What living on one income means for our family

When my daughter was born, I left the job I had to be home with her. I never had a clear vision of how I wanted to balance work and family prior to giving birth or even getting pregnant; I couldn’t picture myself as a working mom, nor could I imagine myself being a stay at home mom. I often thought about it, especially as a Women’s Studies minor in college, but I couldn’t clearly see myself in either scenario and didn’t linger on it much. I don’t know when I thought I was going to figure that out, but even as my due date neared I still didn’t have a concrete plan.

The truth is I needed to leave my job; it was no longer the right fit for me and maternity leave became my out. But after I gave birth, it finally was clear that my decision to not return to that job had become part of a larger choice to not return to full time work, at least for awhile. I can’t put into words the connection I felt with my daughter when she was born; I simply couldn’t handle the idea of leaving her to go to work (only now, 2.5 years later, do I feel even somewhat ready to be away from her all day, every day.)

Again, without much of a plan, I was suddenly a stay at home mom. I did start a part time gig coaching cheerleading in the evening (which was actually a lifetime goal of mine so it was an exciting opportunity) and that schedule allowed me to be at home during the day with my daughter. I also picked up a couple small business clients and helped them with their social media efforts; again, work that could be done primarily in the evenings. While I made money at both of these ventures, for all intents and purposes we were living solely off my husband’s income.

We knew how much we’d have to budget. And cut. And sacrifice. But knowing it and the reality of living like that are two totally different things. We have to make tough decisions about which occasions we can celebrate with family and friends, when those celebrations mean going out for a meal or drinks. Little extra treats are few and far between. Seemingly insignificant things like which weekend will we go pumpkin picking for Halloween are carefully strategized to coincide with pay day. I feel really bad when I have to tell my husband, who works so hard to support us, that he can’t pick up something he saw at the store simply because it caught his eye and he wanted it, something that was much less of a consideration when we were both working. We cut out our cable plan and just use Netflix, Hulu and iTunes for TV and movies (aside from a few shows I do miss, this isn’t much of a sacrifice and more of a welcome change). There are no family vacations; depending on the month, there may not even be day trips. On one income, my husband and I don’t have the money to spare to go out on dates; and even if we were to do something that is free, there isn’t extra in the budget for a babysitter. People who don’t quite get how tightly we’re budgeted insist that we can find money to go out together; that date nights become even more important after you have kids, for the sake of your marriage. I agree. Working on your relationship post-kids is difficult, but when you also don’t have the funds to get out once and awhile, and are stressing about money on top of it…it hasn’t been easy on our marriage.

Just how tightly are we budgeted? When we both worked full time, I prided myself on the fact that all of my bills were paid on time. I even took over my husband’s bill paying to keep him on track. Yes, I had credit card and student loan debt, so I wasn’t a pay-the-card-off-each-month kinda gal, but I was a responsible credit card user in that, after accumulating the debt I had from putting myself through college (ahem, buying BOOKS, people) I wasn’t putting extravagant purchases on my credit cards because the credit was available to me.

Now, in our current situation, the reality is that the bills get paid when the paycheck comes in. That may mean a payment is a few days late because the timing of a due date and a payday didn’t jive and the money simply wasn’t going to be in the account to make it happen. This kills pre-kid-prompt-payer me, but the truth is that the bills do get paid every month, even if it has to be on my schedule instead of the card company’s (I’d apologize to the creditors here, but I know they actually want me to pay late to accept all those late fees I rack up). In fact, we are so closely budgeted from paycheck to paycheck that from time to time I end up needing to rely on those credit cards we are trying so hard to pay down, just to get us through the week. It’s a frustrating catch twenty two.

In the end, we make ends meet, if barely. We continue to live in a house we adore, even if any projects need to wait. Our family has food in the fridge every week, even if I can’t spring for the organic or specialty options. We are happy and healthy, even if it means getting creative with family fun and activities.

So why do we choose to live on one income? Because despite the challenges and setbacks it was the right decision for our family. Leaving my job and having time with my daughter allowed me to discover a passion I wouldn’t have known I had otherwise, and prompted my decision to return to school so that in a few years I will be working full time again and contributing more to our family’s income. I also get to do what I never knew I wanted, and be home with my daughter in the early years and not miss those moments with her.

People who don’t understand will often say how lucky I am to be able to be home with my daughter now. Lucky, yes, but not for the reasons they think. It would certainly be better for our financial situation for me to be working full time. But better for our family? I’m not so sure. If we were both full time earners, would we be less stressed about money? Let’s be honest, we’d find a way to stress about money no matter what our situation looked like. I left a job I was no longer a good fit for in a field I was no longer passionate about; only to be able to foster my daughters growth, while she helped me discover a passion of mine. This feels much better for our family than being depressed because I’m at a job that’s no longer fulfilling, away from the daughter I didn’t want to leave.

So, I’m not a full time worker, not because we can afford for me not to, be, but because it was the right choice for our family. And as tough as it is from day to day – as strained as our marriage and wallets can be – I stand by our choice and don’t regret it. Even if it means I’m standing there with my pockets turned out.


Free family fun at the annual pig roast! Photo credit C.Allard
Free family fun at the annual pig roast!
Photo credit C.Allard


9 thoughts on “What living on one income means for our family

  1. Thank you so much for sharing! Every choice comes with benefits and sacrifices. I think the trick is feeling like we each made the right sacrifices for us, for our families. It sure sounds like you have.

  2. Go you with the tough budgeting! My husband and I are also a one-income family. Bills are matched to pay days, all the groceries and gas go on the credit card so I can manage our cash flow, taxes have already been filed because I need the refunds to pay off our annual insurance bills (which were put on the credit card to buy us an extra month), and we just downgraded our cable to get a tiny bit of breathing room in the budget. We rent a (quite old and drafty) two-bedroom apartment and have no plans (or means) to buy a house in the immediate future.

    Have you considered swapping babysitting hours with a friend? My husband does this with our neighbor, which is the only way we have had 2 “date nights” since our son was born (18 months ago, so I guess we are averaging a date every 9 months or so, ha). We stayed in and ate a non-toddler-friendly meal, followed by a non-toddler-friendly movie (so nothing extravagant, but still a fun and relaxing evening).

  3. This is really beautiful, and sad, and beautiful Christa. I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck, but with two incomes. I can’t imagine what it’s like with just one. Stay strong.

  4. OMG yes to this: I left a job I was no longer a good fit for in a field I was no longer passionate about; only to be able to foster my daughters growth, while she helped me discover a passion of mine. This feels much better for our family than being depressed because I’m at a job that’s no longer fulfilling, away from the daughter I didn’t want to leave.

    I am so in the middle of attempting to make this decision. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  5. I love this as it really resonates with me. Good for you for making choices best for your family and your own personal growth.

  6. I so feel you on this, Christa! I try to avoid the “you’re so lucky” comments these days because they ignore the fact that there is a lot of hard work and stress involved in living with any of these choices.

  7. Yes, yes, yes. I am so with you. And my staying home for awhile was 50% choice (which I was thankful to have), and 50% the fact that my salary minus two full time daycare bills would be nonexistent. Working part time and patching together free childcare from family members has been the logical choice here. And yes- I have a vintage 1991 kitchen (complete with ancient appliances) and likely will until I’ve worked full time for a few years (once the kids are in full-time school).

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