Although my previous post wasn't necessarily written in response to any particular critique, I'll go ahead and admit that this post is. Specifically, critiques of military wives. For those of you who are married to someone in the service, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Simply Google "military spouses" or "military dependents" and let the fun begin. Didn't you know we're all about a bunch of fat, lazy, uneducated leeches who let our children run wild all over housing, while we sit on the couch, stuffing our faces full of Doritos and watching reality TV all day? And let's not forget that we spend our husband's (!!!!) entire paycheck on a Michael Kors purse and wallet set at the PX first chance we get. Our homes are disasters, our children are feral, we neglected our appearances long ago, we're always broke and trying to find ways to hang on until next payday, and we have at least one repo under our belts. After all, we aren't referred to as a "dependapotamus" for nothing.
In case you're wondering, no, I'm not exaggerating. These are the stereotypes military spouses (mainly wives) have to deal with on a daily basis. We hear it from soldiers, government employees, and surprisingly (or not surprisingly, depending on how you look at it) other wives. It's disgusting, it VERY RARELY paints an accurate picture of military spouses, but the stereotype simply won't die. As if that weren't bad enough, I see posts on social media all the time scorning one-income families, insinuating that women who stay at home are a drain on their family's finances, and a major source of stress to our husbands. Now, I'm not here to defend my decision to be a stay at home mother. As far as I'm concerned, that's between my husband and I, and if someone has a problem with that, they can go kick rocks. Nor am I here to slam working mothers, because I don't think there's anything TO slam. Some women couldn't imagine being out of the workforce for years, and giving up their careers. I get that. If I hadn't gotten married shortly after graduating college, and had a career of my own (rather than jobs wherever we were stationed), I'm sure I would have a hard time giving up my career, too. I also completely understand that many women may not want to work, but they have to, either for insurance or financial reasons (or both). Again, I completely understand, and I'm not setting out to make anyone feel like they have to justify their choice.
What I DO intend to do is squash the notion that one-income families are drowning in debt, or barely hanging on by a thread while our husbands (because let's be honest, most of the time if there's a stay at home parent, it's the mother) work themselves to the bone. Without getting too personal-in other words, I won't be posting our monthly salary-I'll show that we not only survive, but thrive on one income. We're not wanting for anything. Our kids do not go without. We may not have the latest and greatest technological toys, but that was never anything that was important to Will and I, even when we were DINKS. So, let's get the details out of the way right now.
We do not have any credit card debt. None at all. Nor do we have any kind of store credit debt. We paid off our student loans years ago (Will had a relatively small loan of $2500, and mine was over $16, 000). Seeing as how the Army chooses to move us every two years, we never bought a home, as that wouldn't make a whole lot of financial sense for us. So, we don't have a mortgage. What we do have, slightly to my dismay, is two car loans. This is fairly recent; as of last Saturday, we have a new (to us; it's a CPO) minivan. That wasn't technically in financial plans, but neither was a fourth child fourteen months after I delivered the last one. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches. But in any case, for the first time in our lives, we have two car loans. I'll admit I'm slightly uncomfortable with this, and I've been going over our budget with a fine-tooth comb, and making plans to pay off our SUV within the next year. But in the grand scheme of things...it's not the end of the world. We sleep easy at night knowing that we're in a position where we can afford two car payments at once, and both of us drive safe, reliable vehicles that won't die on us next month. But the question remains...how can we afford this type of luxury on one income?
The first step for Will and I was learning to distinguish between "need" versus "want." When we were living overseas and both of us were working full-time, we got in the habit of going out to dinner and bars with our friends at least once a week, going on fabulous European vacations, dropping $200 on a whim to stock up our wine rack, and generally just buying whatever we wanted, when we wanted. Now, we still managed to contribute a good amount of money to our retirement and savings accounts during that time, so I'm hesitant to refer to that period in our lives as "irresponsible." But things definitely changed when I got pregnant and we moved back to the States, and we worked very hard over the years to change the spending habits that had become familiar to us. What were the most significant changes we made to our lifestyle?
1. Budget, budget, budget.
Sounds incredibly simple, doesn't it? You would be surprised at how many people I know who cringe at the thought of putting down their income and expenses on paper. Why, I'm really not sure. Perhaps they see it as restrictive? It's really not; if anything, it's freeing. You know exactly where your money is going every pay period, where you can cut back, how much you have left over to add to the "fun money" category, etc. I have a Pinterest board dedicated to money saving tips, and I saved quite a few pins with free budget printables that I use every month. Give it a try!
2. Meal plan
We rarely eat out anymore. Firstly, I don't particularly enjoy dining out with small children. I'm not going to bring my "age six and under" crew to a fancy restaurant, so on the rare occasions when we DO bring them out to eat, it's at a kid-friendly restaurant. The food is rarely anything to write home about, and we're lucky if our kids take more than three bites out of their $8 meals. If we're going to spend money on dining out, Will and I want to go to a quiet, slightly upscale restaurant that both of us would enjoy, and not have to worry about our kids crushing soda crackers on the floor. So yes, we eat the majority of our meals at home. I'm fortunate in that I enjoy cooking, my family likes my cooking, and I have perfected the art of making enough food the night before so Will can bring leftovers to work for lunch the next day. Cooking at home is cheaper, healthier, and in my humble opinion, tastier than most of the food you would buy at a restaurant. Which leads me to my next piece of advice...
3. Make meals from scratch
A rule that I adopted over the past few years is, "if I can make it myself, I can't buy it at the store." You would think this would be complicated and time consuming, but it really isn't. I never purchase the following things from grocery stores anymore (some of which I never did in the first place):
Marinara sauce (or "gravy," depending on where you live).
Any kind of bread. I make it all; sandwich bread, garlic bread, rolls, etc.
Broth. Broth is ridiculously easy to make, and the homemade versions are so.much.better than their store-bought counterparts.
Desserts. If I'm craving cookies, pies, cupcakes, what have you, I have to make them myself. This is a practical deterrent if I'm craving sugar but don't want to put forth the effort to make it myself. The exception I have to this rule is Italian pastries. I'm not going to spend hours perfecting the art of cannoli shells.
Salad dressing. Not only is it ridiculously easy to make, but I loathe store bought dressing. It's chock full of preservatives and nasty ingredients, and the homemade versions are SO much healthier. I honestly can't remember the last time I bought salad dressing from the store.
4. The best things in life are free
Well, maybe not everything, but with little kids? They don't need to spend every weekend at a museum where tickets are thirty bucks a pop, or amusement parks, or take part in every single enrichment activity. Are those things fun to do every once in a while? Absolutely! But trust me, it's very easy to entertain small children for free, or at least for a very low price. We spend a lot of time at libraries, parks, splash pads in the summer, play dates with friends, or even something out of the ordinary at home. You'd be amazed at how giddy my kids get over "movie Friday," when I allow them to choose a kids movie on Netflix and microwave a bowl of popcorn for them. If it's a deviation from our normal routine, they see it as the coolest thing ever. I'm not saying that children aren't expensive (hello, we already have one in Catholic school!), but you don't need to break the bank to provide them with fun, educational, and social opportunities.
5. Need vs. Want
As I mentioned before, this will be one of the biggest changes you may have to make, but it's also the one where you will see the fastest results. Will and I have taken a good, long look at our expenses over the past few years, and we made some pretty significant changes to our lifestyle. We decided that paying upwards of $150/month for cable was ridiculous (especially considering there were only a few channels we watched regularly), so we cut cable, switched to a basic but reliable internet package, and stuck with Netflix and Amazon Prime for entertainment. If there's a book we want to read, we check it out from the library, instead of purchasing it immediately from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. We don't go crazy during the holidays, and we don't do over-the-top birthdays for our kids (and please believe me when I say, our children aren't missing out. There are many ways to make the holidays and birthdays special without dropping hundreds-or thousands-of dollars. Again, Pinterest to the rescue!!). Also, and most importantly, we cut out impulse buying. Every pay period, after writing out our bi-monthly budget and paying bills, I designate "fun money" for both Will and I. We can use it however we want, but when it's gone, it's gone.
It's taken us a while to get used to a budget-conscious way of life, but it's more freeing than I ever thought it would be. Because we put a good chunk of money into our savings account every month, we don't freak out when the unexpected happens. (And trust me, it will. Just as soon as you think you're getting your financial act together, your washer/dryer set will break down. Or you'll need a major car repair. Or your water heater will blow. Or *cough cough* you'll face an unexpected pregnancy. Can you say "Murphy's Law?"). I'm glad that we can teach our children that "frugal" isn't a bad word, and they will grow up in a home that doesn't embrace our country's throw-away culture. If our kids choose not to take care of their things, they don't get replaced. It's as simple as that.
I can't stress this enough; this post isn't meant to start a debate between the working parent vs the stay at home parent, or to parade the choices we've made as the superior option. We've made our mistakes, just like everyone else on the planet, and some were easier to overcome than others. What I do hope to show is that living on a single income isn't impossible, or unattainable, if that's what you feel would work best for your family. I'm always happy to answer any budget questions you may have, even if they're somewhat personal. :)