How To Survive Off One Income

As I’ve scrolled through social media over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed an emerging trend. There’s always been budgeting how-to’s and “day in the life of a stay-at-home mom” videos galore, but now, it seems that more women are asking how to stay at home or live off one income.

By Gwen Farrell5 min read
Pexels/Polina Tankilevitch

As a former career girl turned stay-at-home mom, this is not surprising to me. The cost of childcare these days means a second salary isn’t even worth it most of the time – you’re working just to pay for daycare – and more and more women report being unenthusiastic about their positions. Why not kill two birds with one stone? 

For others, it’s not that simple, and it’s hard to ignore the judgment levied at working moms who defer their childcare outside the home because they simply have no other choice. In an age of unstoppable inflation and sky-high costs, we should be asking what we can do realistically to lessen the economic burden on families and enable moms to stay home.

I know about this firsthand. Last year, my husband left his corporate job to found a company with his friends, and almost as soon as I became the primary breadwinner, I was laid off. None of that fit into our financial plan, unsurprisingly, but we decided to make the jump to a one-income household, and months in, we’ve never looked back. If we can do it, you can too. Here’s how to survive off one income.

Abolish the Debt Mindset

Earlier this year, Credit Karma surveyed their 74 million users and found that the average amount of credit card debt for an individual was $6,469. At the same time, 56% of Americans don’t have sufficient savings to cover a $1,000 emergency expense. As a culture, we’re entirely too comfortable with debt. You can finance everything from a boat to spreading payments for a pair of shoes over several months. 

Our mindset when it comes to spending is that if we would have to finance something to buy it, we can’t afford it. 

The mindset of our household when it comes to spending is that if we would have to finance something to buy it, we can’t afford it. When it comes to debt, the money that goes toward paying down your balance could probably be spent in other ways, like going toward savings or investing. We’re able to live off one income because, as a family, we don’t have any debt – aside from our mortgage. We don’t have fancy cars (we have older models we paid for outright, but they do the job), and we eat out maybe once a month, if that. As a young married couple, we spent most of our extra money paying down student loans, which we’ve now paid off successfully. We have a household credit card we use for all expenses that we pay off as often as possible, which helps keep our credit score robust and gets us rewards we can use in other ways. We can put cash back rewards toward buying gas, or depending on the amount, invest it. Every bit helps.

Make Your Income Work for You

A common issue many households have is feeling that their income directs their lives, and not the other way around. If you’re constantly over budget, late on paying basic expenses, or even having no money left at the end of the month to treat yourself, then your income probably isn’t working for you.

As a household, we make way below the national average income, but we live comfortably. We’re able to buy whatever we need, and we’re not blindsided by emergency expenses. How do we do it? Because we make our income work for us. We direct every cent where we want it to go, not where it happens to go if we’re not paying attention.

I credit my husband (he has degrees in math, economics, and finance) for this, but we use a portion of our income to invest. Before we got together, I was afraid of investing. Who isn’t? It’s full of confusing lingo, and it’s not a simple area to break into. While part of our income goes into savings, that money will only sit there, and with the current economic state of things, that’s not good enough. By investing in specific stocks – which don’t guarantee us high dividends right away – we’ve put the money we do have right now to make us money at some point in the future. I freelance write and edit when I can, but that additional pay doesn’t go toward our budget – it goes toward long-term saving and investing.

We regularly set aside amounts for retirement, specifically Roth IRAs which aren’t taxable and are more efficient at getting the best bang for your buck. Even though we don’t bring home a large amount, we aren’t leaving retirement until the last minute or failing to prepare for it entirely. 

There’s also a phenomenon known as “lifestyle creep” currently taking over, where luxuries are seen as necessities when you make a larger income. Even when we operated on a two-income household, we lived below our means, meaning the jump to a one-income household wasn’t as jarring. For others, this isn’t as simple, and if you prioritize certain comforts or luxuries you feel you can’t live without, this system isn’t effective. There’s nothing wrong with becoming accustomed to a certain lifestyle, but thinking you can still have that lifestyle without dual income means being frugal will have much more of a learning curve.

Invest in Quality, Not Quantity

Social media is meant to inspire envy, and if you’re living off one income, limiting it as much as possible is actually helpful. Limiting social media doesn’t give you access to influencers or the products they’re shilling, and helps you focus on your financial priorities. It can be hard to constantly see friends going on vacation or eating at fancy restaurants, but think of the cost-benefit analysis. 

A person doesn’t go broke from splurging on one big item, like a flatscreen TV or a car. But constantly eating out, shopping, buying electronics and accessories, scheduling trips and vacations, or living way above their means usually meant they couldn’t even afford rent. Their social media feeds may have looked impressive, but in the cold light of day, they couldn’t afford to pay the expenses they were supposed to be paying before their splurges.

Being a slave to buying things you don’t really want with money you don’t actually have is the real deciding factor in if you can make one income work or not.

For us, quality is everything. We go on maybe one big trip per year, and maybe one date night a month or every other month. We shop secondhand for clothing and wholesale for food, and we limit personal purchases as much as possible. Becoming a slave to buying things you don’t really want with money you don’t actually have and doing that day in and day out is the real deciding factor in if you have what it takes to make one income work or not.

Know Where Every Dollar Goes

When you only have one income, you can’t afford to not know where that income goes. Twenty dollars here or there probably doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you’re only bringing home one paycheck, that twenty dollars could mean the difference between staying below or going over budget. 

Whatever the amount, you should know how much is in your checking or savings account at any given time, and how much of your monthly budget that you’ve spent so far. This dissolves the fear-based mindset around your money, or the feeling of dread you get when you check your bank account or even avoid checking your bank account because you have no idea how much is in it. You are responsible for your money, and when you treat your money frivolously or carelessly, that only increases the fear-based mindset. Knowing where every dollar goes helps eradicate this and empowers you to take charge of your income.

Be Intentional with Your Language

My husband is the one who works and provides for us, which to some means it’s his money. But because I run our household (cooking, cleaning, caring for our toddler, buying groceries, etc.), I actually use the majority of the finances and I’m in charge of staying on budget and paying bills. 

When you’re married, it’s not his money or your money. It’s your income together, which some don’t understand – but being conscious of how we talk about finances means that we make decisions as a team and we’re both held accountable for any fault. The financial situation, be it good or bad, is our responsibility as a couple, and that makes the task of living off one income seem less daunting and intimidating.

Trim the Fat

Living off one income doesn’t mean we constantly eat the Davey Ramsey diet of rice and beans, but it does mean looking to cut out unnecessary expenses wherever you can. When my husband and I first got married, we lived in a two-bedroom apartment that was closer to our jobs and friends, but was hundreds more in rent than we pay for our house now. Not long ago, we bought a below-budget fixer-upper, and our expenses are actually less now than where we lived before.

We’ve found cheaper phone plans and gotten rid of the streaming services we never used. We’ve also been on a year of no alcohol challenge, which has significantly freed up our food and entertainment budget. Since leaving my job, we use less gas and have fewer car expenses, and we don’t pay for our babysitter anymore. We buy meat from local farmers, and every single way we can possibly cut corners (if possible), we’ve probably tried it. Five, ten, or twenty dollars here and there doesn't sound like a lot, but when you have a limited budget, you appreciate it much more.

Schedule Family Meetings

Lots of households have family meetings, and my husband and I are one of them. Almost every Sunday evening, we break out the budget and see which marks we’re hitting and where we’re falling behind. We change or alter the budget if we need to, and decide how to allocate our leftover money to savings and investing. We have a complete honesty, no judgment policy, which means we can have uncomfortable conversations about income.

Closing Thoughts

There might be a lot of women out there who want to stay home but feel that they can’t lose their second income. Being faced with the prospect of a much smaller budget is frightening at first, but again, if we can do it, you definitely can too.

Living on one income isn’t about making more money. Even the wealthiest people can be terrible with their money or have irresponsible financial mindsets. Being limited to one income means you have a larger responsibility to yourselves and your budget. It’s an adjustment, but if it can guarantee better mental and emotional health for you and more time at home with your kids, making the leap is well worth it.

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