Review: 1/2 Price Living

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book of interest.

1/21/2 Price Living by Ellie Kay has a particularly noteworthy subtitle: Secrets to Living Well on One Income. A quick read of the back makes it clear who Kay is talking to – people who want to give stay-at-home parenting a go.

I picked up this book (off of PaperBackSwap) because my wife and I are discussing the possibility of trying out stay-at-home parenting for a year – the year in which we have three preschool aged children at home. According to our math, after all of the tax implications and the like, our finances would only slightly be better if my wife worked full time during that year. Of course, the math rebounds strongly after that one year (when our oldest goes to school) and the year after that (when our daughter goes) and, add on top of it the fact that my wife really loves her job, we’re still not fully committed to a plan yet.

Thus, as we often do when we’re piecing through such decisions, we turn to the books, and 1/2 Price Living was one of them.

Did the book provide any lasting value for us, or did it just repeat ideas found elsewhere? Let’s dig in and find out.

1. Mommy’s Gone Wild: Why Live on One Income?
An awful lot of parents wish they had the financial wherewithal to stay at home with their children, particularly when they’re young. Ellie quotes a survey by ClubMom that indicated that 89% of mothers would choose to stay at home if it was financially feasible for them – and there are an awful lot of dads who would do the same. Ellie doesn’t really dive into the issues of whether or not stay-at-home parenting is the right choice, instead focusing on making the book a guide for people who have already made that decision. This is a wise choice, because the actual decision-making process concerning stay-at-home parenting is fraught with a lot of emotion for a lot of people, an element that doesn’t belong in a book that needs to be breaking down some hard facts.

2. I Can’t Afford to Stay at Home: Working Girl vs. Girlie Mom
The big block that most people find in their way when they consider being a stay-at-home parent is the financial question. How can they possibly afford to stay at home? Two big factors pop out here. One, work is often not as lucrative as we think, once we subtract taxes, commuting costs, eating out costs, clothing costs, and so on. Two, staying at home trims your family’s budget substantially because of the home economics of it – meals are made at home, for example, and more planning and thought can be put into grocery trips.

3. Half the Income, All the Benefits: Seven Steps to Come Home
The big key to making all of that work, though, is to plan, plan, plan. If you don’t have a clear gameplan in place, it’s very hard to make the financial transition to one income successfully. Ellie has a nice set of worksheets in this chapter to help guide through the transition, but the big idea is that you need to do a before-and-after budget and carefully think about the real changes to each category. What will change? How can you make that happen?

4. The Family Meeting: Half the Work, All the Fun
One big part of this process is regular family meetings. There will be a lot of changes in your life if you choose to do this and many of them will involve all of the family members. Set aside a meeting time to discuss all of this stuff. Lay everything you can think of on the table and let everyone else do the same. Talk through this – it’ll help you see things you hadn’t thought of.

5. Chopping on a Chewstring: How to Cut Your Food Bill in Half
Ellie advocates “layering” for savings, using a large number of techniques to apply them all to the same item (store coupons, manufacturer coupons, store flyers, and so on). That works to an extent, but the real winners (in my experience) involve figuring out which store is the best to shop at and also, perhaps most importantly, using a grocery list.

6. Three, Four, or More: A Clotheshorse’s Guide to Outfitting Ponies
Start at the secondhand stores – and plan ahead. These are two key pieces of advice for dressing your family on a budget. We take these both deeply to heart already. Many of the clothes my family wears come from secondhand stores – in fact, my daughter’s favorite dress is a secondhand one. If you spend some time actually doing it, you’ll be amazed how many great items are stuck in there alongside the overly-worn stuff.

7. Scrambled Nest Eggs: How to Make Cake When Your Savings Takes a Beating
This chapter mostly just reviews various places families can sock away their money, from retirement accounts to certificates of deposit. Having a cash reserve can be a make-or-break thing for stay-at-home parents, so the advice in this chapter is useful in a very basic way, but it shouldn’t be substituted for any sort of thorough money management primer.

8. The Wednesday Factor: Half-Price Shopping to Maximize Savings
If you’re going to spend money on stuff – from amusement parks to travel to eating out – Wednesday is usually the best day of the week to do it, for several reasons. Many places cut prices on “hump day” to try to spur business in the middle of a work week. Similarly, many competitive businesses operate on a weekly cycle and Wednesday is usually the best day to jump in on that cycle. If you’re going to do something, do it on Wednesday.

9. Taming the 800-Pound Gorilla: Ten Steps to Simplify Home and Hearth Savings
The biggest step? Pay everything on time. After that, the keys to housing savings revolve around saving, saving, saving and spending as little as you can. Why? You are far better off writing a check for home improvements or other such big expenses than taking out debt for them. If you keep on top of the little things each day, it’s easier to stay on top of the big things.

10. That’s My Business: How to Own a Home Business That Doesn’t Own You
Many stay-at-home parents engage in starting a side business to fill in the time gaps they sometimes have during the day. This chapter provides a huge list of ideas for starting such a business and offers some general advice on how to make it work. It can work – among the stay-at-home parents I know, at least two of them have some sort of side business that they’ve started.

11. Fiesta or Famine: How to Finish Great, No Matter Where You Start
Here, Ellie goes down a spiritual path, citing how her faith played a central role in making stay-at-home parenting possible for her. While that’s admirable, the intense focus on specific Christian ideas and texts could be a bit alienating to non-Christian readers.

12. The Porpoise-Driven Life: How to Restructure Vacations and Build Memories
The good financial advice returns here with a detailed discussion of how to have low-cost vacations on the cheap. The biggest piece of advice in the chapter is to “double-up” – traveling with others can almost always drastically reduce the cost of a vacation, assuming of course that the people you travel with are of a similar mindset as you .

13. The Sowing Club: The Benefit of Sharing and Stewardship
The book closes with a discussion of the value of good character and being an active part of your community. I find that, time and time again, being involved in the community in a positive fashion goes a very long way toward building a successful financial life, because the support of others around you makes all the difference in the world.

Is 1/2 Price Living Worth Reading?
If you’re considering being a stay-at-home parent – and troubled by the financial and other personal implications of that – 1/2 Price Living is a really worthwhile read. It gave us quite a lot to think about as we puzzled through our decision. If you’re in a similar boat, I would consider this a nearly essential read.

I had one big quibble, though: most of the book assumes that it will be the mother that chooses to be the stay-at-home parent. I actually know more fathers who are doing the stay-at-home parenting right now. Assuming that the mother will be the one to do this is a bit… outdated, I think. If this book gets a revised printing, I would strongly suggest toning down the “mommies club” language in the book, as it could be pretty off-putting for fathers who are considering staying at home.

That’s not to say that the advice isn’t spot-on, useful, and thought-provoking, because it is.

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