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How our Family of Four Lives off One Government Salary

In my 2014 financial summary post, I mentioned that our family of four currently lives off one salary – mine.  Since then, I’ve received a number of emails from readers looking for details on how we do it.  It’s not only online readers who have questions, when I tell friends/co-workers that my wife is taking the year (or two) off, a pause and blank stare usually follows.  I can almost see the cloud above their head thinking…”how the heck are you doing that?”

It’s one thing to have a stay at home spouse when the other spouse is a high income earner, like a medical doctor specialist.  But I work in a mid level job for the government (I’m not supposed to talk about salary figures, but less than $100k a year).  In addition to that, we have couple of young kids (both under 7), live in a modest but nice house in a quiet suburban neighbourhood, and have two newish cars in the driveway (a 2010 and a 2013).  From the outside looking in, considering my job, house, cars and supporting two kids, it doesn’t seem possible.  Most families in this society require two incomes to live the same lifestyle.

Having the option of having one parent stay at home with the kids does not happen by accident. It has manifested from years of financial discipline. Now mind you, not all parents would consider staying at home with the kids a luxury.  Some would prefer to work – but to each their own.

While we have some “side” income (dividends and online income), we are committed to living off my 9-5 salary only. The dividends are simply reinvested, and online income is kept in the corporate account as savings. So how did we prep our finances to live off one modest income?

How we Prepared our Finances for One Income Family Living

We Paid Off Our Debt

We currently have no debt besides our investment loan that pays for itself (capitalized). In other words, we do not have any debt servicing costs. Mind you, we’ve had plenty of debt in the past. My wife graduated university (in 2002) with $45k in student loans, we then proceeded to finance a brand new car with little down, obtained mortgages for our first house and first rental property.

However, over the past decade we committed to eliminating our debt, and we did so in quick fashion. We paid off our mortgage in three years and became mortgage free in 2010.  Some people may find this silly, but we build up our cash reserves and pay cash for our vehicles.

If we still had debt servicing payments, it would cost us at least $2.5k per month which is more than half of our current take home salary.  Obviously, with debt, it would have been impossible for us to live on my government salary.

We Built a Backup Fund

While we have a habit of keeping a cash reserve, we would not have pulled the trigger on going to a single income without having a healthy backup or emergency fund.  While everyone will have their own level of comfort for emergency funds, we are comfortable with 1.5 times our annual expenses.  This does not count investment accounts or accessible revolving debt like a line of credit.

We Practiced Living off One Income Before Pulling the Trigger

A number of years back when we had our first child (2008), my wife decided to work part-time after her year-long maternity leave.  After our debt was paid off, to really get aggressive in building our savings, we came up with the idea of living off my salary while saving hers.  This worked out relatively well, but there were times where we did need to dip into her income to cover the bills.  This gave us a good trial run on how things would go if she were to take an extended leave.

Living off One Income

Now that it’s been several months living on one income, I can honestly say that not a lot has changed in terms of our lifestyle. Since we basically lived off one income before taking the plunge, things just kept flowing as normal.  The biggest downside is that we aren’t socking away as much money as we are accustomed.  But the intangible benefits of having a stay at home spouse more than makes up for this.  It just means I need to work a little harder on my business to make sure our savings rate remains high.

So what else are we doing to ensure that we continue to live on our reduced means?

We Keep our Expenses as Low as Possible

Since reducing our household income, our frugalness has increased further!  I will admit that in previous years, I wouldn’t think much about randomly picking up a seemingly useful tool at Costco (everything is a deal at Costco right?!), however now, we follow a fairly tight budget.  We’ve also found that some expenses have decreased such as new work clothing, gasoline usage, going out for lunch, and other work related miscellaneous expenses.

Our biggest expense over the years has been groceries.  We really like to eat.  One trick that we have discovered that helps keep grocery costs as low as possible is to make less trips to the grocery store.  Sounds so obvious, but it has really helped us reduce our bill about 20%.  Before, we would buy groceries several times a week (smaller purchases), now we are down to a couple trips a week.  It also really helps to eat something before grocery shopping.

Here are more tips on saving money.

We Track our Spending

One way that we are keeping expenses in check is by tracking our spending.  Since we flow most of our expenses through a cash back credit card, tools like mint.com do a great job grabbing my spending data from my online statements and organizing them into categories.  I’m a numbers guy, so it’s not uncommon for me to login to mint on a daily basis to check our budget for the month.

While I use mint.com for organizing credit card expenses, I refrain from connecting it to my bank account.   Using your banking password on a third party site may violate your terms of service with your bank.  Not only that, I’m simply not comfortable with a third party site having access to my banking information.

We are Focused on the Future

Although our savings rate is a bit lower than usual, I’m still focused on opportunities to increase our income, grow the business (maybe start new ones), and increase our passive dividend income.  While we have the benefit of a healthy nest egg, we are still on the quest for financial freedom.

 

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FrugalTrader About the author: FrugalTrader is the founder and editor of Million Dollar Journey (est. 2006). Through various financial strategies outlined on this site, he grew his net worth from $200,000 in 2006 to $1,000,000 by 2014. You can read more about him here.

{ 27 comments… add one }
  • BK March 23, 2015, 9:24 am

    Paying off the mortgage was the biggest factor in being able to live ‘comfortably’ on a single salary. It helps if that salary is decent.

    Before my wife went on her first maternity leave we had all the intention of her going back to work. But that changed when she was laid off a few months before she gave birth. We decided that it was best for the child if she stayed at home. It was not easy at first. We were just making it work on my salary. But we trimmed down our spending. Got into the habit of being frugal. Once the mortgage was paid off it felt much easier.

    Become a single-income family with a decent income (well under 100K) isn’t all that hard. You do have to make some choices, but in the end you’re better off for them.

    • FrugalTrader FrugalTrader March 23, 2015, 11:42 am

      @BK, thanks for sharing your experience. Does your wife plan to stay off for an extended period of time?

  • SST March 23, 2015, 12:00 pm

    Interesting article, FT, in that mentality plays a much bigger part than actual finance.

    Your income is ~$70-80,000/yr, the average Canadian household income is roughly the same. Just because it’s derived from a single income doesn’t change the math. However, I know single-income families who earn $120,000 and still think they are “poor”. Bizarre.

    It’s a sinlge-income family here, too, and will continue to be so (although on less than your income; trading money for time). Not that difficult when you figure out what’s truly important to you and weigh the true cost within the long-term picture.

    • Susan November 13, 2016, 1:02 pm

      SST, you wrote “Your income is ~$70-80,000/yr, the average Canadian household income is roughly the same. Just because it’s derived from a single income doesn’t change the math.”. Actually it does change the math. Due to our graduated tax system, 2 people making $40K each make more take home than does 1 person making $80K (about $4000 a year difference in Ontario with 2 kids). Which I think is unfair but I don’t make the rules LOL.

  • BK March 23, 2015, 2:19 pm

    @FT: We have no plans to have my wife go back to work. She’s a full time mother to our three kids (6, 10, 12), and she’s happy doing what she’s doing. She finds it comforting that we are fine financially if she never goes back to work. I realize that’s a privileged position to find ourselves, and we feel fortunate to be there.

    Like SST said, it’s all about choices: time or money. There is no one ‘right’ answer.

  • Robb Engen March 23, 2015, 2:37 pm

    We’re in a similar situation – family of four, both kids under 6, and single income household for the past six years (same salary as you). We have a side business that currently supplements our income to the tune of about $30k per year. That helps pay down the mortgage and covers the payments on a newer vehicle. I agree that, without those payments, we’d just live off my salary alone and leave the business income to grow each year.

    No plans for my wife to go back to work, but that may change once our youngest is in school full-time. I doubt it, though. We get the same puzzled looks from friends and co-workers who wonder how we do it.

  • M March 23, 2015, 4:17 pm

    Thank you for being so candid with how you make this work. My husband and I are considering different scenarios to make this work for our family so that I can leave my corporate job.I find it’s as much about fear (invisible psychological scripts – e.g. “We’re crazy to do this!”) as it is about money.

    Although, still having a mortgage – in Calgary – is a huge hurdle for us. We have no other debt and a large emergency fund, though, which is the other part of the equation I’m glad we covered, just like you.

    Wish us good planning. We have Sept. 2016 as a tentative timeline to make our move and are doing everything possible to put us in a better financial position by then.
    M

  • Sarlock March 23, 2015, 4:24 pm

    Thank you for posting this, FT. Too many posts by people who make $150k a year, showing how awesome they are at saving money and investing. Not to discount their contribution, but it’s a bit of a disconnect to most people who are attempting to do the same thing. Extra income really does make everything easier.
    We made the same decision about 6 years ago. My wife was able to cut her shifts down to part time to be able to spend more time with our new daughter, but even this wasn’t enough to create a balance in her life. We made the very difficult decision to have her quit her job and live off of my $60k/year (gross) salary only. We made a lot of cuts and at first it was very difficult, but it’s amazing how quickly you can adapt to a new budget if you are diligent about it and avoid debt as a way to compensate and keep up with the Joneses (this is where most people fail). It’s actually amazing how much money you can save by having one person at home all the time — you rarely, if ever, go out for meals or order in (cooking at home is way cheaper, especially if you do it wisely)… no daycare expenses, we cut down to one car only, and go rid of a lot of other superfluous expenses. After about a year of doing this, we were actually saving as much money as we were before when she was working (she was the bread winner making $70k/year, too!).
    The hardest part is accepting a budget and not trying to compare yourself to everyone else. Just enjoy your life. Spending more time with your kids is worth more than any amount of material goods combined.

  • FrugalTrader FrugalTrader March 23, 2015, 4:40 pm

    Thanks for sharing your stories! The common theme I’m seeing is that families just learn to adjust to the lower income, but will happily do so. Again, it’s not for everyone, but those that choose this path appear to be fairly content with their decision.

  • The Money Spot March 23, 2015, 9:08 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story Frugal Trader. It is always great to see people who pay off their debt and are able to let go of the desires of having the newest and best wants and instead make choices that will actually improve the long term happiness in their lives. Glad to hear that it is working out so far and wish you best of luck along the way.

    Robbie

  • Cool Koshur March 23, 2015, 10:07 pm

    We are also family of four with single income around 100K. We live in GTA and live a decent life. Trust me GTA is very expensive. We are living with single income since 2003.Bottom line is we live within our means. I still drive my 15 year old car which is paid off. My only debt is mortgage (375K balance). I have close to 400K in home equity. I have managed to save 150K in RRSP as well and another 40K in emergency fund. I run a tight ship and this requires lot of discipline from whole family. I brown bag my lunch, no lattes, We eat out once or twice a month and spend no more than $50 on it. I price match all grocery shopping. I buy kids clothes most of times on sale. I have no cable at home. My cell plan is $25 for unlimited incoming & outgoing. My utilites are close $275 /month.

    My wife will probably start working in next 1 to 2 years when my younger kid starts full-time school.

  • Jungle March 24, 2015, 12:37 am

    Great posts everyone.

    We are looking at going single income in about 2-3 years when the kids start school. We will be on a 50k income and hope* to be mortgage free or close to it.

    I track spending very closely so it’s easy to look and see what you’ll need and estimate. Great tool for doing that. Plus like mentioned above, we won’t have to use daycare or have job commuting costs, so this can be taken out. Some more social benefits come, tax credits etc/ maybe a 50-$100 month or so more.

    Like Cool Koshur, we price match food, plan meals, pay as you go cell phones for emergency, and no cable (just antenna) and always shop for a deal and compare prices. Use alternative ways to accomplish the same tasks/goals whatever for less. (like library, etc) End result is getting more “bang for your buck” giving more cash flow to save/invest/debt.

    Not hard to do, but I think the main thing making it easy is the paid off mortgage.

  • Jay March 24, 2015, 12:37 am

    FT – Funny… we are also a family of four living off one government salary too! Our net take home is under 60k. Expenses probably make up half of that. Mortage payments (plus extra payments) makes up another 1/3rd and the rest is RESPs and RRSPs roughly.

    We’ve managed to make this work in much the same way. Paying down debt asap. Made it a goal to pay down the mortgage by next year. Helps that housing is cheap in town and that we have convinced ourselves that we don’t need a big fancy house (3 bedroom bungalow) because we’d rather be spending our time outdoors anyway (beautiful little town)!

    Of course this doesnt work for everyone…. Moved here from Toronto and I can’t imagine I could’ve made it work there….

  • A Frugal Family's Journey March 24, 2015, 1:17 am

    Wow…it like deja vu! You family sound a lot like ours. We are also a family of 4 that is living off one government salary (under $100K). :)

    For our family, communication has been the key. Making it on one income is a team effort. Everyone must be on the same page and agree to the same end goal. Without a common purpose or goal, success will be a greater challenge.

    AFFJ

  • Adam @ AdamChudy.com March 24, 2015, 4:19 pm

    What I like about this is how simple it is. You’re not doing anything the average family can’t choose to do on a salary that anybody in the middle class can have. No deprivation, just basic common sense.

  • Mike March 29, 2015, 9:56 am

    My family of 4 (2 kids under 12) lives on my single salary as well. We survive quite well and are investing 10% of my income for retirement. We started off a little lucky because when we returned from living overseas, we had quite a nestegg and only needed a mortgage for half our house, so our mortgage costs were not as high as could have been. I also work in the automobile industry and now have a demonstrater vehicle, that while taxed, is much less of an expense than without this perq. However, living off one salary was not quite enough to take a nice, annual vacation. So now my wife works part time 3 days a week and I work casually on the side and we have a growing vacation account that will afford us a nice annual vacation. We don’t need this part time work to live, only to do more than we can afford on one salary, while continuing to invest 10%.

  • Imtiaz March 29, 2015, 5:02 pm

    Hi,

    I have lived in one salary for over 8 years now and I am managing pretty well. I recently increased my mortgage payment to about 2.5 times and I am still managing well. My salary is also not much different from the author but I budget everything.

  • Dan @ Our Big Fat Wallet March 29, 2015, 7:39 pm

    @FT I don’t think it’s silly to pay cash for vehicles as we have done the same (and will continue to do so in the future). It gave us more negotiating power to pay with cash. Regarding the mortgage pay down it seems that paying down the mortgage was more urgent than investing. Just curious, given the rock-bottom interest rates we have now if you had a mortgage now would you focus more on investing (through RRSP, TFSA or both) or would you still pay down the mortgage asap if you had one?

  • Cool Koshur March 29, 2015, 10:22 pm

    @Imtiaz

    WOW!!! You increased your mortgage payments by 2.5 times. I am glad you have room to do that. Did anything changed lately? Your mortgage payment must have been low in first place. My calculations would be that initial mortgage payment would have been somewhere around $1000/month with your income level. Now you are around $2500/month

    It is commendable job for being aggressive at your mortgage debt

  • Qcash March 31, 2015, 10:04 pm

    Congrats FT!

    Having no debt opens up options and having a spouse at home with young children pays dividends you never have to claim on your income tax return :-)

    • Anonny-mouse May 8, 2015, 5:03 pm

      I wholeheartedly agree with you. I was a single parent, who got no help from my ex-husband. I scrimped and saved like crazy, to take annual stay-cations, summers, from school out, to school in, and on holidays. In the end, every bit of the struggle was worth it.

  • Jack April 8, 2015, 7:55 pm

    We quickly switched to a single income family when my wife’s maternity leave ended after 8 weeks and her employer didn’t approve an extension request. It’s tough, especially since we’re still paying our mortgage, but we’re getting by and still managing to save for retirement and pay extra on the mortgage.

    Fortunately (?) we’d both been through layoffs in the years prior to this so we’d had some experience living on a single salary.

    It’s amazing how quickly your habits change when push comes to shove…

  • Matt May 11, 2015, 11:30 am

    Very impressive how everyone has managed so well on a single income in these comments. My wife just left a well-paying but miserable government job to stay at home full time to take care of the family, herself, and to figure out what she wants the rest of her career to look like. I’ve learned a lot from this comment thread, but must admit that all the success you have shared makes me feel uneasy. Ironically, I now feel like “keeping up with the Frugals” is the new challenge, where it will take extreme discipline and changes for us to live as comfortably on one salary as many of you seem to be doing.

    Thanks for sharing and best regards to all.

    • FrugalTrader FrugalTrader May 11, 2015, 11:41 am

      Matt, everybody’s financial situation is unique, and I’m sure that you’ve worked out what is required of your household to live solely off your income. Feel free to share more about your situation and I’m sure the community here will chime in.

      • Matt May 12, 2015, 12:13 pm

        Hey FT, I think you are right that we’ll manage. To share a little, we were on a nice path with two secure, well-paying Government jobs and a future looking like two nice DB pensions and a comfortable retirement around 55 years old for both of us. Unfortunately, my wife could no longer handle the toxic work environment she was in and ultimately realized that a life of happiness in a gov’t job wasn’t likely for her. At the same time, we have two wonderful little boys aged 2.5 and 4.5 that demand a great deal of our time and energy (and money!). As such, the major life shift was not really planned but became somewhat of a necessity.

        Thankfully, over the last few years we’ve managed to pay off all consumer debt but still have a significant mortgage that I don’t expect we’ll be paying down much over the next little while. We only have modest savings, thanks mostly to an RRSP flip we did recently to benefit from high income for my wife in 2014 and almost no income in 2015. From a cash flow perspective, we’re taking home about $55K a year now, and we hope to more or less break even on expenses as we slowly pare down our financial commitments. The mid-term future is still cloudy as we adjust to this new way of living and my wife is contemplating a new education of some form. For now I don’t aniticpate any excess cash to add to savings, but I think we’ll be able to stay above water, assuming the current tension between the Gov’t and Unions doesn’t escalate too much.

        Luckily, I am a CPA with a long-term personal finance interest – so I know what needs to be done. We have been getting more and more frugal over the last few years and the tough part will be giving up some trips and fine dining. We’ll be ok, but that’s about the limit of my expectations.

        • FrugalTrader FrugalTrader May 12, 2015, 1:45 pm

          @Matt, We’ve found that since we’ve cut to one income, tracking expenses has become more important which we do so with mint.com. In the grand scheme of things, you are trading dollars for a little more freedom. If that requires cutting a bit of froth off the budget, then so be it.

        • Susan November 13, 2016, 12:51 pm

          Matt, you stated “As such, the major life shift was not really planned but became somewhat of a necessity.” I think that is the biggest takeaway from this thread and a concept I wish my younger self had known. We are also in the GTA and we built our life on payments. As long as we could cover the payments, things were ok. But that thinking does not look to the possibilities in the future and then you are dependent on both incomes to sustain the payments. It is impossible to foresee life changes due to children, job stress, downsizing, etc. And if you are covering payments, then all that changes. And then you become a slave to your debt. Can’t quit or change jobs because those payments always have to be made. One of our children (our first) required me to be more accessible than commuting to and from Toronto from the GTA allowed. So all of a sudden, we had to figure out a way to make less but still serve our master (debt). Its a long and not so pretty story. I wish I had planned for this before we got tied to the payments.

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