Our Affordability Project began in 1999: On the topic of affordability, we were hearing a lot of misconceptions from reporters and policy makers. We knew that many families lived on moderate incomes, that many made significant sacrifices and/or did a lot of financial planning to make it possible to have a parent at home. And we knew that it was incorrect to simply divide mothers into two categories: at work or at home. In order to collect data and recruit families willing to talk with reporters and policy makers, Marian Gormley (PR/Marketing Director) and Heidi Brennan (Public Policy Director) designed an in-depth survey on family finances and recruited participants through a notice in Welcome Home. Over 100 families completed the survey, sharing details of their family finances as well as their thoughts and feelings about the choices they’d made. We reported on findings in Welcome Home and were able to refer reporters to families across the U.S. who, in spite of modest incomes, managed to have a parent at home.
From the report to our readers in Welcome Home:
Family and Home Network asked both mothers and fathers to tell us about when they had made the decision to live on one income (before marriage? before or after the first child was born? after the second?). We also asked what resources they used to help with financial planning and budgeting, and what resources they'd like to see more readily available to people making these decisions.
The replies ran the gamut, from couples who had planned to have a parent at home from the start to those who arrived at the same decision after a year or two of both parents working. Single mothers also responded--both those who received some financial support and those who had very little or no child support.
In discussing their choices to live on one income, many people shared the sentiments of Stacy P. (Loganville, Georgia): "I resent the comments made by some politicians and those in the media regarding stay-at-home moms.... I just want people to realize that luck had nothing to do with me being home. My husband and I have worked very hard at keeping our heads above water...." Regarding the decision to live on one income rather than two, several people made the same recommendation as Elizabeth R. (Bedford, Massachusetts): "Encourage families to fill out two tax forms--one with both parents working, the other with one parent at home. This is how one of my husband's coworkers decided to stay at home."
Survey respondents reported using a variety of resources to guide them including books, magazines, software, classes and financial planners. Once they began using resources, they continued to review their finances and seek out information; and they reminded us that there is a wealth of information available at the public library free! Some people reported that they had not sought out help from any particular resource, but had instead learned to budget and be frugal from their own parents, extended families and friends.
Rebecca B. (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) suggests asking questions at the bank, checking with an income tax consultant and talking with one's parents before making big financial decisions. Angie F. (Puyallup, Washington) says, "Don't be afraid to work with a financial planner even if you seem to have little money to work with. They can still provide good advice about which types of savings/investing would serve you best." Others stressed that there are financial planners who offer free initial consultations (they can be found through insurance companies, investment firms and banks) and suggested asking friends and relatives for recommendations.
"Read about cutting costs and saving money. Learn about and thoroughly understand credit cards, interest rates and finance," says Wendy L. (Westerville, Ohio). Other respondents reported attending a local class on family finances. Sometimes either the mother or father had education or employment experience in budgeting which they put to good use in their family life. Others have reminded us that both spouses should understand the family finances, especially if one is an accountant--too often the other spouse turns everything over to the "finance professional" spouse and knows nothing. In an emergency, that ignorance results in chaos and adds considerably to the stress.
Some survey respondents reported that their church provided helpful materials. Others read Money magazine, Consumer Reports and Utne Reader (for its articles on simple living). Software was a tool frequently used, with Quicken the most commonly recommended program; Christian Financial Concepts software was also mentioned. M. Teresa E. P. (Rockville, Maryland) listens regularly to "The Ric Edelman Show" on Saturday mornings (for more information: www.ricedelman.com). The W. family (Caledonia, New York) recommends Genus Credit Management (www.genus.org), a nonprofit organization that helps people manage their credit. Another, American Consumer Credit Counseling (www.consumercredit.com), was recommended by the H. family of Phoenix, Arizona.
Many parents noted that although they believe strongly in having a parent at home, it is not always an easy route. Determination, perseverance and reaching out do make a difference. The B. family sought help from the county government and moved to subsidized housing.
The W. family lived for two-and-a-half years in a mobile home so Pam could be the property manager in exchange for free rent. After her husband John's salary rose, they were able to purchase a house.
Kimberly A., a single mom in Gallatin, Tennessee, was not able to stay home right away with her first child, but now is determined to be home with her children (ages two and five). They live with her mother, and Kimberly supplements the child support payments from her ex-husband with income from an early morning newspaper route (2 a.m. to 6 a.m. seven days a week!), in addition to working at a mother's day out program and in her church nursery. She is attending college part-time (telecourse classes) with plans to become a teacher, so that her hours will be compatible with her children's once they enter school.
Jenny S.-A. and her husband Alex A. are both teachers, now living on one teacher's salary--Alex's. Living in San Diego on approximately $33,000 a year is challenging, and Jenny says, "I believe staying at home has made me a much better person and has been the greatest thing I've done with my life. However, it has been stressful on us financially, causing tension in our marriage. We have a list of bills for each month. At the beginning we pay bills and give ourselves an allowance for groceries. Then we figure what we have left, which is usually very little, and go from there. Some months I have to 'let go' and believe everything will be fine--and it always is! I have great pride in what we are doing.... I just think it's annoying (and a little pathetic) when I hear people say, 'We just can't afford to have a parent at home.' It's not a matter of affording it, but about changing one's priorities and lifestyle, and about being brave. Children need us---it is so apparent in our youth today."
There are many more stories to tell, each one unique. A related theme throughout the responses was that when a family is struggling with finances, the support (or lack thereof) from family, community or place of worship can make an enormous difference. All the families believe strongly that what they are doing is providing the best care possible for their children. We thank them all for telling us their stories.
See The Institute for American Values' Thrift Initiative.
The following books, listed roughly in order of how many people recommended them, may be helpful to those interested in budgeting and cutting costs.
Women Leaving the Workplace; Debt-Free Living; The Financial Planning Organizer by Larry Burkett
Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robins
Master Your Money: A Step-by-Step Plan for Financial Freedom by Ron Blue and Charles Swindoll
The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyzyn
Miserly Moms by Jonni McCoy
Personal Finance for Dummies by Eric Tyson
Choices: For Women Who Long to Discover Life's Best by Mary Farrar
Don't Worry, Make Money: Spiritual and Practical Ways to Create Abundance and More Fun in your Life by Richard Carlson
How to Get What you Want in Life with the Money You Already Have by Carol Keefe
The Truth about Money by Ric Edelman
Marshall Loeb's Money Guide by Marshall Loeb
Financial Peace by Dave Ramsey and Sharon Ramsey
Finances for Today's Catholic Family by Phillip Lenahan
Financial Foundations for the Family