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I've been a stay-at-home parent and spouse for two decades. I don't regret a thing. But when I look back now, I can see the financial mistakes I made as a stay-at-home mom.
Still, I had triumphs too! My hope is that sharing my mistakes and wins can help parents in similar circumstances.
Deciding to be a stay-at-home mom and spouse
I didn't know if I wanted kids. But before we got married, Alan and I still discussed what life might look like with kids. And we guessed life would be easier with a stay-at-home parent. Plus, child care is expensive.
From the start, we knew it would be challenging to live on one income. For years, money was super tight. But we were fortunate to give it a go, and I was determined to make it work.
Staying home was supposed to be temporary, but it didn't play out that way. Since then, I've had a few part-time jobs and side hustles. But I've (mostly) remained unemployed in the traditional sense.
Looking back now, I realize how lucky I was. If things had turned out different—especially if we got divorced—I could have faced disastrous financial consequences.
7 Financial Mistakes I Made as a SAHM
1. I let my professional licensure expire.
To maintain my license, I had to take Continuing Education Units (CEUs). But CEUs cost money—and money was tight. I didn't think I'd use my license for a few years, so I saved the money and let it expire.
To get my license back, not only would I have to take a ton of CEUs, but I'd have to retake the licensure exam.
If we had experienced a job loss or divorce, I could have managed to find work. But without the license, my skills weren't as marketable, and I would earn less. If I had maintained it and my professional know-how, I would have been in a much better position to return to work.
2. I didn't have a backup plan in case of disability.
I never thought about what would happen if I became sick or disabled. And if I couldn't run the household and care for the kids, we would have hired care.
So, at the very least, disability is something I should have thought through (and planned for).
3. I didn’t have a professional network.
After I quit work, I didn't look back. In a few short years, I had no professional network. Instead, my primary connections were friends and other parents.
Thankfully this changed when my kids got older. Eventually, I joined community groups and started to pursue my interests. From that, I built a network that has led to some great opportunities (but I still don't use my degree!). I just wish I had done this sooner!
4. I didn’t consider the impact on Social Security benefits.
When I decided to stay home in my mid-20s, Social Security benefits were the furthest thing from my mind. But this oversight could affect my future, so I should have been more concerned.
I’ve worked enough to receive my own Social Security benefit, but it wouldn’t even cover the electric bill. Still, Social Security has spousal benefits, so I can get half of my husband's full retirement benefit (less if I take early retirement). It’s not a lot, but it’s better than what I would get on my own.
What if we got divorced? I never considered the impact of divorce on Social Security benefits. And if we divorced before ten years of marriage, I wouldn't qualify for spousal benefits. Yet, if we divorced after ten years, I would be eligible—that is, if we're both at least 62 years old and I am unmarried.
5. I didn't work for myself (i.e., start a small business).
I believed that after college, I would work for an employer until 65, retire, and then go camping.
Now I know myself much better than I did in my 20s. And I've learned how much I love independent work. If I had known that—and believed in myself more—10, 15, 20 years ago, I would have started a small business (or three) back then.
6. I carried heaps of financial guilt.
This isn't a mistake, per se, and it was a big motivator to save (and make) money. But, I had a ton of guilt over not earning much money. Even though Alan never did anything to make me feel that way. And even though we agreed the situation worked well for us, sometimes, I felt pretty awful.
My partner may support and respect my unpaid work, but society certainly does not. Personally, it doesn't get to me anymore. But, as a culture, we have so much work to do here. Income ≠ worth.
7. I didn’t have any accounts of my own.
I've never had any savings or checking accounts in just my name. I don't know if this is a big mistake in my situation. My name is on all assets and accounts, and our finances have always been transparent.
Yet, if we had not been open and honest about money, I would have been at a considerable disadvantage. If our relationship were different and we got divorced, it could have been disastrous.
6 Financial Wins as a SAHM
I did some things right too!
1. Improved my financial literacy.
One of the best things I did when I became a stay-at-home parent was learning more about money. Reading books and blogs, listening to podcasts, attending conferences, and talking with others helped me learn so much about personal finance.
2. Put all assets in both of our names.
From the start, money and assets have been “ours,” not his or hers. So having both our names on the house, cars, and financial accounts was a no-brainer for us.
Of course, retirement accounts are separate. And if we were to divorce, they're considered marital property and would get split in half. (Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements can define different terms, but we don't have one.)
3. Understand (and help manage) our finances.
Neither of us has 100% control of the money in our household.* It's our money, and we make all financial decisions together. Both of us know what we own, how much we have and can access all accounts.
That said, I like to manage the day-to-day finances, so I typically pay the bills.
*Side note: Before writing this article, I found a common search term: “stay at home mom husband controls money.” 🙁 This is alarming. When one partner controls the money, it can put the other at a disadvantage and at risk for financial abuse.
4. We talk about money. A lot.
Money gets discussed daily in our household (it drives our 18-year-old son crazy). And I believe open communication has been the best thing we've done for our finances. But we also have many shared financial goals, so it's easier to be on the same page.
5. We bought life insurance.
When the kids were still babies, I read Susie Orman's book, The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom. My main takeaway was that we needed life insurance (and a will). So we bought enough term life insurance to pay off our debt and then some. It brought peace of mind to know that our family would be okay if one of us died.
6. Opened spousal IRAs.
I understand how fortunate I am to have the choice to stay home. And, if I had to do it over again, I would have done a few things differently.
But, I'm grateful my financial mistakes didn't have bad results. And that the wins have outweighed the blunders.
Everyone's situation is unique. All we can do is the best we can at the moment. My hope is sharing my mistakes and wins helps others in similar circumstances.