I don’t have a ton of friends who come to me for advice about marriage and motherhood but, when they do, there is always at least one warning I make certain I communicate: when preparing for your future as a family, avoid the two-income trap at all costs.
Also known as: your career isn’t worth what you think it’s worth.
Also known as: quit your job while you still can.
Okay, let me back up.
A few years ago, I picked up a book by politician Elizabeth Warren called The Two-Income Trap and it blew my mind.
Elizabeth Warren (who is rumored to be Bernie Sanders’ choice for VP if he wins the Democratic nomination this election cycle) is a brilliant scholar with a real heart for protecting the viability of America’s middle-class. In this book (and elsewhere), she writes about the economic shifts in our country that are forcing millions of “traditional families” (my words, not hers) to become dual-income families out of necessity. Where once a family could have a humble but comfortable life with one income, more and more families are now sending a second parent into the workforce to help pay for basic needs. Where once a mother would take a small side job to pay for frivolities such as an extra family vacation, she now takes a job to help pay for weekly groceries.
This, according to Elizabeth Warren, is a big problem.
In short, I agree.
Now, Warren and I are not necessarily political allies. She and I disagree a little bit about why we got here and how we are going to get out of this mess, but I think she has articulated this issue better than most and has some great things to say about the nature of the problem. (If you’re interested in the issue, I’d recommend the book.)
If you’d like the Liz McEwan version of the story, I’ll offer it here.
The concept of “the two-income trap” is simple and I’ve watched it happen over and over again to friends and strangers alike. The basic gist goes something like this: two wonderful, competent adults get married and build fulfilling careers and then, when it comes time to welcome a baby into the picture, they need both incomes to sustain their lifestyle. So, they spend the emotional and physical energy equivalent to a marathon arranging their lives to maintain both careers while trying to arrange daycare and nannies and preschool and still have time to make dinner and eat dinner and maybe play together for ten minutes before bed and maybe fit in a trip to the zoo on the weekends. It’s exhausting. It’s depressing. And it’s not the way things are supposed to be.
Let’s pause for a moment
Maybe you see yourself in this situation and it strikes a chord and makes you depressed or offended or so mad you could spit. Money and parenting are touchy subjects, so I would like to clarify a few things.
First, my position on this comes as much from personal experience as it comes as an observer. I may not be a “career mom,” but when my husband and I welcomed our first child into the world, we were not ready to live on a single income. Because of that, the past 7 years have been hard. SUPER hard. My husband has taken many, many side jobs and I have continued working part-time so we can slowly work ourselves out of debt and eventually into the freedom of a single income.
So I know how impossible it seems to survive on a modest income.
And I know how much it sucks to drive an old car instead of a new one and to not buy myself clothes this season and to buy used furniture from friends and to not take a vacation when we could really, really use one.
And I also know how hard it is to give up a career.
And how hard it is to be “just a mom” in a world where being a mom is simply not enough to be validated. And I know what it’s like to know that I could be making a lot of money somewhere doing something super awesome and, instead, I am making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my pajamas.
Some of my friends love staying home with their kids; some of them don’t. Some of my friends absolutely love their careers; some dream of the day that can quit. My point is not to romanticize stay at home moms or judge women who choose a career instead. Every story is different and I don’t know yours, specifically.
My goal, instead, is to encourage younger (or childless) women to prepare now for what they want in the future and to count the cost of their career before it’s too late and they are trapped at work while they’re rather be at home.
Practically speaking, a few words of advice for those who want to work toward living on a single income:
Do the math.
Childcare is expensive. So are work clothes, that second car, and dinners out with colleagues. Before assuming that you absolutely must have two incomes, consider the money you’d save by staying home. Balance the cost of working against the value of staying home before you decide how much your career is really worth to you. Do the actual math. With numbers. You might be surprised.
Consider the benefits.
There is more than quantifiable monetary value to having a parent at home with the kids. A stay at home parent usually means more home-cooked meals together, healthier emotional/physical attachments with parents, more one-on-one time with the kids, and a more stable rhythm of the home life.
Consider the freedom.
The non-working parent in a single-income family is free to stay home with a sick child or to travel to care for ailing parents or help friends. They are also free to take on side-work or odd jobs for extra income when the need (or opportunity) arises. There is only one person’s work schedule to work around. There is always someone around to answer the door when the neighbor rings.
Re-imagine home life.
Erase the picture you have in your mind of the Betty Crocker stay at home mom and build a home life that matches YOU. Dream about the ways you are uniquely gifted to create a home that is a place you actually want to be.
Re-define your “work.”
Especially for those of you with a college degree: Don’t judge the value of your education by its pay-off in salary; judge the value of your education by the fruitfulness of your life. Be productive. Get creative and be proactive in putting your gifts and skills to work to support your family. Use your education, even if the way you use it doesn’t pay the bills. Keep your mind awake and your skills sharp because they will come in handy now and in the future when your kids are grown and out of the house.
Build a community.
Without a workplace for easy socialization, many moms get bored and lonely at home. (Face it: kids don’t always make the best company.) Find other moms like you, moms who remind you that being a mom is good, hard work. Then make other friends, too–friends who don’t have kids yet or whose kids are grown. Don’t blame your loneliness on staying home. Community is cultivated. It requires work.
Lastly, I know it’s dangerous to say this, but I’ll say it anyway.
Reconsider your lifestyle.
In her book, Elizabeth Warren is correct to attribute much of the two-income trap to risings costs in housing, education, and healthcare over the past 50 or so years. I think she’s right. There is no doubt that it’s harder than ever for an average middle-class family to pay for an average middle-class lifestyle. But I think her solution (which involves a lot of government-funded education and healthcare) is insufficient to correct the problem.
I think, before we even consider outside solutions, we need to reconsider what we’re working ourselves to death and sacrificing valuable years with our children to pay for.
The truth is, you probably don’t need that bigger house with the extra bedroom.
Or the extra two days at the hotel.
Your son doesn’t need his own iPad.
Your daughter doesn’t need to take ballet and tennis lessons.
Your kids might do just as well at the neighborhood school as they’d do at the private school.
The truth is, for many of us, it’s not a life we’re paying for–it’s a lifestyle. And that new pair of shoes or the eighty dollar dinner or the last-minute trip to Portland this weekend might be worth it to you, but it’s not worth it to me. And, if you asked your kids, they’d probably say it’s not worth it to them, either.
And then a word of encouragement for those in situations where you simply cannot make it work on one income: Maybe you are underpaid. Maybe you are unemployable or injured. Maybe you owe a small fortune in debts. Maybe the economy where you live just sucks. If this is you, I encourage you to plod along as faithfully as you can until your situation changes.
And, when it does, get out as quickly as you can.
It’s a trap.