Crystal Paine is known online as the “Money Saving Mom.” The focus of her site is deals and sales, but her new book coming out next month has a different twist. It’s called Money Making Mom, and taps into a particular economic and cultural phenomenon that’s worth examining.
Here are some realities. Middle-class incomes have been stagnant (if not declining) for a while. It’s hard for most families to live decently on one income. However, childcare is incredibly expensive. I’ve blogged before about the economics of this: if you have two young kids in a good quality daycare center, you generally need to earn more than $50,000 to break even. Given that the average woman working full-time earns less than $40,000 a year, this doesn’t exactly work. To be sure, many people do make it work, through family care, home-based daycares that may have more flexibility and lower costs, shifting schedules so parents work at different hours, etc. But it’s not easy.
So if families need the second income, but can’t afford childcare, what can be done? The answer for many is to seek out work-at-home gigs. These are seen as the best of all possible options — in theory, earning money without having to shell out big bucks for childcare! — and so desirable that half the ads online tout how you’ll “make $8000 a month working from home!” They don’t even say what kind of work you’ll be doing. The fact that it can be done at home is the major selling point.
The vast majority of this is scam. The first hard truth about working from home is that no one is hunting around for people to pay large quantities of cash to in exchange for them doing low-skilled work at home while the baby naps.
There are two legitimate ways to make a good income working from home. Crystal’s book focuses on one of those: starting a business. If you’re entrepreneurial, there are all sorts of things you can do, and technology has made scaling up a business possible in a way that it wasn’t before. If you made crafty things in the past, your market was limited to the stores where you could sell your wares, or the people who stopped by your booth at craft shows. Now you can get on Etsy and get your wares in front of the world. Crystal’s a prime example of how you can take expertise on something (couponing, in her case) and turn it into a profitable empire.
The other legitimate way to make a good salary working from home is to get a regular job with a good salary and negotiate to work from home. Often people are able to do this a few days a week if they’ve built up enough seniority.
But — and here is the other hard truth — neither of these 100 percent solve the childcare issue for most people. If you’re working a conventional job with real hours but happen to be doing it from home, your employer is going to expect you to be focused on the job. You can see your kids during breaks but you still need someone else to be watching them. More likely than not, that someone will need to be paid. And while you can probably do something entrepreneurial in fewer hours than a FT job with a commute, and do it more flexibly once you get it going, building a business still takes time. Growing it requires an investment of hours. Crystal has written before of pulling all-nighters as she built her business, and has written on the blog that hiring a mother’s helper was one of the best investments she ever made.
I am grateful for my ability to earn a decent living working at home, but it has taken years of working 40+ hour weeks, with many of the things I’ve done needing to be done during business hours. Hence the full-time childcare.
In other news: I’ve considered writing a piece called “A cold-hearted capitalist’s argument for daycare subsidies.” Maybe if we called it school vouchers for the under-5 set…
Photo: Why does every stock photo about “working from home” feature a mom at a laptop holding a baby? Perhaps this is what perpetuates the myth that this works.