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Long-distance on one income: How my partner and I manage two households on one salary

Contributor Erika Moore Taylor shares how she and her partner dream big but spend less by arranging their budget to purposefully live on just one single income.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Erika Moore Taylor
Select’s editorial team works independently to review financial products and write articles we think our readers will find useful. We earn a commission from affiliate partners on many offers, but not all offers on Select are from affiliate partners.

The last 18 months have been challenging for millions of Americans in immeasurable ways, and newlyweds in particular have had to forgo their fantasy weddings to keep friends and loved ones safe.

My partner and I got married in May 2020 near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Like many other couples, we had a small, socially distanced wedding that was budget-friendly and perfect for what we wanted. But unlike many newlyweds who have hunkered down together during quarantine, my husband and I knew we would be spending a few years apart after we said "I do," living in different states (Maryland and Florida) because of our jobs.

But so many things were not according to our wishes: We made the transition into marriage in the middle of the pandemic and widespread social unrest. With so much change taking place in our world, my husband and I knew we wanted to create a life of financial freedom. That way, we can one day separate our time from our money and have the ability to live a life according to values that we get to determine.

So before our wedding day, we paid off debt and identified some major long-term goals. They included:

  1. Reaching financial independence
  2. Generating passive income
  3. Saving money to take dope trips around the world

After looking at all we want to accomplish, it became clear: We'd have to start by saving up some serious cash. So I made a pretty radical suggestion: I challenged us to live off of one income (my partner's). My paycheck, I decided, could go toward saving for the future.

At first my partner was skeptical, but we talked it through and realized it could actually work. My partner often makes fun of me because I am the "Queen of Follow-Up," but ask anyone in a long distance relationship and they will tell you it's critically important to communicate around expectations.

I knew we had to get specific. Yes, we want to "travel" but what does that actually mean? How often do we want to travel? When and where should we vacation? How many international trips do we want to take per year?

Doing the hard work of quantifying our goals allowed us to take the next step of honing in on our budget. This all boiled down to a lot of spreadsheets, a lot of conversations and a lot of compromise — but now we love the idea of living solely on one income.

Before I tell you how we do it, I want to acknowledge the privilege my partner and I have with regards to our finances, our livelihoods and our planning. We are both fully employed, able-bodied and capable. I share our story only to inspire other couples who can try out some of the things we have done to make plans for their own financial goals. And that will look different for everybody.

Here's exactly how we broke down our biggest living expenses including rent, transportation and food — and how we compromised to make our budget work for us.

Rent: $1,600

We began by identifying ways we could reduce our cost of living through rent. My partner lives in the Washington D.C. area, known for having a high cost of living. So his tactic was finding a roommate or room-for-rent situation. We searched through multiple listings, and he even asked multiple people if they would be open to this kind of scenario. He was able to secure a place to stay and in that, in one move, literally reduced his rent by over 50%.

I moved to a lower-cost-of-living city in Florida. Rent prices in my area are about 10% below the national average. I forged online connections and was able to find and secure a lease that was also below the average in my area.

With these moves, we were able to reduce our combined rent from $2,400 combined to around $1,600 per month.  Thus, we hacked away at our largest cost of living expense. 

Transportation: $300

We both drive older used vehicles that are fully paid off. We made little concessions in this area, as we both require a car to get to work so in total, our gas budget is $300 per month. Any extra funds that are not used on gas are put in a savings account for future car repairs/maintenance. 

Food: $1,000

We made a commitment to cooking more meals at home and to limit eating out, thus reducing our food budgets a bit. However, we left the bulk of our food budget untouched as food is a large motivator for how we both spend our money. We now budget $1,000 per month on food. We can't say how much of a reduction that was compared to our previous budgets because we had previously not really tracked our spending on food. 

Travel: $600

As a couple living separately and with the assumption of safe travel, we added in a budget line item for travel (short-term) to ensure we had funds at the ready to see each other. Now that we are fully vaccinated, we are able to use our allocated cash to visit each other and take mini-trips in the U.S.

Currently, we budget $600 a month for flights to see each other. For the last year of being long-distance, we plan to see each other once a month with most of our trips consisting of visits to each other's home and thus avoiding costly lodging expenses. When we do travel for a vacation, we plan to use our credit card points to supplement the costs of airfare and lodging.

Wiggle room: $250

All of this hardcore budgeting is very cute, but — as we realized when we made our budget after getting married — we're in the middle of a pandemic! The pandemic had taken our ability to clearly see the future and anticipate unexpected costs, or even little, fun purchases that make us feel better while we wait things out.

So I added a line item in our budget for wiggle. Yes, this is explicit extra cash that can be used for unforeseen circumstances that range from having a bad day (so, buying a nice lunch for myself) or paying for a new hobby (hello, coloring) or donating to those in need (I like to donate to the World Health Organization).

The wiggle is needed. Currently, my partner has a wiggle of $150 and I have a wiggle of $100.

Make budgeting together easier

Here are just a few of Select's favorite budgeting apps for couples:

  • Zeta Joint Cards: Starting this Valentine's Day, you can open a no-fee joint checking account with built-in features like automatic bill reminders, budgeting tools and in-app messaging to help partners communicate and build transparency.
  • Honeyfi: Set shared savings goals, track individual and shared spending, and get notifications/balance updates so you both are always on the same page.
  • Honeydue: Collaborate on shared projects/goals and coordinate bills, while using the in-app messaging feature to let your partner know you're on top of it.
  • You Need a Budget (YNAB): Perfect for the "yours/mine/ours" approach, set up individual budgets and a separate budget for household spending. Adjust your income preferences so when you get paid, the money gets allotted to the budget of your choice

Putting it all together: How we actually budget

As we tallied up all of our expenses using a home-made Google Sheet, we made conscious choices to reduce our costs. We realized we could actually pull it off!

At the beginning of each month, my partner sends me my budget for the month, and then we track our expenses as we go.

We haven't forgotten about our long-term goals, either — they are being handled by my salary while my partner pays for our lives today. We look at this as a divide-and-conquer type of situation.

One reason why I love the one-salary challenge is that it forces me and my partner to trim the fat and supercharge our savings. By considering what life is like on one income, one could even ask: Do we even need two incomes? Or can we save enough money to make working unnecessary?

As we've seen in the pandemic, jobs are not guaranteed. By living off of one salary, my partner and I are better prepared in the event that we both might not always have or hold a job. 

But since we are both fortunate enough to be bringing in income at this time, we can focus my salary 100% on the future. With it, we invest in retirement accounts and save a portion in high yield savings accounts for specific trips. The flexibility of my income is nearly endless and it's afforded by making the conscious choice to live off one salary. 

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.