How to purposefully and successfully transition to a single family income

by Nathaniel Sillin

Many parents face the same difficult question when raising a child. Should one of you stay at home while the other works? It’s not a question to take lightly. The decision can have emotional and financial consequences and may have a long-term impact on the stay-at-home parent’s career opportunities. It’s also a question that doesn’t have a single correct answer.

Your upbringing, personality, career and the family’s financial situation can all play into your decision. Your opinion may change over time. Perhaps you both worked after having your first child and now that there will be two or more children it makes more sense for one of you to stay at home.

Whatever your impetus, if you decide to switch from two incomes to one it will undoubtedly be challenging. Purposefully approaching and planning for the change could help you succeed.

• Get a general sense of the numbers. Under­stand­ably, you’re likely juggling a lot of priorities at the moment. However, having a clear picture of your family’s finances can be important.

Thinking about both short-term and long-term scenarios will help you understand the effect of moving to one income and give you numbers to back up your assumptions.

For this task, you don’t need to track every single penny or dollar you make and spend—although detailed tracking helps manage your finances and budgeting software and apps can make it relatively easy to do so if you want. Try to get an approximate sense of your household’s cash flow and the non-essential expenses you could cut if need be.

The good news is that saving on daycare—over $25,000 annually in some states, according to Child­care Aware of America—and work-related expenses, such as transportation and meals, can help offset the lost income.

However, you’ll also need to budget for new child-related expenses. Some families downsize their home, sell a vehicle or eat out less often to make their one-income vision a reality.

• Take baby steps before the baby arrives. For those who are thinking about starting a family or are currently pregnant, acting as if you only have one income while both of you continue to work can help give you a leg up.

For example, the second income could go toward an emergency fund that can help you weather a setback after making the transition. You can also use the money to pay down high-interest debt, which can free up some cash flow by lowering your interest payments.

• Discuss your new family roles. Having a stay-at-home parent can be as much an emotional decision as it is a financial one. There may be new expectations for responsibilities inside and outside the home. Bringing finances back into the picture, discuss how you’ll divide the family budget. Will every purchase be a mutual decision? Or, perhaps you’ll both have a personal allowance to spend how you please and a household account for shared expenses.

• Plan for the future. Now may also be a good time to discuss your expectations for the future. When and if a stay-at-home parent plans to return to the workplace for example. And if it makes sense for them to work or go back to school part-time while also taking care of the home.

There isn’t a single correct answer to questions about family roles or the future and no one can answer these questions for you. Talk over the options together and realize that you need to try out several ideas before you find the arrangement that works best for your relationship and growing family.

Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s financial education programs. To follow Practi­cal Money Skills on Twitter: