How to Live on One Income for Ten Years

My wife and I are about to celebrate our ten year wedding anniversary (in April). This is a momentous occasion, and brings back memories of other anniversaries in our lives (when we met, our first date, etc.). One thing it reminded me of is that we are also closing in on ten years of living on one income.

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.

My wife 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, I realize we failed to put in enough planning for living on one 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 physical 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 living on a single income).

Keys to Living On One Income:

  • Before making the move, pay off debts and stack up some cash. 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. Park it in a top online bank for safety and higher earnings.
  • 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 or new car insurance coverage!
  • 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.

Comments

  1. Great tips, here’s another thought. If you’re not willing to relocate for a job, create a budget that would work with either spouse working.

    My wife and I built a house in the woods recently. My parents will be building next door in a few years as well. Obviously, we don’t plan to move unless life gets really bad in the state of Washington.

    So we made sure our fixed expenses (especially the mortgage!) did not exceed either my or my wife’s earning ability. This gives us a lot of flexability and once we’re retired the mortgage, we’ll really be free to do the work we love.

  2. It’s amazing how similar our stories are. We went through very similar circumstances but in some ways, we were just a little more stupid. We spent everything we made plus racked up tons of credit card debt for 3 full years before my wife became pregnant!

    Then, we received a large sum of money from her mother’s estate and we blew that on a little business venture.

    It took me TEN YEARS just to learn the lessons. :D

  3. One of my motivators for paying off/down my debt is that we plan on one of us (most likely me) staying home when we have kids in the next 1.5-2 years. In my head I knew most of the things on the list, but it’s nice to see that I’m on track.

  4. I strongly agree with your advice on not buying a new car.

    Even with all of the unexpected repairs we’ve had over the years I still wouldn’t buy a new car.

    Great Advice !

  5. Nice article, so many of us are going through the same thing and it’s always encouraging to see that other people have survived and have great advice to give to others.

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