Is the Second Income Worth the Work?


In Fall of 2013, I took a full-time job for the first time since my children were born. With the kids in high school and college and mostly independent, I felt ready to take on a new challenge and the extra money would be nice. This year was the first year we had to file for taxes for a full year, however, and we were shocked. My modest income had pushed us into a higher tax bracket. The end result was that even though my husband and I had claimed no deductions and were putting the maximum to taxes each month, we nonetheless owed nearly a third of my annual income in extra taxes. I will be working most of the rest of this year to pay for the privilege of working.

In modern America, the two-income family is almost an expectation. However, unless it’s a job you really aspired for, you and your spouse might want to take a little time and do the math. Sometimes, that second job isn’t all it’s cracked up to be financially.

Two Income Trap

Interestingly, the articles I found concerning the costs of working outside the home[KF1]  list the expense of moving to a higher tax bracket as the #1 expense. In one mother’s example[KF2] , it cut her monthly salary by an additional $500/month. (This is after she’s already paid taxes on her salary.) Then, there are the transportation costs, which are still large despite the slight decrease in gas prices. If you have younger children, child care will take a big chunk of your paycheck.

Then there are the expenses that occur because you are away from home, such as lunches with colleagues, and maybe an increase in take-out dinners. Personally, cooking is not my forte, and once I started working, we gave in more easily to take out from nicer restaurants. Some women may find they don’t have the energy to keep up the house, so a regular housekeeper is added to the expense list. (Though some may agree it’s totally worth it!)

Finally, you need to add the incidentals: seasonal gifts, office activities, wardrobe needs and dry cleaning. One writer mentioned that she had to start purchasing disposable diapers whereas at home, she’d used cloth. These small things add up.

One other consideration: Are you setting yourself up for the two-income trap? This is where your family, used to the increased income, spends the increased income. Please note that this is different from both parents having to work to keep food on the table. Rather, it’s the temptation to say you can afford the bigger house, the newer car, the fancy vacation… every time. Be honest with yourself: Do you need it or do you want it? And if you want it, is it worth 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year away from home?

Stress of Being a Working Mom

In addition to the financials, you should give some consideration to the non-financial costs of the two-income family. These include stress on both spouses as they share more greatly in the housework (or argue about it or let it slide) and the guilt of missing moments in a child’s life. (Which is an issue for dads, although it’s talked about more with moms). It means less time and energy for indulging hobbies, doing things yourself, and relaxing. It also means being part of the rat race with all the interpersonal conflicts, competition and unique stresses.

When you take on a job after having been a full-time homemaker, you are not trading jobs, but rather adding a new job on top of the one you already have. True, you may cut or share a lot of your at-home duties, but the responsibility never goes away.

Cutting to two incomes

At the end of the day, whether you can or should become a two-income family is your choice. There are certainly advantages to working outside the home. You get to interact with a wider range of adults, do work that may be more intellectually stimulating or is emotionally rewarding in a way different from that of parenting. And if one spouse loses his or her job, you still have one income to sustain you.

My husband and I ran the math, and we’re still net positive enough to justify my continuing to work. More importantly, however, I like my job. The work is interesting, and I’m learning things that will help me in the future. My coworkers are delightful. In the 18 months I’ve worked there, there have only been a handful of times I’ve not awakened excited to go to the office, and those times usually had something to do with what was going on at home. However, having done the math, I would feel comfortable quitting if our home situation warranted it. I’m simply not making that much after expenses.

The two-income family is becoming the norm of American life, but it may not be the best bet for every family – emotionally or financially. Before you join the rat race, take some time to figure out the expenses vs. the income so you can decide if the cheese is really worth it.