12 Weeks Off Work Without Pay: How I’m Preparing for Maternity Leave

A man and woman are pictured with an ultrasound of their baby
Photo by JLT Photography

Only 12% of American workers are elibigle to take 12 weeks of paid leave through their employer. Unfortunately, I am not one of them.

In 2015 – after the birth of my daughter, Rose – I was able to take seven full weeks off. I negotiated with my employer to work part time for five weeks after that before going back full time.

Now, I’m pregnant with my second child and plan to take a full 12 weeks off — but only if I can save enough to not work for three months.

I am fortunate to have some sick leave and vacation time I can put toward my maternity leave, but I’m still looking at around seven weeks of unpaid time. On top of the stress of preparing for a new baby, I worry about how my family will do without my paycheck.

My goal is to save around $800 per month, which I’ve mostly been able to hit thanks to a combination of freelancing, canceling my home alarm subscription and switching my daughter to a cheaper daycare.

Cutting back on expenses and saving from the time you find out you’re expecting until your last day at work can help put you in position to take unpaid time.

Plan Ahead

Being pregnant in America is no picnic, especially if you work full time and want to take a decent maternity leave. The Washington Post reports that the U.S. is one of only three countries that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave to new mothers. If you work for yourself or don’t qualify for paid time through your employer, it’s very possible you’ll have to take unpaid time off.

It goes without saying that you should come up with a saving plan right after that positive pregnancy test. The more time you have to prepare, the better off you’ll be once the baby arrives.

What Can You Live Without?

 Catherine Hiles, her husband Ben and her daughter Rose pose for a photo.
Catherine Hiles, her husband Ben and her daughter Rose pose for a photo. Photo by JLT Photography

When I found out I was pregnant, I had recently paid off my car, so the first thing I did was put the equivalent of a car payment into a separate savings account each month. I was already used to having that money come out, so it was a no-brainer to transition it from car payment to maternity-leave savings.

While pregnant with Rose, my husband Ben and I decided to cut the cable cord so we could put money toward my maternity savings instead. Similarly, we switched our dog’s food from a premium brand to a Costco equivalent for a fraction of the price.

Making small, but significant, changes like this allowed us to build up our savings more quickly. We stuck with the Costco dog food and the no-cable policy after Rose was born, which helped lessen the impact of kid-related costs, such as formula and daycare.

You might find some things you can cut permanently, but even temporary savings will build up that maternity leave fund more quickly. Consider using coupons when you shop or buying cheaper brands of food, toiletries and clothes.

MSN recommends sticking to generic versions of canned beans, meat, frozen fruits and veggies, snack foods and baking supplies (like sugar, baking soda and baking mixes) to make your budget go further. Cash-back apps, like Ibotta, can help put money back in your pocket when you shop at certain stores.

Consider All of the Expenses

Lost wages aren’t the only expense you’ll need to cover when you have your baby. You’ll also need to consider new expenses, such as medical bills, maternity clothes, baby supplies and even possible utility bill increases.

Just last week, I came home to a pile of bills that I wasn’t expecting. I had decent insurance coverage when I had Rose, so we paid minimal charges for prenatal care.

This time, we have a different insurance provider, which meant I opened a $900 bill from my 12-week ultrasound, and a few more bills for blood tests. In all, I had to pay $1,300 out of pocket for expenses I assumed would be covered. I have another ultrasound coming up at 20 weeks that I’m already anticipating will also produce a large bill.

Part of the problem was that I agreed to testing that wasn’t covered by my insurance provider. This was my fault for not calling ahead of time to check on my coverage. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but I know that before any future procedures I will call my insurance provider to make sure my out-of-pocket costs will be minimal.

You’ll also need new clothing to fit your growing belly. If this is your first pregnancy, you probably don’t have maternity clothes lying around, and buying them new can be expensive.

Hit up local mom groups on Facebook or in person to see if anyone has second-hand maternity clothes for sale rather than heading to the mall. Your local thrift store should have a selection as well, though I’ve found that mine is usually rather paltry. One Penny Hoarder mom spent less than $200 on her maternity wardrobe.

The same goes for new baby supplies. You can find some baby freebies online and load up that registry, but it will eventually come down to spending some cash. Check Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist first to get solid deals on used local pick-up items like highchairs and baby swings instead of paying a premium at baby boutiques.

Use Your Skills

Do you have any ways you can make extra money while you’re pregnant? Maybe you’re good at math and can offer tutor services, or you want to offer your services as a dog walker in exchange for some four-legged company. Chances are, you have a skill you can use to pocket some extra dollars to put toward your maternity fund.

As a writer and editor, I decided to put all my freelance income toward my maternity leave. That way I don’t have to take as much from my regular paycheck, so I can still enjoy the occasional Chipotle run when I’m exhausted and don’t feel like cooking.

Saving for maternity leave can seem daunting at first, but with a little planning and sacrificing you can put away a little each month to use once your little bundle of joy is born.

Catherine Hiles is a soon-to-be mother of two. When she’s not saving frantically for maternity leave, she enjoys running, cooking and rereading the Harry Potter series.