'How My Family Makes It Work Living on One Income'

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Caucasian mother and son working at table
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By Molly Triffin

Groceries, car payments, the mortgage, clothes for the kids.

If you're like most families in America, that's just a fraction of what you need to take into consideration when mapping out your monthly budget.

And these days, unless you or your spouse is commanding a high salary, the idea of stretching one paycheck to cover an entire family can be daunting.

Still, some folks -- more than you may think -- are finding crafty ways to make it work. Here's just how many more: According to a Pew report, the ranks of stay-at-home moms are on the rise, with some 85 percent making the choice to care for their families. And being a stay-at-home dad is now almost twice as common as it was in the '80s.

To hear firsthand what it's like to make the leap to single-income status, we asked families across the U.S. to share their stories -- and their best money tips.

Courtesy: Sarah Prince
'We're a Family of Five Who Live on Less Than $50,000'

Who: Sarah Prince, 29, project manager for a genetics company, Salt Lake City.

"My husband, Trevin, and I met in college, and when we got married 10 years ago, I became the primary income earner while he pursued a career as an artist.

We now have three little boys, ranging from 3 years old to 7 weeks. But even before we welcomed our first child, we felt the best thing was to have a parent at home. Plus, if we opted for day care, it would eat up Trevin's earnings.

Sometimes one of his art shows would do well, and we'd have extra income. And sometimes he wouldn't sell anything.

So we both came to the decision that he'd care for the kids and do art on the side.

Our single salary secrets: I've changed jobs and gotten a few raises, so I now earn about $47,000. Although money has been tighter than we'd like, we've managed to stick to a budget and provide for our family.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-Our situation is pretty great. Trevin is incredibly close to all three of our boys -- most kids only see their father for an hour or two at night after work.%Feeding five can be a budget buster, so I buy our most expensive items -- like diapers -- at Costco. We have the executive membership, in which you get 2 percent back, and that always covers the $110 annual fee.

Our go-to supermarket sends me coupons based on our regular purchases, and I use DealsToMeals.com for alerts about which stores have the best prices that day.

When I cook I always make extra, saving the leftovers to take to work instead of buying lunch. And we only eat out for special occasions.

I also shop at thrift stores and use hand-me-downs -- I've never had to buy new clothes for my youngest son.

What I love about our life: I'm lucky to have a flexible work schedule, so I go in really early in the morning and come home at 3 P.M. That means I can still bring my kids to doctors' appointments and take care of things around the house.

Trevin and I also make sure to communicate openly about finances. Each month I put aside $100 for him (sometimes $200 if things are going great), so that we each have our own spending money.

In the future, I'd love to be able to work from home. I have a website, and I do affiliated marketing that brings in a few hundred extra bucks a month. Eventually, I hope it can become a viable source of income.

But, for now, our situation is pretty great. Trevin is incredibly close to all three of our boys -- most kids only see their father for an hour or two at night after work."

Courtesy: Daniel Ruyter
'We Pad Our Income With Side Gigs'

Who: Daniel Ruyter, 40, digital marketing manager, Orlando, Florida.

"My wife, Jen, left the workforce two years ago, when our sons were 3 and 11.

Although she has a degree in communications, she'd been working at a restaurant so that we could better juggle out schedules to avoid paying for child care.

But that proved stressful for both of us. She'd wake up early with the kids, and often wouldn't get home until 2 A.M. And I had to rush back from the office so that she could leave for work.

Something needed to change.

Either we'd put our youngest in day care, or we'd see if we could swing it with one income. In 2013 I got a pay increase -- and although it didn't offset the loss of Jen's income, we made the joint decision that she'd quit.

Our single salary secrets: There was definitely an initial learning curve. We hadn't trained ourselves to adjust to one income -- and our budget took a hit. So we sat down with our financial planner and discussed where to cut back.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-The dynamic in our relationship was awkward at first -- even though Jen staying home was a mutual decision, it felt a little 'Leave It to Beaver.'%One area was eating out. We were spending $200 to $400 a month on lunch, and another $200 on dinner. Now I pack my lunch, and we have a monthly $50 date night.

We also watch our frivolous spending. I was always an early adopter of gadgets, but I'm no longer the first or even second person to have the latest iPhone. I choose my purchases carefully, and think about the long-term.

For Christmas we realized we'd been shelling out upward of $1,000 on our kids -- some of which has gone unused. So this year we set a limit of $100 per child. We'll put the savings toward a family cruise.

We've also been able to save on home improvement costs, since Jen has tackled some projects during the day, like painting, landscaping and refinishing furniture.

And I've started doing consulting on the side, which has bumped my overall earnings to nearly $100,000.

I do design work or write content for a client after the kids are in bed, early in the morning, and on Saturdays. The income from 20-plus hours of weekly consulting goes toward savings and big-ticket items.

What I love about our life: The dynamic in our relationship was awkward at first -- even though Jen's staying home was a mutual decision, it felt a little 'Leave It to Beaver.'

Her role is to take care of the kids, have dinner ready and clean up afterward. My role is to provide income for the family. But, overall, we're happy with this setup.

Still, I want to work toward increased financial independence so that we can ramp up our savings and take more vacations. With that goal in mind, now that my youngest is in kindergarten, we're looking to build a home-based business for Jen helping people plan weddings on a budget.

Ideally, she'd be able to make money, while also being available to pick up our kids from school, help with homework and take them to playdates. That was my experience growing up, and we'd love for them to have that too."

'We Made a Cost-of-Living-Based Move'

Who: Sarah Gumina, 42, president of Sarah Gumina Public Relations, Conifer, Colorado.

Courtesy: Sarah Gumina
"When I got pregnant with my daughter in 2007, my husband, Joe, and I were living in Southern California.

I was climbing the ladder at a PR agency in the entertainment field, and he was working with special needs kids at a middle school.

We looked into child care options, but the cost was the same as Joe's salary. He always wanted to be a stay-at-home dad, so he jumped at the chance to do so.

Our single salary secrets: Bringing in the income for the whole household has been stressful. For example, if a client was upset, I'd get really nervous about the possibility that they'd jump ship. I never used to let that kind of thing get to me, but there was so much riding on my salary.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-I think it has been a great experience -- and sets an example for our kids that women can be breadwinners and dads can change diapers.%In 2011, when I was on maternity leave after my son's birth, a major client left the agency -- and we had layoffs. I lost my job a month after I returned to work. As a family, we were in a really tight financial position.

I started doing freelance work, but it took us two years to recover to the point where we felt stable. Even now, as the owner of my own PR company, my income fluctuates.

So we learned to be very frugal. Our vacations are never farther than a two-hour drive, and we stay in condos that friends let us borrow.

We also signed our kids up for a co-op day care, where parents take turns working once a week to keep costs down.

But the biggest budget game-changer was the fact that we moved to Colorado and bought my childhood house from my parents for less than $300,000. Our mortgage is half of what we spent renting in California, and the cost of living is generally cheaper.

What I love about our life: Despite our efforts, we're still living paycheck to paycheck, and don't have a huge amount in savings. This has occasionally led me to make difficult decisions, like taking on a lackluster client for the money.

Joe always planned to go back to work eventually, and now that our youngest is in kindergarten, he just started as a special ed paraprofessional at our kids' school. His income will go to savings and health insurance.

One of the biggest challenges was dealing with some of Joe's macho guy friends, who would make backhanded jokes about him being Mr. Mom. It didn't affect our relationship, but I got tired of defending him all the time.

Still, I think it has been a great experience -- and sets a terrific example for our kids that women can be breadwinners and dads can change diapers."
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