Nuts and Bolts of Living on One Income

Like I mentioned in my last post, I love getting emails from you about topics that you’d like to see covered here. I received an email from Adam, about something he wanted to see here on Couple Money:

I was looking at the website and love the caption at the top “Learn to Live on One Income and Have Fun with the Second.”  I was curious if you could do an article/blog post about that caption.

I think that some people probably don’t totally understand how to do that, and it would be nice to elaborate on your catch phrase, and this history of how it came to be.  I am not sure what the total income would need to be to keep that phrase relatable to your audience.  Also, wondering if you could provide some examples of research you have done for approximate %s for different categories of monthly spending for a family so that we can figure out what is reasonable to assume for budgeting purposes?

I’d like to address his wonderful idea – too much to cover in one post though. I’m starting off the series with this post, sharing why and how we decided to live on one income and then cover the nuts and bolts of getting that done. I’ll compare our spending with other couples in another post and finish the mini-series off with

We’re Married, Now What?

When we got married I was still in college as a full time student and had an internship. My husband was at his first post graduation job working in programming. Our income wasn’t great ($45 between the two of us), but we could live decently off of it.

However with the school courses and workload I had, we thought it would be smart to not rely on my internship pay. Instead we looked at my husband’s income and we devised a budget that would take care of our necessities. My income would be used for other things, like paying down debt.

How did that affect our day to day living? Let me share what choices we made during our first couple years of married life.

A Place to Call Home

Like most couples, our rent was the biggest bill we had. When we were looking for an apartment, using my husband’s net income as the basis for the budget meant that we’d have to keep our monthly payments no more than $750. In addition to that self-imposed we were hoping to find a place where we could shorten our commutes to school and work.

I’ll be honest we did have to hunt for a place, but we did find a one bedroom apartment in a quiet neighborhood for about $550/month. The building was owned by a sweet elderly couple with their son managing the property.

It wasn’t fancy, but it suited our needs at the time. as a bonus it was right across the street from the beach, so we had a great breeze in the summer which kept our electric bill fairly low. We also had a laundry room that was free to use (though we had to work with our neighbors’ own schedule on getting our loads done). That allowed us to save some additional money by not having to drive or walk over to a laundromat to get our clothes cleaned.

I would also mention that using word of mouth can help you snag some apartment deals. Perhaps your friends are great tenants at a place and one of their neighbors are moving. The landlord may catch you a break on rent if they think they’re getting reliable and respectful tenants. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

Gotta Eat – Groceries on a Budget

Besides a roof over our heads, having food to eat was an essential expense that we didn’t want to be cheap with. While neither one of us were chefs we both felt fine with keeping most of our meals at home. I think the biggest tip on getting good food while on a budget is to learn to cook with the basics. It is easier to grab one of those quick skillet meals when they are on sale or those pre-made dinner kits than to make the meal yourself. However it is usually more nutritious, better tasting, and more cost effective to learn to make some of your favorite meals yourself.

That doesn’t meal you can’t get those easy to fix meals for busy nights and so forth. It does mean you have to have general meal plan and set aside 20-30 mins for cooking. The good news is that many meals take less time to make if you’re pressed for something quick. Stir-frys are extremely easy for example and you can quickly personalize it to your tastes.

Finding Cars We Can Afford

While there are certain cities and areas where you don’t need a car to get by, for us having our own vehicles was important. Public transportation didn’t go to where I worked and it was a bit off schedule at times. That didn’t mean that we just spent a ton of money on the cars.

As you already know, at the time we got married I already had a car loan. Fortunately my husband owned his car outright, so our auto expenses were still manageable. Both of our cars had good gas mileage and when possible we carpooled with friends. We worked at paying off the car loan early and now our plan is to buy our cars with cash. It means that our cars aren’t brand new, but that doesn’t mean they are beaters. With the family car, we focused on finding a good deal – we wanted a car to last us for years so we did our work. We pulled our Consumer Reports to find the best used car models, we polled our friends and family to see which cars they were happy with, and we hunted the dealerships and Craigslist to find the best car for us.

For sure there is a bit of sweat equity involved, but then we avoid car payments and instead direct that money for other expenses as we see fit.

Thoughts on Living on One Income

This is what has worked for us the past few years. While expenses vary couple to couple, I hope our spending habits help you two find a system that works for you. If you have any tips, stories, or questions, please leave them in the comment section below.

Photo Credit: 401(K) 2013

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Elle Martinez helps families at Couple Money achieve financial freedom by sharing tips for reducing debt, increase income, and building net worth. Learn how to live on one income and have fun with the second..

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  • Michelle Jan 29, 2013, 11:27 am

    We live on about 30% of our income (if you include my extra income in there as well). It’s nice and makes things less stressful!

    • Elle Martinez Jan 30, 2013, 5:16 pm

      Fantastic job Michelle! So glad that you guys have managed your finances to keep your essential expenses down.

  • Grayson @ Debt Roundup Jan 29, 2013, 11:51 am

    I wish I had the option to do this. Unfortunately, when we purchased our current home is was a good mortgage payment, one that I could afford by myself. We forgot to account for all of the other bills and that is what caused us to be a two income household. I hope to change that when we sell this house and move into a long-time home.

    • Elle Martinez Jan 30, 2013, 5:16 pm

      Sorry that you’re stuck for now with that mortgage! I hope you can sell your place and find somewhere that suits your needs best. Please keep me posted!

  • John Preston Jan 30, 2013, 6:54 am

    It’s great to learn to live on one income, because you never know what life will throw at you. My wife and I planned on having two incomes, but changed our minds after our second child. It was a much harder adjustment and I would have rather that we learned to live on one income sooner than later.

    • Elle Martinez Jan 30, 2013, 5:14 pm

      Thanks John, you’re certainly right about life – changing minds about what we want to do happens. I’m glad you guys were able to make the transition to living on one income. Of course things could change again and you guys become a two income family again.

  • Jules@Faithful With a Few Jan 30, 2013, 7:41 pm

    This is a great way to do things! We live on one income…barely. I am always looking for ways to make it easier to deal with. It is worth it for us, so I can stay home with our kids. Thanks for sharing!

  • Glen @ Monster Piggy Bank Jan 31, 2013, 5:42 am

    We only just went down to 1 income and so far it hasn’t been too bad, but we have also stopped making as good progress on our mortgage debt as we normally do.

    Thanks for the tips 🙂

  • Tahnya Kristina Feb 2, 2013, 11:15 pm

    I know a few couples who live on one income or close to one income and save everything else. I personally couldn’t do it because I wouldn’t want to give up my lifestyle just to save money. The key to financial happiness is to find a balance between enjoying life and saving for our goals.