Recently, I saw an article about how more moms and dads are staying home through the first two or three years of their children's existence. More studies are showing how critical these years are for the child, and most parents don't want to miss the experience. Many friends of mine have made this choice. In fact, in a few cases, the dad was the one who ended up staying home with the children -- and taking a much-needed break from work. With the rising costs of day care and the complexities of juggling a career, especially with children, many families are questioning whether two-earnership really makes sense. In fact, Census data show that the percentage of couples with both partners working reached a peak in 1998 and is declining, particularly for families with younger children. And it isn't just this demographic who seek a reprieve from the workplace. We all get burned out at our jobs. We look for a break to recharge our batteries, acquire new skills or enjoy a life experience. The 1993 Family Leave Act can help, especially if you experience a life-changing event such as a the birth of a child or a parent's falling sick. That'll get you one year, by law, and preserve access to certain benefits, such as health insurance. But it may not be enough. Whether for one year or three, two obstacles must be overcome: the prospect of derailing one's career and, of course, money. Indeed, most of the rise in household incomes since the 1970s is tied to the presence of a second income, and many of today's lifestyles (especially housing costs) demand two paychecks. And from the career perspective, there's that daunting gap to contend with. Employers don't like no-shows, so won't a three-year hiatus send a chill up their collective spine? Click here for the video version of this story from Jennifer Openshaw.
Like most big-ticket items in your financial life, such breaks can be managed, but they do require planning. Although it's a bigger topic than can be fully covered here, here are some career and financial planning tips. Career planning requires a look at how to exit and re-enter the workplace and how to maintain or increase your employment value during the leave.
- Make a deal. I know going into the boss's office to ask for three years off sounds like a daunting proposition. If you're an accomplished employee -- and they've invested a lot in you -- you should be able to find a win-win. Remember, it's hard to get something you don't ask for.
- Stay connected. While away, stay connected to co-workers and your management. Show your loyalty and keep up with what's going on in the business. Go to lunch with the boss and colleagues. You can also turn your time into something of value for your original employer by doing competitive research, contributing to projects or helping to train employees.
- Keep the saw sharp. Similarly, it's important to keep up with what's going on in the business and industry: new products, new competitors, new ways of doing things.
- Keep working -- on something. Unless you're a total workaholic, it's easy to settle too far into the alternative lifestyle. Sure, raising two small children, as my friends are doing, is pretty close to a full-time chore. But the more you can stay in a work mode -- doing something on the side, maybe some contract work -- the more prepared you'll be for re-entry. And it helps pay some of the bills. (One friend is teaching a 10-week IT management course on Saturday mornings at a local community college.)
- Plan your re-entry carefully. Let your boss, colleagues or prospective alternate employers know your intentions long before coming back. As with most aspects of business, good communication is key.
- Sharp-pencil your spending. Figure out how to make one income work. Don't forget changes in your tax situation -- lower brackets and eligibility for the child credit are biggies. Make pacts in advance, such as less eating out and no home improvement projects. Be realistic.
- Plan assets. Assets -- home, cars, boats -- drive expenses. So adjust your asset base before you leave. Figure out which cars will suffice at minimal cost, and make the transition before you leave, to reduce stress later.
- Shift priorities. It's OK to shift some priorities. Perhaps early parental care for your offspring is just as important as an expensive private-college education later on. Make these choices deliberately, and return to those financial commitments after the leave.
- Create a reserve. Most couples, and certainly all singles, will need a reserve to cover expenses, both planned and unplanned. Make sure you have enough.
- Stick to the plan. The best-laid plans don't work if not adhered to. I've seen couples make a plan and keep it for a while, only to drift back into old spending habits over time. The unhappy result: debt and stress. A backup plan also helps.