How one family gets by on one income

Making It as a One Income Family

by Ellen Ferlazzo

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The first thing I learned was the cost of my working: business suits, dry cleaning, commuting, eating out a LOT, and so forth. I checked with my insurance company, for example, and was able to knock about $65 a year off my car insurance as I was now in the "leisure use only" category.

My husband takes his lunch to work about 98% of the time. When he doesn't, it's usually because he has a lunch appointment with someone. At his current job, the dress is very casual so he hasn't needed to buy any suits nor does he need to dry clean anything. Recently, he began riding his bicycle to work (9.5 miles each way) about 3 to 4 times a week. This is great exercise, obviously, plus it saves the cost of gas. Although initially he was spending all his gas savings on bike accessories! A pump and spare tubes are essential equipment though.

For the kids (we have two girls now), I watch the sales and have been blessed with generous friends who have handed down their clothing. I'm very careful about the snack foods I buy and limit the packaged stuff to picnic and car treats. We don't eat out very much and I try to plan those occasions rather than have them be when I'm lazy or tired so we all enjoy them more. For example, my eldest got to pick where to go for lunch after completing her swim lessons this summer. We go out for ice cream periodically, but to the local drug store where a single scoop is 69 cents rather than the $1+ at the name-brand ice cream stores! I was having Friday nights be our "take out" night for a while, as it helped me to have a planned break from cooking. This usually meant burgers or burritos or pizza. About $15 maximum for the 4 of us.

I try to just be conscious of what we're spending the money on. I track all our expenditures so I can see if suddenly our grocery bill is going up or something else is going on. I don't really budget per se, but I do try to keep certain categories within certain limits. But if there's a good buy on something, I'll stock up. As others here have said, sometimes just waiting teaches you that you don't really need it. I try to keep a list of things I think I need (or want) and look at sales, garage sales, flea markets, etc.

We go to a moderate amount of garage sales, rarely planning on it but stopping by when we see one. I've found good dress-up costumes for my kids, books (some of which I've resold at the local bookstore), furniture, bikes, games, and toys. We had one of our this year and used the money for our annual trip to the county fair. It was nice to be able to relax and let the kids go on rides, play the games, eat the junk without counting every penny. And we didn't spend it all anyway!

We have joined several things that we take the kids to for day trips. Our local zoo has a family membership that you break even with after 2 trips. The parking is free with a membership, so we can now go, pack a picnic lunch, and enjoy a trip to the zoo with no cash outlay other than gas. We even joined the Monterey Bay Aquarium this year, which is a 2 hour drive for us. It was going to cost us $54 to get in and the membership was $75 and meant no waiting in line. We'll make sure we go at least once more. The girls are too young to spend the whole day there anyway and we'll go the beach for lunch afterwards.

I'm very cautious about signing up for anything that has monthly expenditures. "Only $10 a month" means $120 per year and it had better be worth it. We're even on the really cheap cable TV service ($13), which means only network television (no CNN, AMC, USA, LIF, or any other "lettered" station). That saves us $14 a month, which pays for a few videos of our choice.

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My husband is very handy around the house and is learning more every time something breaks. We have an older home (about 30, which means everything is giving up at once!). Improvements he's made includes ceiling fans in every bedroom, set-back thermostat, automated sprinklers, many minor repairs). He built a picnic table for us a few weeks ago. Needless to say, we don't pay anyone if we can manage it ourselves. We've learned a lot! We use the library a lot for how-to books.

I have a small vegetable garden and the home had lots of old fruit trees when we moved in. I've canned some years, but mostly we just enjoy it fresh. I might begin to can again now that the girls are a bit older. My oldest is growing sunflowers and radishes this year.

Other stay-at-home moms and I started a babysitting co-op, to make it easier for us to ask each other to watch the kids during the day, and even in the evenings sometimes. I printed and issued 60 "tickets" to each family. Each ticket is good for 1/2 hour of babysitting per child. This is working great so far.

There are all kinds of little things we do. I read a lot of ideas and try many out. Some I keep, others don't suit me. But I keep trying. I try to talk to others and learn from them as well. My mother-in-law taught me to cover a bowl with a plate when I'm microwaving something rather than using wax paper or plastic wrap. I compost my yard waste and kitchen scraps. In the summer, I get up early and open all the windows downstairs to let in the cool air. As soon as it starts to warm up, I close everything up. This keeps the house quite cool. In the winter, we dress warmly and keep the thermostat low. It goes off at night. I make sun-tea in the summer. I bake granola, bread, muffins, etc. I try to use all my leftovers. I just spent $10 on a yogurt maker and can now make plain yogurt for the cost of a quart of milk (I use dry). We flavor it with jams and frozen fruit juice concentrate. I cook with it instead of sour cream. I use coupons sometimes, "free after rebate" a lot. I don't know how to sew very well but find that is something I need to learn. Not for clothes so much as household things, costumes, etc. I don't buy a lot of specialty cleaners. I find myself doing things my mother does, as she grew up during the Depression.

I honestly think more people could live on one income if they recognized that certain things they want are not needs. Watch those commercials! I rarely watch television and so it's easy not to "want" what I don't see advertised. My girls usually watch PBS or DVDs, so they don't see the advertising either, which means they're not asking for things. My parents often comment on what they expected and were able to do as a young family. They didn't eat out every week, let alone 2-3 times a week as so many do. They saved for things and didn't buy on credit. They didn't take fancy vacations. They kept cars till they were worn out or outgrown. When we bought our new van, both our cars were over 10 years old. One had 150,000 miles, which we sold; the other has 120,000 miles. We looked for a long time at used vans, but couldn't find one we felt was worth the money. We plan on keeping it for a long time!

Ellen Ferlazzo is a freelance marketing and technical writer in the high-tech industry. She began her frugal ways after the birth of her first daughter Sarah, now almost 5, when she decided to stay home rather than go back to work full-time. You can visit her at

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