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How We Live On One Small Income With 3 Kids

For those of you who are new here, I’m a mom of 3 under 5 and my husband is a resident doctor.   We’ve been living on one income even before kids, and anything extra that I made part time went into savings. Having a baby was less financially shocking since I didn’t have to leave a $50K/year job. Because, let me tell you, waitresses don’t make that much!

If you are hoping to become a stay at home mom but nervous about finances, read this to see how we make it work. No two situations are the same, but I hope this inspires you that living on one income is possible, usually. I hope you see that money can buy you choices, but it can’t make you happy.

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Our monthly budget for a family of 5

For clarity, the $3,000 we budget is what gets dropped into our account after money for taxes is withheld and a small portion saved for retirement. It is also after his work auto deducts our health and dental insurance costs. So those things are not found in our budget because they come out of his paycheck first.

Also, we are not receiving public assistance such as WIC.

But aren’t doctor’s wives raking in cash?

Now before you go on thinking “O the glamorous life of a doctor’s wife,”  I’ll let you in on a little secret. Doctors don’t get a big paycheck till like 15 years after high school.

Not to mention if they have kids and a stay at home wife to provide for. They go through 4 years of college, 4 years of med school, and then 3-7 years of residency making less than a 1st-year nurse.

And then… time to pay off all those med school loans (average is around $200,000 before interest, which often brings it up to $300,000 or more). Basically it makes it so you CAN’T leave medicine.

I am thankful my husband’s salary is enough for us to live on. I’ll show you below how we make it work!

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My secret to living on one income with 5 people: Spend less

I know we sacrifice luxuries without a second income, but it’s worth it to me. If you are trying to figure out how to live on one income, I think you can! You will need to:

  • Make a list of all your bills that are the same each month (think internet, rent…)
  • Make a list of all your bills that can change (groceries, etc)
  • Cut out a lot of optional bills. Think subscriptions, eating out, meal delivery, expensive birthday gifts, some travel, the list could go on.
  • Buy used or new on clearance
  • Start an emergency fund for the unexpected
  • Stop shopping like you do now
  • Possibly downsize your home (hopefully not)
  • Maybe even make some side money from home

1. Learn to be content with what you have

This is at the top for a reason.  Peter and I want to live a life where we are content with what we have (at any income) and thankful for it.  The quickest way to be discontent for me is to wish I could have things other people have that I can’t afford.  It’s called coveting and I’m guilty of it.

It’s so easy for me to think “Well if I had more money, I’d feel cute in new clothes too.” Or “If we could rent a house with a yard instead of an apartment my life could be so much better.” We have so much material blessing and food to eat and our kids are happy!

When I start to wish I could spend more money or buy all this stuff I have to really first examine my heart and the culture I’m buying into.

2. Track your income and expenses

You will hear this from any person who is smart with their money.  They know where it goes.

This has honestly been the hardest for us and the main reason for going over has been poor tracking. The Mint app just wasn’t my favorite to work with and I wanted something super basic.  We finally just started an excel spreadsheet and it’s helpful and honest!

  • First column A is for EVERY expense.
  • Then column B is where I note what the expense was for.
  • Column C I put the amount that gets dropped into our account once a month from Peter’s paycheck.
  • I learned how to format the cells to add up our expenses in Column A and to subtract it from his paycheck in column C. This reveals how much under or over budget we are.  Good ol’ fashioned “balancing the checkbook” except digital version.

Every so often (about once a week), I log onto our credit card account and add all the new transactions to my spreadsheet.  Then I go to our bank login and do the same since some of our bills like rent and water and power come out of there.

One family one income with 5 people
Creating a budget and knowing how much you can spend after bills is critical for a stay at home mom living paycheck to paycheck.

3. Choose housing you can afford

It would be hard for us to live in certain places on $3,000 a month without going down to a studio apartment for all 5 of us or moving into a less than desirable neighborhood.  

We did not apply for residencies in cities like New York City or San Fransisco, and I would love to know how families do it on our income there. With $3,000 a month to budget for bills, we would have to downgrade a lot!

When my husband interviewed in the Silicone Valley we were told many residents with families shared houses just to make rent. Not. My. Style.

Knowing our budget means sacrificing space or being willing to find housing in a place we can afford. It means making sure one paycheck can cover rent/ mortgage, not two paychecks.

I know many suggest buying over renting because the monthly mortgage payment is lower than rent and it is going towards owning something.  However, we have chosen to rent a house during residency.

Here’s a great article from The White Coat Investor on why he recommends renting during residency.

4. Save money by staying home a lot

Thankfully we like to be home and find it relaxing! But it really saves money. On the weekends we do free stuff like hanging out with friends or go to the zoo, which is not a monthly expense since we bought a yearly pass.

We don’t do many weekend trips either as it’s spending money we don’t have in our budget, and that is stressful. Gas alone can add up to an extra $$50-$100 for a trip plus food, so it definitely saves money to stay local. I’m hoping to add more outdoor activities that are free like hiking as well. But ya know…3 kids and sometimes I just get lazy.

5. We don’t do big dates & gifts

a couple holding hands as they hold coffee mugs at a restaurant
I really do miss going out to coffee alone with my husband, or going out for dates regularly. However, a babysitter alone costs $50 for 3 kids plus dinner, so we are learning to enjoy each other at home after the kids are in bed. Often times that means putting away our phones.

Thankfully, Peter knows I love him in smaller ways.

It’s our goal to go on a date once a month with no kids, but honestly, it’s WAY less than that. More like, whenever my parents fly to see us, haha. Instead, he’ll pick up some ice cream and we will watch a favorite show on Amazon Prime which is free to anyone who is a Prime member ($120/year).  Get a 30 day free trial for Amazon Prime here.

It’s also a treat to just sit down and play cribbage or cards and have some tea, uninterrupted by kids at night!

We understand it’s less stressful to overspend on a big gift for special occasions like Christmas, birthdays, Valentines Day, Anniversary.  Things like notes, a box of our favorite candy, one rose instead of a dozen, and ordering pizza are enough to make it special. That saves hundreds to be honest!

6. Save money by not eating out

Duh. The easiest way to save money, especially with kids.  We do still eat out a few times a month.  The big difference is we are not grabbing 2 Thai Food dishes for a total of $30-$40, we are grabbing a pizza for $10. I love having a break from cooking, so we do still get take out about 3-4 times a month.

When that doctor paycheck comes in someday, I’m looking forward to upgrading restaurants 😉 But for now, pizza is a great budget treat and allows us to go a few times per month instead of just one.

Update November 2018: We found ourselves overspending month after month, and eating out was the first thing that had to go. Check out how we did a very successful no spend month (just buying gas, groceries, and bills) and ended up with about $300 extra to save!

7. Grocery shop once a week and no more

I would say our grocery bill for 2 adults and 3 small kids is around $600-$700. That also includes things like toilet paper.

Sometimes it feels like all the money goes to rent and food! I don’t do meal planning like I should but I’m sure that would save me money.  We really like hosting dinners about once a month with friends, which increases the cost of food by $20-$50/month.

But the thing that really helps us stay in budget is doing one grocery trip per week. I shop at Aldi’s, the least expensive grocery store in the nation practically, so that saves $100-$200/month.

And, we use a grocery receipt app called Ibotta that gives us cash for things we are already buying. I just scan my receipts.  Get $10 just for signing up!

a close up of the banana isle at the store full of yellow bananas

Typical food we buy for a family of 5

Fresh fruits and veggies: $50/week.

Dairy: $30/week (milk, cream, eggs, cheese, cottage cheese)

Dry oats, cereal and milk, or eggs (daily breakfast). Eggs (2 dozen/week).

Peter’s lunch for work: He gets a salad and chicken breast almost every day. His request! I literally put a frozen chicken breast in our Instant Pot pressure cooker with some seasonings and press the poultry button…and it’s done in 15 minutes!

Snacks for kids: fruits and veggies, cottage cheese, crackers, rice reheated from dinner, smoothies, cereal, peanut butter on anything, cookies we make, and hard-boiled eggs.

Related Post: Check out 10 healthy snack foods for kids here.

Dinners: A lot of chicken with vegetables made tons of different ways. Soups, Asian food with rice (check out my easy Thai Curry recipe), chicken rice and beans, ok, we do chicken rice and beans in a lot of ways a lot of times per week, haha. Just realized that while writing!

Groceries I try not to buy to save money:

  • Pre-made food.  This is hard because I LOVE eating it and it’s easy.  Give me all the things in those Costco freezers lol!  When our budget increases our food budget will be the first thing to go up for me haha.
  • Fish and shrimp.  Ok, this is hard for me.  I grew up eating fresh fish and shellfish! But it’s the quickest way to spend triple what I normally would for dinner. There are so many health benefits to eating fish though that we are going to try incorporating this into our diet more. Update November 2018: We now eat wild salmon once a week. It’s so healthy, brings our stomachs so much joy, and I justified it since we decided to completely cut out our eating out budget.
  • Expensive cheeses and meats.
  • Alcohol.
  • Drinks.

Milk is our only beverage. In the summer we buy Crystal Light lemonade to add to water.

8. We use a credit card responsibly to earn cash back

In an effort to build credit and also score on bonuses, we use a credit card for anything that we can that we would normally be buying.  I know a cash-only budget would save us more money, but I just love the convenience and perks of a credit card.  

We don’t buy anything we don’t already have the money for, and we have never paid a cent in credit card interest because we pay it off on auto-pay each month.

Purchases that go on the credit card

  • Groceries
  • Gas
  • Plane tickets
  • Some bills
  • Amazon Prime
  • All other online purchases.

9. Skip the warranties

I figure if we skip the warranties on all things then if and when that one thing breaks we have the money in our account from all those warranties we didn’t buy over the years 🙂

Also, check your credit cards because a lot of them have a one-year purchase protection if the product breaks (if bought with the card).

10. We drive one car (and it’s older)

Now, this is pushing crazy with three kids, but it saves a ton of money. Our 1998 car is paid off and fits us all (barely). As much as I really do want another car,  having just one car saves us insurance, gas, tabs, and upkeep.

We will be adding a family van(used) this year from our savings so that we can purchase it in cash.  This is why putting a little away each month when possible is SO good!  Because when it comes time to buy the car we will not have to add a monthly payment for the car itself or go into debt.  That is a huge relief when living on a small income.

However other costs will go up for two cars like insurance, maintenance, and gas so we will need to decrease our budget somewhere else.

Update November 2018: We purchased a minivan in cash 6 months ago and it has been life giving to me as a stay at home mom. I now have a social life, take the kids to the library, can drive to bible study, spend time with my hubby on the weekends instead of grocery shopping…but…insurance and gas went WAY up, which means our eating out and random spending has gone WAY down, haha.

11. We YouTube car maintenance when needed

This is 100% my awesome husband.  He keeps the oil and fluids going and tires rotated when needed.  He goes to YouTube when things stop working and fixes them for the price of parts.  I am clueless with cars and I know that the reason our car hasn’t already died is that he has kept it as tuned up as possible.

If you can learn how to fix a car issue, or just have a car with no issues lol, it will save you thousands of dollars! We were literally headed out of our driveway to a family reunion with the kids a couple years back when our car started smoking.  It was a $400 fix to take it in, but he bought the part for $50 and we were off 3 hours later.  Thank you, YouTube!

12. Learn basic plumbing skills

If I could tell you how much money we have saved by not calling the plumber…it’s hundreds! Between losing tons of hair down the drain after each baby has been born (ya that actually happens if you didn’t know!) to kids dropping things down the sink and toilet for fun…ug.

Gross but someone’s gotta do it. I highly recommend you get a snake for unclogging drains and YouTube how to use it.

13. We use older cell phones

We have older iPhones, usually 2-3 versions behind the newest.  These are easy to find on Craigslist or buy from friends and family.  

While it does take cash upfront, it’s usually half the total amount of a new phone. We have also accepted free phones that have defects or are just old…because it still calls and texts, which is baseline what we need them for.

Update: I did just buy a new iPhone (not the newest model) which was kind of like a sock in the face to our goal of spending less.  However, we decided I could use some of the money I’ve earned from blogging as a down payment which decreased the monthly payment a lot.

Considering this is the one tool that I use to take and edit all the photos for my blog and business so I justified it a bit…we all do that with something right?!

My poor iPhone 5 had been dropped in the toilet twice, submerged in a can of paint once, and had a completely shattered screen for the past 6 months… how it was still working I do not know!

14. We do preschool at home

As much as I’d love a little break, sending two kids to preschool two mornings a week is around $400/month.  Just not a possibility on a small budget.  Instead, I’ve started a super easy preschool routine at home.  Mostly for my 4-year-old and a tad for my 2-year-old.

15. We buy clothes used or new on a super sale

I get our kid’s clothes mostly used from Ebay, ThredUP, thrift stores, and sometimes new.  We find really great steals when we shop Holiday sales. For Peter,  JCPennys has one of the best big and tall sections so we get super steals for Peter’s work clothes.

We often will use a $10 off $10 or more coupon, combined with a 15% cashback through Ebates. One year I bought Peter 10 new sweaters from JCPennys for $75 using the clearance sale, an online coupon, and Ebates!

I almost never buy clothes and my husband has literally asked me to go get some nicer things, haha.  The reason why I like ThredUP (for myself, but also for kids) is that it’s like shopping at an online thrift store but I can search sizes and brands that I know fit.   Sign up to get $10 after you place your first order.

Read my unsponsored ThredUp review here: How to buy used clothes online for cheap.

16. We use money saving sites


This really helps with things we already want to buy, especially local!  One thing I knew would be 100% worth the money was a zoo pass since we live 10 minutes away.  Before buying, we just googled it and found that Groupon had a 50% off offer, saving us $150! It’s also perfect for date night because we can count on getting our food for half price if it’s on Groupon. If you don’t have an account yet sign up here.

Rakuten cashback

A little gem that’s gotten popular with online shoppers is the cashback site Ebates. You can see details of how it works in my saving with Rakuten post. Whenever I’m shopping online, I get a percent cash back, anywhere from 1-15% at over 2,000 shops online.

Rakuten sends me a payment via PayPal quarterly, so it’s just a perk on top of what I’m already buying.  I get cash back on diapers, clothes, gifts, photo prints. So far I’ve earned almost $400 over the last few years on things I was already purchasing.

Use Vipon before buying on Amazon

This saves us quite a bit on random stuff each year. Vipon is a must! Everything is 50% off or better.  We find so much stuff for our household on there from lightbulbs to bed sheets to winter gloves!  

Basically, sites like these started out giving discounted items in exchange for reviews on Amazon or a social media shout out… but since Amazon doesn’t allow that as of last year reviews are 100% optional now. A few similar but less awesome ones are Snagshout and Jump Send.

Amazon Prime

I know this isn’t a “money saving site” but since we have been Prime members for about 10 years now we have saved tons on the free two day shipping (which pairs perfectly with Vipon’s discounted products).

We also get Free Prime video that I use to watch kid shows like Mr. Rodgers, Tumble Leaf, and Zaboomafoo! So we rarely pay for Netflix and never ever cable. Try Prime free for 30 days here!


This app is AWESOME! I’m sure you have heard of it.  I scan grocery receipts of stores they support (most major grocery stores) and get money back for items I’m already buying.  I was so excited to get my first $20 back via PayPal!  Get $10 by signing up and scanning your first receipt.

Decide it’s ok to give smaller gifts

For years Christmas time has really stressed me out because of how expensive gifts are when we are buying for so many people.  And more so, because I hadn’t saved money just for that.

When people would give us a $50 gift or $100 gift in my family I would feel so bad that I couldn’t reciprocate.  Here is how we have managed to do Christmas on a budget and enjoy it more by spending less.

Why you need to start a side hustle when you live on one income

Side hustles give you the cushion you want to treat yourself now and then, or buy a few things for the kids. My side hustles are:

  1. I have a small Mary Kay business that provides a little extra spending money.  Plus it pays for all of my skin care and makeup.  Not having to buy those things from our budget saves hundreds a year!
  2. Website usability testing for companies like Target, Nordstrom, AT&T.  Basically, companies pay to complete a task on their site and tell them how they could improve the user experience! This takes about 15 minutes and pays $10 via PayPal exactly 7 days after I complete a “job”.  See my full post on how easy website usability testing is here.
  3. I’ve sold a ton on Craigslist. Attempting to get rid of clutter, inspired by Marie Kondo’s book, I wanted to sell a lot of what we had.  At one point I was making an extra $100 a month minimum by getting rid of things! See how I sold a ton on Craiglist in this post.
  4. Blogging. In my first year blogging I have learned how to work with brands for free product and paid posts. This has saved us so much money! Especially on things we were already going to purchase.

Living  on one income is possible!

If you made it this far you deserve some ice cream or something! If you really desire to live on one income or are forced to you can!  There are always places you can cut your budget or lifestyle changes to make.

It’s just some are more painful to change like where you live or the size of your home. What are some ways you save money? Leave me a comment and I’d love to hear more!

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Emily Axtell

Friday 24th of December 2021

It is a big deal to prepare yourself to become a stay-at-home mom and it too me a lot of time and energy! I really enjoyed reading about your personal experiences and how you have made financial adjustments for your family to make your home functional. You could really tell that you've honed it down to what works well for you! I still have so many of your points that I could grow in lol. But one thing that has worked well for me was to switch all of the bills that I was currently paying to my husband. I paid a couple little things like the utility bill and my student loans with the little income I made at the daycare I had been working for. Then, when all our bills were being paid by my husband, it helped us to know what it would look like for us to financially rely only on him. It wasn't a pleasant adjustment for me in the beginning because I wanted to feel like I was contributing financially, but I started focusing on learning how to make more meals and I searched the web like crazy to learn more awesome mom-skills that I just didn't have! It is a true art to be a mom.


Monday 27th of December 2021

What a neat way that you kind of tested it out that way! And yes, it's crazy how much time it takes to learn those other skills that can help out. The hardest part sometimes is that you can't always "measure" how helpful homemaking skills are like you can measure money. but they are a HUGE help to the family and budget!


Saturday 4th of August 2018

Also a fellow residents wife here! Expecting our first baby at the end of the year, and since we just moved cross country and I'm not working, I've also taken up blogging (you have some of the most helpful tips, for real!) and all of these suggestions are fantastic!


Monday 6th of August 2018

Lauren, how cool your husband is in residency too and you have a baby on the way! Since a resident salary (with a stay at home wife and baby) is not that much, blogging will be a fantastic way to help out with finances. I hope you will find the financial payoff of all your hard work with blogging, just don't give up! We live on just my husband's salary with 3 kids, and this year since my blogging income has increased we put that into savings/emergency fund.


Sunday 4th of February 2018

These are EXCELLENT ideas. We are a two income family but I could def use the tips.


Sunday 4th of February 2018

Thank you! Yes the great part is that even two-income families can save more money by using some money saving tips. Glad you liked it.

Stephanie | Une Cherette

Saturday 3rd of February 2018

Great post, my husband and I live outside of Seattle and I don't think we'd be able to live on one income at the moment but that would be the dream. We'd have a few financial goals to reach before it was possible.

Meal planning totally helps me with our grocery budget, and I just tried ordering grocery delivery for the first time and being able to shop online helps me stick to my list and not impulse by. I was amazed my bill was almost $40 cheaper than if I had gone into the store!


Sunday 4th of February 2018

I have yet to try grocery delivery but I really want to! Or even grocery pick up, which would also help stop impulse buys while saving time. And it would be SO hard around the Seattle area, prices of rent alone are outrageous. I hope you get where you want to be. And by the way, your website is stunning!


Friday 2nd of February 2018

Awesome article! I agree with minimalism part...we want so many things we really don't need! Thank you this article has given me a bit more on what I can do more to budget on one income as well.


Saturday 3rd of February 2018

Yes! Minimalism is awesome and hard for some reason! I realize I'll be organizing the same stuff over and over again when really I just need to get rid of more so there is less to organize.

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