25 Money Saving Tips: A Debt Free Guide to Living on One Income

We buttoned up our budget, dramatically pared down our lifestyle, and got ourselves out of over $44,000 in student loan and consumer debt back in 2011. It took us just over a year and a half making around a total of $60,000 a year. There was some serious sacrifice involved, but let me tell you, having no debt except for the small mortgage we have on our home, has given our family the flexibility to allow me to stay home with our children full-time which has been the greatest gift I could ever ask for. 

I stopped working my regular 9-5 in 2015 and began doing some very limited part-time, contract work from home. Since then, we’ve lived on primarily one income and socked away anything supplemental from my Interior Design work into retirement savings, college savings and a rainy-day fund. Below are 25 tips for how we make it work as a family of four on one income with no consumer debt.

25 Money Saving Tips

1. Budget

Create a budget and STICK TO IT. Know how much money you bring in each month and know how much you spend. If you’ve never done a budget before, keep track of all of your income and expenses for a couple of months then sit down with your partner, your spouse or even yourself. Promise no judgement and just take a look together. You’ll learn your typical habits, where you’re bleeding out and where you might be able to cut back. Once you’ve got an idea of how much you typically spend in a month on groceries for example, start by seeing if you can cut back just a little, maybe $50 a month. That’s only $12.50 a week, and I know you can do that! Challenge yourself. You’d be surprised what you can do without and how much little things add up to big savings. 

At a loss where to start? We like to use the budgeting app from everydollar.com to input and track our monthly incomes, expenditures and savings. It is simple to use and free for Android and iPhone users!

2. Call and Ask for Discounts and Deals

When you take a look at your budget, you might be surprised to learn what you’re really spending on things like your garbage pickup. Call your service providers and ask if they have any promotions or discounts available in your area. Tell them you’re shopping around to try to get the best deal and ask them what they can do for you. If your current provider isn’t flexible or able to help, search around and see what else you can find in your area. Most providers will be willing to extend a discount to retain a customer.

3. Vow to Stop Using Your Credit Cards and Taking Out Any Additional Loans

Being able to “afford” something does not mean that you are capable of making your payment on it every month. It means you can pay for it with money you have on hand. You will never get out of debt if you keep accumulating it. I hear you screaming… “but I earn points by using my credit card so I can buy more stuff and go on vacation!” and “what about my credit score!?” The truth is, if you didn’t have those points to put toward that vacation, you probably wouldn’t be taking it and you’d be saving yourself some money in the process. And a credit score doesn’t really matter unless you’re planning on borrowing more money which is the antithesis of being out of debt. The credit card companies and banks want you to keep spending money on stuff you don’t really need so they can keep you under their thumb FOR-EV-ER. Don’t let them! 

Side note: It is possible to get a mortgage without a credit score. It’s called manual underwriting. The process is a little more labor intensive but totally doable! We did this back in 2016 with a company called Churchill Mortgage.

4. Save Up for the Things You Really Want

Patience is not my strong suit but as it turns out, learning to be patient is one of the really crucial (albeit lousy) parts of being and acting like an adult. If you wait to buy something until you can actually afford to pay cash for it, it gives you some time to think about whether or not the thing you want is really something you have to have or if you can live without it. Learning to control the impulsive “ooohh shiny!” spending can save you so money! Once you’ve finally purchased that thing you wanted, you’re also more likely to feel satisfied with it and take better care of it too.

5. You Don't NEED the Latest Anything

“Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't want, to impress people they don't like.”
Will Rodgers

Just because the Karen in the next cubicle over just “bought” the latest version of the iPhone whatever, doesn’t mean you can’t get by with a previously loved, functional, paid for, older version that didn’t cost you an arm and a leg. When you do have to make a major purchase, make sure to do your research first and find yourself the best possible deal on the least expensive item that will fulfill your needs. Pay for it with cash. Once you have purchased it, use it until it falls apart. Spending money on the same item every six months just so you have the latest and greatest is a waste of money.

6. Drive Used, Paid for Cars

Despite what most people think, a car payment is not an inevitable part of life; and you can in fact, find a safe, reliable, vehicle for less than $5,000. It might not be the best to look at, it might not be your first choice of color or model, and it almost certainly won’t be of the current decade, but none of that really matters. What does matter is that it is in a state of good repair, it has been taken care of and well maintained and it gets you from here to there. Consider buying a low cost used car to get you by for a couple of years while you save up some money to buy a nicer one, or be like us and say you’re going to do that and still be driving the “get-us-by” car for going on 7 years because it just won’t die!

A sweet 1998 Buick Park Avenue

7. Small House, Little Mortgage

Generally speaking, the smaller the house, the smaller the mortgage. If you can’t afford to purchase your home outright (as most people, including us, can’t) think about buying a home that just fits your needs. Good bones, no extra bells and whistles, nothing extravagant. Presently our family of four lives in a three bed, one bath house that is just over 1,100 square feet. It’s small, but it has space enough for everyone and it encourages us not to accumulate a lot of extra stuff. Downsizing has caused us to simplify our lives and we personally feel like this is a more satisfying way to live.  Smaller homes are also more efficient to heat and cool and take far less time to clean too! Bonus!

8. Sell Anything You No Longer Want or Need

Need a few extra bucks to help make the bills or balance the budget? Consider selling the stuff that’s collecting dust in your basement or garage. Have a yard sale. Craigslist, eBay, and local buy and sell Facebook groups are also good resources for offloading your unneeded items. There are also a few resellers with storefronts that buy gently used clothing, furniture, baby items, electronics, toys and more!

9. Buy Secondhand Clothing

With the exception of a few items like underwear, or if I have special occasion and absolutely can’t find something at a thrift store, we buy almost all of our clothing secondhand. Especially kid’s stuff. In our opinion, the kids just don’t wear it long enough size-wise, or keep it clean enough to warrant brand new, expensive items.

When we thrift or garage sale, we look for items that are in excellent condition and find we can actually afford more pieces, better quality and sometimes name brand items this way too. In general, we try to avoid purchasing any dry-clean only items, new or used as it just adds to the expense of owning the piece. Some thrift stores even do half-off events. Half-off thrift store prices! I can do that! 

As another money saving tip, consider shopping outside of your normal department. I have purchased little boy’s tennis shoes for myself when I couldn’t find any on sale in my size. I’m not picky! FYI a size 7 Women’s is a 5 in Boy’s!

10. Learn Some Simple Sewing Skills and Get Familiar with E6000

When we were getting out of debt, I once colored in both a bleach spot on my sweater sleeve and the worn toe of my black leather shoe with a permanent marker before I had a big corporate meeting at work. There was no extra money to replace clothes left in the budget for the month. I’m not telling you you’ve got to take it that far, but if you can learn how to repair a split seam, sew a button, fix a fallen hem, remove stains and glue together the sole of a shoe you’ll be able to get by a lot longer with the clothes you have rather than having to replace them. 

This stuff works miracles!

11. Graciously Accept and Swap Hand Me Downs

I cannot tell you how much of our kid’s wardrobe comes from hand-me-downs. Thankfully we have a great network for friends and family with kids of both genders both older and younger than our own and we all pass items (clothing, toys, baby gear) that have weathered well back and forth amongst us. This has been amazing. I highly recommend doing the same for your kids if you can. We also have a lot of furniture pieces that are hand-me-downs too. This one has been a little hard for me to swallow, being an interior designer myself. It’s been difficult to patiently live with pieces I didn’t get to choose while we save up to buy the things we really like but hey, beggars can’t be choosers as they say, and when you need a dining table and chairs so you don’t have to sit with TV trays on your couch, pretty much anything free looks good, at least for a little while…

12. Laundry Line

If you have the space in your yard, consider putting in a laundry line. Dryers are notorious for using a lot of energy and in turn costing you unnecessary money. At our house they are also notorious for shrinking clothes (I swear it’s not my fault!), so when the weather is right this is my preference for drying our family’s wash. Also, take a moment to check out our article on Battle of the Cheap Laundry Detergents.

13. Buy or Pick Used Furniture

Check online, at garage sales, thrift stores and resale shops for good quality used furniture. See if you can find local freecycle sites. Sometimes you can find spectacular deals and really cool vintage pieces. Slipcovers are also an inexpensive way to freshen up an old piece and give it a little longer life. When trying to save money, reupholstering a piece isn’t generally the best route (unless you know how to DIY) as it can be just as expensive as purchasing new in some cases. Refinishing wood can be a good option as isn’t too expensive to do and just takes time and a little elbow grease if you feel so inclined. 

Pro tip: Drive around the day after a big neighborhood garage sale. People often put their unsold items out by the side of the road for trash and sometimes you can snag just the thing you were looking for, for free! We recently found this great little end table to complement our hand-me-down mid-century bedroom set. Free is the best!

14. Shop at Aldi, Buy Off Brand

Okay, let me just talk for a minute about how much I freaking love Aldi. If you don’t have one nearby, I am very sincerely sorry for you. Its cheap, its easy to shop because there aren’t 100 million choices to make (you want Ranch Dressing? Choose light or buttermilk that’s it, two kinds!) and they continue to bring new and better products to market. They even have a line of gluten-free products which are really good, organic products, a line of vegan items, rotating gourmet items, name brand special buys, delicious chocolate, and even beer and wine! If you’ve never been, GO! I would do all of my shopping here if I could. The assortment of pharmaceutical products is a bit limited so if I need children’s Tylenol or something of that nature, I’ve got to make a second stop but honestly, they have almost everything I could want at really great prices. Click here for my tips and tricks for shopping at Aldi including some of my favorite finds and some items to avoid. If you don’t have an Aldi nearby, shop off brand items wherever possible at your local grocery store.

15. Meal Plan

Unless I run out of something mid-week, I never, ever, ever go shopping without a meal plan and corresponding list in hand. Without a list you’re more likely to make impulse buys and spend more money than you needed to. Watch for my upcoming article with tips on how to save money by following a weekly meal plan and click on our Recipes page for some of our family favorite money saving meals.

16. Don't Eat Out Often, Take Left-overs and Kick the Take-away Coffee Habit

We include a little money for lunch ($15 a month) in our budget just in case someone forgets their leftovers or has an unavoidable, non-comp’d lunch for work.  Other than that, we very rarely eat out except for special occasions like anniversaries or birthdays and when we do, we budget for it and don’t go crazy. Almost all of the dinners I make during the week, I make so that we have enough to save for two adult lunch sized portions in addition to feeding the four of us for dinner. 

Afraid you’ll really miss that morning coffee house coffee? Get yourself a decent thermos and bring in coffee from home. Choose a fancy flavored creamer and decent grounds and you’ll still be saving money every month.  We found this awesome cappuccino maker at a local thrift store for $5. It still had the factory tape on it! You’d be surprised how much money you can save by adjusting your habits just a little bit.

17. Grow and Preserve Your Own Organic Food

We all want to feed our families the healthiest, most nutritious food possible and it can be a struggle trying to do that on a budget since organic food is notoriously expensive. Our solution to this one has been to grow whatever we can ourselves using organic methods like composting, buying organic, heirloom seeds and not using any unnatural pesticides or fertilizers. It’s a labor of love for sure but knowing exactly what is going into your family’s food, and more importantly exactly what isn’t is so worth it.

18. Get Rid of Cable

Ditch your cable or satellite service in favor of a $12 antennae. You’ll pay no monthly bill and get all of the major network channels plus a few extra (we get around 30 channels with ours) including PBS kids, which we love. No, you won’t be able to DVR anything, but for us, its worth it and keeps us from watching too much TV anyhow. Consider subscribing to Netflix or another inexpensive streaming service if you need more options.

19. Cheap or Free Family Activities/Date Nights

Like any family or couple, we like to have fun. We just try our best not to spend much if any money doing it. Check out these two posts on cheap and free family and date night activities for some of our favorites. It is possible to be mindful of your budget while still making some really great memories together!

20. Keep Your Personal Care Routine Simple

When we were getting out of debt, anything that was not a necessity was the first thing to get slashed from our budget. That included things like memberships at the gym and trips to the salon and we still keep up this habit today. Personally, I’ve always preferred to get my exercise the old-fashioned way, working in the yard or garden, chasing the kids and dog around or going for a hike. When I feel like doing some yoga or an aerobics class, I YouTube it and workout from the comfort of my living room. We have a set of weights in the basement we bought at a yard sale a long time ago and an improvised weight bench made from an old tabletop and some cinder blocks and it works for us.

We bought a cheap set of clippers some years ago and I learned to cut my husband’s hair, asking a friend who was a stylist for some guidance and checking out videos on YouTube. I stopped coloring my hair and even learned to cut it myself too. Now in addition, I cut the kid’s hair and I’ve gotten pretty good at it over time if I do say so myself! I do my own nails and don’t wear much if any makeup, sticking to a couple of go to products like moisturizer, mascara and eyebrow pencil. If I need a pick me up or to look a little fancier, I pull up my hair and throw on some earrings and something I feel pretty in. It took some getting used to at first but I can’t imagine going back to spending all the money we used to on vanity items, especially knowing the trade off now.

During (the sucker is key here)
After (happy big boy, unhappy grandmas)

21. Do It Yourself

We don’t pay anyone else for services around our home that we can perform ourselves. We do our own painting, cut our own grass, plow/shovel our own drive, clean our own house. We fix the things we know we can, swapping out a leaky faucet on a sink or changing brake pads. We ask for help from family members and friends we have in skilled trades when we have big jobs that we’re not sure how to do, trading time spent for a home cooked meal and a case of beer. When we don’t know how to do something ourselves or know someone who might, we search YouTube first before we consider contacting a professional to see if we think it is within our capabilities to fix on our own. Yes, it takes time out of your day to do these things, but you have to make a trade off. Time for money. Either you pay someone else money to so you can do other things with your time or you spend your time and keep your money.

22. Pare Down Kid's Activities

You are not a bad parent if you don’t let your kids do travel sports, or more than one extracurricular activity per season or even per year. Uniforms, costumes, gear, travelling, it’s all expensive. We let each of our kids choose one activity that currently appeals to them during the year and that’s about it. If they’d like to try something different, there is always next season/next year. 

We all want to give our children the world and want them to be well rounded individuals but that doesn’t mean you should sacrifice your family financial goals, (which might include contributing to their college funds instead of that extra dance lesson) or sacrifice every single weekend for the rest of your life to attend a kid sports something or other. Enjoy the extra time together and use it to teach the valuable lessons of teamwork as a family unit.

23. Homemade Gifts

I love both making and receiving homemade gifts. There is just something about knowing how much time, effort and thought someone put into them that makes them so much more special than something you picked up on the internet. We started a new tradition a couple of Christmases ago of trying to make as many of the gifts we give to each other and the people we love from scratch. I love that our kids see us putting in time, effort and real thought into the things we make for other people, especially around the holidays when there is so much commercialism being broadcast all over the TV and radio. Homemade gifts also tend to be a lot less expensive to give than those you’d buy at the store. Below are some of the things we made this year. You can also check out our Pinterest board for some ideas that you can make from scratch too.

Braided Infinity Scarf
Vegetable Washing Station for the Garden
Christmas Basket with Homemade Goodies

24. Utilize the Library

We love our little local library. They have preschool story time, craft nights for kids and adults, book tastings, science activities, movie nights, and so much more, all for free. Not to mention the books! Every week we try to make a trip to the library to join in on an activity or check out some new books when we’ve exhausted the ones from the previous week. It’s a great place to go as a family when you’re on a budget and looking for something fun, free, and educational to do.

Science Alive! These Two Are WAY Braver Than Me!

25. Fido is on a Budget too

We love our pets but dang they can be expensive! If you’ve already got pets, do some research and consider maybe not buying the most expensive pet food and treats you can get your hands on. No more cute costumes for Fifi and no more Barkbox for Fido. Our pets really just need our love and attention and honestly, they could care less if you’re throwing a $25 ball or a free stick in the yard. 

If you don’t have pets yet but are considering getting one, maybe hold off for a little while until your finances are a bit more expendable or think about a goldfish rather than a designer dog or a special needs cat. Sure, fish don’t make the most lovable companions, but they don’t come with vet bills and the food is cheap at least!

Those puppy dog eyes aren't going to work on me! Get a job you lazy bum! 🙂

Well, there you have it! Call us weirdos if you will. We never have liked being what most American families would call “normal”. And although some people might look at our lifestyle and choose to laugh or feel sorry for us because we aren’t jetting off on family vacations and don’t own a vehicle that is even from this decade, most everyone we know has been supportive of us along the way and we are grateful for that for sure. 

For us, the freedom that we have from financial stress is well worth the sacrifices we’ve made and continue to make, to make it possible. Working together as a couple toward a common goal has also made us stronger as a family too and that’s pretty special if you ask me. 

What are some things you and your family do that might be considered a little “out there” to save money?

2 thoughts on “25 Money Saving Tips: A Debt Free Guide to Living on One Income”

  1. My neighborhood has a “Buy Nothing” group on Facebook. I have gotten brand new toys right after Christmas, last year’s New York Times best seller, cookware, even a new (to me) light fixture. Best part is you can ask for things, too! Need just a few sprigs of thyme? Short an egg for some cookies? Post and ask your neighbors! It’s a nice and easy way to pass things along, too.

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