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Raising a Family on a Part-time Income… and Enjoying It

part time income

Guest post from Sarah of The Jelly Jars

We are in the middle of raising our family of four with two little girls and a third baby on the way. While I hold down the fort of raising and growing these littles, my husband works part-time and is pursuing his Masters degree part-time.

Needless to say, our finances are tight as we live on his part-time income.

But because of this process, I feel like our perspective on what is most important in this life has shifted in the very best of ways. I know how difficult it is to raise a family when money is so tight, so I wanted to share a few ways finances are handled in our home — in hopes that they might help others in a similar situation.

1. We talk about finances in our marriage.

A central value in our marriage is communication. Whether good or bad, confession or celebration, small talk or crisis, we talk.

And since that is a non-negotiable between the two of us, it naturally carries over into our financial health. We are in this together so we talk about stressors, financial plans and dreams, and where we stand each month.

2. We spend our money on things we value.

We guard against spending money on perceived wants, and instead spend it on what actually adds value to our life. That is a totally personal choice, one unique to you and your family.

Just think about what you love to do, eat, experience, etc. and then spend your money there rather than randomly spending money as your whims strike.

We value health, so we pay for good food and good running shoes, for example. If a purchase falls in line with a family value, it has a place in our budget.

3. We prioritize our emergency fund.

We unexpectedly had to pay for four new tires last Christmas season — a time of year with lots of money flying around. It was painful to pay an unexpected $800 bill, but it didn’t bankrupt us and we didn’t have to throw it on the credit card because we had savings set aside, saving us a lot of stress.

4. We live frugally.

This might sound obvious, but we don’t buy brand name. Instead, we opt for generic whether it be food, shampoo, you name it.

We shop at thrift stores, I go to garage sales, we buy furniture on Craigslist, and we don’t buy many new clothes. We might not be on-trend every season with the latest fashions, but we make it work.

If an item is something we want but don’t need, we don’t buy it. If we can’t pay for it outright without putting it on a credit card, we don’t buy it.

I have learned that finances are so much more than what is in your bank account, it is an indicator of how you live your life. And we have also seen that we can still enjoy life while living on a part-time income without going into debt.

Sarah is a mountain-loving, dark chocolate-eating, Frank Sinatra-listening, owie-kissing, truth-telling, freelance writer/blogger who seeks out a passionate life with her husband and two kiddos. She writes at The Jelly Jars.

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  • Danielle says:

    I am a mom of two, and for six years my husband and I lived on about 12k/year while he went to grad school (we made more money than this, which we donated or went to savings, but we kept our yearly expenses at about 12 k). It can totally be done! In fact I think we lived even more frugally than we had to, to make sure we would have extra. Then, when unexpected expenses came along (car repair, surprise baby) we could cover it in cash. We lived on very little, but felt very rich because we were able to live how we wanted to and according to our values (saving, giving, eating healthy, etc).

  • Guest says:

    Love that MSM is presenting multiple family dynamics with a part-time point of view!

  • Leah says:

    I keep wondering when I am going to find these secrets that everyone on here seems to have for living so cheaply! Our family consists of myself, fiance, and a teenager all the time as well as three more children 50% of the time (joint custody). We downsized to a two bedroom apartment to cut costs and $12k a year wouldn’t even cover our rent! I keep seeing people posting about spending $200 a month on groceries. I try. I fail. Every time. I just keep hoping one of these posts will have that secret I seem to be missing 🙁

    • Guest says:

      It is not easy to live on that amount, though it can be done. It is considered under the federal poverty level for a reason! My family of three once lived on about 12k/year. Our rent was $450. We lived in a one bedroom, with the child in the bedroom and at nights we converted the living room to our bedroom (pull out sofa). Also it was a cheaper area of town. During this time our grocery budget was less than $100/month. Yes, you can do it, but it really takes sacrifices. We were mostly eating rice, lentils, pinto beans, collard greens, powdered milk, free citrus fruits from family, and oatmeal. we would occasionally have eggs, zuchinni, chicken legs quarters, bananas, etc but only when they were loss leader items. I think we hardly ever bought any new (or new to us used) clothes during that time…

      • L says:

        Thank you for sharing. I also believe living on a lower budget can be done with determination. There are many people who do it every day whether living on social security, disability, or have lost their job, etc. It may not always be easy, but as someone who has been doing the same, God always seems to carry me through somehow.

    • Beth says:

      I understand your frustration! I live in a metro area and also could not pay rent on that income. This person also has savings which is not always the case, especially if you/ your spouse was recently unemployed. I think the lessons and ideas on many of these articles are good, but I try not to get too stuck on the specific numbers. I have not found a ‘secret’ yet either, just a lot of little steps. If you do, please let me know!

    • Kathleen says:

      When I read of $200/month grocery budget, I look to see what kind of family the author is feeding. It seems to me they usually have 2 adults and 1-3 young children or another source of food, such as a large garden or bartering for food.
      As the mother of 2 teen boys (+10yo boy), I can attest there is simply no comparison. Simply none. Even shopping at Aldi and Costco, I don’t think I can feed each boy for $200/month. Reality is my teens can out eat a starving elephant.
      I also keep in mind, we eat a whole-foods diet (very little processed foods at all). If we ate more pasta, corn products, etc, perhaps the budget could be cut. But after research and trying out those foods, I know we feel better and are healthier with our current choices.
      My keys for keeping our food budget restrained:
      1) Cook from scratch. Everything in our kitchen requires preparation of some kind, and very little has an ingredients list. (It’s all whole foods)
      2) Eat fresh foods in season, but also compare prices with frozen because sometimes frozen (esp. fruit) is cheaper.
      3) Plan your menu for the week around the sales.
      4) Beans and rice are known as cheap eats because they are. A little meat added to the meal goes a long way in nutrition!
      5) Don’t try to change everything at once. Take one baby step, then another.
      Blessings to your family!

      • Leah says:

        Kathleen and Kate,
        Thank you for your responses! I’ve been feeling down on myself today for not being able to keep up with everything as well as everyone else seems to.
        Our family *tries* to eat healthy – we eat a lot of fresh fruits and veggies, prepare most things from scratch, etc. I had our grocery/household items bill down to near $200 a month a while back. We had a small garden, neighbors were trading from their garden, and we had 3 chickens laying. I was freezer cooking once a month and coupon shopping like crazy. We had money after my fiance and I both returned from deployment and splurged on a 5 bedroom home on 2 acres. After a year, the $2500/month rent caught up to us and we moved to a 2 bedroom apartment.
        My honey works full-time, but earns a lean paycheck. I use the GI bill to do online school full-time and bring home a little extra money from that, but it seems we are never making enough. I just recently took my (HUGE) deep freezer out of storage and put it in my living room. It’s tacky, but I know I was saving a TON when I was freezing.
        We got caught up in the credit card trap for a while. Just recently, I closed a secured card I had which knocked a little off our monthly expenses, and Honey took out a loan to consolidate the rest (much lower interest rate). We have cut in every area we can seem to find and it seems like there is always something that pops up and pulls us back down.

        • Mary says:

          Leah thank you for your service to our country first of all. Please don’t feel down on yourself, life is a journey. You have taken some great steps towards financial independence and trying to priortize what is important, such as nutrition for your family. Just an aside, have you and your fiance considered getting married? There are tax benefits to married filing jointly-just food for thought. Keep up your hard work.

    • kate says:

      As far as I can tell, a lot of it is location. I agree with you – I spend close to $14k per year on rent for my no-frills, one bedroom apartment. I could easily spend double that in this area. I think there was a guest post here recenly about someone who bought a house for like $57k or something. That’s barely a downpayment for a fixer-upper where I live.

      Instead of looking at the actual dollar amounts, can you look at percentages? What percentage of your income are you spending in the various categories?

      Or even better, look at your own improvement. If you usually spend $500 per month on food for your family, can you find a way to get down to $450? That’s a 10% improvement, and that’s huge. Once you get comfortable at $450 (or whatever your starting amount is), see if you can reduce it further.

      Even if the actual numbers don’t work for your situation, the strategies will. Making a smart meal plan, shopping with a list, cooking at home, and eating your leftovers are going to have an impact on your grocery budget.

    • Kristie says:

      Don’t be too hard on yourself. It sounds like the rent in your area might be higher than what others are paying. I live in a small rural area where rent can be very low, but I have relatives who would not be able to find rent under $1000/month. So many dynamics are different in each situation.

    • L says:

      So nice to hear stories of those who make it on less. As mentioned, much of how that can be possible comes down to the choices we make. We can all decide where we want to live, the type of housing, how we spend our money and time, etc.

      Thanks for sharing your story. I live on a very small budget, less than most would believe to be possible. I always believe if there is a will, there is a way. Have been frugal my whole life, and continue to be out of necessity. I feel blessed and thankful for all that I do have.

      Instead of looking at how I “can’t” do something, I try to see how I can. It’s easy to defeat ourselves and knock ourselves down. But honestly that is just wasted life energy. Only we know if we are truly making the most out of what we have, and if we can make better financial choices. Best to not compare ourselves – and instead just do the very best that we can do, and be content with that.

  • Kelli says:

    This is very timely for me. We’re expecting our 3rd in 9 weeks & my husband is the only one working. Couponing & resale shops have become close allies of mine. 🙂

  • I’ve been cutting my expenses lately and have realized how much extra and how many luxuries I spend my money on every day! Your budget and ability to support a family on a part time income is truly inspiring to me. I’m moving toward a more frugal lifestyle and I think this will definitely help me achieve something similar. Thank you for sharing your tips and experience!

  • Spending money on the things you value is huge. We all have things we are willing to spend on and that’s the reason we are frugal in other areas. We may not eat out a lot, but we buy name brand jeans. We pay for cable and rarely go to the movies. It’s all a trade-off!

  • Amy says:

    Very inspirational!

  • Great post Sarah! I think your second point is key! When you’re spending your money on the things you value, it makes life feel so rich you don’t even notice what you’re not spending on!

    Our budget has been cut and cut and cut again and we’re currently at about 30% of where we were six years ago. I’m still finding things to cut that I never thought were possible. Sometimes it’s not even a cut but just a different way of doing something that is much more efficient (uses less energy = lower power bill, driving less out of the way = less gas, etc.). Where there’s a will there’s often a way (not always but most of the time). And, yes, there are things I just won’t give up because they’re too important to me.

    And for the people who commented on the rent, etc. numbers: When I was in my graduate program I could rent a 2-bedroom apartment through my university with full utilities (including everything except electricity – yes, even cable TV and internet!) for far less than I could in the private sector. In the private sector I could have gotten a bedroom with a shared bath down the hall in a rooming house for the same price. You had to be a full time student and students with families were given priority.

    Everyone’s circumstances are different and we all do the best we can!

  • Melissa says:

    Curious how much the husband made from his part time job. It very well could have been as much as some peoples full Time pay.
    Our mortgage is 1,207 a month, Electric/gas is 302, water/garbage is 128 those expenses are well over 12,000 plus I can’t seem to feed my family of 6 including 3 teens for any less than 600 a month. And that’s not even as healthy as I’d like.

  • I love this – “If a purchase falls in line with a family value, it has a place in our budget”. Such a good rule of thumb for how to prioritize finances and any purchases.

    I can’t help but wonder if perhaps the part-time income might be comparable to someone else’s full-time income? Would be interesting to see maybe a follow-up post that shows how the income is broken down in order to afford it all.

  • Sue says:

    Yes.. it can be done… BUT there are a lot factors that work at this time.. As others have said.. it gets harder with the other factors.

    1) Where in the country you live is a BIG factor… Housing is very high where I am and I am in the cheapest that can be found.
    2) It is ALOT eaiser when your kids are little.. those 2 home made pizza’s used to be dinner for 4 and them a nice lunch the following day for 4.. Not anymore. Now is it dinner for 4. I know I had alot more saved when they kids were little…
    3) I am curious of the OP, how they pay for health insurance? What kind of living conditions do they have? I pay about 12,000.00 a year for health insurance alone.
    Saying you live on this amount and saying you have to pick and choose your priorities is nice, but I think some of us need more concrete information and not just you can do it if you try. You know? Sorry I do not mean to sound snarky. But I think Leah is actually asking for concrete information.

    Hang in there Leah.. I am feeling your frustration.

  • Laurie says:

    Great post. Location is everything when people talk about income and expenses. I live in the mid west and homes are very affordable along with everything else. I bought my 3BR 1.5bath 14 years ago for $99,000 with 20% down. It is in an amazing location with great neighborhood,schools and every store you can imagine. My monthly payment is $840. I have refinanced and my home will be payed for in 12yrs. My grocery budget is approx $250/mos for 3 of us. Utilities approx $200/mos. Cable approx $100. 18mos ago I made the decision to work PT as I am a nurse with FT benefits. I am a single mom by choice as I have adopted both of my daughters. I make approx $45,000/yr. We have no car payment,no child care and both of my girls dance and 1 in art. We live very simply. We take a big trip about every 2years and are working on building our emergency fund. I love being home with my kids and being able to pick up/drop off to school. I can be off on their breaks. Things are tight,but we do well with what we have. We love to travel and are on our way to WDW now. Like others have said it is all in what is important to you and your family.

  • Colleen says:

    Wondering if one of these bloggers who talks about living on so little would be willing to open up their budget and show the reader how they do that.

    For so many of us this seems out of reach, and it may be for those who have to spend a lot of health insurance, rent, food, etc. I would love to see a budget to compare to and more ideas on how they cut cost… as my family is VERY frugal on most things and lives on far more then this (even for the basics)

  • Carrie says:

    I would be very interested in learning more details on living on only $12,000/year. Would love to know the number and ages of your family members, what you pay for health insurance and how you get internet access.

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