Updated on 05.11.08

Sunday Conversation #4

Trent Hamm

This week, I’m interviewing a close friend of our family named Carrie. It was Carrie’s earlier guest post on cloth diapering that inspired us to try it. Carrie is a stay-at-home mother with a husband whose career pays irregularly, meaning they tackle a very uneven rate of pay along with many opportunities for saving money. Beyond that, her family has adopted a huge number of green-oriented solutions for food and household care – they eat organics, do cloth diapering, and so on. Even more so, many of these ideas are guided by her faith. Thus, I thought it’d be interesting to have a conversation with Carrie about some of these issues – and you’ll also find that Carrie’s perspective and mine diverge in several areas.

What were your reasons for choosing to be a stay-at-home mom?

I think it’s important for a child’s parent to be able to be the primary daytime care-giver for young children. I was strongly influenced by my family situation growing up, where even though both my parents worked or were in school full-time, we were always in the care of one of them. So, I’m not personally tied to being the primary caregiver, but (here comes reason 2) since my husband’s work schedule is usually unpredictable and takes him away from home, it makes sense for me to stay at home, both so our child(ren) can have a parent available at all times, and so we can have the flexibility to spend time with him when his schedule suddenly opens up, and he is home unexpectedly. Finances were not a significant factor in making this decision.

Do you feel that the stay-at-home choice is causing an economic disadvantage for your family?

No, I don’t feel like we’re at an economic disadvantage. While we would most likely be bringing in more money if I were to work outside the home, our current situation fills our needs. I think that perception of economic disadvantage is highly situational, and personal. If we were in a situation where my husband was making a significantly smaller income, then strictly from an earned income point of view, we might indeed be at a disadvantage, compared to others. Some families are in a situation where even after the costs of daycare and work related expenses are accounted for, the extra money, even if it’s just $1000 a year, makes huge difference. Considering my educational training, I know that I could make substantially more than the cost of high-quality day care. That is not where my values lie, however. For some people, not having enough money to travel to foreign countries, or even to buy an expensive, but high quality tool, would cause them to feel at a disadvantage, especially when you know that you could be brining in more income as a family. Although I would love to travel, I don’t place a strong personal value on that. Other people might say that we’re at a disadvantage, I would say we have different values.

What things do you do to recoup that loss in income?

Since I don’t perceive a loss in income, there aren’t things in my life that I do from the mindset of making up for lost income. I shop for bargains and make frugal choices because I believe that it’s a proper use of my resources to do so, not because I feel the need to make up for something.

Once your child/children grow older, do you see yourself returning to full-time work?

I suspect that once my children are all out of the house and on their own, I will return to full-time work that earns money.

This question makes me think some about the perception of stay-at-home parents and how what they do is classified. For instance, I don’t always think of myself as a stay at home mom, even though common use of the term would put me in that category. I spend many of hours throughout the month working on youth ministry volunteer work, and I have occasional – very occasional – think less than 3 jobs per year – contract work. I guess I’m saying that even though I’m not making a significant direct financial input into our family, the volunteer work that I do is significant enough that some people get paid to do it. We’re blessed enough to be able to donate the time.

But back to the question – I know that I enjoy working with people, and I love the challenge of deadlines and creative work. I look forward to the opportunity to apply myself in a way that adds to our income, but I have no idea what I’ll be doing when the time rolls around to get back into the workforce. My interests have changed, and I’ll probably go back to school once I settle on whatever it is I think I want to do!

I’ve observed that you eat organic foods, do cloth diapering, etc. Why? Are these things a “green” choice or are there other reasons?

The “green” aspect of our choices – as in, a positive benefit for the environment, such as a smaller carbon footprint, fewer chemical contaminants in our water and air, less junk in the landfills, things like that – is one reason why we choose to eat organically, use my cheap car that gets great gas mileage, and cloth diaper, and lots of other things. I have been conscious of the impact we have on the environment since I was in high school. I think the thing that really started me in this direction, though, is my belief that it is, in general, healthier for my body, and that such choices can reduce the risk of many of the chronic ills faced by our society. I’m all about reducing chemical exposure. So I suppose, I’m green because I’m selfish.

Thankfully, there are side benefits, like direct savings of less money spent on diapers, and indirect cost savings of less money spent on illnesses.

Your husband’s work is contract-based, meaning that you make plenty of income but it’s irregular. How do you guys manage that irregularity in the face of regular bills?

My husband was doing his line of work long before we got married, and he had already established patterns that now help us get through the year. As our lives have changed – adding a child to the mix changes lots of things! – we’ve adjusted our patterns. Essentially, we’ve taken the time to figure out how much of a paycheck actually stays in our hands on average, with the rest going to business expenses and taxes, and we know how much we spend during the months when income is significantly less. Sometimes we get paid every week, sometimes, it’s less than once a month. We make sure that we set aside enough money over the course of the year to get us through those leaner months. We don’t carry any debt right now, and we make sure that we have a good-sized emergency fund saved up. I suppose that because this is the financial life we have known our entire marriage, it doesn’t seem that strange or irregular.

What role does your faith play in your personal finance choices?

My personal beliefs plays a huge role in my choices. While the organized religious group that I participate with addresses the concept of stewardship, I wouldn’t say that as an organization we are all living green and making sound financial decisions. My personal finance choices are a reflection of my interpretation of scripture, and really, it extends beyond managing money. The concept of being a good steward is central to my interaction with everything around me – the money in my hands, the earth around me, and my relationships with others.

I know Carrie will be reading the comments here, so feel free to add in any additional questions you may have.

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  1. Saving Freak says:

    Great interview. I do financial counseling at our church and we find, even though the scripture teaches good stewardship, that people in the church are doing no better than those who do not attend any form of organized religion. The problem in the US is systemic. People are just not learning how to manage money.

    Carrie, your management of your household is a testament to good choices paying off so that you can afford to live your life the way you want.

  2. I think it’s interesting that so many stay-at-home moms resist that label with one excuse or another. Like I take care of my aging dad, or I serve on the board of X, or I go to the gym 4 hours a day.

    I don’t understand the shame behind the choice, if you can afford it. No one actually thinks that stay-at-home moms sleep and watch TV all day.

    Great interview!

  3. Wonko Beeblebrox says:

    >Considering my educational training, I know that I could
    > make substantially more than the cost of high-quality day
    > care. That is not where my values lie, however.

    I am curious about this, just because I hear of lots of women going out and get phenomenal degrees that cost a lot of money and then they have kids and stay at home to raise their kids instead. Did you not like the field that you got your degree in?

    Raising your kids is important, but why did you both not decide to both become part time parents (maybe he takes less contracts – maybe just those that are closer to home, etc) while you also work part-time, and thus help stabilize the income flow? Two half time parents = 1 full time parent if they schedule it smartly and communicate.

    > I suspect that once my children are all out of the house and
    > on their own, I will return to full-time work that earns money.

    This I am curious about as well. Could you go to work part time (for example: maybe only during school hours) once all kids are in grade school? First grade is nowhere near “on their own,” but they would not need you to be at home while they are in school.

    (Some professions even allow for summers off: A schoolteacher, for example, shares the same schedule as her students.)


  4. Saving Freak says:

    Some people just really enjoy being the CEO of the home. There is no doubt that a home runs more smoothly if one of the parents is able to stay home full time. The amount of work it takes to run a household is a full time job in itself (calculated to be approximately 94 hours per week). If your family is in a position to run on one income it seems this is the best way to do things.

  5. KC says:

    I’m a “stay-at-home mom with no kids”. In other words my husband earns enough money and my job was causing us stress in many ways, so I left. We fired the maid and the yardman – I do that now. I’m also able to take care of lots of things in our personal lives – car repairs, oil changes, scheduling house repairs, talking to accountants, and other things that happen in life. I’m able to cook for us and maintain a house. It’s wonderful!

    I am not bored! I have 2 master’s degrees and could easily find a job, but I really enjoy not working. I am an avid baseball fan and tennis player. I’m an avid reader (and not just fiction…real stuff, too). I enjoy following and educating myself on the stock market (I’m not a day trader). And I have friends who don’t work so we can enjoy each other’s company during the day if we get bored. Not everyone can do this, but I love it and don’t want to return to a traditional job anytime soon.

    When you add up the savings from not hiring out labor (maid and yard) and child care (if you have children) the savings can equal that of a salary after taxes. I think more people should downsize and consider this option. It’s not bad at all.

    Oh, and I went off my blood pressure meds now that I have less stress. Can you put a price on that?!

  6. Frugal Dad says:

    My wife and I decided together that she would stay at home with out kids. This works well in our situation, because my wife is not career-minded – she genuinely enjoys being a full-time mom. She volunteers for “room mom” duties and is active in the kids classroom. I suspect when both our kids in school she will pursue a teaching position, or some type of paraprofessional position in the classroom.

  7. gr8whyte says:

    Vaguely remember reading somewhere the value of a stay-at-home spouse is ~k$115.

  8. Bella says:

    I hope that me or my husband will be able to stay at home. It is a priority for me. I am recently out of school (less than three years), so it will be a challenge to stay at home. We recently bought a new car, for a good price and put a good cash on it, so it will be paid in full only a few months after the purchase. I am realising that the more I will own free and clear when I decide to have kids, easier it will be. So, we are now working toward this goal to be able to have one of us be at home.
    No matter what we say, money is always a matter!

  9. Gayle says:

    @dogatemyfinances–I didn’t detect an ounce of shame (and righfully so) in Carrie’s statement that she’s a stay-at-home parent. Many stay-at-home parents DO feel the need to qualify that label, but I think what Carrie was saying is that she hasn’t completely dropped out of the workforce as she does take on contract jobs from time to time.

    @wonko–obviously, your values are different from Carrie’s. Her family is able to live comfortably with the current income level so there is no dire need for her to squeeze a paid job, part-time or otherwise, into to her responsibilities as the primary care giver in her family. And I don’t get the sense that she’s itching to return to the paid workforce the first chance she gets.

    We’re contemplating moving out of the Bay Area in 1 -2 years so that, hopefully, as we being our family we can be in a similar situation. We can’t even conceive of conceiving in the Bay Area on two incomes, but if we move out we could probably live comfortably on just one.

    And I’ve noticed a huge shift in the status of our home (and our health) between the time when I was fresh out of school and umemployed as opposed to having a full-time job–the home was cleaner, small repairs were done more timely, I was able to bargain shop more effectively, I was able to exercise at any time of the day instead of trying to squeeze it in before or after work, and more and healthier meals were cooked in the home.

  10. MommyGirl says:

    I have been a stay at home mom for nearly 14 years (since I was 6 months pregnant with our first child) and now that our youngest will start kindergarten this fall, I look forward to returning to college and work. I have thoroughly enjoyed this time watching our “babies” grow up. Our situation has been similar to the one Carrie has-my husband’s work schedule had him coming home at varying times due to the seasonal nature of his job-anywhere from 45 to 60+ hours per week! And I have NOT had the luxury of having a “built in” babysitter in the form of a mom/mother-in-law. We have been on our own(with God’s divine help). Our children have not been spoiled with anything other than love and undivided attention. They are not very materialistic and according to many friends, neighbors and teachers demonstrate model behavior. Yes, they “let their hair down” from time to time, but at least they have done it at home. We have made many frugal choices over the years-not to mention endured the “helpful” advice of MANY who believe we could be doing better if we just “put them in daycare/preschool.” I am proud to be a stay at home parent and encourage all parents who are able to find a way to make it happen for their families as well. You will be so glad you did.

  11. Tana says:

    I especially like her answer to whether her staying at home is causing an economic disadvantage. And I cringed when I read the question (and the one that follows it about recouping the loss). It really is a difference of values.

    I mean, why don’t you go ask a nurse how she deals with the “economic disadvantage” of being a nurse rather than a doctor? Or a law secretary in regards to being a lawyer? You can pick a career that makes big money, or a career that you enjoy (such as being a writer). Money doesn’t translate directly to quality of life.

    As a mother who stays at home myself, I don’t have to deal with disadvantages that many working mothers face. I don’t have to figure out how to take off work when my children are sick. In fact, my children rarely get sick. I don’t have to deal with the disadvantage of taking them to the playground when everyone else is there on the evenings and weekends – we can go during the day and essentially have the place to ourselves. I don’t have to go in and wake my kids up every morning and make them get moving so we can get out the door on time; they get to sleep until they’re cheerful and ready to get up. And I don’t have to figure out how to spend time with my children while trying to take care of household duties and running errands in the little bit of time I have when I’m not at work every day; when my husband comes from work in the evening, all of that stuff is done and we get to enjoy spending time together as a family.

    If you’re a working mother, you simply accept having the disadvantages of the time constraints put on you by spending 40+ hours a week away from your family. Nobody ever talks about those realities as disadvantages; they’re just accepted as facts of life, like only having 24 hours in a day. Those of us who choose to stay at home see our “disadvantages” in a similar light. How much money we have in the bank is how much money we have in the bank. We don’t live our lives with a “disadvantaged” mentality.

    Time spent doing one thing is time not spent doing something else. Life is a series of choices. Like Carrie said, it’s a question of values.

  12. Vanessa says:

    That’s so awesome Carrie that you can be home with them… I really think that being able to do that is priceless… all the best to you and your family.

  13. tambo says:

    Either my husband or I have been the ‘stay at home parent’ throughout our daughter’s entire life because we believed that raising a happy, healthy kid that we had time to spend with was more important than any paycheck or gizmo. She’s about to graduate high school and head off to college now and we’re very, very proud of her and all that she’s accomplished. We’ve been financially broke many, many times, sometimes for years at a stretch, but it was always worth it. All of her friends hang out at our house and we know them very well. There’s never been a question if our daughter can participate in any given activity because one of us was always able to transport her – and often her friends. Yes, money was often very tight, but TIME was ample, available, and very flexible.

    I look at parents who rush through their children’s lives, dropping them off here or there and running around to get other things done just so they can hurry through a drive through to eat supper in the car on the way to the next activity. I see their stress, their aggravation, their health declining, and their marriages being strained or broken. People I went to high school with now look much older and oh so tired.

    We host the sleepovers, the pizza parties, and the bonfires. We’ve never missed a single parent teacher conference, ball game, concert, bake sale, or science fair. We’ve taken in kids whose families were strained to the breaking point, and we’ve given dozens of teenagers a place to ‘hang out’ that’s safe and welcoming. We know where our daughter is and what she’s doing because she’s in the back yard or living room giggling and goofing off with her friends.

    Yes, we own junky cars and live in a plain house with only one television, and yes, we could have had more and cooler stuff if we both had worked all of these years. But we raised a great kid. For us, the time with her was worth far more than that extra paycheck.

    I think Carrie is definitely on the right track.

  14. George says:

    Stay at home moms should get special recognition.

    They are giving up careers to help provide the anchor in the family.

    These sacrifices help our children understand the importance of parental responsibility.

    Good article recognizing our heroes of today.

  15. Bill says:

    For those in the U.S., given my personal experience, I would strongly encourage any stay at home parent to work part-time enough to max their Social Security work credits each year, so they remain eligible for SS disability.

    In 2008, you receive one credit for each $1,050 of earnings, up to the maximum of four credits per year.

    The biggest advantage to SS disability, IMHO, is that one becomes Medicare-eligible 24 months after qualifying for SS disability.

    My mom became ill in her mid 40s, and since she never worked for wages after her children were born, was not SS eligible.

    She lived over a decade with her illness – qualifying for SS disability (especially Medicare) would have made things much easier on everyone.

  16. Carrie says:

    @ dogatemyfinances – I think some stay-at-home-mom’s (SAHM’s) express what others perceive as shame, because we are growing up in a culture that implies that earning money is more important than relational or spiritual values. Or to put it to a finer point for mothers – that we should work because of all the efforts that women have gone through in the past to clear the way for us. That really gets into a whole can of worms regarding the feminist movement. So, we sometimes feel the need to justify our reasons to people who ask, disbelievingly, ‘why would you give up so much, just to stay home with your kids.’ Unfortunately, the same movement that has enabled the women in my family to go to school, and to be treated as equals amongst their career co-workers, has at the same time led society to devalue the work done in the home by stay-at-home-parents.

    @ Wonko Beeblebrox – regarding why women would get am expensive degree, and then stay at home with kids – I would suggest that most of us didn’t specifically have in mind getting a degree, and then not earning any money with the training. We got the degree, then it turned out we had kids – low and behold, we like our kids more than we like our jobs! I never thought I’d be a SAHM, seriously – I never thought I wanted kids – but when it came down to choosing, as much as I love my field, there are things that are more important to me. Essentially, every individual grows and changes over time, and we should never expect someone to always stick with what they thought they wanted to do when they were 22 years old.

    Regarding why we didn’t go for 2 part-time parents instead of 1 full-time – my husbands’ job situation makes this difficult, and because I didn’t have a burning desire to be working outside the home on a regular basis, we didn’t pursue it.

    I would consider increasing my work to provide a greater income than the minimal contract work that I do, if my children are enrolled in a public school. However, any work outside the home brings with it certain trade-offs, regardless of how many hours are worked in a week. Also, part-time work tends to be at a less-skilled level, and to some degree, less willing to be flexible with family situations – I mean, hey, it’s part-time – they can find someone else who wants those hours. In general, though, I think it’s totally worth considering working part time once children are school-age. You just have to evaluate your own situation and values.

    @KC – about the Stress – Totally! I hear from some of my friends who work while having young children at home, and I thank my husband that very day for providing enough that we don’t have to stress in that way.

    @Tana – I very much agree with your analysis of “disadvatanges.” Which ever path chosen – full-time, part-time, or SAHM – there are sacrifices, disadvantages and advantages. I realized that I can’t have it all (not at the same time) so I’m choosing to not try to attain something that is unrealistic, and more importantly, stressful (on me and my family, I won’t speak for others).

    @bill – you have a good point about the SS benefits – that is one of the disadvantages to being a SAHM. It’s worth considering when thinking about being a SAHM, but I wouldn’t treat it as the make or break factor.

  17. KC says:

    Disability insurance is quite cheap. I was a government employee before leaving the workforce and never contributed a dime to Social Security, so I wouldn’t qualify for it if I became disabled. I had to have a seperate policy – very cheap – especially for a woman. That being said I do have life insurance, too, eventhough no one is dependant on me. But its very cheap for women and its nice to know its there for my husband should he need it.

  18. Jillian says:

    I loved the comment about being “green because I’m selfish”. I’ve recently started buying free range/organic/local food because I believe it’s healthier and more nutritious.

    My vegetarian friends suddenly think I’m interested in saving all the animals, and get all excited telling me stories about sow crates and battery hens. My family all look down their nose at me as though I’m on a one person crusade to save the world and eliminate global warming (which I’m not even sure I believe in!)

    It’s funny how people can look at your actions and attribute motivations that aren’t even there.

  19. margo says:

    >I am curious about this, just because I hear of lots of women going out and get phenomenal degrees that cost a lot of money and then they have kids and stay at home to raise their kids instead. Did you not like the field that you got your degree in?

    1. Women who are in college earning degrees can’t predict the path their lives will take. Even if a woman enters school knowing she wants to get married and be a stay-at-home wife and mother, she can’t be sure that she will find a suitable husband, she can’t be sure she and her husband will be in a situation to have (or adopt) children, she can’t be sure her husband will make enough money to allow her to stay home (or that he will agree to be the sole breadwinner).

    2. Should something terrible happen, such as the death of her husband (or more commonly, divorce), she will be glad to have an advanced degree she can put to use.

    3. College is an experience that provides more than just a diploma.

    4. Stay-at-home parenting isn’t all wiping butts and cooking supper. An educated parent will likely have more tools at her disposal for helping her kids with homework and providing them opportunities to learn outside of school hours.

    Women who have worked very hard to obtain educational credentialling and/or diplomas are providing themselves with more opportunities, not less. I think the sad truth is that its also an important “insurance policy” in this era of all-too-common divorce. I think a prudent woman buffers herself and her children against possible future storms.

  20. de says:

    I left a pretty well paid job in the mid eighties to raise my kids because we were all happier when I was home, and because we did the math. After I switched to half time, even with my relatively high hourly pay, we broke even after expenses and the higher tax bracket I bumped us into. If more families looked at the actual income per hour, factoring in ALL of the expenses, of a second income, they might not be so sure they needed it. And after 13 precious years of homeschooling my children, I’d rather be very poor, if necessary, and have that time with them, than have anything I can get with cash.

  21. aMotherSite says:

    I am my kids mom. I couldn’t make enough money to cover the cost child care and our increased tax bracket if I were to work. I also LOVE being home with my kids. I/ we decide what they need to learn and what morals they need to have without the constant influence of childcare centers.

    RE #15 – We have put that into our budget and we aren’t relying on SS in anyway in our retirement planning/ life planning. We set aside $ for health care and once I go back to work we will purchase disability insurance. In the mean time I have life insurance.

    RE #18 – I’m on board as well for living greener because. I’m a baby wearing, cloth diapering, and ECing mamma who uses natural cleaning products and tries to make more healthy eating choices; We are going “greener” because we see a cost benefit in the long run with our health care and pocket book. We are also turning greener because statistics are bad for bad eaters.

    Re #19- I absolutely agree. I have 2 degrees and know I am giving my children more because of my educational experiences. After the kids grow up, I do plan on going back to work, but I am giving them a great foundation now in life. My children WILL go to college or trade school and I suspect that at least one of my girls will stay at home with their children. I will not think that her education is a wasted education or a waste of money.

  22. Kathy says:

    More power to the women who stay home with their children. My mom did that raising me in the 60’s, and if I had married and had children, I would have wanted to do that too.

    I don’t think it is necessarily a contradiction in terms to be a feminist, and at the same time recognize the awesome value of full time motherhood, and honor it.

    I’ve been in a traditionally male career for over 30 years. I’ve never understood why full time motherhood would be belittled. Dollars are not the measure of your life. It shows the greatest faith in God, and I think God will amply reward it.

  23. Bill says:

    My ultimate point is that though SS disability is not as generous as private disability insurance, the “premium” is only a modest amount of earned income.

    From the SS website:

    “If you are disabled at age 31 or older, you generally need at least 20 credits in the 10 years immediately before you became disabled.”

    So only about $2,000 in annual earnings (2 credits/year over 10 years) keeps you covered.

    Are stay at home parents really so busy that they can’t generate $2,000 in earned income over the course of an entire year?

    It’s a last resort safety net in the case of total disability of that parent.

  24. Melinda (Aussie-Girl) says:

    Both are kids are in school now but boy do they still need you when they come home………..
    Our daughter who is now 10 always asks me before she leaves for school,
    “Will you or Dad be home when school finishes?” whilst our son who is 7 couldn’t care less whether we were home or not, just whether the ‘home-made’ cookie jar was full!
    Furthermore, it is my great honour & pleasure to help (along with my SAHM sister) take care of my parents who both have Alzheimer’s but whom desperately still want to live in their own home.
    Ah, Home it truly is where the heart is!
    I could never do any of this if I had to work full-time? Praise God for all His Blessings.

  25. Carrie's Mom says:

    This is amazing. I now work for a techno company and I am just discovering blogs. I am biased toward SAHMs. (who would have thought we would have an our own initials). Together my husband and I were a stay at home parent. (Does that change the initials to SAHD or SAHP stay at home parent?) It was a blessing to me and I hope to our children. Bless your little hearts for all marvels that you do.

  26. Suzanne says:

    I tried to be a SAHM as much as possible when our 5 children were growing up. There were times when I would have to work but my heart was always at home. In looking back on it, I started having regrets as to what I couldn’t give the kids that other kids had. I mentioned that to several of my adult children recently and they were surprised that I would even think they didn’t have all that they needed as children growing up. That made all the “sacrifices” worth it all. They knew they were loved and we all worked together to make our house a home. They are now well adjusted adults with goals and careers and know the value of money, unlike so many other young adults these days. If I could do it all over again, I would have found even more ways to stay home even more of the time!

  27. Mel says:

    I had both parents at home while I was growing up in the 80s –
    my mother worked from home, running a backpackers hostel and my dad was already retired – and I felt fortunate that my mum was always available for school trips and camps, and generally helping out – and when I or my sisters were sick it wasn’t the big deal it was for some of my friends’ parents.
    @Jillian: I agree about other people’s opinions about motives. I’m vegetarian, simply because that was how I was brought up and I see no reason to change. However, people often assume I’m an animal-rights freak, tree-hugging hippy, healthnut or eco terrorist of some kind. How wrong they are! :)

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