How Much Does Motherhood Really Cost Women?

Happy smiling mother and her baby

My birth was meticulously planned. My mother, a teacher, and my father, a businessman, strategized their baby-making agenda around my mother’s schedule. I would be born at the end of May, giving her the summer for her maternity leave, during which she wouldn’t lose any wages or use any of her sick or personal days, before returning to work. I arrived promptly in the latter part of May and then screwed everything else up.

My mother, a fiercely strong and independent woman, made what was, for her, a surprising choice to become a stay-at-home mom to raise me (and the younger sister who showed up later). In another previously unpredicted turn, our family moved overseas, making it even harder for my mother to return to the workforce later. For nearly 21 years, my mother sacrificed her career and her earning potential to raise two daughters.

Now, in my mid-20s, I’ve watched my peers struggle with the question of whether or not to have children. Those who decide to pursue the path to dirty diapers, sleepless nights and unconditional love seem to fall into two groups: those who blindly hope they’ll be able to make ends meet; and those who begin crafting idyllic budgets around their fictional child.

What Price Motherhood?

The decision to have children or not is incredibly personal. While one choice provides a host of obvious emotional and intangible rewards (and the possibility of having someone other than paid staff to care for you in your twilight years), the other has distinct financial advantages.

Those financial disadvantages for mothers involve more than just the costs of raising a child — both parents take those on. But women in particular need to consider the income, retirement savings and Social Security benefits they sacrifice by electing to walk away from the workforce. Even mothers who return to work relatively rapidly tend to suffer financial setbacks often referred to as the “motherhood penalty*.”

Maternity Leave

The monetary losses start from the moment the labor contractions set in.

Bringing new life into the world warrants legally mandated paid leave in most developed nations — except the United States, where employers aren’t required to provide it. How much compensation women are entitled to while out on maternity leave varies by country: It could be as little as 50 percent of their normal wages. But that’s far more than the disturbing zero required of American companies.

“Only about half of all first-time moms in the United States are able to take any paid leave after childbirth; and just a fifth of working women with young children receive leave with full pay,” according to WorkingMother.com’s evaluation of National Partnership for Women & Families’ Census data.

Salary

Over the years, studies have shown mothers earning less, facing more workplace discrimination and receiving fewer opportunities than women without children. In fact, this issue may be more pressing than that of the general pay gap between men and women.

Women who leave the workforce entirely sacrifice their salaries for a job that pays in cuddles, kisses, temper tantrums and heart-melting moments. But you can’t pay the bills in a child’s laughter, your daughter’s first steps or when your teenage son says, “I love you” for no reason. Even though motherly tasks require dedication, multitasking, high-level communication skills, the ability to prioritize and handle expenses, employers still don’t see the work as proof of ability.

The role of a mother (working or stay-at-home) demands an incredible amount of effort; it’s every bit as much of a job as any 9-to-5 occupation, but employers still discriminate against mothers. “Employed mothers are hit with a 5 percent wage penalty per child, on average,” according to a study conducted by Cornell University sociologists and published in the American Journal of Sociology.

Social Security Benefits

It isn’t just salary that women walk away from when they leave the workforce to raise children. Their eligibility to earn Social Security benefits suddenly comes to a screeching halt. Women who fail to put in a total of 10 years of work will not be able to collect Social Security retirement benefits, according to the Social Security Administration’s 2014 pamphlet on earning credits (though there are some exceptions).

But more important than just qualifying for Social Security is how your benefit is calculated. To quote the SSA:

Social Security benefits are based on your lifetime earnings. Your actual earnings are adjusted or “indexed” to account for changes in average wages since the year the earnings were received. Then Social Security calculates your average indexed monthly earnings during the 35 years in which you earned the most.

Working for fewer years, working at lower wages, bringing home a lower aggregate amount over your lifetime — all of these factors cut into the size of the benefit checks mothers can expect when they retire from the work force.

Of course, some millennial women may not be taking the potential reduction in their Social Security benefits as seriously, because they expect the entitlement program will likley have been restructured by the time their generation faces retirement. As the Social Security Administration notes on its website,

“Your estimated benefits are based on current law. The law governing benefit amounts may change because, by 2033, the payroll taxes collected will be enough to pay only about 77 cents for each dollar of scheduled benefits.”

But regardless of how the system is reformed (or isn’t), the reduction to a mother’s benefits should still be viewed as a loss.

Other Retirement Savings Plans

Social Security may be nothing to depend on — at least not at current levels — but most workers today can use an employer’s 401(k) — or similar retirement plan — to prepare for the future.

A woman who leaves the workforce to become a mother loses the benefit of her employer-matched retirement plan, and without any taxable income; she can’t contribute to an IRA.

Mothers who stay in the workforce still won’t reap the same benefits from an employer-matched retirement plan as their childless counterparts. A 5 percent reduction in salary (per child) would translate to a lower amount to contribute and (because it’s based on a percentage of salary) a lower employer match.

And of course, those who forgo children don’t have to prioritize the needs of a child over retirement plans. There won’t be any debate about saving for retirement versus paying for braces, private schools or college.

Ultimately, It Doesn’t Really Come Down to the Money

I’m thankful to have been raised by a mother who could play dress-up with me, heal my scrapes, and attend all of my activities growing up. My mother sacrificed career advancement to raise me, and I’ll always be incredibly grateful to her. She, like most women who become mothers, will always claim it was the right decision and one she’s never regretted (except probably, for a brief period during my teen years). The numbers may indicate that it’s financially better for women to resist their biological urges, but on this Mother’s Day, I thank my own Mom and everyone else’s who didn’t.

*For the sake of this article, in discussing the “motherhood penalty” or the possibility of being “mommy tracked,” we are referring to women who are college educated with higher-income careers.

3 Sneaky Ways to Make a Small Home Office Look Huge

home-office2

The plight of the way-too-small home office: a space that needs to be functional often doubling as a guest room and the holding pen for all the random stuff you couldn’t find a home for elsewhere. And did we mention these rooms are often tiny? You spend many of your waking hours in this wee, cramped place. So, how can you figuratively supersize one of the hardest-working and smallest rooms in your home?

1. Pick the right-sized furniture

One of the worst home office gaffes? Furniture that simply doesn’t fit! Just because you want a large work surface (who doesn’t?), it doesn’t mean you want to overwhelm your space with a massive CEO-style desk, says Allison Petty, an interior designer with Homepolish, a national design firm based in New York City.

Start with the right-sized desk, and orbit other furnishings around it. There isn’t a formula for size; the more compact you can go, the better. The small-home mecca otherwise known as Ikea (cue the trumpeting angels) offers countless affordable desk options. Take measurements of your room before you shop, and don’t forget to account for other furniture that needs to go in the tight space. And maybe factor in a bit of walking space, too.

Find a desk that has ample storage and just enough surface space for your computer, Petty suggests. If you primarily use a laptop, you can get away with a small laptop deskfor tight spaces. For bigger devices, consider a storage-rich desk (Petty loves this onefrom Crate & Barrel) that’s both stylish and sturdy.

Treble White Desk
Treble White Desk

When it comes to your chair, you want comfort but you don’t need the gargantuan seat on wheels that you’d see in an office building. Pro tip: Go for a stationary chair with style, Petty says. “I use standard dining chairs because they’re smaller than most office chairs, but they have high backs so you don’t have to worry about being down too low,” says Petty, who recommends West Elm’s Saddle Dining Chair and the Dane Armchair. “Dining chairs are a lot more attractive than office chairs, and they just blend in better.”

2. Find a place for everything

On websites, floating, open shelves look amazing. Know why? Because they’re styled for photos, not living. They probably hold about half the stuff you really need. Your pile of crumpled and mismatched paper? It’s not nearly as eye-pleasing as the perfectly stacked piles you see in design books.

Here’s a good way to leverage wall space: Use it to hang file holders. You’ll find plenty of options at The Container Store or any office supply retailer. Every item should have a dedicated place that’s not your work surface or the floor, Petty says.

If you can squeeze another piece of furniture in your room, Petty suggests a closed cabinet. A stylish armoire could be a nice touch. Use bins to store your office wares inside. Purchase cord organizers and tuck away that laptop when you’re offline to make everything look seamless.

If you must leave things out, then do it in style with finds from online shops such as Poppin.com, says Petty.

3. Have fun with decor

Scoop Table Lamp- Copper
Scoop Table Lamp- Copper

One of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to make your work ambiance more Zen is through color.

You can paint, but a hued wallpaper looks great, too. The key, productivity-wise: You want a design that’s inspiring but not distracting, says Petty.

While overhead lighting is the best lighting for task-orientated work, a desk lamp can add a great decorative detail, says Petty. Don’t opt for one that looks too utilitarian. With practically no effort, you can find options that are stylish, attractive, and affordable (the trifecta!), like this one in copper.

One thing to skip: rugs. “Chairs are harder to move on rugs and placing them under a desk ends up cutting the rug off awkwardly,” says Petty.

7 Cheap Upgrades That Will Make Your Home Feel Like It’s Brand-New

painting-improvement

If your home has you down in the dumps but you lack the cash to fix it up, don’t despair! Not every upgrade has to take a big bite out of your bank account.

Here are seven foolproof ways to make your home feel like a totally different place through small changes—and small expenses.

1. New hardware

Swapping out the boring chrome hardware the previous owners installed can go a long way toward making your home look like yours—not to mention give the entire space an easy, inexpensive refresh. Depending on your style, new pulls or handles can cost mere dollars.

“The first thing I do to give the home more of the look and style that I like is swap out the hardware,” says Doug Mahoney, who worked in construction for 10 years and now writes about tools and home improvement for The Sweethome. “All it takes is a screwdriver, and it’s surprising what a difference it can make.”

2. Small paint jobs

Don’t have time to repaint your entire home? Start by tackling smaller jobs such as your front door or kitchen cabinets. Since these projects are quick, you can squeeze them in during the weekend (or even an afternoon). And you’ll use only a fraction of a gallon of paint (which costs between $15 and $30)—making for an ideal impact-to-expenses ratio.

“Personally, I can’t stand the look of polyurethaned oak cabinets, so I’d cover those up with a nice white paint,” Mahoney says. “It makes it look like a whole new kitchen.”

If you like your cabinets, consider repainting the trim in your living room or adding some fresh color to a small room such as your bathroom.

3. Sensor lights

Tired of scrambling for the light switch while your arms are holding bags of groceries? Add sensor lights to your front porch and any other regular entrances such as your garage door. Starting at just $15, it’s a tiny cost with a big reward.

These lights won’t just improve your visibility—they’ll also lower your electricity bill. And they’re a big home safety boon to boot; experts say motion-detecting lights discourage criminals from lurking around your home.

4. Magnetic door catch

Speaking of those arms full of groceries: Adding a magnetic door catch (like this onefrom Amazon, which costs $11) to your primary entrance drastically simplifies loading and unloading. No more awkward sideways crab walks as you attempt to keep the door open while carrying a big package. You might even consider installing this before moving day to make your movers’ job easier.

5. Keyless entry pad

If you’re always losing your keys, try investing in a keyless entry pad such as this simple$100 Kwikset deadbolt. It can mean the difference between spending a few hours moping in your car and enjoying a hot cup of cocoa in your living room.

Plus, you’re not the only one who benefits: If you’re expecting guests but won’t be available to greet them, they can let themselves in—a huge improvement from hiding a key, which might be a safety risk.

6. Low-flow toilet

“It may seem intimidating to those not very interested in DIY, but swapping out toilets is a fairly simple process,” Mahoney says.

Choose a high-efficiency or low-flow toilet to save money on your water bill. While it does require some investment (expect to pay between $100 and $325 for the toilet itself), you’ll be making your money back soon enough—especially if you’re replacing an older model installed before 1992. That’s when federal plumbing standards mandated all toilets use 1.6 gallons or less per flush.

With a high-efficiency model, you’ll use about 300 fewer gallons of water per year—if not much more.

7. Fresh mulch

Jazzing up the outside of your home can go a long way toward making you love where you live. While you could go all-out—landscaping the yard and painting the trim—there’s a simpler solution: mulch.

“New mulch in the flower beds can add a lot to the curb appeal,” Mahoney says.

Instead of grimy old dirt that’s been trod on for years, a fresh new layer looks clean, fresh, and pretty—making a huge difference for just $6.