The how’s and why’s of equality
We have always liked the idea of an equal marriage, but there are vexing questions. Do we both need to earn the same income, or is it better for us to work an equal number of hours? How do we share all the responsibilities of maintaining our home? If we’re both going to work full time, who will raise our children? There are many options, but one solution is to spend less time at work. In fact, for most of our marriage, we have both worked part time.
We didn’t come to this solution easily — one of us is a certified workaholic and the other was seemingly born retired. But we believe this is the best arrangement for our lives and our family. It has allowed us to fully share the responsibility for earning the family income while also equally sharing in running our home and parenting our kids. For us, it has been the best of both worlds.
Both of us experience the satisfactions of working outside the home — feelings of competence, contribution, and recognition — as well as the frustrations of the workplace. In addition, we share the burdens and pleasures of parenting and household management. We have been equally responsible for cooking meals, maintaining the house, changing diapers, being home when our kids arrive from school — all the usual demands of family life. We both get in on all the joys and pleasures of parenting and homemaking. This arrangement also helps avoid the resentment, envy, and misunderstanding that can occur between partners when one works to earn all the income and the other is at home all the time.
Can it really be done?
This might sound like a nice way to live, but is it really practical? You may be wondering how you can afford it, especially when you are already struggling to meet your expenses. Would your employer really let you work less? Will they be offended if you ask? Maybe you’re afraid you won’t be able to earn as much, have benefits, or get promotions. And if you’re not working right now, you may not feel confident that you can get a job. Besides, what would your friends and family think? Wouldn’t you just be slackers?
These are legitimate anxieties. Some issues may be easier to solve than others, and everyone’s situation is unique. Here are some strategies that may inspire you to come up with your own ideas. And while we are primarily addressing couples in this article, singles can work less and live more, too.
Often, the primary concern is how to survive on a lower income (although sometimes couples end up earning more when both work part time). We like to start by asking ourselves some questions about our priorities like: What do we really want? And what is most important for our lives and our family? Time spent thinking, talking, and praying can help us see through the consumerist fog of our society.
Housing is often the single biggest expense, but there are many options. Living in a less costly area, choosing a smaller place, or sharing the costs with housemates can all reduce costs. We bought a small two-bedroom fixer-upper and have made many improvements (doing much of the work ourselves). Some jobs provide housing, often in exchange for care of a person or property. Consider living in an alternative structure, like a mobile home. (We have known people who lived in their boats or even a tree house!) Also, as we are being reminded to reduce energy consumption, keep in mind that smaller spaces can be friendlier to the environment as well as cut utility bills.
Cars (or more likely SUVs) have become very popular and costly status symbols. Brainstorm alternatives to driving, such as walking, biking, telecommuting, carpooling, or taking public transportation. You may discover that you don’t need a car or at least not as many. Some jobs provide a vehicle. Consider sharing a car, or renting as needed. We have had great success buying used cars — researching the most reliable and economical options (www.consumerreports.org), and then buying a used car from a private party.
Shop around for car insurance, and consider doing some of your own maintenance. Many basic repairs are not that complicated. Our 22-year-old daughter recently installed a rebuilt alternator for the first time, with a repair book as her only teacher.
Fresh, unprocessed foods are nearly always cheaper and healthier than prepared and “convenience” foods. We save more money and choose healthier options when we plan our meals and then go shopping with a list. Preparing meals with other family members shares the burden and builds community. On the other hand, taking turns at meal prep like we do gives each person some time off. Allowing kids to plan and prepare meals, even at young ages, is a heady experience for the children (and an adventure for the parents). Our 14-year-old son frequently cooks elaborate after-school snacks for his friends.
Brown-bagging your own lunches for work and school will save lots of money, and typically result in healthier meals. Plan ahead by making extra food for dinners, and using the leftovers for lunches. It will be far more appealing than peanut butter sandwiches again.
It doesn’t take a lot of money to have a lot of fun. We are always on the lookout for free community events like street fairs, parades, concerts, local history tours, author readings at bookstores, or art gallery openings (free hors d’oeuvres!). We recently had a fascinating tour of the new local high-tech recycling facility. Libraries often have story times for young kids, and colleges offer free lectures and other events. Local sports events are sometimes free, and it is always entertaining and educational to watch government in action — from school boards and city councils to court proceedings and state legislatures.
We enjoy wandering through free public spaces like historic neighborhoods, quaint shopping districts, scenic walkways along waterfronts, or in parks of all sizes. Other outdoor activities include walking, biking, swimming, hiking, skating, fishing, cross country skiing, or flying a kite. Taking along pencils and sketch pads can make any outing into a drawing expedition.
Factory tours are always fascinating and usually free (check AAA or www.factorytoursusa.com for ideas). We have seen people and robots make everything from candy and cheese to cars and airplanes. Watching people at work is always interesting — construction sites are a great example. Enjoy a restful break by sitting in a beautiful cathedral or quiet park, or relaxing in a hotel lobby.
Dinner at a nice restaurant is a treat, but atmosphere and menu are usually the same at lunch time, with lower prices and more reasonably sized portions. We often split an entrée and supplement with a salad or side dish. Other times, we go out for just dessert or coffee. But try to resist that daily (or hourly) espresso or other expensive, high-calorie “reward.”
Places where you order at the counter are generally less expensive than full-service, sit-down restaurants. We love taquerias and deli sandwich-type places. Of course you can have a picnic or tailgate party almost anywhere!
The same approach can be used when traveling. Visit public sites related to your interests. We like state capitols, college campuses, historic areas, old churches, dramatic local architecture, and distinctive foods. Getting around on local transit can often be an inexpensive thrill.
A hostel (www.hiusa.org) will never be confused with a four-star hotel, but staying in one is always an adventure. They are typically in distinctive buildings, and you meet travelers from all over the world. Or consider a home exchange with someone in another part of the world (try www.homeexchange.com, www.intervac.com, or www.homelink.org). Other options are to stay with family or friends, or in a campground. If you’re looking for a hotel, it’s worth researching AAA or www.tripadvisor.com and then reserving ahead to nail down the best deals.
Better airfares and more options are available if you start looking months in advance. If you can be flexible with scheduling, look online at different days and times, as prices can vary dramatically.
If you need to rent a car, start looking early and reserve the cheapest economy car. You’ll often get an upgrade at no extra cost, because rental companies do not really have many economy cars. Or pick a destination where you won’t need a car.
How can you work less? For starters, you may be able to make simple changes in your current job. Stop working overtime, delegate (or decline) extra assignments, work from home some days of the week, or just take all of your vacation time each year (many people don’t).
It may be possible to negotiate a less than full-time position (60% or less), or to job-share a full time position with a colleague. Employers may assume that everyone wants to work more. So tell them what you want. And ask again a few months later, if necessary. Sometimes it sounds more legitimate to work less if you are facing a life change, like returning to school, having a child, caring for a family member, approaching retirement, or trying to launch your music career.
Consider becoming self-employed. Cathy has an accounting business that started by working as an independent contractor for a former employer. Invaluable assistance is available from Small Business Development Centers, which are funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration (www.sba.gov). Your own business can be large or small, and it can be combined with an employed position, something we both have done. It is just fine to have more than one job — in Europe it’s called a “portfolio career!”
Many people are worried about losing benefits like health insurance or retirement plans if they work part time or for themselves. While we sometimes have had benefits through part time positions, this is not always possible. Our solution has been to maintain a high-deductible health insurance plan — independent of any employer — for our family. One advantage of this approach is that you have coverage even if you lose your job. The costs of the insurance and unreimbursed medical expenses can be partially offset by the use of flexible spending accounts (FSAs), health savings accounts (HSAs), or the tax break for self-employed status.
Retirement planning has gotten tougher for everyone. What used to be the employer’s responsibility has largely been outsourced to the employee. Our solution has been to use a combination of IRAs and employer-subsidized plans in addition to Social Security. Also, we have invested in our home, have careers we can do part time well into retirement, and know how to live economically.
For someone who is not currently employed, it is often easier to find or create part time work (whether working for someone else or self-employed) than a full time position. Look for people who are doing work you’d enjoy doing, and ask them what it’s like and how they got there. (It’s called “informational interviewing.”) If you’re not sure what sort of career you want, visit your local community college’s career center.
The point of all of this is to be able to spend more time living, and to have that extra time for both spouses, equally. For us, this means having satisfying careers and enjoying time with our children and each other, while still having time to walk, talk, read, take naps, volunteer, exercise, or take classes. We’ve been able to help in our children’s classrooms, be involved in ministry, and devote time to causes we believe in. Some people find that working less gives them more time for creative pursuits, like art, music, writing, or theater. Spending more time with the important people in our lives can only deepen those relationships. Working less also creates space for the physical and emotional reserves to deal with life’s inevitable crises.
We’ve done this for many years without feeling deprived. We have been able to have kids, travel, own our home, and still afford occasional splurges. When people find out that we work part time, the usual reaction is admiration (or envy), not criticism. Of course, it does help that we live in a laid-back California beach town.
Can you do it? Achieving any change or goal is dependent on many factors, some of which are out of our control. But it always starts with a desire for change, and a belief that it is possible.
We have been inspired over the years by the lives and writings of others. Look around for people who can be role models or mentors for you. A book that can transform your relationship with money and work is Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin.
Economist Juliet Schor (The Overworked American and The Overspent American) has pointed out how we are all working (and spending) more and suffering the consequences, individually and collectively. Any steps that can be taken to reverse that trend will yield benefits to our own lives and in our relationships. For us, working part time has enabled us to be equal partners in all aspects of our marriage, including earning an income, maintaining a home, and raising kids. So be bold — work less, so you can live more!