I Had to Take 14 Weeks of Unpaid Maternity Leave. Here’s How We Afforded It

Writer Sarah Landrum, pictured with her husband and baby daughter
Writer Sarah Landrum, pictured with her husband and baby daughter, shares how she planned for an unpaid maternity leave. Image courtesy of Sandra Landrum.

Planning to have a baby is ideal, but most bundles of joy catch their parents by surprise.

One day you feel sick, buy a test, and discover you’re pregnant, but the reality doesn’t hit you until weeks later. Then, the panic sets in.

“We’re having a baby?! How are we going to afford this?”

I was used to being the woman with a plan. My partner watched me flail about the house, as I listed all the things we had to pull money out of thin air for — diapers, a breast pump, doctor visits, hospital bills and baby’s college.

Yes, I considered my kid’s college before the bun was even out of the oven.

On top of having a baby due in months, I had to plan for unpaid maternity leave. I looked longingly at my wine rack and calmed down — booze money would become baby money. Home Goods trips would turn to baby trips.

I could do this. With creativity, anything was possible.

And it was. We afforded 14 weeks of unpaid maternity leave on a household income of less than $90,000.

Here’s how to afford maternity leave.

1. Goodbye Wine Fund

What’s your pleasure — local batch brews, or are you a wino?

How much do you spend every month on alcohol? The wine fund was a thrifty throwback to my college days.

You deserve a treat here and there as you struggle to make ends meet, but when there’s a baby on the way, the toast comes (months) after the big push.

I funneled that money into the baby fund. Every contribution adds up until it creates an avalanche of baby affordability.

Many spend $20-$100 a week on wine and going out. My number was in the $20 weekly ballpark for wine. That’s another $900 in 9 months, at $20 a week. Think of all the diapers!

2. The $5 Bill Rule

We implemented the “$5 Bill Rule,” saving every $1 and $5 that came through the house and deposited at the end of the month.

As the second half of the year came up, it included $10 bills. We used a budget calculator to track how much money came in and out monthly so we didn’t skip over extra cash!

We placed a big jar on the kitchen island and emptied our wallets any time we used cash and got change. My parents even threw a few bills in when they came over.

By month eight, that made for a big bonus in the bank.

3. $300 Earned: Referral to Bank Bonus

One day, I noticed the referral bonus ad for $150 at my bank and thought of a friend, who recently moved to the area. She successfully signed up for an account. My partner took up the challenge and referred a friend for another $150.

There’s an instant $300 in savings for a good deed. Isn’t that what friends are for?

4. Automated Savings

Automate savings with the Stash app: Beyond the $5 to sign-up, I set aside 20 percent of my take-home pay with every paycheck as soon as I found out I was pregnant. Setting aside anything and regularly, no matter how small, matters.

5. Sell Old Clothes

I spent time curating a beautiful professional and casual wardrobe since college that sat unused during pregnancy.

Time to make room for maternity clothes and impending weight gain!

I sold clothes on PoshMark and ThredUp online. On ThredUp, my investment pieces that cost over $300 initially earned me back 80% of sticker price. But for items under $20, I’d recommend trying local consignment shops. It takes time for some pieces to sell.

When you’re on a time crunch, you’re better off going local and doing “buy two, get one” specials. I posted on the Facebook Marketplace and checked with local consignment shops.

6. Going Minimalist for Baby

Minimalism is a lifestyle choice, and having a baby made it necessary to give up our attachments to “stuff.”

My weaknesses included wine, clothes and books, and included giving up “collectors” items around our home — sports cards and other memorabilia can cash in high.

If you have patience, sell items by piece on eBay, but the big ticket items are memorabilia and some furniture items. My aunt’s bulky highboy fetched an extra $200 in our pocket. Breakables and expensive antique furniture don’t mix with kids.

Embracing the minimalist lifestyle now means more time to focus on the baby. An old dresser top can become a changing table with imagination.

7. Get Your Side Hustle On

What’s your side hustle? What about household repairs, consulting, freelancing, computer repair, lawn mowing or upcycling?

I tutored English when possible, charging $15-$20 an hour to assist with essay writing and ESL. With two clients a month at $20 an hour for 8 hours a month, there’s an extra $320.

My partner and I upcycled items we had around the house, including possessions of older family members. People will pay you to pick up their bulky items. One dresser my husband turned into a bookcase sold for $250.

8. Save on Groceries With Meal Planning and Ibotta

We made freezer meals in bulk for the last trimester and after birth.

We used Ibotta to meal plan, with more openness to brands and happily found it synced with our loyalty cards, such as Weis and Giant. Upload the receipt and get cash back in 24 hours.

Every store has its pattern of when favorite brands go on sale. Watch for it. Take advantage.

Check your local newspaper for deals on eating out. Purchase a coupon for half off an entree, for example, or a deal on multiple meals. Don’t miss out on date nights while you can still get out easily just the two of you.

For the first few months, we hustled and I still panicked, but the numbers started adding up significantly, encouraging us to push harder — no pun intended.

You have to let go of what doesn’t matter for what does! Living on a reduced income is hard but worth it.

Each situation is unique for every family, but creativity and planning allow you to save enough for unpaid maternity ahead of time. We did it on under $90K, and so can you!

Sarah Landrum is a mom, writer and the founder of Punched Clocks, a site created to help you find happiness and balance in your life and career. Follow Sarah on social media @SarahLandrum and subscribe to her newsletter for more advice.