (true story). For many of my friends and mentors, the one-income lifestyle is only going to last while the kids are preschool-aged, and part- to full-time employment will form part of their economic calculations after that.  They’ve still managed to be everything to someone in their child’s earliest years, and this was a precious investment.

Perhaps this money-crunching exercise only serves to show how different each family’s situation is, but it still has me wondering how much the average working mom takes home after childcare.  The net amount may not be negative, as it is in my case, but I suspect that for many middle-class families, it is considerably less than they assume.  At what point is it worth not being with your children in their formative years?

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One Response to The True Cost of a Second Income

  1. Abram Hess says:

    I heard a stat years ago (don’t remember where) that the average two-income family spends 90% of the second income on things like childcare that facilitate their ability to earn that second income. So all of that stress and hassle is for 10% of the second income…

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