How to Live On One Income

This post originally ran on March 20, 2008 (under a different title), but since I only had a couple hundred readers to share it with at the time I thought I would run it again.  I’ve also had a few people ask about how to live today on only one income, so it seems this is something more people are considering.  As you will read below, it can be done, but not without some sacrifice.

Nearly a full year into our marriage we found out my wife was expecting our first child. Since my wife relocated when we married it meant a job change for her, and for the first couple months we were married she struggled to find a job comparable to the one she left. She had only been working a few months when we found out she was pregnant. I remember the range of emotions I felt as a “soon-to-be-dad” – excitement, joy, and sheer terror! Not only did I have the normal doubts about my parenting ability, as any new parents would have, but I also wondered how we would manage on one just one income. Before marriage my wife and I agreed she would stay home with our kids, at least until they were school age.

Unfortunately, in hindsight I realize we failed to put in enough planning for this drop to a single income. I was low on the totem pole in my career, and was barely earning enough to take care of myself when we married. My wife’s added income made us comfortable, but we were not savers by nature, so any gains we made were squandered on newlywed purchases – a new car, new clothes, things around the house, etc. We should have been piling up cash like crazy in anticipation of her departure from full-time employment (well, paid full-time employment – being a mom is a full-time job!).

At five months pregnant my wife came home because the stress of her job was taking a toll. The last trimester of her pregnancy was difficult, as was the delivery (in fact, I almost lost both my wife and daughter that day). After an emergency cesarean delivery and a long recovery for mom and baby (neonatal ICU for daughter, long hospital stay for mom and daughter) we finally came home nearly a week after my daughter was born. It was an emotionally taxing time for everyone involved, and the last thing I wanted to think about was money.

We spent the next few years spoiling our little girl, paying minimums on medical bills, eating out frequently, traveling to see the in-laws, and spending all of my salary (and then some). That salary didn’t change much those first few years as my company had maxed out growth and even began rounds of layoffs. Fortunately, I avoided getting a pink slip, but went two or three years in a row with no raise and no chance of promotion.

We finally broke out of the mess when I took a new job in a new industry and relocated, but the damage was done. We now owed credit cards, medical debts and left over student loans from my first two years of college. My wife was now expecting our second child, around the time our first child was heading to school full time. It was clear my wife wouldn’t be returning to the workforce anytime soon, and we would have to continue living on one income. It was a sobering wake up call, financially.

With the benefit of 10 years of hindsight, I offer these tips for one-income families (or those considering a move to become a one-income family):

  • Before making the move, pay off debts and stack up some cash in a high-yield savings account like ING Direct. If we had it to do over again we would have made a stronger push to be debt free before my wife quit working, and we would have had a sizable emergency fund that could have helped with the labor and delivery expenses, and future emergencies thereafter.
  • Stay away from new cars. Car dealers love new parents because they can usually sell them on safety, added space, and “convenience” features. Don’t be fooled. There are plenty of safe, roomy, convenient options in the used car market. Remember, you are living on one income – you can’t afford a new car!  Start your car search with a free price quote at Edmunds.com.
  • Do not underestimate expenses for the stay-home parent. With someone occupying the house more hours of the day, utilities will likely increase. It is no longer feasible to set the temperature to 80 in the summer and 60 in the winter during the day. The family pet will appreciate the gesture, but you will pay for it when the energy bills arrive.  While employment expenses obviously decline, other expenses do go up.
  • Do not attempt to keep up with two-income families. We made this mistake because several of our friends were two-income families, and they frequently bought new cars, new homes, new furniture, etc. We tried to keep up initially, but eventually realized they had more disposable income than we did and we had to adjust down.
  • As a stay-home mom or dad, look for ways to be a “home economist.” Cook meals from scratch, clip coupons, make homemade crafts, or even start a garden. In other words, look for ways to save money that you probably wouldn’t have time for if working a full-time job.

Being a full-time parent can be a rewarding experience, for both the parent and their children. However, it does not come without sacrifice. Plan accordingly so you can enjoy the process, instead of resenting it because you are struggling with money.

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