How to afford your maternity leave

Are there real alternatives to cutting maternity leave short or working overtime to save up for a huge pay cut?

When my mom was pregnant with me, she stopped working entirely about a month before she had me, using the time to reflect, relax, and prepare a lovely, 1970s-décor nursery for my arrival.

How I envy her now! I worked job number one almost up until the day my son was born — and job number two until one month before he entered the world. I was a journalist by day and a guitar teacher by night (two nights a week — and weekends too), until I was 30 weeks pregnant.

I made about $2,000 in six months by taking on extra students — which is what I felt I needed to make to prepare for a steep salary cut once the baby came.

Don't get me wrong: I love teaching guitar, and I am grateful for the salary and benefits provided by my corporate day job. And perhaps I could have made it work with just one salary (I am, after all, married and part of a two-income household). But by making a couple thousand dollars extra, I was able to relax and (almost) not worry about money during the first three months of my son's life.

Still, while hauling a guitar on my back to six homes a week after slaving away at a computer for eight hours is tough when I'm not knocked up. So, just imagine how hard it is when you're carrying 30 additional pounds of baby weight!

The problem with maternity leave in America
Yet, I'm better off than a lot of women in the United States. My job offers two additional weeks of paid parental leave on top of six to eight weeks of disability leave pay (three weeks paid in full, plus three to five weeks paid at 60 percent of my salary).

According to 2013 data from the National Partnership for Women and Families, just 60 percent of the U.S. workforce qualifies for benefits under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave (which can be taken intermittently over a 12-month period, if necessary) with the guarantee of getting your job or job equivalent back. The law only applies to workers at sites with 50 or more employees, who have worked at least 12 months and 1,250 hours.

So I often wonder — for two-income households like mine — are there real alternatives to cutting maternity leave short or working overtime to save up for a huge pay cut? Is it truly possible for one parent-to-be to save enough money for time off by working a normal job? And finally, how many women stress about money during maternity leave or even take up part-time work in advance of it?

Taking leave: A financial drain
Many of the women who take on extra work while pregnant are like me — middle class families with dual-income households. In fact, one of my colleagues who has a particularly nice home in cushy Fairfield County, Conn., recently confessed that his schoolteacher wife clocked in overtime, on-her-feet hours at Pottery Barn right up to her eighth month of pregnancy just to cushion the blow of unpaid leave.

"We know from 2011 Census Bureau data that only 50 percent of first-time mothers take any paid time off of any length after the birth of a child," says Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families. "It can be one day up to three months. Most disability insurance policies cover about six to eight weeks of pay in connection to childbirth … according to 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 40 percent of private sector workers have temporary disability insurance."

And six to eight weeks of disability pay isn't necessarily the same as six to eight weeks of salaried pay.

"Overall, and this is based on 2012 Department of Labor FMLA survey data, only about one-fifth of workers are employed at work sites that offer paid maternity leave to all female employees," says Shabo. "About 35 percent overall are employed at work sites that offer paid maternity leave to all or most female employees, but … it may be less than full pay."

Working overtime while pregnant isn't what all women choose because it can be so physically demanding, so many cut their leave short instead.

Jade Kelly*, a 31-year-old hairstylist who lives in Greenwich, Conn., and works for a small salon that is exempt under FMLA, is only planning to take about four weeks of unpaid leave before returning to work full-time, in part because she is stopping work two weeks before her due date because her work is so physically demanding.

While she praises her job for offering flexible hours, she says she would definitely take off more time if she didn't want to risk losing any of her clientele.

"If I was guaranteed to not lose any clients, and guaranteed pay, I would most definitely take off more time," she says.

Negotiating for more pay
While some will cut their unpaid leave short and others, albeit fewer, may work overtime for extra income, Pat Katepoo, a flex-work adviser and negotiation coach who authored the book Max Your Maternity Leave, says employed women should explore other options.

"There's no question that money drives the length of maternity leave for many women in America," says Katepoo. "It's expensive to have a baby and to be away from work. So if there's not enough cushion, or one income doesn't cut it, then yes, it's going to be, 'I have to return at six weeks,' or 'I have to return at eight weeks.'"

Katepoo suggests three options for Moms-to-be who want more paid time off:

1. Take on extra work at your existing job. Katepoo says what's more manageable than working a second part-time job while pregnant is to take on special projects that go above and beyond regular work duties — and require more working hours. Women who do this should look into getting a written agreement that those extra hours can be applied toward maternity-leave pay, says Katepoo.

2. Ask for more time off. Often, small employers who don't meet the criteria for FMLA may be willing to give you some paid time off, but many women are too afraid to ask for it, says Katepoo. Yet when they do, it sometimes results in getting four to six weeks of paid leave. "If you're a valued employee … there may be room for negotiation," says Katepoo. "But, women tend not to ask."

3. Stretch out maternity leave. For many women, it may make more financial sense to return to a reduced workweek schedule and take a prorated salary before they use the 12 FMLA weeks, which is a little-known option with FMLA, says Katepoo. So if, for example, you have a baby on Feb. 1, you can opt to return to work after eight weeks on a three-day schedule, splitting the remaining 160 hours into nearly seven additional weeks (instead of four unpaid weeks).

How to save for maternity leave
What if these options don't work for you, and you just want to work the one job you have?

If this is the case, it's time to tap into some saving strategies.

"It's hard to work overtime when you're pregnant," says Natalie Taylor, a Certified Financial Planner™ with LearnVest Planning Services. "What I more often see is families trying to cut costs in anticipation of putting some other savings aside in anticipation of their budget, and also adjust their budget if they're going to have to incur child-care expenses."

In case you're not able to make up the shortfall with extra income, here are four ways to help you budget for maternity leave:

1. Track your expenses. Most people don't do this, says Taylor. But without tracking how you spend, it can be really hard to decide what changes you want to make. Taylor suggests downloading apps such as LearnVest's, a budgeting tool that allows you to see how much you spend (and save) and even log cash transactions you make on the go.

2. Look at recurring, underutilized expenses. Look at your recurring expenses and consider where cuts might make sense, such as a monthly cable service or a gym membership you never use. (Some gyms will even let you freeze your membership for several months if you tell them you're pregnant.) "Consider a cable alternative like Netflix, which is $7.99 (a month), or Hulu Plus. It might be cheaper than having premium services," says Taylor. "That can cut your cable bill almost $100 a month." Other areas for consolidation with your spouse could include cell phone plans, or combining auto and renter's insurance with one carrier for a lower overall fee.

3. Nix the usual culprits. We all enjoy coffee shops, lunches, and bars. But they can be unnecessary money drains when you're in baby-savings crunch time. "Packing a lunch can be an easy way that makes a big impact," says Taylor. Or, if you habitually buy lunch out, give yourself a "phrase to save," like "I can buy lunch out — or put $10 in my baby fund." Little cutbacks can add up fast.

4. Project pay cuts. To figure out how much you'll need to save, figure out how much less your income will be while you're on maternity leave so you can set a savings goal. "A key part of doing this is finding out if your disability insurance, while you're on leave, is taxable or nontaxable," says Taylor. "In California, for example, state disability is nontaxable for federal and state tax. Meanwhile, paid family leave is federally taxable but not state taxable. That makes a big difference. If you're going to get $3,000 a month tax-free that means a lot more than $3,000 that's fully taxable." You should also factor in benefits you're going to get from all sources, such as paid vacation (and whether or not your disability requires you to take a week of sick leave), and changes in your partner's income that will help you set your goal.

5. Save a little at a time. "If you've decided $300 a month is the amount you need to set aside, have it come out every time you get paid," says Taylor. "So if you get paid on the 15th and the 30th of the month, set up an automatic transfer from your checking account to your special savings account for this purpose. Having it come out as $150 on every payday can make it easier than saving $300 a month. You can even set up direct deposit from your employer so it's automatic and you don't have to think about it."

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