Surviving (and Thriving) on a Single Income

By Christa Melnyk Hines

Life is expensive. Life with kids is even more expensive. So how do some parents who rely on one income not only survive, but still find ways to create a happy, well-rounded life for their families?

Evaluate your biggest expenses

According to Leah Ingram, a money-saving expert and author of Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier for Less, housing, transportation and education are the largest expenses facing today’s families. If you can reduce spending in one of those areas, you’ll live more comfortably on less, she advises.

“For most Americans owning a home is the American dream. But for so many people, especially families with children, renting in a good school district makes more sense than buying a home in a lower-quality school district,” Leah says.

Thinking about leaving your job to stay home with your children? First, create a spreadsheet that compares the costs of commuting and childcare versus how much you’ll save on those two expenses once you’re down to one income.

“Sometimes it actually makes more sense for both parents to continue to keep working,” she points out.

According to Pew Research, 31 percent of families live on a single income. Although many families make the choice, others are forced into the position.

Control your inclinations

Beth Beseau, whose children are ages 8 and 5, is the primary breadwinner in her family. “We’ve had to be flexible and willing to make adjustments in our lifestyle,” she says.

Her greatest challenge? Controlling the urge to impulse buy.

“When you’re making a purchase, you have to ask yourself if it’s a want or a need. If you can do without it, then don’t buy it,” she advises.

Slim down your food budget

Decide how often you can afford to dine out at restaurants as a family. Instead of hitting the drive-thru for coffee every morning, make your own at home. And brown bag your lunches for work and school.

Planning your family’s meals ahead of time can help you save money by curbing the need to pick up unhealthy fast food on the fly. Try planning your weekly meals around whatever specials your favorite grocer is offering that week. Or, head to a bulk store like Costco. Take an afternoon to prepare meals that you can stick in the freezer and pull out on nights when you don’t have time to cook.

Emily Cowden and her husband Jason have five children, ages 10, 8, 6, 4, and 2. Emily left her job as a registered dietitian to stay home with her children and home school. As a busy mom who is also committed to eating healthy on a frugal budget, she often skips time-consuming coupon-cutting and instead looks for sales at stores that offer healthy organic foods. She found that eliminating processed snacks and cereals was especially helpful.

“This cuts out a lot of unnecessary foods and unnecessary spending, leaving room for more nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables and proteins,” she says.

Pad your income

Many moms also turn to direct sales opportunities, like Pampered Chef, Mary Kay, Young Living, and Thirty One, as ways to pad their income.

“Just be sure that stocking up (on product) doesn’t sack all of your earnings,” Leah advises. “Also, you have to have the right personality to do direct sales. Not everyone is outgoing and direct sales is not a path to easy money. These women work very hard, even if it’s at night and in people’s living rooms.”

For the Cowdens, the extra income from selling essential oils and other products through Young Living has helped cover extracurricular activities for their children, meals with friends and vacations.

Beth says she sells household items that she no longer needs, uses or wants. “The pocket cash has come in very handy,” she says.

Other moms turn their skills into entrepreneurial ventures that they can run from home like freelance writing, photography or baking.

Seek free or cheap family entertainment

Ironically, happy memories are usually borne from what seem like mundane family activities. Go on bike rides together, visit area parks, get out the watercolors and have a paint party, play board games, make homemade pizzas together or check out movies or video games at the library.

Also stay tuned for coupons and deals at area attractions for reduced price or free admissions.

Still struggling?

“Make a list. Put your values and priorities in order. Budget around that,” Emily says. “If you find all of your income going towards things that don’t bring you joy, it’s time reevaluate and get creative.”

MORE TIPS: 18 Creative Ways to Save This Year