Can Your Family Live on a Single Income?

Many families dream of having one parent stay at home to raise the kids. The idyllic picture of having mom (or dad) home, taking care of the kids, cooking great meals, keeping a beautiful home, all on a single income, is hard to resist.

It’s also incredibly difficult financially.

If you really want to do it, it can be done. Single parent families have to get by on a single income, although there may be child support coming in as well. If you really want to have a parent home with the kids, you have to make it happen.

With practice, the sacrifices you make may not seem so bad. You will take fewer vacations, and they’ll be simpler. You will eat out less often. Shopping will be more carefully planned, and you will buy fewer things. If you and your family can live with that, you will probably be able to cope.

That’s assuming, of course, that you can make the remaining income stretch to cover your necessities. You need to look at this to make an informed decision.

Consider What Living On A Single Income Will Look Like

The first thing you need to do is figure out how practical it will be to live on a single income. That means looking at the income you expect to have and deciding if it will be enough.

1. Collect 3 months’ worth of pay stubs from the person whose income your family will be relying on. Use this to calculate your average monthly income.

2. Collect 3 months’ worth of bills. Make sure you include everything: rent/mortgage payments, water bills, electrical bills, cable, internet service, phone plans, insurance, and groceries, for example. You should also include some savings in your planning to prepare for emergencies. In any case, you need an average of what you are paying out every month.

3. Subtract your average monthly expenses from the average monthly single income. Will it work?

If not, don’t despair. There are often areas you can cut. When you have two incomes it is easy to spend more than you absolutely have to. You may need to look harder for solutions.

Don’t assume you can make on on a single income if you see that you can just barely make it. That’s asking for trouble. All it takes is one crisis to completely mess you up when you live paycheck to paycheck. It’s not ideal to live on a single income if you’re scraping by.

Consider The Expenses That Will Decrease

It’s not just your income that decreases when you go to a single income. A few of your expenses will also decrease.

Your taxes go down when you live on a single income. No more need for daycare. The parent staying at home will probably eat out less, have less need for dry cleaning and so forth.

They may drive less as well, depending on how close work was and how often the kids need to be driven anywhere. This can mean less money spent on gas and less maintenance on that car. If enough things are within walking distance, you may even be able to consider becoming a one car family.

It can also help to consider which bills you would be willing to cut in order to live on a single income. You can start with monthly bills.

Do you really need cable television? What about having both cell phones and landline phones? Perhaps your family could get by with just one or the other.

Now look at the other things you spend money on monthly, but don’t come in the form of bills. Can you eat out less? Do you tend to buy more clothing or new electronic gadgets you don’t need? What bad shopping habits do you have? Can you give up Starbucks?

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Consider The Expenses That Will Increase

Some bills will go up when you have mom or dad stay home with the kids.

Electricity is an obvious one. There will be people home all day, turning on lights, needing air conditioning or heat, and so forth.

Having one parent at home may also mean that the kids get signed up for more activities, as there’s someone there to take them to everything.

You probably won’t have a lot of expenses increase when you go to a single income. You’re trying to cut expenses, after all.

Figure Out The Expected Single Income Budget

Try to work out a budget that will work with the money you would have as a single income family. Then, before you are actually a single income family, try living on it. Put the extra into savings. It makes a nice cushion for if things don’t work out and for when those extra bills that you really can’t plan for hit.

Even if you decide that you’re better off not becoming a single income family, living as though you are one can be a good financial habit. It gives you a lot more leeway when things go wrong. You’ll have savings built up and more money than you need coming in. That’s a good thing.

Track all your spending. You can create your own spreadsheet if you like or use one of the many apps or software out there that will help you track your spending. The more you know about where your money is going every month, the better. Here are some apps to consider:

How well is it working?

If your expected single income budget doesn’t work out, figure out what went wrong. Can it be fixed on that income or do you simply need a larger income?

Sometimes you can fix the problems. You can go as far as finding a cheaper place to live or as simple as figuring out what else can reasonably be cut.

Other times you may realize that living on a single income won’t work for your family. You don’t want to ruin your finances just to have one parent stay home with the kids. That’s not smart, and it won’t benefit your kids.

It takes time to learn to live on a single income. It is very possible for many families. You will need to plan, both in terms of finances and in terms of what is expected from each person, but it is highly doable. And having the ability to have one parent there for the kids can be amazing.

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Learn To Find Bargains

You might be surprised at the bargains you can find if you’re looking for them. I don’t just mean clipping coupons, although that doesn’t hurt. There’s a lot more you can do.

My favorite bargain source is a store called 99 Only. They’re in just a few states, but they’re a huge help when you’re on a tight budget. Fortune just listed them as a company that is helping to change the world, because they provide cheaper access to locally grown produce, often in areas that are considered food deserts. If you don’t need your produce to look quite perfect and you have a 99 Only near you, go there. I get almost all of my produce there.

Other dollar stores can have good deals as well, but most don’t have the produce selection I see at 99 Only. It’s the produce that keeps me coming back, even as I find other deals there.

Aldi is another good choice for finding grocery bargains.

If you can afford the membership and buying in bulk (challenging to impossible on some budgets), Costco is great too. The hot dogs and pizza also make for great cheap meals out when you need a treat for the kids.

I’ve shared a lot of other strategies to save money on groceries in other posts.

Saving money on children’s clothing helps a lot too. My favorite was handmedowns from family because for a long time we had clothes working their way through up to five kids. Not every piece lasted the whole time, but the chain we had going saved us a lot of money.

Be Ready For Sacrifices

Single income families usually sacrifice a lot of things to make it happen. You can still find a lot of ways to have fun as a family, but there are things you won’t be able to do.

If you like getting the latest and greatest technology, for example, you will probably have to stop that. Your current phone will need to last a lot longer.

So will your cars.

Most single income families don’t eat out a lot either. That can save a lot of money, depending on how often you eat out now. Just think how much you spend every time you take the family out to a meal. Unless you’re getting something super cheap, such as a $5 pizza, you’re probably spending quite a bit more than you would if you ate at home.

Holidays often get simplified as well. Most single income families keep holidays such as Christmas a lot simpler. That’s not a bad thing, really. Even with simplified Christmases, my kids often don’t use everything they’re given.

You may also want to cut down on your monthly bills. Many families have found that they can cut out cable television and use a few streaming subscriptions for far less.

I am also very fond of my cell phone service through Ting. I pay far less for my family’s cell phones than anyone else I know. We aren’t heavy users, but even when we use our phones more than normal, it has been a bargain.

Learn To Do It Yourself

Learning how to do basic home repairs yourself can help you save a lot of money. It’s amazing how easy some repairs are.

When we bought our house, for example, I painted the kids’ rooms myself. That includes putting stripes on my son’s wall because that was what he wanted.

I can also do basic plumbing. Clearing out basic clogs in a sink without dangerous chemicals is often not difficult. Messy, but not difficult.

You can also do your own yard work rather than pay a service. As the kids get older, they can help. I’ve discovered a fondness for irises and gladiolus in caring for my yard, as well as an enthusiasm for planting anything that attracts and feeds butterflies.

There will be a number of things that you should still hire a professional to handle for you, depending on your skills, experience and comfort level. If you’re willing to try a particular repair, however, there’s often a YouTube video showing you how.

Consider The Alternatives If Things Aren’t Working Out

Sometimes, no matter how carefully you plan, going to a single income as a family just doesn’t work out.

You get hit with an unexpected bill, such as repairs on the car or medical bills.

The spouse who is working loses their job.

Death, divorce, and disability are real possibilities too. You can’t assume that your life will run exactly as you planned it. Shit happens, to put not too fine a point on it.

This is exactly why I work at home. My husband and I wanted one of us at home, and I had the best skills to earn a living at home, first as a medical transcriptionist, then running this site. We didn’t want to take the risks of living on a single income when we had a viable alternative.

This has worked out well. There have been times when my income was the only reason we didn’t go completely broke. Sometimes I earn more than my husband, sometimes less. But my income is a vital part of our family’s income, yet I’m still able to be there for the kids when they need me.

Working parents can do that too, but it’s much harder to manage when they need you in the middle of the workday.

There are lots of ways to work at home. Some options are more flexible than others. Some will require that you put your kids in daycare while you work because you can’t have the distractions. Others will let you have the kids directly underfoot.

It’s up to you to pick what will work best.

I strongly recommend any stay at home mom or dad have some sort of income coming in. It makes a difference when you have a financial crisis. It makes a difference when the time comes to return to working outside the home, should you choose to do that. And it helps when you reach retirement age.

Of course, if your family is running into financial problems, don’t limit yourself to considering only work at home options. Sometimes returning to work outside the home will be the smart choice. Don’t refuse to consider that just because you’d rather be home with your kids. The well-being of your family comes first, and sometimes that means both parents have to work outside the home.

You can do that and still be amazing parents.