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Our life as a one-income family in Sweden

Sweden has been the best place we could ask to live as a one-income family, writes American Victoria Martínez, who moved to Sweden last year with her Spanish husband and two children.

Our life as a one-income family in Sweden
Photo: Victoria Martínez

Once upon a time, my husband and I owned a large house in the suburbs of the United States. We had a big back garden and three empty bedrooms for our cats and occasional guests. We enjoyed our two good incomes to the fullest with nice meals, holidays abroad, and lots of “stuff”. This is the period I refer to as B.C. – Before Children.

By the time our children came along, we had moved to Spain and given up our traditional careers to pursue our non-traditional professional goals. As if going from a cushy lifestyle in America to living in Spain with a growing family wasn't enough of a change, we agreed that I would set aside my research and writing to devote myself full-time to our children. And like that, the trappings of our double-income, no-kids lifestyle were gone.

Unless one partner earns an amazing salary or money is simply not an issue, living as a one-income family is probably not easy anywhere. In my personal experience, there’s a significant amount of budgeting, economising, improvising, making-do, and personal sacrifice, not to mention periodic nail biting. Undoubtedly, however, it’s more achievable in some countries than in others.

I say without hesitation that it would have been impossible for us to be a one-income family in the United States, where health insurance, healthcare, and even part-time quality childcare are exorbitantly expensive. Had our designated breadwinner remained in his or her well-paid traditional job with its corresponding long hours and minimal free and holiday time, perhaps it would have been possible. But we would have been sacrificing both our personal goals and our desire for as much family time as possible.

READ ALSO: Sweden named best country in the world for expat families


Photo: Victoria Martinez

One of the things we like the most about Sweden is the focus on children and families. This, along with the high quality of life and social progressiveness, was one of the main reasons we preferred to pursue our path here rather than in our home countries, or anywhere else for that matter.

Although Spain is a family-oriented country, we found the split-day, late-ending workday wasn’t ideal for spending time together as a family outside of weekends and holidays. We could technically survive on one income, but the work hours meant the children were usually in bed by the time my husband finished work. We also couldn’t afford the cost of optional childcare, even part-time, had we wished.

As much as we love our native countries, Sweden offers our family the best work-life and financial balance as a one-income family that we have personally experienced. Not that it’s easy, strictly speaking. The usual rules of economy and sacrifice still apply. We also have at least two financial economies that make our life more affordable. First, we don’t live in a city. In fact, we live practically in the middle of nowhere, as we are regularly reminded by anyone who has located us on a map. Second, we have only one car, which is all we need.

Personally, I am still light years away from the possibility of returning to the days of regular professional beauty treatments and a closet full of impractical shoes. My children have more and better of everything than my husband and I have, and that’s perfectly fine right now. We don’t by any means live a glamorous or extravagant lifestyle, and probably border more on the unintentionally shabby chic (and the chic part might be pushing it).

READ MORE: All The Local's articles about family life in Sweden


Photo: Victoria Martinez

On the other hand, our two children are in a wonderful preschool that costs very little and enables me to have half a day every weekday during the school year to resume my professional pursuits. And, since a non-fiction writer and historical researcher like myself – especially one returning to work after several years – is not exactly a high-earner, I feel very fortunate that the cost of childcare for the time I work isn’t putting us in the red.

For me, it’s significant that the State not only recognises that a full-time parent without an income might want or need child-free time, but also makes it possible for them to have it with almost no financial burden attached. Neither the United States nor Spain offer this possibility. As an immigrant with no family or close friends with whom I can leave my children for any length of time, this is especially important and helpful.

Naysayers from across the Atlantic will argue that we pay for these benefits with higher taxes. To this, my argument is simply that even when my husband and I had two incomes and no children in the United States, we paid both moderately-high taxes and a significant amount for health care and insurance.

Ultimately, at the risk of sounding cliché, no place is perfect and each family will have a different set of circumstances. For us, however, living in Sweden has been the best place we could ask to live as a one-income family.


Photo: Victoria Martinez.

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

Read more from her family column on The Local here

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How to use all your parental leave in Sweden before it expires

The parents of fully 70 percent of children in Sweden fail to take all the parental leave available to them before it expires. But there are some tricks to make sure you use it all.

two parents and two children in a car
You could save some parental leave days to use for a long holiday – but be careful so that they don't expire. Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

“The Swedish Social Insurance Agency has decided that you will not receive child benefit for Finn from December 24th to January 8th,” read the letter that dropped into my secure digital mailbox over Christmas. 

My son turned eight on December 23rd, and as he was born just a week before a new more generous policy became valid in Sweden, that marked the end of our eligibility for child leave.

And just as had happened with his elder sister, we had let his leave expire with more than a month of leave yet to claim.

It turns out, we are far from alone.

The parents of fully 72 percent of the children born in Sweden in 2010 failed to claim all of their shared 480 days of parental leave by the time they expired in 2018, according to the latest statistics from the Social Insurance Agency. On average, parents in Sweden failed to claim about a month, but 21 percent of parents had, like us, failed to claim more than 60 days.

In total, that amounted to 1.4 billion kronor ($154.4 million) in unclaimed benefits, and according to an analysis by the agency, it was those with the lowest incomes who had the most days left over.

A graph showing how many days of parental leave was not claimed for children born in 2010, divided up by (from left) low-income, mid-income and high-income families. The dark green shows days paid at 80 percent of the salary (sjukpenningnivå) and the light green the lowest-paid days (lägstanivå, 180 kronor a day). Photo: Försäkringskassan

A change in the rules since my son was born has made using your days quite a bit easier. Parents of children born after January 1st in 2014 (a week after my son), can now continue to take out leave until their children’s 12th birthday.

But be aware that all but 96 of these days expire when the child turns four, so the race is still on.

If you want to understand how parental leave in Sweden works, here’s The Local’s detailed guide to how the system works

But to avoid other foreigners in Sweden suffering the same disappointment as I did, keep scrolling for some tips for how to make sure you use all that leave.

Take leave together 

Swedish rules allow both parents to take leave at the same time. In the first few months, this can really take the pressure off the mother, allowing her partner to take over while she makes up for lost sleep, or takes a precious hour or so to herself. 

The rules allow each couple to claim a maximum of 30 of these so-called dubbeldagar or “double days”, which taken together will use up 60 days of leave. 

These days cannot be taken from the 90 reservdagar, or “reserve days”, which are tied to each parent to prevent fathers from taking out days at the same time as leaving the mother to do all the actual childcare. They also can only be taken before the child is one year old. 

Claim leave for ordinary holidays 

My mistake was to see parental leave as something to take only when I was off work specifically to look after my children. In fact, you can take it out any time you are not actually working: when you take time off over Christmas, Easter, during the sportlov or höstlov school holidays, or over the long Swedish summer. 

“My husband takes all of the school holidays and the summers off so we can travel and all be together,” says Martha Moore in Malmö. “I’m a teacher, so I will probably give all of my days to him, since I get to be off when my kids are off anyway.”

You can even claim for days which you are also claiming as holiday from your work, or days which are public holidays in Sweden, but you can only claim parental leave for these days at the so-called lägstanivå, or base level of 180 kronor a day.  

You can claim some days at the same time as the other parent. Photo: Magnus Liam Karlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

Take a very long holiday 

One Australian living in Stockholm said she was off to Thailand for two and a half months this February in order to use up some of the days from her second child, which are due to expire when she turns four later in the year.

She recommends planning one long holiday to use up any of the 384 days that will expire when your child turns four, and then saving up the other 96 days for a second long holiday before they turn 12. 

She is putting her eldest child into a Swedish school in Thailand while they are there, using one of the chain of Swedish schools set up in Thailand, primarily for parents holidaying on their parental leave.  

She deliberately didn’t use as many days as she could have in the first 12 months, so that she and her husband could do this. “My tip is to not use many days at all paid that first 12 months, and to burn your savings instead,” she says. 

As her child is more than one year old, she and her husband cannot take leave simultaneously, however, so he is using holiday time he has saved up. 

Take leave before the birth 

The pregnant parent can start taking parental leave and collecting benefits up to 60 days before the due date. It’s actually compulsory for the mother to take two weeks of leave in connection with the birth, which can either be before or after. New fathers or secondary caregivers can also start taking leave up to ten days before the birth. 

This could be a waste of days, however, as if a difficult (or, let’s face it, even fairly normal) pregnancy makes it impossible to do your job, you can claim sickness benefits instead of parental leave, and get the same level of benefits without using up any of your 480 days. 

This does not apply, however, to “normal pregnancy difficulties such as back pain and fatigue”, so to claim sickness benefits, you will have to convince your doctor to certify that you have pregnancy difficulties that are “unusually severe”. 

A father carrying his child in a Baby Björn in Sweden. Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/imagebank.sweden.se

Take a chunk out to do private projects 

People less good at forward planning sometimes take a chunk of leave just before their child turns four or twelve (or eight if they were born before January 1st, 2014), even if they don’t have anything planned in particular.  

You can use this time to do the sort of home chores that it is so hard to find time to do once you have children. 

“I had a colleague who took two months’ maternity leave when her daughter was seven years old,” says one woman in Malmö. “She took it as a vacation in the summer to fix her apartment.” 

Use parental leave to work a short week 

Once the child is in preschool (dagis or förskola) many people, including Moore’s husband, use parental leave to take Friday and/or Monday off work for six months or more, allowing them to spend more time with their child.

This is obviously something you have to square with your employer, but in Sweden most employers are more than willing to put employees on 80 percent. 

You can either use this time to take some of the pressure off your partner during their parental leave, or to reduce the amount of time your child spends in preschool.

A parent walking their child in a pram through a snowy Stockholm. Photo: Jann Lipka/imagebank.sweden.se

Use parental leave to work short days 

You don’t need to take each allotted day as a full day, you can also reduce your working day by three quarters, a half, one quarter or one eighth, and receive proportional parental benefit for the time not worked.

Parents of a child under the age of eight can reduce their working hours by up to 25 percent, whether or not they decide to take parental benefit for the remaining 25 percent.

This can be extremely helpful in making combining childcare and work a little less stressful.

Claim leave for weekends 

You can claim parental leave on weekends as well as on normal weekdays, but unless you normally work on the weekend, you can only claim these at the lowest base level of 180 kronor. 

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