Many households are dual income because they have to be--they literally could not pay the bills on one person's salary. Others may be on the cusp and just require some tinkering with the budget, sacrificing certain "extras" to make it work. (And, of course, there are the rare couples who already live off of one partner's income, and the other spouse doesn't really "have" to work, but may choose to anyway!)
Matt and I never even calculated this, because I knew I wanted to keep working, but if I wanted to be a SAHM, I estimate that--given our church-provided housing--we could make it happen, especially if we cut out cable TV, XM radio, Bookswim, etc. If we had a house payment, I doubt we could do it.
There are costs to working, too, of course: day care, dressy clothes, dry cleaning, maybe more gasoline, depending on your commute, etc., but I would think that for most families, these costs do not eat up an entire salary to the point that you "can't afford to work."
Apparently, I'm wrong, though, at least according to some research cited by marriage-and-family scholar Stephanie Coontz. This big question of "affording to stay home" has actually created a misperception of who stays at home and who works, she says in this article from 2007. Apparently, "the highest concentration of full-time homemakers in America is found among women married to low-earning men, while highly educated wives are increasingly likely to combine work and motherhood."
This fuels what Coontz calls "the opt-out myth." We tend to think that women whose families need the money work, and that more women who can afford to stay home are doing so. When really, 72% of the women who could more likely afford to stay home are choosing to work, while 52% of moms in families earning in the 25th percentile and could use a second income, were staying home. And that puts some families in quite a tough spot, needing a second income but not being able to afford for a spouse to go out and get that second income. It's a sort of paradox (or even "doughnut hole," as they say in the Medicare debates) where some families can't completely afford for Mom not to work but can't quite afford for her to work either.
Coontz links these trends with the support the culture gives to working mothers--socially and practically/financially. In some countries, women are choosing to postpone motherhood rather than get stuck in this paradoxical spot, and the birth rates are plummeting. In America, working motherhood has been on the rise since the 1960s and there isn't a social stigma about working outside the home (though some still debate the issue!) but our laws, normative business practices, etc. do not financially empower moms to work the way countries with universal health care and longer guaranteed maternity leaves do.
In Coontz's words:
"Where employers and policy-makers refuse to accommodate women's desire to combine work and family, we see one of two outcomes: Either women stop having babies, as in Italy or Japan, or, as in the United States, many women who need to work can't afford to (because of expensive and uneven-quality child care) and many women who want to work feel guilty about the choices they are forced to make."I wish I had some practical tips to share on affording to work or not work (as your preference might be) but I find this more sociological look at working motherhood fascinating as well. Perhaps some of you have firsthand experience with these financial pressures.Tell me, how did/will money affect your decision to work or stay home?
PS: I actually have not read Coontz' best-known book, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, but after reading some of these articles on her website, I may have to do that! I have read her The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, which compares the 1950s stereotype to reality, and apparently she has a new book coming out in January, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. I found Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique just fascinating, so I may have to check that out too!