Family or Marriage Finances & Money Frugality

Dual Income? Live Like You Only Have One

For some of us, we NEED two (or more) incomes to survive. Living on one salary or wage isn’t an option, but regardless, I’ll say you need to live like you only have one income.

If you’re stuck deep in debt or you’re barely scraping by paycheck-to-paycheck, this may sound ridiculous, but hear me out.

In our marriage, I make more than double my wife’s income, enough to pay all of our bills and then some back when we were trying to get out of debt (remember, we paid off $200,000 in debt in about 6 years). While all our money goes into one account and we don’t assign each other responsibilities to pay specific bills, we did keep in mind who could and who couldn’t lose/quit their job if needed.

Discipline and Train Yourself

Our secret to paying down so much debt so quickly, other than starting a financial blog with a decent side-income (not planned when I started this site), was to pretend like we were only living on one salary. First, in case we had to live just on my wife’s salary, we built up our emergency fund. Then, assuming it was my salary we would live off, we made sure not to “grow our spending” to match our income increases. It would have been very easy to justify moving into a nicer house, buying a new car or going on a nice vacation, but we had a goal.

We had to discipline and train ourselves (me mostly) to spend within a budget and not splurge on needless luxuries. It sucked because we wanted the nice things in life, but we had to hunker down and stick to the task of getting out from under our pile of debt. It’s not always easy to have both partners working together on the same goal, but we were able to do it.

The Illusion of Rewarding Yourself

There are so many theories, methods and tricks proposed out there (and on this site too) on how to maintain a frugal lifestyle while still enjoying life, but for us what worked was not blowing our money because we “felt we needed a reward”. One of the reasons I got us into so much debt (much of it back in college) was because I felt I had the right to reward myself for various things I did or went through. For instance, maybe I worked really hard that week, so I would burn through a bunch of money on a night out with friends. Or maybe when I was studying for midterms or finals, I would treat myself out to lunch and/or dinner all week (it adds up!), or a new video game for after exams. Heck, I even rewarded myself for a tough semester of interviews for a post-college job with a brand new $20,000 car! And then I rewarded starting a new job with a brand new car…TWICE! In fact, I’m considering rewarding myself for finishing this article with a bottle of soda out of the vending machine 🙂

Back then I was definitely living well beyond my paycheck, or even 5 paychecks, so it was really tough to reign in my spending and focus on a singular goal. I had to stop this mental game of rewarding myself immediately and look to the long-term goals instead.

What about if you’re neck-deep in debt or expenses?

So getting back to the single-income/dual-income idea, what do you do if you’re barely getting by with your existing paychecks? Well, the idea still applies here to TRY to live like you only have one income, knowing that you’re in a slowly sinking boat. This idea is actually more beneficial to you than to someone like us with high income or low debt. Regardless of who “brings home the most bacon” (or tofu if you’re vegetarian), pick a paycheck and see how closely you can start spending within it. Start bailing the water out of your boat and try to get to dry land.

Start on paper just to see what your expenses are each month. Go through your checkbook, bank statements, and credit card statements to identify recurring bills and to identify categories such as groceries, dining out, entertainment, recreation and other categories outside of utilities and debt repayments. Try to go back at least 3 months so you can put together some spending trends. You’ll start to see where you can cut some fat out of your spending. See how close you can get down to spending just one paycheck as you can, and then earmark the other paycheck towards building up your savings and paying down debt (as well as charitable contributions and investing).

It’s a very worthwhile exercise to have in front of both of you, but you’ll have to both be honest in your spending, especially if you maintain separate bank accounts and credit cards. If someone is hiding some major spending problems or existing debt, this could be a nearly impossible task, so be sure to be up-front and honest, and be willing to accept criticism of your spending rather than attacking your partners in retaliation. I don’t want to hear “If I can’t spend on THIS, then you aren’t allowed spending on THAT!” because what matters in the end is bringing down spending, period. If one side isn’t willing to stop spending on what you consider a “luxury”, then you need some additional counseling because something is probably brewing and could cause major relationship problems eventually.

The True Reward

In the end, if you live like you only have one paycheck between the two of you, the true reward will be less risk in your lives in case someone really does lose their job, or needs to quit to take care of a child or aging family member. Sit back, close your eyes and picture your life with the feeling of security of knowing you could handle such an event. It isn’t tough at first, or maybe even for a few years like in our situation, but it works. Use the power of two paychecks to your advantage rather than living week-to-week. Get your spending under control so it doesn’t control you.

Believe me, not having the burden of overwhelming debt or risk of job loss is amazing!

About the author

Clever Dude


  • Awesome strategy! Although my wife and I are still living on one salary (mine), when she begins earning again, we plan on continuing this trend, using her income to build up our savings!

  • Agree, you have to be humble in your expense, but in nowadays there is no way around it.

    It is so easy to get the things out of control and grow fat. But I can not mention two things:
    – While it is awesome to pay back 200 K in 6 years, you have to earn it in the first place.
    – It is a trade between living good while you young, enjoying the world and leave worriers free all your life.

    What would you say?

  • @FI, we were fortunate enough (tempted to say lucky, but I know some of it was our doing) to get good jobs after college, have a good support system with positive attitudes and to make the right moves at the right times in our industries to continue to earn both money and new marketable skills.

    We also don’t have kids. If we had kids, we probably would still be in debt because we would be tempted to buy, buy, buy for them. We’ve been able to stay a team on this mission (with a few internal battles admittedly), but we got through it. We’re now just starting to have more fun with travels and vacations, but we’re being careful not to go into more debt to do it.

  • I completely agree with your advice. Although my S.O. and I keep separate finances, our expenses are definitely low enough to be covered by just one of our incomes. We definitely do still “reward” ourselves by buying things but it’s at the scale of less than $5 per week so it’s a hard habit to justify kicking based on how happy it makes us.

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