How to Prepare for Unpaid Maternity Leave


Back in 2008, when my husband and I were newlyweds just starting to think about having children, I was still working as a high school English teacher. Another teacher in my department had a baby that year, and I was horrified to discover that our school district did not offer paid maternity leave. Instead, my friend had to save up all her sick days and personal days to equal the amount of time she wanted to take off.

Fast forward to 2010, when I was pregnant with our first child. I found it was exceedingly difficult to save up sick time and personal time, what with all of the prenatal appointments I needed to go to, only some of which I was able to schedule for after school.

Though it's been eight years since I had my first baby, the options available for paid maternity leave are no better than they were a decade ago. Women are still stuck either returning to work long before they have fully physically recovered, or they must take unpaid time off after their babies are born.

While it's a crying shame that new parents are in this tough situation in the United States, it's still on individual mothers to figure out a way to pay for maternity leave. Here is what you need to know about preparing for unpaid maternity leave. (See also: 5 Financial Reasons Paid Parental Leave Is Essential for Moms and Dads)

Understanding FMLA

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 offers new parents (mothers and fathers) up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child. FMLA also allows caregivers to take the same amount of time off to help out with aging parents or other family members with a medical need.

What this law does is ensure that your job or an equivalent job will be held for you during your time away to care for a new baby. However, ensuring that you will not be fired for taking maternity leave is the barest minimum of job protection — and fewer people are covered by FMLA than you might realize.

Workers only qualify for FMLA leave if they have worked for the company for more than 12 months, have logged at least 1,250 hours in the past year, and are employed at a location where their company has 50 or more staffers within 75 miles. Only 60 percent of employees meet the criteria and eligibility for leave under FMLA regulations.

Expecting mothers need to make sure they understand whether or not they can even take FMLA leave based on these criteria. Your human resources department can help you determine whether or not your leave will be covered by FMLA.

Even if you are not covered by FMLA, there is no need to panic. Many employers will be happy to let you take the time you need and hold your job for you, even if you are not covered by FMLA. Talk with your employer so you know what to expect. (See also: The 29 Companies With the Best Maternity Benefits)

Paying for maternity leave

Few people can afford to take 12 weeks off work without pay, so planning ahead for an extended leave can mean the difference between having time to bond with your baby and having to get back to work before you're ready. Here are a few ways you can afford your maternity leave. (See also: 8 Money Moves to Make When You Find Out You're Pregnant)

1. Short-term disability insurance

If you know that you plan to get pregnant within the next couple of years, short-term disability insurance can provide you with the financial cushion you need during your maternity leave. Pregnancy and postpartum recovery are common "disabilities" that can be covered by such insurance. Of course, the catch with this kind of insurance is the fact that you have to sign up for it before you get pregnant, which can make this option a non-starter for anyone who has an unplanned pregnancy.

If you are able to take advantage of short-term disability insurance, you can typically expect your disability payments to begin as of the day you deliver, although you may have to wait for a short period of time (known as the elimination period) before receiving payments. The insurance will generally cover between six and eight weeks of pay at some portion of your regular salary.

You will have to pay the premiums for your short-term disability policy, so factor that in to your pre-baby budget.

2. Save up your paid time off

If your employer allows you to roll over sick days, personal days, and vacation days from one year to the next, saving up your paid time off can be one of the best ways to ensure that you keep your regular paycheck coming while you're at home with the baby.

For instance, if you receive 15 vacation days, five sick days, and two personal days each year, saving them up for two years can provide you with 44 paid days off — or the equivalent of nearly nine weeks.

One important caveat to this plan is the fact that you will want to save some sick days or vacation days for after the baby arrives. There will be times when your little one is too sick to go to day care, and you will have to use a sick day or take an unpaid day off to stay home with baby.

3. Take as much overtime as you can

If your employer offers overtime, you can try to volunteer for as much as you can while you're preparing for the baby. You can either bank the extra money in a savings account you'll live off while you are on maternity leave, or you can ask to use the overtime as flex time, so that your extra hours now will give you paid time off later.

4. Reduce your retirement contributions

Though saving money for retirement is very important, it's better to reduce (or eliminate) your retirement contributions in order to pay for your maternity leave than tap your retirement accounts if you run out of money. For this strategy, either reduce or eliminate the amount of money you send to your retirement fund each paycheck, and instead put that money aside in a savings account to use for living expenses while you are on leave. Once you get back to work, however, make sure you put your retirement contributions back to their previous level. (See also: 5 Times It's Okay to Delay Retirement Savings)

5. Take out a small personal loan

If you have good credit and feel comfortable taking on a little more debt, taking out a personal loan could be a way to bridge the income gap while you are on maternity leave. Such a loan could replace your income while you are on leave, and you could plan to repay the loan once you have returned to work.

This is a potentially risky option, however, if there is any possibility your employer will not hold your job for you while you are on leave. In addition, make sure the repayment plan is one you can easily afford once you are back to work. You would hate to have the stress of paying off your loan on top of the other stresses of new parenthood. (See also: 10 Things You Need to Know Before Taking Out a Personal Loan)

Making time for maternal bonding

Until our society as a whole decides to provide maternity leave across the board, it will be up to individual families to find the money to afford time off work for recovery and bonding. Though it can be an uphill battle to figure out how to afford your maternity leave, it is possible for new moms to find the money they need to afford their leave.

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