Growing a Family on One Income: Part I, Being a One-Car Family

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I get all riled up about claims that raising children costs millions. Could you spend a million dollars on a child? Sure. You can also spend over $100,000 on a Versailles-inspired Neiman Marcus chicken coop. But that would be unreasonable. Yes, kids aren’t cheap, but having a large family doesn’t have to be a financial impossibility.

Granted, each family’s situation is different and living off one income with a growing family isn’t a possibility for many no matter how hard they try to make it work. Yet, it’s often possible to maintain a family on one income. It does require great creativity and you simply won’t look like the average American family. We’re not financial wizards by any means, but we do practice some simple, common sense ways to keep our expenses down. I thought I’d start a series of posts about how we make it work and our efforts to live simply and frugally so that I can be primarily a stay-at-home mama with our growing family of three little ones.

I’m not of the opinion that it’s the right choice (or even possible) for every mama to stay home, but I do believe that life centered around the home is valuable (for women AND men.) Our ideal life would be living on a family farm so that our entire family could be centered in the home and that both my husband and I could be involved in the daily education of our children. Until that day, my husband works full-time and I’m working one afternoon a week as a ballet teacher and doing some freelance writing to supplement our income while keeping the home fires burning, homeschooling our preschooler, chasing our toddler, and soaking up our youngest’s babyhood.

But how do you survive on one income? Well, truthfully, we’ve never known any different. Our entire married life only one of us has worked full-time (at first we took turns doing college/grad school and then when our eldest was 18 months, I started primarily staying home). But we’ve learned a few tricks as our family has grown.

One of the ways we cut down on monthly expenses is to only have one car. In addition to honoring God’s earth by not wasting resources, there is the financial benefit of only one insurance payment, paying for maintenance on only one car, less money spent on gas due to carpooling, and the obvious: no second car payment. Having only one car isn’t an option for every family because of location and work schedules; however, here’s how we make it work for us:

Location, location, location:

When viewing homes to buy, we only considered houses in the center of town. We are walking distance (or almost walking distance) from: our pharmacy, our pediatrician’s office, a hospital, my midwife’s office, our favorite breakfast place, our parish, city parks, dentist office, Walgreen’s, etc. We are easy biking distance from my husband’s work, so he bikes or runs every morning and leaves me the car to cart the littles around. Another obvious benefit to short commutes to work and other frequent destinations is that you spend far less on gas than if you settled in the suburbs and had to drive 15-30 minutes to get anywhere.


Alternate Transportation:

My husband wins some points for awesomeness for successfully biking to the grocery store with our toddler and preschooler in tow with a biking trailer/stroller. Not your average grocery store trip, but to make the one-car life work, you have to be creative. As I said my husband bikes to work almost every day. Occasionally, he needs to run an errand or go somewhere during the work day that requires the car and we just plan accordingly knowing that we will be homebound. Some friends who are also rocking the one-car lifestyle, but have farther to travel to get to work or school, take public transportation or carpool to work with co-workers. Research what options are available to you. I was pretty inspired by this woman’s commitment to transport her six children only by bicycle.

Relish the Inconvenience:

Being a one-car family isn’t always convenient. It’s sometimes tricky to figure out how everyone will get where they need to go and occasionally we find ourselves in a bind because of poor planning. However, there is something really special about slowing down and working together to get where we need to go and it’s one of the many ways we can be a team. We spend far more time in the car together than we would if we had a second car to use which is definitely an added bonus.

Are you a one-car family? How do you make it work?

(Check out Part II: Can You Fit Three Car Seats in a Camry?)

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  1. Sarah says

    This is a great idea for a series. My little family is in the same process of trying to survive on one income, and I’ve been learning a lot about what I can do to help. I am really looking forward to hearing about your experiences, as well.

  2. Janice says

    We are a family of 7 living off one income. We also made the choice to go down to one car. In our case we have a stay-at-home Dad.

    • says

      So glad to see another one car family with a stay-at-home Dad. We only have 3 little ones, though, but it has gotten more challenging in the last month with a recent move further away from my work. I hope we can continue being a 1 car family, though.

    • Haley says

      That’s awesome, Janice! My husband’s told me that he would love to be a stay-at-home Dad. I think our ideal would be to both work part-time and stay home part time but the insurance is tricky to figure out that way…

  3. says

    We’re a two income family with one car and 10 miles from town! Hah! We do live in the heart of our suburb though. We CAN walk to most of our errands but the Western PA hills slow is down. I have to drive to work (though I suppose I could try biking it…) and my husband takes the light rail train into town, then a bus up to campus (he’s a grad student). We’re trying to cut back on how much we drive the car though, which is tricky and takes some practice!

  4. says

    We’ve been one-car for four years, since we got back from Africa (no cars!) and two felt excessive. Like you, I really enjoy (most of the time) the balance and negotiation and creative thinking of sharing two cars. And it’s deepened our community the two or three times we’ve borrowed a second car from friends on the times we HAD to have two cars.

    • Haley says

      Yes. Borrowing is so helpful. It’s definitely great that Daniel can borrow Garrett’s car if he suddenly has to run an errand during the work day.

  5. Angie says

    We have one income and two cars. My husband needs his car for work and not everything is walkable from our house. But I like the idea of driving less for financial and environmental reasons! I also love the idea of this series of posts and look forward to more. Thank you for your inspiration.

    • Haley says

      Thanks, Angie! It’s not workable for everybody depending on work schedules and locations. And it would be really hard to be homebound every day!

  6. says

    We were a one car “family” (just the two of us) for the first year we were married. We lived on campus so my husband could walk to classes and his lab and I had the car to drive 20 miles to a hospital in another city (no jobs available in Atlanta proper). We bought a second car very cheaply from his parents the next year when we found a place to live off-campus that was cheaper and would be easier for me to get to work so the trade-off in cost seemed to make sense. Lately it has seemed that we could go back to one car, especially since we just moved to this town where it sounds like our set-up is just like yours–walking distance to all the things you mentioned. We are about 4 blocks from the main street and our parish is the block diagonal from us! My husband needs a car because his job is more than 30 minutes away, but if I can find one here in town, maybe we could downsize!

  7. April says

    We have been a one car family for 5 years,but 2 moves later we’ve unfortunately reached a season where it just doesn’t work anymore. My husband now commutes 35-45 minutes one way each day, meaning the car is gone 10 hours a day. There are no coworkers nearby to carpool and no public transport. We also live in a neighborhood that isn’t in walking distance of anything– we had a sudden job change & move, and we had to find a rental we could afford. All that to say, we’re saving for a second car. We won’t buy it until we can pay for it outright, but it has been SO HARD to be stuck at home with 2 littles in a new pace with no friends (and when we first got here, LOTS and LOTS of snow). The first 5 years with one car were absolutely perfect for us, though! I’ll miss the simplicity and frugality of it.

  8. MaryP says

    We are a one car family! My husband walks a mile to get to a bus stop and take the bus in to work. We are walkable to the grocery store and pediatricians and I have the car most days to run kids around. Some days if he has to work late it means we have to load up and go pick up daddy, but it is so worth it for extra family time and for the thousands we save a year!

    • Mary says

      That sounds exactly like us, except the bus stop is only a couple of blocks away. 🙂 I’m so glad you posted this, Haley, because I was starting to think we were the only ones!

  9. Amy says

    This is great! Can’t wait to read the rest of your tips & ideas. We have 5 kiddos….older now, raning from 14-24….but we have always been a one-income family. So, YES, it CAN be done!! 😉

  10. Jayne says

    We are a one car family. My hubby has a company car so we actually pay for nothing for our lovely wagon, which is a massive saving each year. We live 35kms from the city & 3.5kms from the centre of our suburb, although there is a mini shopping area 1.5kms from home, with my osteopath, Post office for my Etsy packages, pharmacy, fruit shop, coffee shop, bakery, small gourmet market & health food store.
    I organise my away from home work days(26kms from home) to coordinate with hubby passing the train station on his 20min drive to work, then I spend 30mins in the train with a 1km walk to the school at the other end.
    . If the kids are running late, a couple of trips to the station by bus, smartens up their routine.
    And this week while I have a school production on at night I catch the bus & train. I also spend every school week Saturday at the school making costumes for the 4 productions we do a year.
    The real test is when 3 teenagers have 3 different activities on at different places & times. I stay home to coordinate dinner, & hubby dashes around madly.

  11. says

    We’re a one car family, too. We’ve made decisions in our living location, so my husband can continue to bike to work. He typically gets the car maybe once a week during the summer, and then in the winter it’s more frequent because of our harsh weather. It’s been a great financial un-burden for us!

    • Haley says

      It must be a lot trickier in the north! Here we have to deal with serious heat and mugginess in the summer, but snow must be much more of a challenge.

  12. says

    We moved a couple years ago to a more central location. We haven’t gone down to one car, but I have thought about it. We don’t have any car payments though. since my husband works nights and I work during the day, part of me thinks with just a bit of planning, we could really do the one-car thing….but maybe we’ll figure it out when the kids are just a bit older and I have one (or two!) driving. 🙂

    • Haley says

      I can’t decide whether having driving age kids sounds helpful or more just makes life more wild! I guess we’ll find out in a decade 🙂

  13. says

    We we’re a one car family when we lived in urban Cleveland and a small town in Oregon (about 2.5 years) and it was great in each of those situations. The location of things, even in the bigger cities, in Iowa doesn’t make it feasible right now (sadface). We just don’t have good city layout or ample bus schedules in town yet – we have a big city/suburb division so the nearest anything to most homes is about 5-6 miles (bike-able only about 1/2 of the year or less because of weather). I do consider us a 1.5 car family because that second car is only used for the 10 mile commute to my parking space and back and we try to be home focused as much as possible.

    One thing we do do to save a little is joint errands with my parents/grandparents on the weekends – saves some gas and money and helps reinforce that home/family connection. I’m also making more of an effort to consolidate shopping trips/errands so that our car use stays minimal – I see a lot of carpooling to children’s activities in our future.

    I’d like to be a one car family again in the future – but alas we dream of getting out of the city and closer to the countryside the next time we move (in 5-8 years), so our one car days might be something of the past for now.

  14. says

    Right now we can manage to be a one-car family (the two of us and little one on the way) without a problem. I just plan all my errands ahead of time for the one day when I take the car and drop my husband off for work, picking him up at the end of the day when I’m done. I am fortunate to have a job I work part-time from home. I love the fact that sharing the car forces me to be efficient about my errands and my weekly planning; I know that if a second car were available to me, I’d use it much more frequently and be less streamlined.

    We’ll see how much we’re able to keep it up when our home fills up! I like your focus on location; we’d love to live somewhere where walking is a common option (and maybe someday we could get good at biking, although I KNOW I’d never be up for toting 7!! Craziness!).

    Also, that chicken coop is hilarious! What the what?!?

    • Haley says

      I know! I thought that woman was awesome! I don’t think I could ever do that either. And that chicken coop is craaaazy! It’s nicer than my house, haha.

  15. Sarah says

    Thanks so much for this series. It couldn’t be more timely, as I’m almost 17 weeks pregnant with our first baby and had always planned to go back to work, but now find myself dreading the end of my maternity leave and longing to stay home with baby Sweet Pea. We have talked about becoming a one-car family if my husband is able to get a job he could commute to using public transit, and so I’m glad to know how you’ve done it!

    • Haley says

      I had a hard time returning to work after our first baby was born, so I sympathize! I hope you’re able to figure out a way to stay home if that’s what your heart desires!

  16. says

    So funny. I am visiting your blog through a mutual friend (Ruth Kaiser) who though I might enjoy it, and I currently have a couple posts very similar to this in the works as a part of a simple living series I am working on! What a happy coincidence. We are a one-income and one-car family as well and loving it!

  17. says

    So excited about this new series!!! We are definitely a one car family! My husband is working on his ph.D and I take care of our littles and having one car DEFINITELY keeps our costs lower!!!

  18. cheryl says

    We have two cars now, but when I had 3 kids under 3 we were a one car family. We lived in NY and had no money. His income didn’t even cover our rent. My husband was in his residency and I would have to get the kids up at midnight, into the car and to the hospital to pick him up– then do it all over again at 6 am. Our FUN times were walking to the grocery store and letting the kids sit on those little cars you put the quarter in — only I never put the quarter in and the kids never knew the difference. Good times!

  19. says

    We don’t have a car (or any bikes). We live in Boston, and everything we’d want on a daily basis is walkable, or if it isn’t, we take public transport. My midwife comes to our apartment for prenatal visits, since her office is in southern MA. My husband takes public transport to work, and I take it to school. Even if we had a car, we have no idea where we’d park it! We do have a zipcar membership for the occasional bulky-item shopping trip (though we order those online whenever we can) and weekend getaways to western MA. I don’t even have a license.

    • Haley says

      Sounds like an amazing set up! One of my friends has a midwife that does prenatal visits at her house and I’m so jealous.

  20. Beth says

    Please keep writing on this! I’m getting married in the fall and hope when we have children to be a SAHM. However, we would only be living about 40k then and I’m not sure if it is doable long term.

    • Haley says

      It’s been doable for us so far! And I think what we’re figuring out is that each child costs less because you already have all the stuff from the first babies. Best wishes on your marriage 🙂

  21. says

    We’ve had just one car for the past two years since getting married, and most of the time I don’t really notice. Like you, we lived in a walkable part of town, so it was easy and actually preferable to skip the car for short errands and for church. Also, I was unemployed when we first got married, but by the time I had a job, I was able to carpool to work with a friend at the same time that Andrew got a teaching job 45 minutes away. We’re about to move to a new city with a great train system, so hopefully we’ll be able to pull it off a little longer. I imagine that babies can make things a little more complicated if both parents need the car, what with carseats and everything, but I guess we’ll find out soon!

  22. says

    Living in NW Montana means everything is spread way apart. We have times when it is one car and times when it is two. One thing we have not had is car payments, and my husband is decent mechanic so he can do car maintenance just fine. Even when we have two cars we try to plan our days in town well, so that we are not going in for little trips. When we are able to have the small farm we dream of we hope one family car and one truck will do the trick. Looking forward to seeing how you manage as non-typical American family.

    • Haley says

      Your location makes such a big difference! I can imagine that it’s tricky with everything spread out.

  23. says

    I love this! My hubby and I don’t have kids yet, but we are about to be a one car family. We just don’t need the second car! My hubby bikes to work, and I drive to my part-time job. It works for us. I’m so excited about being a one car family 🙂 We’re currently looking for a house and one of our requirements is that it has to be within a 5 mile radis of Hubby’s work so that he can still bike. Thanks for our encouraging blog!

  24. Kelly (New Leaf Wellness) says

    My husband and I shared a car for three years. Only bought a second one a few months ago because he started a new job that required driving. It’s wonderful when public transportation works out!

    • Haley says

      Yes! Because my husband is so close to work and can bike, we haven’t had to look into public transportation, but I hear it’s not too great in our town : /

  25. says

    We have gone back and forth. Right now we are a one car family. Planning and compromise does bring people together, but sometimes not having a second car can just be a hassle. My husband and I have 6 children here on Earth and drive a 12 passenger van, so gas is a huge concern. For us, it would be more economical to have a second, much smaller car, to allow him to take that to work (I’m a homemaker) or either of us to make a grocery run or take just one or two children somewhere (like to doctors appointments).

    • Haley says

      That makes sense, Bridget! We can still fit the three car seats in the back of our Camry, but if we’re blessed with another baby we’ll have to figure out the van stuff!

  26. says

    Thanks for this post — it’s good inspiration for making one car work with a family! I grew up in a small town outside a medium-sized city where it was pretty much necessary to have two cars per family… no amenities in town, no bus service, harsh winters=no biking year-round, etc… so it’s great to read a different cultural perspective.

    This is something my husband and I have been thinking about– so far we make it work without a car, but we don’t have kids yet and we’re lucky to live in a college town with basic amenities within walking/biking distance.

    • Haley says

      I think the harsh winters are a game-changer. We live in Florida, so sweating to death is the danger here 🙂 I hopped over to your blog and see you’re in Guatemala with the Peace Corp? One of my best friends married a wonderful Guatemalan man and they live there now but I’m not sure what town!

  27. says

    We are a family of four that was car-free for almost three years.
    Like you said, location, location, location. We choose to live within walking distance of amenities for the ease it affords us.
    Recently we purchased a car, second hand and about $1100. It is tiny (we live in Europe) and the car seats just fit in the back seat. It is great on gas and we don’t drive it much.
    Most people assume we got the car because of our second child and that it was untenable to continue on without a car and two kids. Not true!
    We actually bought the car so we could go to Crossfit. Yep. The Crossfit box here is in a tricky spot with no easy transportation options to it.
    It’s been a month since we bought the car and we keep forgetting we have it. A good sign that we are still getting out and walking – our favourite mode of transportation.

  28. says

    We have a car and a truck and our daughter can’t ride in the truck (no back seat). I don’t know that we could do one vehicle because we’ve never lived walking distance/biking distance from anything. And honestly, I would be afraid to try it because I’m be so worried if our one vehicle broke down. At this point, it doesn’t really cost that much for us to have two vehicles (insurance is really cheap and will be even less when we move again, neither car has needed much more maintenance than oil changes – which we do ourselves – since we got married). But really, I don’t drive that much or take Lucia many places without my husband so we could probably survive on one car. Oops, now I’m rambling…

    • Haley says

      I think having the benefits of having one car rather than two really depends on your situation! If you can’t bike, walk, or take public transit, moving to only one car would be difficult.

  29. Katherine says

    We became a one car family after our first child was born, 2 years ago. At first it was just to make financial ends meet, but now we like the simplicity of our life. My husband bikes to work. He now really likes getting the exercise his body and mind needs, without having to take special time out of his day to do so. We are in the process of buying a house, and once we have I too will be able to do more walking and biking with our 2 precious children. I’m looking forward to freedom that comes from not feeling like we need a car to be able to do things.

  30. amy says

    This post is very timely – we are normally a two job, two car family, but I teach and its summertime. A week into summer my husband’s car broke down and now we are sharing one car while we decide whether the cost of a new one is worth my husband staying at work when I go back to school in August. We live in Houston – in the suburbs – which isn’t a very good city to not have a car in. However, we are making it work now – with the help of friends who are willing to come get us if they want to do activities with us. It’s been a rough transition but this piece helped.

  31. says

    We were a one car family for all of our marriage until two years ago when we became a no-car family. That wasn’t by choice (we just didn’t have the ability to replace our car), but we have learned to make it work. My husband rides the bus to work and does a LOT of walking (five – seven miles a day) and we all ride the bus when we go out as a family. We do live right by a grocery store, which is a blessing, and that makes a big difference.

  32. says

    I’m the oldest of eight and we were a one car family for a few years. Candidly, it was horrible.
    However, I KNOW that was because we lived way out in the country, so we couldn’t do anything without a car–no swim lessons, no running for milk, nothing.
    My dad ran his own business, so he always used the car, which necessitated leaving my mom homebound.
    Once we finally got a second car again, it was such a blessing–especially because my dad’s work area moved to an hour and a half away. I’ve noticed that–for larger families in the church–cars tend to be given to them for free, or sold at very little cost. Obviously, these are not fancy vehicles, but they do run. 😀

    Now that half of us are grown ( mom has four in college, five driving) we’ve purchased enough of our own vehicles that we have quite the selection. I have a little car, brother has a big truck, and two of the college kids still bum off friends headed north. It’s awesome to see how the family grows into a connected system. 😀

  33. says

    We’ve been a one-car family for stretches during our marriage. Situationally, sometimes that’s easy, and sometimes that’s more difficult. As a working person about 2 miles from work, with a husband in grad school (and thus, a flexible schedule), it was great. As a mom of two in the middle of Michigan winter, it was not great.

    I’d much rather not load the kiddos into the car to go places, and I love spring/summer/fall because they give me that freedom. We live about 2.5 miles from our parish, and about 1 mile from our grocery store and the library. We’ve been walking to the library and grocery store for quite a while. I biked to church for the first time on Tuesday and felt awesome about my bad self (can I say that I love biking and am so glad that my children are finally of appropriate ages that I can bike with them?). But come winter, I’ll be so glad that I have that car!

  34. Leigh says

    We are a no car family. Never had one. Third kid on the way. Like you we planned well and bought a house that was central to everything (three weeks before #2 came along). I walk to everything with the kids, we take public transit to church or downtown and my husband takes the train into the office.
    And it works!! Really well. We have to slow down a bit and not do a million lessons, but we also know our local area much better.

    • says

      Being a no car family would definitely eliminate one of the big hassles of a big (or even medium sized) family. I know many people who struggle to find cars that will fit all of the requisite car seats for their brood! Does your family live near you?

  35. says

    Two-income two car famiy here so I won’t comment on that part of your post. I will say I always wondered about those huge sums that it cost to raise kids. I wondered if day care was part of the sum–daycare as in either the cost I pay the sitter or day care as the amount you aren’t making because you are home with the kids. Turns out, that’s not it either. The reason it costs so much to raise kids is that those figures charge the kids rent. In short, if you add your rent or house payment, along with your monthly bills like power, phone, cable etc. you get an amount. Now, divide that number by the number of people who live in your house. Each kid is “costing” you that much (in addition to what it costs to feed, clothe, entertain or provide healthcare for that kid). Since in my experience the size and price of people’s houses has more to do with the size of their income than the size of their family, that metric makes no sense to me.

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  36. Cat says

    We are a one car family with two working parents. This was not by choice, however, we are completey opposed to taking on a car payment with our current financial situation. It is very messy for us as our schedules are not always the same and my husband sometimes needs the van to perform tasks at his job. I am blessed because it works for us completely based on the flexability of my husband’s employer and having a father who will occassionally bail us out of a bind by transporting the kids and I. We do have to coordinate things more and I feel like it makes us communicate more.

  37. Stacey D says

    I LOVE this post. We have been a single income family since my husband and I were married. I worked while my husband finished his Masters, but other than that I’ve been blessed to be a stay at home mom (even now as he works on his doctorate!). It really is all about choices and what you are willing to do. We’ve been a one-car family, and at other times, were blessed with two. It is amazing what you can make do with, when you try.

    I have several friends who claim that it just isn’t possible for them and perhaps that is true. However, I have a friend who is mom to 8 children and they do well on one income (and a 15-passenger van). I have another friend with 10 children who work with mostly one income. She has just become a doula, but doesn’t work regularly.

    Thank you so much for giving great tips and helps!

  38. Meabh says

    Haley – firstly I wanted to say how much I love your blog. I am always entranced anytime I pop over to have a look (and I always spend too long on here when I should be working!). And a special belated congratulations on your new arrival – God Bless her, her siblings and of course, her parents! I wanted to say – good on you for sticking to the one car policy for as long as you can. I’m the eldest of five, and for most of my life my parents only had one car: a five-seater until Baby No. 4 came along, and then they traded up to a seven-seater. My mum works in a school so she had the car most days, whilst my dad worked from home – he used to take the littlies to school by bicycle and cycle most places. Like most family matters, organisation was key! In fact, my parents only just got a second car a few years ago- and whilst in has been very useful, especially when I decided to learn to drive (I was scared of learning in a 7 seater ‘van’ car!), my parents managed just fine on one car through 5 babies and 21 years! So good on you and your family, and stick with it as long as you can! x

  39. says

    Your children must love those bikerides! Nothing like being moved by your parent’s personal strength.
    We’re one-car with a work-from-home dad. We worked very hard to find a house where we can walk/bike to most places we need to reach in town: grocery store, library, pool, etc. I share the school commute with 1-3 other families (depending on our children’s schedules), which saves even more gas and time.
    The car is a VW Golf – 45 mpg highway. We have two children (but the full-size cello counts for another child). Buying the smallest car that will fit your family’s everyday needs, with the smallest possible engine, saves money both in the purchase and in the running.


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