Surviving and Thriving: How to Make it on a Single-Income Budget

Life is expensive. Life with kids is even more expensive. So how do some parents who rely on one income not only survive, but still find ways to create a happy, well-rounded life for their families?

Evaluate your biggest expenses.

According to Leah Ingram, a money saving expert and author of Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier for Less, housing, transportation and education are the largest expenses facing today’s families. If you can reduce spending in one of those areas, you’ll live more comfortably on less, she advises.

“For most Americans, owning a home is the American dream. But for so many people, especially families with children, renting in a good school district makes more sense than buying a home in a lower-quality school district,” Ingram says.

Thinking about leaving your job to stay home with your children? First, create a spreadsheet that compares the costs of commuting and childcare versus how much you’ll save on those two expenses once you’re down to one income.  “Sometimes it actually makes more sense for both parents to continue to keep working,” she points out.

According to Pew Research, 31 percent of families live on a single income. Although many families make the choice, others are forced into the position.

Control your inclinations. 

Beth Beseau, whose children are ages 8 and 5, is the primary breadwinner in her family. “We’ve had to be flexible and willing to make adjustments in our lifestyle,” she says. She says her greatest challenge is controlling the urge to impulse buy.  “When you’re making a purchase, you have to ask yourself if it’s a want or a need. If you can do without it, then don’t buy it,” she advises.

Slim down your food budget.

Decide how often you can afford to dine out at restaurants as a family. Instead of hitting the drive-thru for coffee every morning, make your own at home. And brown bag your lunches for work and school.  

Planning your family’s meals ahead of time can help you save money by curbing the need to pick up unhealthy fast food on the fly. Try planning your weekly meals around whatever specials your favorite grocer is offering that week. Or, head to a bulk store like Costco or Sam’s. Take an afternoon to prepare meals that you can stick in the freezer and pull out on evenings when you don’t have time to cook.

Emily Cowden and her husband Jason have five children, ages 10, 8, 6, 4, and 2. Cowden left her job as a registered dietitian to stay home with her children and home school.  As a busy mom who is also committed to eating healthy on a frugal budget, she often skips time-consuming coupon-cutting, instead looking for sales at stores like Aldi and Sprouts that offer healthy organic foods. She found that eliminating processed snacks and cereals was especially helpful.

“This cuts out a lot of unnecessary foods and unnecessary spending, leaving room for more nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables and proteins,” she says.  

Get creative.

Many moms also turn to direct sales opportunities, like Pampered Chef, Mary Kay and Thirty One, as ways to pad their income. “Just be sure that stocking up (on product) doesn’t sack all of your earnings,” Ingram advises, adding “Also you have to have the right personality to do direct sales. Not everyone is outgoing and direct sales is not a path to easy money. These women work very hard, even if it’s at night and in people’s living rooms.” 

The Cowdens sell essential oils and other products through Young Living to help support their goal to live a healthy lifestyle. Rather than carrying an inventory, the couple works to educate others about the benefits of using essential oils properly.

The extra income helps cover extracurricular activities for their children, meals with friends and vacations.  “This winter we’re actually planning a trip to Europe for just my husband and me,” Cowden says. 

Beseau says she sells items that she no longer needs, uses or wants. “The pocket cash has come in very handy,” she says.  Other moms turn their skills into entrepreneurial ventures that they can run from home like freelance writing, photography or baking. 

Seek free or cheap family entertainment. 

Ironically, happy memories are usually borne from what seem like mundane family activities. Go on bike rides together, visit area parks, get out the watercolors and have a paint party, play board games, make homemade pizzas together or check out movies or video games at the library.

Also stay tuned for coupons and deals at area attractions for reduced price or free admissions.

Still struggling? 

“Make a list. Put your values and priorities in order. Budget around that,” Cowden says. “If you find all of your income going towards things that don’t bring you joy, it’s time to reevaluate and get creative.”

Additional resources

  • Visit Emily and Jason Cowden at 
  • Stock your freezer using the cookbook Fix, Freeze and Feast by Kati Neville and Lindsay Tkacsik.
  • Plan meals on shoe-string budget. Visit
  • Learn more from Leah Ingram at

Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines and her husband are the parents of two boys. Christa is the author of Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World. 

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