Last time, I gave you some practical advice about living on one income. The most important step is to make the decision that being a stay at home mom is of supreme importance to me, and I am willing to sacrifice other goals and priorities to make it happen. Once you do that, the pieces really do start to just fall into place.
If you’re like me, reading a list of tips isn’t entirely convincing. I want to know how those tips work in real life – I need evidence that someone has actually used them and been successful. So, today, I’m going to share the actual steps my family has taken in order to live on one income. I want to emphasize that I am far from perfect, and so are my finances.
You don’t have to be a financial genius, an obsessive penny-pincher, or an ascetic to make this work. If you did, I’d never have been able to do it. My hope for you is that these ideas are a springboard – that you’ll adapt these for your family, improve them, build upon them, and find encouragement in them.
Here’s what my family has done, in the same order as the tips in the previous post.
- Our home. We rent our home from my parents, and they actually lowered our rent when we decided that I would quit my job. You’ll be surprised at how many people do support your decision to stay home, and many of them will be eager to find a way to help you out. I wasn’t brave enough to do this, but it’s also okay to actually ask for help. My husband always tells me that when you let others help you, you’re allowing God to bless them for their generosity. When I’m feeling reluctant to reach out for help, or accept it when it’s offered, it always helps me to remember that little tidbit of advice. Anyway, back to our house: It’s not huge – we’re a family of 8, soon to be 9, in a very modest-sized ranch with 4 bedrooms. Renting from my parents is a big challenge to our pride on a regular basis; not just because we have less space than many people, but because we’re still somewhat financially dependent on my parents. I hate explaining our living situation because it always makes me feel like I’m just a small step above living in my parents’ basement. I daydream about a huge farmhouse on an acreage with 6 bedrooms and a yard the size of my neighborhood. I cringe when I have to tell the repairman or the salesperson that I can’t make that decision because I’m just the tenant. I have to remind myself regularly that this house has everything I need, and while it may not suit my ego, it suits my family just fine. I know the old argument about throwing your money away on rent, but when you’re on a limited income, it can be extremely helpful to have a landlord who is responsible for home repairs. Not everyone is going to be able to find a situation as perfect as ours, but I think many families could downsize to a smaller and/or older home that meets their budget and their needs and save a significant amount of money.
- Our cars. We’ve been a one-car family, and we’ve been a one-good-car-one-really-cheap-car family. Our good car is a 12-passenger van, and I LOVE it. For one thing, we bought it with 20,000 miles on it at 5 years old, and it was only $20,000. It’s hard to find an SUV with comparable mileage and age for even double that price. It doesn’t have seat-warmers or DVD players, but it’s in great shape and does everything we need it to do. Our other car, which is currently out of service, is a 2001 Prius that my aunt sold us for $1500. It’s a great getting-around-town car, and we’re hoping to take it in to see if we can get it fixed by the end of the summer. In the meantime, biking, walking, and creative ride-scheduling are working just fine.
- Vacations. We don’t take trips, except the occasional overnight trip to visit family. With our kids, trips are not actually something I look forward to, and the thought of an extended vacation makes me feel a little sick. I don’t resent our stationary lifestyle in the least. We also very rarely go on “dates”, mainly because finding someone to watch all of the kids is very difficult and can be extremely expensive. Once in a while, we take my parents or sister up on an offer to watch the kids while we go out for dinner. Other than that, we find fun things to do at home. We also don’t have any cable or satellite TV; we pay $8/month for Netflix, and that’s it. Even then, I think we watch too much TV. We do have internet, because we homeschool and work from home on occasion, and we think it’s a necessity for now. We also have just one cell phone for the family, and it’s the absolute cheapest phone they would sell us. I actually hate the cell phone, and I try not to use it unless I need to. I’m a little paranoid about getting addicted to it, so I leave it alone as much as I can.
- Eating and groceries. Our grocery bill is by far our biggest expense. It’s double, sometimes triple, our rent. I’ve done meal plans, I’ve done online classes, I’ve couponed, I’ve forced my family to eat leftovers for days on end, I garden, I dehydrate and can our garden produce…and I honestly still struggle with this one. What I know works for us is:
- Pick your store carefully. The store that I love to shop at has higher prices on nearly everything than the store I actually do shop at. Make yourself go where the prices are lower and, if you struggle with self-control like I do, where the selection is worse. If you can’t find those $6 a bag tortilla chips, you won’t be tempted to buy them.
- Don’t buy brand names when there’s a store brand available.
- Coupons are not worth it. The store brand is usually the same cost or cheaper than the cost of the name brand plus the coupon, AND coupons are really annoying to find and clip, AND they’re often for snacks, prepared food, and toiletries that you don’t really need to buy. I’ve watched every couponing show ever produced, and I’ve concluded that unless you want to live on Ramen Noodles and Gatorade, you’re better off without them.
- Find a balance between making healthy food and making food that your family will eat. It is not worth it to make meals that I WANT my family to like but that I know, in reality, they won’t touch.
- Complicated meal plans are not worth it. Neither are ones you have to pay for. If you want to plan meals several days/weeks/months in advance, create a list of your family’s top 20 favorite meals and rotate through them. Even better, order your rotation so that leftovers from one meal can be transformed into something else for the next meal (for example, pork roast from Monday night can become BBQ pork sandwiches or pork tacos for Tuesday night).
- If you don’t do a formal meal plan, try to have a plan for your meals at least a day in advance. Without some kind of a plan, I’m too tired, frustrated, and hungry to be thrifty. I end up getting frozen pizza, fast food, or some other expensive and less-than-healthy option.
- Don’t shop when you’re hungry, in a hurry, or accompanied by children under the age of ten. You will end up with a bunch of unhealthy, expensive convenience food, and you’ll be in such a bad mood by the time you’re done that you’ll decide to pick up McDonald’s on the way home anyway.
- Don’t buy beverages, except as a special treat. I try to avoid pop, juice, bottled water, and anything else other than milk. We have a pitcher with a filter in the fridge, and we try to drink plain old water as much as possible. Everything else is expensive, devoured within minutes of its purchase, and unhealthy.
- Don’t go out to eat unless it’s a special occasion. Challenge yourself to eat at home as much as you possibly can. This is less of a sacrifice than it seems. What I’ve found is that I’m usually disappointed when we eat out anyway. The food rarely meets my expectations, it’s more expensive than I had hoped, and if the kids are along, it’s more exhausting than eating at home.
- Shopping habits. I live by three simple rules:
- If I can buy something used or find it for free, I do. I very rarely buy anything new. I love consignment stores and Goodwill-type stores. I love finding used items online. If someone has something extra that they offer to donate to me, I take it. If I don’t end up using it, I donate it to someone else.
- If it can be fixed, patched, re-purposed, or done without, I don’t replace it. I have learned to sew on buttons, patch holes in pants, and repaint or refinish furniture. I can live with scratches, dents, and stains. I have discovered that there is a YouTube video tutorial for fixing just about everything. If something wears out, I take that as an opportunity to see whether I can live without it, and I don’t replace it if I don’t really need it.
- If I can do a decent job of it myself for a lower cost, I don’t pay to have it done. There are things I can’t do a good job of. Right now, we’re paying a lawn service to weed and feed our yard, because when I was in charge of it, it was a huge mess. I pay to have the oil changed in the cars, because I’m pretty sure I’d break something and end up spending more money if I tried to do it myself. However, there are a lot of things I do myself – all of the housework, for example, and 99% of the childcare. I only get my hair cut every 3-4 months or so, and I cut everyone else’s hair in the family who will let me (currently my husband and my two youngest boys). I don’t get my nails done. John and I have replaced parts on the car and camper, painted the interior and exterior of the house, and done a bunch of landscaping in the yard. If you’re handy, which neither of us are, you could really save money on home repairs and maintenance by doing things yourself. If you’re more like me, you might start by trying couple of easier projects with the help of a friend or YouTube video to build up your confidence and skillset.
- Self Sufficiency. This is a struggle for us. I have gardened for YEARS, and I don’t think we’ve ever even recouped the cost of buying plants and seeds. I get really excited to plan the garden, buy the seeds and plants, and get them in the ground. However, my interest gradually wanes over the course of the summer until, by fall, I’m so sick of it that I don’t even want to harvest anything. My neighbors will plant two tomato plants and end up with dozens of tomatoes, while my dozen plants will only manage to produce two tomatoes. I’ll spend an hour harvesting and cleaning beans only to have them get moldy in the fridge. I don’t have this figured out, even after reading a gazillion books on “urban farming” and watching many others turn their yards into mini-farms on YouTube. I’m still gardening, and I’m still hoping that this will be the year that I finally see some results.
On a more positive note, there are several things I do myself rather than pay for, and I do make a few key household items at home that I think save us a little bit of money:
- Laundry soap. You can make this for just pennies a load, and if you can skip adding the scent to it, you can save even more money. I use a recipe similar to this one: https://www.diynatural.com/homemade-laundry-detergent-soap/.
- Bar soap. I make my own hand/body soap in the crockpot with just five ingredients: olive oil, coconut oil, lye, and essential oils. I use this recipe: https://wellnessmama.com/23840/slow-cooker-soap-recipe/.
- Cleaning products. The only cleaning products I use are dish soap, baking soda, vinegar, and water. I mix vinegar and water (half and half) to clean just about everything – glass, bathroom surfaces, floors, furniture, carpet stains, and kitchen surfaces. To do dishes by hand, I use dish soap. For the dishwasher, I use baking soda and a few drops of dish soap. You can also use baking soda in the bathroom to scrub away grime and hard water stains, and baking soda with vinegar makes a great toilet bowl cleaner. I also confess to being addicted to Magic Erasers.
- Accepting help. I’m not great at this, because I want to be independent and self-sufficient, and I hate feeling like I’m taking advantage of someone’s generosity. However, I’ve come to realize that people don’t usually offer help unless they truly want to give it. So if someone drops off some groceries or clothing, or offers to pay for piano lessons, or invites us over for a meal, or wants to watch the kids for a few hours, I thank them and try to accept what they’re offering in a spirit of gratitude. I try not to feel guilty or indebted to them, or to ruin it for them by protesting too much. Accepting help is, for me, about letting go of my pride, and I’m still not as good at it as I want to be.
- Giving. About 11 years ago, I was hired as the church secretary of the church I was attending. I figured that if I was in charge of counting and recording the church’s donations, I should probably be tithing, which my church at the time taught was giving 10% of your gross income to the church. So I started tithing, and we’ve been doing it ever since. We now attend the Catholic church, which teaches that there is no strict amount that you have to tithe. However, they recommend giving 5% to the church and 5% to other charities, and between those two, we still tithe about 10%. It is a little less – maybe 8-9%, now that we have two kids at the Catholic school and pay a significant amount (for us) in school tuition. I know that for many people, giving to the church, especially one that appears to be so wealthy, seems like a waste of money. I’ve read many financial advice columns that say that when times are tight, you should stop all charitable donations until you’re back on your feet. However, in my experience, tithing has been nothing but good for our financial situation. I don’t know if it’s because it has helped force us to pay more attention to our budget, or because God is blessing us for our generosity, or because of some combination of the two. I only know that it works for us and it makes me feel like we’re making a difference. From my perspective, all of our money is a gift from God, and I’m simply giving some of it back. I also try to volunteer as much as I can, especially since, as a stay at home mom, I have more freedom to do so than working moms. I help with our youth group and CCD program, I teach Sunday School and volunteer to help with church functions, and I try to take advantage of other opportunities when they come up. I don’t volunteer at school, because I rarely hear of opportunities to do so, and when I do, I usually can’t help out because of the younger kids that I need to take care of at home.
I hope you’re feeling excited right now and eager to try one or more of these ideas for yourself. I hope that you’ve been inspired to spend some time contemplating your currently lifestyle and considering whether you need to make any changes. I hope I haven’t made it sound like I’m superwoman, or that I have all of this figured out. I don’t.
I have bounced checks. I have bought frivolous things that I ended up never using/wearing/looking at. There have been months when I can’t pay off our credit card. I have been down to the last $100 in our bank account and had to get creative with food and bills at the end of a hard month. What keeps me motivated when I feel like this life is too hard and everything would be simpler if I just went back to work is a firm conviction that I am doing the right thing, and doing the right thing is almost never easy. I spent the first 25 years of my life trying desperately to keep up with everyone else and do what everyone else was doing, and I was usually unhappy. When I feel alone, or weird, or stupid for trying to live the way we do, I remind myself about all of those years of living like everyone else. In the words of one of my heroes, the Apostle Paul,
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. – Romans 12:2