I'll be living on just over $1,000 a month this year. That doesn't sound like much -- and it isn't -- yet I plan not just to live on it, but to build a savings account.
My 2007 "income," the money I can actually count on, will be $12,084. I know this because it consists of alimony and a portion of a school grant. (I went back to school last year; the grant covers tuition and books with a little left over.) I already know my big-ticket annual costs, too: rent of $6,300 and $1,200 for car insurance. Subtract these from my income and I'm left with $382 a month for food, utilities, clothes, medical deductibles and co-pays, gasoline, renter's and life insurance and any help I give my daughter, who lives on even less than I do.
Make no mistake: I'm poor by choice, because I needed to change my life. I chose to leave my marriage, and I chose to become a student. I can live this way because I know it won't be forever. I'll have my degree in two more years, and I'll go back to work.
I survive on economies large and small. I bring my laundry to baby-sitting jobs (yes, I ask permission). I brown-bag my lunch every single day. I combine coupons and rebates to get items for free (I haven't paid for toothpaste, shampoo or other toiletries for years). I drink water, not soda.
But in order to thrive, you have to hustle, too, always looking for ways to save a dime or to make one. I exchange spent ink cartridges for reams of printer paper at Office Max. Whenever I see a candy dish, I put a piece in my coat pocket; if my energy flags midday, those toffees and peppermints keep me from buying snacks. After I won a basket of specialty coffees at a school event, I immediately sold it on Craigslist.org; I sold a "free after rebate" phone that way, too.
If you've never been really broke, all these desperate little economies might seem silly. You're probably thinking, "Why not have a soda? It's only a dollar." Because I've got just 382 of those dollars each month, that's why, and those dollars have other places to go. The insurance runs out in May and I'll need to get student insurance, at $389 per quarter. The car needs a 60,000-mile check-up. My share of a dental crown is going to be $486; I will ask for a discount if I pay in cash.
Jill of all trades
Last year I survived on a number of here-and-there gigs: freelance writing, work-study, baby-sitting, mystery shopping, resident manager (read: janitor and handyma'am) of my apartment building, paid medical research and writing for the community-college newspaper. (I was the oldest living cub reporter.)
There was little downtime; when I wasn't working I was studying, doing homework or writing papers. And I was perpetually weary and frequently ill all year long. Fact of life: A 48-year-old college student simply doesn't have the energy of an 18-year-old college student.
This year I'm dumping most of the part-time gigs. I'll still freelance and baby-sit, but very selectively. My new school means tough classes, a long bus commute and lots of reading and studying. More to the point, it's a great opportunity, and I'd like to take full advantage. So I'm choosing to work less in 2007, focusing instead on getting healthy and getting my education.
That means careful money management and a fair amount of sacrifice. I'm willing to do both. As a freelance writer and recent divorcee, I'm accustomed to lean living. Here are some of the mantras that have kept me going thus far:
It's not what I have, but how much of it I can keep. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, every dollar I don't spend is a dollar I have earned. So when I think I need something, I ask, "Can I do without this?" Often I find I can. If I can't, then my next question is...
How can I get it free, or almost free? The obvious answers are sites like Craigslist.org and thrift shops, especially ones like Value Village that offer coupons and half-off sales. My 99-cent clock-radio wakes me up every morning just as efficiently as a high-tech alarm from The Sharper Image. Rummage sales are swell, too; my church has an annual sale called "Superfluity" (I love that name) at which I bought my desk for $4 and a small chest of drawers for $1. I also buy Christmas and birthday gifts at Superfluity and an annual "500-family" rummage sale. No one has to know that that hardback bestseller under the tree cost you only 50 cents.
Enough is as good as a feast. I love to eat. I don't love paying for it. Because I don't have a "regular" job of at least 20 hours a week, I don't qualify for food stamps. So I shop very, very carefully, and I go to the food bank. Most weeks I can count on potatoes, apples, bread and a can or two of vegetables. Some lucky weeks I get milk, orange juice, pasta, tomatoes, rice or a small package of meat. I cook a lot of beans and stews, and I'm adequately fed -- maybe not as richly or as conveniently as I'd like, but well enough to keep me going.
Every day is casual Friday! When my jeans are in tatters I buy a "new" pair at Value Village (one pair cost me just $1.63, and it was new -- still had the department-store tags on it). I spend $15 or less on running shoes from clearance tables. I've bought a couple of thrift-store tops, but mostly get by with shirts I've had for ages. (Hint: The clothes dryer takes years off the life of your duds. Get a drying rack.) Some days I wish I looked nicer. Most days it doesn't bother me, and I doubt it'll bother anyone else, since students at my school have been known to wear flannel PJs to class. Bonus: When you dress the way I do, panhandlers hardly ever ask you for money.
Announce my intentions. Time and again I have found that when I need something I should "put it out in the universe," which is also known as "prayer." One night last fall, squinting over my homework, I realized I needed more light in the apartment. A day later, a halogen floor lamp landed in the Dumpster outside my window. Recently my umbrella got cranky about opening. The next week I was given a high-quality bumbershoot as a thank-you gift for helping with a campus blood drive. Coincidences? Maybe.
$20 to feel rich
I've decided to increase my monthly church tithe to $20. Sure, I could use that extra $240 a year. It just about equals the university registration fee, or the money I promised my daughter toward the price of her wedding dress. It also represents almost half of the car insurance premium heading my way in April.
But giving that money away makes me feel rich. No matter how straitened my circumstances, I can be a part of services the church provides for the homeless, the impoverished elderly and those living with AIDS. In other words, tithing reminds me that there are lots of people worse off than me, people who'd love to have my so-called "problems."
That's not to say that I wouldn't like to have more cash. It would allow me to help my daughter, to secure my future, to buy more roasts and fewer pinto beans. But I figure I won the cosmic lottery just by being born here, a country where I can not only work on a degree at age 48, but also find scholarships and education grants to help me pay for it. I have a roof over my head, food every day, family and friends, and occasionally even a $10 student ticket to the symphony. Some days I feel like the luckiest person in the world.
If I really am lucky, then I'll make it through 2007 with a positive bank balance. Check back with me next December and I'll let you know how I did.