Who’s Making Your Lunch?

In an old Peanuts cartoon, Charlie Brown complains day after day because all he has to eat for lunch is a bologna sandwich. His buddy Linus finally asks him, “Well who’s making your lunch, Charlie Brown?” Charlie Brown solemnly replies, “I am.”

This brilliant animated moment illustrates the fact that all of us have choices – about how we spend our time, and our money. We may not want to believe it, but we are in full control of the choices we make.

Just About Everything We Do or Don’t Do is of Our Choosing

Sometimes it feels like we have very few choices. Maybe because circumstances have us pinned down in our current job, or we owe too much money to make a move, etc. But the simple act of getting up and going to work is a choice.

Unless you live under communist rule, you still have a choice whether or not you get up in the morning and head to the office, and you have a choice regarding your place of employment. Accepting that can actually make bad jobs feel more tolerable.

You might even have this little conversation with yourself in the company parking lot tomorrow morning: “Yes, my job stinks, but I am choosing to go back in and put in a full day’s work.”

Thank God it’s Friday! Oh God it’s Monday!

I was once stuck in a bad job in a toxic environment – I mean really toxic. I was stressed out, burned out, and basically fed up with my job. And then in a moment of clarity it occurred to me that I was making a choice every day to get up and go to work.

Sure, I would be fired if I didn’t go. My family would lose our employer’s health insurance. A steady paycheck would cease to be deposited in my bank account. Our bills wouldn’t get paid and we would probably lose our car, our home and our other belongings. All those things were negative consequences of my decision not to go to work, but I still made the choice.

Essentially, I was choosing to exchange my time in a lousy job for pay, benefits and the ability to keep our stuff.

These same lessons apply to our finances. I’ve known many couples over the years who have been envious of my wife’s position as a stay-home mom. It does not come without sacrifice. However, my wife and I agreed early in our marriage that she would stay home with our kids until they were school age or beyond.

The cost of daycare and employment-related expenses would make breaking even difficult, and getting further ahead nearly impossible. I chose to drive an older vehicle for many of those early years, took my lunch to work nearly every day and we both gave up many costly hobbies and collections so my wife could stay home. She has put her educational and career goals on hold for the same. We made a choice.

Life’s Too Short to Spend It Being Miserable

If you are stuck in a dead end job, or are working just to make a car payment, consider setting yourself free by giving up some of life’s luxuries.

Consider a mother of two paying $800 a month in daycare expenses for her three year-old and a newborn. At $20 an hour it will take over 40 hours of work each month just to pay for childcare expenses (actually, it will take about 55 hours when you factor her household’s earnings are in the 28% tax bracket).

Then factor in the cost of a work wardrobe, a car, higher maintenance costs on that car, gasoline, eating out, etc. and suddenly you realize that mom is simply working to pay for the pleasure of working. Seems illogical doesn’t it, assuming she would rather stay at home and raise her kids?

I certainly don’t begrudge couples who agree to both spouses working. I was raised by a single mother who didn’t have a choice. However, if given the choice, I would always vote for mom or dad staying home with the kids, particularly if it was something they always dreamed of doing.

I would now encourage you to reflect on the goals you have sacrificed because you feel financial pressure to stay in a bad job. Sell the car. Cancel the gym membership. Move to a cheaper place. Stop eating out. Make the tough choices now so you can spend your remaining life energy doing the things that are most important to you.



  1. Every time I make a decision to take on more debt it’s not really the financial implications that I consider, but rather how that purchase my affect my “freedom”. When I bought a home I realized I couldn’t (easily) move across the country or change jobs to another state. When I bought my wife a car I realized accepting that new debt was another liability. My ability to CHOOSE is my number one reason for keeping my liabilities low and leading a frugal lifestyle. I bought a house and car that was well below what I could “afford” just so I could maximize freedom to choose to do other things and lead a flexible life.

    Good article, a lot of it really hit home for me.

  2. It can be difficult to get the energy to leave mediocre (or worse) situations, especially when your decisions are effecting other people, like your spouse or kids. But it is important to remember who makes the lunch, and that some things are worth the risks to get to the rewards. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Ok, let’s consider that mother of two in the 28% tax bracket. The lower end of that bracket for a married couple is $139,350. Assuming she is bringing home half of that, that means her job pays her about $70k a year (much more than the $20/hr you give her credit for). If she has no other benefits, and we assume 10% state/local income tax, she is taking home about $38k a year, or $3200 a month. Take out the $800 for daycare, another $100 for cloths, $300 for a nicer car, and $500 for eating out and she will still net $1500 a month. That may or may not be worth the hassle to her (esp. if her SO is also making $70k) but it is not small chunk of change.

    • Actually, the assumption here seems to be that her entire income is subject to the 28% tax bracket. Thus her spouse must be earning at least $80 an hour (160k per year). Pro tip: if your spouse is earning $160k per year, it may not be worth your time to work for $40k per year.

      Also where in the country can one get day care for two kids (one an infant) for $800 a month?

      It might be worth working if you are breaking even, to keep your skills up to date. In 4 or 5 years your kid will go off to school anyways. Still, I would only do this if you enjoy working.

      • Of course, these are just examples of the “the overall idea of the post is good, but the examples don’t prove it”

      • I agree with the point of this post. But also feel that you’ve WAY oversimplified the ‘stay home vs. work’ scenario. There are so many other factors and expenses to consider. And, $800/month for 2 kids is insane. I live in a major city & realize the costs here are high… but I pay $1600-1800/month for part-time (20-30 hours/week) care for one child – and that is a reasonable cost where I live. Care for 2 kids at $800/month would likely be very sub-standard!

        • I knew I was asking for it by envoking the “stay at home mom” discussion. Costs and level of care vary drastically from place to place, much like incomes, home prices, etc. I was using the $800 example because a coworker used to have her kids in daycare full-time and she shared the costs with me. Care was certainly not sub-standard, but we live in a much smaller town.

          • Perhaps you should have chosen a less controversial example. Or just left that example out. Your story about choosing to go to a job you didn’t like was more powerful anyways.

            I think day care vs. SAH is so controversial because both sides have a stake in believing our choice is right. Nobody wants to think they are doing anything less than what’s best for their children. It’s a very personal choice and I think both options are reasonable.

            (Of course personally since we have our daughter in day care, we not only rationalize that it’s fine for her, but even good for her. It did seem like she lost some “dealing with others” skills over the summer while she was home her mother.)

          • A good rule of thumb I have developed over the years talking to married moms in the Chicago area is that a married mom usually can pay for child care and other expenses if she only has one child in child care, but it that doesn’t make sense to work if she has two or more children in child care.

            This rule breaks if 1) She has an executive position and makes real good money, or 2) she has access to means tested subsidized child care (many church child cares offer mean tested child care and the sponsoring church picks up the difference), or 3) one or more of the couple’s retired parents live with the mom and can take care of the children for free.

        • “It is VERY hard to get a job when you have been out of work…”
          I agree with you on this point – I am currently in this situation. I have been looking for work in the field I was edcuated in and trained for and my door is not breaking down with offers by any means. It is frustrating as heck!

          But… I would not trade the time I have spent as a SAHM. Nothing could ever compare – especially money – to the joy I have experienced, the volunteering opportunities, and the closeness that my family shares because I stayed home and became my family’s CEO. They would not have it any other way, sacrafices and all.

  4. Let’s take another look at the SAHM vs work situation.

    My friend makes about $35 an hour, 32 hours a week. She has a 401K,
    gets health insurance through her husband. She clears about $3000 a month.

    She wants to stay home rather than pay $700 a month in child care. Considering her commute is less than 5 miles, she brown bags her lunch,
    and doesn’t need new clothing very often, think of what she will give up.

    1. No 401k contributions. In 30 years, she will have less income.

    2. Less social security paid into the system. Yes, the system will be vastly different in 30 years, but she will lose out on the extra contributions.

    3. Day care expenses can be tax deductible.

    4. She will miss out on a lot of job training ( medical field ) she will need to keep current until the last kid starts kindergarten.

    5. Her job field is in high demand. Her husband’s isn’t. He is subject to layoff a lot, and her income is needed to build emergency reserves, pay for necessities when he is on layoff.

    I’m not saying she must stay employed, only that there are other factors to consider. She only works 4 days a week, and her mom is willing to babysit, free, 3-4 times a month, keeping her expenses low, and the benefits in place. And the kids will get to know their grandparents.

    Some of my most cherished memories are of the times I spent with my grandmother.

    By quitting work, she will lose more than the $700 a month she saves.

    • You make excellent points, from a financial/career perspective. However, some people choose to stay home for reasons that have nothing to do with money. And many parents have no family members able/willing/available to watch their kids during the day, so the only two options are you stay home and care for them yourself, or you go to work and send them to a daycare.

      • A co-worker was in the same position (highly paid mother, lower paid unstable job father). There solution was for the father to stay home and take care of the child (a Mr. Mom scenario).

  5. I agree with the gist of this…and I and DH were in a similar situation. We had two kids under 5 y/o and my job was a 20 min. commute, was free-lance (so not a regular salaried income), I needed to dress professionally, and I was earning $18/hr. We didn’t have close family around to help out with child care. DH didn’t make terrible money and we were, at times, struggling w/our finances. However, his job was extremely secure.

    When baby #3 was coming, we decided that we could live w/one car and that the hassle and frenetic pace of both of us working was inconsistent with our expectations of raising our children. So I quit and never looked back.

    Now the kids are older and I still enjoy parenting…I have a part-time job, and I know that I will eventually fall into a full-time position when the time is right. I feel that it’s all been worth it.

    • I think the implication that a 20 minute commute is some kind of unreasonable burden is HILARIOUS.

  6. I really liked this post. I know the working mom vs SAHM topic can be controversial but I think it’s a great example of the point you are trying to make. A lot of people say they can’t afford to stay at home but they probably could (not always of course) if they were willing to make the sacrifices to do so. I choose to work because I like what I do and we have a great situation in that I work from home and we have a full-time nanny. If we didn’t have this situation, I would have to really consider whether my work with kids in daycare would be right for our family. I chose to be re-leveled to take the job I have so I could work from home. Consequently I had a paycut.

    I love Linus’s question because it’s a great reminder that we do choose. We need to own whatever it is that we choose.

  7. I know for sure that I am a working mother who wishes to be a SAHM but seriously can’t. I live in a high-cost city, and we even considered moving to a low-cost city but decided to stay because both of our families (immediate and extended) all live here, and family is very important to us. I wish I could be a SAHM mom, but my husband and I make the same amount, and we need both incomes to live. We’re pretty frugal as it is, we take lunch to work, don’t buy stuff, don’t have cable, use the library, don’t have crazy commutes and don’t wear expensive suits to work, we track our expenses, not to mention all the savings and insurance we’re putting our money into, you name it. I’m lucky in that I have a family member watching my kid while we work, and I have a flexible work schedule that allows me to work from home two days of the week. But boy do I wish I could be a SAHM! I guess we sacrificed that for having our extended family near us and living in a high-cost city.

  8. We have a six month old (our first) and both my husband and I worked full time before I had her. I work from home (real estate agent) and have cut back significantly on the amount of work I do. My salary will probably go down by about 40% now that I’ve cut back, and our daughter is in daycare 3 days a week. I love the satisfaction I get from earning money, but I want to have the choice to work or not. Kudos to those of you with multiple kids! I can do this with one, but I can’t imagine a baby AND a toddler, even in our fortunate situation.

  9. Great topic. Since I was and continue to be a SAHM I see your point. I was in that position. I couldn’t find a job that made enough to justify working outside the home. Although I get it when both parents have to work. I was just out of college, young and we started a family, which = low paying job. Take someone who has a career in place and then starts a family = they probably make enough to keep the job and pay for childcare.
    You can also go a number of directions with this. When you have one parent at home you are much more likely to have most of your meals at home, plus lunches made for the work day. With the couponing craze going on, SAHMs can actually save so much money it’s like having a second job.
    But take the money equation out completely and look at just the time you get with your kids. Here I sit with a sophomore and a senior. I am so glad I chose to be home with them while they were growing up. I am glad I am still home today so I don’t miss sporting events because of work. When my daughter comes home early from school because of a short schedule her senior year, I get to be with her. Help her with college prep stuff. You can’t have those years back.
    These years did not come without a price tag though. For years I just sat at home because we didn’t have the money to go anywhere, I dress in Target clothing and we spent years in town homes and rental homes that were not glamorous by any means. But it was the lifestyle we chose. It was a decision on my part to save money where ever I could to continue to stay home.
    In the end you just need to be happy with your decision and ok with your life style. Live with no regrets.

  10. What is debt? Debt is living beyond your means. Debt is having possessions you don’t need. Debt is you, not listening to your voice of reason. When we control our wants, separate it from our needs, we will all finally be debt free.

  11. Why all this talk about women staying home as opposed to “men and women”? (Jason, I did take note that you, at least, did include men in your original post.) In this day and age there are plenty of men taking the lead in childcare and homecare. There are two dads in my small neighborhood doing it and there is at least a 40/60 split between men/women at our elementary school drop-off and pickup (including grandparents of both genders).