May 2, 2013

So You Want To Be A Stay-At-Home Mom (Or Dad)?

Perhaps the better question that we're all asking is, "Can I AFFORD to be a stay-at-home mom or dad?" To make it as a family living off one income in this culture of what I would describe as "hyper-materialist" is no easy feat. So many mothers, especially, long to be able to be home with their children -- yet they are told by the media, peers, and perhaps even their pastors, parents or spouse that to support a family in this day and age a two-income home is the only responsible option.

Our humble abode
Sadly, I have heard of too many women who have been verbally chastised and bullied by the people closest to them for their desire to choose to stay at home (the irony of the feminist mantra of "choice" should not be lost here). My own experience has been one of suffering, with friends and family both directly and indirectly voicing their displeasure at my desire to be "just" a housewife and "just" a stay-at-home-mom. I know about the painful assumptions people make toward women (and some men too, I'm sure) in this arena because I, too, have endured them. We are implicated in being lazy, lacking motivation, irresponsible, unwilling to contribute to the family, freeloaders, and non-functioning members of society. The accusations sound exaggerated, but I assure you they are not.

I want moms and dads to know that a stay-at-home parent, far from being a burden and a freeloader, is a significant blessing to the family and to greater society. The goal of this post is not to enumerate all the ways we benefit from this model of life so I won't spend time going into detail, but if one feels the pull to stay at home to raise their children you should be encouraged that it is a noble undertaking that requires hard work, enormous responsibility and makes countless contributions to the family.

Catching a rare moment of rest with my third

But, you ask, can a family really financially survive if only one parent works? My answer is yes, in most cases. A lot of it does depend on the income you'll be relying on. We are a family of five living off an income just slightly higher than the national median income of $40k. I know some families who are able to live off half that because of prudent budgeting and major sacrifice. They want to make it work, and so they do.

Sometimes there are situations where both parents must find work outside the home in order to make enough money to put food on the table and pay the utility bills. This is indisputable. Only you can be the true judge of your financial situation. Yet I really do think there's a stronghold of confusion regarding what makes it "necessary" that both parents have to enter the public workplace. All too often the average American family sacrifices a full-time parent for their children because they have been persuaded to believe that they "need" to live in that newly built 3000 square foot house, "need" to eat out often, "need" to take major vacations every year, "need" to furnish their home with the latest in furniture and knick knacks, "need" to drive a brand new car, "need" to wear designer clothing, "need" to own all the latest electronic gadgets, "need" to wear makeup and jewelry, "need" to have a gym membership/home gym, "need" to throw big parties every weekend, and on and on...

To afford to be a SAHM or SAHD requires going against the grain of the hyper-materialist culture, this can't be denied. But, to be cliche, where there is a will there is usually a way -- and the resulting benefits are great. Here's some ideas, gleaned from my own experience, on how to live in such a way that leaves room for mommy or even daddy to raise those beloved children and manage the home front full-time. I hope they help you!

1. Eat and drink simply
Eating adequately - and healthily - should not be compromised simply for the sake of tightening down the monthly budget. On the other hand, there's a lot of ways to feed the family nutritious, full meals while also significantly reducing the food bill.
  • To eat well AND frugally, you will need to be OK with eating "real," whole foods and staying away from the processed food aisles. Processed, packaged foods are significantly more expensive than the real thing. And yes, your children will be just fine without fruit gummies and those strange Gerber mini hot dogs. I promise!
  • Whether it's breakfast, lunch or dinner, serve your family simple, basic meals. The fewer ingredients that go into a dish, the more economical it is. You don't need to serve five different things or prepare fancy main dishes that have an ingredient list 10 or 15 items deep.
  • Drink little - or no - alcohol and soda. These can ratchet up your grocery bill fast and they're nutritionally empty. If you're wanting to stay at home and you need to count your pennies, this is an easy choice to make. Fresh vegetables for the week or a bottle of wine? You be the judge.
    Prepping our garden :)
  • Make what you can at home (like homemade bread) and grow what you're able. We have a very small yard and a short growing season so my gardening abilities are limited, but even in my small raised bed I am able to grow tomatoes, peas, zucchini, carrots, lettuces, herbs, and the like. If you have the ability to garden (and better yet, learn the art of canning), it will save you major $ at the grocery store.
  • You don't need to "extreme coupon" in order to make ends meet. The best way I've found to buy cheaply is to shop only what's truly on sale (be aware that stores do try to trick you by putting big 'for sale' signs on items that are only a meager 10 or 20 cents off) and be willing to buy store brands. Yes, it may taste different from what you're used to, but in most cases the difference is insignificant and you can learn to adjust. 
  • Lastly, the no-brainer: don't eat out. If you do, only go for very special occasions or when you have a gift card. Even a meal for two at a casual chain restaurant can run you $30 a pop. If you have a $400 monthly food budget, you've just blown almost half a week's worth of food money for the entire family on one meal.
The extent of my couponing success...

2. Refuse all opportunities to acquire debt
There is no end to the "opportunities" the culture presents to us to go into debt. The biggest one almost everyone gets reigned into is a car payment. Families can end up shelling out $300, $400, $500 or more a month on one car ALONE. If you have two cars, as most do, that figure doubles. People may tell you "car payments are a way of life," but don't buy into it. With proper budgeting and planning, you can buy an adequate used car with cash and save yourself thousands and thousands of dollars. If you already have a car payment, do whatever you can to pay it off, even if it means selling the car and buying something you can afford with the resulting cash. With an extra $400 or even $800 in your pocket each month, stay-at-home parenting becomes a much easier way of life.

Other "debt opportunities" to avoid: financing furniture, appliances, and luxury items (aka: 50" LCD flat screen TVs or treadmills). Save up and pay cash or do without. It is my belief that debt is never, ever worth it with the exception of perhaps a home mortgage.

Our minivan, which is finally paid in full 

3. Go without Bowser and Muffy
Here in the U.S. pets sap up the most of our discretionary income. We spent $53 billion on them last year alone! If you didn't have to spend money on veterinary bills, dog food, and pet toys could you afford to stay home and raise your children yourself? It's a question we must ask ourselves. What comes first: pets or children?

If you're Catholic, we should think soberly on the blunt words of Pope Francis (spoken shortly before he was elected): "On those things that are not necessities, or superfluous things, the greatest amount is spent on pets. The most unnecessary spending is made on pets. Pets are idolized... And the second largest amount of money is spent on cosmetology. Cosmetics. ...There are millions and millions spent on these two things. Meanwhile the Pope [Benedict XVI] is talking about children who are dying of hunger in underdeveloped continents like Africa, Asia and America. First come pets. And then if there is something left, we throw it to the children."

We gave up our cats when our second was a toddler. (You may have caught a glimpse of our old cat in the window in the first photo!) I felt guilty for weeks, but looking back it was one of the wisest decisions we've ever made.

4. Be green
Going "green" does more than help the environment, it is a fabulous way to lessen the monthly expenses. Items like Pine Sol and 409 are dangerous for little explorers, bad for the environment and our health, and EXPENSIVE. I do 99% of my cleaning with vinegar and, occasionally, baking soda. Vinegar is so cheap - just pour into a plastic spray bottle and go. I also make my own laundry detergent, which has been a significant cost-saver.

Beauty products are also a big money sap (especially cosmetics, as referenced above). They are not good for us either -- almost all commercially-made products are filled with chemicals. There are a few ways you can "go green" and save money. One is to make your own products with natural ingredients, like my DIY Face Powder or the Lemon Sugar Facial Scrub. Also ask yourself if you really need to be wearing makeup each day -- or at all.

I think in the U.S. especially we don't realize what a superfluous thing it is to use makeup. I've even heard American Christian women claim we must wear it to be a "wise woman" or a "good witness." This is just silly. Millions of devout and beautiful women around the world don't wear makeup nor can they afford to, and some of the most extraordinary female witnesses to the Christian faith never wore a dot of foundation or lipstick in their life. If you're hesitant about putting the blush and mascara aside, I challenge you to try it for just a day. If you can do that, do it for a few days. Try to go a week. It gets easier, and you'll get used to your "new you." You'll also get used to all the extra money you'll have in the bank account and the extra time you'll have each morning! I recently threw my makeup out and while it was hard at first (primarily because of my own pride and vanity), I now rarely even think about it.

5. Make others' trash your treasure
In other words, buy used. These days so many people get rid of perfectly good, almost-new items in order to make room for the "newest" and "best" that it's incredibly easy to buy used and still have nice things. For instance, I almost always buy used children's clothing and used books. There are great bargains to be had, especially if you check out local garage sales! I've had no problem finding stacks of like-new, name brand clothing at garage sales for as little as 50 cents a piece. The same goes for books. In addition to garage sales, keep an eye out for used book sales at your local library.

For baby items, consignment sales are usually a stay-at-home family's paradise -- I've bought like-new baby bouncers and diaper genies at a third of their original price!

Of course there's also Craigslist, Freecycle, thrift stores and, for new items at used prices, clearance racks at your favorite stores. I've always found fantastic deals on the Target clearance racks.

6. Turn down that dial
Energy costs can add a great deal of strain to a one-income family budget. The good news is that's pretty easy to manage: just turn down the dial!
  • On your thermostat, set the temperature a degree or two lower than usual and put on a sweatshirt if you feel cool. At night consider a larger drop -- we set ours at 58 degrees this winter. I did it as an experiment, thinking we'd be too cold, but we haven't even noticed a difference! I'm still usually too warm at night, which is saying a lot considering I'm always accused of being the coldest person in the room. ;) We don't have air conditioning, but if you do consider doing the opposite: turn up the dial a notch or two so that it has to get warmer in order for the a/c to kick in. 
  • Turn down your hot water heater to the lowest setting, usually 120 degrees. This is both a means of cutting costs and a safety measure to avoid scalding.
  • Wash your clothes on cool or cold. I've tried this with my homemade detergent and it appears to work just as well. Using hot water for laundry is one of the biggest contributors to high energy bills!

7. Trim the fat
By "fat" I mean the extra, unnecessary fluff taking up room on your monthly budget. These are things that sure are nice to have, but can, ultimately, be given up. What "fat" is on your budget?
  • Cable TV? (hint: Netflix is a cheap alternative)
  • Movie theater money?
  • Magazine and newspaper subscriptions?
  • Memberships (for organizations, gyms, clubs, etc)?
  • Smart phone data package?
Most communities have free activities and events -- take advantage of them! Become a regular at the public library (where you can check out not only books but plenty of music and movies). Google search what periodical publications you can receive for free in subjects you're interested in and sign yourself up. If you want to exercise, take up walking around your neighborhood, on local trails or even at the mall. The things we think we "need" can often be satisfied with much less than we think.

8. Downsize
Just because you may live in a huge home now with an equally large mortgage payment doesn't mean you need to stay there (or upgrade). Oftentimes the most prudent thing we can do is live in a humbler home. If you've ever looked at older homes you'll notice that by and large they were much smaller, yet housed larger families! It's a rare family that "needs" a lot of square footage -- you can comfortably fit a lot of people in smaller home (if we're honest we must admit it's the stuff that doesn't fit). There's also another benefit to a smaller house: a closer family life!

Another option to consider is not owning a home at all. Not everyone needs to own a home, nor is it financially feasible to do so. In this market yes, you can find homes that will cost less per month than a rental...however home ownership carries with it a lot of extra costs. Whereas usually rental costs include utilities, maintenance, garbage and water, and even internet, home ownership requires you pay for all these yourself. Then there is the need to have home insurance, many places have HOA fees, and there are also unforeseen home repair costs. Sometimes if you have just one income to rely on, home ownership isn't always the best choice. (If you do buy a home in today's market, make sure you have a large down payment and it's a place you plan on staying in for the long term.)

Lastly, a very cost-effective move is to license and maintain just one car. Not everyone is willing to live that way, especially with the sprawl of many communities that make it impossible to get anywhere without motorized transportation, but it is an option -- even if only for the short term. Huge sacrifice? Definitely. But if it comes down to that or putting your kids in daycare so you can work to afford the costs of having a second car, it seems like a sacrifice worth making.

9. Travel lite
Traveling is fun, believe me I sympathize! There's nothing I enjoy more than a vacation. I love traveling and seeing new places. However, unless the one-income your family is relying on is a hefty one (in which case you probably don't need to be reading this list to begin with!), taking frequent vacations is going to have to go. If your family is itching for a break from routine, do a "staycation" or a day trip. If you're Catholic, visit a neighboring town's parish -- or the diocese cathedral - as a sort of "mini pilgrimage."

The gorgeous cathedral in our diocese

10. Quit the shopping habit
Contrary to popular belief, this is not just a message for women! Men can be just as "addicted" to shopping, they simply buy different things than their female counterparts. Whether it's new high heels, decor for the house, tools, or car parts, the shopping habit needs to be broken. To live off one income requires great discipline in spending habits -- the family has to be committed to only buying what they need, they must break the "I gotta have this!" mindset, and they have to choose to be frugal with gift giving. Our kids don't need $200 worth of presents on their birthdays, and either do we.

TOO much stuff...!
Less IS more.

No, it isn't as much "fun." The money isn't there to throw around as easily as it may be with two incomes. But, in the end, we can't take our things with us. What will endure into eternity is the time we had with the people we loved. Choosing our family over our stuff is a choice that will not go unrewarded -- in this life and the next.

The beauties with whom I'm blessed to spend my days!


  1. LOVE this post - and I'm not even a stay at home mom! It's always good to be redirected into what is a 'priority' and what isn't.
    And those beauties of yours are growing up so fast!

  2. Erika, I just happened upon this post..and love it so much! Such good tips for saving money and living within reason. I'm sharing this for sure ;)

  3. Loved this post Erika. So many great tips :)

  4. Both Pope John Paull II and Benedict LOVED animals. Your rote following of Francis is loathesome.

    "We gave up our cats when our second was a toddler. (You may have caught a glimpse of our old cat in the window in the first photo!) I felt guilty for weeks, but looking back it was one of the wisest decisions we've ever made."

    One of your wisest decisions ? Whew, not much going on in your world. First world pet abadonment problems.