Single-Income Living: Shop Like the 1950s

by L.P.


We've been a single-income family for five years, ever since my husband was ready to graduate from grad school and we knew we'd move. Turned out it took him two more years to finish! So, we've known bad times and good times. We also had some heavy expenses ($14k for successful infertility work), and good times (now, with DH having a great job, and our wonderful daughter).

I think the most important thing for learning to live on one income is for the stay-at-home partner to "think like a 1950's housewife". You won't make it if you hire a housecleaning service, eat dinner out three times a week, take two lavish resort vacations a year, etc. One person works full-time to bring home money; the other should put in lots of time running the household as cheaply and efficiently as possible. The stay-at-home partner may have given up working for money, but s/he did not give up working to maintain the household! I may not work as many hours as my husband, but I do put in a lot of time doing housework that makes his income go much farther.

I wonder how many families are switching from two incomes to one but maintaining the spending lifestyle they had with two incomes. This won't work. And, you can live well on one reasonable income.

Specific ideas:

  • Go to your library and get out all the books on housecleaning, household hints, budgeting, and basic Home Ec stuff. Much of it will be garbage. Some of it will be so perfect you will want to buy the book The Tightwad Gazette. Keep reading about housework and frugality. [Tip -- skip the "housewife" magazines. I have yet to see one with any good new ideas, except for a few recipes.]

  • Watch your food budget. Learn to cook. Go out to eat less often. We go out only once a week, more often than I did as a kid, but far less than my friends. Avoid fast food joints. Pack lunch for the working partner. The stay-at-home partner has time to clip coupons, shop the specials at several stores, buy in bulk and repackage. [If you have kids, take them along and make it an adventure!]

  • Hobbies that save. Even doing all the cleaning and part of the cooking (my husband loves to cook, so he does most of it), I still have time for lots of projects and hobbies. The ones I do save us money. Since buying our house last summer, I refinished the wood floors, painted the walls in half the rooms (half to go!), put up a medicine cabinet, trimmed trees, and put in a vegetable garden. I have the fabric to make window shades. I knit our winter hats and mittens. I could do a lot more, but ...

  • Babies and kids. A newborn anything like our daughter will throw all these plans out of whack. [She was born colicky, nursed like a fiend, and wouldn't sleep unless she was touching me.] Expect this. [90% of the time, it won't be that bad. But plan for the toughest.] Until our daughter was a year old, we did lots of take-out meals. The bathrooms had dust rhinos in the corners. We didn't save money at all. But it was worth it. [This is one place where I don't follow the 1960s rule. I think time spent with babies and young children is very important.] For older kids, think back to what you did when you were little (if you grew up in the 60s and early 70s like me). Lots of organized activities? Not me, just one or two (total). Lots of expensive toys? Nope, just the basics, and our imaginations. My mom spent a little time playing with us kids, more time making things for us to play with, and lots of time reading to us. I know a few women who left their jobs to stay home with children. They are all glad they did. And they all learned to live on one income. Oh, yes. Buy cloth diapers and wash them yourself. It's not hard, or very messy. It only takes a little more time than a normal load of laundry. And you'll save a bundle!

I'll admit, we're nowhere near starving. My husband is a PhD engineer, earning a good, but not lavish, salary. And my 2 1/2 year old attends an expensive pre-school (they're all expensive, where we live) three mornings a week. But I know how many of my friends are living on nearly the same income, and we seem to have far fewer financial worries than they do. I think it's because I try to run this house like my mom did in the 1960s -- only with the aid of modern tools. I probably put in 2-3 hours a day on "housework", including money management. The rest of the time I'm doing "projects", or playing with our daughter (still high need). Playing often includes shopping -- we make it into an adventure!


This is one in a series of articles that examine how single-income families operate. Even if you're a two-income family with no thoughts of quitting your job, it's often possible to learn from people who live differently than you do. If you live on one income we'd like to hear from you. Please send an email to: gary@stretcher.com. We'll try to include the most informative stories on a regular basis.

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