Prepping For Kids as a Breadwinning Mom – At Every Age and Stage

Having kids is a huge shift in your life. In an instant, someone else who needs near-constant care becomes a key focal point of your life. Your expenses go up, what you do with your formerly free time shifts, and you start to focus on providing for someone else. And the older you are when it happens, the bigger the shift can feel. Today I’m going to talk about my experience and perspective on prepping for kids as an early, mid, and experienced career breadwinning mom- as well as help you avoid the struggles I’ve seen others run into.

My perspective is not unique among the overall population, but is pretty unique among others I work with. I don’t know what it’s like to work as an adult without kids. My oldest son was born two months after I finished college, and eleven months after I started my job in IT. Remember how I worked full time and went to school full time to get my undergrad? Well, I did the last semester of that pregnant.

A quick timeline- I was born in 1980. My husband and I had been married in September 2001, a few months after I turned 21. My shift from working in the call center to put myself through college to starting my career in IT occurred in November 2002 (22). My last college class was in July 2003 (one month after I turned 23), and my oldest son was born October 2003.

So for pretty much my entire career, I’ve worked while being a mom. I suspect that’s one of the reasons I don’t struggle with it in the same way I see others struggling. I literally don’t know any other way of working.

The other interesting thing about me is that I’ve had my kids at three different stages in my career. My oldest, born when I was 23, was born at the very start of my career. My middle son was born when I was 27, and my career was getting going. And my youngest was born when I was 34, just a few months before I turned 35.

So today I’m going to talk a bit about the financial differences between having kids at different age ranges, and what you need to do to prepare for bringing children into your family lives.

A Bit About Average Age to Have Kids

Depending on the environment you live and work in, you’re going to have a different idea of the “right” or “typical” age to first have kids. If you work in a professional corporate environment, like I do, you’ll think the average age is somewhere in your 30’s. But it’s not, although it has been shifting older as time goes on.

According to the CDC, yes, women in their 30’s are now having more babies than women in their 20’s. Back in 2000, right around when I got married, the average age to have your first baby was 25-only two years older than I was. In 2014 it had risen to 26. You might think that this is because people are waiting longer to have kids, but it’s actually because there’s been a decrease in the teenage pregnancy rates. The proportion of first-time mothers under 20 dropped from 23% to only 13% over the past 15 years.

The average age to have your first child varies greatly by education level. Check out this interesting chart from the Pew Research Center.

Average age having kids by education.png

For women at higher levels of education (bachelor’s or masters), you can see that between the ages of 25 and 34 is when the bulk of first children are born. As someone with a masters degree whose first child was born under 25, I’m clearly in a minority.

The Financial Pros and Cons Of Kids At Every Age and Stage

Every age and stage of career you choose to have kids has unique pros and cons. I’ll talk briefly about some of them here.

Age 20-24

  • Pros: You’re young, full of energy, and typically bounce back pretty easily from pregnancy and childbirth. Statistically you’re less likely to experience expensive complications than those who wait until their late 30’s. You’ve just started your adult life, so adding kids in isn’t too disruptive-you haven’t settled in significant routines that don’t involve kids. Although this may slow the start of your career, it will free you starting in your early 40’s to focus on career, with adult children caring for themselves.
  • Cons: If you’re like me, you’re pretty broke. Even if not, you likely earn less now than you will later, making affording baby basics a struggle. You’re also barely an adult yourself, and caring for another person can feel overwhelming. If you slow your career start, or work part-time/stay at home, you can never quite feel like you ever had a career to return to when the kids are older. You may end up in jobs that you don’t like. Also you need to start paying for college for your kids in your late 30’s/early 40’s, which can be difficult. You can also feel like you never really got to “enjoy life” because while your peers were out partying, traveling, or generally doing single adult things, you were home caring for a baby. And you probably didn’t build up a large emergency fund before having kids, so emergencies can wreak havoc on your finances. If you went to college and had student loans, you’ll be paying those, trying to save for a house, while caring for a family. It can be a tricky balancing act. Oh and don’t forget saving for retirement too.
Me at 23 with my oldest son

Age 25-29

  • Pros: Usually you have established yourself at work for at least a few years, and are likely earning a bit more than in your early 20’s. You still have a good amount of energy and bounce back pretty quickly after pregnancy, although not quite as quickly as 20-24 year olds. You’re still in the zone for statistically being less likely to experience expensive complications. You’ll have had a few years to enjoy your 20’s before settling down to family life. You have likely built up an OK emergency fund, hopefully paid down (or off?) those student loans, and you’ll have a career started that you can return to after leave if you wish. You’ll have a few more years to save for kids college at a higher-earning point in your career (assuming of course that you decide to do so)
  • Cons: You’ll still have only been in your career for a few years, so if you take some time off, it can be tricky to re-enter the workforce. You won’t have gained as many contacts as you can use later on. You also might experience some of that envy of watching your peers have fun/party while you’re home taking care of kids and being overall responsible, but this will be a bit less prevalent than in your early 20’s. Many of your peers will be getting married, and more and more of them having kids, at this stage-so you won’t feel so alone.  You might have bought a house, but statistically speaking, you won’t have (median age of a first-time home buyer is 32) so you’ll have to balance that goal with others
Me at 27 with my middle son.

Age 30-34

  • Pros: Usually you’ll be well-established in your career, or if you’re a doctor, the difficult years of medical school and residency are behind you. You’re more likely to have already taken care of student loans, perhaps bought a home (or saved up enough for a down payment when you’re ready), have an emergency fund, and financially you’re just better off. Your kids will head to college when you’re in your 50’s, and you’ll have plenty of time and income to save for them. You got to “enjoy” your 20’s before settling down. You also haven’t entered that post-35 period where the pregnancy is more closely monitored for potential issues. Most of your friends and co-workers who are of similar age will be in a similar life stage.
  • Cons: It is more difficult physically to be pregnant and have kids at this age than in your 20’s. It also starts to become more difficult to get pregnant, although only slightly at this age as compared with your 20’s. You’re also more likely to have settled in a routine, and enjoy your freedom-it can be very disruptive to your life to suddenly have kids put into it. You’ll also be hitting college toward the end of your career, assuming that you have a traditional-length career, which could mean working longer if you also want to help pay for college.
IMG_1282 (1)
Me at 34 with my youngest son.

Age 35 Plus

  • Pros: You’ll have had plenty of time to get your finances and life in order, and can bring a child into a very financially stable situation. You may even be able to provide opportunities for your kids that are impossible for an early 20’s mom – either because she doesn’t know about them or can’t afford them.  Likely you’ve paid your debts, have an emergency fund, maybe already have a house, and have a good head-start on retirement. Setting aside money for college may be easier. You’ve had plenty of time to “enjoy” life pre-kids, and probably have more patience than you used to.
  • Cons: Physically it can be more difficult to be pregnant and have kids as time goes on. Fertility continues to decline throughout your 30’s, and as you approach 40, the risks of things like birth defects, stillbirth, and miscarriage rise. Note that this doesn’t mean you can’t have a healthy pregnancy and baby – just that statistically, it gets more challenging, particularly as you approach and exceed 40. It can be more expensive with the chance of complications, additional tests, and possibly fertility treatments. You’ll also be paying for college possibly up to your 60’s, and if you didn’t set a good foundation for retirement while young, you might feel like you need to keep working. You may be settled in routines and expenses that are difficult to disrupt for kids.

Prepping For Kids as a Breadwinning Mom

It’s very hard to give general advice about prepping for having kids. As you can see, the age and career stage at which you have kids has a big impact on your financial situation, and can change your perception about cutting back on work vs. staying in your career. It can be harder to choose to stay on a career-driven path if you have kids very early in your career, since you’re making less and childcare can be a bigger financial sacrifice than it will be later on. But here are some general preparation tips:

  • Don’t decide on stay at home vs. cut back vs. career full throttle until after you’ve had kids.
    • Before you have kids, you may think you know what you’re going to do. You’ve always dreamed of being a stay at home parent, or you’re certain you’re headed back to the office after the minimum maternity leave. Don’t make a final decision until after your child is born-your perspective will change not only as you hold your baby in your arms, but also after weeks at home with a newborn infant. So prepare as if you’re going to return to work, and if that changes, you can change your strategy.
  • Don’t think short-term
    • Daycare, nannys, and sacrificing income when kids are young can lead some people to think that it’s not “worth it” for them to continue working, because most or all of their income goes to childcare. I’d suggest looking instead at childcare as an investment. It may seem impossible when your kids are small, but they will grow quickly and before you know it will be in school full-time. As they say, the days are long but the years are short.
  • Prepare your childcare strategy
    • Sometimes people think there are only two childcare choices-daycare or a stay at home parent. There are actually more choices, and you should think about them creatively to determine what’s best for you and your family. Also, just because you choose one option for today, doesn’t mean you can’t change down the line if your family, financial, or job situation changes. Being flexible and open to change is an important aspect of being a parent-because you’re going to see a lot of change.
    • Daycare is certainly one choice, and there are at-home (less expensive) and center (more expensive) options. Even between those options there are large differences in cost and quality. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that more expensive = better quality – sometimes care is more expensive because of a brand name, marketing, or it’s situated in a more costly town.
    • Nanny or au pair can be a great option for those on the higher end of the income scale. They not only can give more personalized care to your child (more similar to what you might do if you were at home), but they also give you more flexibility than family or center-based daycare does. When my middle son spent several months in daycare when my husband was ill, I had to go pick him up multiple times because of illness or something else.  With a nanny or au pair, you don’t need to worry about this. Plus they can usually help transport your kids to activities that might be going on during the day, whereas a daycare likely will not.
    • Going part-time or having a flex schedule, for you or your spouse/partner, when applicable, (or both!), can be an option depending on your workplace and career field. If both you and your significant other work 4 days a week, alternating days off, then you only need to pay for three days of childcare vs. five. This can save money and give you both more time with your kids.
    • Alternating shifts is something my husband and I did for many years. He worked in a place where they offered second and third shift work. So I worked full time during the day, coming in early in the morning, and he worked second shift. This means one parent is always home, eliminating childcare, while keeping two full-time incomes. It isn’t an option for every job of course, but it can be worth looking into
    • Working at home is something people sometimes say is an option, but when your kids are small, you cannot work well while they need constant care. It can be an option if someone else is also at home to watch the kids while you work; if you work a job that can be done piecemeal at any hour of the day/night (like freelancing); or once your kids are older and more self-sufficient.
    • Stay at home parent is of course another option. It doesn’t need to be mom by default of course-long time readers will know my husband is a stay at home dad currently. You can also alternate who stays at home, to minimize time out of the workforce for any one person.
  • Prepare your finances
    • Financial things you’ll want to consider, when possible, before having kids are:
      • Emergency fund-enough to cover 3-6 months of your expenses PLUS…
      • Baby fund – money put aside to cover medical expenses, time off work (for you and your spouse/partner), and the unexpected. If you don’t use all of this, you can put it toward another goal after the baby is born healthy and you return to work (like my friend Penny did when she sent in the huge mortgage payment after heading back to work!)
      • Health insurance – you’ll want to make sure you understand what’s fully covered, what’s partially covered, and what you’re likely to owe. You also want to beef up any pre-tax accounts for medical expenses (such as an HSA or FSA, depending on your plan) to cover the costs you’re going to incur. You’ll also want to understand coverage for infertility treatments in case that becomes necessary.
      • Disability Insurance – Typically the first 6-8 weeks of a womans maternity leave in the US is considered to be disability, because you medically couldn’t return to work even if you wanted to. Yes, there are exceptions and people who do go back to work sooner, but the companies I’ve worked for consider 6-8 weeks the standard. You’ll want to understand your short-term disability coverage, as well as long-term disability in case of pregnancy/childbirth complications
      • Life Insurance – You’ll both want to secure term life insurance policies. You can take care of this as soon as you start trying to have children, or after.
      • Budget – You’ll want a good handle on your current budget, as well as preparing for extra costs you’re going to incur. Whether that’s lost income from taking time off work; daycare expenses; diapers/clothes/medical costs/equipment/etc. you’re going to need to make room in your budget for all those items.  If you’re thinking of having a parent stay at home, live on one income for a while to see if it’s manageable. Squirrel away that extra money into a savings account.
      • Career – As Sheryl Sandberg said in Lean In, “don’t leave until you leave.” Do your best at work until you go on leave, and don’t make too many decisions in advance of going on leave. The question as to whether to have a parent stay at home is a different equation before your child is born vs. after. Even if you think you might want to stay at home, it’s best to prepare at work as if you’re returning. You don’t know how it’s going to feel, either to stay at home with an infant or to return to work, until after the child is born.
      • Baby Things – Research what babies actually need, versus the billions of “wants” marketed by various baby companies. A place to sleep, clothes, diapers (cloth or disposable), food (nursing or formula). Everything else is optional – diaper bags (you can use any bag), changing tables (babies don’t care where you change them), baby swings, pacifiers…the list goes on.

I Want To Hear From You!

This got long – hope it was interesting and helpful! Let me know if you have any other suggestions or questions in the comments.

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12 thoughts on “Prepping For Kids as a Breadwinning Mom – At Every Age and Stage”

  1. Great article, Liz! I had my first kiddo when I was 27 (almost 28), and it was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Your advice to not decide what to do about work until you’ve had your child is excellent. I always, always, always thought I’d be a working mom. But once I had my oldest, I decided not to go back to my job (partly because I’d been really unhappy there anyway and Mr. ThreeYear had a good job that supported us both). However, like you said, that decision wasn’t forever, only for a time, and your kids really are small for just a few years (although it doesn’t feel like that!). I almost feel like getting ready financially is the most important step you can take before a baby, because that was a huge stressor for us (losing 45% of your income in one fell swoop is a little bit tricky if you’re not well prepared). The truth is, there are many, many options for moms, and it’s important to remember that you can change your job or your childcare pretty easily, and you probably will, multiple times during your kids’ growing up years. A last piece of advice I have for young readers still thinking about a career is, a pharmacist or a nurse are two great options, because you can work 12-hour shifts a couple of days a week, and still make a pretty solid income as a mom. I always wished I’d studied pharmacy so I could work 2 twelve-hour shifts a week and still be home the majority of the time with my kids!

    1. As they say with kids-the days are long but the years are short! Great advice on a flexible career option-nurses especially have the option to work off-shift too, which can eliminate the need for childcare (although it can be difficult to manage).

  2. I really enjoyed this, Liz! I am on the younger end of the spectrum when it comes to typical motherhood as well (though no Masters here) and I think some of my friends thought I would bow out due to that fact. You lay out pretty much exactly what I did… I decided not to make a final decision until our son arrived (who knows what will happen/how perspectives might change!), prepared for childcare and saved, and proceeded with what felt right. For us, that is me working and being a breadwinner 🙂

    1. I think that’s key-prepare as if you’re going to continue working, but realize that when kids come your perspective may change. Or it may not! Good to know I’m not the only one out there who became a mom towards the younger end of the spectrum. My husband and I were the first among our friends to have kids, which is tricky in some ways. But eventually they all caught up to us.

  3. Rachel @ The Latte Budget

    I appreciate this so much. As a mid-twenty year old woman, my husband and I have really started to think about what our options would be when we are ready to have kids. Unfortunately, we are stuck in the trap of having too many student loans and living in an expensive city with high rent. So we are taking this time to pay down our loans drastically and we would ideally like to move closer to our families where there is a much more affordable cost of living before we start having kids. I appreciate your honesty and hitting this from every angle!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! The student loans paired with high rent is definitely difficult. I think your plan is a great one-aggressively attack the student loans and move into a more affordable city. Once you become a parent, you’ll also find there are advantages to having family close by. When my husband almost died of septic shock nearly six years ago, having family nearby to care for the kids and visit him was invaluable. My kids get to have a close relationship with nearby family. And recently my father in law had a stroke and a bad fall, and we’re able to easily visit and help. Of course there’s nothing wrong with living far from family either, but we’ve found several advantages in our lives.

  4. I love the way you’ve laid this out. As a new Mom in my mid-20s I’ve struggled some with whether to keep working or not, but I did as you suggested and waited to make the decision until baby arrived. As the breadwinner, me continuing to work has been good for us and I’m trying to focus on your second point of not only looking short term.
    I also have two sisters and we are all spaced out about the same age distances as your sons. So growing up I watched my mom navigate many of the options you describe – she worked full time and stayed at home and everything in between at different times. It was a good lesson that even when you make a decision it doesn’t have to be permanent! Life will change and you can adapt.

    1. That’s so true! I think too often the media paints a very stark picture of the choices families make in balancing family life and work, when in reality it can-and often does-shift over time. We’ve had so many different arrangements these past fourteen years I’ve lost count, and I’m sure we have more configurations to come. 😀

  5. This is a very thorough and helpful post. With five kids, they are spread across the age spectrum too. My first was born just before being admitted as an attorney (age 28) and the twins were born this year (just shy of age 35).

    I will second what you mentioned about not making decisions regarding your role as a parent until you have some time to experience it. Becoming a mom changed me and my priorities in so many ways. I often wish I had followed a different career path, instead of assuming that I wouldn’t care so much about not being home, just because I was never really into kids before having my own.

    1. It’s very hard to know how you’re going to feel about working with kids until you have them. I’ve even noticed that over time, it can change. I think it’s great that we live in a time of career choices, although there are pros and cons to each choice we make. There’s no perfect answer, only a series of trade offs we make.

  6. This was such a great article Liz! I really appreciate your thoughtfulness and unique perspective on a topic that is such a major life decision. As a breadwinning wife – it is nice to get another breadwinning woman’s POV who has been there. I think that my favorite takeaway is your point regarding not making too many decisions in advance. Being what one could call a serial planner myself – it is a good reminder that some things just have to develop organically.

    1. Yep some things you just don’t know until they happen. But I know what you mean, I’m a planner too! It’s just that kids have this habit of throwing plans out the window. 🙂 I like to make plans but be flexible, and make sure that if something changes I can adapt quickly. Glad you enjoyed the article!

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