The Two-Income Trap and Why It’s Killing Us All

I don’t have a ton of friends who come to me for advice about marriage and motherhood but, when they do, there is always at least one warning I make certain I communicate: when preparing for your future as a family, avoid the two-income trap at all costs.

Also known as: your career isn’t worth what you think it’s worth.

Also known as: quit your job while you still can.

Okay, let me back up.

A few years ago, I picked up a book by politician Elizabeth Warren called The Two-Income Trap and it blew my mind.

Elizabeth Warren (who is rumored to be Bernie Sanders’ choice for VP if he wins the Democratic nomination this election cycle) is a brilliant scholar with a real heart for protecting the viability of America’s middle-class. In this book (and elsewhere), she writes about the economic shifts in our country that are forcing millions of “traditional families” (my words, not hers) to become dual-income families out of necessity. Where once a family could have a humble but comfortable life with one income, more and more families are now sending a second parent into the workforce to help pay for basic needs. Where once a mother would take a small side job to pay for frivolities such as an extra family vacation, she now takes a job to help pay for weekly groceries.

This, according to Elizabeth Warren, is a big problem.
In short, I agree.

Now, Warren and I are not necessarily political allies. She and I disagree a little bit about why we got here and how we are going to get out of this mess, but I think she has articulated this issue better than most and has some great things to say about the nature of the problem. (If you’re interested in the issue, I’d recommend the book.)

If you’d like the Liz McEwan version of the story, I’ll offer it here.

The concept of “the two-income trap” is simple and I’ve watched it happen over and over again to friends and strangers alike. The basic gist goes something like this: two wonderful, competent adults get married and build fulfilling careers and then, when it comes time to welcome a baby into the picture, they need both incomes to sustain their lifestyle. So, they spend the emotional and physical energy equivalent to a marathon arranging their lives to maintain both careers while trying to arrange daycare and nannies and preschool and still have time to make dinner and eat dinner and maybe play together for ten minutes before bed and maybe fit in a trip to the zoo on the weekends. It’s exhausting. It’s depressing. And it’s not the way things are supposed to be.

Let’s pause for a moment
Maybe you see yourself in this situation and it strikes a chord and makes you depressed or offended or so mad you could spit. Money and parenting are touchy subjects, so I would like to clarify a few things.

First, my position on this comes as much from personal experience as it comes as an observer. I may not be a “career mom,” but when my husband and I welcomed our first child into the world, we were not ready to live on a single income. Because of that, the past 7 years have been hard. SUPER hard. My husband has taken many, many side jobs and I have continued working part-time so we can slowly work ourselves out of debt and eventually into the freedom of a single income.

So I know how impossible it seems to survive on a modest income.
And I know how much it sucks to drive an old car instead of a new one and to not buy myself clothes this season and to buy used furniture from friends and to not take a vacation when we could really, really use one.

And I also know how hard it is to give up a career.
And how hard it is to be “just a mom” in a world where being a mom is simply not enough to be validated. And I know what it’s like to know that I could be making a lot of money somewhere doing something super awesome and, instead, I am making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my pajamas.

Some of my friends love staying home with their kids; some of them don’t. Some of my friends absolutely love their careers; some dream of the day that can quit. My point is not to romanticize stay at home moms or judge women who choose a career instead. Every story is different and I don’t know yours, specifically.

My goal, instead, is to encourage younger (or childless) women to prepare now for what they want in the future and to count the cost of their career before it’s too late and they are trapped at work while they’re rather be at home.

Practically speaking, a few words of advice for those who want to work toward living on a single income:

Do the math.
Childcare is expensive. So are work clothes, that second car, and dinners out with colleagues. Before assuming that you absolutely must have two incomes, consider the money you’d save by staying home. Balance the cost of working against the value of staying home before you decide how much your career is really worth to you. Do the actual math. With numbers. You might be surprised.

Consider the benefits.
There is more than quantifiable monetary value to having a parent at home with the kids. A stay at home parent usually means more home-cooked meals together, healthier emotional/physical attachments with parents, more one-on-one time with the kids, and a more stable rhythm of the home life.

Consider the freedom.
The non-working parent in a single-income family is free to stay home with a sick child or to travel to care for ailing parents or help friends. They are also free to take on side-work or odd jobs for extra income when the need (or opportunity) arises. There is only one person’s work schedule to work around. There is always someone around to answer the door when the neighbor rings.

Re-imagine home life.
Erase the picture you have in your mind of the Betty Crocker stay at home mom and build a home life that matches YOU. Dream about the ways you are uniquely gifted to create a home that is a place you actually want to be.

Re-define your “work.”
Especially for those of you with a college degree: Don’t judge the value of your education by its pay-off in salary; judge the value of your education by the fruitfulness of your life. Be productive. Get creative and be proactive in putting your gifts and skills to work to support your family. Use your education, even if the way you use it doesn’t pay the bills. Keep your mind awake and your skills sharp because they will come in handy now and in the future when your kids are grown and out of the house.

Build a community.
Without a workplace for easy socialization, many moms get bored and lonely at home. (Face it: kids don’t always make the best company.) Find other moms like you, moms who remind you that being a mom is good, hard work. Then make other friends, too–friends who don’t have kids yet or whose kids are grown. Don’t blame your loneliness on staying home. Community is cultivated. It requires work.

Lastly, I know it’s dangerous to say this, but I’ll say it anyway.

Reconsider your lifestyle.
In her book, Elizabeth Warren is correct to attribute much of the two-income trap to risings costs in housing, education, and healthcare over the past 50 or so years. I think she’s right. There is no doubt that it’s harder than ever for an average middle-class family to pay for an average middle-class lifestyle. But I think her solution (which involves a lot of government-funded education and healthcare) is insufficient to correct the problem.

I think, before we even consider outside solutions, we need to reconsider what we’re working ourselves to death and sacrificing valuable years with our children to pay for.

The truth is, you probably don’t need that bigger house with the extra bedroom.
Or the extra two days at the hotel.
Your son doesn’t need his own iPad.
Your daughter doesn’t need to take ballet and tennis lessons.
Your kids might do just as well at the neighborhood school as they’d do at the private school.

The truth is, for many of us, it’s not a life we’re paying for–it’s a lifestyle. And that new pair of shoes or the eighty dollar dinner or the last-minute trip to Portland this weekend might be worth it to you, but it’s not worth it to me. And, if you asked your kids, they’d probably say it’s not worth it to them, either.

And then a word of encouragement for those in situations where you simply cannot make it work on one income: Maybe you are underpaid. Maybe you are unemployable or injured. Maybe you owe a small fortune in debts. Maybe the economy where you live just sucks. If this is you, I encourage you to plod along as faithfully as you can until your situation changes.

And, when it does, get out as quickly as you can.
It’s a trap.

15 thoughts on “The Two-Income Trap and Why It’s Killing Us All

  1. The year my wife worked outside the home and basically her entire income paid only for the kids’ school and childcare, we did some serious rethinking on what really matters. We ended up deciding to homeschool! And now, a few years down the road, we’ve gone even further against the trend and my wife has gone back to work full-time while I stay home and run the household and the home school.

    So, I heartily agree with your assessment of the perniciousness of the two-income trap. And I want to make sure your readers know that it’s OK for dads to stay at home if that suits your family better!

    Thanks so much for writing this up. May you be increasingly aware of the great blessings in your life.

    1. Jeff- I think you and Darah are awesome.

      I assume a stay-at-home “mom” as the standard for many reasons, some practical and some ideological. I know not everyone agrees my ideological position on gender roles, and that’s okay.

      Practically, I think most people would agree that it makes more sense to have a woman who is breastfeeding or caring for her infant at home with her baby rather than passing that role off to her husband (even if she is not bf-ing). Even if just for attachment and bonding reasons alone. Also, Americans have always underestimated the length of recovery time a woman should be offered for post-natal rest and care. Sending her to work a few weeks after childbirth is absurd. And although longer maternity leave is one solution, simply allowing her to stay home indefinitely without work waiting for her return might be a better option. Add to that the fact that most women will have more than one child (though that number is definitely shrinking) and I think the stress of being in and out of work multiple times through pregnancies and childbirth and recovery and back again sounds like a lot of unnecessary stress.

      But I do think that the best solution all around is to have both parents home as much as possible, both during and after the post-natal period. Which is why creative home-based work solutions are the new frontier of our economy and something I fully support for all families.

      And I think that as children grow and their needs change, boys especially REALLY benefit from more time with their fathers in which case a stay-at-home dad is probably 100% better than two working parents.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Liz, everything about this post is so relevant to me. Last April, I left a job where I’d been working for 9 years, essentially pressing the pause button on a 19-year career. Since then, I’ve questioned myself a lot, but I always come back to one thing: how I feel at the end of the day. Following the birth of my second child in 2014, I went back to my full-time job and was exhausted and miserable every day. I felt like I was constantly failing as a mother and as an employee. Changing my work status has changed my outlook. I feel like a successful mom. I’m proud of my home and the things I do for my family. I’ve been able to do some freelance work that keeps me feeling fulfilled and intellectually stimulated. My new goal is to create and foster that “mom network” that you mentioned.

    I’m very passionate about this topic and would love to chat more with you if you’re interested. Let me know and I”ll provide my pm info! Thank you for this post! Hope that more readers weigh in!

  3. What happens when the one wage earner gets sick, gets laid off, leaves you or dies? What should women who spent years getting an education, and likely incurring thousands of dollars in student loans, do, just chuck it all for five or ten years and think she remotely has a shot at getting that career back once the kids are older? This is economically disastrous advice for women.

    1. Elizabeth, I think you have valid concerns. If you read back through the post, you’ll see that one of the major reasons a family should work toward living off of a single income is in case of one partner being sick or losing a job. The non-working spouse can step up and take on work without disrupting the family life too drastically.

      Also, I would NEVER encourage a woman to waste her education while staying home with her children. In fact, I strongly encourage other home-based ways of using skills and gifts and being active and productive. If that produces income, that’s awesome. If it doesn’t, then the family doesn’t suffer for it. And, either way, Mom gets to do what she loves and is good at while still caring for her family. Plus, she can still be active and engaged in her community for easier re-entry into the workplace if/when she wants to be. (And this should force us all–men and women–to reconsider the high cost of education and what is worth the investment in preparing for the future and what is not.)

      The goal is not to have one “working” parent and one “non-working” parent, but to have a family system that requires less income because it lives more simply and purposefully. This can be done in many creative ways.

      And, as far as a woman working just in case her husband leaves her: sadly, this is a reality for many women. But, I’d prefer to encourage my friends to prepare for a fulfilling and long-lasting marriage, not to prepare now for divorce. Plus, in that unfortunate situation, a woman who has learned to care for a family with $60k a year is in a much better place than a single mother than a woman who is used to the resources she could afford with $120k. The different will be much easier to make up if she needs to enter the workforce.

      Thanks for commenting.

    2. Hi Elizabeth, I have kind of done this myself, and initially had the idea of preserving my earning capacity and yet have been won around to this way of thinking in recent years. Former lawyer, 6-figure income, now working quasi-legal part-time job to be mostly home to support the 3 kids and DH whilst DH is the primary breadwinner. As a feminist I believe women should be clear-eyed about the core purpose of work being to Bring In Money to the household. DH and I are now much better focussed as a duo on building Net Worth and that requires doing the maths on taxes, and the other expenses of getting to work. In the unfortunate (and unlikely, seeing as we are not stressed out to the max, and are financially stable) event of a marriage breakdown, there would be more total Net Worth to carve up than there would have been had I kept up the pace with my more highly responsible FT role. We haven’t been frittering my PT income away on the costs associated with getting to work itself – extra car, work clothes, decompression activities such as drinking alcohol in the evenings, other outsourced services such as cleaners, gardeners, and birthday cake-bakers (although some child care has obviously been necessary to cover my PT hours). Instead, my part-time income goes directly to wealth-building expenditure: extra mortgage repayments and other investments. There isn’t much of it so you can bet I make sure it is spent wisely! Also in the event of a marriage breakdown, I would be able to build up my earning capacity again not only because I have kept an oar in with my part-time work, but because I have a lot of gas in the tank, especially when compared to other 43-year old women. I do a lot of simple gentle exercise during my days off and I safeguard my health.

  4. While I agree that parents often choose to work more and often that work does not financially or emotionally benefit the family, I don’t think that we can categorically claim that one parent staying home is the primary cause for healthy family life. Sometimes the husband is quite absent trying to establish a career lucrative enough to provide for the family. I don’t think that is healthy. Sometimes stay at home moms become self absorbed and spend hours at the gym. I’ve seen couples choose to both have careers so that they could have more time at home. When making work decisions I think parents need to think most carefully about doing meaningful work that provides for the needs (financial and emotional) of their families. I think that any family that makes intentional financial, work, and lifestyle decisions will be able to make informed decisions that create a healthy family life and that may look different for each family. The key factor is that the family makes thoughtful decisions. That decision does not need to be the same for each family.

    1. Rebecca- Thanks for commenting. I don’t disagree with you. But I think if you read the post again you’ll see that the main point is not “one parent must stay home while the other parent pursues a lucrative career,” but that every family would benefit from building their lives to only live on one income. When they escape the “two income trap,” they can be more flexible about who works, when, and how often.

      Basically, a family who has learned to live off of $60k will have more freedom and ease than a family who needs $120k to meet their basic needs. Whether that means a single full-time salary or a hodge podge of one full-time income with part-time work and side-work and home-based work or whatever.

      I believe, for practical childbearing (pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, etc.) reasons, that most families benefit from a mother at home rather than a father, but I don’t think that’s a hard and fast rule at all times and through all seasons of life. (See my response to other comments.)

  5. You’re awesome and your responses to everyone are kind and thoughtful. I quit my job after going back for 2 days after having my first baby. I just couldn’t do it. We have placed or faith and trust in Good to help us get through the hard times with my husband’s self employed job. It’s not been easy but it’s well worth it. 5d,

  6. I cannot express how much I agree with this. I recently returned to school (and just graduated) in order to make a career change. My wife went back to work full time to help support the family while I was in school. While she has enjoyed her work, she and I and our kids are so excited for her to be able to be a stay at home again. I think that people that have the “you’re/I’m JUST a mom” mentality don’t fully appreciate how much good it does kids to have a parent at home. Certainly there are valid reasons for both parents to work, but when you have a choice, I wouldn’t trade anything for the opportunity for either my wife or I to be home with our kids, and I don’t think she would either.

  7. Thank you for this article. I found it while searching for research about why and if American families really need to have two incomes or if it’s more of a personal choice. My DH and I both operate our own separate businesses. We bought a property that would allow him the space required for his and I can work from anywhere with internet, as long as I can drive to client meetings when necessary. I have run my own business for longer than he and will never go back to a regular salaried position unless I must to make ends meet (if my business stopped being fruitful). I actually earn more money working for myself, historically. We work days, nights, and weekends as needed to serve our businesses and invest considerable time in a major, multi-year home construction project to make this house fit our preferred design style. We also have a mini “farm” with garden, animals, and pets but no children and no plan for kids. I have accomplished every personal education and career goal and I would really like to work less so I can better support DH’s business when needed and dedicate more time to caring for the home and cooking (which I love) and catering to DH’s needs and errands than I can when working so much. Other than our mortgage (which we make extra payments on each month) and the mortgage on our rental investment property, we do not have any debt. Cars, construction, any trips, and credit cards are paid full. I like the idea of reducing our expenses so we can become closer to a single income household. It’s an exciting thought even without children to be able to better devote myself to supporting our life as a team than to supporting my career at this point in my life – good inspiration!

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