BBC Capital

Pay It Forward

Make it work on a single salary

About the author

Kate Ashford is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes about personal finance and health. She has written for Money, Real Simple and Redbook magazines.

Making your money go further is key to living on one income. (iStockphoto)

Making your money go further is key to living on one income. (iStockphoto)

When Andy and Catherine Reese decided that one of them should stop working to stay home with their newborn son almost 11 years ago, it was not an easy choice. The couple knew money would be tight and that they would have to sacrifice dinners out and extended vacations, among other things.

But the Atlanta, Georgia, couple agreed that having a parent at home was a priority worth the financial sacrifice.

“We were both raised by a stay-at-home parent, and decided we wanted to provide the same environment for our kids,” said Andy, 42.

Catherine gave up her job as an elementary school teacher and the Reeses, who now have three children, began living on Andy’s salary as a marketing director for a global manufacturing company.

“We don’t drive new cars and we don’t go to Disney every other year, but they’re small trade-offs,” Andy said.

Raising a family on one salary is getting tougher, no matter where you live. The cost of living is rising in many countries and having one parent stay home is either increasingly becoming a luxury, or a forced choice due to divorce or unemployment.

Nonetheless, if it’s something you want to do — for the sake of a lifestyle, small children at home or after an unexpected job loss — there are ways to make it happen.

What it will take: That will depend on the cost of living in your city, the salary you hope to live on, and the bills you have to pay each month, plus what you must put aside each month for education and retirement savings.

“I know of families who survive on AUD$60,000 ($55,392) and do it comfortably, and I also know of families on more than AUD$200,000 ($184,640) who are struggling,” said Brett Evans, executive director of Atlas Wealth Management in Southport, Australia. “It all depends on how much of a lifestyle they are willing to trade away.”

In Paris, families likely need at least 75,000 euro ($97,943) to make a one-income life happen, according to Stuart Faires with financial advisors Spectrum IFA Group, adding that “this always depends on lifestyle and overheads as a family.”

In Shanghai, where having a stay-at-home parent is a status symbol, single-salary families usually have income of about RMB 467,600 to 935,200 ($76,273 to $152,546) and typically own at least two apartments worth RMB 2.3 million ($375,167), according to Peter Murphy, a financial consultant with Rock Private Office in Shanghai. “They can’t afford to be seen as cutting back, as this would be a massive loss of face,” he said.

How long you need to prepare: If you have time to prepare for a one-income life — instead of being thrown into it by circumstances — take as much time as you can to save money, ideally a year or more. You’ll need an emergency fund of six-to-12 months of living expenses, and it would be wise to pay off as much debt as you can before scaling back to one income.

Do it now: If you’re currently in a dual-paycheque household, try living on only one of your incomes to see if you can make ends meet. Use the other paycheque to pay off consumer debt and build an emergency fund.

“Take a good realistic look at this,” said Ted Toal, a financial planner in Annapolis, Maryland. “Are you mentally going to be able to force yourselves not to do the things you’re doing now? Some people aren’t going to be able to do it.”

Make a budget. “It’s amazing, when people sit down and track their spending, how much waste they find,” said Atlas Wealth Management’s Evans.

Whittle your spending down to necessities and priorities and attempt to live that way for at least six months. Can you trade your car in for a less expensive vehicle? Are you willing to downgrade your cable television package to something more basic? Are you living neatly on one income, while still saving for retirement? If not, you may have to alter your plan.

Do it later: If you are the one giving up a job, ask yourself whether you plan to return to work in the future. If so, preserve your work and social connections.

Keep your skills current. “Take courses, volunteer or freelance,” said Chad Creveling, a financial advisor with Creveling & Creveling Private Wealth Advisory in Bangkok, Thailand. Make sure that when you want to go back to work, you can.

Also, remember that since one spouse is at home, that’s one less person putting cash away for your retirement years.

“The one spouse who is working should definitely be maxing out retirement savings,” Toal said.

Do it less expensively: Unless it’s a top-notch salary, living on one paycheque involves a certain amount of frugality.

Here, some tips from around the world on making it work:

Bike or run to work. In metropolitan areas, you can save on transit costs — and health club dues — by getting to the office on your own power. “Many offices have showers and locker rooms,” said Nick Combes, director of Holder & Combes in London. “It’s also worth asking if it’s possible to work from home.” In cities like London, where a monthly Tube Travelcard costs at least £116.80 ($177), that can add up to significant savings.

Consider combining households. In some cultures, the answer to the one-income question is moving in with your parents or your children, said Zoltan Luttenberger, a financial planner in Budapest. Shared utility and food costs and decreased housing costs could make one-income living possible.

Be mindful of your location. Living in the centre of Paris will likely be more expensive than living on the outskirts. “A few kilometers in the right direction could save you cash and you could still be close to all the right amenities,” Faires said. “And don’t rent more [space] than you need.” Do you really need a spare room?

Find free entertainment. “There are many great museums, galleries and public events that are free to enjoy in the centre of London and the outer fringes,” Combes said. “Money may be tight, but it is still important to have fun.” The same kind of gratis options are available in and around many large cities.

Buy second hand. Outfit your home (and offspring) for less. Check local charity operated stores for second-hand clothes and baby furniture, and shop auction and second-hand websites (think eBay or Craigslist) or consignment shops for gently used items. Many cities also have a local Freecycle.org site, where members post items they’re giving away at no charge. “Things like clothes and toys are used for such a short period of time that buying second-hand is not only cheaper, but also more environmentally friendly,” Combes said.

Give up expensive electronics. When money is tight, you may not be able to buy the newest iPhone. “You... can easily renounce some gadgets and organise your life as you prefer,” said Giorgio Canella, a financial advisor in Tencarola, Italy. In other words, your laptop might be five years old and your phone three years old  —  but overall that is less important, because you’re doing what you want to do, and on only one income. It’s a bellissimo life.

Having one parent stay home is increasingly becoming a luxury.