The Financial Realities Of Having A Stay-At-Home Partner

ILLUSTRATED BY ASSA ARIYOSHI.
Modern Money Matters is Refinery29 and Chase's exploration of what the modern American family really looks like — from starting a family to moving — and what it actually costs to make it all happen. In 2012, the number of stay-at-home fathers nearly doubled the amount in 1989, reaching 2 million. To find out more about how women are taking control of their financial power, click here.
When I got married 10 years ago, I had no inkling that I’d one day serve as the primary breadwinner for my family. Jeff, the man I was marrying, had a good job as an editor for a book publisher, a savings account, and no debt. I, on the other hand, had just graduated law school with $200,000 in debt and uncertain job prospects as the recession loomed near. If my husband had been looking for an easy financial future, he could have done better.
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Four months after the wedding, I received my first student loan repayment bill. The minimum payment was three times what we paid in rent on the northwest side of Chicago. When we talked about our future, and our mutual desire to have a baby, I felt like we were at the bottom of a hole. A hole I had dug for the both of us.
Over the next five years, we put off parenthood and did what we could to shed the debt. I lost my job twice in the process. The economy was in crisis, and the legal market was no different. But with each setback, we managed to recover and redouble our efforts. By our five-year anniversary, we were almost debt-free and ready to take the leap into parenthood. I was 30 years old and working as a government attorney. We still didn’t have much savings, but my job was generous (by American standards) in providing 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. I stopped obsessing over interest rates and loan amortization schedules and dove into researching daycares and car seats instead.
We welcomed our son, Will, a year later. He was big and beautiful with a face just like Jeff’s. We spent his first month of life in a blissed-out fog. The three of us filled hour after hour cocooned in bed — Jeff holding me holding Will.
And then, after four weeks of parental leave, he had to return to work.
ILLUSTRATED BY ASSA ARIYOSHI.
When I eventually returned too, Will was three months old. I was liking my job and enjoying being around coworkers.
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But Jeff was commuting over an hour each way to work, so I was handling daycare drop-off and pick-up by myself. Getting the baby out of the house in the morning felt like a feat. Diapering and dressing and bottles and coffee and my laptop and my phone and coats and mittens and carriers and keys and my wallet. It was just too much. I was cooked by the time I dropped Will at day care and boarded my train to work each morning.
As Will’s sleep schedule regularized, it became clear that Jeff was only going to get to see him for 30 minutes each day at bedtime. With so little time together, Jeff worried that their attachment was waning.
That’s when the conversations started. As we cleaned the kitchen each night we talked about how to fix our life. Maybe we could sell the little house we loved and travel west to be closer to family? Maybe we should travel even farther?
We considered whether life would be easier if I was a stay-at-home mom. Maybe I could start my own firm and represent clients part time? But I liked my job and didn’t feel ready to go out on my own. Didn’t it make sense for me to keep working since we had both worked so hard to pay down my law-school debt? Also, although my take-home pay amounted to only a little more than Jeff’s, my job provided good health insurance for all three of us, plus a pension. Wouldn’t those things be really expensive to replace?
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ILLUSTRATED BY ASSA ARIYOSHI.
For the next three months, we ran every scenario we could think of through our budget in Excel. It was a discouraging exercise. Even with daycare expenses deleted, we needed both incomes to stay out of the red. We scrutinized every line item — gym memberships, smartphone plans, the car rental membership — trying to get back to zero.

If we reduced our childcare expenses and slashed each of our flexible budget categories by 25%, we could create the margin we needed for Jeff to leave his full-time job.

Eventually, we hit on something with potential. If we reduced our childcare expenses from $1,900/month to $800/month (by going from full-time care to just two days per week) and slashed each of our flexible budget categories (food, shopping, etc.) by 25%, we could create the margin we needed for Jeff to leave his full-time job and transition to part-time freelance work, a decision that also lined him up to pursue his true ambitions as a journalist. We made the transition when Will was seven months old, and now — three years later — we haven’t looked back.
We welcomed another baby in 2017, and Jeff is now splitting his days, working in the morning (with help from a babysitter) and hanging out with the kids in the afternoon. Sometimes we toy with the idea of Jeff returning to full-time work. Like, when a client invited him to apply for an editorial position or when our boiler broke and we were looking at a $6,000 repair bill. But when I think back on those early days and imagine daycare drop-offs and all the other hassle, I know the extra money can wait.
Even with two kids, our routine works much better now. Jeff helps me get the kids ready in the morning and creates space and time for me to prepare myself for the day. When I arrive home at 5:30 p.m., Jeff has already figured out a plan for dinner, leaving me free to connect with the kids. Rolling play dough with Will, performing puppet shows, listening to the wild tales of his three-year-old imagination — these are luxuries I can enjoy because of our situation.

[My husband] makes doctor appointments, knows what size shoes the kids wear, remembers to bring oranges to the preschool holiday party.

Since we made the transition, Jeff has also taken on a lot of the mental load that I used to carry. He makes doctor appointments, knows what size shoes the kids wear, remembers to bring oranges to the preschool holiday party. There are still things I take the lead on — for instance, I wake up with the baby at night and still do the kids’ laundry. But overall, we try to split things so we each get about equal downtime.
Striking the right division of labor hasn’t always been easy. When it became clear Jeff should be in charge of groceries, for example, there was a lot he had to figure out. He didn’t know about meal planning or to look at the grocery-store circulars for sales. I suspect he hadn't been socialized to think about that stuff like I had.
But we continue to work on making our setup work for us. I’m lucky to have great friends: young parents like myself, who are happy to get together for pizza in cluttered homes. I’m blessed to have a job that allows us to make this kind of choice; I realize many families can’t afford to have a part-time, stay-at-home parent. And, most of all, I’m lucky to have my husband, a man who’s almost preternaturally unconcerned with other people’s opinions. If it works for us, he says, that’s all that matters. He’s right. And so far, it works.

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