I am a stay-at-home spouse and have been for a few years. Apparently I’m in good company: a recent Pew Trust analysis of government labor data says that this trend is on the rise in America and 29% of mothers did not work outside the home in 2012.
And in the military realm, the numbers are even more striking – according to a 2015 Blue Star Families’ survey, a whopping 55% of military spouses do not work outside the home.
In my own case, there was a short period of time when I was working outside the home and a brief stint where I worked almost full time at home, but for the most part, our family has survived on my husband’s military pay. This is certainly not the best scenario for everyone, but it has worked for us. Although my husband and I have talked about my eventual return to the workforce, we have made the conscious decision that right now we will continue on as we have been.
But this is not a move to make lightly: there are many factors one should consider when calculating the true cost of working out the home versus being a stay-at-home spouse.
Military families move often and may not (or in our case never) live close to family. So the cost of child care is a major factor to consider when it comes to deciding whether to work outside the home. It’s not just the cost of child care, although that can be shockingly expensive depending on where you’re stationed and the age of your children, it’s also finding reliable child care with a spot available for your children.
In the Blue Star Families’ survey I mentioned earlier, 35% of the respondents said they couldn’t find child care that fit their current situation.
In my own case when my children were younger and I was offered a part-time job at a nonprofit credit counseling agency, the meager hourly wage I was offered did not cover the cost of after-school care for even one of my children, so I turned the job down.
And while some people assume that child care costs can simply be “written off” on their income taxes if they work, it’s not as simple as that. Only a max of 35% of qualifying costs up to $3,000 for one child and $6,000 for two or more can be taken as a credit and that depends on your adjusted gross income.
Many people discount the actual day-to-day costs of going to work. This includes things like public transportation, gas and parking costs, but also things like the cost of a proper professional wardrobe, dry cleaning, lunches out and the “convenience” costs you pay when you are rushing home from work without a dinner plan and are forced to go to the drive-thru window.
What about the cost of a cleaning service if you can’t keep up with the housework or paying to get the car detailed because you don’t have time to do it yourself?
When I did work outside the home, there were other costs I hadn’t counted on, like buying pre-made treats for school and Girl Scout functions (since I had no time to bake), contributing to co-workers’ going away parties and birthdays, and the cost to my mental and physical well-being when I no longer had time to exercise regularly resulting in a few extra, unwanted pounds.
And there is another “hidden” cost of working, specifically in the retail field: the temptation to buy is real, especially when there’s an employee discount involved. I worked for the Disney Store in college and seriously spent most of my wages there.
Lost Future Income and Benefits
This is a tough category to put a number on. When many parents try and crunch the numbers to see if staying home is feasible, they simply look at the salary the working spouse would make in their job outside the home.
But that’s not really a fair comparison.
First of all, you have to calculate the actual take-home pay (there are a number of online calculators that will do this for you, including this one). Then you need to look at benefits or bonuses that might come with the job.
For most military families, health care insurance costs aren’t part of the equation, but a job could provide life insurance or disability insurance. While spouses may be covered for up to $100,000 through Family Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (FSGLI), this amount may not provide enough coverage if there are children in the house. A life insurance policy provided by the spouse’s job can be worth more than $20 per month, depending on the age and health of the spouse.
If a spouse would be eligible for a defined benefit plan at work (and pensions are getting rarer and rarer!) then the present value of that will need to be assessed, which is a bit tricky.
Spouses might also be eligible for matching funds in a company 401(k) or other defined contribution plan. When assessing the value of this, it’s also good to be aware of the company’s vesting period, which might be longer than a typical assignment at a duty station (and thus the spouse would lose the matching funds when they PCS to the next duty station).
While it’s difficult to put a dollar amount on this consideration, spouses who are out of the workforce for a number of years may find it difficult to reenter, or may have to practically start over when they do so.
Lastly, spouses who work would possibly be eligible for higher future social security benefits than those who stay at home.
Run the Numbers
There are a few calculators out there to help you run the numbers to decide whether it makes sense to stay at home. None of them are perfect or account for all costs, but they do give a ballpark figure.
There are many military spouses who don’t have a choice when it comes to staying at home. There are a number of duty stations where the job prospects and child care options are grim and there are overseas duty stations where spouses are not even allowed to work.
Whether it’s your choice or one that was forced upon you by circumstance, it’s a good idea to be familiar with the costs of staying at home.
If you decide to stay at home:
- Keep your resume current; volunteer work can fill in the gaps.
- Do keep any certifications or licenses you may have up to date.
- Fund a spousal IRA in the military spouse’s name – don’t just save for retirement in the service member’s name.