Updated on 12.16.08

Review: Living Well on One Income

Trent Hamm

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book.

living well on one incomeA week and a half ago, I wrote a piece about Christian themes in personal finance books. I wrote that piece mostly because I was trying to work through my feelings about this book.

Living Well on One Income by Cynthia Yates is an excellent book on how to seriously cut your income, particularly if you’re considering a family situation where only one member of the family is working. The book is absolutely loaded with great tips on this topic and I quite enjoyed reading it.

At the same time, though, the author is a Christian homeschooler that wears both beliefs on her sleeve to an extent that it often comes close to overshadowing the great tangible advice that the book contains. There are points in this book where Yates comes right up to the line of making this book about Christianity with a personal finance theme than personal finance with a Christian theme.

I have no real problem with this, actually. Yates is simply speaking from the heart here, revealing ideas she believes in to everyone. Where I become uncomfortable – and this is where I get uncomfortable quite often when reading material from Christian writers – is that theology is often very uneven ground. Different people interpret the Bible differently, and even though I define myself as a Christian, I often completely disagree with the interpretations of others, and in places throughout this book, I strongly disagreed with Cynthia Yates and her interpretations.

In short, I would have enjoyed this book quite a bit more if it were not bogged down with a lot of theology. Thus, as I discuss the book in detail below, I’m going to intentionally avoid the theology entirely and, in essence, review the book that’s under the hood here.

A Walk Through Living Well on One Income

1. What’s the Rub?
The reason that many people are uncomfortable with the idea of a one-income household is, well, it’s guaranteed to hurt the bottom line. You’re making the active choice to live with much les financial income than you might otherwise have – thus, there must be a valuable, compelling reason for someone to choose this state of affairs. Cynthia encourages people to think of the reasons they choose to be a part of a single income family when they’re being frugal. Use your personal choices and beliefs (the ones that led you to make the single income choice) as your motivation to practice better personal finance habits, because frugality is a key part of the life choice you’ve made.

2. A Cheerful Heart: The Right Attitude
The most important part of the entire puzzle, according to Yates, is having the right attitude about living frugally. Frugality is not a punishment, nor is it a black mark on yourself. Instead, it’s a means to an end – it’s choosing to value things just a bit differently than mainstream culture would encourage us to value things. Look at everything through the lens of how you value things, not how others value them. When you start truly applying that to every aspect of your life, cutting your spending becomes much, much easier.

3. Live Within Your Means
Once you’re on board with making changes and re-evaluating your priorities, the next big step is to start keeping track of your spending. Yates uses the word “budget,” but what she describes is actually very flexible. Just start keeping track of every dime you spend, then group the expenses together into groups that make sense to you and look for places where you can make cuts. Set spending targets that realistically match what you’re currently spending – in other words, don’t resolve to cut your spending by 80% because it’s not realistically going to happen. Keep a positive attitude and focus on your goals and you’ll see success.

4. Let’s Organize
I was incredibly happy to read this chapter because I also feel strongly that being organized is often directly tied to being frugal. Clutter is the enemy of frugality, and breaking through the clutter mindset is often a big key to getting on board with cutting your spending. Focus on going through all of the clutter in your house, then begin focusing on the areas that attract clutter and make it a point to keep them clear. Doing this will help you avoid “losing” things and will also help you be mindful of the things that you own.

5. It Pays to Be Savvy
Here, Yates focuses on tactics for reducing your shopping bills. This, like many of the remaining chapters in the book, is a very tight collection of tips, bursting with good information on almost every page. My favorite suggestion is actually one of the most audacious: go into a store and simply ask them what their best sale in the department of interest is. For example, let’s say I was going to get a new sweater for my wife at J.C. Penney. Yates advises simply going up to the cashier and directly asking what the best bargain is on the item. It’s something that would have been outside my typical thinking about how to look for bargains, but it makes a lot of sense.

6. Roll Up Your Sleeves
Hard work saves money. If you put in the effort to do many common things yourself, you will save money, and if you’re living in a one-income situation, spare time is something you should have. Learn how to cook for yourself, particularly starting with basic ingredients. Learn how to do basic car maintenance yourself – change your own oil and check your own fluids. Learn how to fix your own toilet (ironically, I actually spent part of today doing just that). The more things you do yourself (and a big part of that is teaching yourself how to do it), the less you have to spend hiring others to do these things for you, and the more money you’ll keep in your pocket.

7. Use Things Up!
Here, Yates talks in depth about the value in using everything, from utilizing all of the leftovers from a meal to actually enjoying any media item that you possess. The primary focus of this chapter is on food, as Yates talks about methods for ensuring that you actually use up all of the food that you purchase, since food thrown away is money thrown away. One of the biggest keys here is substitutions – Yates encourages people to use either coriander or cilantro and not both, for example.

8. Waste Not
Hand in hand with the philosophy of using things up is the idea of finding alternate uses for things instead of throwing them away. Yates goes beyond the simple idea of wasting materials, though, and focuses on things like wasting talents – if you have a particular skill that others might find valuable, why not use it instead of squandering it? If you can play a musical instrument, for example, why not share your skill with that instrument with the world instead of potentially squandering it? This chapter is absolutely stuffed with tips on how to reuse items, but it was the idea of “reusing” talents and skills that really got my mind working.

9. Discover Your Creative Genius
As the book winds down, Yates argues that the two best frugal tools that people have are their minds and their mouths. Our minds can come up with creative solutions to all sorts of life problems – solutions that not only save us money, but often perfectly solve a difficult problem. Our mouth enables us to ask questions (the answers to which often point us in useful directions) as well as connect with others (who might point us in useful directions if we keep our ears and eyes open). Frugality is about creativity and about finding out more information – and we already have the tools to do it.

10. Presentation Is Everything .. or Is It?
Inexpensive things, when treated with class and dealt with creatively, can create a very elegant and sophisticated appearance. Take flowers, for example. It only takes pennies to grow many different flower varieties, but put a cut flower in a simple vase and you make a room substantially more elegant. Got an old, junky, rickety table? Cover it with a low-cost white tablecloth and the table goes from junky to classy. What’s the point? You don’t need to shell out cash for classiness. You just need to be creative, that’s all.

Some Thoughts About Living Well on One Income
Here are three things I think I think about Living Well on One Income.

There’s a lot of very good frugal content jammed into this fairly small book. Most of the latter chapters are mostly just nice collections of short tips for shaving dollars from your spending. I quite like such detailed tip lists, because I can usually pull out an item or two for myself, and if they’re good tips, they more than pay for the time spent reading the book.

Yates really shines when she’s anecdotal. Detailed anecdotes about how other people actually practice frugality are one of the highlights of personal finance books for me – perhaps that’s why I liked The Complete Tightwad Gazette so much. A few times each chapter, Yates lets that anecdotal nature come through – and it really shines.

I think Yates had a very specific audience in mind for this book. Although most of the tips work for anyone, quite a bit of the supplementary material seems to speak directly at Christian homeschooling parents. While that might seem like a niche group, Yates is speaking directly to that group with passion – and I think that comes through to readers who aren’t in that group (like me).

Is Living Well on One Income Worth Reading?
If you have a passion about frugality tips, read this book. Alternately, if you’re a devout Christian who is in a single-income situation, you’ll love this book. If neither of these really describe you, Living Well on One Income may be worth a skim to pick up some tips, but I don’t think the book will stick in your heart.

Clearly, Yates is speaking to a specific audience with this book – and for that audience, this book is probably the best I’ve read. I actually know a few people who fall into this category, and I intend to pass along my copy to one of them, actually, who I think will absolutely love the book.

As for the rest of us? Yates provides a lot of tips here which are well worth digging through, but it may or may not be worth the effort for you if you’re not in that specific target audience.

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  1. GayleRN says:

    I highly recommend living on one income throughout a marriage. This allows incredible flexibility in lifestyle and finances. For example, when we bought a house we financed and qualified for a loan entirely on one income. This meant that we bought a house we could afford no matter what happened. When we had children the question was did I want to stay home not could we afford it. I did stay home, for which my children later thanked me. There was no financial adjustment as we were already living on only one income. The rest had gone into savings. When the divorce came I could easily maintain my lifestyle as once again it had been set up with the idea of living on one income. If a couple can do this they can easily afford college when the time comes or an early retirement.

  2. Saving Freak says:

    This is a great read for anyone out there wondering if it is possible to go to one income. There are obvious advantages to two incomes but in our family having one spouse at home is invaluable to making the household thrive.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Thanks for the detailed review of the book. Based on what you had to say, this definitely sounds like one I want to check out.

  4. tambo says:

    We’ve been a single income family since expecting our daughter – who’s now in college. While we have gone without some material things, the peace, happiness and lack of stress in our lives more than makes up for it. It’s great to have someone to handle the day-to-day issues as soon as they pop up. It’s never a problem if a kid gets sick or the car needs service or the phone/cable/power goes out and a repairman is coming. Someone’s home! Housework and supper – and shopping – are easy and handled. It just makes everything a LOT simpler.

    My husband and I have traded the ‘stay-at-home-parent’ and ‘working-for-a-paycheck’ duties throughout the years as things in our lives change, and it’s worked out really great for us. I wouldn’t trade this lifestyle for anything.

  5. H says:


    I love your book reviews. This gave me lots of food for thought, especially living elegantly while living frugally. It’s easy to iron grandma’s linen table cloth and eat a meal feeling like a wealthy person.

    You did comment that you like her personal anecdotes, which I found interesting since the one area I found your book lacking was in that area. I would have liked your book so much more (and I already love it!) if there had been personal examples. Those are the stories that make an impact on me.

    Thanks for your work. This is the only blog I check daily.


  6. Curt says:

    In many situations, living on one income can result in greater financial long-term benefits. But few take the time to actually run the numbers. The long-term cost on society of putting kids in daycare should also be considered. I would like to see a detailed study on this subject, but it’s not politically correct in our current culture. So, even if someone did the research it would be attacked from many sides.

  7. Bill M says:

    I have lived very well on one income when my wife was home with our kids. Now that the older one is in school and the other one is almost in daycare she started working again just to keep herself occupied.

  8. Peter says:

    I guess sites like yours (which I love) are little anti-marketing voices in a world flooded with “you must consume” marketing. I hope we get a lot more of these, keep it coming.

    We currently live off 1 income (with a baby), but there’s always a struggle, and more importantly, expectations of family/friends/… to both work.

  9. Troy says:

    Actually living on only one income is phenominal.

    Just like pre-tax retirement contributions force you to save for retirement, living on one income forces your family to scale back and live on less.

    It also allows flexibility. It is like driving a car capable of 100 MPH at only 60MPH. Comfy at 60, but can go faster if the need arises.

    Living on less, being more frugal, and spending more quality time with the children and not have to race through life is the best gift anyone can have.

    Everyone should try it. It is much easier than many think.

  10. Shelli says:

    We are a two-income family, but our goal is to live on one income and give/save the second. We aren’t quite there yet but hope to be soon. I just reserved Living Well on One Income at the local library. Thanks for the review!

  11. Alex says:

    My wife and I have debated over this topic for several months now as we are now officially “trying” for our first baby. We both have discussed and understand the benefits and drawbacks that are important to us in making this decision. However, I think the #1 area we’re still struggling with is the stress and squeeze that may occur as a result of savings, retirement, and our child’s education – especially in today’s economy. Can anyone share their experiences?

  12. Marcia says:

    Curt, there are lots of studies that have been done on children of working mothers (which usually means day care).




    The answer, of course, is typically “it depends”.

  13. oneofnine says:

    Trent, can you review the book 1/2 Price Living: Secrets to Living Well on One Income by Ellie Kay? It got good reviews on Amazon but I can’t get it at my local library and I don’t know if I should buy it or not.

  14. Troy says:

    I have done both, and I am telling you it is possible and worth it.

    I have been a dink and a single income household. High income and average income.

    Like nearly everyone, your consumption tends to move in conjunction with your income. It doesn’t matter whether you make 50K or 450K per year. It matters what you spend.

    If your priority is to have a one income household, then do it. there are not really any drawbacks. So you buy less stuff. Good. Go out a bit less. Good. It is worth it in so many ways.

  15. Paul says:

    Most of us start our marriages with expectations of living the way our parents currently live … i.e., lots of stuff that they took years to accumulate. We think we deserve that lifestyle, with plenty of vacations too. Hence, we get trapped into lots of debt and become enslaved to the 2 income model. But you never quite get happy chasing for that next big purchase. Two days after you get it, you want something else. Learning to be happy with less consumption is important. And a key indicator (in my opinion) is how willing are you to give to others. When my 1st wife divorced me, I actually found leaving the ratrace of consumption and increasing debt to be liberating. You might be surprised how much happier you can be with a more modest lifestyle. My 2nd wife and I consider part of our mission to make other people’s lives better, not just our’s. We can do this on one income.

  16. plonkee says:

    Sounds like this book is aimed at people that want to live on one income, but think they can’t. I’m interested in whether it addresses the long term implications of being a one income family.

    Often one career (and earning potential) is seriously derailed if extended time off is taken to look after kids. This will have an impact on retirement plans and social security income. It doesn’t help that it’s normally women who both give up their careers and live longer.

    Of course all these things can be planned for and taken into account, it’s just that I’ve not seen any *one-income family* books get past the point where the kids leave home.

  17. Marcia says:

    Plonkee, that’s a good point. My FIL decided, after 43 years of marriage, that he was “done” (i.e., he went off and got a girlfriend). Now he and MIL are sharing in retirement and social security. Since she “worked for him” off the books for years, their retirement income is small to be split.

    Now, at this point I don’t really care if he can’t afford to heat his cabin to warmer than 60 degrees. But I don’t want her to lose the home she’s had for 37 years. Had she worked part time for someone else for those 43 years (or even 35, after the kids were in school), there would be more money to go around.

  18. deb says:

    I love it when you do these reviews. It really is helpful in selecting great books to read. Thanks for helping us all!

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