Updated on 02.07.10

Review: 1/2 Price Living

Trent Hamm

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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  1. Adrienne says:

    Make sure you take the cost of private insurance into consideration when you compare working versus staying home. I am a stay-at-home mom and whole-heartedly endorse it (especially when it makes financial sense), but sometimes the insurance situation (whether you can get it and how much it will cost) is prohibitive.

  2. Reggie says:

    Great article! My fiancee and I have been fascinated with your website since discovering your laundry soap recipe.

    About two years ago, my fiancee parted with his job and has been freelancing from home. First, I agree: men make great at-homes. The key is self-motivation, not gender. Second, Kay’s *1/2 Price Living* may be geared toward parents, but the tips you name above work for anyone. My fiancee, who has 15 years in the restaurant industry, has been exercising the shopping tips shown above. Our expenses are now so low, that within 2 1/2 years, we saved an entire year’s salary.

    My fiancee has another tip: daily shopping to better understand local retail pricing rhythms and make valuable contacts. Meat cut on Saturday is on sale for 30% on Monday and 50% on Tuesday. If my fiancee can’t find what he’s looking for, there is always a friendly face to help track it down.

    Patience and flexibility are key. Good luck and happy hunting.

  3. cathleen says:

    The other thing to seriously consider is that the job market has changed significantly. It’s taking much much longer to get a job and if one leaves the workforce, even for a little while, it *may* be difficult to impossible to get back to one’s field or income. I have a number of college educated friends in this situation right now and they are competing with new grads for jobs. Not pretty. YMMV.

    Working part-time (if possible) I think is a better option in this job climate unless money is not a factor.

  4. z says:

    Also make sure to consider loss of Social Security points (a huge deal if you’re going to end up an elderly widow, which is very common), earning potential, and interest/investment income on the foregone earned income. I absolutely can’t stand it when people don’t do this calculation correctly, because it makes me think the financial arguments are a cover for some other reason. Stay home if you want to, but let’s get the math right and be honest about our real reasons.

  5. Jeremy says:

    My wife actually was able to stay at home for a little over a year about 1yr ago, and it was AWESOME! We don’t have kids, but let me say that even for us the monetary benefits of her working outside of the home still weren’t all that great for us. She went back to work because the workplace she left offered her a bit of a raise over her old salary, so it we decided it would help pay down debt enough to justify her working again.

    However, during the time she was off, we did the following crazy things that no one in my workplace seemed to understand:
    1) Let the lease end on our one car, and didn’t lease a new one until she went back to work. My wife drove me to and from work frequently, which gave us more time to talk together, and saved us a TON in car payments, gas, insurance, etc. over having two cars.
    2) She took care of most home chores while I was making the money for us at my job – this increased our time together on the weekends, allowed us both to be more focused in our “jobs”, and SIGNIFICANTLY reduced the stress in our lives, even though the budget got tighter.
    3) We had more time to serve our community in our local church during this year where she wasn’t working outside of the home.
    4) She packed me lunch, which was a lot healthier, but slightly more expensive, than me eating at work through the 50% subsidized cafeteria plan. BUT, I felt so much better day-to-day that I’m not going back to the subsidized plan because I’m actually quite a bit healthier now – fewer sicknesses throughout the year, and I’m more productive these days because I have more energy throughout the day.

    We’re planning to go back to this arrangement as soon as we get pregnant. We have determined that having just one child in daycare would actually make our financial (and familial) situation worse, not better.

  6. z says:

    I think it’s easy for this calculation to get skewed, because a lot of the benefits
    (reduced expenses, time with kids, less stress) are in the present, but a lot of the disadvantages are only felt far in the future (loss of 401k match, loss of social security points, loss of a year of work experience). It’s hard to make sure one is weighing them appropriately.

  7. Tammy says:

    When we got married, we’d decided that if we had kids, someone would stay home – we both came from 2-working-parent families and wanted something different for our children. Our daughter just turned twenty and we’re still single income by choice. Yes, we’ve had to ‘make do’ many, many times, and there are a lot of things we did without, but life is so, so much simpler. At times I was home, at other times my husband, but we always had a clean house, hot, fresh, food, and someone already there if the kid had to come home sick from school. Or a service person coming to fix the whatever. Or a family crisis (since our parents are facing health issues). Soccer practice. Car trouble. Helping neighbors. And on and on. We were able to take in three foster kids because someone was always home. Were able to care for my dying father. I can’t imagine all the stress we’ve avoided over the years juggling jobs and family and time. One of us works, the other handles the brunt of everything else, and it’s pretty awesome. For us, there’s no better life than single income.

  8. Tradd says:

    I’ve known about Ellie Kay for more than 10 years. You mention her Christian views could be off-putting for those not of her faith, but that *is* her primary audience. I encountered her first book in a Christian book store. Her husband was an Air Force fighter pilot (career officer) until he retired, and a large part of her ministry has been to military families, as well.


  9. Jane says:

    I was a graduate student before we had children, so we’ve never actually been a two income home. I think in some respects this is easier, because we never had to adjust down our lifestyle. I imagine it would take a lot of planning and maybe even savings to make it work. One big thing that we did was to buy a house that we knew we could afford on only one income. I think this is the foundation to the whole process. If you buy a home that demands two incomes, then you really lock yourself in. Sure, we make sacrifices being a single income home, but our lives are much less stressful than our friends who both work.

  10. Amanda says:

    I agree that insurance is a HUGE factor. I have fabulous insurance and my husband is self-employed, and I estimate our family health expenses would go up by $500 a month if I quit my job.

  11. Michelle says:

    I would encourage people thinking of staying home not to think that you can even come close to making your former salary in a work at home situation. I run a side business (seamstressing and custom clothing) and I make about enough for my husband I to go out on a date about once a month. I could make more, if I were willing to sacrifice the time with my kids, and isn’t that why I became a SAHM, so I could spend my time caring and being with my kids? I’ve just heard a lot of women saying that working from home will help “soften the blow”. I can tell you from experience, plan on living on one income and anything you get from “working” at home will just be a nice bonus. Don’t count on it as a regular source of income.

  12. Angie says:

    I wonder how your family would do it, considering you have your insurance through your wife’s work. Since you have a pre-ex, you’d probably be rejected from the individual market. Would you go without insurance for yourself?

  13. Amy D of Tightwad Gazette fame also considers this issue.

  14. I am an “At Home Dad”….not by choice. Being laid off has forced my wife and I to explore many of htese issues. I loved the quote about “tonig down the Mommy speak”!!!! I avoid “Mommy Speak” at all costs!!!! lol

  15. Leah Finnegan says:

    I decided to stay at home this past year after the birth of my first child. Although the decision has certainly changed the way my husband and I spend our money and has definitely made us tighten our budget considerably, it has also opened our eyes to how much money we simply wasted before. At the very least we know now how little we can live off of and still be perfectly comfortable and fed and clothed just fine. In fact, because we have to evaluate our finances more often we do a much better job of paying off debt and saving than we did before. Unfortunatly, sometimes the more you make the more you spend. Also, we see how much we could do with all that “extra” money if I ever did decide to go back to work. Not everyone can stand being at home all day and I understand that, but I haved loved experiencing my son’s first year first hand.

  16. divajean says:

    My partner has been a stay at home mom since our 3rd child came to us. At that time, my oldest was in all day school, but my second was in daycare. Having 2 in daycare would have cost us more than she was bringing home (working for a non profit service agency) so it was pretty apparent what needed to happen. Although we live close to all the grandparents, we didn’t want to put them in the place of *having* to provide childcare, though they had been helping out with the afterschool time care of our eldest. We made out an extensive plan as to getting ready for her to be a stay at home mom- mostly involving getting a new mini van for car seats and having it paid for cash on the barrel head. We were also lucky in that my employer had changed the policy towards health insurance towards domestic partners, allowing her to go on my insurance plan rather than us having to pay for her policy (however, I do have to pay taxes on the “added value” of having this type of policy). I think that the main thing that held it all together was that we were of the same frugal mindset with the end goal of having a parent home. As I’ve said before though, we have to pinch a penny until Lincoln is crying to make it work.

  17. Stephanie says:

    I stayed home with our four kids because I could not make enough to pay day care and when we tried working opposite shifts it was too hard on both of us. I was thrilled because I did not want to be away from our kids and my husband really did like me being home and would take an occasional second job when we need a car repaired , or wanted extra money for something, and I would babysit or do crafts for money whenever I could to help out as well. It was tight most of the time, but we made it work. We threw away a lot less and made things work for as long as possible.
    Our kids are 20 to 29 so one could agrue things are differant now, but I have a daughter that stays home with thier two kids while her husband brings home the only paycheck and though it can be tight they are happier with her home with the kids.
    It can be done, even today if people adjust thier priorities.
    You might not be able to have the house you want, but one you can afford. You might have to rent longer and buy later. We did not own a house until our mid thirties. You may have to cook from scratch more and not eat out, and may have to have less stuff.
    We shopped yard sales and our four kids always had a closet stuffed full of name brand clothes that were very nice. I never bought any that did not look new just washed a couple of times. They had plenty of toys and when they got money for thier birthday or Christmas they would take that money to yard sales where they could get a lot more for thier money. We had everything we needed and some of what we wanted but did have to go without a lot. We did not own our first new car until our mid forties and that will be our last once we saw how the value dropped like a rock.
    So, it can be done. I think easier then people think, if they are willing to put staying home as a priority and are willing to do whatever it takes to make it work. You really have to want it though for it to work.
    The benefits are many. I was home when my husband was, so we had a lot of time together which is something that was and still is important to us. Our kids had mom home and healthy food because I made it all from scratch. They never had to go to day care and were home in bed when sick. I cannot tell you how many times I watched a sick kid for a working mom because the day care would not take them that day. I never would take a very sick kid ,nor was I ever asked to.
    I am not attacking working moms at all. We all have to chose what is best for us and that is what we wanted. I missed out on a career and at fifty this year I am still at home and have no skills to get a job. So, that would be the only down side and if I had it to do over, I would have slowly taken classes over time to get a degree so that by the time the kids were grown I could have had a career.
    So, it can be done, if it is what you want and if you can accept all of it. If you are a person that loves to work, and will be lonely and isolated and bored, than do not do it. I have known many working moms who said that is why they just cannot stay home. But if you long to be home and live a simplier life, I felt for me, it was worth that sacrifice and though at times it is hard, and money can be tight, there is a lot of support online now, that was not available to me. If the internet had been available to me as a young stay at home mom, it would have made a world of differance.

  18. Emily Lauren says:

    To add to your quibble — I think it’s not just men who are likely to be put-off by the ‘mommy club’ language… it’s sexist and offensive and off-putting for men AND women.

  19. Traci says:

    How did you, or did you, factor the potential loss of status for your wife in her career market? Will she be able to re-enter at her current level upon returning to the marketplace?

    That insurance issue is huge, too.

  20. Susie says:

    I also stayed at home with my children while they were growing up. It was wonderful- I also shopped at garage sales, cooked at home, etc. I wish I had at least worked part time to maintain my job skills as my marriage fell apart. I found myself at the age of 42 going back to school in order to obtain decent employment. I did suffer financially and had to use a food bank at one point. Staying at home is a good idea but I do wish I had thought about what would happen if my marriage failed, as far as employment, retirement and insurance. I do find it is one part of the equation that I never see considered and everything must be considered – no matter what your gender.

  21. divajean says:

    Were you asking me, Traci?

    Believe me, many jobs could be found at the level she was making when she left her job. I am not saying this to be nasty, but in the industry she is in (working in dayhab support services for adults w/ mental retardation), jobs will be there and the money never is and never will be great.

    And yeah, without the opportunity for my partner to be on my health insurance, it would not be anything we could consider- we would have had to stop adding kids after 2, instead of the 4 we really wanted.

  22. This is a great resource it looks like. I’m going to buy this book right now as my husband and I are working out how I’ll be able to stay at home when I have my baby.

    Thanks for the review!

  23. Alicia says:

    The past ten years of our “Stay-At-Home-Dad of twin” situation has been very stressful for me, but it’s my fault – poor communication.

    He doesn’t see dirty dishes. I come home after a 12 hour shift and see unsanitary conditions. I say nothing and clean up.

    Kids do homework in front of Cartoon network. I see ghetto conditions – he sees them doing homework.

    I’d come home to babies in onesies sitting in front of the tv and be horrified at the sub par level of daycare going on at home, but said nothing because he had their best interests at heart.

    I’m out of the house for 14 hours, return at 8pm to kids looking for dinner. I say nothing and start cooking.

    I say nothing and do all the laundry, grocery shopping and cleaning. He would do these things, but it wouldn’t occur to him on his own, I’d need to first train him, then tell him, then praise him.

    He doesn’t volunteer in the schools, and it’s weird coordinating playdates with other Moms that are home – because he’s a guy. It’s NOT the same as a Mom staying home, just isn’t, no matter what they say about equality – he’s not going to be a girl scout leader, and no one in their right mind is going to let their daughter come over as a “daddy’s helper” for the afternoon.

    It causes other people to build resentment because they see the poor wife working and the guy hanging around at home. That is what they see – whether he is contributing to the household or not.

    Our expectations are different. Things that bother me don’t bother him.

    Now I feel shackled. I earn the income and provide the benefits. It would be difficult for him to jump back into the market (an electrical engineer) after 10 years out of his field.

    I am resentful for missing out on my children but
    I know it is good that they’ve bonded with Dad.

    I am happy to live frugally and scoff at my coworker’s crazy spending habits, but leaving the security of my job of 23 years feels scary and risky. I’m not sure I can allow myself to depend on someone else. It would take a lot of planning and discussion.

    I wish I never made the stay at home arrangements in the first place, or made it somehow more “fair”, but still am grateful for a one income family lifestyle.

    I’m confident it’ll all work out and it’s not as bad as it feels to me – just sharing some of the pitfalls.

  24. Nicole says:

    Stephanie– It isn’t too late! In my work (I study the labor supply of workers over 50 for my job) I’ve talked with tons and tons of women who start their first real careers, getting education and the whole bit, at age 50 after the kids were grown and gone. (Oddly, many of them go into human resources, but there are plenty in other fields too.) Start taking classes now! I know women who started with an associate’s degree at 50 and ended up getting a masters after a few years of work and would recommend that anybody in their situation do the same. You can still have a career and find something that you love doing. What do you enjoy?

  25. koilie says:

    DH and I are really committed to the idea of me going back to work (as a science teacher) when our family is ready for it and not because we desperately need to for financial reasons. So when we had our first baby (3.5 years ago) and i stopped work we wrote a very comprehensive budget and have stuck to it. We have even had multiple holidays and bought a second car (cash) and a very small investment property (which pays more than it costs) – and we’ve never gone without stuff we needed and rarely without stuff we’ve wanted.

    When we were on two incomes (about $110K combined) we spent it *all* and now that we’re on one income ($70K) we have absolutely no idea what my income was spent on!

    In hindsight we should have been more careful to not waste that opportunity while we had it

  26. kirstie says:

    I think you have to factor in how the SAH partner could return to full time work so that the roles could be reversed if necessary because of illness or redundancy.

    Also, although it is expensive to go to work and many people may find that their annual salary doesn’t cover much of the cost of childcare in that year, the true financial comparison is the effect of working/not-working on your life time earnings.

    Having said that, I think its great to take the opportunity to look after your children full-time – its just that there is a big difference between taking a ‘sabatical’ from work for a couple of years and leaving work with no idea how you might ever support your family again.

  27. Traci says:

    Toggling between messages 19 and 21 above…

    Thanks, DivaJean for writing back. Your input was valuable!

    I was unclear, but I was asking Trent about how he factored in her work time off and re-entry into the field.

  28. Nicole says:

    Alicia– We hired “Daddy’s helpers” on the days my husband was home with the baby, and mother’s helpers on the days I was home. Try advertising at your college or local community college, then you won’t have to worry about what parents think.

    And someone with an EE can surely come up with some way to get back in the labor market after a 10 year absence, even if it’s teaching physics at the local high school. Computer programming is probably an easier way to get back in though, requiring less educational training. Still, studies among women re-entrants show that getting new education is possibly the best way to increase self-esteem and confidence in skills.

    And man, it’s been 10 years… maybe you should be having these conversations now instead of waiting another 8 years. You sound very unhappy and shouldn’t want that resentment to build even more.

  29. katie says:

    I don’t see how this is at all possible if both parents work in comptetive fields. Take time off from being a doctor or lawyer and you’ll have a hard time getting promoted. Good luck getting tenure if you put being a professor on hiatus for a few years.

    What if the breadwinner loses his or her job?

  30. kirstie says:

    @Alicia, anybody can shove laundry in the machine and take it out afterwards – many men without wives do this every day, and make sure that they have something to eat when they get home from work. Assuming that you don’t have other children, I think his problems are not being caused by his sex, but by being lazy or depression. (Equally, many women suffer from depression and some women take advantage of a partner doing everything for them.)

    Men can and do co-ordinate playdates, and unless there are other difficulties like disability which you haven’t disclosed in your post, why would he need help in the house if he has children at school and isn’t working? Has he just got into the habit of acting as though he is still coping with baby twins, and hasn’t changed his ways now that the situation has become far easier?

  31. oilandgarlic says:

    I’m glad that many commenters brought up the issue of lost income over a lifetime. Too many women I know only factor in the loss of income for the 2 – 5 years they plan to stay home. Most of my friends are older when they have kids so they don’t realize that they’re missing out on prime earning years. By the time they re-enter the workforce (late 30s to mid-40s), their skills are rusty, they have to compete against eager young graduates and they face ageism in the workplace.

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