Is Working Worth It When You Have Kids?

When you have kids, it’s easy to question whether it makes sense for both parents to work outside the home. I know; I’ve been there. When my husband and I had our first child, I was making around $10 an hour and spending half of my take-home pay on child care.

Even though we ultimately decided my career was “worth it,” the financial pain was brutal. Imagine working 40 hours per week and only clearing $150 after the tax man and day-care lady got their share. When you’re in that predicament, it’s easy to see why so many families opt to keep one parent home. But is that always the best decision? According to the experts, it depends.

How Will Staying Home Affect Your Career?

The most recent government data show the average cost for full-time day care is $11,666 per year. That’s for one child, mind you, so it’s easy to see how overwhelming it could be to pay for full-time day care when you have a family of four or five.

If you look at just the cost of day care alone, staying at home can almost be a no-brainer when one parent isn’t earning much. But there are more factors to consider than just the cost of day care today. You have to look a little further down the line and ask yourself how staying home might affect your earnings five, 10, or 15 years from now. After all, young kids don’t stay that way forever, right?

I once interviewed financial expert and author Laura Vanderkam about the pitfalls of staying at home when the kids are little, and she made some good points about what we really give up.

“You don’t just lose the income you’d earn during the years you stay home; you lose seniority, skills, and connections, which affect your lifetime earnings,” she said.

In other words, it’s not just about what you’re giving up today, it’s also about what you’re giving up later. And if what you might be giving up is substantial, it could make sense to stay at work during those day-care years — even when the financials look disastrous on paper.

The Hidden Benefits of Staying Home

But life isn’t just about money, is it? Most people who have kids know they have a worth all their own – and that the early years are priceless. And a lot of adults just can’t imagine having kids then returning to their 9-to-5 jobs – some parents simply aren’t wired that way.

Furthermore, the financial benefits of having one parent at home can be huge. For example, a parent who stays at home might have time to shop around for the best deals, make meals from scratch, and find ways to entertain the kids that are both fun and frugal.

An at-home parent probably doesn’t need an expensive car or wardrobe either, nor do they need to spend time or money commuting or keeping up appearances for the office or anything else. Stay-at-home parents may also have time for certain frugal moves that working parents simply might not — like using cloth diapers, breastfeeding, and making baby food from scratch.

And obviously, the biggest moneysaver that comes with having a stay-at-home parent is that you can avoid the high costs of day care altogether. That’s like getting an $11,000 raise right there.

How to Decide Whether to Stay Home

There is no “right way” to raise your kids, and there certainly isn’t a “right” decision when it comes to deciding whether to stay home or persevere in your 9-to-5. Still, there are some questions you should ask yourself before you decide to stay home with the kiddos. Consider this list:

  • Do we make enough money for one parent to stay home? Before you pull the plug on your work life, break out your monthly budget to see if you could realistically afford to live on one salary.
  • Can we still save for retirement and emergencies? In today’s complex world, simply keeping the lights on won’t be enough. Ask yourself if you could still save for the future with only one parent bringing in a paycheck.
  • Will I be able to re-enter the workforce? Once the kids are in school, you might want to head back to work. If your career choice conducive to re-entry?
  • Is there a way to keep my career skills fresh? Can you attend career seminars or take continuing education while you stay at home with the kids, or pick up some periodic, part-time consulting work?
  • Is my partner supportive? Choosing to have one parent at home will require a certain amount of sacrifice. You’ll have better success if your partner supports your choice.

So is working worth it? The truth is, only you can decide. Run the numbers both ways so that you’re fully aware of what you’re giving up – and what you’re gaining. Just make sure any decision you make is a well thought-out, informed one.

How did you decide whether to return to work or stay home? Either way, do you think the sacrifice is worth it?

Holly Johnson
Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.

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