New & Noteworthy

By Caitlin Flanagan

How to Raise a Family ...

For many middle-class couples a second income is an expensive proposition. Obviously, there are the hefty payouts to both the hungry tax man and the kindly immigrant lady who minds their children while dreaming about her own. Then there's the high cost of outsourcing all the grunt work that those cheesed-off, Valium-popping sisters of yesteryear got conned into doing: cooking seven hot dinners a week, ironing their husbands' button-downs, and mending almost serviceable socks. We've had a revolution, of course, and here are the spoils: a woman's inalienable right to put in a full day at the office and then grab hot handfuls of twenties out of the ATM so that she can load Happy Meals and dry-cleaned shirts and a dozen brand-new pairs of tube socks into the SUV during the blind exhaustion of extra-work hours. In How to Raise a Family on Less Than Two Incomes, Denise Topolnicki, a former editor of Money magazine, blows the whistle on this false economy, explaining in careful detail how families can perform a thoroughgoing financial overhaul, using such time-honored strategies as wrestling down credit-card debt, contributing to a tax-deferred retirement plan, and refinancing the mortgage. For many, she asserts, the goal of having one parent stay at home with the children is well within reach. The soundness and practicality of Topolnicki's suggestions, along with her obvious command of her field, are impressive, and any couple considering dropping down to a single income would be well advised to read this book—right after they brew a very, very strong pot of coffee. The book is filled with so many specific financial equations—couched in homey, narrative terms—that it seems to have been carefully calibrated to delight those readers nurturing a wan nostalgia for fifth-grade math ("How much of their seemingly comfortable $70,000 income do Andy and Anna have left after they pay Uncle Sam, the day care center, and the bus company?"). Things become markedly less useful whenever Topolnicki veers too far from taxes, savings plans, and investments. A lengthy description of her personal approach to weekly grocery shopping, an operation only slightly less complicated than the invasion of Normandy, may be of small help to many householders. It may be true that Colonial Williamsburg is a better bargain than Disney World, but if anybody's selling tickets to the family conference at which the little tykes are apprised of the switcheroo, I'll buy one. (And if there's a seven-year-old who would genuinely rather "watch a woodworker craft a highboy" than ride Space Mountain, shouldn't he be left home to bring the Quicken spreadsheets up to date?) Still, the business of Topolnicki's book is important: challenging two-income couples to think carefully about how they spend their time and their money and their fleeting tenure as the parents of young children.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/05/new-noteworthy/302202/