Family camping and making s'mores

I think back often to the day we found out we were pregnant with our first.  After a trying year of miscarriages, it looked like we were finally going to have a baby. The excitement of being new parents was just settling in.  And, then, it hit me. I wanted to stay home with our new baby.

We were in the most unlikely scenario of places where women stay home with their kids these days. In the middle of a major and very expensive cosmopolitan city – Washington, DC.  It didn’t seem to matter how you crunched the numbers.  You could never live on one income and thrive.  You needed two paychecks to make things work.

I also didn’t know any one who stayed home. Most babies went to day care at 6 weeks or had a full time nanny.  But, I wanted things to be different.  It was time to forge our own path forward.

Another thing that helped solidify our decision was my income as a teacher.  Even with my Masters degree, I made just a little bit more than the cost of a year of day care.  It turned out that Washington was one of most expensive cities in the country to raise a family.  They’d just been ranked ahead of New York City and San Francisco.  Wish I’d know that in advance.

Soon we realized that I would be bringing home so little money that it didn’t really justify the 50 hour work weeks.  I couldn’t imagine working the hours of a teacher as a brand new mom and caring for a newborn at night anyways.  

So, one income it was.  I did some research and learned that it would be hard.  Living on one income would require us to get creative with our finances and hold back my “career”.  To be honest, there weren’t a lot of benefits listed.  It made me feel like I was burying my career ambitions before I was 30.

Our friends and family weren’t exactly supportive either.  I heard a lot of the “What will you do now?” question from friends.

My mom’s favorite one at this time was “When are you going back to teaching?”.  I come from a long line of hardworking outside of the home individuals.  My mom certainly didn’t stay home with me.  In fact, ever so proudly, I was one of those infants at a babysitter’s house when I turned 6 weeks old. 

I am grateful that my parents instilled a wonderful work ethic in me.  I just wanted things to be different with my kids.  Especially when we realized how expensive child care was.  

I suspected much of what they said is true. There is an uncertainty when choosing to live on one income.  But I believe that this unease is no different than what our forefathers experienced.

Can you imagine how scared a mom heading west in a covered wagon felt? Or boarding a boat to sail to our country for the first time? 

Three sets of feet - Mom, Dad and toddler's - poking out at end of bed with the text overlay "How to Live on One Income and Thrive"

Reality is that there’s a lot of unknown in this world.  Sometimes trusting your instincts is the best thing.  For me, at that moment, staying home with my little felt like the thing I needed to do most in the world.

So, we did it.  We started living on one income.  Amazingly enough we didn’t starve or give up all of our belongings.  Instead, the most unexpected thing happened, we thrived.

I had no idea what living on one income would mean to our family life.  I was able to focus my energy on raising my kids and their needs.  Eventually, when I wanted to branch out a little, I started my business.  I was able to stay home with my littles as it grew from a small side hustle to a full fledged stationery shop.

Is it easy?  Nothing in life is easy.  And we’ve had to get creative occasionally (like cutting the cable cord and going down to one car).  But for me, it’s been worth every sacrifice. 

In the end, I learned that we don’t really need all of those extras that everyone says we do.  We just need each other.  And this was the right decision for our family at the right time.

If you’re thinking about making the jump to living off one income, there are some things that you can do to make the transition easier.  Here’s what I’ve discovered that has allowed our family to thrive.  

Start at the Beginning

One of the best pieces of advice we got when we were married was from an unlikely source – my sister in law.  I’ll admit we don’t always see eye to eye, but this tip made a lot of sense.

The advice was… Live off one income from the start.

I always thought about how amazing two incomes were.  Your buying power.  All the things you could do with all of that money.  Yes, this was my 20 year old self talking.

As awesome as the money is, living to the max off of two incomes does not help you financially.  What if one income disappears?  This could be from a job loss, injury, illness, new baby or an extended desire to travel.

If you choose to live off of one income from the start of your marriage, you get used to it.  Most likely, depending on how much each income is, one should be enough to cover at least the basic needs for the two of you.

Living off of one income from the beginning of our marriage made it a lot easier to transition once the baby arrived and we adopted a one income lifestyle.  

Make a Plan Early

As much as I love making decisions without much planning, living on one income is something that you want to think about early.  And I mean early.  Like several years before you decide to make the leap.

Choosing to live off of one income is not the best fly by night decision.  After I started teaching, I knew that we would want to live off of one income eventually.  I wanted to do more freelance writing and the only way I could see building a business like this was having a full year to focus on it. 

I also met so many families where the mom and dad were so stressed out from managing work and kids.  There was never really a balance.  And I didn’t want to be that stressed when we raised our family.  

I knew I wanted to make living on one income work, but I didn’t know how. 

So, we started focusing on paying off debt and building a healthy emergency fund. We sacrificed expensive summer vacations and renovations to our home in order to put more money into our savings.  My motivation was never having to do the day care tour or going through the process of hiring a full time nanny.

Living on one income isn’t for everyone.  But if you see this as a possibility in your future, start making the preparations now.  It also gives you a chance to see if you can do it.  If you’re successful during the planning stages, you’ll be able to figure out if you can thrive under the financial constraints full time in the years ahead.

Pay off Debt

At the beginning of our marriage, I decided to get my Masters in Education.  I wanted to teach and this seemed the most efficient way to get there.

Unfortunately, like most Americans, I graduated with student loan debt.  A lot of it.  I didn’t want to officially move to one income without having this debt paid off.  So, the first few years of living off one income was dedicated to paying off our debt.  You can just imagine my pride when the last payment was sent in.

Although paying off debt prior to living off of one income isn’t always possible, it does make it easier.  Debt is a burden no matter what, but it’s more of one when you rely on one person making money.  It’s harder to thrive on one income when you know you have a recurring payment you owe each month.

So, if possible, try to pay off your debt before you make the leap to one income.  If it’s too much of a mountain, then at least get it as manageable as possible.  You’ll find so much less stress when you are on one income.

Stay Put

One of the worst decisions we made when living on one income was moving into a bigger space. We were pretty cramped in our condo with little number one and number two on its way.  According to me, and all of our family, we couldn’t keep living like this.

Please note that we had a sunny 1,100 square foot condo.  Looking back on it, the condo was beautiful and a great option for urban living.  But perspective is 20/20.   In the end, we heard too much that our children needed their own yard to play in.  Like right then.  

So, we moved into a larger rental.

Worst. Decision. Ever.

First, more space doesn’t equal happiness.  I found the place cold, less cozy and we really only used half of it.  The truth was that small children don’t take up a lot of space.

Second, it was so much more expensive.  Our square footage almost doubled.  Forget just the ridiculous rent, but we didn’t realize how much our utilities, gas for the car (since we were now deep in the suburbs and not in the city) and upkeep of a rental (something that still confuses me) would cost.

We lasted one year.  After our lease was up, we moved back to our condo.  Oh, had I missed that place.  We stayed there another three years before it actually started really looking a bit small.

When living off one income, embrace where you are.  There’s nothing wrong with your living accommodations – I promise.  Don’t incur more expenses if you don’t have to.  It’s amazing how much “moving up” really costs.  The hidden expenses just aren’t worth it.

Have a Back Up Plan

Nothing is certain these days. There’s always a what if scenario. Even if you have two jobs.

When living on one income, you need to be prepared for any “what if “scenario.  It could be that your partner loses his job.  Or your roof’s blown off in a storm.  You could find out you’re expecting twins.  Who knows.

Before jumping into living on one income, make a back up plan.  A large emergency fund to fall back on for a few months.  Awesome home insurance.  Parents that live a few blocks down.  Anything goes.

Just be prepared.  Talk about the plan with each other so you know what to do if there is an emergency.  You don’t want to be second guessing your decision making in the middle of it.

Create a Side Hustle

So, eventually, life with kids becomes manageable. You no longer have a screaming newborn in the middle of the night and you’re not so tired that you can’t see.

Instead, you find rhythm in your days.  There’s even a solid nap time for a couple of hours in the afternoon.

If you decide to explore other interests during this time, you might consider starting a side hustle.  A side hustle is a way to make a little bit of money on the side.  It does have the potential, though, to grow into an actual business if done correctly.

Some examples of side hustles include selling things around the house on Ebay, managing social media for small businesses, selling services on Fiverr and teaching English as a second language. 

There are lots of different side hustles you could do – many of which can be done during naptime or with your child in tow.  And the extra money is great.  Especially during vacation season.

Little girl with cowboy boots and sitting with her family - Text Overlay "How to live on one income and thrive"

Enjoy the Free Life

One of the best part of having littles is that they don’t really care what they’re doing.  They just want to spend time with you.

It took me awhile to understand this.  My littles would get just as much joy visiting the elephants at the zoo as working with me on a puzzle.

It’s the time that means so much to them – not the activity.

So, I started focusing on finding free things to do on the weekends.  Instead of spending money, we go to the playground, hike our nearby trail, hit up splash parks and host play dates.

I no longer worry about whether they are getting to a famous museum or jumping like crazy at the trampoline park.  We do those activities sometimes and they are fun, but they don’t seem to matter as much.  

Instead, our family focuses on having more no spend weekends and finding creative free events.  We just love spending time together, no matter what we’re doing.

Cut the Cord

The most important thing that we considered before jumping to one income was what expenses we could cut.  There was a lot of debate over the gym membership, metro bill and going down to one car.

The one expense that was never questioned was our cable bill.  And we’ve never been happier.  One pitfall with staying at home with kids is forming the habit of constantly having the television on.

Although there’s nothing wrong with the tv, I find it distracts from our family time together.  We talk less as a family and can’t focus on the activity were doing.  

We have tried many different substitute cable like services over the years.  In the end, we seem happiest without much television.  And now that the kids are older, there just never seems time to watch it anyway.

We do have amazing Internet that we’ve splurged on so we can stream videos and the such.  But, I don’t miss our cable service.  If there’s something specific we want to watch, such as a sporting event, it also gives us an excuse to go out together.

Do it Yourself

When we first had our daughter, I felt extremely overwhelmed by all of the things I had to do every day. Taking care of a baby was a full time job. Adding in cleaning, grocery shopping and managing of the household and I was done for.

The first thing to go was the cleaning.  So my wonderful husband suggested that we hire someone.

It turned into an awful experience.  First of all, we aren’t the neatest people around.  The cleaning person spent much of her time complaining about having to maneuver around toys, clothes and my cutting station in the hallway.  I understand the complications of our stuff getting in the way.  But, I didn’t really know what to do about it.

She also didn’t dust correctly.  At least not up to my standards.  I ended up having to go and dust again after she left.  Yes, it was a frustrating time.

In the end, I realized that we should just do these things ourselves.  Even if I didn’t think I had the time to or felt like it.  So, I started cleaning more often.  And I scheduled in a weekly grocery shopping time.  We also fixed things around the house by ourselves.  All of a sudden, we were a DIY machine and loving it.

Doing things yourself leaves you with an amazing feeling.  It’s called the Ikea effect.  The Ikea Effect is when you put higher value on the things that you create yourself.  In our case, it was a clean and healthy home.  I felt proud when the house looked beautiful, clean and picked up.  And I did it all myself.

It also saved money. Doing these household chores ourselves made us work better together as a team and we didn’t have to pay anyone else to help.  I loved learning how to fix things around the house or finding shortcuts to clean faster.  Figuring out how to successfully get stains out of laundry and mend holes in clothing became a new hobby.

So when planning to live off one income, figure out what each of you is good at.  Doing this in advance will prevent arguments later if things become bit tighter financially.  From knowing what you can DIY yourself, your household will thrive both financially and in togetherness.

Figure out what Really Matters

I know that this one might seem cliché, but it definitely helped me get through some tougher times.  Sometimes when living on one income isn’t easy, you have to give different things up.  Before this happens, decide on the one thing you won’t give up.

Truthfully, everyone has different priorities in life and it’s important that we design our lives around those priorities. 

The one thing that I couldn’t imagine giving up no matter what was the week that our family spends in Vermont each summer.  It’s the one place where we feel fulfilled.  By spending this week together, we all come back nourished to tackle the other 51 weeks in the year.

For you, it could be an assortment of things.  When thinking about living on one income, figure out what your must have is.  What’s the one thing that you can’t imagine giving up.  It could be two cars, private preschool or your summer beach vacation. 

Start planning your one income journey there.  By keeping this priority in focus, the rest of your choices will become clearer.

Your Budget is your Friend

One of the hardest things about living on one income is keeping the money flowing continuously.  We learned early on that our budget was our friend.  Actually, one of our bestest.  It let us know where we spent our money each month and how much we had to put in savings at the end.

If living on one income, create a budget that works for your family.  It can be complicated or simple. On the computer or paper and pencil.  Whatever you decide, create a document that let’s you know how your spending your money.

And stick to it.  We have a budget that I don’t always love, so I choose to ignore it sometimes.  I did this last December and our eating out bill was triple what was budgeted.  No wonder all of our numbers were off.

Also, remember that your budget is a fluid document.  It is something that is constantly changing.  That’s okay.  Revisit it every couple of months and make adjustments as necessary.  It will be easier to stick to it if the budget reflects your current living patterns.

Final Thoughts…

Amazingly, even in this day in age, living on one income is completely possible.  And I’m not talking about barebones minimalist never buy anything new kind of living either.  You can really enjoy life and thrive as a family on one income.

But in order to live on one income, you need to prepare correctly and make lifestyle choices that support it.  Before making the leap, try it out and see if depending on only one paycheck is for you and your family.  Research other people who have chosen non-traditional lifestyles.  See how they make it work.  There are lots of examples these days of families – large and small – finding ways to live differently.  It’s mostly about getting creative.

Keep in mind, though, that having a one income lifestyle isn’t always flowers and blue skies.  You might not want to give up your current career or even stay home all day with your kids.  Being at home is tough work and not everyone enjoys it.  And that’s okay.  We have one life and each person needs to find their own journey.

If you do find yourself longing for a more flexible lifestyle than a stay at home one, maybe spending some time at home with your littles will give you more time to start that business you’ve always dreamed of. 

Even if you don’t plan on living on one income, run the numbers any way.  You never know when something may change in your life – job loss, career change, twins or triplets and no reliable childcare.  It’s always good to have a one paycheck back up plan just for these moments.  Hey, you never know what life might bring.



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