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October 7, 2014

Next time you complain about your 40-hour workweek, consider this: The average stay-at-home mom works more than double that rate —94 hours per week, to be exact. Her duties include (but are not limited to) cleaning house, cooking, teaching, behavior management, and laundry. For this, in theory, she should earn close to $113,000 per year, according to researchers at Salary.com. The same can be said for the growing number of stay-at-home dads.

In reality, though, full-time stay-at-home parents don’t receive a paycheck. And as a result, many struggle with feeling financially powerless or emotionally torn when it comes to spending money on themselves. A personal purchase like a new item of clothing or lunch out with a friend feels like it’s “taking away” from the family budget.

“I feel like I have to justify what I need,” one stay-at-home mom of two tells me.

“I feel extremely guilty buying things for myself,” shares another.

So how can couples set aside money for the stay-at-home parent in a way that avoids tension and emotional battles? Consider these steps.

Acknowledge Both Partners’ Feelings

If, as a stay-at-home parent, you feel guilty for spending on yourself, it may be that you’re not feeling valued for the work that you do. If that’s the case, you should be communicating that sense to your partner, says Edward Coambs, a financial planner based in Charlotte, N.C. “The issue may have more to do with your relationship dynamic.”

Coambs advises speaking up if you don’t feel empowered to spend more freely on personal things, or feel the need to ask for “permission” to shop. In exchange, he says, income-earning spouses should talk about what it feels like when their stay-at-home partner spends money on personal things. “From a place of empathy, spouses can usually find common ground in the way the family money is to be spent.”

Budget by the Same Rules

Creating a budget just for the stay-at-home-parent can lead to resentment and feeling like a second-class citizen. The solution: allow both partners equal access to the household money by creating equal spend/save funds for each person in the relationship. That sends a message that while only one person is bringing home a salary, both partners work hard and have equally important responsibilities. “When both feel they have the daily freedom to treat themselves…household well-being prospers,” says Manisha Thakor, author of Get Financially Naked: How to Talk Money With Your Honey.

How much to allocate? There’s no one-size-fits-all amount. The important thing is that you play fair. Each of you should factor in your anticipated personal needs such as haircuts, clothes, incidentals, etc. (maybe even over-estimate a tad to avoid shortfalls) and, together, decide on an equal percentage of the working partner’s income (say, 5% or 10%) that will go into your personal funds. Some months you might spend every penny; other months you might want to save up for a big purchase. The beauty is it’s yours to control. No questions asked.

Never Say ‘Allowance’

Call it a ‘personal expense account’ or ‘my personal budget’—but whatever you do, don’t call the money set aside for a stay-at-home parent an allowance. Coambs, who is also a former stay-at-home dad, says the term “allowance” is childlike and shouldn’t be used in an adult relationship. “It evokes a sense of ‘I have authority over you’ and takes me back to the days of living with my parents,” he says.

Thakor agrees. She likes to call personal accounts “joy funds.”

Earn by Saving

If the stay-at-home parent finds ways to save the household money (say via coupons or smart negotiating tactics), shouldn’t he or she be entitled to at least some of that savings? I think so. Growing up I watched my mom—an on-again, off-again stay-at-home parent—negotiate the cost of everything from bedroom furniture to deli meat. One time, after losing her job and becoming a stay-at-home parent again, the first thing she did was call up every monthly biller we had and insist on lower rates. In the end, she managed to talk our expenses down by $400 a month, which she and my father agreed should be allocated to her existing savings account each month. After all, she’d earned it!

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at MONEY and author of When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. She blogs at Farnoosh.TV.

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