Nine tips to survive being a single-income family

I read recently that about 70 percent of moms return to work after the birth or adoption of their child – about 65 percent of them returning before their child is 5 years old. Makes sense, really – it’s hard to live on one income these days. And lots of women enjoy and miss their full time jobs, and god knows the world needs bright, capable women in decision making roles in every field. (And yep, I  know sometimes it’s a dad staying at home – I just didn’t parse the stats that deeply.)

If the 30-35 percent of parents at home with their babies are anything like me, it’s a reality check to start living on just one primary income. A few months into our adventure of living frugally, I have accumulated a few helpful ideas for making it work. They might help you too.

1) Budget for the necessities first. Necessities are the bills and the food. Get the bills out of the way, then buy the food. What’s left can be divided among other priorities and you know the lights, heat and pantry are covered.

image from

2) Become an expert menu planner. I love to watch Kitchen Nightmares (especially the British version). It’s not even funny how much my fridge used to resemble a Kitchen Nightmare restaurant fridge (ok, I think it is funny…). But bad planning results in waste (now whether you have the presence of mind to toss that waste is another thing, right Gordon Ramsay?) and when you’re living on one income waste is only funny if Gordon will come to your house and call you a donkey. Like the great chef advises all those loser chefs, I have really focused on menu planning that make ssmart use of ingredients and utilizes leftovers. Leftovers are first a lunch meal the next day, then any remaining ingredients or elements of the meal get used in meals on later days. Example, tacos one night provide meat and toppings for taco salads at lunch the next day. The following night any remaining taco meat can go into a chili along with the half tub of salsa. The cheese and sour cream get used as chili toppings. The following day, the chili and cheese can top tortilla chips for a great nacho lunch. If this is a no-brainer for you, congrats! you’ve achieved menu planning expert status and no one will call you a donkey. I’m still working on it, but it feels good to be eating well, wasting nothing, and keeping within the budget.

3) Live green. Besides knowing you’re doing a good thing for your child’s planet, it’s cheaper. Buy the food that’s in season. Notice when strawberries are 2 for 1? That’s because they’re in season. Later when they’re $7 a pint, it’s time to choose apples or pears. Use disposable items sparingly. Reach for a wash rag instead of a paper towel for spills. Use a cloth napkin. Use a cloth diaper, and don’t waste money on baby wipes – a stack of flannel squares cut from a superfluous receiving blanket (that’s too small for your baby past a month old anyway) make great wipes, wash clean with the cloth diaper laundry, and last indefinitely. Fewer throw-away items mean you’re not re-buying them AND you’re using fewer garbage bags. Turn off lights in rooms you’re not in. I am terrible about this but Zach reminds me, many times a day. Throw back the curtains during the day and let the sunshine in. Make your own list of green changes that can also cut down on your recurring costs.

This is my man, a few years ago, working a kite reel while flying kites on the National Mall.

4) Find free entertainment. Take kites to the park. Walk through a new neighborhood. Visit the farmer’s markets and pick-your-own fruit orchards/farms – you might pay for the produce but if that’s in you food budget, the fun of acquiring it is free. Borrow old movies from the library. If you have an e-reader, download the free books that many e-book reader sellers offer. They’re usually the classics or oddball titles you might not read otherwise, but you can do a lot of reading for free with your already-paid for e-reader. (Most of the books you have to pay for are cheaper than hard copies too.) Hell, if you’re desperate, go to realtors’ open houses on a Sunday afternoon.

5) Turn your skills and passions into paid work. For me it was an obvious choice to go from now-and-then photographer to “this is my job” photographer, even though I’m not making it a full time job yet. Recently another skill has become a revenue stream: my blogging and social media know how. Many small business owners want a stronger online presence but either don’t know how, don’t have the time, or just don’t enjoy the work of social media marketing. Turns out I know a fair bit and can help other small business owners create blog/newsletters/pinterest/facebook/twitter marketing plans, and they’re glad to pay for the work. Do you make amazing photo albums, crochet toys, build wicked excel spreadsheets, have a deep understanding of and experience with non-profit fundraising? Find a market for your art or expertise. You don’t have to hang up a shingle and call yourself a landscaper, but you just might be able to supplement the family income with your amazing container herb gardens. Or  you  might actually hang up that shingle on your own front door and call yourself a consultant.

6) Make email work for you. All the “simplify your life” posts out there will tell you to unsubscribe from all the emails you’re getting from retailers. If you’re really overwhelmed, go ahead. But I propose that you just learn to tune them out when you need to focus, but pay a little attention to when brands or stores you love have good sales. I saved a few hundred dollars before Del was born by purchasing a couple of nursing tops and a few baby things every time I got a 30% off email from GAP. I’m now LIVING in those tops, and Del is still wearing things I bought strategically at discount. Save the hassle, gas and temptation of wandering the malls – get the sale emails and make your purchases at the best times.

One of many handknit items I’ve made Del.

7) Cultivate productive hobbies. We all need pleasures, something to do with our hands and minds besides the responsibilities required of us by adult life. Now,  as much as might love golf, it’s not a poor man’s hobby. At the end of the day, you’ve nothing but a few less dollars and the memory of a game. Productive hobbies are pleasures with a useful or “useable” end result. Gardening yields produce to eat, or flowers for the table. Knitting yields hats/gloves/sweaters/baby clothes/gifts. My husband’s hobby is computers. One of his machines runs a program similar to Tivo but without the monthly or annual subscription fees, and we benefit from his hobby every time we encounter a computer problem: he fixes it rather than dialing up the Geek Squad. I’m not knocking hobbies like softball league or golf or sailing. Sport and athletics are great ways to socialize and stay fit. But this not a list of tips for staying fit, it’s a list of tips for living frugally.

8) “Babies need a lot of stuff.” Reject this idea and stay out of the baby stores, or at least out of 85% of the aisles of baby stores. Babies do need things – they need clothes and they grow fast so you need several different sized outfits in just the first year. But believe it or not, they don’t need every swing, play yard, play mat, educational toy, educational video, talking/music-playing/blinking gadget out there. Just because it CAN stimulate your baby’s brain, doesn’t mean your baby NEEDS it for stimulation. Be selective. Borrow from friends when you can. Babies change stages and sizes so quickly that often the best toys or items are only useful for two or three months. We have a borrowed Bumbo chair that we love. Del began using it around 3 months, and now, at 5 1/2 months, he is almost too big for it. I’m so glad we didn’t pay $30 for it! And someone else can have it when we’re done – it’s barely accumulated six months of use total! I waited to buy any kind of play mat till I saw Del was interested in looking up and reaching for things. Instead of spending $60-70, I borrowed one from my friend who’s baby is old enough now that her playmat bored her. Del will use it til it bores him too. Again, only a few months use accumulated. Another friend can have it next. As for toys, we keep it to a minimum – Del has a few nice toys, and he plays with one at time right now. So eight different toys last all day long. As he gets older, we plan to continue being selective, and to share through borrowing and loaning as needed.

Partners since 2009.

9) Agree with your spouse on your financial goals. This is crucial. It is not easy to shift from each contributing financially to the household, and each having your own discretionary funds to one person bringing in the money for the household expenses AND any discretionary spending. Priorities are bound to clash on occasion. Have the hard talks and acknowledge the feelings around money that you both have during this time. Recognize that the sacrifices you’re both making are worth it to you – and if you discover they’re not worth it, rethink your plan. Don’t be miserable. Be partners.

If you’re part of a single-income family or were, what tips helped you succeed?


5 responses to “Nine tips to survive being a single-income family

  • Jan Udlock

    This is an excellent, thoughtful and thorough post. We’ve lived 23 years on one income as a family of 7. You can do it.

  • Brian

    And the great thing is, these tips work just as well for a two income family. I don’t know why you don’t like this post, I thought it was excellent.

  • Julianne

    I really enjoyed this article! It’s true that you can raise children on a rather tigh budget – I did it myself. What I found most helpful was bartering. I became a member of and I swapped children’s clothes, shoes, swings, a crib and various toys. You don’t need these things for along period of time anyways and it really saves you a ton of money.

    • DragonKat

      Cool! I do a fair amount of bartering for my business right now. Space for photo shoots in exchange for sessions, product shots for a baker in exchange for baked goods, etc.

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