When should I have a baby? That’s a question many women ask themselves…or Google. (Around 350 million results pop up when you do.)
There is certainly no shortage of opinions out there: There’s the “You want to have a baby early because of your figure/eggs/etc.” brigade. And the “Do you want to use a walker at your kid’s college graduation?” posse. And let’s not forget the “Focus on your career now and you can worry about starting a family later” crew. Big sigh.
There is, of course, no simple answer. Add to that, for some moms — especially new ones — starting a family can involve taking a career break to spend time at home with baby. I did it — I actually quit (flat out, quit) my job as an investment banker when I became pregnant with my son because I couldn’t fathom carrying him to term while working those crazy hours, let alone raising him.
Frustratingly and, in my opinion, shamefully, these types of career breaks come with really big financial trade-offs. Because once you return to work, your salary typically takes a hit. Still speaking from experience here. When I came back to Wall Street after taking time off to have my son, I took a 60% pay cut. (It worked out in the end because I found a job I enjoyed much more than investment banking, but still…)
We talk a lot about the cost of a career break here at Ellevest. Which is why, in a moment that would make Carrie Bradshaw proud, we couldn’t help but wonder: How much do the costs associated with taking a career break to raise a baby vary depending on the mom’s age? We decided to dig into the numbers ourselves.
Nadia’s 28 years old, making about $60,000 a year at her job, and is about to have a child. A couple of weeks into her maternity leave, Nadia decides that she isn’t ready to say bye to her baby and go back to work just yet.
Instead, Nadia decides to take two years off to raise her baby. Sure, she knows money will be tight since she and her partner are going from a two-income household to a single-income one, but after a lot of back and forth, she’s on board with being a stay-at-home mom…for a spell.
Two years fly by, and Nadia decides to go back to work. Luckily for her, she gets a full-time job — the only downside is that she’s taking a 20% salary cut. (This 20% isn’t random, by the way; a 2015 Ellevate Network survey found that almost 30% of women saw a pay cut after a career break, and most of those women took a pay cut of 20% or higher.)
So Nadia will be making $45,000 when she starts working again — less than what she was making as a 23-year-old. Her salary was $50,000 back then.
What makes the pay cut even worse is that it sets off a ripple effect, causing Nadia to lose out on significant earnings over the course of her career, as she gets her future raises off of this lower level of earnings.
Just how significant is this, exactly?
When Nadia retires at 70, she will have missed out on about $1.8 million in earnings because of that career break.* (Ouch doesn’t even come close. Not even close.)
Ok, so maybe Nadia loses out on so much money because she has a kid early on in her career. It sounds plausible — she’s less established, only has a handful of years of full-time work experience…so maybe we can chalk up her $1.8 million in lost salary to that.
What if she waited a little longer to start a family?
Gabby’s 35, making around $100,000, owning her career, and ready to start a family. Early on in her pregnancy, Gabby decides that she’s going to take time off from work to raise her baby.
Fast-forward two years filled with countless sleepless nights, thousands of diapers, numerous Facebook status updates, and Gabby is ready to become a working mom. Just like Nadia, she’s welcomed back to the working world with a full-time job offer…and a 20% pay cut off of her pre-break six-figure salary.
So Gabby is making just under $80,000, which is less than she was making seven years ago. (Sensing a theme here?) And this means that by the time Gabby stops working at age 70, she will have missed out on a little under $1.6 million over her career.* Not as bad as Nadia’s $1.8 million, but let’s be real, $1.6 million isn’t chump change.
But hey, if we have to look for the aluminum foil lining here, maybe we can say that this is a step (albeit a pretty small, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it one) in the right direction. So here’s a hypothesis: Maybe a career break ends up costing you less if you put it off as long as possible? Let’s test that.
Christine’s 40 years old, makes a little over $130,000 a year, and is having a kid. After spending 18 years working non-stop and climbing the corporate ladder, Christine decides, “Hey, I’m going to take the next two years off and embrace the stay-at-home mom life.”
When two years is up, Christine goes right back to work. And…you guessed it…she takes a 20% pay cut off of that $130,000, so she’s making a little over $100,000. Which means that by the time she retires at age 70, her career break will end up costing her just over $1.6 million.*
That’s right — Christine loses out on roughly the same amount of money as Gabby. You’d think that because Christine earns more and waited longer to have a baby and take time off, her career break would have cost her less. (Like how Gabby’s break cost her slightly less than Nadia’s.)
But unlike Gabby, Christine is close to her salary peak when she takes her career break. Wait, what do we mean by salary peak? This is when your salary reaches its highest point in your career. Women’s salaries tend to peak around age 40 whereas men’s generally peak around 55. Yeah, we hate it too.
As a result, that 20% pay cut combined with a shorter window for making money once she goes back to work — she has 28 years left until retirement while Gabby has 33 — really ends up hurting Christine.
So much for our hypothesis.
Closing the Gap
The main takeaway? There’s no universal “right” age for having a baby and taking a career break. Whether you’re young and just starting out in your career or you’re more established and taking home a hefty paycheck, the money you can miss out on by taking a career break is significant. Which means that after taking a break, there’s less money for all of the expenses (and boy are there a lot of them) that come with kids — and less money for you in general.
The truth is raising kids is very expensive — the USDA estimates that a middle-class married couple could expect to spend $233,000 to raise one kid, just one, to age 17. You can bet that number doesn’t include music lessons, sports leagues, summer camps, etc. Oh, yeah, and it definitely doesn’t factor in college — the biggest big-ticket item of them all.
That’s why it’s important to plan for a career break as much as possible. I’m not just talking about bulking up your savings so that they can cover your living expenses during your work hiatus. That’s great, and you definitely should do it — but that’s only a short-term financial solution.
You should also find ways to keep your skills fresh so that you’re ready to dive right back in when you return to work. A key reason women take pay cuts when they return to work is because employers suspect that their skills haven’t kept up with the fast-paced changing nature of business. Freelancing or working part-time can help you do double duty: earn you some extra income and fill in your resume. Volunteering and/or blogging about your area of interest are other options for avoiding gaps in experience, too.
As for the long term, you still need a solution to help you try and close the earnings gap you get from taking a career break. Because as we see with Nadia, Gabby, and Christine, the 20% pay cut keeps affecting your future salary year after year after year once you return to work.
The good news? (Finally, I know.) Investing regularly in a diversified investment portfolio while you are working may help you make up the hundreds of thousands, or millions, you could lose to a career break. It may also help you set yourself up for the retirement of your dreams. And, believe me, you deserve it. You worked hard, mom’d just as hard, and we don’t think you should retire with less money because you decided to spend time at home raising a future bad-a$$. If anything, you deserve more.
We project Nadia's salary with and without a career break, using a women-specific salary curve that includes inflation from Morningstar Investment Management LLC, a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of Morningstar, Inc. We start Nadia at age 23 with a salary of $50k, assume she takes a 2-year career and returns to a job paying 20% less than her salary at the time she takes the break. We add up her annual salary amounts under both scenarios over a 40-year period. $1.82M is the difference between the two sums.
We project Gabby's salary with and without a career break, using a women-specific salary curve that includes inflation from Morningstar Investment Management LLC, a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of Morningstar, Inc. We start Gabby at age 30 with a salary of $85k, assume she takes a 2-year career break in 5 years, and returns to a job paying 20% less than her salary at the time she takes the break. We add up her annual salary amounts under both scenarios over a 33-year period. $1.58M is the difference between the two sums.
We project Christine's salary with and without a career break, using a women-specific salary curve that includes inflation from Morningstar Investment Management LLC, a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of Morningstar, Inc. We start Christine at age 35 with a salary of $120,000, assume she takes a 2-year career break in 5 years, and returns to a job paying 20% less than her salary at the time she takes the break. We add up her annual salary amounts under both scenarios over a 28-year period. $1.63M is the difference between the two sums.
The projections of various investment outcomes are hypothetical in nature, do not reflect actual investment results, and are not guarantees of future results.
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