Fire Life

Surviving on a Firefighter’s Income, Part 2

By Anne Gagliano

My husband Mike and I have the great pleasure of traveling a lot. We get to speak to firefighters all over this wonderful country–and even better still, we get to spend time with them. We just got back from one such trip to South Carolina, and to our delight we spent quality time visiting with our dear friends Jonathan and Denise Jones, the couple who bravely shared their financial story in my last column, “Surviving on a Firefighter’s Income, Part 1.”  When their children were babies, Denise desired above all else to stay home with them. It took major sacrifice and massive creativity, but they pulled it off.

Jonathan today is the state fire marshal, an incredibly prestigious position, and Denise has gone back to teaching school. The kids are no longer babies but young teenagers!  They are thriving as never before, and we couldn’t be happier for them. They did manage to live on just a firefighter’s income for many years. Hhow did they do this?  They applied three simple tactics, the same ones we did so that I, too, could stay home with my babies—long ago.

#1. Downscale. Jonathan and Denise sold their bigger house and moved into her grandparent’s farm house that nobody else in the family wanted. It was nearly uninhabitable. The floors had obvious big holes and some that were not so obvious but were discovered as they went along. The roof leaked. It only had one tiny bathroom. It was very small and very old and in the middle of farm land and all the critters that come with it. Mike and I finally got to see this house we’ve heard so much about over the years; today, it is absolutely darling. They have completely renovated. But when they first moved in, it wasn’t so nice. They weren’t too proud to take this humble step, and today they are so glad they did.

Firefighters, if you don’t happen to have a family-owned farmhouse available, try downscaling in other ways. I know several fire couples who sold the “big” house and moved into a smaller one–not just so Mom could stay home but to save struggling marriages, alleviate financial hardships, or just to give the firefighter a chance to work one job instead of three.

Another way to downscale is by cutting living expenses. Food costs fluctuate drastically. Eating out is very expensive; simply eat in more often. Make large meals that keep well—i.e., stews, chilis, pastas, casseroles—for convenience so as not to be tempted to buy that quick, easy fast-food meal. Home cooking is not only cheaper but better nutritionally.

Phone, insurance, and cable–these three bills are staples in the average home, and they too have a lot of wiggle room. Always be on the lookout for ways to cut them down. They will literally “creep up” if not scrutinized on a regular basis. These are in fact negotiable, as I have found on numerous occasions. You don’t need every possible feature or upgrade. And when you call and ask for specials, they are obligated to tell you. Year-long offers, discounts, free upgrades, and introductory rates—these are always being offered. And shop around; competition is a good thing. These companies know this and want to keep your business.

Another downscale tip is to have fun at home; it’s an easy way to save money from expensive outings. Entertain the kids with family movie nights or board games instead of buying every fancy new electronic toy. Bike rides, walks, playing catch—all are great ways to have fun that don’t cost a thing. Date nights too can be done at home. Put the kids to bed early and get creative—watch a fun movie that you saw when dating and pretend it’s a theater from long ago. Or the dorm. Imagination is free. The simple life is often the most enjoyable.

#2. Be a thrifty shopper. Make very careful grocery lists and stick to them. Denise Jones became an expert “coupon” shopper. This is a great way to save money. I too clipped coupons when my kids were little, and today I still make careful lists and stick to them, just because; it has become a long-ingrained, good habit. It will also help us with our next transition in life—retirement, when once again our income will be less. Impulse buying often is a major mistake, an unnecessary way to blow discretionary cash; without a list, this is more likely to occur. Trust me I know, as when my husband Mike goes shopping—he comes home with the craziest things.

Buying used is another way to save–used cars, used furniture, clothing, and other household items. It’s easier than ever to do this with things like eBay and Craigslist. And you can even sell your unwanted items online as well; declutter and make money at the same time.

I shopped thrift stores for years; and yes, they do still exist. You’d be surprised at the gems you can find there, especially children’s clothing, which is often donated after having been outgrown, not outworn. It can be expensive clothing that only needs to be washed and it’s like new. Your kids, especially the little ones, value time with you more than brand new designer clothes.

#3. Pay down debt. There are numerous ways to do this. Debt is a fortune killer. Interest makes simple purchases cost way more than they should.

Jonathan and Denise got tips by reading books. Dave Ramsey has several on this topic (or find an author who appeals to you). Ramsey suggests targeting your smallest debt first and paying it down as quickly as possible. Once this bill is paid off, then take the new source of income and apply it to the next debt instead of just adding it into the general budget. As each bill is paid off, combine payment amounts and apply to the next till all debts are paid, ending with the house.

Another way to attack credit card debt is to shop for cards with better interest rates and transfer your debt to them. I did this many times in the past, getting rates so low that we were able to pay off credit card debt very rapidly.

Shop banks for better checking and savings accounts. Find ones that charge no fees and offer higher interest rates on savings accounts. You don’t have to settle—it’s your money; be choosy.

Firefighters, if Mom (or Dad) wants to stay home with the kids, keep in mind that the stay-at-home parent, if paid for all that they do, would earn $112,962.00 ( Being home saves money; pay yourself instead of others. If you really want it—go for it! 

Or if you just want to work less, save for something special like a vacation, or even retire—find ways to downscale, become a thrifty shopper, and pay off interest-accruing debt. It is fun and satisfying to achieve financial goals together as a couple and as a family. Apply that firefighter can-do, type-A, fix-it personality to your finances, and watch what happens!  


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.