How We Get By (And Live Large!) On A Single Income

The ultimate act of rebellion in a consumption-based society is joyful frugality. And I’m grateful to say that my family has both joy and frugality in spades. I might add that the two are more interconnected than you might imagine.

It’s been over 3 years since we were a 2-paycheck household. Danielle has been blissfully working her tail off at home with no monetary compensation since Greyson was born, and my income is respectable (depending on who’s doing the respecting) but fairly modest. With 2 children and 1 mortgage, my paycheck needs to go a long way. But despite these seemingly long odds, in this tricky economy, we’re financially stable and are comfortably maintaining our nest egg and retirement savings.

So how do we pull it off? After all, the American hive isn’t exactly built for the benefit of the worker bees. In this era of creeping kleptocracy, the rich are getting richer — but that doesn’t mean the rest of us are doomed to a life of anxiety and credit card debt. On the contrary! Joy is eminently attainable, and so is a balanced family budget.

Below, you will find more than $3,500 of annual savings that Danielle and I have happily carved out of our family budget for the sake of making our simple little life economically viable. Without taking these actions, we would slowly hemorrhage money until our nest egg eventually collapsed. But by making these simply choices, none of which impede our enjoyment of life in the slightest, we have made ourselves financially solvent.

This, my friends, is how you beat the system.


Politely tell your cable provider to shove it.

In a world of infinite streaming content, overpriced cable packages will be obsolete within a decade. So hasten the demise (or more likely, strategic restructuring) of those dreaded cable providers — and save yourself a boatload of cash — by canceling your cable bill! In my experience, 1 or 2 streaming platforms are more than sufficient to mentally overwhelm you with viewing options. Who needs an additional 500 TV channels to turn that mild anxiety into a full-blown nervous breakdown? Plus, as an added bonus, streaming platforms don’t have commercials! So you’ll never have to watch a MyPillow ad again.

What we do: For most of the year, we subscribe to Netflix and Amazon Prime. Now and then, we swap out Netflix for Hulu. Either way, we pay a fraction of the price of a cable package and get all the viewing we could possibly find time for — and much, much, much, much more.

What we save: $420-600 per year ($25/month compared to $60-75/month)


Break up (over the phone!) with your phone carrier.

It’s common knowledge that both cable and cell phone providers are the bane of our 21st century existence. Calling Comcast or Verizon for customer service is the modern equivalent of getting a root canal — a procedure which, ironically, is now not all that torturous by comparison. So why do we put up with the Verizons and Sprints of the world? Because we think we’re stuck with them.

Well, I have good news for you. News which surprised me when I learned it myself a few years ago. There are “little guy” phone carriers that can save you a ton of hassle and a ton of money. They’re not commonly known; you just have to dig a little. And by doing so, you can extricate an overpriced cell phone carrier from your life like the rotting cavity it is.

What we do: We ditched Verizon 3 years ago for Ting, a charmingly low-key Canadian carrier with consistently responsive, warmly affable customer service. Ting somehow utilizes Sprint’s network, but without Sprint’s exorbitant costs. If Sprint and Verizon are sharks — and they are — a company like Ting is a friendly remora. So rid your life of sharks and find yourself a nice remora.

What we save: $950 per year ($48/month compared to $127/month for 2 lines)


Hug an Amish person.

Wait, let me be more specific. You’ll first need to find a specific Amish person. One who manages one of the 5 sensationally cheap BB’s Grocery Outlets located in southeast Pennsylvania.

And then hug that Amish person. Because he’s about to (in a manner of speaking) stuff a bunch of cash in your wallet.

The first time we visited BB’s and saw the prices, our eyes probably bugged out of our heads like Looney Tunes characters. $3 for olive oil. $2 for high-end cat food. $1 for cereal. 33 cents for a box of tea. 25 cents for yogurt. I’ve never seen anything like it. BB’s has utterly ruined us for Giant and Weis, whose prices are double, triple, quadruple, even quintuple what you’ll find at their unassuming Amish competitor. Plus, the inventory is different every week. So you never know what you might find on any given visit. I could gush about this place for days, but here’s my simple pitch: If you like to keep your money, shop at BB’s.

What We Do: For 5 years now, we’ve been making one monthly 45-minute grocery run to the BB’s near Newville. The gas money we spend to drive there is paid off after walking down just one aisle — and sometimes sooner than that. Plus, we get genuinely giddy each time we go. That’s how good it feels to save money. It almost feels like BB’s is depositing money directly into our children’s 529 accounts!

What We Save: $1,800 per year ($150/month on BB’s groceries that would have cost $300+ elsewhere)


Instead of amusement parks, amuse yourself at a park.

Don’t get me wrong. Amusement parks are awesome. They amuse me to pieces. But if you want to get outside for some fun in the sun and streamline your budget, then get to know your local parks, state parks, and National Parks. Your kids will thank you — both now and when they’re old enough to realize how invaluable parks are — and you’ll thank yourself too. After all, outdoor amusement is the cheapest (and deepest) amusement there is.

What We Do: Visit local parks regularly. Almost every morning, in fact! It’s pretty easy since we live 100 yards from one. We haven’t delved much into Pennsylvania’s network of state parks yet, but we will soon. And when the kids get old enough to take epic family trips, we will resume plundering the National Parks for all they’re worth, as we did when it was just the 2 of us.

What We Save: This is hard to quantify, but our typical outdoor weekend activities cost us less than $10. Sometimes they even cost us less than 10 cents!


Find random little ways to beat the system.

As you might have gathered by now, I greatly relish beating the system and sticking it to the man. At least when the man tries to charge me more than he should. Here’s a goofy example that only works for us because of our proximity to my parents.

When our rural trash pick-up service suddenly ratcheted up its prices to $33/month (from $23), I quickly hatched a plan. With my parents’ blessing, every Thursday morning I would drive our trash and recycling to their house on my way to work. By adding our disposables to the rarely-full bins on their curb, we could kick our overpriced trash company to the curb. I don’t take kindly to price gouging — in this case the result of a rural monopoly — so this was a very satisfying act of rebellion. Plus, I now get to briefly catch up with my parents during the week! Maybe even mooch a cup of Folgers coffee off my sweet mom and swap notes with her about the last episode of Broadchurch I watched. Win-win-win.

What We Do: See above.

What We Save: $400 per year ($0/month compared to $33/month)

These are just a few of the most notable ways we make our low-income little life work. We find all sorts of corners to cut in the pursuit of the dream — or at least our own particular one.

The dream of a life where Danielle can raise our children, as she’s longed to do since she was a little girl. The dream of a life where I can be fully present and deeply engaged with my family every single minute that our 9-to-5 work culture will possibly allow, by working a sane amount of hours and never having to bring my work home with me.

The dream of a life where the 4 of us live simply. And by doing so, we’ve ended up living larger than we could have ever imagined.



Thank you for reading! Please feel free to like and comment (or even share) on Facebook, since that’s the platform I use for my writing at this point. I know it’s increasingly hard to steer away from the almighty social media feeds these days, so I am deeply grateful for your interest and your support — and your click.

Jaws vs. Dora

The marquee of our local drive-in theater revealed something to me recently. First I’ll tell you what I learned about myself and then I’ll explain what in God’s green earth it has to do with the movies.

Parenting is a lens. Once you gaze through that lens, your perception of the world is forever altered. Trying to interpret anything from your earlier perspective after you’ve bespectacled yourself with parenthood is, in my experience, a virtual impossibility. You can’t un-parent yourself. Once you have kids, pre-conception preconceptions disappear and a new set of, um, postconceptions take their place.

Parent brain — or papa brain in my case — is a singular thing unto itself. It’s both sharper and more worn down than the brain I had previously. It simultaneously makes me more in touch with my inner child, and more weighed down by an array of adult worries. It renders me both hyper-grateful for the priceless gifts I’ve been given, and hyper-discontent with the world we are collectively passing down to our children. Papa brain is a many-faceted thing, and a fair number of those facets involve feeling protective of the innocence of both my children and, in a more generalized way, all children everywhere.

So let’s get back to the movie marquee that imparted this small epiphany. Over the years, I’ve seen several wildly mismatched double features advertised at our local drive-in. Two movies that have absolutely no viable reason to be shown in immediate succession to the same audience.

The most egregious pairing, so egregious that it’s stayed with me, was The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature followed by Dunkirk. An animated movie about squirrels paired with a dark, intense, deeply un-kid-friendly WWII drama. Then there was The Emoji Movie and War for the Planet of the Apes. An animated movie about smiley faces followed by a dark, dystopian, un-kid-friendly tale of mankind being violently overthrown by simians.

In the Venn diagram of people who want to watch either set of movies, there is no overlap. At all. Heck, the two circles aren’t even located in the same zip code.

Fast forward to this week, when the movie marquee revealed another bonkers double feature: Dora and the Lost City of Gold followed by 47 Meters Down: Uncaged. So what you have in this case is a live-action adaptation of a squeaky-clean animated TV show for 4-to-8-year-olds, followed immediately by…

Wait for it…

A violent Jaws knockoff about terrified teenage girls being hunted in a labyrinth of underwater caves by “the deadliest shark species in the ocean.”

I’m pretty sure Dora never explored that.


This got me thinking about how such a marquee would have struck me in my 20s and how it strikes me now that I’m a 30-something parent of two. As a younger fellow, I would have mostly found it humorous to imagine two absurdly divergent movies pressed together in a shamelessly money-grabbing double feature like this. After all, what’s next — The Barney Movie followed by Jurassic World? The Secret Life of Pets followed by the Pet Sematary remake? The Angry Birds Movie followed by The Birds?

But I’m not a 20-something bachelor anymore. The world seems vastly more high-stakes to me these days. And my instinctive response now to these mismatched marquees is much more earnest and much less fun: It’s pure righteous dad-fueled outrage. All I can think (and cringe) about now are the small children who may be forced to sit through a bloody shark attack thriller because their lazy, selfish parents don’t have the basic human decency to exit the drive-in after Dora and Boots find their lost city of gold. And I also think (and seethe) about the lazy, greedy drive-in owner who didn’t have the good sense to prevent that likelihood by selecting age-appropriate movie pairings.

As a father of small children, one of my preeminent concerns in life is to preserve as much of my children’s innocence as possible, for as long as possible. I’m deeply fortunate to parent alongside a woman who aspires to that goal with the exact same intensity. And that, I believe, is why our 3-year-old reads and puzzles voraciously, is obsessed with animals and the alphabet and nature, and barely glances at a screen in the course of a given day. We take great pride in doing everything we can to nurture the creativity and sweet innocence of the two children who have been entrusted to us.

But I fear for other children too, and more so every time I hear stories of kids being exposed to mildly dark (or unthinkably dark) viewing material. I once heard a dad say he regularly watched Family Guy with his young children. Violent superhero movies are now marketed, via the toy department and without controversy, to kids as young as 3 or 4. I’ve heard of a mom showing twisted horror movies to her young daughter as an amusing pastime. And when I watched Saving Private Ryan in a theater, a mom sat right in front of me with her 5-year-old son. This kind of stuff fills me not just with sadness but with anger. To me, the careless decimation of a child’s innocence is a moral crime.

And that’s my papa brain working at full throttle. These are strident concerns that I wouldn’t have burdened myself with 10 or 15 years ago. But now it’s both my blessing and my curse to look at the world through the protective and hyper-vigilant lens of fatherhood.

The world has always been a dangerous, shark-infested place, but it sure as heck seems to be even more dangerous these days. I’d genuinely like to believe that this is solely a product of my papa brain and the furrowed brow that comes along with it as a package deal. But I fear that things genuinely are getting darker. I’ve even sworn off reading the news for the past month because it was all getting too overwhelming. And I just don’t want to miss out on a moment with my kids while they’re both at an age where they need me to be my best, breeziest, most buoyant self. But it’s a tough balancing act.

Ultimately, I can only answer for my own little ones. Hopefully good sense will prevail and the Dillsburg parents who take their kids to watch Dora discover lost cities will not also let them watch bloodthirsty sharks devour lost teenagers. But even if not, that blood is not on my hands. All I can do is keep Greyson and Violet on the right track. And hope against hope that I can keep them safe and sound, away from the murky, chum-baited, shark-filled waters of the modern age.

Would it be nice to be able to look at a simple movie marquee without earnestly fearing for future generations? Heck yeah. My mental outlook was decidedly simpler before I had kids. I worried about the news a lot less, that’s for sure. And I certainly didn’t worry about drive-in movie pairings.

But I’ll take the burden of having a papa brain in a heartbeat. It’s endlessly worth the hand-wringing and brow-furrowing for the sake of the two heartbeats — and the two innocent hearts — that brought that brain into being.


– JW


In a world of endless — and endlessly mesmerizing — streaming content, the simple act of taking a walk in the woods can start to seem a bit quaint. After all, what is hiking but arbitrarily walking from point A to point B for no practical reason, and with no promise of a riveting payoff? Where’s the compelling narrative arc in that? And how can you even be guaranteed of seeing anything worthwhile along the way? You could go hiking for an hour and instead of catching a glimpse of a single cool animal or stunning vista, you might just see dumb trees and boring rocks. What would even be the point of that? I mean sure, exercise is worthwhile. But you could just go to the gym and burn those same calories while bingeing the latest season of Stranger Things on your smartphone. Surely that would be more dramatically satisfying. Given the choice, who would pick nature over Netflix? And besides, nature has mosquitoes! And rattlesnakes! And humidity!

I jest, of course. Hiking and nature are sacrosanct to me and always have been. But I do sense that a world in which media companies churn out vast amounts of content — enough in one decade to keep a human being occupied for his entire lifetime, I’d guess — is a world in which simple earthy pleasures like exploring nature could conceivably lose their simple appeal. And I, for one, will not let that happen in my family.

So for the last two summers, I’ve taken Greyson hiking every weekend. And I have deeply savored each moment of this father/son bonding time. There is nothing like immersing your curious, nature-loving child in the forest’s endless green sprawl and then watching as their wide eyes and keen ears absorb it all with innocent abandon.


As babies, both Greyson and Violet had (or have) the riveting quality of being utterly calm, quiet, and transfixed when surrounded by nature. I can count on one hand — with a few fingers and possibly a thumb to spare — the number of times when one of my kids fussed as a baby while in the great outdoors. It’s uncanny. So both of our children gave strong indications from the outset that they were nature-oriented. (I would postulate that all babies have this natural inclination, but it must be actively encouraged in order to properly grow.)

For Greyson, this quiet, solemn, observant approach to nature as a baby has now morphed into something much more verbal and hands-on. While we hike together, he often occupies himself by identifying everything he sees and hears, or speculating about what we might see. For instance, he’ll say “Maybe we’ll see a narwhal!” or “Is there a leopard in the woods?” On a few hikes this summer, he took it upon himself to compile an alphabet of nature things while we walked — A is for acorn, B is for bark, C is for cloud, and so on. Or he’ll recite a preexisting alphabet of animals from one of the many ABC books that he has essentially memorized. I must say, it’s not hard to get a child excited about being outdoors when he already has an encyclopedic knowledge of 100s of animals that live out there.


Greyson also loves crouching down close to the earth and looking at everything up close. It’s surprising how many tiny tactile pleasures you can find when you put your face close to the ground and open your eyes a bit. Every patch of moss, every oddly shaped rock, every ant and every anthill, is well worth examining to Greyson. Needless to say, it is a source of endless fatherly delight to witness his fascination with the natural world.

And speaking of tactile pleasure, holding a child in your arms is in the upper echelons of that department. Nothing gives me a more viable excuse to savor holding my (thankfully still cuddly) toddler than hiking up a steep, rocky trail with him. And the Appalachian Trail sections near our house have those qualities in spades — in fact, our state’s section of the trail has been dubbed “Rocksylvania.”

So while I insist that Greyson do some of each hike on his own, in order to feel that vital connection to the earth beneath his little sneakered feet, I am always more than happy to oblige him when he inevitably says “Want Papa to hold you.” (He hasn’t quite mastered his pronouns quite yet, to adorable effect.)


The feeling of holding your child tight, his arms wrapped around your neck like a little koala, is one of the central delights of fatherhood. Since Greyson and I usually hike early in the morning, my still-a-bit-groggy son will sometimes even rest his head on my shoulder too, his breath warm against my neck.

These moments, when we are surrounded by nature and enveloped by love, are priceless to me. These are the moments that I will most acutely miss — and be most acutely grateful that I got to experience — when our kids are grown up. Or even much earlier than that, when they simply don’t want to be held anymore. Until then, I will stockpile tactile memory of these moments in my bones.

I remember hearing “Cat’s in the Cradle” for the first time at my church’s Father/Son Banquet when I was about 15 years old. I was haunted by the song. I don’t think I had never heard anything quite so sad. I remember feeling grateful that my own dad was an ever-present figure in my life. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to feel that kind of profound regret and disconnectedness with my own father.

If I have anything to do with it — and I absolutely do — my kids will never be able to imagine it either.

Not on my life.


Smart ‘Phones for Babies

A month ago Danielle and I attended an outdoor concert on a ski mountain that did not quite unfold the way we drew it up in the playbook.

We decided to bring our sweet 10-month-old Violet along so that my mom would not have to find a way to get both of our sleep-averse children to sleep. After all, one is more than enough to keep things interesting.

We left for the concert in plenty of time, or so we thought. But due to extensive accident congestion on the interstate, a potty stop that turned into a wild goose chase, a traffic backup at the venue, and atrocious parking management that painstakingly looped us around a large parking lot only to be redirected and unceremoniously deposited in a grassy, rock-strewn remote lot that was a 20-minute walk away from the stage, we arrived at the show a full 95 minutes later than planned. Out of sorts and out of breath, we walked up to the ticket taker while Jimmy Eat World, my favorite band for most of my 20s, played the final notes of “The Middle,” the song that briefly launched them into the mainstream in 2001. I turned to Danielle and said, “That’s okay — I can live without hearing that song again.”

It turned out to be their set closer.


To add further indignity to our evening, the portable toilets were appalling, visibly drunk people were everywhere, and we had to practically dodge plumes of marijuana smoke to keep our little girl drug-free. A handful of people looked at us admiringly for bringing our baby to the concert, and I even got a “Way to go, bro!” from one happily buzzed fellow. But as we steered Violet and her tender lungs away from any sign of smoky danger, Danielle and I were starting to have our doubts as to the logistical (or moral) viability of toting a sweet, delicate infant to a rock show.

And just to further cement our doubts, at one point an eager and inebriated fellow rushed up to me and slurringly asked, “Can I get a picture with your baby?” He genuinely thought I would hand my tiny daughter to him, a perfect(ly drunk) stranger. What kind of profound ignorance about parenting — or blood alcohol content — must a person have in order to ask that question? I can’t recall exactly what I said in rebuffing his request, but he responded “So is that a no?” There may have been a touch of contempt in my voice as I replied “Yeeeah no.”


We did finally find a nice spot in the grass, away from the teeming (and Jim Beam-ing) masses. Salvaging what was left of the night, we watched Third Eye Blind rock out while the sun sank behind the hills of northeastern PA. We left just before the encore, managing to exit the premises before any of the drunk concertgoers became drunk concert-go-home-rs in the proximity of our baby-laden minivan on the dark, one-lane road down the ski mountain.

But every cloud has its silver lining. Our night was a bit of a bust, but there was one oddly unexpected and long-lasting benefit we stumbled upon.

We had purchased a $10 pair of neon yellow headphones online for our sweet Violet, to protect her delicate little eardrums. She did wonderfully with them, not trying to yank them off, even though she had never worn anything on her ears before. The headphones accomplished their purpose that night, shielding Violet from the pummeling drums and careening electric guitars of “Graduate” and other late-‘90s rock gems.


But in the ensuing weeks, we came to learn that baby headphones are good for more than just concerts. Violet is a very sensitive sleeper, so just about any sound can wake her up once we pull into our driveway — our creaking hardwood floors, Greyson playing in the room next to her, even just the sound of the minivan door opening to get her out and take her car seat inside. So we started placing the headphones on her head before any van ride where we wanted her to sleep longer than just the duration of that ride.

Lucky for us, it worked like a charm! Since we purchased the headphones, the length of Violet’s average minivan-induced nap has increased by 50%. She has taken 2-hour, 2.5-hour, and even a handful of (gasp) 3-hour naps with the help of those neon yellow headphones.

And to think… it never would have happened if we hadn’t purchased tickets to a Jimmy Eat World concert where we didn’t get to see Jimmy Eat World play a single song.

As a wise philosopher once said:

“You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find… you get what you need.”