My year of living frugally

I love a good frugal living tip. I spent quite a while last night reading the comments on The Frugal Girl’s recent post on setting a grocery budget. This has long been a fascination of mine. Frequent blog readers know that I find spending money painful. This morning I ordered some clothes online for my daughter that she had picked out of a catalog. They are all cute, and are supposed to be decent quality, and her current wardrobe features a lot of clothes with holes in them* BUT the price differential between the catalog and Target was making me antsy.

There are downsides to this aspect of my personality. Oh boy are there downsides. Perhaps a subject for another post! However, the positive side of this tendency is that I have been very creative at times about living within my means. Indeed, my first year out of college, which I think of as my “Year of Living Frugally,” was one of my proudest money experiences ever. Since I got a lot of positive reactions to the Money Stories podcast, I thought I’d write about my memories of the year, and what I learned.

That first year (2001-2002), I had a year-long internship in the Washington DC area. My take-home pay worked out to $1200 a month. One of the people who did this job after me asked how on earth we were supposed to live on that, but as a young single person it was fine.

I shared a house (half a duplex) in a lovely, walkable neighborhood in northwest Washington, DC with three other girls. Our total rent was $2500/month, and since I had the least desirable room (the attic!), mine was $530/month. I think I bought the futon off the person who had departed the room before me. Our utilities ranged from $200-300/month total, depending on how much we were running the heat or air. So that was $50-75/month for my part.

I didn’t have a car, but this was DC, so I didn’t really need one. I had one of the more expensive metro passes, since I needed the express bus to get to work. That was another $80/month.

At the time, you could buy catastrophic health insurance plans in most states. For a young, healthy person, that seemed like a reasonable deal, though in retrospect I know there are some problems with such policies. That came out to roughly $70/month. (When I moved to NYC the next year and had to buy a “real” policy, as NY didn’t allow catastrophic plans and had community rating laws, I wound up paying $270/month for a group-rate plan through the Freelancers Union. I did wind up with $200/month of wiggle room during the Year of Living Frugally, but the math would have been a lot tighter. I also know that this is a category where costs have gone up a lot in the last 20 years.)

I did need to eat, but I seldom spent more than $40/week on food. For breakfast I was on a kick of toast and sausages. My one frugal fail: I now realize that eggs would have been a better, cheaper, and probably healthier option. Usually you can get a dozen for less than $2, and at 2 a day, that pretty much takes you through the week! I packed my lunches for work each day. I’d generally make a casserole or something on the weekend and then bring a piece each day, along with fruit and a snack. I cooked my dinners too. A cheaper cut of meat (like chicken thighs) and veggies is fairly reasonable. I also did pasta with sauce and veggies. I will admit that I cooked Ramen noodles sometimes (10 packages for $1 is hard to pass up!), but I would buy a block of frozen spinach and hack off a chunk in there, and cut up some celery to mix in as well, and then only use half of the “spice” packet. I had a copy of The Joy of Cooking and I tried recipes in there, teaching myself to cook in the process. I once boiled chicken bones to make stock! I shopped sales and coupons, using the two grocery stores that were near us (a regular one, and then a produce market, where I often could get good deals like 2 packages of strawberries for $4). Sometimes I could find a sale on frozen meals for $2/each and then I’d use those for lunches. I mostly drank water, and coffee at work (and I’d make it at home on weekends). Sometimes I’d find a coupon for some exotic fruit juice and I’d try that out.

I believe my dial-up internet access was something like $15/month. This was 2001! (Which explains why I didn’t have a cell phone. They weren’t quite necessary yet.)

There were various one-off expenses: a bottle of wine for a wine club I was in for a bit, or going out on weekends. But I got to be very good at finding cheap and free stuff. Washington DC is great for that — most of the museums are free! I’d find cheap tickets to concerts or plays through the arts papers; events on college campuses were often on the inexpensive side. I got books from the library, or from the stash of old review copies at my newspaper. My workplace had a gym, so I exercised there — the one and only time in my life I have done group fitness classes. I needed to buy a work wardrobe, but I found a lot of stuff at Filene’s Basement (a discount store).

So my base expenses came out under $1200/month. I was very proud of that, but here’s what kept this from feeling strained: there were very few months when I only took home $1200. I had freelanced (writing) to make money in college, and I continued to look for opportunities to do so afterwards. As a result, by the end of that year I was often doubling or tripling my salary. When you are living on less than $1200/month, but taking in $3000-plus, you feel flush. I saved up enough over my Year of Living Frugally to finance a trip to Asia that summer and to move to NYC without an actual job lined up.

My life is very different from all this now. Also, to be clear: I’m not saying there’s anything to be learned from my specific Year of Living Frugally situation/budget for anyone in any different situation. Children are their own massive cost centers: roommates who don’t contribute to the rent. Good public transportation was critical for me. A young single person with a heavy student loan debt load would struggle with living on what I could live on without debt. Not everyone works in a job where freelancing or starting a side hustle is easy, or even possible. There were a lot of key pieces in place that made my Year of Living Frugally possible.

But for me, what I learned that year is that to feel rich doesn’t always require a ton of money. What it does require is setting base expenses as low as possible, and then everything extra coming in feels like gravy. Watching money stack up in my bank account made me feel free.

I’d love to hear any frugal living tips you’ve picked up during different stages of your life!

In other news: Have you read my money book, All the Money in the World? There’s more of my money philosophy in there. Please check it out!

*Mine too. I just looked down and realized my black t-shirt has a hole in it.

29 thoughts on “My year of living frugally

  1. 1) Love the ramen graphic
    2) I was not nearly as good at (or good-natured about) living frugally when an MD/PhD student (I had to live on something like $13K/year although in Durham NC that was not actually that bad!)
    3) I do look back fondly on my side hustle of teaching for Kaplan (and then training teachers) at something like $22/hr (actaully that’s not so bad!)
    4) If I had no kids, I don’t even know what I’d do with all of the extra $. Save it, I’d like to think. They probably account for >60% of our expenditures between supplies, extra household footage, childcare, chores that we’d otherwise have much more time to do ourselves
    5) My grocery bill is actually somewhat embarrassing on the non frugal side of things. Oh well. There are other things I’d rather save on (cough IKEA furniture)
    6) I of course feel I must know which catalog. We have some Target finds too, but I do me some love Tea and Mini Boden.

    1. @SHU- The Ramen is a photo from my pantry, taken today 🙂 I don’t eat it anymore though, but more because of the carbs + sodium than any aversion to the taste. It’s good stuff!

      Without kids, I have no idea what I’d do with my money or my TIME. What did I do with my time??

      Garnet Hill Kids! Mostly dresses and skirts, so she’ll wind up combining with leggings/shorts from Target so she can play on monkey bars and the like.

      1. Thanks SHU for asking which catalog! I was guessing Hannah Andersson or Tea! I love learning where others buy their kid clothes. I have some Tea and Hannah for my 4-yr-old, but she always pulls out the Target stuff to wear!

  2. I worked for non-profits for more than 20 years so know a lot about living frugally.

    1. I’m a huge reader so using the library for books and magazines instead of buying was key. And now have Amazon Prime so get free Kindle downloads each month as well as I use the library’s digital/audio downloads. Hoopla is also a great free service for books and movies.

    2. Shop grocery sales. I waited until the Wed. ads came out then planned meals for the week. I shopped mostly at a discount store but was on the look-out for a great weekly deal for one item at another store. Worth the extra trip. Even though single, I bought in bulk and froze. Growing up on a farm taught me to cook from scratch and stretch meals. This whole wheat batter bread is easy to make and costs pennies (and I omit the maple syrup).

  3. Love all of this!

    I lived in DC around the same time and also had to earn the frugal black belt!

    Various strategies during different internships and the first post-college job:

    – I lived on the waterfront in SW, rather than in nicer NW. The SW waterfront is trendy now. In 2000, it was more “get stabbed,” but I was careful.

    – While working at a big law firm, volunteer for the 12 pm – 8 pm shift (using the mornings to study for the LSAT). If you worked until 8, the firm gave you a $25 allowance for dinner. That covered dinner for the night plus breakfast and lunch the next day (leftover Indian is the best breakfast!) Somehow the 21 year old metabolism handled it; that wouldn’t fly now.

    – Alumni group gatherings that welcomed current students. It was usually possible to snag a free drink or two before heading off to more exciting venues.

    – 8 packs of El Monterrey bean burritos for, like, $2. (I still love them to this day; my kids won’t touch them.)

    – Entertainment: walking the city to learn it above ground, rather than just via metro stops.

    – Entertainment (sad): With no TV or internet in my apartment, and no permanent DC address to get a library card, I read… Congressional Research Services reports. Well, at least it was educational, right?

    – One job required a 2 week trip to the Dominican Republic. Free vacation! Plus there was $70 per day per diem, despite our hotel and food being paid for. I banked it all.

    In 2004 I moved up to New York for law school and somehow survived on about $2000 per month, although that was all student loans. By avoiding lifestyle inflation for a few years after law school, though, those $160k+ in loans were paid off in just a few years.

  4. I still eat Ramen on average twice a month for dinner. I love eating it while thinking about how cheap it is and the nostalgia it brings is priceless. In an effort to reduce the evening rushed feeling, I’ve let go of planning 1-2 dinners per week. And by let go, I don’t mean plan for leftovers. I assume we have enough food in the house for two adults and two children to not go hungry. This can be cereal, ramen, frozen pizza, sandwiches, fruit, whatever. I want my children to have a memory of dinner time not having to be planned. I came to this routine after a lot of thought about all the expectations I put around family meal times and realizing those expectations weren’t helping anyone. This strategy also takes into consideration the 168 hours version of meal planning: eating enough nutrients and calories to reasonably sustain us over the period of a week.

  5. We were almost living parallel lives in D.C., albeit mine was about 15 years earlier.

    As you know, there are so many free and cheap things to do in D.C., and it’s extremely walkable. On the other hand, rent is a killer. I had roommates up until I got married, and I’d absolutely do it again. When I was *really* scrimping, I even settled for a fold-out couch in the living room for the grand sum of $175 a month. When you’re in your 20s, who hangs out at home anyway?

    Like you, I also freelanced like crazy. I worked 9-6 for a publication and then did music reviews at night. Most nights, I’d be lucky to get 4 hours of sleep, but again: youth.

    I cooked at home, too. My family ate out maybe twice a year at most, so this was habit already. I was a beans-and-rice vegetarian for a long time, so my food bill was negligible.

    I would say my only not-smart decision was usually choosing high-crime neighborhoods for lower rents. One summer I moved three times after multiple break-ins. I finally paid a little more to live in better neighborhood in a more crowded apartment, and it was worth every penny (and wait for the bathroom).

    1. @Marie – I think compromising on physical safety is probably questionable. You need a safe house. You need transportation that won’t break down randomly on the highway. But beyond that, a lot of stuff isn’t necessary.

  6. Thanks for sharing this! I think this really shows it isn’t how much you make but how much you save.

    I love your take on money and really enjoyed All the Money in The World. It is a little different from many other financial books but that is what I love. There are so many ways to make your finances work. It is all about being creative.

    1. @Laura- I’m so glad you enjoyed All the Money in the World. Please tell people about it! It’s my slowest selling book 🙂

      I cannot imagine not having savings. In my Year of Living Frugally it was important for me to build this up because it made me feel much more relaxed. When I moved to NYC with no job, I would actually calculate it out — how many months I had before I needed to figure out something. Once I got it up over a year, I felt different. I knew I could sign a one-year lease without ever worrying where the money would come from.

  7. I eat (mostly) pescatarian, and wholly vegetarian (eggs and milk okay!!) at home. That has saved SO MUCH MONEY. I grew up in a vegetarian household, ended up loving seafood when I moved to the West Coast, but never developed a taste for red meat or chicken.

    I learned early on that my institution’s foreign per diem for food in Europe or Canada can cover not only the time of the conference, but also cover food for the sight seeing part, especially when I stay in a place with a kitchen and rely on groceries for most of my meals. It was an unexpected bonus!

    We also have free ride sharing to and from campus before and after the buses are running-I don’t hate being at work at 5 am, and I’m a lot more productive now! The alone time is golden, and my mentor was so shocked when he came in at 5:45 one day and I was working away. Sadly, he interrupted my solitude …

    My hobby saves me money too-I sew, so while I splurge on fabric, I have stopped relentlessly buying clothes that would wear out after six months. After putting in months of work on a dress, I have learned that fewer, high quality garments are better than fast fashion. I know it’s not much, but I hope I’m also lessening the impact of throwaway fashion from my tiny home.

    One STRONG cup of coffee in my Moka pot in the morning, and I’ve cut my coffee habit :). I do still walk with my coworkers for coffee, but usually order a tap water.

    I just got a list of expenditures for the third and fourth year of med school. Decided that I need to live very very frugally in order to afford $$$$ board exams and study materials! I’ve resigned myself to taking out loans to apply to residency, and am sitting down with the official financial guru (Dad) to talk about how he would plan for repayment and retirement savings with the income I will have in a few years

    One thing I have pondered, as classmates from college who work in business/companies are buying large homes and new cars-while my grad student stipend in my high COL area is annoying, I feel like I’ve really learned to budget and say no to things. Hopefully, it’s an attitude I can keep. I don’t deprive myself of everything (sewing is expensive!), but I have learned to really think before buying. 7 years ago, as a baby student, I definitely needed to learn that

    1. @DV Student – it is definitely tempting to spend more as you make more, but I think there can be a middle ground. Spend a little bit more when you start making a lot more, at least until you’ve built up a serious cushion. And I think for anyone of any income level, there’s a lot to be said for keeping base expenses low as a percent of income. This was one of the main points of All the Money in the World. There’s no reason that higher income people need to spend the “acceptable” percent of their income on housing and cars. And yet many do.

  8. I really liked this post! Reminded me of my grad school experience (2010-21012) in the Midwest. I was a graduate assistant (which paid a stipend and tuition) and worked in an office about 25 hours a week. My life was so low cost, but I have only positive memories of that time! I spent about the same on groceries and did tons of cheap activities. Although I no longer skimp on the air conditioning haha. I also saved up for a trip to Asia after graduating:)

    I think too many people change their lifestyle when they “adult”.

  9. Thanks for this! I spent some time in DC too – I think your experience was a little different than mine but I also think you were way more mature than I was in my 20s. I also had a relative who I stayed with so no rent! I totally agree about setting your expenses low and all the rest feeling like gravy. Great perspective!

  10. I was surprisingly bad with money as a student. I realize now that I had quite a nice budget to live on and I used it all. Now, I actually spend the same amount of money while earning a decent salary. (Of course rent and savings have gone up.)
    My current frugal practice is cooking. I very rarely buy lunch (who can afford that? It’s so much money and I can only get what the food court offers, not what I actually want.) and I try to get friends to come to my house and cook with me.
    Love reading about your money philosophy btw!

    1. @Maggie – glad you like my money philosophy! I’ve been thinking about it, especially on the spending-money-for-lunch front, and I think working from home is inherently frugal. Going out for lunch takes a lot of effort. I do try to do so once every 2 weeks or so as a way to be social and network but it’s definitely not the default. Same on coffee. When you work from home, you tend to make your own. Plus I use less gas, maybe have lower dry-cleaning bills…

  11. I agree that it was easy living frugally in my 20s in a big city, particularly when I was in grad school and many of my classmates were living similarly. And I loved your All the Money in the World book – you have a fresh, practical take on money, time, work, and women’s issues that I enjoy! Now that I’m single in a professional career with a child, I’m finding the lifestyle creep difficult to fight at times, particularly in regard to housing costs. I don’t need a huge house, but in a not cheap COL area, I’m prioritizing neighborhood for schools, other kids, convenience to amenities, etc. I’m going against money advice that I agree with by not minimizing this fixed cost, but I haven’t found a work around yet. I’m interested in how others navigate this.

    1. @Shelley- you could view the housing situation that you’re minimizing the fixed cost by not needing to pay for private school! Also, your time is worth a lot. Spending less time in the car is a good thing. Maybe the smart thing is to buy the most reasonable house you can in the right area. Even pricey neighborhoods sometimes have older houses or smaller houses.

      1. Good points — I think I will take that view! And I’m always on the hunt for a more affordable house in my area, so hopefully that will be an option in the relatively near future.

  12. I also had a fellowship in DC from 2001-2002 right after college that earned $1200/month. I think that was before taxes! I lived in an apartment with two friends in Silver Spring. I think my saving grace was keeping only my $500 limit credit card from college. It kept me from being tempted to go into debt. And also no cell phone! Not really possible to avoid that expense today.

  13. Great post, Laura! I’ve been living economically for all my adult life, and many of the decisions I’ve made were more about political or lifestyle choices, but turned out to be smart economics as well, e.g., I don’t eat meat, didn’t own my own car til I was 37 and don’t drive today much (instead, I walk, ride a bike and/or used public transit), buy clothes from consignment shops, etc. And I love shopping for food at Grocery Outlet!

  14. Love this post. My husband and I are both fairly frugal (one of the reasons our marriage has run smoothly for almost 20 years), but we don’t mind splashing out very occasionally for a good meal, craft beers, or a quality pair of shoes. With full-time jobs and young kids at home we’ve greatly curtailed vacation travel, so that’s my answer to what I once did with all that extra time and money. But we still try to go on a couple of weekend road trips once a year, staying at Airbnbs to save. And I know this season of my life will pass–I’ve been to Paris before, I’ll have to have faith that one day I’ll be able to visit Paris again.

    I’ve found that museum and zoo memberships pay for themselves after a few months, help support those institutions, and makes visits less stressful. I can take the kids to see an new exhibit or short program for an hour and then feel free to leave once they get antsy rather than feeling obligated to squeeze every nickle out of a day’s admission. My library is indispensable: Hoopla for music, audiobooks, and kids’ videos; TumbleBooks for animated picture books; Libby for audiobooks and ebooks; RBdigital for digital magazines; Kanopy for streaming art-house movies, and of course the building itself for books, DVDs, free programming, and just a safe warm space to hang out on a freezing day.

    Oh, and on the food front, the site Budget Bytes has been a great source for thrifty recipes (try their ramen bowl with egg … you use the noodles but toss out the packet. Yum).

  15. YES! The year I found myself served with divorce papers and had to figure out how to take care of my 4 kids without child support. I was earning about $3,000 a month from my business and lived quite well on that. – Rent on my 2 bedroom home was $750 a month. Utilities were around $100. I learned to keep the thermostat at 80 in summer.
    – I figured out how to the “drugstore game” to get nearly free personal care items. Trash bags are free (they give them to you at the grocery store, LOL).
    – I budgeted $20 each weekend for fun. When my kids visited their dad and I went out with friends for a beer, they never let me pay. (Perks of single motherhood? Or they just knew my ex all too well?)
    – I shopped at a trendy, by the pound consignment shop. I owned a car but walked a lot (it helped that I lived in an area with some walkable destinations). That time had its stresses, but I’ve never been prouder of myself than I was during that time.

  16. Great article. My most frugal memories from my 20’s are
    1) while living in London I actually split the bed with my roomate, she got the mattress and I used the box spring with a folded feather duvet. Never had a bad night’s sleep. 2) Moved to San Francisco whick was astronomically expensive, bought a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread, making egg salad sandwiches for lunch every day. I did splurge and put in any crunchy veg in that was on sale! Those were the days. I don’t even remember that ramen was a thing in 1980… I would have loved it!

  17. During this pandemic and having not been back to work since March 25, 2020 been trying to do small jobs for money. I have been a personal driver for a friend of mine, advertising on my car, sewing for friends, selling my stuff on the internet. My daughter needed new clothes now that winter is here. Thank goodness I can sew and pants are so easy to make. As for being a seamstress I have plenty of fabric and my daughter doesnt complain that I make her clothes. In fact she loves them. I have also had to go to the foodbank in the last couple of months but I also make meals and can them in my pressure cooker so I am grateful that I can make food stretch.

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