Sandy, my doppelganger over at Yes I’m Cheap just wrote a beautiful post on Growing Up Poor and Surviving. Her post definitely brought back similar memories, so instead of rehashing my own version, I suggest you head over and go read hers. I remember living with 7 other people in our little apartment, wearing clothes from the thrift store and the big sighs my mom made when I grew out of something too quickly. There were no such things as going on vacation, eating out or recreational spending. I was a little luckier than Sandy though because my mom never got permanently injured. She did lose a finger in her factory, but was able to go back to work after a short leave. There was always plenty of food that we were able to get from foraging and/or from her urban garden.
This leads me to my topic of today’s post. One of the things I often read in comments of many people’s personal finance sites is a statement similar to this one:
“I’m stuck. I’m already living a bare bones budget and I still can’t save. I don’t know what else I can cut.” Sometimes it’s followed by “It’s easy to say you can save money when you earn more than I do. If I earned X, I would be just fine.”
There is a group of people that really think they’ve cut their spending as much as they can and they can go no further. Well, I’m here to tell you, that if you’re truly income limited (ie, you can’t work because of a disability or can’t find a second job) you still can cut money out of your budget. Most of the time it’s not that people “CAN’T” do it but they choose not to because the next level of cuts requires a lot more effort or a noticeable lifestyle change . I’m going to give you the immigrant’s inside scoop on what it’s really like living on a bare bones budget. Many people would find some of these tactics extreme but if you’re one of those people who wonders how someone can come to this country with nothing and then end up doing pretty well, you’re going to be getting a little bit of the inside scoop today.
Wow. I can tell you that even in expensive cities most immigrants don’t come close to that number. Do you want to know the reason why? It’s because we pack ourselves in tiny apartments like sardines and stay that way until we can afford to buy something bigger. Usually we buy a home with a huge down payment and sometimes we buy homes outright with cash. In many developing countries credit isn’t readily available, so for many immigrants, going into debt to maintain a certain standard of living doesn’t even enter their stream of consciousness.
The other thing immigrants do is live in the crappiest and cheapest neighborhoods. These are the places no one wants to live. Are you scratching your head yet and wondering why immigrants don’t not care about their safety? Of course we care about safety but in many cases, the inner city neighborhoods we live in are a huge step up from the slums of our home countries. When my mom moved to America in the 60’s, she still didn’t have indoor plumbing in Poland. Only rich people had running water. So, yes, when she moved to the slums of the city, she felt like she was rich, not poor.
My uncle’s first rental property was nestled in between a funeral home and the highway in a slummy part of town. Babci lived there for a little while and was convinced that ghosts from next door were visiting her at night. My uncle also lived in one of the 6 units. Due to his handyman skills and his rental income, it wasn’t long before he could upgrade to a better part of town. He paid for all of it with cash money. This guy had a grammar school education and was a roofer for a living. Yet he amassed a small fortune in his lifetime. Thanks to programs on TV that show couples in their 20’s buying $1/2MM homes, people think that this is the norm and there’s something wrong with them if they can’t do the same.
Repeat after me: It’s okay to have a starter home if that’s all you can afford. Over extending yourself on housing makes it very difficult to get ahead financially. Housing is the single biggest expense most people have and it’s often the thing people refuse to compromise on. Just because the rule of thumb says most people spend 1/3 of their salary on housing doesn’t mean you have to, especially if you want to get ahead.
Here’s what I suggest for those that need to cut deeper but don’t have the option to increase earnings:
- If you value your privacy, then move into a smaller place. I mean a lot smaller, so that it actually makes a dent in your rent or mortgage payment.
- If you’re social, or work a lot and are never home, get a roommate or several. Splitting bills is SO cool. It’s so much nicer in the winter when that $200+ heating bill comes in and you get to split it 3 ways instead of paying it all from your own pocket.
- Move to a less desirable part of town. Although this isn’t the best option, I’ve done it once and I could do it again if I needed to.
- Move in with family – This is not always an option for everyone and is kind of like the room mate idea. I’d say this works well if the mover inner contributes in their own way and is not just mooching off of relatives.
- Move to a cheaper city or town – I think this is much more common now than it used to be.
We didn’t always have a car. Taking the bus everywhere was not fun but it can be done very economically. I think many people think a car is a “must have” item. Anywhere there is public transportation available, it’s actually a “nice to have item.” Babci hated that my dad never let her get her license. She to this day comments on how nice it is to have a car to get from place to place in no time. I love my car, but I don’t think I’d go into debt to have a nice one.
If you must have a car to get to work, try not to convince yourself that you need a new one. The last car I bought was 5 years old and it still felt like a new car to me, but without the price tag.
Entertainment + Other (vacations, etc) 15.5%
These are the list of things people often confuse as “must have’s” instead of “nice to have’s.” Make sure you have your priorities in order before spending here:
- Internet (Don’t forget the Library) unless you need for your line of work
- Extra Phones (May I suggest a pre-paid phone)
- Pretty much all electronics (TV, DVD, Computers, Cameras, smart phones, etc)
- Movies, Plays,Magazine and Newspaper Subscriptions, etc.
- Buying Music, Books, Video Games, Toys
- Cigarettes, Drugs, Gambling, Alcohol
- Taking on New Pets
- Soda + Junk Food
- Gardening Stuff – Lawn Service, Pesticides, Mulch, Annuals
- Children’s Activities – Sports, Dance Classes, Camp (Yes, I said it. This is not a popular one to cut but I’ll tell you a quick story as to why this is on my list. A woman my mom was renting to was behind on rent but in the same conversation started proudly telling me about her daughter’s dance recital and how she wanted her daughter to have the things she didn’t. Isn’t it more important to have a stable place to live vs getting evicted and running your family ragged moving from house to house every 6 months?)
- Getting your nails done, coloring your hair, going to expensive salons (This may seem self explanatory, but the same lady above had a fancy manicure. No matter how good her nails looked, it wasn’t going to help her keep a roof over her head.)
- Buying things new – You can buy just about anything used these days. Okay, you may not want to buy used underwear, but for the most part, clothing, furniture, household items, housewares, toys and books can all be bought for a fraction of the cost of it’s new counterpart. In most cases, it’s worth the effort looking for a second hand item first before paying full price for a new one.
Now I’m not saying that you have to cut out all of these things to live a frugal lifestyle, but I don’t want people to think they’re trapped into a certain amount of spending because that’s the way they’ve always lived. There is always room to cut deeper. Sometimes desperate circumstances require desperate actions, so don’t trap yourself into thinking you can’t live on less than a certain dollar amount per year. One of the worst feelings is hopelessness and powerlessness. You should never feel like you’ve done all you can do and are still fighting a losing battle. If you step outside of the box you’ve built your life around you may just find another way to reach your goals.
So in summary, if you’re struggling, you may need to remind yourself of the basics needed for survival. They are very simply:
- Nutritious Food
- A way to get back and forth from work and the grocery store
- Health Care
Did I miss any necessities or luxuries from my list?