When family planning doesn’t go according to plan

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Once a family welcomes a new addition, most parents quickly realize how little control they actually have over how life unfolds. For Nikki Etolen, a working mother of two and writer, that lesson started earlier—six years before the birth of her son, when she and her husband were living on a naval base in Japan.

“We were struggling to get pregnant, and the basic fertility tests determined that I was a mystery case,” she says. “But our insurance didn’t cover in vitro fertilization or anything like that.” Paying for even one round of IVF (in vitro fertilization) could cost them $12,000 or more—and that kind of expense just wasn’t an option for Nikki and her husband. Instead of facing down the usual nine months until motherhood, Nikki was staring at a looming question mark: Would she become a mother? And if so, when?

Rather than passively waiting, Nikki and her husband took a proactive approach. She borrowed every book she could on fertility and natural pregnancy, hoping to tilt the odds in their favor with the right insights or anecdotes. And then she started to save, socking away just a few dollars each month. “I figured we would need the money eventually, either to get pregnant or to help pay adoption costs,” she says.

One year before her self-imposed deadline to give up on carrying a child—and a full six years after she first tried to start a family—Nikki learned she was pregnant. Then life threw another wrench into the plan: Just two weeks after learning the good news, Nikki’s husband lost his job, and that was their sole source of income. “We’d been putting aside money, but that had to stop when we had no income,” she says. “And a lot that we had saved, we spent.” While it was discouraging to see the money that had been set aside for the new arrival disappear to pay for daily necessities like groceries and rent, Nikki was flooded with relief each time she made a withdrawal that the savings existed in the first place. Without that savings to get them through a few months without an income, she realized, they would’ve had to consider more drastic measures, like selling their belongings or racking up credit card debt.

That mixture of relief and gratitude encouraged Nikki to double down on her baby savings once again, as soon as her husband landed a new job. “A lot of people think that if you’re not saving hundreds out of every paycheck, you’re not saving at all. But even $5 a week adds up fast,” she says. Every time she reined in her spending—like swapping a night out with friends for a potluck at her place—she would throw that money into their savings.

Nikki knew that what she did spend on her growing family would be just as important as what she didn’t. “I’m a big researcher, so I did plenty of online searches and quickly saw that the basic essentials were way more important than getting the most spectacular crib,” she says. Rather than getting tempted by cute prints and tiny details, Nikki saved by buying plain bedding and simple onesies. “To me, it made sense to splurge on the car seat because it would last a long while and was important,” she says. “But you don’t need a million toys. You don’t need pretty sheets. All of the extra stuff can go on your registry—and your family and friends are happy to buy it!”

That laser focus on saving benefitted more than just the family’s bank account. When her son Jake was born premature, he was rushed to the NICU, where he stayed for 13 days. Even that relatively short stay meant hundreds of dollars in out-of-pocket medical expenses, and a birth story that was far from what Nikki had imagined. But once again, she only focused on the road ahead rather than how things hadn’t gone as planned. “The day he came home was the happiest day of my life,” she says. And though her family’s plan had taken a very different course than the one she’d charted, her mindful savings helped get them back on track—just in time for their baby.

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