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.