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What Every Stay-at-Home Mom Should Know about Social Security & Medicare

February 8, 2010
16 Comments

Every May, in honor of Mother’s Day, Salary.com announces how much the work of a stay-at-home mother is worth. Her annual salary, or value, since in the real world the salary is a fantasy: A whopping $122,732. (And that’s based on only 10 job functions typically performed by stay-at-home moms.) It’s nice to be valued.

What isn’t so nice is that although stay-at-home moms are given lip service about their value and importance, full-time stay-at-home motherhood is not recognized in any way as the job it really is. While I’m not saying stay-at-home mothers (and dads) should be paid a salary, per se, it sure would be nice if those years as primary caregivers of young children weren’t so potentially damaging to a full-time parent’s future Social Security and Medicare benefits.

(A caveat: For purposes of this discussion, let’s just assume that Social Security will be around when you become eligible to collect retirement benefits. Currently, the age at which people born after 1960 can collect full benefits is 67. Please put out of your mind the possibility that by time you’re 67-years-old the full-benefit age will be 92.)

Here’s the rub: A person’s Social Security benefit—which is the value of the monthly check she will receive in old age—is based on having a total of 35 years of paid employment. For each year worked, a certain number of “credits” are provided. You need to have 40 credits to be eligible for your own Social Security retirement and Medicare health insurance benefits. (At the current four credit maximum per year, that requires at least 10 years of employment.) To calculate the value of a person’s retirement benefits, the Social Security Administration totals the earnings from the highest 35 years of income, and then divides that number by 35. Using various rate sheets and tables, that sum is then translated into a benefit. Men generally have no problem meeting or exceeding a work-life of 35 years (unless of course they die). Women have a tougher time.

The unfairness of the benefits formula is that a woman gets zero—zippo, nada, a big N.O.—benefit or recognition for the years she works around the clock as a stay–at–home mom. As women are more likely than men are to step in and out of the workforce, a woman’s 35 years often includes many years of zero or near zero income, which drags down her average and is one of many reasons a woman’s Social Security check is commonly smaller than a man’s.

Naysayers argue that because stay-at-home moms don’t earn an income, they don’t contribute to the economy or the Social Security coffers. A counterargument is that stay-at-home mothers do contribute mightily to the economy as consumers and as part of a taxpaying couple. Because there is no “official” benefits-related recognition of the work of stay-at-home mothers, women (as well as an increasing number of men) are essentially having to choose between their children’s immediate needs and their own need for financial security in old age.

In an article for the advocacy organization Mothers and More, its president at the time, Kristen Maschka, calculated that by leaving the workforce for seven years to stay home with her child, she would be forfeiting $2,000 a month in future Social Security benefits. “Assuming I live to be eighty-seven,” she writes, “that’s nearly half a million dollars.” (Another great advocacy organization for moms is MomsRising.org.)

The cost of an unpaid stay–at–home career—or a paid career that makes accommodations to parenting responsibilities—varies for each woman.

You can calculate both your future benefits and losses by visiting www.ssa.gov/planners/calculators.htm.

THE 50 PERCENT SOLUTION

In lieu of recognizing that stay–at–home parenting is work, the government allows a married woman to collect off of her spouse’s work history instead, if receiving 50 percent of his benefit amount calculates to being more than 100 percent of hers. (And this scenario is also true in the other direction, with the husband collecting based on his wife’s earnings.) So if a woman and her spouse make it to retirement together and an anniversary of more than a decade of marriage, she can collect either her benefit or an amount that’s half of his. For example: If John gets $5,000 a month, Jane gets $2,500, so as a couple living together they bring in $7,500 monthly.

A divorced woman can collect spousal benefits, so long as the marriage lasted 10 years. In such a scenario, a divorced Jane who had 10-plus years vested in a marriage can still claim the 50 percent spousal benefit, but since she’s no longer in the same household as John, unless she remarries, the Social Security income coming into her home is just $2,500 instead of the $7,500 she would have had access to had the marriage not dissolved.

Unfortunately, because of the decade rule, a woman who stayed home with her children for nine years of her nine-year marriage receives no spousal-linked Social Security or Medicare benefits. An unmarried stay–at–home parent who has children with a partner has no protection. If she has her own work history, she may have access to a benefit of her own. But if she were a teenage or young mother and continues to have a minimal employment history, she’s at risk of becoming a very poor old lady.

Another inequity: Stay-at-home parents don’t qualify for private disability insurance because such insurance is for replacing income from work, but sometimes it’s their work that needs replacing. If something terrible happens to a stay-at-home mom and she can’t work for a year (as a stay-at-home mom) will her family be able to afford the $122,732 needed to hire her replacement?

For more information about your Social Security eligibility and benefits, visit the Social Security Administration website at www.ssa.gov or www.ssa.gov/women.

Melissa Stanton is a mother of three, former editor at Time Inc. magazines, and the author of The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide: Field-tested strategies for staying smart, sane, and connected while caring for your kids (Seal Press/Perseus Books, 2008). Her website is www.RealLifeSupportforMoms.com.

16 Comments

So true, so true...
Most of the moms reading this are young mothers. I'm a grandma of 56, divorced after 25 years, and now in the workforce and living with a wonderful man who is retired.
I *just now* qualified to be eligible to receive my own SS.
I was a SAHM of 5 wonderful productive citizens who kept me busy keeping them busy...

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Nice article. I think there are some companies who will sell you disability insurance for the stay-at-home parent. I know that Aid Association for Lutherans (now part of Thrivent) used to. I think Thrivent still might. Worth checking in to.

I am home with an 8 year old little girl who needs me so much to take her to the doctors constantly as she has severe depression, anxiety, panic disorder, etc. I am looking into disa ility for her. I was married & a stay at home mom for most of our 7 year marriage, which doesnt reach the 10 year mark anyway. I am 42 years old What on earth am I going to do when I have to retire?

Such a tough decision to make. I am glad that we've forfeited my earnings so that I can care for my son and future children, though it's difficult not having "my own money". Fortunately my husband values what I do and has no problem earning the income necessary to live. We've had to cut back on things but we save too by not having to pay someone else to "manage" a household...

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AAGGGHHH! Social Security was never meant to be a retirement account. It is not the governments responsibility to take care of us when we are old. It is our responsibility to save right now for the future. If that means we need to downsize our house or sell a car then so be it. Wake up America...live within your means!!!

I'm a mom and I've never had so much as 6 months off to raise my kids. I couldn't even take a full maternity leave, because we just couldn't afford it. To suggest that women who choose to stay home should benefit from the money that I work to pay into the Social Security system is a slap in the face...

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Hmmm. I feel mixed. I think it is incredibly worthwhile for parents to raise their children themselves - but I also think SAHMs are extremely lucky and instead of appreciating that - are often griping for respect. My neighbor complains about having to leave her child for two hours so she can go to yoga. How does she think I feel leaving my kids for 40 hours while I work? I HATE it...

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I see both points of view... I have been both a SAHM and also had to work 60-70 hrs/week just to make ends meet. While I value and appreciate that I am home with my 2 daughters, I also dream of one day opening my own small business and re-entering the work-world. My youngest daughter has A.S., anxiety and depression. She has been hospitalized 6 times in the last year and a half alone never mind the endless 9 hr. E.R. visits, school emergencies, etc....

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I am not at all counting on SS or Medicare. I don't have an answer to the problem that stay at home moms do not contribute financially to SS. Should they receive something that they did not pay into? Probably not, IMO.
I also appreciate that I can stay at home but it is less luck than making a plan and a decision that this is important and a valuable contribution to our family and to society...

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Your retirement plan is supposed to be at least 3-tier. It should consist of a savings,a 401k or other sponsored plan such as a TSP or IRA and social security (if it still exists when you retire). SAHM, at a minimum,get something through your local bank or credit union, you never know what may happen.

Very good article.

This is unfair. I worked with a woman who stayed working long after her peers had retired. Now I understand what she was talking about when she said she had to keep working to improve her Social Security benefits because she had stayed home with her kids for several years. (She was also divorced.) The system might work for <a href="http://www.mcitpquestions.com&quot;&gt;mcitp&lt;/a&gt; stay at home moms who make it to retirement age with their spouse, but it sounds like lots of women may be at risk...

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I worked part time for several years. But I was suddenly diagnosed with crippling disease. I missed drawing SSD by $700. according to my case worker but was drawing SSI. Then 5 years later my husband had a bad accident and became disabled. I lost SSI benefits. My son and i drew a check until he graduated. Then neither of us got one. But I was still disabled adn have many medical needs. but because I do not draw anymore I can not get medical assistance...

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I am 60, stayed home and cannot draw the 1/2 until I am 70 because my husbnd won't be 62 until then. My husband has earned his social security based on his earnings but will not be old enough to draw until I am 70. In other words we are paying a huge penalty for my being older!Can't see why I shouldn't be able to draw according on what the amount would be if he were to retire at the time I am 62. We still would not get the same benefit amount everyone else does...

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I have been a SAHM for 16 years. We are unmarried by choice. I will never be able to collect social security or any benefits from my partner. He makes good money too.
I invest in the stock market to create a retirement for my self. Don't wait for GOV to figure anything out for you.Save now. Even if you only start with a few hundred dollars.

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