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Financial Education

How to Live on One Income (Even if You Have Two)

And why this financial mindset can save you BIG.

A tiny house: a great example of the "single income" minimalist financial mindset, and how to live on one paycheck.
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Living at home, eating ramen, looking under the sofa cushions to scrounge for laundry money… most of us have been there. Hopefully, as you rise in your career and become more established (perhaps get married), you may notice your quality of life rising, as well as your discretionary income. Bravo! You’re on your way!


Just because money is flush doesn’t mean you can’t continue the “living single/single income” mindset long into your married years. (And no, we’re not talking about leaving the toilet seat up, or dirty socks on the floor). No matter how established you become, there are countless reasons to live within your means to achieve your long-term goals, like becoming debt-free, funding college tuition, buying a home or making home improvements, investing, and/or planning for retirement.

Consider the latest trend in housing, the tiny home concept. It’s about as minimalist as it gets and takes the concept of living with one’s means to an extreme. While tiny home living isn’t always tied to a desire to save more (mobility, freedom to pursue other interests, environmental consciousness, and living simply are all drivers of the movement), it shows how it is possible to reduce expenses and save for what’s really important to you.

While you don’t have to downsize to a 140-square-foot home to save money, you may be in a unique position to try an aggressive type of saving to reach your goals. For instance, couples: have you considered subsisting on one salary and saving the other?

If you are in a dual-income household, we get it: You may not always be in a position to live off of one salary—life, kids, debt, and bills can all add up. But what if your spouse or partner lost his or her job unexpectedly? Then could you? Saving takes discipline and commitment—and often, a lifestyle change. Could adapting a “single income” mindset, and pretending your second income doesn’t exist, allow you to put more of the second earner’s income to your savings goals?

Imagine if you were able to subsist on one of your two incomes. Part (or whole) of that second salary could be devoted to long-term savings goals. Imagine how fast you could pay down your credit card debt, save for that annual vacation, pay off your mortgage, pay off your student loans, or reach your retirement goals, if your partner’s salary was devoted to those goals.

If one of your incomes is significantly larger than the other, don’t worry. Setting aside the smaller one will still help you to achieve your savings goals.

Single-income earners: if you are already on a single-income budget, in some ways, you’re ahead of the curve. Try to stick to that budget, and continue to pay yourself first (put extra earnings toward your savings), no matter how much your paycheck increases.

How to live on one paycheck and pretend your second income doesn’t exist.

If you’re ready to give the “single income” strategy a shot, your first step is to fully understand where your income goes. Knowing where you’re spending is the first step in saving more. Track every purchase for a few months to see exactly how much you spend on extraneous items. You may be surprised at how much you spend on things you don’t use or need.

Next, look at your recurring expenses. Obviously, there are several monthly costs that are more or less fixed, like your mortgage or car payment. Many, however, can be reduced if you are looking to save more. Can you live with a less expensive vehicle? Is your electric bill higher than your neighborhood average? Are you paying for cable TV service, but primarily watch streaming video on Netflix or Hulu? Are there services that just don’t make sense any longer that you can cut out of your expenses?

Once you have identified your fixed costs and where you can strip excessive discretionary spending, you can create a budget based on one income. You may have an easy time budgeting if you’ve identified multiple cost-saving opportunities, or, you may to take more drastic savings measures if you’re truly committed to saving more.

Next, put your second income into whatever savings or investment accounts you decide are best for you. Consider keeping a specified amount in a liquid account as an emergency fund, and putting the rest in longer-term vehicles; for safe options, click here). Direct deposit is best, if available; it will eliminate any temptation to spend the paycheck.

Stick to your new budget.

This might be the hard part, and it’s where your commitment comes in to play.

You don’t have to have an immediate need to live off one income, but embracing the strategy today will give you the financial protection you need should employment or health circumstances change. It will also give you the peace of mind of having enough saved for any number of major expenses in the future.

Even if you’re only able to live off one income for a year, or if you have to start by budgeting for a small portion of the second income, you will do wonders for your long-term financial health.

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CUNA 2023 diamond award trophy icon

CUNA 2023 Diamond Award Winner

Financial Education

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