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Cricket Jones was a stay-at-home mom for 28 years and raised five children. Then she and her husband divorced.

The Boise, Idaho, woman doesn't regret staying home, but she does wish she'd finished her college degree and kept one foot in the work world with some kind of part-time employment.

"When I divorced, I was left without any skills to get a decent-paying job," Jones said. "I went back to school at the age of 48 and became employed a year later. Not the best way to do things."

Many discussions about becoming a stay-at-home parent focus on the benefits to the children and the immediate costs -- having to live on a budget, eating out less and so on.

But deciding to become a one-income family carries some long-term financial risks as well, especially to the person who's leaving the workplace. Without careful planning, the result can be more debt, less in retirement savings, atrophying job skills and greater vulnerability to economic setbacks.

Image: Liz Weston

Liz Weston

The stay-at-home parent not only gives up current income but may also face lower lifetime earnings and retirement benefits because of time away from work. In her book "The Price of Motherhood," former New York Times economics reporter Ann Crittenden estimated her decision to stay at home cost her between $600,000 and $700,000 in reduced income and lost pension credits, while economist Shirley Burggraf calculated that a couple earning a combined income of $81,500 could lose more than $1 million if one partner stopped working. Even a lower-income couple where one partner earns $30,000 and the other $15,000 faces a $600,000 difference if the lower-earning spouse stays home.

Taking just a few years off from work wouldn't be as expensive, but labor economists warn that any substantial time away from the working world can result in lower earnings when you return.

When I asked my Facebook fans who lived on one income to offer their best advice, it boiled down to this: Prepare well in advance for what you're about to do.

"Plan, plan, plan," wrote one. "One of the best things we did was refinance our home at a low interest rate while we still had two incomes (so we could qualify) under stricter banking rules. Also, we started living without my husband's check to see if we could live on one income. His checks went into our emergency savings fund."

Kristina Olson of Delta, Utah, and her husband started living on one income while she was pregnant with their first child. Before that, they paid off $28,000 in credit card debt. Her one regret is that they didn't start living on one income earlier and retire all their nonmortgage debt.

"I do wish we had used more of my income to pay off more debt before that, but all of our rates on student loans and vehicles have always been lower than 5%," Olson said. "We have paid off some here and there, but probably could have been completely out of debt a long time ago."

Candace Thelen Rose of New Richmond, Wis., echoed that sentiment. The family trimmed utility, insurance and food costs, but such moves ultimately weren't enough to prevent her from having to go back to work.

"It would have been so much easier to stay on one income if we had not had $400 a month to pay on debts," Rose wrote.