So in today’s Cheapskate column in the Wall Street Journal, the topic is when — even whether — the cheapskate’s wife Clarissa will go back to work.  She’s not a homeschooler, but she’s been staying home to raise the kids for the last 17 years; the youngest is now a junior in high school.  Now part of me wants to say ‘Go, Clarissa, Go!’ as she persuades her husband that maybe after the kids move out, she ought to continue at home, in order to devote herself to gardening and hobbies.  Perhaps it’ll become a trend . . .

The other part of me is both consoled that even a WSJ columnists’ wife might be crazy enough to go decades without paid employment, and also kinda thinkin’ that Clarissa ought to hedge her bets and get back in the workforce, so that if late middle-age should deal a harsh blow to her beloved cheapskate, she has a back-up plan.  (They’ve always got the good ol’ ‘move-in-with-the-kids’ plan, of course . . . but the kids might be a touch more cheerful about that one if you’ve made a good faith effort to avoid resorting to it.)

The underlying reality is that homeschooling under the traditional stay-at-home-spouse model is risky.  The rewards are huge, but as happens elsewhere, the greater the return, the greater the risk.

I have a number of homeschooling friends who mitigate the risk by keeping both parents in the workforce.  In one case, the parents both have full-time jobs but working alternate days (he’s a nurse, she’s in retail, so you get the odd hours you need in order to pull this off).  They split up homeschooling duties, and Sunday is the one day they have together as a family.

My other two-career friends have more of a 90-10 split: the ‘stay-at-home’ spouse, who is also the teaching parent,  works a minimum of hours, enough to stay current and connected.   Not a bad method; in all cases the parent with the regular full-time job makes a significant contribution to housework, or else they just don’t worry about housework.  I’ve seen this method do its job as career-insurance, with parents flip-flopping roles mid-career, when the job market suggested it would be prudent to do so.

So what about those of us who don’t go that route?  People like me and Clarissa who are true stay-at-home spouses?  You’re living dangerously, and there’s no sense pretending otherwise.  As much as writing my beloved blogs and teaching CCD does help keep the brain sharp, let’s not kid ourselves: in a down economy, there aren’t many help-wanted ads reading:

Wanted: Cost accountant, minimum ten-years experience with dishes, laundry, and potty-training.  Experience explaining the Trinity to fifth graders preferred.  Maternity benefits commensurate with severity of morning sickness.

So here’s my stern lecture:  If you are taking financial risks in one area of your life, you need to compensate elsewhere.  You think it is going to be hard if you suddenly have to find a job after a decade or two out of the workforce?  It is going to be even harder if you have debt, no savings, didn’t have life insurance if you were widowed, and weren’t in the habit of living well within your means.

I don’t mean to be mean.  I know that most of my readers are probably the frugal type who don’t need this lecture.  But I also know that there are plenty of homeschoolers out there who haven’t caught on to this.   And you really need to.

The good news is, that although managing your financial risks isn’t easy — it involves depriving yourself of things that you’d really like to have — it is simple.  You don’t need an MBA to understand what to do — everything I learned about good financial management I learned from my parents, who learned from their parents, who learned from their parents — and my great-grandparents weren’t high school graduates.

So here it is, the secret to more-secure living for housewives.  Proven successful and sternly lectured to me by most the legendary housewife in my extended family, Aunt Helen herself:

Waste not, want not.

Do without.

If you can’t pay cash, you can’t afford it.

Get insurance.

Save.

Give alms.

Live below your means.

And that’s it.  When your life is running smoothly, these practices will hold you in good stead.  When a crisis comes, it will be less of a crisis.  And even if life totally crushes you with one turn of bad luck after another, if for some reason the Lord relents and lets you breathe a little, these habits will get you back on your feet more quickly, and with less distress, than if you hadn’t practiced them.

Taking worthwhile risks is a good thing.  To be home caring for your children, to educate your children the way you think best for them, these pursuits are at least as worthwhile as any entrepreneuial venture ever could be.  But if you’re going to live like they did back in the day, you’ve got to live like they did back in the day.  You can’t have your housewife and your credit card bill, too.

End of lecture, have a good week.

***

By the way, I’ll be posting my review of The Apostles – illustrated edition first Wednesday of March, since that’s when Catholic Topics comes around.  Haven’t finished the book yet, but here’s how it’s looking so far, for those who are thinking this is what you want for your Lenten reading: Standard B16.  Edifying, inspiring, and if you can read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, you should be able to manage this one.  Otherwise, well, the pictures are very, very nice.

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