Running the Numbers: Living on One Salary

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Whether you’re a single or stay-at-home parent or have a disabled or unemployed spouse, there’s something you likely have in common — your family is living on a single income. In a day and age where statistics show the number of working couples on the rise (not to mention inflation in terms of the cost of living), the notion of forgoing one spouse’s income sounds preposterous. It’s not impossible, however, as many middle class couples and families are managing just fine without the extra income. All it takes is some careful planning. (See also: Is Living on One Income a Status Symbol?)

Patience Required

If you're fortunate enough for this lifestyle to be a choice for your family (as opposed to a sudden layoff forcing a partner to stay home and look for another job), then you have more flexibility in deciding how to to go about living on a single salary. For budget issues, you can cut back in some areas of your budget and continue to splurge in others. However, even with this breathing space, a certain level of patience is required. Perhaps you're in a situation where one spouse wants to leave their job to fulfill their dream of becoming an author or go back to university to get their master's degree. In these cases, it's possible that the spouse working for a paycheck may feel resentment or envy for having to take on the role of sole breadwinner while the other pursues a different calling than paid work. This must be avoided at all costs, so before you make the leap and leave your job, make sure both spouses are content with the idea of living on a single salary. 


If you are caught unprepared (in instances of disability or lay-offs) or your personal situation calls for it, you may need to look into downsizing your lifestyle. This can involve: moving into a smaller house or apartment (or to a more affordable neighborhood in your area), selling the nonworking spouse’s car, cutting luxuries such as movie rentals or pricey wine from your budget, and accounting for lowered discretionary expenses from month to month.

Balancing Act

After constructing a new budget, now look to the workload shared between partners. Even if one spouse or parent isn’t working for a paycheck, that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren't working at all. To make this a fair and successful venture, the stay-at-home partner will likely be responsible for housework, yard work, taking care of the kids, and anything else to support the household while the other partner is away at the office.

Side Jobs

If the nonworking partner has the entrepreneurial spirit or your family would like a little extra money so cutbacks in discretionary expenses won’t seem so severe, consider starting a small, home-based business or taking on side jobs to put your time to profitable use. This can involve: childcare, yard work, repairs, selling products, writing, web design, and more. Your options are limited to your imagination (a few stay-at-home parents have come up with great ideas that went on to earn them more than a salary at a regular job would have).

What about your family? Do you live on a single salary? If so, how do you manage? Tell us in the comments below!

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Guest's picture

My wife and I live on one salary and it really hasn't been a problem. In fact, it motivated me to find a better paying job. I'm making slightly under double what I was making 3 years ago through the motivation.

Guest's picture

We live on about 50% of our combined salary. It works out much better like this (of course it's easier since we don't have children). Saving and paying off debt is easier!

Guest's picture

My wife chose to stay home to watch the boys. She has been doing it for about 6 years now and we have found that this has allowed me to put in the time necessary to make more in my profession. There were a few sacrifices but I find with a detailed budget and tracking expenses we have done pretty well. We are now looking at ways to generate passive income with the hope that one day I can jump out of my job and start exploring this wonderful world of ours with our children.

Guest's picture

We've been doing it for the last year and a half... more out of necessity than choice. And things have been tight, but doable. Just depends on the why and what you're willing to arrange to make it happen. And sometimes, you don't have a choice (it just happens)... but you'd surprised how much you can do without when you need to/are forced to do without.

Guest's picture

I quit my job 10 months ago to be a SAHM. I earned 60% of our family's income. I had been miserable for 3 years and applied for other opportunities, but within my government agency, positions were eliminated left and right. I have a masters degree and 8-10 years of experience in a very specific field of expertise. Two years before I quit, I started freelance writing and I've continued that.

We had been debt free for a year when I quit. We're now expecting our third child and the cost of an infant and toddler in fulltime care plus before / after / summer care for my kindergartener would have been more than I earned. While in daycare, my son frequently got sick, so I was having to take a lot of time off work plus all the doctor's copays and prescriptions.

My husband appreciates being able to stay late and participate in weekend conferences and other opportunities to further his career. I have more time to care for our home and children, cook and find ways to save like being the family barber, bargain shopping for secondhand clothing and making handmade gifts.

Guest's picture

The partner who stays at home most certainly would have to be in charge of upkeep around the house, but there are so many ways to make money on the side if they were laid off or if their other business venture doesn't take up all of their free time. An article I read recently said that a Tampa mother makes about $7,000 a month by blogging online, and theres also a site called where you can advertise skills that you have, and people looking for freelance or outsourced work can pay you to do small tasks for them. If you're a guy, you can get paid to mow lawns, paint houses, do repairs for disabled, and if you're a woman you can offer to babysit, pet sit, or go grocery shopping for the elderly.

Guest's picture
Lisa Under the Redwoods

Kelly, the last person to paint the outside of my house was a woman.

Guest's picture
Maria Barker

Your whole comment has a couple of biases, which perhaps you don't realize. You assume first of all that 1 income means someone is staying at home "The partner who stays at home...", then you assume that the jobs for the stay at home partner are gender dependent/limited. Neither of which are true.

Guest's picture

I think one of the best things a family can do is to follow this advice even if there are two breadwinners in a family - if at all possible. Lots of people get married with the hope that one spouse will eventually stay home with children, only to find they've established a standard of living that just isn't possible after losing a chunk of income. Not everyone can do this, but for those who can living beneath your means, and teaching children to do the same can mean a huge financial payoff.

Guest's picture

We were debt free for 1 year before I quit my job to be a SAHM. I've got a masters degree and 10 years of professional experience, with 6 years of service/retail experience before that. I earned 60% of our family's income when I quit. I'd been miserable for 3 years, and was bringing everyone down with me. I didn't have time for myself, my kids or my husband. It was awful all the way around. So we decided the best thing to do would be for me to finally quit.

However, it was something in the back of our heads since before we got married. We chose to live well below our means even when that meant as a grad student and while my husband struggled to find a fulltime job with his BS in Computer Engineering, that we ate a lot of ramen and lived in a tiny apartment and had no social life. We'd take walks together instead of going to pricey movies. We'd go to the library to borrow movies instead of paying for cable. That way of living just stuck with us. I grew up in a poor home so it wasn't any different for me.

Now, 10 years after we got married, we've paid off our mortgage (in 6.5 years), paid cash for 2 "new to us" cars, paid off all the student loans we had and paid cash for $30k in home repairs over an 8 year period. We also had extensive medical bills even with insurance.

I don't have an i-anything, a designer-anything, I'm the family barber, cook, maid, baker, gardener, chauffeur, seamstress, secretary, bargain hunter, etc, etc, etc. DH is the family handyman, mechanic, plumber, electrician, IT support specialist.

I earn a side income doing freelance writing, which I started 2 1/2 years before I quit my job. It's something I enjoy and feel good about. I'm able to contribute to my Roth IRA still and then anything leftover I use for my hobby (needlework) or for extra activities for my kids (swimming lessons) or for birthday and holiday gifts.

Guest's picture

My wife and I are hoping to be fortunate enough to make this a lifestyle choice in the near future. We've started downsizing by canceling our satellite service and one smartphone line. The second car just might be the next thing to go and we just recently started checking the local paper for side jobs. This post lays out exactly what we are trying to do to prepare for living on a single salary. Great information.

Guest's picture

My family is in the process of doing this, at least temporarily. We just had our first kid and my wife will be taking off the rest of the year. For us, it was about budgeting. We were saving about 75% of her take home pay prior to her leaving, so it wasn't that big of a deal. We cut down expenses, primarily eating out, coffee shop, wants, etc to be able to live on 1 income. When she does go back, at 32 hours, we will have the additional expense of child care and reduced income. We're still in the early phases, but it seems to be working out.

Guest's picture

I've been a SAHM for some time now, approximately 10-12 years now and I finished all schooling when our eldest was very young,(he being special needs) even at 15 needs the most minor reminders constantly his short term memory is not good, and our youngest daughter going on 11 this month, and I gotta say I would not take back a split second of choosing to stay home with our two beautiful children that God blessed us with, second to that, staying home requires ALOT of discipline, and constant dedication, just because your home doesnt mean your "effective" with that being said the last but not least is it requires an explicite amount of frugality and money saving skills whether it be couponing, or whatever your heart desires thats entirely up to you! I personally sew all of our napkins, kitchen towels, and the basics that alot of people go out and purchase on a regular basis, I creatively find ways at getting things done without spending lots of money or any money for that matter. Thats a part of the frugal part, I'd say it takes a very creative person to manage everyday tasks with due diligence and again that discipline word again you gotta love that! Lol, in kindest regards, a very CONTENT SAHM & WIFE! God bless!

Guest's picture

My husband & I both worked full time & brought home pretty close to the same income for the first 6 years of our marriage, then we had our daughter & we had agreed that I would return to work on a part time basis. After having our daughter 3 1/2 years ago, I realized that I did not want to return to work at all (which I never thought would be the case, I LOVED my job). When our daughter was 9 months old I quit my job that I had done for almost 12 years. Our income was cut in half and we continued to maintain the same lifestyle, we changed a few small things like where we shopped & how much we bought "to stock up" before our daughter. We now have a 2 month old son as well & I continue to stay home. I have been teaching myself to sew a few simple things, I make our laundry detergent & liquid hand soap, I made & will make our children's baby food, I have taken up canning (we plant a decently large garden) & I make a majority of homemade Christmas gifts. I guess what I'm trying to say if there's a will there's a way. I will do with less or without to be able to stay at home with our children, there is no amount of money that would replace the memories I am making with our children. There will be a day that I can go back to work & make money. For now my children's smiles, love, hugs & kisses are worth more than any paycheck I have ever earned.