Editor’s note: The information provided below is not intended to serve as legal or financial advice of any kind.
I had been married nearly 8 years when my entire world fell apart. Like many mothers, I stayed home with my kids while my husband went to work. I tended to our children while my husband tended to his job. We saved money on daycare, while he brought home money to support us.
But when my husband abandoned us without warning, I wasn’t at all prepared to face the financial devastation that followed.
The day he left, he emptied our bank account and quit his job. Suddenly, I didn’t have a dollar to my name. With years as a stay-at-home mom under my belt and an unfinished college education to boot, my resume lacked the basic requirements needed to jump into a career. And when looking at the cost of daycare, I wasn’t sure how in the world the minimum-wage jobs I was qualified to work at would even be enough to keep a roof over our heads.
Turns out, they weren’t. For the next several years we lived in poverty, while I scraped my life together and tried to get on my feet.
“This is why women shouldn’t stay home with the kids,” I’d hear people mutter about my situation. The truth is (and as much as it hurt to hear), they were right. I learned the hard way that every day someone stays home with the kids, they are supporting their spouse’s future financial security, while ruining their own.
I know what many of you are already rolling your eyes and shouting, “That’s not true, because if my husband left, I would get spousal support!” Yes, some of that may be true, but it’s not true for everyone — and it’s definitely not that simple.
“It’s not unusual for one parent to be financially dependent on a working spouse, while they stay home to raise their children,” explains Attorney Michael Biederstadt of Biederstadt Law P.C. “Then, when the marriage ends, so does the financial support for the parent who stayed home. Although many states have laws in place that attempt to safeguard that from happening, there are many cases where those safeguards don’t prevent stay-at-home parents from walking away without a dime from their working spouse’s career.”
But how does this happen? And why?
Biederstadt explains, “Examples are times when the working parent is, for whatever reason, no longer employed at the time of the divorce proceedings, and out of survival, the former stay-at-home parent takes a part time job to feed and clothe their children. If that parent is the one working at the conclusion of the divorce, it’s possible that she may actually be the one ordered to pay support to her former working spouse! In other cases, spousal support is negotiated away in favor of more parenting time with the children.”
What else can a stay-at-home parent potentially expect?
“Another common scenario, is that the stay-at-home parent is left in a position where they have to significantly downgrade the lifestyle that they have grown accustomed to, because they are no longer entitled to a good portion of their former spouse’s income. There are a variety of things that can happen, but it is true: a stay-at-home parent who has not planned for their own financial security, may leave a marriage and enter into poverty, after supporting her spouse’s advancement in his career all the years that she stayed home,” according to Biederstadt.
In my case, that’s exactly what happened. After leaving me with the children, my ex-husband quit his job. I took a part-time minimum wage job … so guess who was the employed parent at the time of the divorce? Me.
Goodbye, spousal support (and a near-decade I should have spent planning for my future).
But let’s say that two parents have the most amazing marriage and they will never get divorced. In that case, the stay-at-home parent is safe, right? Not necessarily.
What if the stay-at-home parent gets sick or experiences a debilitating injury? Well, if they have never paid into the Social Security system, then government safeguards for the sick and disabled do not apply to them. Unless you are designated as low-income (essentially without assets, and a household income of less than 14k per year), you don’t qualify. There will be no Social Security payments to offset the cost of your care and no Medicare available if you lose your health insurance.
Five years later, I am now a newlywed for the second time. I am married to an engineer who makes a decent income, and I work part-time again and stay home with the kids. Yet, I am doing everything different this time around. Just as I have life insurance (even though I don’t plan on dying young), car insurance (even though I try to drive safely), and home insurance (even though I try not to burn my house down), I have a bank account where I save a portion of our income for my personal financial security.
While I support my husband as he advances in his career, he supports me in making sure that I have a safety net — since I’m not spending as much time advancing my own career. It may not sound romantic, but it is a sign of respect. If I ever need to use the money, I’ll be glad I planned ahead. And if I never need to use it, well, one day we’ll have an amazing addition to our retirement fund.
Being a stay-at-home parent is an amazing opportunity, but it also has the potential to derail you financially if you don’t plan ahead. My story may never be yours — and believe me, I hope it never is — but take it from me when I say that the greatest gift you can ever give yourself is the financial security to stand on your own two feet, if need be.