Living on one income

Statistics tell us that over 5 million parents stay at home with their children. The number of stay at home dads is on the rise both due to the economy making it tougher to find jobs, and some women flipping the traditional gender roles and earning more than their spouses.

... telephone happiness!
Creative Commons License photo credit: x-ray delta one: This isn’t the life we lead anymore.

Living on one income: My story

I was pregnant with my first child I was 20 going on 21. About 2 months before I had him we moved into an apartment, and my husband took a job that made it logistically difficult for me to work. (we also had one car) So from the time I was about 6 1/2 months pregnant I stayed home with my son.

The plan was originally for me to go back to work after he turned 6 months, but that changed when my husband decided to go back to work and school full-time.

I stayed at home with Nathan doing odd jobs when I could. I worked occasionally as an organizer for friends, and clients when I could secure babysitting. I sold Avon. I babysat. I drove carpool for 2 busy working moms. I took classes. I worked in retail in the evenings.

Around the time he turned 3 I got the itch to work more, so I got a job as a garden guide with really good pay, and he had time with his daddy every weekend.

About 9 months later we moved, and were getting ready to have our second child, so I stopped working again. Between child #2 and child #3 and child #3 and child #4 I had various part time gigs including another retail stint, more organizing clients, landscaping work, and babysitting.

Last year I had no less than 6 various jobs (swim coach, nursery school teacher, writer, retail worker, and farmer’s market helper), and you are looking at one of them now. My blogging job only brought in about $700 last year, but this year it’s replaced ALL my other jobs’ incomes already.

Until this year, while I’ve always worked a bit here and there, when my husband’s work demanded more time, or I was pregnant (again), or had a newborn I had the “luxury” to stay home.

You’re thinking, well her husband must do well, and they must be different, but we aren’t. We just knew that it didn’t make sense to have me get a job to pay for care for our kids when their Dad was working hard (and at several points working more than one job, or going to school alongside full time work).

I fully believe if we have been able to make it work for 12 years you can too. It’s not easy, it takes adjusting, and changing a lot of things, but for less stress and more time with your family it can be worth it.

Staying Home Saves Money

Most people have the assumption that their pay (after taxes of course) is their earnings, but in the ever popular book Your Money or Your Life the authors suggest that you need to be careful not to count your chickens before they hatch.

What does working really cost you? Think about it. If you work in a traditional office you have clothing costs, commute expenses (what if you could cut out a car?), food (no one ever remembers their brown bag every day!), among others. If you work in a less conventional setting, your home for instance, you may have costs that are higher due to that as well. A home office space, electricity costs, phone line, etc.

Figure out what your work expenses are and subtract them from your pay. That’s your real wage. Usually that number is shockingly different than your take home pay.

Ways you can save by NOT working: dry cleaning, clothing costs, second car expenses, fuel, childcare, etc.

Staying at home can help you make more money

If you’ve always wanted to go back to school, start your own business, or just take a year off and find yourself (with newborn in tow), you may be able to parlay your time at home into a new career, a new passion, or a new income you never expected. (hello, I’m a blogger!)

Staying at home can make you happy

For some people their job is simply a job and not their passion. For others, they are unhappy with where they work. For still other parents they feel that having a parent at home with the kids would give them more peace of mind. It’s not for everyone, but if you are unhappy and can make the numbers work, taking time off may be the best thing for everyone (even if you end up going back to work you will never have any What Ifs hanging over your head).

Can you afford to stay home? Crunch the numbers

You need to sit down and crunch your own numbers. You may find a clear answer, you may not. You may find that this year it will work, but next year when you have some large expenses looming you’ll have to go back. There is no right answer. Only you know what you VALUE, and what you feel you need to spend on.

In the 1950s there wasn’t internet, Netflix subscriptions, premium cable packages, or Sally’s hop hop dance class that costs $150/month plus a $90 “performance” outfit. Things seemed simpler because they were. If you want all the above, you have to find a way to pay for it, and a second job may be your answer, but if you are willing to live a more simple lifestyle you may find that you can get by on much less than you thought.

A Real Life Example

My friend, Liz, who asked recently about going to one income from a dual income house realized that cutting out her husband’s income might be easier than they realized.

Expenses that would disappear included:

  • babysitting after school
  • child care for one of their children
  • bi-weekly housekeeper
  • fuel costs and work clothes associated with her husband’s job
  • The best part? They would owe less than 1/3 of the taxes they paid this year.

With a more thought out budget, having her husband stay home with the kids might be easily reachable for her family.

Some things to consider before you decide to stay at home:

  • Do you have an emergency fund?
  • Do you have adequate life insurance should either spouse pass away?
  • Can the stay at home spouse find fulfillment, or keep their career skills sharp while at home?
  • What if the stay at home spouse hates it? (It happened on Modern Family so it must happen in real life too!)

What about you?

For your family things might be different though, so run your own numbers. If mom needs to work to get on a great health insurance plan, could Dad stay home or work part-time?

The answer doesn’t need to be right for everyone else, it just needs to be right for you, and your family.

Staying at Home and the Single

While it is possible to stay at home with your children as a single parent, it most cases it involves your family supporting you in some fashion. For some this may mean a multi-generational home, while others may find that being living in at a job makes sense. (such as a live in nanny, housesitter, housekeeper, etc.) And despite what people think staying at home and being single doesn’t have to mean you are on welfare. I know moms who work part-time while their baby naps, live off savings, and live in communal housing. Ir’s certainly not a common path, but if you are committed to it you can make it happen.

Do you stay at home? Have you thought about it? Tell me your story in the comments.


More Reading:

One Income Living: Taking Care of Yourself on The Centsible Life

One Income Living: Let’s Talk Money  on The Centsible Life

How to live on 1 income without going broke by Liz Weston

9 tips for those going to one income by PT Money

Our One Income Family by Dollar Stretcher

How to Live on One Income by Frugal Dad

About Kelly

Kelly Whalen is the founder and editor of the Centsible Life blog. She started the blog 6 years ago as her family faced a mountain of debt. The blog became a resource to readers and a hub for everything you need in life for less. Kelly lives in the Philadelphia area with her superhero husband, 4 awesome kids, and one adorable dog. She still believes you can have it all....just not all at once.


  1. Kate says

    We are living on one income and have been doing so for the past six years.   When we had our first son we had a fantastic safety net built up, but my husband’s salary was not much to live on.   He started pursuing high paying jobs and eventually ended up starting his own business.   Over the past six years his income has literally doubled (although it is still modest) and we were able to buy our first home (and have two more children!) I strongly believe it is possible to live on a single income in today’s world – it just takes some adjusting and careful budgeting.

  2. Jonathan says

    Im 28, a husband and father of two children. Wife is full time med student and one childs in daycare and others in school. I work at a plant where you may be required to work 40-60hrs a week and you never know because the overtime is always last min. Also the jobs are always getting shuffled around from people bidding on jobs and peoples job sched getting changed so they kick to a different job and causes a shuffle in jobs. The most weird sched’s I’ve every seen. Every year there are layoffs in the winter and the fear of strikes every few years when contract time comes around. I have been there about 6 years and this place gets worse every year. Not to mention the way they treat us, and I cant stand the fact that union and company dont get along and its always like a childish war between union and company people instead of us all working towards the same goals, its always us vs them and watching over your shoulder all the time.   I hate my job more than I have ever hated anything before in my life and if I did not have a family to support I would have been gone long ago. The thing is its one of the best paying jobs in my area that dont require a special trade or a degree. I have a associates degree but I just went for a degree that was quick and once I got into the industrial field I found out I would make more money not using it. I would like to go back to school and get a degree for something that I could enjoy and that I would have a passion for not just something to pay the bills. I want a career and Im tired of being stressed and depressed every day of my life just thinking and dreading this place, its so hard not to bring the stress home but I try my best to tuck it away and not let it out but it just keeps building and I feel like Iam trapped and start to feel like I hate my life. Its even making me feel angry towards my wife because she switched degrees and has added two more years before she will be finished with school and I just look at it like thats two more years Im trapped. I cant blame her because she is now doing something she loves and maybe Im just jealous that I didnt have that option to take my time. I felt rushed by her and her parents to hurry with school and support their daughter. I love my family but I swear the stress of this job and feeling like I wont have a chance to change the situation for several more years is killing me. I had even thought once while feeling aggravated about getting fired and going back to school while getting unemployment, but the truth is that its almost impossible to get fired from a union job here, you can literally smoke some crack in front of the boss and their like, ” we will get you some help” then sends them to rehab. The only ways to get fired or let go would knock you out of unemployment anyways and honestly even though I entertained the thought. I couldnt bring myself to get myself fired on purpose. Man, it really drives me crazy to see people I know ruin chances and party away and fail their free ride to college. I would love to go back and have that chance. Can Anyone Please Help Me, I need some advice on how I could go back to school while still trying to provide for my family before it gets too late and I get to old to put in time for a decent degree and start a career, Im afraid I wait much longer and I wont be able to retire before Im 90 or pretty much work until I die.. Is there a way for me to manage to go back to school without putting my family in the welfare line to do it. (Which I would never do).

    • says

      What about an online degree in nursing, for example?  I’m sure that not all online degrees are worth-less and some of them, with enough research, could give you the type of organize exit strategy from your current dead end job.

      Make sure you do research, talk to people that followed this route.  I know some in fact, already nurses, doing a masters online while working.  Their schedule tends to be organized for students that work full-time.  I know it might not be as reputable as an ivy league full time degree, but as you well put it, tons of those kids just get credit by playing  freebie  and get drunk at night.  They don’t necessarily end up learning more than you do with an online degree.

      Best of luck!!! You sure deserve it.

    • says

      I just saw this as I was going through old comments!

      I plan to write about it extensively soon, but it’s taken me 2 years to build an online profile and be paid a decent part time income. If you have a writing, marketing, or similar background you may be able to make things move faster. It really depends on what your goals are, and how motivated you are, as working online means you set your own hours.

  3. says

    Great article! I too am a SAHM, although with the blog these days I think I'm more of a SAHWM!
    How did you make the transition from $700 to much greater.

  4. MommaBee says

    I can relate to this post. When we had baby #1, we ran numbers to see the cost of daycare versus my pay. Basically, all of my money would go to daycare. (We have no support system or free babysitting from relatives). So I stayed home for 6 months and then worked retail on weekends only. That way, my husband could watch baby on the weekends. I kept doing this with baby #2. Now that the youngest is age 10, I want to go back in my field of Physical Therapy Assistance. Unfortunately, I've been out of the field a very long time to raise my family! Nobody will look at my resume'!! There are no refresher courses in this state since PTA's are not licensed and all recruiters have basically told me to give up looking for a job. I have placed ads in papers and have contacted local facilities to ask if I can shadow a PT for free. It's my last resort Although I am happy that I could raise my kids and be there for them, my career suffered. There is a sacrifice to be a SAHM. Financially speaking, we didn't put out $ for daycare and had peace of mind. We lived on my husband's income and were frugal. We didn't have alot of money in savings at all or much money to speak of. But we survived. Would I do it this way again? No. I'd make sure I found a weekend job in my field so that my career wasn't totally lost. There are employers that are willing to have employees work weekends only. I currently have an employer that allows me to NOT work those days when the kids are sick/out of school. Of course, I make sure I am the best employee I can be so that my schedule stays this flexible. The job is in retail so the pay isn't anything close to what I made while being a PTA, but right now, it's all I have.

  5. moneygreenlife says

    This opens up a brand new perspective for me. My girlfriend and I plan to get married sometime next year and it may turn out that I'll be providing the only income to the household (at least in the beginning). I wondered how I could afford to pay eveything for both of us on one income. You provided some insights and a different perspective and never thought about money that would be saved by her not working. I'm going to have to reassess our future budget to see if I can make it work.

  6. JDaniel4's Mom says

    My husband and I were just talking about this last night. We know my staying home is priceless. A Focus on the Family broadcast I listened to actually said it sometimes costs more to work.

  7. says

    What a great post. I hope other mothers or fathers listen to your good advice. I think it's so important for one parent to be home.

  8. dianeprouty1 says

    There's also the psychological/emotional side of things to consider too. I think some folks do far better with the stimulation that having an outside job brings. although i do have to admit that had there been the internet and a blogging community i could reach out to when i was staying home with my four kids i might have found it a much more rewarding experience. i felt incredibly isolated–one car and living in a more rural environment. i have lots of regrets about some of the decisions i made–i think had i gone back to work part time it would have been better for my pysche but doubtful it would have contributed to the income much. good discussion — lots to think about. happy saturday sharefest from a SITSA.

  9. says

    This is an eye-opening entry. Thank you for sharing it – we still carry the myth that in order to raise kids both parents must be working full-time to raise enough income…yet your argument is so powerful (because you walk the walk) I think now I can safely ditch that “myth” and be more flexible about a family's working style.

  10. says

    I’ve been stay at home since we married almost 6 years ago. The simple trick is to live below your means. It does mean telling myself “no, you can’t get this” sometimes, but at the cost of being able to stay at home? Completely worth it.

    The other beauty of being a stay at home wife for so many years is that there’s very little transition financially to becoming a stay at home mom, which I’ll be in 5 weeks. We can focus on adjusting to a baby in our lives, and not so much the budget itself, since we already have that down pat.

    Lastly, I’ve ran the numbers to see just how much I would have to make for me working to be a feasible idea. Between getting bumped into a new tax bracket, childcare, more spent on food, working clothes and so on… well, there’s no job in this town that would pay me enough (based on what my mother-in-law and sister-in-law currently make) to make it worthwhile. We’d actually be sliding backwards in expenses.

  11. says

    Before my husband and I got married we discussed the topic of living beyond one's means. And that if we did get married (which we did), we still only wanted to live off of one income because “life happens.” Well, life did happened — I lost my job. However, our standard of living didn't really change because we had agreed, and budgeted, to live off of one income. Currently I'm a SAHW no kids, so, we're probably able to do a little bit more with our money than those on one income + kid(s). But, it still comes down to budgeting — and I'm not talking about just making sure all the bills are paid. Real budgeting is allocating smartly.

  12. says

    Kelly, divorce may be a mutual decision, but that decision might still be reached after one spouse stayed at home with the kids for 10-20 years. In reporting stories, I've spoken to numerous women who found themselves in very dire straits when they divorced and suddenly they needed to find a job with no skills and no work experience for decades. Unfortunately, it happens all the time.

  13. says

    I don't know what to say to that! I think it's more common for divorce to be a mutual decision, but in the case of it coming out of left field from your spouse, it's true you should have a contingency plan.

    It's wonderful that you have been able to live on one income, and have no debt, that's not a common thing anymore, and it should be!

  14. says

    That is a GREAT point, Jen. Many women do end up with a 2nd shift, and if both parents are working that's absolutely not acceptable.

    Many times I end up doing the bulk of the housekeeping since I'm home, but my husband always pitches in when he's home.

    Sick days is another great consideration. I am fortunate to be able to work whether they are sick on the couch or healthy.

  15. says

    You aren't an impostor at all! You are married after all, so her life is a huge part of yours.

    Thanks. I think necessity is the mother of invention in my life. All the things I do came from a need, and I've been very fortunate.

  16. says

    Jaime, it's wonderful that you have a skill set that could lend itself to working from home. Not everyone is so fortunate. If you can live on one income now it will only making starting a family that much easier when the time comes.

  17. says

    It sounds like it was a tough road, but in some ways prepared you to live a very full life with your new husband. I admire that you are choosing to live a more modest lifestyle so you can spend time with your spouse.

  18. says

    Manhattan is expensive! I love that you are able to work a flexible schedule. That makes all the difference I think, and I wish more employers would consider having more flexible working conditions.

  19. says

    I think you could do it. $1,000 seems like a lot, but with your writing skills I bet you could find some freelance writing work. The great thing about those kinds of jobs is the pay only gets better if you are good at what you do.

  20. says

    It is SO common. I know so many people in the same boat. Hopefully you hubby's business does well enough that you could take some time off, or work part-time though I know it's not for everyone.

  21. says

    Ha! Well it was a lot of hours without pay for a VERY long time upfront, and all my other income added up to a mid 4 figures number so it wasn't that much to replace. The bonus is I get to be at home-no rushing to get meals ready, etc. so I can run out the door to work.

  22. says

    What happens when the husband no longer wants to be married?

    Stay at home works when the marriage is strong and healthy. I hear so many stories about women being married for 20+ years and their husband decides he no longer wants to be married. He just waited until the kids were grown.

    I'm like Mrs. Micah.

    We both work however we live on one salary. That has worked for the past five years. So when either one of us is laid off, it will not affect our lifestyle. We do not have to downsize or readjuct anything

    We only have a mortgage and utilities, ins. Our expenses are not like our peers (a lot of debt). If couples live as if they only have one salary and get rid of debt, more people may can afford to stay home if they choose.

  23. jenlittlebitthisnthat says

    Some other things to consider, not necessarily from a financial standpoint… Talk to each other about household expectations. Be clear about how chores will be split up and things like that. Just because the person at home is at home, does not mean that they should be responsible for everything. Yes, perhaps a majority of things would naturally fall to that person, but be fair to each other.

    Also, think about how many work days you lose when you have to take off with your sick child(ren). This has been a big one for us. I basically have had to use all of my vacation/sick/personal days to stay home with T when he was sick.

  24. says

    I kind of feel like an imposter posting about my wife, but here it goes…

    My wife is a stay-at-home mom too, we only have 2 kids, though, and the youngest just started school, so my wife found a part time job as a bookkeeper.

    I really just want to say: congratulations on being so clever with work! It's a very impressive story :)

  25. says

    Great post…I don't have children yet, but I often wondered if we could really afford to live on one income. My husband and I make almost the same amount, but my skills could also be put to use from a home office. I guess I'm lucky in that sense.

  26. says

    I was a single mom with 2 children for over 15 years (divorce) and staying home was definitely not an option if I wanted to pay the rent and buy groceries etc. I lived away from family and all local support systems were busy working too. I remarried 2 years ago to a man who had just retired. He didn't want me to have to continue working as well so we decided what we both wanted/needed as a retired couple on a fixed income and adjusted our lifestyle to fit our incomes. We are blessed in that my husband's pension provides us with the coveted benefits we all need, not everyone is as fortunate and the cost to obtain it can be prohibitive. Once you firmly decide how much is really enough for you then it is as matter of getting your bank account to match your expectations…whatever they may be. When I was raising my kids without benefit of child support in the early years of the divorce I don't know what I would have done some months without a credit card but it did take me a long time and a job that finally paid well for me to get myself out of credit card “balance owing” statements. As a retired couple, we do not carry debt and stick to a budget.

  27. says

    We couldn't make it on one income in Manhattan, but there's every chance we could do it if we chose to live elsewhere. Luckily, as a freelance writer, my schedule is flexible, so I don't have to work the typical 40-hour-a-week-plus-commute job. I work from home, and my daughter goes to a nearby daycare. I work short days and often not on Fridays at all, so I have plenty of time with her, and if she's sick or there's an emergency, I'm already at home. If we were both trying to work traditional full-time jobs, we'd be much more miserable.

  28. says

    I found out I can stay at home if I make a $1K income per month doing a side job (perhaps my own business?). So, I am trying because I would love to stay home and work on implementing some new business ideas plus spend so much more time with my family. I miss them so!

  29. says

    Great post Kelly. Really great insights and thought starters for people. Our biggest challenge is benefits. My husband is self-employed and just started his business, so buying our own benefits is not an option. My job provides those to our family. Amazing how often I hear that same story!

  30. SpecialSauceintheHouse says

    I'm sorry – I got stuck on how much money you make from your blog. That would make MY SAHM-gig a lot easier! I left a relatively well-paying career that I'd been building for 15 years to stay home. And at this point, I'm really wanting to earn SOMEthing. But with a 6, 4 and 13 month-old I can't get a job outside the home so that's limiting. I do feel guilty about not contributing to the household monetarily.

  31. says

    We live on one income, but so that we can pay debt not so that I can stay home. Since we don’t have kids, I don’t feel any real need to stay home anyway. But living on one income is a great plan anyway. If you don’t have debt you can save up and take emergencies without much pain. If you’re paying off debt, you can get it done so much faster and also take a break from the speedy pay-down to handle unexpected expenses.


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