It’s no secret that parental leave in the United States leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, it’s the only developed nation that doesn’t require paid leave of some kind, according to the Pew Research Center. The kicker is that nearly half of two-parent households are made up of parents who both work full time—and in 40 percent of families with children, the mother is the primary breadwinner.
So what are working parents to do if their employers don’t offer some form of paid leave? While most OB-GYNs recommend taking six weeks off to recover from childbirth, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 17 percent of U.S. workers had access to paid leave in 2018. The picture isn’t quite as grim if you live in one of the four states that offer paid leave of their own. (We’re looking at you, California, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York.)
The only real resource out there is the Family and Medical Leave Act, which protects your job for up to 12 weeks. The only catch is that your company must have at least 50 employees, you have to meet certain requirements to qualify, and it’s unpaid. Let’s be honest: How long can most of us afford to go without a paycheck?
If you’re preparing to bring home baby with unpaid parental leave, all hope isn’t lost. Here are four tried-and-true ways to get ahead of the game.
Get Clear on Your Benefits
Book some time with your HR manager to clarify what your benefits are.
“You may not get actual dollars, but look into what the company’s offering,” says Anna Sergunina, a California-based certified financial planner and president of MainStreet Financial Planning. “It’s really important to look at it on an annual basis, but particularly when starting a family.”
A little bit of paid time off is better than nothing. If a significant amount of paid leave is off the table, is a Flexible Spending Account (FSA) available to help ease the blow of childcare costs? It’s an option that lets you pay for childcare using pre-tax dollars. The 2019 contribution limit is $5,000 if you’re single or married and filing your taxes jointly; $2,500 for married folks filing separately.
The takeaway here is that it pays to get clear on what benefits your company offers. The option to work remotely a few days a week, for example, could majorly curb your childcare costs.
Start Earmarking Cash Before Baby Comes
As soon as you find out you’re expecting, begin thinking about how much time off you’d ideally like to take. It can be hard to predict, but Sergunina recommends ballparking it, then determining how much income you’ll be missing out on after accounting for any paid leave. Then consider what your expenses will look like during your time off.
Be sure to factor in baby-related costs like diapers and projected health care expenses. (Connect with your insurance provider to clarify how much of the birth you’ll be expected to pay for, as well as how the baby will impact your monthly premium.) Once you’ve accounted for all that, you should be able to come up with a rough savings target.
“That’s the first step, understanding your expenses,” says Sergunina. “Also look at what you can cut right now as you’re getting ready to have a child.”
Everything from canceling splurgy subscription services to re-shopping your insurance policies can free up real money you can put toward your leave fund. In the run-up to baby, is it possible to pick up a side gig to dial up your savings efforts? One other option is adding a crowdfunded parental leave fund to your baby registry.
Explore Short-Term Disability Insurance
When chatting with your benefits coordinator at work, find out whether or not your company offers short-term disability insurance. It’s something that can help ease the burden of unpaid maternity leave by replacing some or all of your income while you recover from childbirth. The cost and qualifying criteria will vary from company to company, but it’s worth looking into.
If you’re self-employed or your company doesn’t offer it, check to see if your state has any individual plans up for grabs. If not, you can always purchase a plan through a private carrier, but Sergunina warns that you most likely have to do this before getting pregnant as few insurance companies will be willing to cover you after the fact.
Stockpile Your Sick Days and Paid Time Off
There’s one other makeshift way to extend your paid time off—leveraging all the sick days and PTO you’ve accumulated thus far. Have two weeks’ worth of vacation time in the bank? Throw that toward your parental leave to extend the amount of time you’ll have at home with your baby. Sure, you may have to miss out on an annual trip, but healing from childbirth and bonding with your family will likely feel way more important.
Tapping your vacation and sick days isn’t an ideal scenario, but it’s a scrappy way to give yourself the gift of paid leave. The state of paid parental leave in the U.S. is woefully behind other industrialized nations, which means it’s up to you to craft the leave that you deserve.