Making a Single-Income Budget Work

Are you starting or considering moving to a single income? Many moms want to stay home with their kids, at least when they are babies, but find the idea of transitioning to a single income very scary. Do not fear! In most cases, it can be done. Things will be frugal for awhile, but it makes you more resourceful, which is a good thing. If you are brave enough to break middle class customs, you can do it!

There are many great books on the subject of raising families on small budgets. One of my favorites is America’s Cheapest Family. ( There are also books that talk about the different budgets of double versus single income families, where they point out that in most cases, you spend how ever much you make. So take heart that all the families on your block are stressed over their finances, regardless of one or two salaries!

For six years, my husband and I lived in a very ritzy greater metro area. We also had four kids in five years there, and I stayed at home with them. We had our own house—small but big enough for us—and penny pinched our way through. But it was worth it. Here are some principles that helped us make it:

1. Separate bills from discretionary spending. Bills have to come first, so when making a budget, budget the bills and food first and see what money you have left for all the rest of life. I think my husband and I had anywhere from $200 to $600 a month, over the years, to spend on non-bills.  It was tight!  Microsoft Money was good for tracking spending and categorizing it.

2. Try to spend discretionary money at the end of the month, after you’ve analyzed your budget. It takes a lot of discipline, but if you can hold off buying “stuff” until the end of the month, then you won’t go in the red if your car needs new brakes suddenly. Also, you can parse out what things you’d really like… they ALL look appealing at the time!

3. If you’re going to save money for college or charitable giving, create a separate account for it and have money directed from your paycheck straight into the account each month before it even gets to your budget. That way, you won’t have to rely on your emotions to fork over a certain amount each month for the “right” things.  You can also do this to pay off credit cards.

4. Keep gift money separate in a “slush fund.” When you’re pinching pennies, it’s easy to let gift money or surprise money slip through into the grocery budget. When someone gives the kids birthday money, or you get a rebate check, tax refund, or make money from selling something, put it into an envelope for special spending. That way you have “date money” or “present money” or whatever thing you normally skimp on because you’re watching the budget.

5. Do as much as you can yourself. A do-it-yourself attitude can save an easy hundred dollars each month, whether you’re talking about simple house/car repairs, cooking, a haircut, mowing the lawn, piano lessons, birthday presents, etc. Don’t pretend you are upper middle class if you’re not! Consider all things luxuries!

6. Be a debt eliminator. Try to pay off all debts (except your mortgage) as fast as you can, since they are the largest and most unfair expenses. Try to own your cars, pay off the college loans, and credit cards. Credit cards are the worst! Never use it, always use the debit card. Don’t buy it now if you don’t have the money NOW. And never use a payment plan (like for the dentist, furniture, or a private school) unless it is totally necessary. People like the idea of only paying $18 a month to rent something or pay off their glasses, but in the end you end up spending so much more because of interest. Pay the lump sum up front whenever possible.

7. Don’t accumulate. When you’re in penny pinching mode, it is easy to hoard. You feel like you’re always on the edge of lack, so you get excited about deals or store up extra things you don’t need. But if you won’t use it, don’t buy it. And sell items the kids outgrow to use on new items. Try to have a rule where “When one item comes in, another item goes out.” Each item has its own cost in terms of storage, maintenance, and usage. So don’t just think about the cost of buying it, think about the cost of owning/upkeeping/using it. This goes for the new color laser printer your husband bought that takes 6-color ink cartridges frequently or the hundred ounce bottle of Pert that you’re going to get frustrated with after about 20 ounces.

8. Generics and Walmarts are your friends. Don’t trade cheese for “cheese product” but utilize generics where possible. Swallow your pride and utilize Walmart like it’s a vending machine. Every time you need something non-food related, try to get it at Walmart and you will save at least $50 a month. Most Walmarts are chaotic and disorganized but they are cheaper than Targets, Home Depots, CVS, and Staples. Get all your pharmacy, beauty, office, baby, and organizing/cleaning supplies there, and as many toys, hardware, and hobby items as possible. Never get non-grocery items at grocery stores, or non-medicine items at pharmacies because they are marked up so much. While Walmart is not great for clothes or furniture, it can save you bundles on supplies and usables.

Other things we did, which are optional but helpful were:

  • Switching to an HMO with no copays for well appointments
  • Finding free activities for kids/family like farms
  • Using the Craigslist for big ticket items like furniture, or jobs we didn’t want to pay a contractor for
  • Being creative with birthdays and Christmases: having a group outing, doing acts of service, and starting new traditions were just as fun as lots of big expensive presents. Most little kids love the celebration process more than the expense or quality involved (i.e. making cupcakes with sprinkles costs $2.00 but can take up a whole afternoon, as opposed to $20 on Chuckie Cheese tokens).
  • Using hand-me-downs (duh)
  • Canceling cable TV and using Netflix instead
  • Canceling magazines and catalogs that caused us to feel more dissatisfied with our home or image than we would otherwise =)  For women, the top causes of quickly blown money are hair, clothes, products, and home decor.  For men, the top causes are CDs, DVDs, devices, and projects.  Guess what magazines and catalogs mostly cater to?
  • Stay away from random trips to the mall or bookstore
  • Never buy or cook foods that you’re not sure people will eat
  • split takeout meals in half and don’t get new food until the leftovers are gone

2 thoughts on “Making a Single-Income Budget Work

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