I'd like to live as a poor man with lots of money. ~ Pablo Picasso
This post is mainly relevant for couples working towards saving or paying down debt. We live on only one salary when we have two coming in. If you are not part of a couple, I would still recommend living well below your means if you can.
So if you are following along, you've probably guessed that we are very aggressive savers. When we started our careers 14 years ago, we were living in a small one bedroom apartment. I was in Grad School TAing Undergraduate classes and Kim was working an entry level front line position at a Social Services Agency. We werent making very much money but we were very happy. Our lives were simple and we didn't define happiness by how much stuff we had. Pretty much all of my TA income was going to servicing and paying down our Student debt, and we were living on Kim's small salary. We have always believed in NOT living beyond our means, and believe certain types of debt are anchors that weigh you down, so becoming debt free was a priority for us. By the time I was done Graduate School in 2002 and had only worked about 3 years, we had tackled $58000 in joint student debt and were debt free. I had entered my "adult" career phase and began making a fairly decent salary in 2002. After out debt was paid off, we began saving every dollar of my take home pay. Its amazing how much you can save if you don't let the cost of your lifestyle creep up as your income goes up. We were still living a lifestyle that was paid for with only one salary.
We were informed that our apartment was being turned into condos so we were required to move, so we bought a house in 2002. It was a very modest house on a very walkable inner city neighbourhood. It seemed expensive at the time, but today it would be a screaming bargain. Even though we could have "afforded" to take on a car loan, we chose to do without a car for another 4 years until we had saved enough to pay for it in cash. My employer paid well so we began living solely on my salary and banked Kim's. I worked in a boom-bust industry so while I was employed at the time, there was no guarantee that I would always have work, so we established a general rule that when both of us were working, we lived on only one salary and we saved the other, just in case one of us found ourselves without work or income. We've done that every year since about 2002 unless Kim or I were taking some time off from working either for a Parental Leave or a personal Leave of Absense. There was never a need to change our lifestyle since we were accumstomed to living on only one salary. Easy Peasy. The other great thing that happened is that as we saved and bought cash-flow producing assets, those assets began providing us income as well. That investment income started small, but over time has compounded to a meaningful amount of income. Its not easy to live this way if you are accustomed to a high consumption lifestyle, so it wont work if you aren't prepared to make sacrifices now. If you haven't began keeping up with the Joneses, don't start.
This "Live on one salary" strategy obviously works when you, as a couple, have two good sources of income. If you don't have two good sources of pay, then getting two good source of pay is probably a bigger priority. Once you are at that point, imagine how quickly you could amass a large nest egg if you as a couple saved half of what you brought home. To this day, we bank/invest about 40% of our joint net take-home income. We do not live lavish lifestyles so there is no shock to the system when either Kim or I, or both, are not employed. Since we've been living this way for about a decade, we have built up a substantial financial base as a cushion and we maintain a lifestyle that is somewhat modest compared to others in our age and income cohorts.
I've heard a lot of people say that they couldn't live on just one salary. I believe most people can do whatever they set out to do, and that most couples choose to live on both salaries. They have adjusted their consumption and lifestyle level to their joint income level which leaves very little wiggle room if one of the earners loses a job or wants to do something else like go back to school, or start up a business. You are now trapped in the "I must work to sustain my lifestyle" vortex. This is fine if it works for you, but don't use it as a crutch for why you can't save.