Fire Life

Surviving on a Firefighter’s Income, Part 1

Jonathan and Denise Jones have been married for 15 years and have two children, Cooper (13) and Mary Louise (12). Jonathan is the South Carolina state fire marshal.


By Anne Gagliano

Times seem to be getting tougher—and tighter. Tighter financially. The cost of housing in the Seattle area is setting records, three months in a row now. It is the hottest real estate market in the country, with the new median price for a house a whopping $722,000. On the eastside, it’s $880,000. Unbelievable. How is a firefighter family supposed to make it financially?  Especially on one income?  For our department, most of us have to live well outside the city, but even the surrounding counties are escalating rapidly. It’s a dilemma.

The best advice for making it comes from others who have. I am proud to offer one such story from a wonderful couple who also happen to be dear friends. Though a continent apart, as they live on the East Coast and we on the West Coast, we are kindred spirits when it comes to firefighting and family. They have given me permission to share this, and I hope it inspires some young fire couples who may considering staying home with the kids in spite of overwhelming financial odds. It is a story of stepping out on faith, of diving headlong into a dream when common sense may say otherwise.

Jonathan and Denise Jones:

“Not long after Denise returned to work, after the birth of our daughter, she came to me expressing her desire to stay home with our children. She was very unhappy with her job, and her maternal pull to be with the kids exacerbated the situation. My initial reaction (although I would have never said this to her) was, “This is just hormonal. She’ll get over it.”  I told her there was no way we could afford for her to stay home. Denise is a teacher. At the time, I was a fire department captain. She made more money than I did.

We were very fortunate that we lived in the same town as both our parents. My mom kept the kids four days a week. Her mom would come to our house to keep the kids the other day of the work week. This kept us from incurring childcare expenses and gave us people we trusted, the same caregivers who raised us, to take care of our children.

We did our best to make these arrangements work, but the desire to stay at home with the children was never far from Denise’s thoughts. She was convinced that God was calling her to be a stay-at-home mom. Over and over, we would sit down with our finances to try and figure out a way to make it work. Over and over, the math never worked in her favor.

I believed that, if it was God’s Will, He would provide a way. What I didn’t believe was that God would drop her annual salary in our bank account. (He didn’t, by the way.) I was waiting for God to make the math work out. (It never did.) The stresses of trying to make it work, with two full-time jobs, raising two kids under two years old, church, and all the trimmings of life for a young couple, were taking their toll.

At the time, I was assigned to the fire department Training Division. Training in a combination department, made up of paid and volunteer firefighters, meant teaching classes during the day for the paid crews and at night for the volunteers. Denise and I were literally passing each other in the night. Compounded by feelings of inadequacy because I couldn’t provide enough income for her to stay at home, I was just about at a breaking point.

The breaking point finally came one morning when I was dropping off the kids at my mom’s. I’ll never forget this day. My mom asked me how Denise was doing. My reply caught me by surprise. I told my mom, “I don’t know. She’s just the lady I live with.” The moment I heard those words leave my lips, I knew that something had to change; something was going to change, and I didn’t care what it was going to take.

That night, I told Denise not to sign her teaching contract for next year. I didn’t know how we would make ends meet, but we would figure it out together. We prayed. We cried. We snuggled with the kids. We woke up the next morning with a determination and commitment to find a way to make it work. Our marriage was worth it. Our family was worth it. Our faith would be tested, and so would our resolve.

It wasn’t easy. We cut everything we thought we could do without–cable TV, long distance phone service, Internet, the burglar alarm system, eating out, and unnecessary trips. Still, the math didn’t work. There was always more month than there was paycheck. You did not want to be around me when it was time to pay bills. If we were doing God’s Will, why wasn’t this easier?

One day, I’d had enough of trying to make the numbers work. I was writing checks and there just wasn’t enough money in the bank to pay all the bills. I was stressed out. I picked up my Bible and started pacing through the house. I prayed, “We believe that we are doing what You called us to do! But, why isn’t this working? I’m at the end of my rope! If You’ve got something to say, God, say it!” I sat down on the sofa, opened my Bible, and my eyes fell squarely on Philippians 4:19. “And my God will supply all your needs, according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” I got it. He will supply … not me. If I could make the numbers work, I didn’t need Him. If I could figure it out, my faith would be in ME, not HIM.

Soon afterward, I stumbled upon Dave Ramsey’s book, Financial Peace. This book provided financial guidance that was not just practical but Biblical. This book helped to get Denise and me on the same page when it came to our finances. Truthfully, we still live by the financial principles of this book more than a decade later.

First, we had to figure out EXACTLY where all our money was going. Until we did, we couldn’t stop the bleeding (so to speak). Then we needed to set a budget, give every dollar an assignment, and stick with it. Money that didn’t have an assignment ended up being spent on things that were frivolous, unplanned, unnecessary, and wasteful. I like to think of it in fire terminology. If you don’t give every dollar an assignment, it will “freelance.” Freelancing on the fireground is dangerous and often leads to crews working against each other. The same is true with your money.

In addition to having a budget, we had to figure out how to make the money that we had go further. Denise began couponing. In fact, she was good at couponing. She wasn’t into “extreme couponing,” like you see on TV, but sometimes the store literally PAID HER TO SHOP! On her first major shopping trip, using coupons, she saved enough money to pay for our Internet for three months. It became a challenge and a game for her. I would come home from work and she would have all of her “goods” spread out on the counter and kitchen table. She’d ask me, “How much do you think I paid for all of this?” On average, she saved 50 to 60 percent of our total grocery bill on each trip. We changed the way we planned meals. Instead of planning what we wanted to eat for the week and then making a grocery list, we learned to find out what was on sale and let that dictate what we would eat.

We needed to dump our debt. If we were carrying debt, other people were making financial decisions for us. We sold our house and moved into Denise’s grandparents’ farmhouse, which was vacant and needed a lot of work. The floors were falling in, there were holes in the sheetrock walls, the roof leaked. We took some of the profit from selling our house and fixed the things needed to make the farmhouse livable. We also used the proceeds from the sale to pay off our cars. We were DEBT FREE! This freed up income that was previously going to someone else to use for OUR FAMILY. Freeing up this income allowed us to take vacations again. We would use my business trips as mini-vacations. We even went to Disney World for a week, and with Denise’s couponing skills, we made the entire trip (park tickets, hotel, gas, food, and souvenirs, for under $2,000!

Looking back on those days, they were the happiest we’ve ever been … mainly we were the most content we’ve ever been. We learned to focus on what was most important to us, our faith and each other.”

In my next column, I’ll share more tips, including what we’ve done to make it on a firefighter’s income.


Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 32 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.