Trapped by Two Incomes

Steve Scalici, CFP(r)

There is a popular saying I’m sure you’ve heard:  Two heads are better than one. Often times, we may hear someone say two incomes are better than one. But, I believe this type of thinking can actually trap families - particularly mothers - in a well of family stress. 

The truth is, after taxes and other work related expenses including clothing, daycare, automobile expenses, takeout meals and so on, most second incomes add little if any real dollars to a family’s bottom line. 

In The Four Laws of Debt Free Prosperity, author Blaine Harris makes this statement: “Your level of expenses will always rise to your level of income unless you protest to the contrary.” That’s simply a fancy way of saying, “You spend what you make.”

It has been my experience that most families can, in fact, make it on one income. Now, occasionally, I do meet a couple where it just isn’t possible because the income is simply too low. But, those are the exceptions rather than the rule, and the reality is most two income families could live on one income. In fact, most want to but just don’t see how they can. The problem comes when the line between true needs and wants begin to crumble, and families find themselves falling into the “two income trap.” Below are some of the dangers we find in the trap:

1.   Because we spend what we make, we grow accustomed to a certain lifestyle that is predicated on two incomes. Once we have settled into a certain lifestyle, it seems impossible for one parent to stay home. But, very rarely would the decision to move to one income result in having to cut into providing for the basic needs of our families. 

2.  Working mothers often share with me that they spoil their children out of guilt for working. So, they end up spending money to make up for lost time. That never has - and never will - work.

3.  The most overlooked cost faced by double-income families is the physical toll it takes on mothers

My good friend Brant Hanson has this to say about the stress working mothers face:

If she's stressed out every night, because of her job, let her quit her job. If you can't afford it, afford it. Sell stuff. Move. Rent. Forget the college fund. Don't buy dumb cars and houses and stuff to make yourself feel cool, and miss out on a joyous, stress-limited marriage. She can take care of herself. It'll give her time, and energy, to love her children, her neighbors, and you.

So you bought her a nice car? Who gives a rip? She'd rather drive an old mini-van and have you around, living life together at a sweet, beautiful pace. Even if she doesn't think she wants this, she does.

Quit buying junk and live in a trailer if you have to.

Brant makes some great points. In the cases where both parents do have to work because of limited income earning ability, it is imperative that both spouses share the responsibilities of housework and childcare.

How Do We Climb Out of the Trap?

Okay, you’ve found yourself in the two income trap and would now like to climb out.  Before you do, however, ask yourself these questions.

1. Can you realistically cut back enough on your lifestyle to live on one income?  

2. Do you have an emergency savings fund? If you don't have one now on two incomes, then it may not be realistic to expect to build up an emergency fund on one income.

3. Do you have life insurance on both spouses? Does the spouse who intends to stay working have disability insurance?

4. What benefits (health, 401k, dental insurance, company car, etc.) would you lose by one spouse quitting? Can you either replace or do without these benefits on one income?

5. Other than your mortgage, how much debt do you have?  It may not be realistic to expect to reduce your income and try to get out of debt as well.

6. If financially you can't live on one income, do you have the flexibility to get creative? Can the spouse who would like to stay home reduce their hours at their current job, work from home, job share or get a different part-time job? Can you turn a passion into a home business?

Don’t let negative answers to these questions put you off from making a desired change. Instead, let them serve as tools to use as you prepare to move from two incomes to one. One tip is to practice living on one income and begin saving the income of the spouse who plans on leaving the workforce. Not only does this allow you to practice living on one income, but it will also leave you with a safety net once you make any changes.

I’d like to conclude by confessing that I struggled with whether or not to write this article. I realize I have touched on a sensitive issue for many of you reading this - especially those of you who desire to live on one income but truly cannot due to life’s circumstances. It is not my intention to judge anyone because I do not claim to know each individual family situation. But, if you find your family and your marriage suffocating under the load of both parents working, I hope this article will encourage you to consider another way.

Steve Scalici is a Certified Financial PlannerTM with Treasure Coast Financial. He is co-host of God's Money, which can be heard on the internet at You can contact Steve at