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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.

Families with a stay-at-home parent typically spend less on taxes, commuting costs and child care than dual-income families. But that doesn't make it a slam-dunk that you'll be able to live comfortably on one income. Those experienced in doing so warn that it's still necessary to carefully track where your money goes and look for ways to trim expenses if you want to make the lifestyle work.

Tips for making the transition

If you want to transition from two incomes to one, the following steps will help maximize your chances for success:

Opt for affordable housing. Ideally, your rent or mortgage payment won't eat up more than 25% of your gross income once you're a single-income family. If housing consumes much more of the working parent's pay, you may find it difficult to cover all your other necessary costs, including saving for retirement.

The high cost of living in some areas makes that difficult, which is one of the reasons why Olson is glad her family relocated from California to Utah: "We bought a house last year with just my husband's income . . . and are paying less in mortgage than we were in rent in California."

Watch those car payments. Auto loans are another cost that often chews up too much of your pay, whether you have one income or two. Some families switched from having two cars to just one. CarolBeth Crane Hawn of Boise had this advice: "Buy a cheap used car, if that is what you can afford, and run it until the repairs start costing more than a car payment might be."

Don't stop saving. Putting off saving for retirement and hoping to "catch up" later is a fool's game. It's almost impossible to make up for lost time because of the nature of compounded returns. The working spouse should contribute to a workplace retirement plan such as a 401k or a 403b, if available. If not, money should be going into individual retirement accounts. (You can contribute to an IRA even if you're not working, as long as your spouse is employed.)

Single-income families also need a larger emergency fund than dual-income households, financial planners say. While most families should shoot for an emergency fund equal to three months of expenses, one-income families might want to have twice that.

Retire toxic debt. Credit card balances, payday loans and bounced-check fees are expensive debts that erode your financial well-being. Plus, they're a sign that you're living beyond your means. Paying off this debt before you transition to one income can help teach you the financial discipline you'll need to survive afterward.

Maintain your job skills and contacts. You should always have a plan B, since divorce, death or layoff could force you back into the job market unexpectedly, and it will be tougher to find work if you've let your skills and contacts deteriorate. You can better your chances of employability if you:

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  • Continue to network. Keep in touch with old colleagues, and reach out to new people in your field using professional networking sites such as LinkedIn and Plaxo.
  • Maintain your memberships. Professional and even social organizations can help you build and maintain contacts.
  • Take classes if necessary to add to your skills. The working world changes fast. Peruse online job advertisements in your field so you know what skills are in demand, and try to keep adding them.
  • Volunteer or work part time. References from someone who's worked with you lately can carry more weight.

Find others for support. Creating a network with others in the same boat can help you share resources, tips and support. You'll find plenty of single-income bloggers on the Web, including The Centsible Life and Frugal Dad.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.