Unpaid Maternity Leave As A Registered Nurse: How To Make It Work
December 20, 2017
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As an expecting Mother and registered nurse, I will soon be confronting one of the biggest downfalls to being a per diem RN: unpaid maternity leave.

In fact, as a per diem nurse, I receive absolutely zero benefits outside of my regular hourly rate.

So why be a per diem nurse, you ask?

Per diem nursing has been a game-changer for me because it gives me the scheduling flexibly I need to be a working Mom. Per diem means: for each day. As a nurse, I am literally employed “by the day.” Essentially, I can schedule myself to work any day I want.

Zoe is going to have a lot more responsibility soon in her next role as big sister.

I became a per diem nurse out of necessity due to scheduling and childcare issues. The telemetry unit I had been working on was unable to give me a set weekly schedule. This made it very difficult to secure a regular nanny or plan for daycare for our daughter.

Every month I would request the schedule I needed to make my childcare situation work. Unfortunately, I would inevitably still be scheduled on many days in which I had no childcare available to me.

I had a choice: continue to call-in sick and struggle to find alternative childcare.  Or make a change that allowed me to have the flexibility I needed to be a working Mom. Ultimately, my husband and I made the decision that it was better to leave my career RN position in order to reap the much needed flexibility benefit of being a per diem nurse.

Still, there is something about this that infuriates me: I have been paying into maternity leave and disability benefits for almost 17 years. Now that I’m pregnant again and actually need maternity leave benefits, I’m no longer eligible for them. Oh, the irony!

Maternity leave: A financial drain

After baby arrives, I will be out for at least 8 weeks or longer so I can spend baby bonding time with our son. This will add up to a lot of money lost.

Just to make my point, here is a hypothetical, but very real situation:

Lets say I make a little over $1000 a day and I work 3 days a week. 3 days x $1000 = $3,000 per week. So just one week of unpaid maternity leave results in a $3,000 financial loss.

So far, the math is pretty simple. It doesn’t sound that horrible… yet.

But, if you multiply $3,000 a week by 8 weeks of maternity leave, that equals $24,000 in financial losses. And that’s if I only take off a measly 8 weeks of baby bonding time.

I will be taking more time then that so I can spend more time at home with our son. I think its important for his early development and luckily we can afford it.

And the financial losses continue to rise…

12 weeks = $36,000

16 weeks = $48,000

You get my point…  It really starts to add up.

Additional time off before baby

I could be out of work for weeks or months before I give birth depending on how my pregnancy progresses in the third trimester. Nurses have very physically demanding jobs that often require grueling 12 hour shifts. There is a strong possibility that I may have to step out earlier then I would like.

We could be looking at 50k or more in financial losses depending on how early I have to stop working and how long I decide to stay home with our newborn.

Who knew having a baby was so costly for a working Mom in the United States? Even before factoring in medical expenses.

Unpaid maternity leave statistics in the U.S.

Sarah and Zoe in the NICU

This is a very sleepy photo of Zoe and me in the NICU when she was a week old. Zoe arrived 7 weeks early. At 4.3 pounds we are incredibly luckily that she was as healthy as she was. Our doctors called her “tiny but mighty.”

It makes me so sad that I live in the only developed country in the world that doesn’t automatically offer paid maternity leave benefits to working women. In fact, 88% of employees have no access to paid maternity leave or paid paternity leave in the U.S.

The Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees by federal law that women are entitled up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off. However, many women still don’t even qualify for that if they work for a small employer or have been with that employer less then 1 year. What a shame.

What now?

Now that I have gotten my venting out of the way, it’s time to talk about a plan. The only thing left to do is try to make the best out of a crummy situation.

I am determined to make my maternity leave as positive and stress-free as possible, despite the financial drain of having no paid maternity leave.

Unpaid maternity leave: How to make it work!

#1.  Open a new saving account dedicated to maternity leave.

One of the easiest ways to save money is to pay yourself first each paycheck through direct deposit. That way you don’t even see then money hitting your checking account. Liquid cash is good so you can use it when you need it.

Suzie Orman, one of my long-time favorite financial gurus says that you want to have as much money saved up for as many months as you plan to take off, as well as an 8 month emergency plan. You never know when an emergency can strike, for example, a medical emergency, a job loss or worse. The faster you can start saving into an account dedicated to maternity leave, the more prepared you will be when it comes.

#2.  Make a budget and stick to it.

I prefer more of a no budget, budget strategy. Basically, I decide how much I want to save each paycheck and immediately transfer it into an online Barclays savings account as soon as payday comes. No muss, no fuss.

I am aware of everything I purchase and review it each month by using a program called Mint to track my expenses. If you aren’t using this, you should be. Since I have started using Mint I have watch my savings rate take off to a place I have never been able to before. It is amazing how much you can save when you know exactly where your money is going!

I’m always surprised at how many people I talk to who have no idea what they really spend in a month. Needless to say, this is a poor strategy for preparing for an unpaid maternity leave. You’ve got to have a plan.

#3.  Make more money now or take on extra work.

If you are currently pregnant or even just thinking about it, now is a good time to take on extra hours at work. Especially if you are able to get overtime pay.

As a nurse, anything over 40 hours of work a week is considered overtime at my hospital. Is is very difficult for me to do more then that since I have my daughter at home, but I have done it a few times just to add a little more to my savings.

In addition, some holidays pay time-and-a-half rates. Therefore, I have been known to pick up shifts on Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving or even Christmas. Its not my favorite thing to do but my family handles it by celebrating these holidays on the day before or the day after the actual holiday. It adds up quite a bit when you are saving to be out for a few months.

#4.  Discuss recurring expenses that you aren’t really using or don’t need.

Look at your expenses and see if there is anywhere that you can reasonably make a cut. Are you really using the 100$ a month gym membership? Or does it make more sense to take daily walks and do online yoga at home?

My husband and I talk about money a lot more then I think many other couples do. Saving money is all about establishing priorities and being on the same page. Talking about money has kept us in good financial health and kept us on the same page with our spending habits.

#5.  Look at the easy ways to cut back.

Families dropping from a dual income to a single income usually need to trim expenses somewhere. Make a list of everything you are spending money on, and be honest with yourself about what is an actual need. Here are a few ideas to throw on the table:

  • nix the coffee cart habit = save $4 a day
  • pack your lunches = save $12 a day
  • cancel the cable you are barely using anyway = save $80 a month
  • cook your meals at home instead of ordering take out = potentially $100’s in savings per month (if you eat out a lot)
  • go on a 3-6 month spending freeze on things that are not an actual “need” = $(fill in the space here)

Do you get my point? There is A LOT of money to be saved if you just pay more attention to what you are spending money on.

I do consider myself somewhat of an expert on “trimming the fat” on my own spending habits since paying off a large amount of student loan debt in a short amount of time. That experience is helping me prepare my unpaid maternity leave as well.

#6.  Don’t fall for the baby registry trap.

There are so many items that I was told I had to have for baby #1. Many of them are “nice to have items” that I barely even used (uh hem, grocery cart baby cover used a mere 3 times!). Needless to say, many things from my baby registry are being stored away in our garage and will probably be given away practically new.

I remember looking through Pinterest at lists of “must haves” for a new Mom. They are long and mostly unnecessary. Stay away from those lists!

For example, I was told that I “needed” the newborn insert for our stroller. But for the first few months I was using her car seat in her stroller. By the time I actually went to use the insert she has already grown out of it. Same went for the ergo baby newborn insert- I didn’t even need it until she was to big to fit in it anyway.

If you actually need something, then go ahead and get it. These are just my thoughts as a second time Mom with baby registry regret. With the exception of a double stroller and a crib (which I will buy pre-owned), I can’t think of any other BIG items I will actually need for our new baby.

#7.  Extra expenses to take into consideration:

Sarah with Zoe at home on maternity leave

I was so grateful for amazing baby bonding time with Zoe after she was born.

There will be some extra expenses after the baby is born. Some of the big ones for us are diapers, wipes, formula/food, and additional childcare.  None of these things are cheap, so its good to be prepared for the expenses in advance.

You could always decide to go the cloth diaper route. I know people who have done this and it does save quite a bit if money. That, however, was not in our savings plan. There are some things of convenience that really are worth the money, and that was one for us.

Other big expenses include childcare enrichment classes (MyGym, recreation classes, music classes, ect..) if that is something you are interested in.

Childcare is our single biggest expense and we pay our nanny $240-$360 per week (for 2-3 days only). It would cost a lot more if I worked 5 days a week. I have friends who work full time and pay a nanny $750 or more in cash every single week. Day care is much cheaper but still a large expense.

I have read that the average baby costs their parents $300,000 from the time they are born until the time they turn 18. And that doesn’t even include a college education! I don’t know about you, but that really makes me think about how I budget our money.

#8.  Think about the big picture.

Having a baby is one of the most amazing human experiences I have ever had. I absolutely love being a Mom. However, it can also be stressful at times, and it probably will be, even with the most thoughtful preparation.

At the end of the day you can only do the best you can. Saving for unpaid maternity leave is just one of the things I am doing to try and ease the financial loss that comes with having a baby. My plan is to eliminate as much stress as I can so I can joyfully relish in the awesomeness that comes with having a new baby.

Now, if only I could invent a healthy way to live on increments of 2 hours of sleep or less, I would be golden!

Additional Recommended Reading

10 Simple Ways To Help Your Toddler Prepare For A New Sibling

Silent Placental Abruption:  Our Premature Birth Story

Why I Will Always Be A Working Mom

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