You can live on $40k, as long as you have a wife doing unpaid labor

CNN interviews this dude who’s written a book called “How to Survive (and Perhaps Thrive) on a Teacher’s Salary.” I’m sure he may have some good tips for living on $39,900 a year, as he claims, but that’s not what he’s doing. He’s living on $39,900 plus the value of all the unpaid labor his stay-at-home wife performs.

The interview begins by explaining that he’s a teacher with a wife who stays home with the kids. They pitch this as if it’s a luxury his wife gets to enjoy because they’re so smart with his income. But do we really have to go over yet again what it would cost to outsource childcare, let alone everything else many stay-at-home-moms do for the household? What she does at home would probably cost at least $39,900 to outsource. Even when you consider the wife’s living expenses, it’s nearly true that “two can live as cheap as one”, so it doesn’t come close to excusing his assessment that the family’s “living” on a mere $39,900/year. Just by enabling the household to avoid professional daycare costs, the wife’s labor is equivalent to several hundred dollars a month. That bumps up the $39,900 estimate quite a bit for any single parents who have to pay for daycare. Or two-income families who are just making $39,900 between their income. And of course, it’s no help to families living on less.

What happens if this man loses his wife? Either he has to find another one, pronto, or he has to start paying for daycare, which can rival your rent or mortgage. Whatever chores his wife handles, he’ll either have to take over himself or pay someone to handle. That could include maid service, cooking, and not only paying all the bills every month but also fighting with creditors over billing errors and all that fun stuff, just to name a few.

No, sorry, folks. If you have someone who’s doing the work of one or several professionals in exchange for a slightly larger grocery and clothing bill, you’re not living on just your salary. You are living on your take home pay plus the market value of the free services that person provides, minus her living expenses, and you are not simply entitled to those free services just because you have a wang. Therefore you are a very fortunate and privileged dude, and your failure to notice this is highly irritating to me.

And I’m irritated CNN doesn’t have the basic intelligence to call him on this. I mean, his situation is unusual enough in that he gets months off every year, during which he can grow his own food or do DIY projects year-round workers at the same salary might have to outsource, or, I dunno, write a book to increase the income he’s bragging about living on. Whatever!


  1. Anemone says

    Well, I live on less than 12k/year, so 39k sounds pretty nice.

    Does he talk about how he lives on 39k, or how he and his family live on 39k? I think a lot of families are just as well off financially and considerably less stressed when one spouse stays home and runs the household, but credit should go to all family members for the teamwork involved. Carol Keeffe writes about it in How To Get What You Want in Life With the Money You Already Have (1995), and she doesn’t make it sound the slightest bit sexist.

  2. nijireiki says

    $40K is a lot for a teacher to make in the K-12 level; he probably has a tenure or something, too. I’ve looked at starting teachers’ salaries since I’m getting my BS in 2 years. :/

    If anybody’s coming at the book as “One person can thrive on $40K a year,” yeah, that’s hella easy. I’m in a family of 6 people, including 2 high schoolers, 2 dogs, and 2 cats, and there’s no way in hell my parents are pulling in $240K annually. Even if you don’t include the housing-related payments per year for each person, it doesn’t work out. But “A family can thrive on $40K a year” when it’s one person’s salary seems… misleading. And unrealistic. I mean, I’m sure he’s only got one car note figured into his plan, you know? Having a stay-at-home-wifemom and having a job with a relatively convenient schedule and that is probably close by affords him that one-car luxury.

  3. Mel says

    Seriously, the first comment on a post about the economic value of a woman staying at home is calling at-home mothers “kept” women and denigrating that choice? Seriously?

    It’s not so simple. Childcare is–as noted in the original post–very expensive, and for couples with more than one child, the childcare savings of having one parent stay home are often greater than that parent’s income would be if they worked outside the home. And because society is still what it is, the person with the smaller earning potential is most often the woman. Many couples simply cannot AFFORD to have both parents work. Let me repeat that: many couples with children CANNOT AFFORD to have both parents work.

    Also, there are in fact parents who enjoy being able to stay home with their kids, especially while they’re young. Again, because of social conditioning, often women, but in an ideal society, I hope we’d see more men being at-home dads. (Actually, in an ideal society, I’d like to see flexible work hours for all parents, so they can spend more time with their kids even if they do work outside the home.)

    And there are people who cannot work outside the home for whatever reasons–mental health, physical disability, etc. (note that I am not saying everyone with mental health issues or physical disabilities can’t work outside the home–most can)–but who can raise their children.

    It’s true that staying home to raise your kids does temporarily take you out of the job market and potentially put you at some risk in the future should the marriage go south. But a lot of things carry risk–getting married and having kids in the first place, for example. Changing careers. Deciding to be self-employed. Starting a business.

    For some mothers, staying home is a necessity; for others it is a privilege; and yes, for some, it is something they do because it’s expected and they never realized there were other options. But it’s condescending and disrespectful (as well as clueless about economic reality) to assume that all at-home mothers are the third type. And the third type doesn’t deserve condescension, either.

  4. says

    Actually, in an ideal society, I’d like to see flexible work hours for all parents, so they can spend more time with their kids even if they do work outside the home.

    I’d like to see flexible work situations evolve for ALL people, including the child-free, because while parenting a child who will be a beneficial member of society is a great endeavor, so are some of the things child-free people might get up to if they had the time. I think there are many flexible ways to address business’ needs at least as well as they’re getting addressed by the rigid practices of now and decades past.

    $40K is a lot for a teacher to make in the K-12 level

    I wondered about that. I know in the late 90s, they were doing well to make $22k, and salaries in general haven’t gone up all that much.

  5. amymccabe says

    Teacher’s salaries can range a lot by state and region. I know that my mother makes a lot more than that, but it isn’t considered that much money for the region she lives in (also she’s been teaching for nearly 30 years, which adds to it).

    With a kid on the way, I’ve called around for childcare and I’ve found the cost ranging from $600-$980/month. Not easy to afford at all. If we had two, childcare would be very close to my husband’s or my salary (we make close to equal).

  6. Charles RB says

    $39k a year sounds like a pretty high-end salary for a teacher – so how’s this book talking about living on “a teacher’s salary”, when many won’t be earning that?

    Furthermore, “stays at home with the kids”: I presume that means they’re not at school yet? What happens when they are? Kids cost more money as they get older. Has he factored that in, or will that involve the mother working (at which point you’re not surviving just on his teacher’s salary and that defeats his point)?

  7. Fiona says

    According to the comments on the Amazon link, he doesn’t survive on 40k a year anyway – his wife apparently worked for most of the period covered in the book, they tutor on the side, they receive disability payments and gifts from relatives, etc.

    But “how to survive on 80k a year” isn’t as catchy a title.

  8. says

    The unpaid labour of women makes the world function. This has always been the case.

    Unpaid labor in general makes the world function. In particular, I tend to notice a lot of unpaid child labor and labor-by-relatives helping families thrive. Not to take away from that point, but it’s not just women being undervalued.

    @Fiona: How are they getting disability?? Isn’t it illegal to continue to work while getting paid disability?

    I could see “getting a side job” as a tip for an established teacher, but for a new teacher, or someone whose job doesn’t allow for extra hours like that, or someone who is a single parent/supporter of the household, it’s not going to work out. Gifts from relatives help out, but if that’s worked into your budget, UR DOIN IT WRONG.

  9. Charles RB says

    “But “how to survive on 80k a year” isn’t as catchy a title.”

    It’d be a lot shorter too!

    re the disability: the comment, allegedly based on what’s in the book, says they were collecting disability when one of them wasn’t working. Which isn’t that damning – it’s what disability payments are for – unless you’re claiming you can survive on a teacher’s salary only.

    And what’s really damning is “At one point, Danny leaves teaching altogether for a more lucrative job selling flooring”. That goes against the whole point of the book!

  10. Maria says

    @Nijireiki — no worries. But all’s I’m saying is that we all voted on unpaid labor and we agreed it’s bad. Sooooooo dismissing it as historically inevitable (when it never ever has been) is stupid and not critically useful.

  11. Jenny Islander says

    Forty thousand dollars a year and one paycheck? That’s middle class. So?

    I want to see a book by somebody who fell through the cracks by being unemployed “too long” and managed to live a decent life. Incidentally, I saw the beginning of the argument that led to this nasty situation in a back issue of Good Housekeeping from 1911. The article profiles the (then) new subsidized day cares for infants and preschoolers and points out that the single moms who worked full time outside their homes also had to be full-time homemakers after hours instead of sleeping or otherwise taking care of themselves. Why not, the article asks, pay them to stay home and take care of their own kids instead of throwing the burden of raising future citizens on charities and the state? Because the authorities who could set up such “widows’ pensions” were afraid of “pauperizing” the women–making them dependent on aid.

    A hundred years later, we have how many people sinking out of official sight every month in the name of keeping them independent? Wasn’t it up in the tens of thousands as of late last year? What happens to them?

    Back on topic: If I were as lucky as the guy who wrote that book, I wouldn’t crow. As a matter of fact, I am that lucky. If you count his and his wife’s side jobs, they make about what my family makes with one main paycheck (his) and some extremely part-time work (mine). And we are solidly middle class. We live in one of the most expensive states in the U.S. as far as groceries go, but you wouldn’t believe how low our mortgage is, so it balances out. Our big “struggle” is not taking on any credit card debt in the name of convenience or to buy frills that don’t affect our morale. For this we should get a book deal?

  12. says

    Forty thousand dollars a year and one paycheck? That�s middle class. So?

    I wondered about this. In Los Angeles, it WOULD be a challenge to raise kids on that salary. *Everything* is hella overpriced, with rent/mortgage being ridiculous even now. It looks like this book is pitched strictly at people in coastal cities who’ve lost their jobs or had huge pay cuts or something. But even those people had better have a spouse who can stay home with the kids, or they won’t make it on his tips.

  13. Pandora says

    My family lives on much less that $40K, and we have 4 children. I stayed home with the children for 6 years until my husband lost his job, now we have reversed roles. We have done this to be more economical, daycare alone would have cost us more each month than we could have made.

  14. SayBlade says

    And where will she be getting the $40K if hubby dies, leaves, loses his job or is disabled and cannot work?

  15. Jim says

    Understanding the points in this discussion requires reading BOTH the lines and between the lines.

    1. The IRS does not recognize the contributions of stay-at-home mothers (or fathers) as taxable. Whew!

    2. It is possible for people to lose sight of the contributions of stay-at-home wives, not even recognizing the ability to have a “normal” home life by dint of those contributions.

    3. It is possible for women to be trapped in the stay-at-home situation after they have “bargained” for support with their earning husbands. Situations can change, love can be lost, husbands can become abusive, etc.

    4. Women that do not share as “equal” partners in some real sense (sometimes monetary, sometimes not) can end up in very disadvantageous circumstances.

    5. People who write this kind of book should think a little bit about other perspectives and recognize all contributions.

    6. This discussion is about changing your perspective so that you can see things in another light.

    I am sure I have missed some ideas, but the discussion is maybe not about the literal “truth” of the IRS code.

  16. Maria says

    Piggy backing:

    From what I understand, it’s also to your tax advantage if you’re in a couple and one partner makes substantially less than you.

  17. Maria says

    Annnnd not everything on the internet is directed towards one particular person. Sometimes, when you analyze power structures, shit hits a little close to home, and your job as a critical thinker/reader is to remember that it’s not personal… it’s analytical.

    Plus, like one of my favorite mentors always says… if you have an opinion or a knee jerk response to an analysis of power, pause for a moment and think about how your opinion/thought/emotion serves you in the context of your daily life. How is it useful? What’s it doing for you? What is this response not allowing you to think about? What’s it forcing you to confront?

    It’s a really useful excercise on why sometimes your personal experiences are educational but not in the way you initially think you are.

  18. Casey says

    Considering how my father made less than $10,000 last year and we got foreclosed on and had to move into a decrepit rental up the block, my family* would be shitting ourselves with joy if he made a steady $40k a year (*mom, dad, two kids and three dogs).


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