Could You Live on Half Your Income? You May be Surprised

 The following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Kelly Gurnett. Kelly runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

I always used to read those posts by crazy PF bloggers about how they lived on one spouse’s income while paying down debt, or how stay-at-home moms made their husband’s single salary feed a family of seven. And I always admired them, in a “we could never do that” way.

Until we had to do it.


Cutting Our Budget in Half in One Week

In April of this year, my husband stopped working due to his Fibromyalgia. (We’re currently in the process of applying for disability benefits, but that could take anywhere from 2-3 years to go through.) He didn’t realize how quickly he would hit his wall and not be able to work anymore, so for us, it was pretty much dual income one day, single income the next.

The normal reaction in a situation like this is to panic—which I did, quite thoroughly. But after a while, I begin to realize that this was our reality now, and it was either sink or swim. We’d find a way to make it work because, well, what was the alternative?

So, over the course of one surreal week, we sat down with our budget and began to triage—a bit here, a bit there. I’m a freelance writer, and we got our health insurance through my husband’s employer, so his job loss meant we’d be relying solely on my unsteady income stream and paying out-of-pocket for the insurance we previously hadn’t figured into the budget at all.

That week of budget-slashing—and the lifestyle we’ve been living as a result of it—was an eye opener. If you think you know what your minimum requirements are budget-wise, imagine what you’d pitch if you had to slash your budget in half. Then live that way for a while. You’ll never look at money the same way again.


How We Nixed Half our Stuff

Of course, the first things to go were all the little luxuries we’d come to take for granted. We weren’t living the high life by any means, but we’d definitely given into lifestyle inflation over the years. So away went my husband’s Sirius radio subscription, our weekly date nights, my salon haircuts (I trim my own hair now—yes, even my bangs!).

Then it was time for the stuff that seemed a little less luxurious. Here are some of the biggies:

We sold my car. Even though it had been paid off for a while, there was no sense keeping it when I work from home and my husband wasn’t working at all anymore. So we sold it and used the money to pay off my credit card debt and my husband’s remaining car payments. No more car payments, zero credit card payments—and no more second-car expenses like extra gas, insurance, repairs, etc.

We took a machete to our grocery budget. We’re not quite as disciplined as the school teachers who embarked on a mission to eat for $1 a day, but we did thoroughly slash our usual food budget. No more frozen convenience lunches for me; it’s fresh salads with a week’s worth of veggies that cost cents per serving (better for my health, anyway). No more steak dinners from the local butcher—it’s diner staples like grilled cheese and hot dogs. And no more massive monthly grocery trips where we always wound up buying way more than was on our list because goodies just looked too good on the shelves.

Now, we shop a lot more like Europeans—every few days, my husband runs up to the corner grocery store to get whatever we need to hold us over for the next couple days. We’ll stock up on sales on as they come and buy some items from a wholesale club because they’re fantastic deals (and our membership hasn’t run out yet). But it’s a lot easier to stick to the bare necessities when you’re just making a quick run for the immediate future.

I started to become my parents. My father used to drive me crazy by turning off my bedroom light every time I went to the kitchen for a drink of water. I’d be gone for two minutes and come back to find my room dark. Well, I have now become that person.

Any room we won’t be in for more than a couple minutes means the TV and lights get turned off. Laptop inactive for a bit? Off it goes. Over the summer, I ran my fan until I literally could not stand it anymore and had to give into the A/C. Laundry is run only when I have a full (plus) load, on the coldest water setting with the minimum amount of detergent needed. I use toothpaste tubes and shampoo bottles and bars of soap until they physically cannot be used up any further.

Yes, they’re all little things, but the little things do add up—and, more importantly, by getting into this new thrifty-as-can-be mentality, it’s easier for me to let go of the bigger things we used to enjoy because I’m fully aware of how much our situation has changed. So much of living above your means (or from paycheck to paycheck) stems from simply not having an urgent reason not to. When we could afford massages and weekly trips to Target, we did them, even though we could have been putting that money towards an emergency fund that would have seriously helped us out right about now. When you’re constricted by the sudden loss of an income, you begin to realize just how little you really “need” (more on that in a moment).

We’ve gone bare bones on entertainment. We do allow ourselves tiny indulges, largely because I work 50-60 hour weeks and my husband gets stir crazy, so it helps us keep our sanity. We go to the movies occasionally at the local $2 cheap theater, and we sneak in bottled drinks and snacks to avoid concessions. We signed up for Redbox promo code text alerts and regularly get free movie rentals. Our “meals out” don’t go above the price of a buy-one-get-one Subway deal or a Burger King value menu spree. But let me tell you, those $2 movies and value menu meals are fantastic! I never thought I would be so grateful for a fast food cheeseburger, but your perspective changes in situations like this.


The Surprising Thing I Learned

In addition to being amazed that we managed to cut our budget in half in a week, I’ve also been amazed by what that means: We didn’t need nearly as much stuff as we thought we did.

There are still plenty of times when I’d love, at the end of a long week, to have one of our old date nights out, complete with cocktails, dinner, and a movie in a theater with seats that recline. But for the most part? I really don’t notice a huge difference in our day-to-day lifestyle.

Yes, the threat of sudden big expenses like one of our dogs getting sick could put us into a tailspin now, and that’s never far from my mind. But in terms of how much we enjoy our life together on a daily basis, nothing has shifted all that much. If anything, we enjoy things more now because we don’t take them for granted the way we did before.

Would I be thrilled to have our second income back? Absolutely. But do I feel like we’re deprived without it? Amazingly, no. I wish me of several years ago could have learned that lesson.

How about you all? Could you live on half your income? What would you slash?

Share your experiences by commenting below!



  1. We’ve been living from my freelancing income for the past 3 years (and even traveled 6 months/year), so we do live off one income. Now my husbands side of the business seems to pick off speed some more, but it’s still half of what I usually make. We could go on 50% of my income, if needed, even if it wouldn’t be pretty. Or even 33%. We do try to save money and not spend too much, so that, when he’s starting making more money, we don’t squander the money.
    dojo recently posted…Athens: A City Fast Forwarded to ModernityMy Profile

    • Good for you! I do know that if things start picking back up again for us (my husband is awarded SSDI, my biz picks up), I’ll be very careful to put that extra money into savings instead of falling prey to lifestyle inflation. The importance of savings is clearer to me now than ever!
      Cordelia recently posted…How to Deal When Everything’s Not OKMy Profile

  2. Love this post! We currently live on less than half of our combined incomes. However, soon I will be leaving my job for full-time self-employment. We are looking at additional ways to cut our budget.
    Michelle recently posted…Self-Employment and $5,382 in Extra IncomeMy Profile

  3. We could live off of one income but we wouldn’t be cutting our budget in half, we’d just be massively reducing the amount of money we pay toward Tori’s student loan debt. Once we’re out of debt, we’ll probably save more for retirement rather than spend a lot more 🙂
    Lance @ Money Life and More recently posted…WARNING! Returning To Work From Disability Can Be Difficult!My Profile

  4. This is great! I’m a believer that we tend to overestimate how much we really need to survive.
    Lisa E. @ Lisa Vs. The Loans recently posted…Links Lisa Likes – 9/22/13My Profile

  5. Your honesty is touching, wish your family all the best.
    Living on one income wouldn’t be easy for us but I suppose as your story demonstrates, we’d also do anything to ensure we stayed within and even below that income. When one reflects on life they come to the realization that they could do without a lot of stuff and I guess thats where we’d be aiming to reduce on.
    Simon @ Modest Money recently posted…Lending Club Review – Peer to Peer Lending Platform ReviewMy Profile

    • Thanks, Simon. If you’d asked me a year ago if we could live on one income, I would have said positively no. But like you say, when you find yourself in a tough situation, you find ways to make it work. And I think it changes your perspective towards what you really “need” for all days to come–should our income get higher in the future, I can see myself keeping our budget fairly similar and just tucking the rest away into savings.
      Cordelia recently posted…How to Deal When Everything’s Not OKMy Profile

  6. This is really an inspiring post. It is times like that where you learn the things that are really important in life.
    Michael | The Student Loan Sherpa recently posted…The Real Value of a College Degree: Is it Worth the Money?My Profile

  7. I started living on half my income this year to save paying off my mortgage faster. I basically cut out everything that I don’t need, with the exception of a few wants, and then started putting all the extra money on my mortgage! This is a great post, thanks for sharing in such detail.
    MonicaOnMoney recently posted…Do You Make These 9 Budgeting Mistakes?My Profile

    • I’m always happy to hear from other people who’ve managed to do this. It is possible! It’s a lesson for those currently living with more than they need, and also hopefully a comfort to those who are struggling and wondering how they can manage. It’s not easy, but it can be done!

      Good for you for putting so much away towards your mortgage. That’s one huge debt so many people expect to live with for most of their lives. Taking such a proactive approach to paying it down is really impressive.
      Cordelia recently posted…How to Deal When Everything’s Not OKMy Profile

  8. I don’t think I could live on half my budget but I sure wish I knew of some $2 movie places near my neighborhood.

  9. Our cheap theater is amazing! Plus the movies there usually only have a handful of people in the audience, so there’s less distractions than in a full theater. 🙂
    Cordelia recently posted…How to Deal When Everything’s Not OKMy Profile

  10. Living Life Happier says:

    It’s frustrating that disability payments are so small, and since I don’t have a partner to help with an income, I had to make a lot of cuts too. Like you said, I was surprised by how little I missed. Given the chance there are a few things I would like to add back into my budget, but very few. I think another $30 a month would take care of it. I think everyone should try living on a lot less because like you said, it gives a great perspective on what’s really important.
    Living Life Happier recently posted…You always have choices, even if they aren’t good onesMy Profile

    • So glad to hear you’ve managed to make it work on a single income. Disability benefits really are (in so many ways, from the application process to the payouts) in need of a serious overhaul. The fact that you’d only need $30 more a month (and that, for things you’d like but don’t necessarily need) is a fantastic testament to how little we really do need to live a happy life.

      The less you focus on “stuff,” the more you focus on people, experiences, etc. Sometimes it takes a real wake-up call to realize that, but it’s so true.
      Cordelia recently posted…How to Deal When Everything’s Not OKMy Profile

  11. Sorry to hear about your husband having to leave work. I think if this ever happened to me the grocery budget would be one of the first places we look. We spend WAY too much there every week. It’s unfortunate that this happened, but at least you were able to realize that living at this level is truly possible.
    MMD recently posted…The Average Retirement Savings in America Are Not Nearly EnoughMy Profile

  12. That’s amazing! I’m currently living on about 25% of my income and saving the rest. It feels amazing to see the balances in savings increase each month!

    But grilled cheese and hot dogs! You can do better than that. I posted a grocery budget for less than $4.50/day inspired by the SNAP challenge. Here is the link
    Niki recently posted…I Pay How Much in Taxes?!My Profile

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