As many as 80% of American women will not get paid maternity leave, or any financial assistance when they take time off due to pregnancy complications. Many women are shocked to discover this only after they become pregnant.
It gets worse: the U.S. is one of the only developed countries in the world that doesn’t give women any financial backstop for maternity leave. And while a few enlightened states have filled the void with some pay coverage during maternity leave, most of us can’t change where we live.
A federal law, FMLA, does provide the right to unpaid leave for 12 weeks, but many women can’t afford to take three months off from work without any salary. Unsurprisingly, that means if you’re not getting any paid maternity leave, you will feel like you have to go back to work when your baby is only weeks — or even days — old.
If that’s your situation, what should you do? How can you piece together your finances so that you can afford a longer, unpaid maternity leave? While the size of everyone’s piggy bank looks different, there are certain things you can start doing today that will make a difference during your leave.
1. Check your company's policy, and then double check.
Are you sure you really aren’t going to get any pay during your leave? Check both with your employer and look into state laws (particularly if you work in New Jersey, California or Rhode Island). Marie, for example, took advantage of California’s short-term disability law to generate some income during her maternity leave.
If you’ve confirmed that the company policy means you will not get paid, and you cannot take out any employer-sponsored short-term disability policies at that point, ask your HR department and manager if they can make an exception for you — regardless of your company’s official policy. You may have to make some sacrifices, including offering to work remotely or part-time, but it’s better than completely going from full-pay to zero in one fell swoop.
2. Start saving up every minute of your paid time off, vacation and sick days.
Those are typically paid days off so you don’t want to be using time off now unless absolutely necessary. That way, you can save all those days for when Baby arrives. Some of us, of course, have more time off than others. Lauren, who worked at a non-profit in Boston managed to take three months of “paid” maternity leave simply by saving up years of unused vacation days!
3. Look critically at your savings account.
How long could it last if you lived very frugally, and what are the chances you can grow your savings between now and when Baby arrives? For Letitia Camire, this meant streamlining their grocery budget, not driving much and putting a lot of things on credit cards.
Making lifestyle changes is never comfortable, but sooner rather than later, the financial realities of raising a family will hit and you’d probably have to change some things anyway.
Little things like cutting down on that extra take-out coffee every day or bringing your lunch to work can make a difference over time. Some women even start a “maternity leave savings account.”
4. Start cutting down on your voluntary contributions to your 401k and other discretionary investments.
If you’re strapped for short-term cash, short of actually cashing out your retirement, you can at least decrease or momentarily pause your monthly contribution to your longer term plans. This isn’t something we recommend lightly and it isn’t for everyone, but checking out exactly where all your cash outflows are going is important if you need a short-term fix.
5. Ask for help.
Can friends and family pitch in? Krystal Weston turned to her mother-in-law for financial help with diapers and formula. The number of women crowdfunding their maternity leaves on sites like GoFundMe and IndieGogo are heartbreaking, but many of these women do raise some funds to help them with baby essentials and the ability to stay home for a bit longer than they otherwise could afford.
6. Look for support from state and local non-profits.
These organizations can help with things related to your baby, such as free counseling and access to donations with respect to things like diapers and baby clothes or furniture. Anything you save here and there can go toward covering your bills during your maternity leave.
7. Consider taking on additional work during your pregnancy (or even during your maternity leave).
It’s what Jamera Lee Masopp had to do (though in her case she was fired while pregnant). If your current employer absolutely will not provide any pay during your leave, you may have to explore part-time options to supplement your income during pregnancy and even during your leave (e.g. with remote work).
We feel for anyone who’s struggling to figure out how to survive an unpaid maternity leave. Hopefully with a little bit of luck, creative planning and help from your loved ones, you’ll be able to muddle through and make the best of a crappy situation.