The Ultimate Indulgence

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Within the early retirement ethos, the act of spending money on an incidental item can take on an almost religious significance.

After all the central lesson of the new frugality as I perceive it is this: spending money is spending freedom. So each dollar frittered away represents an hour or an afternoon or a day of financial freedom lost.

Which is not to say that freedom is more valuable than anything else. After all the homeless guy pushing his shopping cart filled with crushed cans and damp blankets, and cigarette butts could be said to be free. He has no clock to punch, and no boss to please. And no external demands on his schedule.

But he also has no roof over his head, and nowhere to sleep, and no security, and no sanctuary from the outside world.

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There’s more to life than freedom…

Which is why none of us would trade places with him for anything.

So let’s file food and shelter and transportation and clothing under essentials. But that still leaves us with a lot of incidentals.

I’ve already copped to the crimes of blowing my money on luxury foods (like fancy olive oils pressed with lemons) and a poofy hypoallergenic Siberian cat to sit on my lap.

And beyond admitting my spend-thriftiness, I’ve confessed that I would make those purchases all over again and in an instant.

For these purchases have brought me more happiness than the equivalent aliquots of freedom that the money they required could’ve purchased. In other words they were value investments. Happiness on sale.

But the ultimate luxury is this. My wife does not have a paying job. (Though she works very, very hard every day over long, long hours.)

And this is a luxury that most people truly cannot afford. This is our biggest, big-time blessing.

And it has bought us an awful lot of happiness as a family.

Because she works for the family and not for an external business all of her considerable energy and intelligence are focused inwards at the kids and on the family.

We never have to balance our schedules to make sure someone is home for the kids at the end of the school day.

Importantly, the kids live in the security of the assumption that there is always a parent at home ready to take care of them.

And we never have to wheel and deal at our jobs to make sure that homebase is covered.

And when our kids get sick we can take care of them efficiently and without reshuffling our decks. We are rarely pulled in 2 directions.

And we almost always eat breakfast and dinner together as a family.

Which is not to say that two working parents can’t also have ideal family lives. It just requires some extra effort. It’s less efficient. Something’s got to give.

And this efficiency, and luxury that we enjoy, actually ends up being a pretty damn good deal financially as well.  (Which is a happy coincidence.)

In this piece by the White Coat Investor he lays out the advantages of having a single income versus a dual income family:

  • The first point he makes, and this is the most important point, is that both spouses should be aiming to do exactly what makes them happiest. In other words even if a spousal job turns out to be a financial dud, if it gives that spouse a sense of meaning in their life and is a net positive personally, then that has real value to the individual and to the family aside from the monetary benefits.
  • He then points out that being married comes with some serious tax benefits including the lowering of the tax bracket for a high income earner, the claiming of an extra dependent tax deduction, as well as avoiding paying a second set of FICA taxes. (All points to think about when considering the merits of the equal protection granted by gay marriage legalization.)
  • He then points out that the working spouse is able to bring economic benefit to the family by filling the role of several otherwise crucial employees. (childcare workers, food-service workers, housecleaning workers.) These are all tough jobs and they require big investments if the family chooses to outsource them.
  • Finally he points out that working itself has associated costs that are never recouped, such as travel, work equipment, etc.

Which is all to say that having one stay at home spouse is a big-time luxury, even if it doesn’t end up costing much economically.

So it’s not only the ultimate indulgence. It is the ultimate bargain.

What’s your take?  Aside from nostalgia for the nuclear family, do you think that the single income family is a value added proposition?

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11 Responses to “The Ultimate Indulgence”

  1. Elaine June 11, 2014 at 11:46 pm #

    Absolutely. There is enormous value in the ability to have one stay-at-home parent. Some of our worst nights were those when a sick child got us up at 3AM, and after doing what was necessary to make her comfortable, we would attempt to figure out who could rearrange the next day’s obligations because she would not be going to pre-school. “I have a meeting in the morning.” “I am teaching a class at noon.” “We’re interviewing a job candidate.” “My big project is due.” It was a nightmare and was among the reasons I decided to switch gears and work from home. I have never regretted it.

    • Miles Dividend M.D. June 12, 2014 at 10:07 am #


      This is a great point about the additional stress that illness and life events place on dual income families.

      Avoiding this sort of stress can only be seen as a pro hapiness maneuver.


  2. John June 12, 2014 at 6:34 am #

    Having 4 children in our twenties was the best thing we did in our youthful years! They are all doing well in their 30’s now… We wanted them to have a solid childhood experience. Toward that end, we located in a small agricultural town in the Midwest. They walked to school until they rode bikes. One local quipped, “How did you raise 50’s kids in the 90’s?” Although we all moved out west following high school, they have a solid sense of family and rooted values from those “sheltered” growing up years. We are proud of each of them!

    • Miles Dividend M.D. June 12, 2014 at 10:57 am #

      That sounds like an idyllic childhood (and parenthood.) When we visit my wife’s family in Kyoto, there is a very small town feel (despite Kyoto being a city.) Kindergarteners can be seen walking to school together without chaperones. And packs of kids on bikes roam the neighborhood afterschool.

      Thsi kind of freedom is very empowering for kids and just seems healthy.


  3. Robert June 12, 2014 at 9:06 am #

    Alexi, you said, “this is a luxury that most people truly cannot afford” but that seems to contradict what you said at the end: “having one stay at home spouse is a big-time luxury, even if it doesn’t end up costing much economically.” If it doesn’t cost much economically, then why can’t it be afforded?

    One problem today is the number of single parent families. There are so many of them, your first statement might be true. They obviously don’t have the stay-at-home option (unless they are the proverbial welfare queens).
    For two parent families, however, I think most could afford it if they chose to. Possibly it would involve choices like John (post above) admirably made. But the Whitecoat Investor is spot on with his comments.

    My own experience was that my decent income meant that my wife’s income was taxed at about a 43% marginal rate (28% + 15% self-employment tax). Add in childcare expenses, and we were above 60% slippage on her income. If we’d lived in a state with income taxes, that would rise to 65-70%. If you factored in more eating out, etc., then that increases it more still. And factor in the increased workload/stress on the primary wage earner and on the kids, and the value of the remaining net income couldn’t be justified except if the spouse didn’t want to stay home. In my case she did, so it was a no-brainer.

    While I had a decent income, we are good friends with a family that has a low income. Husband makes around $25k/yr. But the wife stayed home with the kids, and with kids spaced out over many years, that was a long time. She would take on side jobs as the schedule allowed (mainly cleaning houses); I don’t know if they paid taxes on those cash transactions. She also helped as a “gopher” in her husband’s auto repair business, driving to distribution centers to pick up parts when needed. They basically lived the single wage earner family life. If they could do it, I believe most people can, if they want to.

    • Miles Dividend M.D. June 12, 2014 at 11:10 am #

      Robert there is an internal contradiction here as you point out. As a high income family, the only real reason for both parents to work is because both parents value the experience of working.

      But for a minimum wage worker, the calculus is certainly much different. One full time minimum wage earner’s wage is quite simply not a living wage in most parts of the country.

      One important issue that I did not bring up here is the role of our own personal and cultural views on gender and money.

      If I were to wake up tomorrow a woman, and my wife a man, it would be very difficult for me to give up the part of my identity that is wrapped up in being an earner. And being the non employed spouse requires a great deal of vulnerability to financial hardship in the event of divorce or spousal death.

      Your friends lifestyle choices seem very rational to me, and commendable. But I certainly wouldn’t judge them if the wife had decided to work full time at a salary equivalent or higher to her husbands. Such a choice would probably make it easier to retire earlier.


  4. Jeff June 12, 2014 at 9:10 am #

    I wish we could afford to have one income family. As a firefighter I’m off 20 days a month but on for 10 24 hour shifts. That puts it all on my wife when I’m at work. She is a teacher so we really struggle when one of our kids are sick.

    It seems that it has become harder and harder to survive on one income. Most folks who go to college enter the working world with debt and a need for income to pay for the education.

    We do enjoy the summers when she is home full time. Hence my need to travel hack! Life is a balance and everyone has to do what works best for their families.

    • Miles Dividend M.D. June 12, 2014 at 11:44 am #

      I wish you could too Jeff, though the firefighter teacher combo has some serious coolness factor going for it. I also have a feeling your kids are lucky to see a lot more of their parents than most.

      Also don’t discount the benefit of your kids pretty much guaranteed win in the bring your dad to school contest. A fireman is about as much of a slam dunk as I can imagine in that department.

      I do believe that the single income family is a serious luxury purchase, not a birthright or a necessity And there is plenty of evidence out there that kids who have 2 working parents and participate in day care suffer no ill effects of such a fate.


  5. Eric June 13, 2014 at 4:24 am #

    I agree with everything in this post and it is the approach my own family has taken. However, the true ultimate indulgence is for both parents to stay at home. I’m workings towards achieving that goal as soon as possible through early retirement.

    • Miles Dividend M.D. June 13, 2014 at 8:41 am #

      Well played Eric.

      Perhaps I should retitle to post “the penultimate luxury?”

      • Robert June 13, 2014 at 11:25 am #

        Actually, neither of these is the ultimate. The ultimate is when both parents stay home AND the kids have moved out on their own! :-)

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