How To Afford Stay-At-Home Motherhood

The number of women who choose to be stay-at-home moms has decreased drastically over the last few decades. But it's not from lack of desire.

By Kate Whitaker4 min read
stay at home motherhood (1)

Millennial women are more likely than their parents to want to be stay-at-home moms. More than half of Millennial women want to stay home with their children. But only about 20% do. Why?

When I think of a stay-at-home mom, two images come to mind. First, an idyllic housewife of the ‘50s. She bakes pies in her Betty Draper-esque dresses and uses her all-new retro gadgets with her suited husband. The second is a modern soccer mom in an 8-seater BMW, equipped with healthy snacks for her children in clean and organized containers. Besides stay-at-home motherhood, these two women have another important thing in common: wealth. 

“The homemaker has the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose only — and that is to support the ultimate career.” — C.S. Lewis 

Staying at home is a difficult financial decision for many families. On one hand, there’s substantial evidence to show that a parent staying home has extremely positive effects on a child’s development over time. A study of 68,000 children demonstrated that those with parents at home performed significantly better in school, even when correcting for wealth. On the other hand, the average salary for a worker in the United States is around $50,000, while the Department of Agriculture estimates that raising just one child costs about $230,000, or $14,000 a year. For lower and middle-income families, the idea of raising children on just one salary is nearly impossible. 

The History of Stay-at-Home Motherhood 

So how did we get here? Well, stay-at-home motherhood has historically been aspirational to many women. As another Evie columnist writes: “Even if women longed to be able to stay home, financial need forced them to find outside work. A single income did not become feasible for most until the 1950s.”

Indeed, the income disparity between the rich and the poor before the post-war boom of the ‘50s made it impossible for anyone but the wealthy to be stay-at-home mothers. However, this disparity began to shrink after World War II because of the post-war programs and strength of allied workers. A young veteran could return home from war and still be able to afford the essentials through something called the G.I. Bill. 

The income disparity began to shrink after World War II because of the post-war programs. 

Signed by President Roosevelt in 1944, the G.I. Bill provided zero down payment home loans for servicemen and a year of untaxed unemployment for them to get on their feet. Once they did, they could join workers’ organizations that kept wages the highest they’d ever been. These young men, 7.2 million of them, utilized these programs to afford homes for their families and income to support them. Accordingly, the 1950s saw record levels of new wives able to stay home with their children while their husbands provided. 

Though economics plays a crucial role in the rise of stay-at-home motherhood, culture is an important factor to consider. After the uncertainty of war, many couples sought the stability of marriage and children.

Culture and Economics Still Impact the Ability To Stay at Home Today

Unfortunately, this has not remained the case. Again, the trend of decreasing stay-at-home parenting numbers are due to culture and economics. Culturally, second-wave feminism promoted women working outside the home. While this is not bad on its own as a choice, some feminist figures like Betty Friedan looked down on housewives as lesser women. Instead of merely opening up other avenues for women, some feminists tried to close the door on traditional motherhood. 

Many parents also expect to live the same lives as they did pre-children, continuing to travel and eat out. 

Though cultural changes definitely played a role in fewer women wanting to be stay-at-home moms, economics prohibited many from doing that even if they wanted to. Many parents also expect to live the same lives as they did pre-children, with travel increasing over 170% in the last 20 years and consumer spending on dining out surpassing grocery stores. Additionally, our new necessities, like phones or high-tech cars, mean that the cost of living has increased beyond inflationary levels. 

Something as basic as housing has also increased twice as fast as inflation. While parents could purchase a house in 1940 for a median cost of only $3,000, that number had increased to nearly $200,000 in 2000. This means that even purchasing a modest home in the suburbs would be out of many families’ price range with one parent staying home. 

The idyllic economic era of the baby boom is now far behind us, which means it grows harder and harder to raise a family on only one income. Unfortunately, economic change is slow, and families need practical tips now on how to make it work with one staying home. 

How To Save Money 

Get Good at Budgeting 

Staying at home means parents wear many hats: mom, cook, cleaner, and often, executive. It’s hard to make one paycheck stretch the whole month, so work with your partner to budget effectively. Buy in bulk or on sale, and DON’T USE CREDIT CARDS (This was my great aunt’s trick for caring for two children, one disabled, on a shoestring budget). Debt piles up too fast, and it’s much easier to feel the weight of money when it gets directly taken out of your account after a purchase. 

Find Free or Cheap Entertainment 

The best things in life are free, which means you don’t have to take your kids out for a $40 movie for them to have fun. Parks are the obvious choice, but many museums also let those under 18 in for free. And check your city’s programs: when I worked for the City of Boston, we’d arrange movie nights for local kids to watch premieres on the big screen with the Mayor. Additionally, faith communities often provide fun activities and childcare for their members for free or a heavily reduced price. 

Faith communities often provide fun activities and childcare for their members for free or a heavily reduced price. 

Hustle on the Side 

We all have marketable skills, even if you don’t know it yet. Having your neighbor’s kids join your family for a day gives your children some friends to play with and you a few extra bucks. Or become a mommy blogger: various online publications will pay you anywhere from ten to hundreds of dollars for an article. Really, just assessing your skills and skimming a few lists of job ideas will have you making a few extra hundred dollars a month, which can go a long way in budgeting for your family. 

Advocate for an Economy Centered on the Wellbeing of Families 

Obviously, this is a far off goal, but we should all be advocating for it. Stay-at-home parents shouldn’t have to just scrape by or forgo staying at home entirely because of a lack of income. Use your voice and your vote to stand up for future moms by supporting economic measures that would promote economic freedom, to help make life less expensive for families who want to have one parent stay home.

Closing Thoughts 

As we work to change social narratives about housewives, it’s imperative that we also understand the financial struggles of stay-at-home parents and provide them with both practical and long-term benefits to support their most important career.