How to Live Frugally on One Income

When you transition to one-income lifestyle, whether out of need or desire, it always affects the household budget. Here are seven ways to make it work.

If you are preparing to live on income, you need to make a budget based on the income that’s staying. Write down all your expenses and see if you can make it.

I’ve found that for a lot of people, myself included, we tend to just spend what we have. So when a big portion of the income goes away, most people will need to make cuts.

Here are seven habits to take a close look at in your life and see what changes you can make.

1. Look at your biggest bills

You can cut out all the lattes you want, but if you have a mortgage or car payment that is beyond your means, you’ll never get anywhere.

Making a big change in your monthly expenses means you need to look at the biggest parts of your budget. You may need to make changes that are uncomfortable or even scary.

The following expenses make up the biggest portion of most people’s budgets, and they all deserve a long, hard look:

  • Mortgage– can you move to a smaller house? Refinance to a lower rate and lower payment? Save really hard for a year to put a big lump sum down that will lower your payment?
  • Car payments– if only one person is working, are two new cars necessary? Could you have one nice family car and one old commuter car? Do you live in an area where bike riding or walking is realistic?
  • Health caresometimes spending more money on health insurance lowers your overall health costs. Sometimes it doesn’t. Often a lifestyle change can lower healthcare costs too.
  • School tuition– private school is a huge expense. If you are becoming a one-income family, is homeschooling an option? Is private school really necessary?

Does this mean that moving and selling your car is a must to live on one income? Of course not! But sometimes living frugally on one income means making big sacrifices and doing things you don’t want to do.

We personally did this about five years ago. We sold a big, comfortable suburban home and moved to a house under 1000 square feet that was in very bad shape. It was really hard at the time. But it allowed me to continue staying home and we were able to save money and build a nicer house years later. I just want you know that a sacrifice like that is possible. It is hard to do and I won’t pretend it was fun. But it turned out to be worth it.

Wondering how much money you’re really making? Use this stay at home calculator to figure out your true take-home pay.

2. Save money on food

    After the big, fixed expenses the most amount of money goes to food. Luckily, this is a category that makes it easy to save money. It takes a little creativity, but almost everyone has room to cut in their grocery budget. Here are some things to try.

  • Consider grocery pick up… even if you have to pay a small fee for it. This might sound strange, but ordering my groceries online has totally revolutionized my grocery bill. There are no more impulse purchases, no more extra trips because I couldn’t find something, no cookies tossed in the cart to placate crying children. I can watch the total as I add things and subtract if I go over budget. It is delightful.
  • Use sales and coupons wisely. As a former extreme couponer, I think extreme couponing is nuts. But there are ways to be intelligent about shopping sales that can save you money without making you crazy.
  • Stop going out to eat. Like, at all. Totally quit for a month and see how much money you save. If it’s a luxury you enjoy, budget out a small amount that you afford on one income and stick to that budget. There are ways to cook at home every night that are practical even for busy people.
  • Build a pantry that you can “shop” from when times are especially tough.


3. Do it Yourself (when it makes sense)

    There are so many things you can make yourself to save money! And there are so many things that don’t actually save you money, even though they seem like they might! When you’re on a tight budget, you need to really evaluate whether DIYing something is the best choice.

Here are some of the most practical choices for making things at home to save money:

Something that tends to be very cost-effective is giving handmade gifts. So even if you feel that learning how to make all these things won’t save you a lot of money, they can help when it comes time to give gifts and you don’t have to scramble for a gift card at the holidays.

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4. Shop Less and Buy Used

     Okay this is a hard one. It’s a little deeper than just saving money on groceries or other household supplies. I’m talking about those trips to Target because you need to get out of the house, those online orders for craft supplies because it feels good to order something.

Take a good look at why you are shopping. Are you bored?  Does it make you feel productive? Are you discontent with your home or appearance and continually trying to fix it? This might require a little soul searching.. When you’re done, here are practically ways to be a frugal shopper, totally essential when you are trying to live on one income:

  • Accept all hand me downs. Even if some of them aren’t in great shape, just take them and donate them or throw out what you don’t want. Why bother to do this? Because when you gratefully accept hand me downs, people remember that and keep you in mind when they have something else to get rid of.
  • Trick yourself into shopping less.
  • Be friends with thrift stores. There is SO much available out there at a huge discount. I have always gotten gifts and hand me downs for kid’s clothes. But a lot of people are skilled at getting clothes for the whole family at thrift stores.

5. Make money on the side

I am wary to even include this because many articles about making money at home are just schemes to make money from recommending blogging products. I really don’t want to do that because it’s gross, and I don’t think that online business is for everyone.

But if you need a little extra income in the long run and aren’t terribly short on money in the short term, blogging is a great option.

 There is real income to be made online, and blogging or starting a YouTube channel is the ideal side job for a stay at home mom who can work into pockets of her day.

Sadie Smiley is one of the best resources on how to find the right side hustle!

But…. It can be time consuming, and attention consuming, and you have to realize that for the first year you will not make any money. Worse than that, actually, you will lose money. But if you are willing to put in the work when there is no reward, there is money to be made on the other side of it. I am a VERY small blogger but still make a nice little side income from my work here.

(You can see my list of recommended blog resources, and join my newsletter for mom bloggers here.)

6. Be content

Here’s another tough one. If you grew up in a two income household like me, you may be used to a lot of treats and luxuries. But when you transition to living on one income, you may have to say goodbye to many of those. That’s okay! Just consider your one-income lifestyle a big luxury of its own (it is!).

Stop focusing on all the things you can’t have anymore. That might mean staying away from magazines and catalogs designed to make you want things. Maybe you need to to unsubscribe from certain emails, or even spend less time with certain friends.

When you start feeling deprived or jealous, think about what made you feel that way and whether its something you need to avoid.

7. Stay home for entertainment  

Here is a lifestyle change that you can easily learn to love. Instead of going out for entertainment, learn to stay in and enjoy your home.

Here are some frugal entertainment ideas you can do at home:

  • Watch a movie and make popcorn. Sounds boring to some, but if you set a designated movie night and time and cut back on TV in general, it can actually be very exciting.
  • Having guests over for a board game and inexpensive drinks can be very fun. Don’t make entertaining a big huge production designed to impress everyone. People are comfortable when you are comfortable, not when you are trying to show off.
  • When you are home during the day with just your children, make sure you’ve set your home up in a way that makes you happy.

And that’s it!

Obviously this is not every single money-saving idea in world! But I hope it’s gotten you started thinking about ways to simplify you life and you budget. Of course there are many, many situations when living on one income isn’t possible, or even desirable. But if it’s something you want, I hope this helped.

more on simple living:

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  1. After our mortgage was paid off, we went down to one income! my hobbies have included, gardening which turns into canning,dehydrating keeps me entertained for 7 months out of the year. Also fresh food year round,I keep sprouts growing,bake sourdough, and my entertainment is visiting local libraries, Yoga which I clean studio I exchange for unlimited classes. The hardest part definitely has been NO shopping but I don’t need anything. I also bought a $20 standing room only baseball game!

    1. so inspiring! I used to do sprouts but haven’t in years thanks for the reminder so i can try again. you hit the nail on the head saying canning, etc keeps you entertained and that is a KEY point! it makes it easier not to shop and shifts your mindset.

  2. My husband runs a composite fencing business, and this year has been a tough year for us financially. I love your comments about making things yourself. I’ve started making bread every week instead of buying it at the store, and it’s saved us a decent amount of money. A quality loaf of bread is $6 or more these days, and I can make homemade bread for just a couple of dollars. I definitely want to try making more things from scratch. Thank you for sharing!

  3. My husband and I have lived on one income since 6 months into our 6 year marriage, always so the other person can attend school (first me, now him). One major way we saved is we skipped birthday parties, holidays, etc where we would be expected to bring a gift or food item, and we’d invite the birthday person or family over to our house for dinner instead (on another day). It was free, allowed us to be hospitable, and helped us still spend time with people. The truth is to live frugally you have to get used to saying NO way more than you say YES! Other frugal activities with friends we do often is go for walks, bike rides, etc. There are lots of free ways to bond other than eating out together or going out for drinks or coffee.

    We also became a one car family and have never looked back. There really is no need for two cars! It just takes planning ahead and being willing to kill time when waiting for a ride from the other person.

    Another side hustle that has helped us tremendously is Door Dash. We can typically make $30/hour on evenings and weekends.

    1. Sometime is definitely is necessary for families to have 2 cars. There is no public transport where we lived. It got to the point that one car with 3 kids no longer worked and was stressful. We bought a cheap car in cash for the person that was driving in town.

  4. Katie, What a wonderful site! I really appreciate your perspective and the way you share it as practical guidance. Something clearly inspired you and your family to live with intention, and I hope it has brought you all joy. We could be a little more disciplined (we saw it was possible during the pandemic). And it frlt good! Best of luck to you all.

  5. I read this the other day, but didn’t have time to comment. Great tips and advice! My husband always tries to encourage couples to set this up from the beginning. I had debt when we first got married, stupid credit card debt! My husband in his wisdom made our life very lean until it was paid off. We NEVER ate out, went to movies or spent money on cute clearance shirts even if they were only $2. It was hard, but now I am so thankful that I am home with my kiddos. Good point, DIY is not always cheaper!!

  6. These are fantastic suggestions, Katie! I agree that housing is something that can eat up so much of our incomes and it just isn’t necessary. When you quit trying to keep up with the Joneses so many amazing possibilities open up.

  7. These are all great tips, Katie! I just started staying at home last month after persistently insisting that we could pull it off, and we are! I think my husband is still reluctant about giving up the luxuries–he loves his fancy beers and collects them like they’re bottles of wine– but he’s not complaining about not having to do the dishes!

    1. I’m so glad you guys are making it work! My husband and I both spenders so we had a really hard adjustment period but seems like you’re a little more in control, 😉