Yes, you read that correctly: my family of four lived off of one income of $17,000 a year. That was it. No “side hustles,” no other sources of income at all. It wasn’t easy, but it taught us how important it is to save money and make every penny count.
We not only survived on $17,000, we were able to save money, too.
While we were making that much, we managed to build a savings account, buy 2 cars, and put a down payment on our house.
It wasn’t easy, but we did it. And that time that we struggled has shaped us now in so many ways. It’s now second nature for us to question every purchase, shop second hand, buy our groceries at a discount grocer (while still buying organic, non-processed foods), and save money whenever we have the chance.
Here’s more of how we were able to make it work from one very low income.
Change your habits
If you’re trying to save money, start by looking at your daily routine. What expenses can you cut out from your budget? Do you swing by Starbucks for your vanilla latte every morning? Do you get expensive microbrews to have with dinner every night? Do you go out for lunch every day at work? I’m going to go there (because I went there with my husband, too): do you smoke or indulge in any equally bad and expensive habit?
Nothing forces you to realize how expensive these habits can be like having to budget out the expense each week or month. My husband used to smoke (and he’s quit since then), but it was really eye opening when he realized that he needed more than $30 a week on his habit.
That was money that could have been spent in other places or even gotten saved, but it was going to fund his addiction. But for us, it wasn’t JUST the actual money on cigarettes. It was the additional bills from his health insurance (which more than doubled because he was a smoker) and his life insurance (which quadrupled). So at the end of the month, we were looking at not just $100 for cigarettes, but also $200 for health insurance for just him, and $75 in life insurance.
(I’m not trying to lecture here, I swear! This is a big picture thing that really changed our thinking once we realized that it wasn’t JUST the cigarettes that are costing us big time.)
Make your own snacks
My husband and sons would snack all day, every day if I let them. But buying pre-packaged snacks (even single-serve pretzels) really adds up quickly, and you wind up spending a lot on packaging instead of the actual food.
Instead, we went to our bulk food store and bought bulk pretzels for $.20 a pound. We even found an alternative to Cheese-Its and Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies called (wait for it) Cheddar Quackums. Instead of paying $4 for a box of the Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies, we got these for $.40 per pound. Not bad, right?
Plan ahead for road trips
We live between an hour and a half to 3 hours away from both of our families, so road trips are a multiple-times-a-month occurrence for us. Road trips killed us while we were trying to save money. But planning ahead and making out own food and drinks helped us A LOT.
We’re big coffee drinkers, so halfway through any road trip, we would be hankering for some of those sinfully delicious Starbucks Frappuccinos at the gas station. Those things are more than $2.50 EACH. For 4 of them, that’s $10 that we could spend somewhere more important… like gas! So we started making our own coffee just like Starbucks to bring in the car. We each made gigantic thermoses of iced coffee just the way we liked it so we never had to make a pit stop.
If you are like me (read: like my husband), you walk into the grocery store and no matter what you had for breakfast, you’re suddenly hungry for everything. Which leads to impulse buys, which are unnecessary. When you’re living on one very low income, planning for everything is so crucial. I learned (not early enough) that I need to bring snacks with me wherever I go. Not just for my kids, but for my husband. I always had a baggie of peanuts or almonds in my diaper bag just for adult hunger issues.
Look to cut corners on bills.
Do you really need that smartphone? We both got rid of ours for a while because the data plans each month more than doubled our phone bills. When we finally got smartphones, we both got “hand-me-downs” from family who had upgraded (see part 2 about that). Our phones work perfectly fine! Are they the newest things? Nope. They’re a generation old. But they worked for us.
Do you really need cable? We didn’t. Especially not for $130 a month! We got rid of cable once we realized that we didn’t actually need it and that we could still watch plenty of shows from Netflix and Hulu.
Check your thermostat. In the winter, keep the heat on 68 (or lower, if you’re brave) and in the summer keep it no cooler than 72. Both of these temperatures are the tried-and-true most efficient for your electric and gas bills when you’re trying to save money.
Accept that this is where you are.
This was the biggest factor for us. We had to stop trying to live above our means and just accept that we didn’t have the money to spend like other people did. By accepting this, we were finally able to stop working against ourselves and reach our goal.
If you’re constantly looking for the next, bigger, better thing, life is going to be hard. The sooner that you accept this as your life, the better. Once you’re content right where you are, you can actually start to enjoy this life that you live.
It is possible to survive and thrive off of a low income. Above all else, the most important factor is to plan. Every penny needs to have a plan. The more planful you are with your money, it won’t matter how much or how little you make.
Looking for more information on how we made it work off of $17,000? Check for Part 1 and Part 2 here.