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The dual income family is now the norm. And believe it or not, it’s been that way for a while.
According to one study, even as long ago as 2002, only 7 percent of U.S. households were single income families in which only the husband worked. Why? The demands of debt, car payments, and other money stress have made it nearly impossible for many families to live on one income.
But the choice to live on one income doesn’t have to be as restricting or depressing as it may sound. It’s very possible to live well on one income – even if it is modest.
For most of the first year of our marriage, my wife and I lived on my beginning teacher’s salary – less than $40,000 per year. To be honest, it was really hard at times. But we still found ways to have fun, go out for date nights, and even travel.
6 Simple Tips to Live On One Income
Today, we both work multiple jobs, but our life was radically different back then.
The truth is living on one income was stressful at times. I wasn’t bringing in fat stacks of cash as a second year teacher, so we had to be very intentional about how we spent and saved every dollar I earned.
Here are 6 steps we took to make the most of living on a single income.
1. Make a Budget and Stick to It
First, we made a unique budget every month and pledged to stick to it. I tracked every single transaction every single day using budget software, which gave us an accurate picture of our monthly spending at any given moment.
When all of the budgeted money had been spent for a category, we literally didn’t spend another cent. If more spending was absolutely needed, we decreased the budget for another category to add more money to categories in need.
Simply put: we didn’t spend more than we earned. Period.
Pro tip: If you’re living on a single income, you absolutely must use self-control.
2. Keep a Tight Grocery Budget
Second, we were constantly on the look-out for ways to save as much money as possible on groceries. This category was the second largest part of our part next to our rent, so we knew that keeping food spending under control was incredibly important.
Howe we did it:
- We shopped almost exclusively at Aldi and picked up sale items at a few other local stores.
- Leftovers became our go to meals a few nights per week
- We literally never went out for lunch, and we only went out for dinner once or twice per month.
- On average, we spent between $350 and $400 per month on groceries and toiletries.
- Some months we really stepped up our game and spent as little as $250.
Looking back, I wish we had access to grocery saving apps like Ibotta ($10 bonus when you sign-up!) when we were going through this period in life – we could have saved even more money!
3. Find the Cheapest Rent Possible
Out of all the steps we took to survive on one income, the most important was our choice to live in affordable housing.
Before we got married, I spent at least five hours per week searching listings and making phone calls about available apartments and condos.
My hard work paid off when we found a nice 3 bedroom, 1.1 bathroom condo for rent for 25% less than the area average. Avoiding corporate apartments saved us thousands of dollars over the four years we rented.
What We Didn’t Do
Eight years later, life is radically different. Now that we both work and own a home, I often catch myself thinking back to the days when we lived on one income.
We were definitely frugal in many ways, but I have to admit that we could have cut back even more in many areas of our already tight budget.
If you’re struggling to live on one income, make sure you’re not stubbornly clinging to the following budget-draining expenses.
4. Cut Cable and Replace it With Affordable Alternatives
The honest truth is you most likely have no business paying for that expensive cable package if you’re struggling to live on one income.
Full disclosure: we paid for cable TV and DVR service with Comcast during out first year of marriage. It was one of the few luxuries we allowed ourselves, to be honest, and even though our cable and internet cost us around $90 per month at the time, it served as our main entertainment.
Even though cable was expensive, it probably helped us avoid temptation to spend more money.
Related: How to Cut the Cord, Save Money, and Still Watch Your Favorite Shows and Sports
5. Stay Out of Restaurants
Worse than our cable TV package, we still ate out at restaurants once or twice per month. Looking back, I can’t justify this spending.
It would have been cheaper to cook at home, but we honestly cherished the few nights out each month. And most of our meals out were using discounts found on Groupon or Restaurant.com, which usually helped us eat out for under $20.
Over the years, we have learned that staying in and cooking at home can be even more fun than going out for dinner. We enjoy trying new recipes, using combinations of spices, and trying to recreate some of our favorite restaurant dishes at a fraction of the cost.
Related: Dining Out On a Dime: 10 Tips to Save Money at Restaurants
6. Brew Coffee at Home
I hear you – every personal finance expert loves to blame every financial failure on your daily coffee fix. That’s not my intention.
But it’s obvious that drinking coffee is much cheaper when you do it home.
My wife and I did a good job of keeping coffee spending in check overall. But when I look back at our spending in certain months, the number of Starbucks entries in the budget makes my head spin.
Again, we knew that focusing on the big things would have a bigger impact on our budget so we didn’t sweat the occasional $4 latte. But if you’re struggling with a tight budget, the only time you should see the inside of a coffee shop is if you’re working there or someone else is buying.
You Can Live Well on One Income
If you gain anything from reading this article, I hope you see that it is possible to live on one income without accepting poor quality of life.
My wife and I only lived on one income for a little less than a year, but we honestly could have done it much longer.
We didn’t suffer or go without necessities. In fact, life seemed simple, almost perfect, because we learned to appreciate the simple things in life.
Maybe living on one income is your choice, and maybe it’s not. It’s important to remember that more money isn’t always the answer to your problems. Dual income households have problems, too.
How you will live comes down to personal preference and individual circumstances, whether you have one income stream or several. Remember, money is just a tool to help you live a well-balanced, happy life.
Mrs. Picky Pincher saysMarch 29, 2017 at 8:27 AM
I think it’s perfectly fine to have little treats here and there. We’ve been on super-restrictive budgets before and we fall off the wagon much more quickly. Building in little niceties like internet service and restaurants allow you to feel like you aren’t depriving yourself while you’re saving money.
Matt @ Optimize Your Life saysMarch 29, 2017 at 2:16 PM
This is a great story. Thank you for sharing. I am guessing that it probably was helpful to your money story to start your marriage in a tighter place rather than getting used to a bigger lifestyle and having to downsize later. Seems similar to the advice to try to keep your college-level spending for as long as possible after you get a job.
My wife and I both work, but try to keep our spending down to a level where we could get by without dipping into savings if one of us lost our job or felt like we needed to quit for whatever reason. This has multiple benefits – high savings rate, less stress from fear of job loss, more options if we want to leave or take other jobs. We haven’t had to live on one income yet, but it is good to know that we could if necessary.
Hero saysMarch 31, 2017 at 9:07 AM
That sounds like a really smart strategy, Matt!
Melissa saysMarch 31, 2017 at 11:21 PM
We live on one income. Married almost ten year with two young children (7 and 4) we own our home and as the primary caregiver I haven’t worked since our first child was born. We have saved tremendously on childcare with me staying home. Food is our largest monthly expenditure! We started by weekly meal planning, when we know what we are going to eat, using mostly what we have in the house, planning for the leftovers and only buying fresh ingredients more often than not, has been a big money saver! We also shopped sales, stocked up on good prices, coupon and our primary grocery store has a point system that you can cash back the points for money off your purchase. When we know we need to stock up on household items we use our points to reduce our bill at the register
Linda saysMay 26, 2017 at 6:24 PM
I buy most of my clothes at goodwill, walk the dog for exercise, and use the public library for books and videos. I usher for two venues for free entertainment and perform community service in the meantime! I live 5 minutes from a riverside park, and picnic there with my mom and sister. We buy takeout for less than 5 bucks a piece – still a treat without a hefty restaurant tab and tip.
Hero saysJune 2, 2017 at 10:04 AM
Great ideas, Linda!
EllenMarie saysOctober 9, 2017 at 9:15 AM
We live off one income in the San Francisco Bay Area ( one of the most expensive housing and col areas) and raised 5 children. Only one kid left at home now(12 yo) and one just left for college. We have a paid off home, no debts at all, paid colleges without loans ( except son paid for his masters) but I live a simple life, only travels were camping, my honeymoon was 15 years later ( that was Hawaii) so many sacrifices. But I am glad after 34 years of marriage we had all of our kids who make us proud. We bought a house we could afford ( not a mcmansion) in not a great area so we had to supplement their education in creative ways and I also taught them at home when they came home from school. One graduated NYU, one has a master’s and is a principal,one is graduating in Health Business Administration and one is studying biology with hopes of becoming a physician. One 12 yo left at home- seems quiet and empty now! So it can be done, but definitely harder when you have to pay college tuition! All on a busdriver’s salary!
Hero saysOctober 10, 2017 at 2:45 PM
Wow! This is impressive.