Want to save for a down payment? Stay home with your kids? Earn a degree?
It may seem impossible, but people throughout the country give up a salary to make it happen. If you want to manage on one salary, there is a magic bullet. It's managing your spending habits.
Couples who succeed at saving one salary or living on only one paycheck are very disciplined about spending.
They depend on a range of strategies to live on less while they pursue a goal. The bottom line: Substantial investments in your future usually require substantial financial adjustments.
Some regret over past spending inspires Diksha Rai, 38, a stay-at-home parent in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, to spend as little as possible.
Now, minimalism and careful budgeting gives her a feeling of control.
"I feel everything we are saving is helping us reach closer to our goal," Rai said.
You need a budget but you don't have to download YNAB or Mint. No offense to the popular budgeting apps, but Rai and her husband didn't like them.
They were too complicated, Rai says, so they created their own budgeting method. They use the memo app on their smartphones. (Everyone has one.)
"We keep a tab on everything we spend, even if it's only a dollar," Rai said. She records all purchases on the app. Then, she copies and pastes the amounts into WhatsApp, the communication app, to send to her husband. He tallies it weekly and puts it all into Excel.
Their other adjustment: minimalism. "We purged a lot of our stuff," Rai said. The reason was partly a new pared-down approach to life and partly living in a smaller space, with her in-laws, while they save to buy their own home.
They joined a three-month online "fashion challenge" called Project 333 to cut down on their wardrobes. They canceled their expensive gym membership and extra classes, and found they could do well with a local Y that has free classes and a free babysitting service.
Living with her in-laws is motivating, Rai says. "No matter how great it is, you want to have your own space," she said. "Every penny goes to the down payment."
You may have more time and skills than income. In that case, see if you can trade either for cash or goods.
Josiah Bartlett, 28, has cleared trees and done other odd jobs in his Mount Vernon, Washington, community to supplement his fluctuating salary, which is under $60,000.
Bartlett, a media broker, and his wife, a stay-at-home parent, use a grab bag of cost-cutting measures. His wife uses her skills as a licensed cosmetologist to barter for fresh eggs, milk and goat cheese. Bartlett shops for secondhand clothes on Craigslist for secondhand clothes for their two small children.
Kids' clothes can be tantalizingly cute, Bartlett says, but "you have to tell yourself no," he said. "If it's not worn out, I don't get rid of it." Bartlett still has clothes he wore in high school. "We've never been super coupon folks, but have always been pretty frugal," Bartlett said.
The best thing you can do, says Bartlett, is to build community. "Every time I needed extra work, I just let our community know and I would suddenly have multiple avenues for making ends meet," Bartlett said.
Ability and energy are key, he says. "Invest in other people," Bartlett said. "It's totally possible."
Bethany Serene Wright, 26, works in medical education. Her husband, Benjamin Wright, 27, has been a stay-at-home parent for the couple's 4-year-old twin sons since they were born.
Bethany Wright, who hosts surgical training at her workplace, says it's an ideal situation. At the time they had kids, his income from a retail job at a grocery store would have been about the same as the cost of child care.
Her salary, about $60,000, is more than adequate for their life in Dallas, where they own a three-bedroom home. Their mortgage payment, including property tax and homeowner's insurance is $575. Before they purchased the house, they lived with Benjamin's parents, and paid $275 each month to rent a room.
Communication is key. They have regular relationship check-ins to exchange their thoughts and feelings, and "be sure our feelings are on the same path," Bethany said.
About an hour a day, whenever the boys are napping, Benjamin produces embroidered items for his Etsy shop. "It's a couple of hundred dollars a month," he said. "It pays for the car note."
Bethany says she came from a poor family. "I was the youngest of six, and my father was on disability," she said. "It amazes me now: I can buy what I want, when I want it."
She was highly motivated to get through college and own a home, because she wanted to live differently.
"We always knew this was going to be our plan," Bethany said. "We always knew I'm in such a specialized field, my income would be higher."
Being able to spend more time with his family is priceless. To do it, Vivek Gulati, 41, works from home as a software engineer while his wife studies Ayurvedic medicine.
What made it more possible was moving from the San Francisco Bay Area to a place with a much lower cost of living: Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"We couldn't afford to buy where we were," Gulati said.
Albuquerque may not be as rich in tech jobs, but the highly affordable cost of living made it a slam dunk. For just $460,000, they bought a 2,500-square-foot house. A similar home would likely cost over $1 million anywhere in the Bay Area.
Groceries are more expensive in Albuquerque, and if you travel, flights cost more. One trade-off is that gas is cheaper. Their son takes karate lessons for $85 a month. "We were paying $200 a month in California," Gulati said. "Those kinds of things add up."
Gulati credits the couple's practice of meditation with their assurance and open conversations about finance. "Somehow, things always work out if you're doing something life-supporting," he said.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.