This post: Thinking about living off one income? Here are a few things you need to know.
Living off one income has been villainized, idealized, and spiritualized. As a woman who has co-managed a single-income household for 20+ years, I can tell you this: living off one income isn’t necessarily a sentence to lifetime poverty. Neither is it always comfortable. And it certainly won’t make you a more holy Christian. (Just sayin’.)
If you’re considering making the change to live off one income – or if you’re already there and need some help making it work – keep reading. I’m going to be brutally honest about what living on a single income actually looks like, and also share some hard-earned tips for living it well.
By way of disclosure – I’m writing this article from the office of our newly built, 4,000 square-foot home in north Texas. If you do the math, there’s no way my husband and I (and our five kids) should have financially been able to build this house. (Take a peek inside here.)
But we did. And it wasn’t by accident.
What I’m about to share with you is more of a mindset mantra than a how-to. It’s how Jeremy and I make this life of ours work. It may not be what works for you- and that’s okay! I’m not here to tell anyone how to live, just share how I’m cultivating a well-lived life in my corner.
But first, let’s define what “living off one income” means.
For this article, we’ll define “living off one income” as a household with a single breadwinner.
There have been seasons in our family when I’ve generated income (either part time or full time) from side hustles. But for the most part, my husband, Jeremy, has been the only one bringing home the bacon.
Maybe some day I’ll write about how to contribute financially when you’re a full-time mom. But for now, let’s agree that by “living off one income” we’re talking about a family with one, primary breadwinner. That may be you or or your husband.
Either way, here are a few things you really need to know:
1. It can be hard.
I’ll just say it: raising a family on a single income can get really hard.
You probably already know that. But when I was a young wife and mom, it felt like very few people – aside from naysayers – were willing to say that out loud.
The phrase, “God always provides,” gets thrown around a lot. And, yes, it’s true – God does provide. But what He typically provides is an opportunity to work, not a money tree.
I would rather hear honest people say, This is hard, that’s why it feels hard. But God will help you do hard things.
So I said it. (You’re welcome.)
2. The bigger your family, the harder it is.
We are a household of seven. Raising five kids is more expensive than raising two or three kids. It’s just simple math.
The recommended annual income for a family half our size is about $20,000 more than we make a year.
Living off a single, modest income with a large family is extra challenging. Plain and simple.
Worth it? Yep. Hard? Yep.
3. Where you live matters.
When our family moved from a rural community to the Fort Worth area over a decade ago, our cost of living went up. Our income did too, but not in proportion to our living expenses.
Where you live within an area makes a difference, too. When we started building a new home several years ago, my husband and I chose a county with lower taxes – simply because we knew the ongoing cost of living would be more affordable.
I know it’s not always possible to be choosy about where you live. But if possible, pick a state or a region or a community that’s within your family’s means.
4. Sometimes “live beneath your means” isn’t helpful advice.
The most common tip for living well on a single income is to “live beneath your means.” It sounds simple enough – don’t spend more than you make and you can live on less, right?
But can I be real? “Living beneath your means” isn’t even possible on some incomes. What if your “means” isn’t enough to cover the basic expenses? And I’m not talking about big houses and new cars – just groceries and paying the bills.
My husband is in vocational ministry, and we have never been able to “live beneath our means” on what he’s made from pastoring a church. Either he or I (or both) have always had to work on the side to make enough to live comfortably.
Yes, there are families who absolutely can live beneath their means on a single income. If that’s you, great. I wish everyone could do that.
But if you’re trimming the fat and there’s just not enough to go around- you’re not alone! Keep reading – it’s probably time to diversify your income.
5. Your “One Income” Doesn’t Have To Come from One Source
Like I already said – our family has always been a “one income” family, but we’ve never really been able to live off a single source of income. In addition to pastoring, Jeremy has always worked on the side to bring in extra money. I’ve done the same (although with less consistency, since I homeschool our kids and have less time to commit to working).
Having more than one source of income is a wise financial decision for any family. It can be anything from taking a second job or shift, picking up a part time job, selling things online (think Poshmark or Etsy), starting a family business, babysitting, freelancing, blogging, marketing, or something as big as investing in real estate.
The goal is to beef up your income by having more than one vein of money coming in. (Hint: passive income is ideal!)
A few articles to read:
- What Is Passive Income? (Dave Ramsey)
- 10 Best Ways To Diversify Your Income (Be the Budget)
- Living On One Income, Or One-and-a-Half Incomes (Suzanne Venker)
6. You’ll Get Very Familiar With the “B” and the “F” Words
Just in case you’re wondering, I’m referring to the words “budget” and “frugal.” (What did you think I meant?)
So far, I’ve talked a lot about income. But the money going out is a huge part of being able to survive on a single income. Whatever you think about frugal living, it’s time to get acquainted with that lifestyle.
Now, I’ll be honest – I don’t like being “frugal” and I pretty much hate budgeting. I’ve just never cared to be that family who can’t “afford” to do anything fun, eat out, or buy nice things.
But if you reframe “frugal” as learning how to be creative with spending and saving money – and if a “budget” is a tool for managing money (not just making me pinch pennies) – well, then I’m all in. I like a good challenge.
With that mindset, I’ve been able to save our family thousands of dollars on groceries, clothing, health care, and education – simply by being intentional about spending (or not spending) money. I’ve learned a lot of practical skills (see #8) in the process, to boot. (Yay me.)
Call it “frugal” or whatever you want, but learning how to save (not just make) money is incredibly important if you’re going to survive on one income.
7. You’ll Have To Think Outside the Box
I’ve already stated this, but I’ll say it again – you can’t think and do like the “average” American if you’re going to live on one income.
The average dual-income, annual earnings for a family of four in the United States is just under $100,000. In contrast, the average annual earnings for a single income family of four in the U.S. is approximately $63,000.
“Normal” spending for a 100K budget isn’t going to work for a 63K budget. Add a few more kids into the mix, and your budget just got even tighter.
What to do? You adjust your expectations and lifestyle habits.
- shop thrift stores or consignment vs buying everything new
- resell shoes + clothes when your kids outgrow them
- shop discount grocery stores vs big chain super markets
- shop sales + use cash-back apps
- learn how to menu plan + make a frugal grocery list
- eat at home most nights vs ordering takeout every night
- plan vacations + road trips during “off seasons” to save money
- buy second hand furniture vs going into debt for new furniture
- downsize your home in order to put money into savings
- pay cash for used vehicles, or share one family vehicle for a while
- don’t fret if your kids have to share bedrooms, or wear some hand-me-downs
- curate a capsule wardrobe for yourself + don’t buy what you don’t need
- appreciate lowkey vacations vs going into debt for lavish trips
- keep your kids’ birthday parties simple (but fun!) vs over-the-top
- teach your kids to budget + earn their own money when they want big ticket items
- don’t be afraid to budget for holidays, or stick with a 4 gifts for Christmas tradition
It’s true: contentment is a bit out-of-the-box in modern America. But it’s also absolutely priceless.
8. Old Ways May Seem Like New Ideas (Embrace Them!)
In my grandparents’ generation (when most every family in America was a single income family), the kind of thinking I described above was completely normal. Learning how to budget and manage money was a necessary life skill, not an option.
I find it interesting that in a generation with the smallest nuclear families (average of 3.13 people)-
- we live in the larger homes (average 2,500 square feet)
- spend more on groceries every month (average of $700 – $1,000 for a household of four)
- and have a high amount of personal debt (average $7,860 per person)
When I was a young wife, my grandma taught me many helpful skills about how to live well on a modest budget. Simple things like how to make my own household cleaners and laundry soap to how to bake a big batch of granola for my kids and how to use cloth diapers.
I was also blessed to grow up with a mom who taught me how to cook, so really it was just a matter of putting everything I’d learned into practice in my own home.
I realize these skills are a bit old-fashioned, and that most Millennials haven’t been taught them. If this is you, it’s okay. Just make up your mind to learn. There’s so much we can glean from past generations, and much of what we learn can save us lots of money.
9. You’ll appreciate work, money, and things a lot more.
Arguably, there are perks to learning to live off one income (and no, they aren’t monetary!). One of the biggest, and possibly least appreciated, is the development of character.
Yes, gratitude is always a choice – not an accidental byproduct of any lifestyle. (I know lots of unhappy, frugal people and I’ll bet you do, too.)
But if you’re embracing a lifestyle that majors on stewardship and minors on things- well, there’s a big opportunity here for learning how to appreciate what really matters in life.
- chances to learn new skills or make money
- opportunities to give generously and serve
- windfalls and blessings
- hand-me-downs and bargains
- relationships and family ties
- time, health, and traditions
- new grace for a new day
10. Living off one income is possible.
This is what I want you to “get.” Living off a single income may not be easy, and it might actually feel impossible right now – but you can do it.
Depending on your income, where you live, and the size of your family, it’s going to require
- a willingness to think outside the box
- prioritizing your life a little differently from cultural norms
- diversifying your income
- embracing budgeting + frugality as your super power
But it can be done. I know, because Jeremy and I have done it for 20+ years. True, it’s been both feast and famine (and probably more of the latter!). But here we are – wiser for the wear.
This chilly late-October day, I’ve been working from the comfort of my new home office.
Honestly, our new house is beautiful – albeit still lacking in furniture, rugs, and window treatments. I know we’ll finish decorating eventually.
But for now, it’s enough. I am content, because the truth is – I’ve learned to be happy with much less.
Living off one income may be the road less traveled – and sometimes, it is the harder road. But the creativity, stewardship, and gratitude you can learn along the way makes every milestone you reach ten times as sweet.
Are you curious about how to live off one income while raising a family? Are you struggling to make it happen? How can I encourage you?
Leave a comment below + let me know.