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The War On Debt: Surviving as a Single-Income Family

The war on debt: surviving as a singe-income family

When my husband and I were first married, together we made just enough money to pay our rent and meet our obligations.

It was okay, because we had no debt.

And I looked forward to building my career in communications...

Then I found myself pregnant.

As new parents, we juggled odd working hours in our entry-level jobs.

I loved my job at a monthly business newspaper, but I felt like I was only working to pay the babysitter. We talked about me quitting a lot, but on paper it was a ridiculous idea.

The clincher came when my daughter turned one and she began calling my babysitter “Mommy.”

Related: Boost Your Salary In A Tough Economy

Enough was enough.

We agreed that I would freelance at home, providing the same sort of production services I performed at work, and for a while it was okay.

We made ends meet with my husband’s salary, combined with both of us getting gigs on the side.

When I embarked on my Stay at Home Adventure in 1996, I was already an anomaly. Statistics Canada reports that the number of two income families has nearly doubled in the last 40 years.

It’s not just because of feminism: higher mortgages, higher taxes, ever-climbing gas prices, the rising cost of food and transport, and basic services of all kinds are mucho expensive.

While I would never discourage anyone from staying home with their kids, I have a few words of advice.

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Tips for the Stay at Home Parent

Avoid as much debt as you can, and pay it back quickly.

Interest rates have been low for a long time, making lines of credit and other forms of debt convenient and accessible. Gone are the 1980s, when 22% interest rates kept my parents from borrowing unless it was an absolute necessity.

But on the other hand, remember that our debt is a result of our life choices—which I contend weren’t necessarily wrong—we simply took risks and lost the entrepreneurial gamble.

If I had it to do over again, I would borrow less (where possible) and I would go back to work much sooner, so that I could apply that revenue stream to my debt.

But such a decision would have required having my children closer together, and changing other lifestyle choices that we were actually happy with at the time.

Find a way to save for retirement, even if it’s small.

Today, a dependable company pension is rare (or is sometimes withdrawn, like the recent experience of former Sears employees) and therefore governments expect people to save for their own retirement.

But all our money went to the basics until recently, particularly since our working lives were mostly entrepreneurial.

While you’re at home, keep your foot in the door.

Is there a way you can keep connected to the professional world you currently inhabit, or the one you want to inhabit later? Do you have accreditations that you could maintain?

Running a home business is also a juggling act—the advantage being you are nearby to change diapers and put kids down for their naps.

Related: An Almost Free Baby Story

But some folks are excellent home-based business owners, and if you are one of them, I encourage you to go for it. The juggle will be worth it in the end.

Don’t stay out of the workforce for too long.

The longer you’re out, the harder it is to get back in.

This leaves you vulnerable if things go wrong in your relationship…

But even if you have a great marriage, you will have no sense of financial independence or autonomy as the years go by. It’s a helpless feeling.

Make a long-range plan.

When your children are very young and into the grade school years, you are governed by their moment by moment needs, and the daily routine takes on an immediacy that drives out all thoughts of the future.

You probably don’t even think about what life will be like when they are in high school, university, and beyond—when I was in my twenties, it didn’t occur to me to think about middle age. But here it is.

Children grow up. You will have another 30 or 40 years to live, God willing, after your kids are out the door. What do you want that time to be like? Even if you change your mind later, you should think about it now.

Related: 9 Cheap Birthday Party Ideas for Parents

Expect reinvention, regardless of your choices.

My mother came to visit me one day, after our second child was in school and we were contemplating a third. She cried at my kitchen table, because she felt she had wasted her life. “I quit my job and followed your father to the middle of nowhere.

(Of course, this choice made sense at the time. His new job offer was worth more than what Mom and Dad had previously earned together, he at an appliance repair shop, she at a photo lab.)

Still, fast forward 35 years, and the results were setting in.

“All I did was raise kids and then I sat at home,” she lamented. “Now I have nothing to show for it. No independence, no money of my own. It’s your father’s money, not mine.”

In tears, she begged me to get a job, because she watched me following in her footsteps, and she didn’t want me to be in the same position. For her, it was too late to change. I tried to reassure her that things would be different for me, but it took several years before I fully appreciated her point of view.

But everyone needs a second, or even a third act.

Today, no one gets a job out of college, stays there for 40 years and retires at 65 with a pension. We are living longer, healthier lives in a volatile marketplace.

Life is about change, and change is good, even when it’s hard.

Related: 7 Steps To Get Ahead With Your First Paycheque

A word about guilt

Like four-fifths of the country, you will likely remain a dual income family when your children come along. And if so, don’t worry too much about the mean voice in your head who makes you feel guilty because you’re not spending enough time with your kids. If you’re a working parent, you will miss things. (Single parents deal with this every day.)

Many people have commented that I wouldn’t have the wonderful relationship I have with my kids if I hadn’t stayed home with them.

Maybe...My kids have told me how much they appreciated my choices.

But...maybe not. I think they would have been wonderful, anyway.

I’ve known plenty of kids who lived with two working parents (or a single parent) and are now fine, resourceful, independent adults.

What really matters is your priorities. Do you put your family first in all your decisions? If you put their best interests first, I believe things will turn out fine.

A seasonal position only

The parent who chooses to keep the home fires burning sacrifices personal and financial development, in exchange for enjoying irretrievable months and years with their children.

But you need to remember that it is a contract position. It’s not permanent.

Every few years, the money media attempts to calculate how much a stay-at-home parent is worth. For the last ten years or so, the figure has hovered around $117,000.

It’s an ironic pat on the back, because no one pays you to do it—you pay for the privilege of doing it.

Follow the Debt Dispatcher’s Story

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Marpy's picture

IMO - For anyone with a good job (good salary that includes benefits) surviving on a single income has more to do with not falling into what I call the 2 income trap. Quit simply a lot of what people with 2 good incomes do spending wise has to do with the fact that they have the money, not so much so because it makes sense , is good to do or they even like doing it. Since everyone is working, time becomes a premium and it gets easier to "pay" rather than "do". they end up eating out 3 or 4 times a week, buying lunch and coffee every day, paying for someone to do the gardenning and other chores around the house. They may then find out that they are not getting enough exercise and then pay to join a gym or take up golfing/ bowling or something like that. (nothing wrong with gym/ sports - I have done them all - on my own schedule and not because I need exercise). As such, you get caught in the trap where you have less and less time, it costs you more and more money and you keep having less and less time and money. For some, if they sat down and did the math, the second income actually costs them money. They are caught in the trap - all this money coming in but nothing left at the end of the pay cycle. An issue as big as the money part of it is the health part of it. Restaruant/ take out food is as bad as it gets health wise and golf courses have high concentrations of herbicides an pesticides.
Hate to put it this way, but welcome to the world of being institutionalized drones ( getting up and doing the same thing every day and getting the same results). People need to stop, step back and really look at where they are at and what they are doing. Now some may like that world, but I suspect many would not and would chose a different path.


November 23, 2017 @ 12:41 pm
DebtDispatcher's picture

Yes, all good reasons to stay home, Marpy. It's cheaper, if your spouse is making lots of money and you can live lean to make it work. But my husband wasn't, in the beginning. Both of us have been doing the side gig all our lives, and only in the last five years would I say my husband has "made it."

Most reasons to stay home are self-evident, which is why I didn't include them in the article. But I do think that we made some financial mistakes along the way, which we are paying for now, and now I do not have as much earning power as I would have if I had kept working all along.

Depends on where you live, too, right? I live on the east coast, where housing prices and mortgage rates are fairly affordable compared to the rest of the country--my husband has a senior position now, but it wasn't that way in the beginning. We bought our first home in a small village for $30,000. (Brick, semi-detached, three bed, one bath.) Lived there as cheaply as possible for nine years. Then we bought a bigger house in the city for $135,000, which tripled our mortgage payment.

Seems we've always been peddling backwards.

November 23, 2017 @ 1:06 pm
Kim's picture

I worked while my wife stayed home. Legally the money was not mine but mostly hers when she decided to divorce after 24 years of marriage. The kids had a closer relationship with her as she did things with them and took them to see places and relatives while I worked all the overtime I could to keep up.
Now grown, my children remember the things they did, not the things they had or did without.
There should be no guilt in being a stay at home Mom. The economics are not that much different. You don't work to give the kids a better life, you work to give yourself a better life at the expense of time with the kids.

November 23, 2017 @ 12:53 pm
DebtDispatcher's picture

I totally agree Kim. I'm not negative about my SAH experience...well, maybe I am, a little. We have had a rewarding and interesting life, and we have great kids. But...

There's nothing wrong with wanting emotional and financial fulfillment beyond having children. In fact, it makes sense, because we're living a lot longer. And, now that I have had to put my parents in a home, I can tell you that if my mother had worked all her life, they'd be in a much better financial position than they are right now, as they are dependent on the state. And the state feeds you dried potatoes and canned peaches.

Even 50 years ago, the social contract where Dad works and Mom stays home was totally reasonable, because it was financially feasible, and people didn't live as long. You grew up, you got married, you had kids--hopefully you didn't die in childbirth--and you lived long enough to see your grandkids--geez, most likely, you lived with them. And that's it.That was your life. But now life expectancy has reached the 80s, and no one has pensions. No one has job security. You gotta save it yourself.

Watching my parents go through this, with only the money from the sale of their home (not much compared to the rest of the country) for my mother to depend on once Dad dies--this year, probably--this has been a sobering education.

November 23, 2017 @ 1:17 pm
Miriam Kearney
Miriam Kearney's picture

I am surprised to hear things like - "it's his money, not mine" from a SAH parent today. Do you think that what you do isn't work? Dividing the labour between you - him (or her) at work, you at home just makes sense and is better for the children. You both make financial sacrifices to provide a good family life for your kids. If you maintain the attitude that the person who "earns" the money is the same as the name on the paycheck you are living in yesterday. Before you agree to stay home, talk about your attitudes toward money and make sure you are the same page. Don't sell yourself short and don't deny your own financial future because you didn't talk about it.

November 23, 2017 @ 3:31 pm
DebtDispatcher's picture

To be fair, my mother said that, not me. My relationship with my husband is much different than hers was.

Staying at home is definitely work, and it saves on expenses during those years--but it doesn't contribute to your earning power later in life. Two separate issues.

The point I was trying to make is that stay at home parenting only lasts for a season, but the career decisions you make during that time affect the rest of your life. So I am simply advising people to plan ahead, and make all their decisions mindfully.

November 23, 2017 @ 3:51 pm
Matt's picture

I think it's great if someone can stay at home during the young years. I know I guy that was laid off of his marketing job back during the Great Recession. He decided to stay at home with his two young boys and the mom worked. This role reversal worked out really well for their family. I think that dad got some unemployment and/or severance income that provided extra funds while he stayed at home.

November 24, 2017 @ 11:53 am
DebtDispatcher's picture

I agree Matt. It is very rewarding and a great money saver in the short -term.

November 27, 2017 @ 11:13 am
Owen's picture

My wife is a stay at home parent and even though its still a few years away she's already thinking about getting back into the workforce.

LinkedIn is one great way to remain connected. You can still build your network. Keep up with industry changes. Even go to some networking events or seminars that relate to your profession. And of course, its a great way to keep in touch with old colleagues, after all, the majority of jobs are filled via personal connections rather than through job postings so staying connected is very helpful.

November 30, 2017 @ 11:12 am
DebtDispatcher's picture

Great tips, Owen!

December 04, 2017 @ 4:47 pm

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