Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Frugal Living/ Saving on Relatively Little

In response to The Grumpies' encouragement, here is how we scrimped and saved  out of Dr. S's postdoc income ($42,000 per year, before taxes etc.) for three years in Cold City.

If I think of anything else, or if my Dear Readers have questions, I'll put up another post.

Sometimes I have deep regrets about the money aspects of our lives.  If I had stayed at Bicycle Company and/or worked full time for the last five years, we would have SO much money, people.  (Also we would probably be divorced.) But I didn't. And I dislike most housewifery things, which is a whole separate post (I am good at being general contractor of Life Stuff but I find it boring, tedious, and largely meaningless.)

Things In Advance To Make Life Cheaper (Preselected Structural Advantages):

1) Science.  We both chose to become scientists which makes us more employable than English majors, and gave us a muuuuuch better deal in grad school.  Sorry.  It's true.

2) No debt.  Dr. S bought a Honda Civic when he was 21* and paid it off right before we got married.  He also paid off his (~$5000) student loan debt right before we got married.  We lived on our sad grad student stipends without incurring any more debt, either.  This was in an expensive East Coast city where rent was a quarter of our combined income.  We went out occasionally for dinner, we bought clothes when we needed them, we worked 70-80 hours a week. Science grad school is six years of suffer now for benefit later.  It's great practice.

3) Saved up. Before quitting my job, I worked for a year and a half and we saved 90% of my net income (after taxes and childcare). See above re: boring lives. This gave us a $35,000 down payment for a house on top of our other savings.

4) Health insurance.  We made sure to have good health insurance before doing any of this. Tatoe's prenatal care and birth cost me a total of $50.  For nine months.  The last year in Cold City, I hit my OOP max and had a $15,000 elective surgery too! (To fix my !@$%ing sinuses which left me in constant pain for a year.  Not something frivolous.)

Things We Planned Frugally (Before I Quit My Job):

1) Renovated ugly house.    My dad helped.  We replaced all the floors in the whole house, redid the kitchen, repainted the whole thing, put in new lights, painted the exterior, re-did the landscaping, put a deck railing up, and tiled the bath.  Also, we fixed the exploded garage door ourselves.**  I'm exhausted just remembering.  However, we walked away from the house after three years with a $77,000 check.  ($35,000 of this was down payment and $8000 was first-time-homebuyer-credit thing.) So we put $11,000 per year into the mortgage principal.  Total renovation cost was about $8000.  (Saved up/ net: $34,000)
- Of note: we did look into the real estate market carefully before doing this.  Cold City appeared to have just bottomed out in the housing market collapse right before we bought.  We estimated that in three years it would be at least somewhat recovered, based on patterns elsewhere.  This turned out to be true.

2) Minimized transport costs. We kept our one car and Dr. S took the bus or his bike to work.  (We had moved to Cold City in part because of the good public transportation, among other factors.)

Things I Learned To Do While Poor(ish) (More Time Than Money):

1) Thrifting.  I shopped hard-core at garage sales, thrift shops, church rummage sales, and the Dig And Save Of Blessed Memory.  Garage sales are practically a sport in Cold City, which worked out well.  High-ticket items like shoes, coats, winter boots, snow pants, and expensive mittens were worth buying used.  Average coat cost $5, average boot cost $2/pair.

1a) Stockpiling future sizes.  I still do this.  My larger children are guaranteed to wear Next Size Up in both warm and cold seasons, so I stuff it all into bins and store it in my enormous amount of closets.
1b) Disposing of things at consignment sales.  Especially big things like hiking backpacks and fancy cloth diapers.

2) Clearance sales for work clothes. Because sometimes you need new clothes for work. Lands' End, in particular, has some good sales which can be combined with percent-off-coupons.  Fortunately, my spouse and children - Midwesterners at heart!- are perfectly content with jeans, khakis, polo shirts, and button-downs in subdued plaids.

3) Grocery coupon shopping. This is a pain in the rear and takes a huge amount of time.  However, I stockpiled and coupon collected and shopped the sales and paid about 30-40% less for groceries (which took it to about $100 per week rather than $175).  Moral: if you don't have a lot of money, it takes a lot of time to compensate.

4) Swallowed my pride and my desires.  We've gotten a lot of hand me downs and toys from other people.  And that's fine.  I would put things in an online cart, email it to myself, and ask myself a month later if we really needed it.

5) Mainly vegetarianism/ cooking a lot.  Which I had done before, but animals are tasty and I like them for dinner. We rarely go out, in part because the Deathly Dairy Allergy limits options. So we (I) cook big batches of things at home.

6) Free and cheap stuff.  Cold City has a lot of outdoor activities, and a lot of free indoor things, too.  We did them all.  There was a fantastic Community Rec program that worked out to $4/week/person for sports and classes, so that was great too.


- We probably ended up saving (after the house sale) half our income.  We put about $10,000 per year in IRAs and college savings accounts, plus the mortgage principal (we made extra principal payments).***
- We still have no non-mortgage debt.
- I have zero desire to ever do that again.  (Our current income is about 2x what it was then.  One day HOPEFULLY SOON when I go back to more-than-7%-working, we'll have actual money.)
- I also have zero sympathy for anyone saying 'We just COULDN'T get by on $$,$$$!' (Big expensive cities get an adjustment.)  Yes, yes you could.  And it would suck.  But you'd have to give up your cable and iphones and fancy new car and vacation in Costa Rica. It is fine if people want these things.  It is not fine to then complain that you chose to spend your money (MY IN LAWS) and have... less money.

Things I Still Do Now We're Less Poor:

- I still stockpile clothes
- I get my work clothes at the Goodwill, which benefits from being near Mountain U's well-paid inhabitants
- I turn pants-with-holes into shorts for the children and me
- I take in lots of hand me downs
- I swap children when feasible rather than paying for babysitting
- I buy stuff on clearance but get the kids new shoes rather than used ones (which I only got in good condition but it was a pain)
- I buy foods in bulk at the local Mennonite shop.  Their cashews are $6 a pound!  They have thirty kinds of cheese!  (for the children).  I get 50 lb bags of flour for $19! (Also for the family.  I still can't eat wheat, blah.)
- We still have the Honda.  It is 16 years old.  Runs Good.
- I sew things for the children, including Halloween/Purim costumes and so on.
- We still make the max contributions to IRA/401k type things before anything else, because Mountain U matches 2:1.

Things I Don't Do Any More:

- Hard core grocery couponing.  Not worth my time now.
- Sending things to consignment sales.  So much work.  I give it away; we have a big circulation of used children's clothes here, so it kind of comes back around.  (Example: a friend GAVE me a $300 jogging stroller.  It was 10 years old, but still in great shape.)
- I buy some new stuff.  More than before.
- We eat a lot more fish but about the same amount of meat (not much).
- We've paid for some major renovations.  Some of them we couldn't do ourselves (iron beams in garage!  air conditioner!).  Some we just didn't want to (chimney cleaning!  giant tree removal!). This has impacted the last couple years of savings.
- I have a Ting cellphone that costs $12/month.  It's so rural here that I fear car breakdowns in little-travelled areas.

Other Money Stuff

Right now, we 'own' (have a mortgage on) an enormous house. It's 3100 square feet plus about another 1000 square feet in a shop and screen porch.  The university owns our mortgage at an interest rate of 3%, which is less than our investments return.  It's one of their keep-PhDs-here things.  I almost regret it, because it's really kind of too big, but when the children are teenagers it will be just right, and we didn't want to move again.  (Also, low population = few house choices).

My income goes to savings, and house projects, like the AC**** and the tree.  If I were working full time, we'd probably kill each other, but we'd have a larger cushion.

We have enough income that I don't keep a strict budget, instead keeping general track of how much I spend.  Dr. S checks all transactions to prevent fraudulent charges.  He buys almost nothing ever (really, nothing.  Milk!  and once a month, a sandwich).

There are things we could cut (wine! occasional lunch out!) but don't want to because we don't need to and therefore it feels punitive and miserable.

* This says some important things about his character and priorities.
**  Just... don't leave a tricycle where the garage door will catch it, okay? Okay. 
*** Before we bought a house, we calculated out the break-even vs. renting, including closing costs, renovations, and mortgage interest. If we had sold the house for exactly what we paid, we would have been out the same as renting.  As it was, we lived in the house for the cost of interest, for three years, and got back all the rest of our costs.
**** Green mildew = time for AC.  Oh, the South.  


  1. Anonymous9:31 AM


  2. Yes, to practically all of that! I also don't coupon shop because it's not worth my time. Also, the store brands are about the same price as name brand plus coupon.

    I'd add, don't buy too much house. (You have a special case, what with low interest and few choices. Not to mention the awesome stream in your yard.) We have a 3BR, 2 car garage, builder basic "starter home" in Cold City. I don't have granite countertops, my linoleum floors have scratches from the previous owners' dogs, and Patrick's office is in a walk-in closet. But it's only 15 years old and doesn't need too much upkeep. I have friends who NEEDED a 4BR, 3 car garage and therefore they live in a worse school district, in a house that cost nearly double mine and have property taxes of $10,000/yr.

    We will be able to save enough money to replace the floors and countertops eventually, and in the meantime pay cash for our "fancy" European vacation every few years.

    Oh, also have 3-6 months expenses in a savings account somewhere, for when your AC breaks and it's $3,000 for a new one. For example.

    1. Dr. S reminded me today that our mortgage is $1200 per month. I mean, you've seen our house. Ridiculous.

      Did I tell you it turns out my moderately unattractive counters ARE granite?

      I remember your friends NEEDING that garage. Pfffft.

  3. This is seriously impressive. Kudos!


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