2020 may have been the hardest year of my life. I was the sole income-earning parent with two young children to feed. Here’s how to survive the pressure as a sole income-earning parent.
Much has been written about offering more support and empathy for the stay at home parent who gives up his or her job to take care of a child full-time. Being a full-time parent is one of the hardest jobs in the world because so much is at stake. Full-time parents deserve all the respect in the world.
However, little attention is paid to the plight of the sole income earning parent. The sole income earning parent seems to have it relatively easy because s/he doesn’t have to be on call 24/7.
S/he can slack off at work with no devastating consequences. S/he can even attend the occasional company boondoggle and have stimulating conversations with adults over copious amounts of free alcohol.
However, any emotionally competent sole income-providing parent faces the following difficulties.
Pressure On The Sole Income-Earning Parent
- The constant stress of knowing they have to provide for the family with no financial backup
- The constant guilt for being away from their child because of work
- Not being able to find support because a day job is considered the easier job
- The expectation of having to do an equal amount of parenting after a long day’s work
Many couples fight over this division of labor. The sole income provider often wants to come home, have a drink, eat dinner, and maybe watch some TV and relax, before jumping into parenting duties, especially after a rough day.
But the stay at home parent, who has been going non-stop since not-at-home spouse left the house, resents this expectation because nothing is as energy sapping as caring for an infant. The sole income provider is resentful for not being allowed to take even half an hour to unwind. Problems ensue!
Let’s see if we can help the sole income providing parent get him or her get to a happier place.
Surviving And Thriving As The Sole Income Earner
1) Take everybody’s opinion with a grain of salt.
Guilt comes from inherently knowing spending more time taking care of your child is better than spending less time, especially in the crucial first five years of development. Guilt also stems from other people’s opinions about what you should do, especially if people criticize you for choosing work and money over being a parent.
It’s good to get advice from more experienced parents. However, as a writer who shares my struggles in finance and in fatherhood, I’ve come to realize that whatever you put out there will be judged. Further, a lot of parents project their guilt onto you due to their lack of parenting.
For example, I shared with readers in my mid-year review that I wanted to provide six hours of joyful assistance or primary care to my wife and son during his waking hours.
I used the word “assistance” because during the first year of life, breastfeeding is constant and I do not have the ability to breastfeed. I looked up whether there were any breast feeding contraptions for men, but couldn’t find a viable solution.
I used the words “primary care” so that I’d take full charge for a couple hours in the morning, especially after a rough night and a couple hours in the afternoon so she could have time to herself. On my “off hours,” I’d get to work writing and managing our investments in order for my wife to be a stay at home mom. Seems like a reasonable effort, right?
Not according to reader Sara, who ignores my words “primary care” and writes,
“Sam, I can’t believe I didn’t catch this before. “Assistance to [your] wife”!?!?!
Parenting, cooking, cleaning, etc. are part of being an adult and a parent, and equally your responsibility as hers. This isn’t the 1950s. You’re not “assisting your wife,” you’re being a responsible adult in a relationship who shares childcare and housekeeping duties. I can’t believe this is even a “goal” of yours; it’s certainly not something you should celebrate if you achieve it, as it’s really the bare minimum standard of being a parent and spouse.”
Here I was thinking I was doing OK as a parent and trying to get better. But trying to be a better parent is not good enough for Sara, who sends her child to day care because both she and her husband work. I was so confused by her reaction. Is she really arguing semantics? The only logical conclusion for her judging me for trying to take care of my son during the week is her guilt for not doing the same or that she was upset with her work or her husband at the time and took it out on me.
Let me be clear, I have no problem with daycare. It can be a luxury or a necessity, depending on your household situation. I never even brought up the subject of daycare in my mid-year review post.
You can see how her comment would start a huge fight after coming home from a full day of work if you are the sole income provider. You can also see how some men are too afraid to be stay at home dads due to the criticism and lack of support from other parents. When stay at home dads make up just 2% of all stay at home parents, it’s easy to get run over by the majority.
The only right way is what you and your spouse decide is the right way through constant dialogue. It’s your life. Don’t let anybody come between you and your partner. Certainly don’t let other parents project their guilt onto you for trying to do better.
2) Be explicitly clear about the budget.
Money stress is strong when you’re the only one generating income. As a result, make sure you and your spouse know your exact after tax income in order to calculate how much of the income can be spent on supporting the family while also saving for retirement, paying down debt, and saving for your child’s education.
Don’t just break down your expense budget by month. Figure out how much the family can spend by week and stick to it. After each week, review the actual expenses with the budget and give yourselves a high five when you spend less. This exercise will help reduce the sole income provider’s anxiety because there’s always a little worry when even the person you trust the most is in charge of spending.
Before our son was born, I gave my wife the green light to spend as much as she needed to prepare for our son’s arrival. After our son was born, the green light continued for a full year without us discussing a single item of expense. In retrospect, we should have reviewed our budget because after the first year, I began carrying some anxiety for months that we were spending 2.5X more than reality. I felt relief to see the actual child expense tally once she ran the report.
Related: Financial DEpenence Is The Worst: Why Each Spouse Needs Their Own Bank Account
3) Practice gratitude you’re able to work and have a stay at home spouse.
Gratitude always helps dissolve any festering resentment or bitterness. Instead of seeing being a sole income provider as a burden, see it as a luxury and an honor.
Two-parent households where both parents work full-time make up ~46 percent of the population today, compared to 31 percent in 1970 according to Pew Research Center. The percentage of both parents working full-time is going higher because the cost of living and the cost of childcare is outpacing wage inflation.
If you can have the person you love and trust the most take care of your child full-time before going off to pre-school or kindergarten, it is a wonderful blessing. Remind each other daily of this luxury.
If both of you have the luxury to stay at home to raise your child together, even better. Just don’t be too open about it in real life because you will be hated on by other families where one or both spouses have to work outside their home full-time.
4) Know that it gets better after your child goes to pre-school or kindergarten.
A child usually starts pre-school at age 2-3 and kindergarten at age 5-6. Therefore, no matter how much pain and frustration you are dealing with, know that your schedule will get easier for both of you within six years for a developmentally normal child.
As soon as you commit to a timeline goal, everything becomes easier to accomplish. For example, one of the reasons why I can keep publishing multiple times a week on Financial Samurai since 2009 is because I made myself a 10-year goal to do so. To quit now would be a travesty.
Why do we frequently hear stories about someone passing soon after a major accomplishment? It’s because they were holding on until the goal was accomplished.
Sure, there will be more child-raising issues that come up as your little one ages. But with more sleep and free time during the day, the stress of being the only one to generate income diminishes because the stay at home spouse now has the option to work.
The guilt of not seeing your child all day due to work goes away because your child is in school for most of the day. The reward of having a child increases because he or she becomes more interactive.
5) Take mental sick days very seriously.
Feeling the pressure to provide is not physical pressure, but mental pressure. Feeling the guilt of not being able to raise your children can be mental torture. When your mind breaks down, you don’t do your best work. You become irritable, combative, and sometimes very volatile. Mental illness can lead to neglect, fights, adultery, divorce, and sometimes even suicide.
For goodness sake, please don’t be ashamed to take all your sick and vacation days. Please know the Family And Medical Leave Act is a federal law that guarantees certain employees up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave each year with no threat of job loss. Be open with your colleagues about why you need time off. If they are good people, they will understand.
6) Have your stay at home spouse generate income.
If gratitude, budgeting, patience, taking time off, and ignoring other parent’s opinions don’t work, the only solution left is to have your spouse start earning income again. The income can be generated preferably through freelance work or through a part-time job. If you can run your own business from home, even better.
Some households simply cannot afford to have one spouse stay at home until their little one goes to pre-school or kindergarten. Money stress can really strain a relationship, even if being a stay at home spouse is worth a $100,000+ a year job.
There are plenty of ways to make money online now through freelance marketplaces like Upwork or Task Rabbit. For example, here are all the freelance work categories on Upwork to choose from. Surely you have a skill in at least one of these areas. If not, I know plenty of people, including myself who drove for Uber or Lyft during the early morning or late night hours.
Not only is my wife an amazing mom, she is also an amazing online business partner. Once our son started sleeping for at least a 7-8 hour stretch, she began updating a lot of my older posts with fresh content and writing new pages on top of the quarterly booking she does. Not only did her work help our business, it also gave her a lot of pride and satisfaction.
Be Proud Of Your Accomplishments
Although it may not seem like you’re doing enough when you come home to a tired and stressed out spouse who sometimes makes you feel guilty for being away from the house all day, know that you are doing a great service to your family. The person you trust the most can be a stay at home spouse because of you!
Practice gratitude every day. Keep the dialogue running so resentment does not build up. Forgive each other the first five years before kindergarten. Don’t listen to the criticism of others who don’t walk in your shoes. Please take time off to heal your mind. And finally, cherish every single moment! Before you know it, your kids will be all grown up and will want nothing to do with you.
The Average Net Worth For The Above Average Couple
How To Build Passive Income For Financial Freedom
Recommendation For All Parents
If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that life is not guaranteed. We must do everything we can to protect our children while they are still dependents.
As a result, please get life insurance. As a sole income-earning parent, you must protect your children after you are gone. Not only should you get enough life insurance to cover your liabilities, your life insurance term should last long enough to get them through college.
The best place to get life insurance is through PolicyGenius. PolicyGenius will help you find the best plan for the lowest price tailored to your needs. PolicyGenius provides free, no-obligation quotes so you can get the best rate.
In the past, you would have to get a life insurance quote by applying to individual carriers – the process was completely opaque. Now, you can have multiple qualified life insurance carriers compete for your business after applying on PolicyGenius. It’s so much more efficient!
After eight years of owning life insurance, my wife decided to check on PolicyGenius for free to see if should could do better. Lo and behold, my wife was able to double her life insurance coverage for less money. All this time, she thought she was getting the best deal with her existing carrier.
If you don’t have life insurance, please get life insurance before you need to. Life insurance gets more expensive the older you get. If you get sick, depending on the severity of your sickness, you might not be able to qualify.
If you do have life insurance, I highly recommend checking PolicyGenius to try and get a better deal. Chances are high you’re not getting the best terms.
Stay On Top Of Your Money
As a sole income earning parent, you need to also stay on top of your family’s finances.
To do so, sign up for Personal Capital, the web’s #1 free wealth management tool to get a better handle on your finances. In addition to better money oversight, run your investments through their award-winning Investment Checkup tool to see exactly how much you are paying in fees. I was paying $1,700 a year in fees I had no idea I was paying.
After linking all your accounts, use their Retirement Planning calculator that uses real data to provide as pure an estimation of your financial future as possible. There’s no rewind button on the road to financial freedom. Best get it right the first time!
Update 2021: Thankfully, the economy has recovered and things are looking better. However, the delta variant and other variants continue to wreak havoc. But we’re getting on with things. I utilized the pandemic to make more money online and write a book for Penguin Random House.
For more nuanced personal finance content, join 100,000+ others and sign up for the free Financial Samurai newsletter. Financial Samurai is one of the largest independently-owned personal finance sites that started in 2009.
GenX FIRE says
I am a strong believer in the idea that what works best for you will not necessarily work best for someone else. My parents made the choice that dad would work, and mom would stay at home and raise us until we went to school. Mom would clean houses and cater to help earn extra cash for the family. I recall going along on her house cleaning jobs. That’s how we lived.
Fast forward to my son, and I had the better position as my father did. My wife stayed home for 6 months with our son, and that was all she could do. She needed to get back to work, and that was that. That was our choice, and it’s a common one.
There is some validity in suggesting that other people will raise your children since they will be around them longer than you for their awake time. With care and attention, you can separate the positions of the teachers from that of your children. So far, anyway that seems to be true. My son looks to me and my wife when he disagrees with the teachers, and I push back on them when I disagree with them. I pulled my son out of one daycare for that reason. I think most kids look to their parents, for obvious reasons, as the ultimate leader. I think the problems come in where parents can’t, or won’t give their kids the attention they need. That happens. My father worked 40-60 hours a week with a 3-4 hour commute for most of my life. I spoke to him more on the phone, than in person. That was our life. Mom raised us, not him. Nothing and no one is perfect. I don’ think there is such a thing. The only thing that is real is whether or not the situation is perfect for you.
Financial Samurai says
I couldn’t agree more. There are no set rules for parenthood. Just like there are no set rules for life or accumulating wealth. To each their own!
Thanks Sam. This was a much needed read for me. God bless!
Amen to “Practice Gratitude” and “Know it Gets Better” #4 & #5. My kids are still under 10 but six years ago when I moved home being a sole income earner was overwhelming! Now there are no more diapers and fun little people (well mostly fun, sometimes cranky) in my house it’s not so much of a chore.
Thanks for the article, interesting thoughts!
I just wanna say that yes stay at home parent is one the hardest jobs. But it’s the most amazing hard job u can have. Watching your kids grow up in front of your eyes. While the sole breadwinner gets maybe 24 hours out of a week to see it happen.. so it can be hard but I would gladly take it over not seeing it and dealing with a dick head boss 8-14 hours a day.. it’s a blessing for both parents to have a stay at home patent .. but one is missing it all and expected to do it all
The Debt Shrink says
My husband has been a stay at home dad for 8 years while I work as a psychologist. We now have 3 kids. It’s stressful for both of us (he doesn’t get a break from the kids, and I rush home to breastfeed and feel guilty about taking any time for myself). We remind ourselves that the kids will be grown soon and we’re grateful to be able to afford for him to stay home.
Great post, Sam! Thank you.
I just learned of you from a Yahoo article. So now I am perusing your site, hoping to learn something. I too am a sole income earner but also a single parent. My last one graduates next year. I relate to a lot of this but also envy having someone at home to keep things in balance. Hopefully, I will find some articles on here for someone like me who barely has anything in her retirement. Starting at 51 is going to be a serious struggle.
Financial Samurai says
Welcome to my site! Once your last one graduates next year, hopefully s/he will find her/his wings and will let you quickly build up your retirement nest egg. Please use the search box to look up topics you may be looking for e.g. social security, retirement, etc.
Thank you! I have done that! I am also sharing info from here with her and her siblings so they can have a much better and earlier start!
I see your points in this post and your “Is Daycare Bad For Your Kids?” post but I also have to agree with some of KMac’s points. I am currently expecting with our first baby. We have been together for 13 years and married for 6. We purposely waited so we could become independent/stable with our finances in hopes we could provide a better environment for our little one. We are middle class but smart about our money. I desperately want to leave my job and become a full-time mom but my husband and I almost make equal pay; with me on the cusp of a promotion. He is in full support of taking a huge finical hit/risk if I do ultimately decide to stay home but I think in the long run it will actually be better for our kid for us to have more money. I say this because I did not have the privileges as many of my friends did or current co-workers’ kids do. I grew up in a middle class home and never got the “hot” Christmas gifts or world experiences through travel. When it was time for college it was either choose to live at home and go to a community then state school so most of the costs could be covered by my parent’s or take on a huge debt. I choose to live at home. To afford my car, gas, and own living expenses (I didn’t have to pay my parent’s rent thankfully) I worked a part-time job after school and picked up more hours during summer break. When I was a senior I finally moved out with my now husband and to afford this worked 40 hours being a waitress at two restaurants all while attending school full-time. It was long nights and tried days but I refused to be in debt. I didn’t have time to fully invest myself in my studies or take on an internship. My parents didn’t have great jobs or contacts where someone could recommend me or get me into a higher paying job. So after college I took the first job available to me that wasn’t a restaurant gig and worked up from there. Anyways long story short, I want to be able to give my kid more because in the long run I think they will have a better adult life because of it. I don’t know one co-worker who has a kid working while in college but they have internships in the summer. So far all these kids got amazing job offers before they even finished college. Why? Because they had time to invest in their school work, figure out what they really want to do, and get a head-start in the field through internships. I also read an article a while back that a child with two working parents has a higher chance of becoming successful. So for now our plan is to have our kid go into daycare at 3 months old once my maternity leave runs out and for 40 hours a week. Pricey? Yes but not as much as it would cost us for me to quit. Once s/he is born and I’m crying my eyes out thinking about leaving them… it could change. Let me know if you want to hire me Sam for some side freelance work ;)
Financial Samurai says
Sounds like a plan to me! The key is that you guys did plan and talk about everything, so hopefully you guys will be in better shape once the little one comes.
I think you’ll either decide after three months that you need a break by going back to work or you will feel bad to leave your little one that you just want to stay and save the money on daycare.
I think the timing of these feelings are different for everyone. It is really, really, difficult to be a stay at home parent the first year. Don’t let anybody sugarcoat it for you.
But boy do the rewards start coming in after about 12 months. It is an absolute joy to spend time with my 16-month-old son. I love him so much and I cannot bear to be away for more than about four hours a day. Again, everyone is different. Find your own path!
Simple Money Man says
Both my wife and I work so I can’t really comment. But for a little bit, she wasn’t working and I was the single income earner. For that, my advice would be to fully accept that you have to spend more time with your kid when you come home and less time doing your own thing (e.g., watching TV, etc.). When you fully immerse yourself into this acceptance, it makes things easier. And do WHATEVER you want to do whenever they are sleeping – optimize that time!
My wife, who is an occupational therapist, noted that the study you cited was in 2006 and would be considered old and out-of-date from a clinical perspective. During that time, screen time is way up, but daycare standards have changed quite a bit since then.
My daughter is 3 and my son is 2. They have both been at daycare in various forms since 3 months. Most 3 or 4 days a week for 9ish hours per day when we were in Denver. Their first daycare was good in the infant room, but in the 1-2 year old room, they had a TV on in the afternoon every day when I picked up my daughter. We were one of the few people who actually paid tuition; most of the children were there on state assistance. We moved to a different daycare that didn’t have screentime, went above the standards, and had them playing for most of the day.
When we moved to MI, my kids were at home for the first 2 months. It was a disaster because my wife was not used to providing full-time care and enjoyed working part-time, as she had before we moved. They have been in full-time daycare the past 6 months, and love it. My daughter has a few friends she talks about constantly, while my son, who has started talking much more over the past few months, talks about going to school to see his friends. They both love their teachers and talk about them at home. Their behavior has been better in daycare than when they were at home full-time, though my wife would have figured out the scheduling aspect eventually if they stayed at home. But for her sanity, she wanted to go back to work. When they get home, we’ve been trying to play together as a family until they go to bed.
It should be noted that we send the kids to a daycare that probably exceeds the standards, using only organic foods, a learning curriculum, etc, and so the kids are in a better daycare than most. We are thankful we can afford to send them there. I can see how not all daycares are able to provide a level of care that we receive. Once my wife has been at her new job long enough to get a more set schedule, we’ve talked about going back to part-time daycare, but until that happens, we are trying to do the best we can.