Themes / Home economy

Less is More Ten Years On

Living on a Low Income Revisited

Jonathan Cornford

Manna Matters April 2023

Ten years ago I wrote about mine and Kim’s experience of living on a low income (see MM April 2013). Even though our income placed us in the bottom 20% of Australian households and we technically fell below the Australian poverty line, our experience of life was far from one of hardship. Rather, our time in Laos and experience with people living on the streets in Melbourne told us just how comfortable and affluent we were.

I discussed five practices by which we have sought to live on a lower income: (i) tithing; (ii) part-timing; (iii) living frugally; (iv) paying more (responsible consumption); and (v) budgeting. The reasons for consciously choosing a lower income can be described in both negative and positive terms. It is a choice against a high consumption lifestyle that is destroying us and our planet, and it is a choice against the power that money has in our lives and in our society. But it is also a choice for more time to devote to family, community and meaningful unpaid work, more time towards a flourishing household economy and a choice for a distinctive evangelical witness. In biblical terms it is a choice for life, and not just the simulacrum of life that we are offered.

In 2013 we had been living on a low income for over fifteen years, but we still only had a young family with our youngest child just in primary school. Ten years on, our eldest daughter has just finished high school and our youngest is not far behind. What does the picture look like for us now?

A thriving vegetable garden: the result of having more time for the household economy.

Bracket creep

The headline story is that, without really trying, our incomes have gone up and we have become wealthier. Since 2013 our disposable income has increased by just over 30%, up from $910/wk (in 2022 dollar terms), to $1215/wk now. The key change in this picture is that once both kids were in school, Kim started working three days per week in environmental conservation, and has been promoted into more senior roles.

This is a good example of the ways in which middle class people can generally expect to become more affluent as their life goes on, without really trying. This is not the case for many of the families we live amongst in Long Gully.

Connected with this, as well as our incomes going up, we have become more wealthy. More to the point, we have become home owners (or at least, mortgage holders), and this has been largely facilitated by the Bank of Mum and Dad. Without doing anything (other than paying our mortgage), our net worth has risen to around half a million dollars, just through appreciation. Moreover, being home owners means our weekly housing cost is much less than if we were renting: our mortgage service only requires $206 per week, whereas the median rental price in Long Gully (a low-rent area) is $385 per week. Ironically, being home owners allows us to live on a lower income.

I have said many times that the surest way to constrain consumption—and therefore our impact on the planet—is to constrain income, and, sure enough, as our income has gone up, so too has our consumption. I am immediately tempted to justify why some of this is a reasonable stage-of-life thing, however, I also know our spending habits have also simply become more lax, and I have probably been the worst offender in our household. We have also recently discovered that as our incomes have risen and our budgeting become more relaxed, our giving has not kept pace. While it has not decreased in absolute terms, our giving has fallen as a proportion of our income.

Although we have maintained all of the practices I discussed in 2013 (though some have become a little lax), we have still grown in affluence and comfort.

Prosperity in the lucky country

Here’s where things get weird – do not adjust your sets…

I have just described our lives as comfortable middle class people. That is how we feel. We own our own home. We have two toilets (!). Every member of the household has their own laptop. We are about to go to Tasmania for two weeks holiday.  We are the global rich.

And yet when you begin to discuss our financial status comparatively in Australia, in the language of the abstract numbers that dominate our political debates, then things sound very different.

Despite the rise in our income over the last decade we are still amongst the bottom 30% of income earners in Australia (up from the bottom 20%). We no longer qualify for a Health Care Card but we still qualify for the ‘low income tax offset.’ Our weekly disposable income is well under half the average income for a family with two kids ($2,810).

But here’s the really crazy part. When our disposable income is adjusted for housing costs, we still fall below the Australian poverty line (which is adjusted for housing costs). We are actually too poor to qualify for a house with Habitat for Humanity!

Our home: 'Ironically, being home owners allows us to live on a lower income.'

Cornford household income comparison (in 2022 prices):

  2011 2022 % increase

Our weekly disposable income

(housing adjusted)






Average Australian weekly disposable household income             

(couple with 2 kids)






Australian poverty line: Weekly disposable income

(couple with 2 kids, housing adjusted)






There are all sorts of fascinating analyses we could do with these figures, but perhaps the most important thing they demonstrate is the thing few people are prepared to admit: they are an indication of just how ridiculously wealthy are Australians.

Australian incomes (GDP per capita) are the seventh highest in the OECD and the average Australian net worth is the third highest (behind the USA and Luxembourg). The reason the Australian Poverty Line is so high is that it is calculated as 50% of the median income.

Indeed, not only are we incredibly wealthy, our expectations about what is a reasonable income are primarily shaped by those above us in the wealth stakes.

In recent political debates about ‘stage three tax cuts,’ the Labor Party (historically the party of the working class) was once again reluctant to describe people earning $180,000 per year as high-income earners. A recent survey found that the average Australian would need to earn over $300,000 a year to consider themselves as officially ‘rich'.

A holiday in Tassie: rich or poor?

Living below the norm

I have emphasised how wealthy our household is in real human terms and in world-historical terms, and yet all the data of social comparison in everyday life tells us the opposite. In Australian terms, we are a little bit ‘pov’. Much of what we own—cars, furniture, electronic goods, tools and clothing—is second hand. We live in one of the most disadvantaged suburbs in Victoria: in Bendigo, saying you live in Long Gully will likely evoke an eyebrow raise, or maybe a supportive word of consolation. When the fellas in my tennis club talk about houses, holidays and recreation, I am an outsider to the conversation. For them, a fifty year old male working part-time is definitely a bit weird (let alone working in some strange religious thing).

What has this meant for our kids? One of things people most fear about the idea of living on a lower income is the impact it will have on their children. One of those common justifications for our increased level of consumption is having teenage children. Certainly, there is some truth that the physical, educational, and social needs of consumption expand in this stage life. However, the seeming consumer fait accompli that adolescence presents parents with has been overstated.

Our daughters never had the iPad and devices, nor the branded clothing of many of their peers. We never gave them a mobile phone ‒ when they turned 15 they were allowed to buy one themselves, if they wanted, but they had to pay for their own plan, and there were restrictions on when they could use it and which apps they could download. They went to the local high school, which had a reputation as being rough, and whose educational standards were undoubtedly well below those of the state school across town. Surely, we have done our children a disservice by our lifestyle choice?

In preparation for this article, I interviewed each of my daughters about their experience of childhood and their perceptions of income status and standard of living (if you think this would be biased by them telling me what they think I want to hear, you haven’t met my daughters). As you might expect, each was a little different, however, what became very clear is that because we live in a quite low socio-economic area, they have both understood themselves to be very middle class, and even a bit privileged. This is despite the fact that they didn’t get lots of new clothes or have iPads. It was very telling that a particular family from school, whom I would describe as archetypal suburban middle class Australians, my daughters always described as ‘rich.’ It is only more recently as they have begun to ask Kim and me about how much we earn, that they have realised we are actually on the lower end of the spectrum.

Cultivating a frame of reference

One of the strange things about writing this article is how wildly the ways in which we understand ourselves can shift depending on with whom we are being compared. In the big picture of human reality, we are super wealthy and comfortable. When compared against Australian data we are poor. But when we look around locally in Long Gully, we definitely feel very middle class.

Humans are fundamentally social creatures. Our sense of who we are and what we are worth is massively determined by our sense of where we fit into society. Studies have shown again and again that people invariably assess their economic and social situation by looking at those who are above them. Somehow, we manage to screen out those below us as irrelevant noise. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I am convinced that one of the key tasks of living well, and of Christian discipleship today, is to cultivate alternative frames of reference.

For us, our time in Laos, our experience on the streets of Melbourne, and our life in Long Gully have helped us maintain an entirely different perception of our material wellbeing from that taken for granted in politics and the media.

Back to living simply

In 2013 I wrote that the practices of living on a lower income have been a blessing to our family, and not at all an act of asceticism or self-sacrifice. Ten years on, I wouldn’t qualify that sentiment one bit. Even with a bit of slippage in these practices, they have enabled a mode of living—investments in family, community and good work—that the Australian norm does not really permit. Our lives are far from idyllic and we certainly have our struggles, but undertaking this little review of where we are at has certainly left me thankful for following this path and encouraged to renew our commitment to it.