the two-income myth

My wife is an intelligent woman who decided to quit her professional career as a management-tracked analyst with a huge investment bank in order to be a stay-at-home parent when our son arrived, and to remain home even longer when our daughter arrived. I would have willingly stayed home in her place but being older and further along in my career I was making twice as much as she so it would not have made sense. She has now been at home for more than four years and I have noticed that there is a subtle campaign against her choice, and it makes me angry. Despite all of the talk about mothers making the ‘tough choice’ to go back to work, I think the tough choice is staying home.

First of all, before I’m jumped upon…I know there are single mothers and poorer families who have no choice. I would maintain this is a small proportion of the population, though. Single mothers definitely have no choice as the primary breadwinner, of course. Some families may have special circumstances that require both parents to work – health care costs spring to mind. I wonder, though, how many times the choice to work is the choice to support owning a second television, or keeping the premium movie channels, owning the house with the extra two rooms, or leasing a nice car – versus staying home with a child.

My family took a big hit to our finances when my wife quit work. We went from two people living in a two-bedroom apartment on two salaries to three people living in a three-bedroom house on one salary. We did it by making huge changes in our spending, and after a couple of years those changes have – surprise – become fairly routine. We understood that we could not afford as many luxury vacations or idle purchases of gadgets and jewelry and so on. The reward was that our children have been able to stay at home with their mother and be in a safe, healthy, fun environment.

This setup has not come without cost.
My wife misses adult companionship and the sense of validation that you get from a professional position. We miss having the second salary, which for a while was all being plowed into savings and made for a relatively large down payment on our home. And of course my wife worries about her future job prospects once both of the kids are in school and don’t need a stay-at-home mom. But the worst thing in the past were the assaults on her decision by other women.

Bubelah relayed conversations to me from her friends and ex-colleagues and so on where the subject was inevitably “when are you going to get back to work?” Aside from the obvious insult that caring for a child is not “work”, this had a very negative effect on her state of mind. She usually laughed it off, but the simple fact is that she doesn’t really interact on a daily basis with anyone but me who supports her decision to make child care a full-time job – although since we’ve moved to Florida the support has been a bit warmer. We never felt that the trade-off of getting another salary was worth having our kids in day-care 10 hours a day before they were two years old, but that’s what we felt was expected, sometimes.

Do we need the money? We may not be able to spend freely like our friends do (particularly since we also don’t take on any debt) but we really don’t NEED any more money to meet our current expenses. I understand that sometimes both parents want to work. That is fine, but just be honest about that choice. Many people claim to be “forced” to work two jobs to make ends meet, but is it really “making ends meet” when you drive a new car and have premium movie channels and take a vacation to Aruba every year?

45 Replies to “the two-income myth”

  1. I going to start a home business pretty soon, but the thing is I don't know anyone personally to find out how to go about starting one. So I wanted to know what are the things I need to know and things I need to do before I jump in, preferably from people who have home businesses or who are planning to start one as well.

  2. As someone who's grappled on both sides of the fense, I can say that neither is an easy decision. Either decision comes with pros and cons. After taking 10 weeks of maternity leave, I felt comfortable going back to work as my parents temporarily moved in with us to help take care of their first grandchild. But when they left after 5 months, I was devastated. I couldn't stand the thought of my baby in someone else's care. I walked into my boss's office one day and told her that I might be quiting. But after evaluating all our options, she kindly let me work part time for a further 4 months, and I felt better knowing that I could spend more time with my baby.

    Now, that I'm back to work full time, I don't feel guilty about leaving the munchkin at daycare, especially since we were able to find a nice home daycare run by a loving couple with 3 children of their own. That was not the case all the time. We went through 3 daycares and one aupair before we found what was right for us. So it really depends on each individual situation. No one should judge other's for their decisions.

    In my case, my husband had just started a new job and in an unsteady economy. We didn't have any savings, and we lived in a 3rd floor attic apartment. We don't have cable tv even today. So it made sense for me to contribute towards our financial goals. It also made sense for our daughter to go to daycare because as a very social child, she benefits from the interaction with other children.

    Each situation is different. There is no black and white. What might be better for some might not be good for others. The key is to evaluate the best option for your kids.

    1. This article is very negative regarding working mothers. Maybe you should show working mothers the same courtesy that you expect them to show your stay-at-home wife. Your insinuation that the majority of working mothers are working to go to Aruba is stupid, malicious and lacking in any sort of facts. Get over yourself. Neither you nor your wife is any kind of hero or martyr because she is a stay at home parent – just as working parents are not heroes or martyrs for their choices.

    2. @Irritated: Aruba's possibly an over-the-top destination for me to use as an example (although it is an example I took from one of my neighbors in real life), but I take issue with the “hero or martyr” bit. I don't think I portrayed it as a hero or martyr type of situation, simply a difficult choice that many people aren't willing to make. By the way, I'm not sure how an insinuation can be backed up by facts, and I certainly don't portray this – or anything else I write on this blog – as anything more than my opinion.

  3. I have been home for nearly 5 years now and I can't tell you how many people ask me when I'll go back to work. Like it was okay to be home until my oldest started school, but now should leave my younger one who isn't even yet 3 with someone else and get to working again. I never know how to answer, but always feel like the expected answer is “soon!” or “tomorrow!” and if I say that I plan to stay home for quite a while because of things like being able to volunteer at school and drop off and pick up my kids each day, and take care of our home, I get lots of silence. We aren't rich by any means, and we make less than most individuals do in a year as a family of 4, but we make it work and we've made the choice for me to be present at this stage of our children's lives.

    1. I'd know how to answer; and that would be: what business is it of yours? It's my choice, my life and I do what I think best. If you want to work, that's your choice. Far from feeling intimidated by these people I would incline to push it in their face, as envy is likely at the root of it. Frankly I couldn't care less about a colleagues's or friend's work/life choice and would respect that individual for the choice they made because they feel it is right for them.

  4. People are rude, and god knows I lack a decent filter between brain and mouth at times too! But there's judgement aplenty to go around every side of this. I have a couple of professional friends going back to work within the next couple of months (parental leave or whatever it's called is of course almost a year, albeit at significantly reduced income, here) when they or their husbands could probably find a way to stay home full- or part-time if they wanted and it sure as hell ain't about warehousing their offspring so they can have premium movie channels.

  5. This is always a complicated decision and hard no matter what.My husband and I worked opposite shifts so that no daycare was involved.I am not sure why we have children if we are going to have someone else raise them 8-10 hrs per day.On the flip side after completing an education and having a career I could not have given that up completely to stay home.So I made the choice to have one child(best of both worlds) and the husband and I shared raising a child who is now a married adult.Our priority was always what was best for the family.

  6. I think the incredulous comments about a stay at a home mom not working are directly related to the comments Jacob at Early Retirement Extreme and Retired Syd get for being retired before the “appropriate” age. “Producing” something, even if it is useless, has been so ingrained in us many people can't see the forest from the trees.

  7. What a great post and what great comments! I agree with you, Steve, when you wonder what “making ends meet” really means. Unfortunately the ends between income and expenses is too far apart so that making ends meet is really a problem, often one that is home-made though.

  8. There may be more single mothers out there than you think. 22% of households with children and 7% of all households are ran by single women.

    Some of the people who wonder when a stay at home mom is going to go back to work may have that kind of thinking because its hard for them to see how you can support yourself on one income. They feel they need 2 jobs to support themselves so they might conclude you must also need 2 jobs to support yourself.

  9. So one thing I'm learning in my advanced age, is that sometimes when people ask me a question, I take offense to it even when it wasn't intended to be a judgment. For me the hot button question is “why didn't you ever want kids?” Usually it's followed with all the reasons why I should have kids. But sometimes, the person just really wants to know. Sometimes when you ask questions of friends, it's just because you are interested in that friend.

    I say this because I have asked many of my mom friends if they ever want to go back to work. I'm not asking because I think they SHOULD (I'm retired–from my perspective, I'd assume that's the last thing they'd want to do.) But sometimes I'm just interested in knowing what my friend is up to, her interests, her vision for the future, her possible career aspirations.

    Probably stay-at-home moms are quick to be offended by the question because, for the most part it is asked with judgment. But sometimes a question is just a question.

  10. What a wonderful article. Please know that I have one exception to this great article. You state, “I know there are single mothers and poorer families who have no choice. I would maintain this is a very small proportion of the population, though.” Please know that the poor continues to grow in this country. There has become an even more divide between the rich, middle class, and the poor. Due to the median income much of the middle class are now classified as poor. Thank you again for the article.

    1. “Please know that the poor continues to grow in this country.”

      Not really. The % isn't growing really. The poverty rate has been bouncing around 9-12% for about 40 years. The gap between poor and rich has grown mostly because the rich are getting richer, but the poor are not getting poorer or more numerous as a % in any real trend.

    2. @elle: I know there are a lot of poor people in this country, trust me. Both my wife and I grew up in what would be called today “poor” families. But at the same time, you'll find plenty of people in this country who claim to be poor who have cable TV, because you “have to have” cable. I am not someone who gripes about “welfare queens” – I understand that poverty is real and more widespread than it should be. But I will still say that many people who claim to be stretched are stretched at least partially because of poor choices, in addition to the poor economy or the general crappy state of America's fiscal policies…

  11. I agree with you Steve, but there is one assumption I have to take issue with: that living off of one salary is simple a matter of “cutting out frivolous purchases.”

    I wish. My wife and I live on a mean budget that doesn't leave room for anything frivolous (except maybe our cable, which is $79/month). And if we were to try to live off of just one salary, we'd need to move, stop eating, or dip into our savings. Probably a combination of the three.

    Granted, we're probably in a minority: people that live frugally, are responsible with money, yet don't make enough to live off one salary are probably rare (I'm guessing), but the assumption still irks me. Sometimes there just isn't enough money to go around.

    By the way, this sentence needs to be changed: “And of course my wife worries about her future job prospects once both of the kids are in school and doesnā€™t need a stay-at-home mom.” Doesn't should be “don't”

    1. @writerscoin: funny point – your grammatical correction is dead on, but I wrote the line originally when we only had one kid šŸ™‚ My mistake.

      For anyone wanting to see the rest of the give-and-take on this point, head over to šŸ™‚

  12. This post really hit home for me. I have been a stay at home Mom for almost 15 years. No one asks me “the question” anymore, but I do feel a constant sense of conflict over my choice.
    Now that my kids are older, I really could afford to do something, at least part time. The truth is, I don't even know where to start. I was not in an established career when I had my children, and I'm not sure I would want to continue on the path I was on at the time. A lot changes in 15 years. But let me tell you, it goes by very quickly, and I have been anything but bored.
    As the parent of 2 teenagers and one soon to be teen, I sometimes wonder if my decision was worth it – those of you with teenagers know they are not exactly the most gracious or grateful creatures.
    Still, through surgeries, sickness, and running to school for cuts, scrapes and bee stings, I was there. We have a home-cooked meal almost every night. Our home is basically clean and well-organized. I am here when the boys get home from school. We sacrificed financially, but I was there.
    Thanks for letting me vent a bit.

  13. We went through a similar process as you did, first child – wife stayed home part time (2 days) and worked 3 days/week. She's a preschool teacher so he went to school with her 2 days and stayed with grandparents the remaining day. With child 2 coming in June, she's going to stay home full time. We've tested it out for almost 4 years now – saving her entire paycheck and feel comfortable financially. She'll miss the adult time, but we'll work that in somehow. Our savings will take a hit since we won't be adding to them at the same level, but for us having a parent home raising our kids more than makes up.

    Oh yeah, and she's already getting the questions – “are you coming back”, “how long are you taking for maternity leave”, etc.

  14. It wasn't that long ago that a one income family was the norm. I remember my mom being home until I was older when she went back to work. It used to be that the extra salary was extra in most cases but now it's the norm.

    We're on one income now with three kids. My wife went back to work though, it's me who stayed home. Yeah, it was sweet having two incomes and plowing a lot into savings, but we get by now and being there for the kids is priceless. My wife went through so much stress bringing our son to daycare. Our quality of life is so much better now.

    Oh, we also live in a city with a high cost of living – New York.

    Absolutely there are circumstances where one income is an incredibly tight option but for many they just don't want to see the little things they can easily give up to make it work.

    Before our youngest was born my wife was on a work leave. So many times people asked when she was going back. It's really expected these days. It says something about our economy as well as our family values as a culture where it's the norm to put your kids in daycare. We're not against, we've used it ourselves, but it shouldn't be the expected option.

  15. Argh! Don't allow thoughtless comments like that to bother you or to herd you into changing whatever works for you.

    Part of the issue is plain old envy: A stay-at-home wife is now a status symbol. It says her husband earns enough to support two people, quite an accomplishment these days. Sort of like driving a Jag around town.

    As for whether a wife and mother's job “produces” anything…try hiring someone to replace her. You would need at least three people: a chauffeur, a housekeeper/gardener/babysitter, and someone to take her place in bed. Depending on what else the two of you do in your lives, you'd probably also need to hire a part-time secretary, a bookkeeper, a live-in handyman, a cook, a tutor for your children, and a social secretary. Few of these folks, especially the bedmate, will work for minimum wage.

  16. I say if it works for you, go for it.

    Besides, having personal care of your kids at home vs. dropping them off at daycare is always preferred.

    But for my personal choice, I couldn't stay at home with the kids 24/7. I'd have to alternate with someone or something.. Having experienced a year off this year on sabbatical even without kids, I NEED to work to stay sane.

    1. I agree. I would not cope if I were around kids 24/7. I need adult space. My Husband set his own hours, therefore, one of us is with my daughter. I work for personal interest and medical benefits. I enjoy our lifestyle. I must have other activities outside the home. I have to interact with my peers.

    2. Amen, sister!

      I mean I am sure I'd love my kids and want to be with them… but as it was with my parents, I needed space and time away from them to miss and cherish them šŸ˜›

  17. I don't think either is an easy decision. Truth be told, I'm tired of the “stay at home mother vs. working mother” debates – both sides are flawed. Much as I (usually) agree with your posts, this one hit a chord with me and rubbed me the wrong way.

    My husband and I don't have kids, and don't intend to, but the reality is that like Writer's Coin, we'd either have to move, live in a bad neighborhood, omit college or retirement savings, and make a whole host of choices that would in our opinion be worse than not being able to stay at home.

    We live a pretty frugal lifestyle (hey, I used to write a money blog too) so there really aren't a lot of frivilous expenses. The 2 income household is almost a necessity in high cost of living. In addition, I know that your one income salary is more than many household's two income salaries put together.

    The point is, I think you've missed an entire segment of the population – middle class households. There are so many more factors to this than you have stated.

  18. I don't know…..I'm not entirely convinced staying at home increases the quality of child care to such an extent that it's worth giving up a career. I had a stay-at-home mom and felt loved and safe and happy and my husband had a mom who worked (and put him in those “horrible daycares”) and he felt loved and safe and happy. And perhaps I'm horrible for saying so, but I'm not sure a small increase in the “quality” of childcare is worth such a large sacrifice. Is it so wrong not to sacrifice everything for your children?

    The decision is easier if you don't have a job you love, but if you do, I'm not sure it's so cut and dry.

  19. This topic comes up so often yet I always feel the need to comment. My biggest problem with this debate is that many of my SAHM friends often imply that they are better parents than working moms. I am sure they are less stressed and interact more with their kids, but staying at home does not automatically mean you're a better mother. My mom worked and she is truly a great, kind, loving woman that deserves the “best mom in the world” title. I know many people with critical, possessive, or unkind SAHMs who probably wished my hard-working mom had been their mom!

    1. Just proves that women really can't win oilandgarlic! If you stay at home you've no ambition and/or are a kept woman; If you go to work you don't care about your kids as much as about HBO and kitchen renovations; And if you don't have or want kids you're selfish/immature/unable to understaaaand your besprogged friends/possibly a monster. There's always someone who'll judge. Do men do this to each other?

    2. @guinness416: Men do it with their careers and possessions, I think. Lots of pressure to be “successful” which for 90% or more of the population means “make a lot of money.” If you don't, then you're lazy, etc.

      Which would lead to the people who are probably at the bottom of the societal-respect pile: stay-at-home dads. One of my friends is a stay-at-home dad and he says it is quite tough to be a SAHD in a sea of not only SAHMs, but working moms (i.e. “you're a man, why aren't YOU working.”)

      No winning in this world, is there? šŸ™‚

  20. As a guy raised by a stay at home mom I think there's a ton of value there for your child and this is something both you and your wife won't regret. As I got older I began to realize how lucky I was to always have my mom there every day after school or even during the summer vacations. Your wife's relationship with your son is much more important than money and in hindsight many of the folks saying these comments may have regrets for not doing what your wife is doing now.

  21. This is like everything else just say, “to hell with everyone.” In the nicest way of course. Do what you want not what anyone else wants. Neither choice is inherently better.

  22. Its great that your wife was able to quit her job on your one income but I think you failed to realize your one-income is probably just as much as what my husband and I make put together (and we're both college graduates with college debt). So, it would be great to stay at home with my kids but in reality, our job risks and takes haven't been fruitful financially.

    Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead by Tamara Draught is an excellent book on why my generation probably can't get ahead like the one-income households of the past.

    1. @Jen: My one may be significant, but: I attended a state school on scholarship (academic) instead of a private school, so I had no student loan debt, increasing my early-career earnings. I chose a field in which I could make a high income. I worked incredibly hard for my 20s, and we rented rather than overextend ourselves on buying a house. We saved a lot of money before having children, and finally I took an (initial) huge pay cut when I quit my senior management job and went into consulting.

      I know everyone's in a different situation, but I have to always point out that I didn't come from a wealthy family (until my teens my dad was a graduate assistant in PhD school and my mom stayed at home – we lived in university housing until I was 10); I paid my own way through school; I chose a demanding profession and worked VERY hard (countless business trips and 80 hour weeks) to be successful at it; I invested carefully (when my friends were blowing their money on cars and toys) and didn't ever incur debt or overextend myself; and my wife and I carefully planned out our financial future before having children. So yes, after all that I make more than 90% of the workforce, but I chose to do these things – they did not fall in my lap.

  23. The real question is what % of your household income are you spending on housing. I can't make it work on one income but if your income is high enough and your mortgage costs low enough its no problem. It isn't by clipping coupons and avoiding luxury vacations.

  24. I going to start a home business pretty soon, but the thing is I don't know anyone personally to find out how to go about starting one. So I wanted to know what are the things I need to know and things I need to do before I jump in, preferably from people who have home businesses or who are planning to start one as well.

  25. I came by here by way of the Frugal Dad. I am a SAHM to four kids (7,5,3,1) and I can totally appreciate your wife's feelings. I have a university degree but I have chosen to stay home and I feel judged daily for this decision. I, too, am asked constantly when I'm going back to work or made to feel by my MIL that I somehow should be adding to our household. I found it very interesting that when my husband and I went away for four days before our fourth child was born that it took no less than 6 people trading off care of our household because they found it exhausting. The other thing that drives me insane is when working women say “oh, I'd love to stay home with my kids but I really need more mental stimulation than that.” I feel like saying, “well I'm just mentally dull so I'm fine with it.” In the end you need to do what you feel is best, whatever that choice is and we all need to stop saying things to others that make our choices feel like the best one.

  26. I think that your article has real merit, and if it works for your family people ought not to push you or your wife. However, I would question exactly what threshold you think people are being realistic about their finances. Sure if they are taking lavish vacations and own fancy cars then they could cut back. But what if the difference is have some money to put into savings versus living exactly pay check to pay check?

    I would like a monetary threshold. For example should I stay home on my husband's $28,000 salary? Amazingly we could swing it. I doubt a lot of people could. However, I don't exactly think that I will be doing my child a lot of good if we can't afford to even take them to the local museum.

    I'm going back to work in a few weeks because I want my child to have more opportunities. I want to be able to take them to Europe (while staying in family hostels), pay for college, and provide camps and sports and other things. This is from a mother who doesn't have cable, has cars over 150,000 miles, and finds her work clothes at K-mart.

    Just remember staying at home on one 40,000 (around the national median income) salary is a huge difference than staying at home on one 30,000 salary. Which clearly half of the country is making less than that 40,000 per person in this is the median. Would you still suggest these people stay at home?

  27. When my wife took maternity leave it was planned that she took 6 months off work. We went through our finances and counted every penny to make sure we could afford the time she had off. Well, things did not go to plan, my wife ended up with some serious complications from an unplanned c-section and ended up having 14 months off work. To add insult to injury, her company filled her position. Spending weeks feeding healthy food to the kids and us parents eating boiled rice(because it is cheap and filling), we found a new low.After some serious finance juggling and a lot of sleepless nights, my wife has scored an amazing job and I now stay at home with the kids. Oh how the tables have turned. Funny thing is, it could not have worked out better if we had planned it. It has been a trying time for both of us but we are stronger as a couple now that we have been through the hardship.

  28. Interesting post. FFb was right in saying that one income families used to be the norm. Recently I asked my grandmother (age 90) how she and my grandpa raised three kids on a factory worker's salary in the '40's and '50's. I guess I expected a rant about how things were cheaper back then, but her response surprised me. She said, “I don't know, but I can tell you we only had one car, no cable bill, no internet fees, no cell phones, and we only ate out once a year, if that. Vacations were either a camping trip or a weekend at the beach. I grew a vegetable garden in the back yard, and your grandpa always carried his lunch to work in a paper bag.”

    Before anyone jumps on me, I fully understand and recognize that some people can cut back all they want, and still come up short on basic living expenses. Writerscoin put it in better words than I can, in an earlier comment.

    But my grandma's comments have begun to challenge my perceptions of what is necessary and what is not. Lately I've been thinking about my cell phone, digital cable, Netflicks, my daily trip to starbucks on the way to work, my $500 a month car payment, impulse buys at Target and Best Buy, and the fact that my family eats takeout at least three times a week. I grew up not having any of those things, but somewhere along the way I got it in my head that they're all necessities. It kind of makes me ashamed, to think of the money my wife and I have wasted over the years. šŸ™‚ Again, good post.

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