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This is the last post I’m doing as part of my special Finance + Frugality Week, and I sure hope you’ve enjoyed the series! Remember, if you’re wanting one of the best available resources to help you in ALL aspects of managing your money, make sure you grab the Master Your Money Bundle before it’s too late!
Early Beginnings in Frugality
I come by my frugal ways honestly—as a child, I watched my grandma save every saltines box and licorice tin to later re-use as storage containers or boxes to wrap gifts in, and I still remember the excitement of Grocery Day as a kid, which was when my mom did all our grocery shopping for the week. My mom was (and is) an expert planner, and she had our meals pre-planned for the whole month before she went grocery shopping, so she always bought just enough for everything. In our house, treats were planned for special occasions, and if you wanted a snack, you could eat an apple (since we didn’t keep traditional “kid snacks” like fruit snacks, string cheese, granola bars, etc. on hand very often).
(Note: If you want to read more about my mom’s superpowers with frugality and money, read the interview I did with her HERE, where she details how she made a small income stretch to feed 6 kids.)
My earliest memory of going to extreme frugal lengths was going dumpster diving with my best friend at the local elementary school for teacher cast-offs to outfit the “school” we’d set up for ourselves in the basement. Not only did we score awesome finds like those colorful banners that teachers put up on bulletin boards, half-used cartons of construction paper, and half-used boxes of school supplies, but one year, we also struck a veritable gold mine–we discovered that one of the teachers had thrown away all the free coupons for the students who had completed their reading challenges. The coupons were for free drinks, hot dogs, and frozen yogurt cones from the local Maverik, so my friend and I had quite the summer of walking ourselves the few blocks down to the gas station and helping ourselves a few times a week to our spoils.
Perhaps it wasn’t the most honest frugal find (I know that the Maverik workers were definitely suspicious), but it was for sure one of the most memorable 🙂
Poor College Student Days
I worked hard all during high school to secure the grades and test scores needed to qualify for a full-ride scholarship to the state university of my choice (Utah State), and I worked full-time the summer before moving away from home in order to save up to pay 9 months’ worth of rent so I wouldn’t have to worry about it during the school year (a practice I would repeat every summer). The first couple years of school, I got a little bit of financial help on a monthly basis from my parents (around $150 a month, if I remember correctly), but I still needed to work part-time to cover all of my expenses, and by about my third year into school, I was all on my own financially.
For most of the years I was at school, I shared an apartment with 5 roommates, including one of my best friends Kayla, who shared a room with me. I remember that in those first 3 years, we couldn’t collectively afford the high utility bill, so (if I remember correctly) we kept our apartment at a chilly 50 degrees all winter long. Anytime anyone used the oven to cook something, we would often all gather around or even lean up against it while it ran, and as soon as whatever was in it had finished baking, we would open the oven door wide so that the heat could permeate some into the rest of the apartment. I also remember that during this time, we counted Sundays as our “heat treat” days, and we would crank the heat up to a full 60 degrees #rebels). Because it was so cold all the time at home, I often just spent the majority of my days on campus (even more than I had to be there), just simply to be somewhere where I was warm all the time without needing to wear a coat and heavy socks inside.
Another thing we did to save money one of those years was that we showered on campus. I used to go swimming in the early mornings with a couple of my roommates, and we would bring all of the supplies we needed to the locker room by the pool so that we could take full advantage of being able to have as much hot water as we wanted (without having to worry about saving some for anyone else) when we took a shower after our morning swim. With half of the roommates doing this for the majority of our showers that week, we actually saved quite a bit in hot water costs!
My roommates and I also frequently took advantage of the many church and campus activities offered during that time, the majority of which involved free food. There would be many weeks when half of my meals came from free events offered at one of the two places.
Admittedly, the rest of the time when I wasn’t getting free meals, my diet was not great–I largely subsisted on stuff like Pasta-roni and mac and cheese, though I occasionally took the time to make chicken stir fry or hamburger casserole for myself, which would then last me the better part of a week. Breakfast was usually on-the-go and sugary (think leftover brownies or cookies, maybe a slice of cold pizza if I was lucky), and lunch was often just a protein bar and an apple that I’d put in my backpack since I didn’t plan to be home again until six or seven at night. One of my jobs for the local eatery on campus that I had the first couple years *did* give me a free meal with every 4+ hour shift I worked, so on the days I worked there, I actually ate pretty well because I ate so much for that one meal that I was fine not eating again for probably a good 7-8 hour stretch. For the rest of the time, I usually spent around $65-75 a month on food for myself.
My freshman year of college, I actually did not own a car, so I relied on roommates, public transportation (which was free in the county), and walking to get everywhere I needed. When I did finally buy my first vehicle, it was one I got for a steal at just $750 from my sister, who had also bought it used originally. That $750 car ended up lasting me something like six or seven years and only needed about $1200 in repairs total over that time, so it was definitely worth the initial investment!
Penny-Pinching Newlywed Days
When Matt and I got married in 2011 (while we were both still in school), we really wanted to avoid having to move home to live with our parents for the summer before school started, if at all possible (though many of our siblings and friends have had to go that route, and we were definitely willing to go down that road if we needed to!). We got married the first week in May and moved immediately into our own apartment after, using some money we had saved to cover the cost of our first month of rent.
The apartment was ugly as all get-out, so to make it less dreary, we bought some 5 gallons of leftover cream paint from my cousin (for something like $20), and we repainted the whole basement, including the kitchen cupboards (which we got in massive trouble with the landlords for, which was stupid because it looked about a thousand percent better than before).
Since the apartment was not already furnished (like all my other college apartments had been), we had to source some free furniture, and stat. We ended up getting all of our furniture for free or close to free, mostly thanks to my mom putting out feelers among family and neighbors. For our wedding, we did end up getting something like $500 in gift cards and cash, which we also used to buy the necessary stuff for our apartment that we hadn’t gotten from our wedding registry. Also, while we were on our honeymoon, my new sisters-in-law snuck into our new place and left bags and bags of groceries on our kitchen floor, which was a total life-saver those first several weeks!
Both of us had always been able to find jobs super quickly every other time we had applied for them in the past, so we were both completely confident we would find something within about a week of getting home from our honeymoon (maybe two). When we started nearing the month mark of being married (with neither of us having a job), we started getting desperate.
We both went to a local plasma center to donate plasma near the end of that first month, but Matt was actually turned away on account of his veins not being accessible enough for the needles to easily find their way in. My veins were apparently rockstar veins, so I began donating plasma twice a week from that point on, which earned us about $65-75 a week. We used that money for anything we would use a debit card for, especially groceries and gas. (For the record, I actually came to love donating plasma because it gave me built-in reading time, and I finished a LOT of books that way.)
Getting desperate, we both ended up taking the first jobs that were offered to us, both of which we hated (and which ended up putting us on opposite work schedules for the rest of that summer, which was awful). Our next month’s rent was due before we would get our first paycheck, however, so I actually ended up selling a whole-term life insurance policy my mom had taken out for me while I served a mission in El Salvador in order to cover the cost of our rent for that month.
Luckily, our heat was included for the first year or so we lived in that apartment (so it was MUCH better than my early college days), but we did have to keep our grocery bills pretty low—usually around $80-100 a month for the both of us, which included all our household goods, too.
We basically rarely or never went out to eat, we could only drive home to Bountiful to visit family (an hour and fifteen minutes away) when we could afford the gas, and we stopped buying presents for our family members for birthdays and such. We were lucky in the first year of marriage that we were still young enough to slide in on my stepdad’s insurance (and we were super healthy anyway, so we didn’t need it that much), and by the time we were old enough to phase out of that, I had health insurance through my new teaching job.
My teaching job really didn’t pay much, and the first few months, while things did feel more stable, still weren’t very comfortable. Then Matt was able to find two very flexible part time jobs, one of which ended up moving to the full-time job he’s had ever since. Those years were slightly more comfortable, especially after Matt graduated from college and his hours increased at the one job over time. During those years, we let ourselves go out a bit more, but we still prioritized saving, especially when we decided to start looking at houses to buy in the area.
Going Down to One Stable Income
There were a few months when we both received full-time incomes before I quit teaching to stay at home, and we saved like CRAZY during those months to prepare ourselves for the next season of our life, which would be me staying at home with our daughter (our son wasn’t born yet) while my husband worked full-time. (Before that point, my husband had been tending our daughter until he left for work around 12:45 p.m. every day, and then we paid a neighbor a small hourly amount to watch her until I got home around 3:30.)
During the years when we lived off of just one income, we learned to go without many things (including smartphones, a printer, Netflix, vacations, spending money on treats, going out to eat, hiring a babysitter, going to the gym, etc.). I have regularly called to negotiate bills down (Comcast, I’m looking at you), shopped around for the best price on things like insurance, and religiously turned off lights and unplugged appliances when we’ve left the room.
We have learned that in the times when we can relax a bit more about our finances, we need to save a bunch, and in the lean times, we just need to hang on. Through it all, I’ve honestly almost never felt poor or “woe is me” because we don’t make as much as some families–rather, I’ve chosen to consciously count the many blessings we are given each day, and that we’ve always, ALWAYS had enough (and the fact that I lived in a third-world country for almost a year and a half has helped me a lot with this mindset).
Hope for the Financially Weary
Maybe you’re going through a financial rough patch right now. Maybe you wonder how you’re going to pay a certain upcoming bill, or you worry that you’ll never be able to go to the grocery store and just buy a huge load of groceries without worrying about how much things cost. Maybe you dread the possibility of your landlord raising your rent, or you’re wondering how you’ll ever have the cash to take a true vacation again.
All I can say is:
I get it.
I get what it’s like to have to choose between getting medicine and buying groceries. I get what it’s like to keep putting off a much-needed doctor’s visit because you don’t know how you’ll afford it. I get what it’s like to know that you need a new car soon, but that you don’t know how on earth you’re going to get one, or to make repairs to the car you currently have.
I get it, because I have felt all those things (and sometimes still do).
But by and large, I don’t worry excessively about money. You wanna know why?
A few things I keep in mind:
- I know if I pay my tithing, things will always work out.
- Paying 10% of our income to tithing is a nonnegotiable for us, and it’s something that probably seems crazy to a lot of people who don’t have the same beliefs we do. But I can tell you for a fact that tithing is the one thing that has saved us financially time and time again, because when you pay the Lord first, He ALWAYS takes care of you.
- We stay out of debt.
- You can rationalize a lot of things as “must-haves” that really aren’t, and if you’re buying on credit to get those things, then you’re really just continuing to dig yourself in a hole that’s hard to get out of. Stop spending money you don’t have. Period. It might mean that you have to say, “It’s not in the budget” or “We can’t afford it” a lot. It might mean awkward social conversations with people who aren’t in a similar financial situation. But the peace of mind that comes from not being in debt is WORTH IT.
- We outline our values and priorities and plan our money and efforts accordingly.
- Sure, we could make a lot more money and be a lot more comfortable financially if I chose to work outside of the home, and for many families, that is the route they must take out of necessity. In our case, we know we have the financial skills and frugality to cut it with just one income, and we’re willing to sacrifice a lot to have me stay at home. The money we do bring in, we make sure we allocate towards what is most important (like things that will help our family bond together or further our education or bring us a greater return in the long-run) and not towards stuff we just want in the moment.
- We consciously take time to be grateful for what is most important to us.
- I’m willing to bet that for the majority of people, the most important things in life have nothing to do with money. So count your blessings. Take advantage of all the free things that bring you joy. Serve others. Smile. A good attitude, even in the leanest of times, can go a long way.
- We never let ourselves fall into the victim mentality.
- If you find yourself thinking that there’s no way out of your current financial situation, you’ve officially allowed yourself to fall into the victim trap. The fact is, there are ALWAYS things you can do to change your situation. Sure, you might not WANT to do some of those things, and you might decide in the long run it’s better if you just ride out this particular tight season. But at other times, you might decide that it’s worth it to look for another job, start a side hustle, downsize your home, move to an apartment, take on a part-time job, work opposite shifts as your partner to save on childcare, etc. The fact is, YOU HAVE CHOICES>>DON’T FORGET THAT!
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What are the craziest things you’ve done over the years to make ends meet?