Before they decided to live off only one income, Devra Thomas, 39, and her husband, Clinton Wilkinson, 38, brought in a combined $50,000 annually working in corporate retail. When their daughter, Sophia, was born, they struggled to find ways to juggle their work schedules with child care.
“Since we were both working at the time, we really had to supplement with a lot of funky child care between parents, extended families, after school care, and babysitters,” says Devra.
Then Clinton got an opportunity for a raise and a job relocation. The family moved from outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to Morehead City, where their cost of living was lower and Clinton’s work commute was shorter. Devra, who was an arts administrator at the time, initially looked for work when they moved, but when she wasn’t able to find a job in her field in the area, she and Wilkinson changed their plan. They decided Devra would stay home so they could eliminate one significant expense: child care.
For the couple, deciding to live off one income was worth it if it meant they could simplify their lives. Still, choosing to live on a single income didn’t come without its own set of challenges.
Devra and Clinton, along with two other single-earner families, told MagnifyMoney why they chose to budget their lives on a single income and how they make it work. For this article, we define single-earner families as those in which one family member generates 80% or more of the total household’s income used to cover household expenses.
Devra Thomas &Clinton Wilkinson
Morehead City, North Carolina
Annual Income: $70,000 to $80,000
Their strategy: Zero-based budgeting and constant communication
Devra and Clinton swear by a zero-sum budget.
“Every time we get paid, all of that money has a name,” says Devra. The couple sits together every two weeks to discuss and create their budget and make sure every dollar earned is fulfilling a purpose. They put each dollar they’ve earned in a spending category such as groceries, transportation, subscription services, utilities and savings.
Devra does some light freelance marketing and writing projects on the side, which helps supplement their income to the tune of about $10,000 per year. Any income she brings in from freelance work becomes what they call “play money.” It either gets added to savings or spent on something they want but haven’t been able to fit into their budget, like a date night.
For example, they’ve already earmarked funds for their anniversary in August. Every part of their date night is planned for, with money going into categories for the dinner, babysitter, hotel, someone to watch their dog, and other expenses.
Where they run into obstacles
Thomas and Wilkinson like their single-income lifestyle, but as their daughter, 10, gets older, the pressure to keep up with the Joneses increases.
“There are other things kids in school have that she says I wish I had …or it may even be an experience like going to Disney World,” says Wilkinson. When that happens they explain to her that those things are “not where [they] are choosing to put [their] priorities.”
They also advise their daughter to try making use of her community. If she wants to play with a toy a friend has, for example, she can borrow it from them, or vice versa.
Overall, making all of their financial decisions together has been a crucial element in making their strategy work. “That’s typically when we break our budget. When we weren’t communicating about spending,” says Thomas.
Sage &Emerson Evans
Salt Lake City, Utah
Annual Income: $50,000
Salt Lake City, Utah newlyweds Sage and Emerson Evans chose to live on one income while Emerson focuses on applying to medical school. They have learned to manage their lifestyle on Sage’s $50,000 salary in digital marketing and public relations. Their hope is that investing in Emerson’s education will pay off by way of a higher salary later.
Their strategy: deal-hunting and communication
Sage and Emerson, both in their mid-20s, don’t follow a strict budget but they try to add at least $500 to their savings account each month. The couple spends the bulk of their income on things like dinner, cultural events, movies, and travel. But they have no student loan debt and only one car payment to manage.
Emerson says he’s used to pinching pennies because he grew up being frugal. He was able to qualify for the Pell grant and other scholarships to help pay for college. Although he isn’t working full time, he takes odd jobs on the weekend to earn pocket money for minor expenses like gas for his car or lunch outside of home.
“I make it so that Sage never has to send money my way,” says Emerson. “I know I’m not the income and I know I’m not working full time. I try to make sure I’m not a financial burden.” For example, if he doesn’t have money for lunch, he’ll simply skip lunch that day.
“He almost takes it too far,” says Sage, “I had to force him to buy a new pair of shoes.”
Where they run into obstacles
For Sage, adjusting to married life on a single income was tough. “I definitely had to learn to think of money as our money and not just my income,” Sage says about the transition.
“Part of it was just a personal problem that I had to overcome. Realizing that when you get married, me becomes we,” she adds.
The couple has learned to communicate about things such as what qualifies as a large purchase and whether or not Sage had to inform her husband of what she’s doing with what’s technically ‘her’ income.
Sage imagines their roles will flip once Emerson completes medical school and earns a higher wage than hers or if she elects to stay at home after having children.
“We get by, but it’s definitely not an income I want to spend the rest of my life on,” says Sage.
Matt and Brit Casady
Rancho Cucamonga, California
Income: $60,000 –$70,000
Matt, 28, and Brit Casady, 26, decided to live on one income to save on childcare, which doesn’t come cheap in their hometown of Rancho Cucamonga, California. They manage on Matt’s salary as an online marketer for a self storage company, where he makes between $60,000 and $70,000 a year.
“We were scared at first but we knew that we wanted to live on one income because we didn’t want to have to pay for child care,” says Brit, adding she’s always wanted to be a stay at home mom. “That money that I’d be earning from working would be paying just for daycare. So financially, one income makes more sense.”
Their strategy: thrifting and living two paydays ahead
The couple decided to transition to a single-income household when they were expecting their son, now 1. They started by reducing their monthly bills by paying off both of their car loans and cutting back on unnecessary expenses. The couple also got lucky: Within six months of having their son, Matt got a new job that paid a higher salary. But the new job also meant relocating the family from their hometown in Lehi, Utah to Rancho Cucamonga, a vastly more expensive area.
All of the furniture in their new house is either a hand-me-down or was purchased used. The Casadys bargain shop at discount retailers when they want nice, designer clothes.
“We’re very cheap people. We don’t feel like we live a restricted life,” says Matt. The couple also finds deals on things like furniture and decor for their baby’s room by joining yard sale or thrifting groups on Facebook.
They use a Google spreadsheet to keep track of the monthly family budget. When Matt’s paycheck comes in, the couple takes no less than 20 percent of his take-home pay and adds it to their savings. After paying for fixed expenses, they put the remainder of their funds to a spending category. When they spend money, they record the amount, place and description of the purchase in the spreadsheet and subtract it from the limit in the spending category.
“It’s more freeing than it is restrictive when you know that the money that you’re spending isn’t going to prevent you from paying rent next month,” Matt says.
Brit earns $2,000 to $3,000 annually freelancing as a graphic designer. She says about 90% of the time, the money she makes is added to the couple’s savings account. If Matt gets a bonus, or the couple receives an influx of funds in a tax return, it’s treated the same way.
Where they run into obstacles
Moving to a more expensive place has presented some challenges. Housing alone costs about 69% more in Rancho Cucamonga than in Lehi, Utah, according to Sperling’s Best Places cost of living calculator.
“It’s definitely been a sticker shock. Rent alone is significantly more money,” says Matt. The couple says they have adjusted to the rise by staying frugal.
“The activities that we do are mostly free, so we can create memories versus [buying] things that cost a lot of money,” says Brit.
The couple also tries to avoid keeping score on things like who has spent more money from the ‘fun’ category in their budgeting. For example, Matt, a fan of USC football, may buy a ticket to a game for $150 and Brit may get her hair done for $90, but she doesn’t try to find another way to spend $60 afterward.
“Just because he spent more doesn’t mean I can spend more,” Brit says. “It helps us to stay in our budget and not compare [who spent what] so we are not constantly trying to level up.”
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