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Thriving on One Income

Living on one salary requires sacrifices. Here are the keys to being able to survive with only one spouse working.

When my wife gave birth to our sixth child, a beautiful baby girl named Noelle Cayce, our house suddenly felt very full.

A little background is in order. When my wife and I came together, we each had two children from previous relationships. After we got married, we had a son, Seth Isaiah, and now Noelle. We each went from having two kids to having six within three years.

Raising so many kids at once has, of course, been a financial challenge, as well as a scheduling and organizational challenge. It’s also been an amazing blessing, so I want to share some of my best parenting tips, especially related to finances.

When Seth was born, my wife and I made the decision that she should stay home to take care of him. When Noelle arrived, we decided she should continue to stay home. It was an important decision, and we are both very glad we made it. She’s the best caretaker by far for our two babies, and she’s been able to breastfeed and do all kinds of other stuff that only a mom could do.

Of course, it’s also harder for us financially, but it’s worth the sacrifices, in my opinion. We’ve cut out a number of expenses to be able to live on my salary, and the decision has forced us to learn to live frugally. We actually struggled for a while, but I believe we’re hitting our stride now.

Here are the keys to being able to survive with only one spouse working.

Live frugally.

Living on one salary requires sacrifices. It means you can’t eat out as much or go to the movies as much. We have only one car. We cut out cable. It becomes a sort of lifestyle after a while, but it’s certainly difficult at first.

Increase your income.

While you may only have one salary, there are many other ways to make money on the side—from working part-time to freelancing to consulting to selling Avon to babysitting. Any extra income helps a lot.

Pay off debts and avoid further debts.

We had a little problem with debts accumulating, especially when we weren’t making enough money to pay our bills. But we’ve reformed our ways, canceled our credit card, and are now slowly paying off our bills, one by one. Once we’re done, we’ll have a lot of extra money to save.

Build an emergency fund.

It’s tough, but it is crucial that you save money each payday, no matter how small the amount. If you can’t figure out how to do this, cut out some smaller expenses, trim others, cancel cable or Netflix or your gym membership or something. Find a way to save. It’s the most important part of your finances, especially the part where you build an emergency fund. You should build it up to at least $1,000 because at any moment, your car might break down or your kid might need to go to the hospital or any other kind of emergency could happen and leave you not only without the necessary funds, but figuring out which bills you can pay later so you can pay for the emergency. If you have savings, you can pay for these emergencies.


I know it’s a dreaded thing for many people, but it doesn’t have to be hard. Simply list out your regular monthly expenses (utilities, rent, car, internet, cell phone, etc.) along with variable expenses (groceries, gas, eating out, etc.) and other irregular expenses that might not come up every month (car repairs, home maintenance, gifts, medical, etc.). List your income. Your income should be more than your expenses. If not, trim some expenses.

Automate your finances.

For all my bills, I have them either automatically deducted (like my car payment and phone) or have a regular online check going out to them each month. The only things not paid online are the things I need cash for, like gas and groceries.

The Envelope System

For everything that you can’t automate online, withdraw the cash each payday (instead of using ATMs and incurring fees) for those expenses and put them in separate envelopes. I have three: groceries, gas, and spending (everything from eating out to kids’ school stuff). When the money runs out in that envelope, you can’t spend anymore until next payday. It’s a simple way to keep track of how much you have left, instead of guesstimating and withdrawing too much or charging too much.

Find free ways to have fun with your kids.

While we are making sacrifices—and our kids have to make sacrifices too—that doesn’t mean we can’t have a great time with them. We plan a Family Day every Sunday, when we all do stuff together that we love doing, like reading, watching movies (we usually rent DVDs to save money), playing sports, going to a park, playing board games, going to the beach, visiting family, or doing a lot of other free or cheap stuff. Fun doesn’t have to cost a lot.

Plan ahead.

If you know someone’s birthday is coming up, plan for it, so you’re not scrambling to find money to buy a gift. Same thing with school expenses, like field trip money or school photos. Our kids are also involved in sports, so we have to plan for uniforms and cleats and more. Think ahead to what you’ll need, so you’re not broke when that expense comes up.

Treat your family once in a while.

While lots of fun things are free, sometimes you gotta splurge. Take the kids out to a movie, or a restaurant. Our favorite splurge is going to a water park. Recently we ran into a few hundred extra dollars, and instead of being responsible and paying off more debt or saving it, we rented a room at a hotel with a great water park and spent two days there having a blast with the kids. Other times we’ll just treat them to ice cream cones or something.

Leo Babauta is a simplicity blogger & author. He created Zen Habits, a Top 25 blog with two million readers. He’s also a best-selling author, a husband, father of six children, and a vegan. In 2010 Leo moved from Guam to San Francisco, where he leads a simple life.

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