Frugal Tuesday: Celebrate at Home

Mr. Vega and I celebrated our first official anniversary yesterday, having married on last Leap Year on February 29. We had high hopes for an exotic weekend away to celebrate this special day, but we couldn’t have predicted that our fourth/first anniversary would find him in school full-time, and me at a new job with no time off accrued.

Taking a page (literally!) from Gretchen Rubin‘s book, I arose earlier than usual to try my hand at my husband’s favorite breakfast: Eggs Benedict. Not only did Alton Brown’s recipe turn out beautifully in our little hippie kitchen, but Mr. Vega was sufficiently surprised and delighted that the day felt like a success despite our disappointment at not being able to make a bigger deal out of it.

I snagged some opening-weekend tickets to Batman v Superman at our favorite movie theater, and returned home at the end of the day to discover he had surprised me with a potted mini calla lily (my wedding bouquet was made entirely of those flowers!), and a very frugal but also meaningful-to-me gift.

Maybe for our second– or is it eighth?– anniversary, we’ll be able to pull out all the stops, but for now, learning to be happy with whatever life brings us helps us enjoy our special days no matter what our external circumstances are like. And that, more than having tons of money or time to blow, makes us feel richer than anything.

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Our January 2016 Budget

I created my first budget about ten years ago from a template I found in Dave Ramsey‘s book The Total Money Makeover, and after years of practice, it’s become habit for me to make a new budget every month.  I get asked on a regular basis to help people set up their budgets. I’ve been able to sit with a few friends, but time and distance prohibit me from helping individually every person who asks. Every household is different, so every budget needs to be different, too. Also, it’s important for me to say here that I am not a financial planner or adviser, and that everyone needs to be accountable for making informed choices about their own money. That said, since it can sometimes be helpful to get an idea of what other people are spending on and saving for, we have decided to share our budget. I’m showing where our money goes as a percentage of our take-home pay, both to maintain some privacy and also because it’s more practical: Regardless of the dollar amounts, it’s a good idea to try and save some money each month, meet your basic needs, have a little fun if you can afford to, and return something, however small, to the communities and organizations you care about.

Here’s how it breaks down this month for us:

  • Giving 3%. This category is on the small side this month. Not being religious, we don’t tithe, and we only have one gift-giving occasion in January. The balance of this category will go into donation boxes of non-profit institutions we visit this month. We also make an effort to contribute to charitable organizations and relief efforts throughout the year, and volunteer some time to causes we support. 
  • Emergency Fund 10%. Our Emergency Fund is currently big enough for us to survive for about four months with no other income. While that felt comfortable for us when we had one spouse with a full-time job, and one with several part-time and freelance income streams, now that we are down (for the time being) to one partner with one full-time job and a very little bit of part-time work, we are working toward having a year’s worth of expenses set aside for emergencies. By my calculations, at the rate we are able to save, it would take us about six years to reach that number! Because we anticipate returning to our 2+ income status in a couple of years (thereby returning to a smaller Emergency Fund), we’ll probably never hit our temporary goal, but we’re aiming to set aside 10% of everything we bring home in the meantime. 
  • Tax & Insurance Fund 10%. We maintain a separate account where we amortize our annual term life and auto insurance premiums, and set aside money to pay taxes on any 1099 income. 
  • Mortgage 25%. Our only debt is this 30-year fixed-rate loan, and we made a 20% down payment to avoid PMI. If we don’t pay anything extra, the payment (including principle and interest as well as escrow for property tax and insurance) is a quarter of our current take-home pay. We REALLY wanted a 15-year mortgage, but if we had done that, our currently reduced income would be more of a crisis than an inconvenience, so I guess we made the choice that was better for us. Still, we’re planning to get it paid off just as soon as we can.
  • Utilities 3%. This includes electric, water, natural gas, sewer and trash pickup. We are constantly looking for ways to reduce our usage, and hope to continue to see this number go down.
  • Mobile phones 3%. Our mobile phones are recent-release smart phones with high-usage packages. Admittedly an indulgence, we switched providers last year to save about $250/year over what we used to pay, and this expense would be the second cut we made in a financial crisis (the first is coming up below).
  • Home Improvement 2%. The Home Improvement Fund is one of the last budget categories we pay into right now. We are making continuous minor improvements at the Little Hippie House, and hoping to save enough to replace the aging roof, remodel the bathroom & kitchen, tear down a load-bearing wall, and install new floors. That all could take quite a while, but we’ll keep chipping away at it, as our finances allow.
  • Cable/Internet 2%. Cable would be the first thing to go in the event of a financial crisis, and I suppose our internet would have to slow down a lot if things got tight (or maybe not: Google Fiber is slowly making its way into our neighborhood). But it’s another indulgence we’re comfortable with for now.
  • Transportation 1%. Our transportation expenses will be ridiculously low this month, in part to one of us being a stay-at-home spouse, and the other one working just a few miles from home. Having paid-for cars that won’t need servicing, inspections, or registration in January helps a lot, too! (Remember, though, that our car insurance falls into another category… this number would double if we included it here)
  • Food 11%. Food is the big budgetary challenge for us this month, but we’re determined to make it work. When our income is bigger, we normally spend about double what we’ve allotted for January! This month, we’re planning to minimize meals out, work our way through the frozen holiday leftovers, and take advantage of our upcoming small winter garden harvest. In addition to feeding ourselves this month, it’s my hope to use 5-10% of our weekly food budget to build our home food store… I really love going to our little chest freezer for a gallon of milk or to our garage for a jar of peanut butter instead of having to run to the market when things run out!
  • Pet Care 1%. This category this month consists entirely of canned food for our two cats. We have more than enough kitty litter and dry food to get through the month, and their annual veterinary visits aren’t until March. 
  • Clothing 2%. We aren’t planning any clothing purchases this month, but we’re setting a little aside so we can do a Big Shop in the Spring. 
  • Entertainment 3%. Entertainment is the one area where we consistently  underspend! Every month, it’s a challenge to get ourselves out to the movies, a play, or to hear some live music. We’re still working on that, for the sake of balance.
  • Personal Care 9%. Our Personal Care budget should really be called “MY Personal Care budget,” as Mr.Vega gets an inexpensive haircut every other month or so, and is in the process of growing an Epic Beard, so we no longer buy him razors or shaving cream. Because I’m in the process of Changing Looks, hairwise, this month, this category is more than double what it usually is.
  • Education 6%. Even community college costs something, at least for now: there are a lot of political promises being made on the campaign trail to change that. That will be lovely if it happens, but in the meantime about 6% of January’s pay will go for tuition. 
  • Vacation 7%. Last summer, we went to a five-day music & arts festival that we just loved. It’s time to buy tickets for the next one, and because it’s an out-of-town camping trip, we count the tickets as a travel expense, rather than “entertainment” (and this part is a little weird, but because the event is limited-capacity, tickets are sold lottery-style, with each person allowed to request a maximum of two tickets. We each put in for two, and if we get all four, we’ll sell the extra pair at face value and recoup half of our expense. But we’re sending payment for four tickets in January, so that is what we have to budget for).
  • Professional Development 2%. My new job will reimburse me for this training after I complete it this Spring, but registration is first-come-first serve, which is why I’ll be paying for it this month.

So there you have it: our January budget, with every dollar accounted for. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but we’re not unhappy with it. Feel free to share in the comments how different it is from (or similar to) yours… I’m always curious to learn how other people are doing it.

Full-Time Work “Fail,” Personal Finance Win!

Last Tuesday was my final day of work at the full-time job I started seven and a half months ago. I did everything I could to make a go of it, but nine-hour days and the lack of autonomy inherent in a full-time position just isn’t for me, it seems.

Fortunately, we have our financial life arranged so that the hardest part of my decision has been saying goodbye to the co-workers I’ve come to love (and even that isn’t entirely true, as I’ll continue working there on an hourly basis). The money part isn’t so scary. Here’s why:

We have a fully funded emergency fund. Although we won’t have to use it, it’s comforting to know that we could maintain our lifestyle exactly as it is for a few months with zero income. Which, of course, we won’t have to. It took us nearly all of 2012 to get that money in the bank, but the peace of mind it brings is worth every hour of hard work we did to get it. We also maintain our hidden emergency funds, which go a long way when times get tight.

I had been unable to bring myself to actually quit any of my part-time gigs, so it’s going to be relatively easy to simply increase my work there, as well as in the freelance world. Doing occasional work for other employers has kept my options open, so although I am leaving a job, I am not unemployed. And although it would be uncomfortable, we have designed our lifestyle so that we could, if need be, live entirely on half of our income (I’m phrasing it this way on purpose: this was also something I did as a single person. Having a partner is lovely, but not a requirement for living beneath one’s means!).

We bought a house a couple of months ago, which could seem scary, except that we made sure to buy something we could afford, even if times got tight. Buying a small fixer-upper means that our house payment and utility bills aren’t much more than they were when we were in an apartment.

I know that we are fortunate to still have health benefits provided through Mr. Vega’s employer. Not everyone has that. But we have paid for our own insurance before, and have maintained a budget that could be arranged to do it again, if the need arose. It would mean giving up some luxuries, but first things always come first around here.

None of this has been easy: we like a night out as much as the next folks, and we’ve never had a “real vacation.” We’re happy that all of our relatives happen to live in vacation-worthy locales, but we haven’t visited as much as we would like to, because of our commitment to living debt-free and with a prudent reserve. There is so much more we’d like to do, and see, and have. But there is nothing we want enough to stay in jobs and situations that aren’t right for us… For that reason alone, the hard work and sacrifice has all been worth it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to start cooking the beans for tonight’s dinner…

How We Became Average Americans (And What We’re Doing to Stop It!)

Last year, Mr. Vega and I were living in a 486-square-foot apartment in a not-so-perfect neighborhood tucked into the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles. We had a thriving container garden on our balcony, and we supplemented the soil with compost created by a colony of red wriggler worms that also lived in a container on our balcony and fed on our fruit and vegetable scraps and coffee grounds. Our meals were all organic and made-from-scratch, often in a slow-cooker, and supplemented with green vegetable juice fresh-made daily. We kept a batch of kombucha brewing on a kitchen counter, a small bottle of organic vanilla beans and bourbon (otherwise known as “vanilla extract”) in a cupboard, and a bigger bottle of cherries, sugar and bourbon (otherwise known as “cherry bounce…” if you haven’t tried it, you might want to!) under the kitchen sink. Our refrigerator was a smaller apartment-sized unit, and we liked it that way, because it was harder to overlook what we had put in there and let it go to waste. We did our laundry twice a month, two loads at a time in our building’s communal laundry room, and hung about half of that to dry on a rack out on the balcony.

We were weird.

We seemed like perfect candidates to move to Austin, Texas… the city’s motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” after all! Housing prices in Los Angeles were proving pretty unforgiving, and we had our hearts set on homeownership, so we packed up a U-Haul and headed eastward, towing one car and shipping another. We had come out a month earlier and secured jobs and an apartment, but because we didn’t know the area, we chose an apartment in a more expensive part of town than our old place in L.A. This one came with a much smaller balcony, and we moved in mid-summer, too late to start a garden. It also has an in-unit washer and dryer, which came in handy, as we weren’t used to the longer drying times required for hanging laundry in the humid air of central Texas. We also weren’t prepared for how we might have to adjust our home-fermenting efforts: my first batch of kombucha grew a healthy layer of mold, and I haven’t found the motivation to try again. Although our apartment in Austin has 50% more square footage than our last place, the storage options are not well-designed, and so the kitchen is much less functional. And we still haven’t learned how to cook on an electric stovetop without burning things!

After a lifetime spent working freelance and part-time jobs, I took full-time work about six months ago, in addition to keeping a couple of my part-time gigs, so that we could save for the house we came here to buy. While I’m glad I did, I now find myself without the time or energy to shop, prep and cook like I used to. Week after week, we found ourselves letting our fresh food languish in the standard size fridge while we stopped for takeout or reached for convenience foods, and without a compost bin, 100% of our food waste has been headed to the landfill. We decided to fill our freezer with some Trader Joe’s frozen options, just to get us through the transition… not ideal, but healthier and less expensive than takeout, or most of the big-name convenience foods. After Mr. Vega sustained a sports injury that makes it difficult for him to walk without pain, even the trek to our closest Trader Joes was proving difficult to fit into my busy schedule, and I found myself shopping at the chain grocery store nearest my workplace, buying and consuming the very products that we’ve avoided so diligently for the past few years. There’s a bit of a vicious cycle going on here: our busier schedules and poorer nutrition means that we have less energy to shop for and cook the healthy foods that would give us, well, more energy! But at the end of a typical 9-hour workday, all we really want is to eat something that we don’t have to cook, lie on the couch and watch TV. And we’ve gained weight. Like most of America, we are now overworked, overweight, malnourished, and trying to function in a state of near-constant fatigue.

Our expenses have gone up, too. Living in a “safer” neighborhood in Austin costs us more in rent than our dodgy-but-familiar part of Los Angeles. The landlord-tenant laws are different here, so our rent is about to go up $200-$400 (the amount would depend on the length of the lease we sign). And our incomes decreased considerably when we left the West coast. We’re fortunate to still be earning enough to give us some margin, even with our current spendy lifestyle, but we’re keenly aware that adding children to our family, needing to care for aging parents, or experiencing a health crisis of our own would change the balance considerably. From where we sit, it’s very easy to understand how some “low monthly payments” for anything that makes life easier would start to look pretty good to a lot of people right about now.

Now we’re average.

What’s keeping us going is the knowledge that our situation is temporary: We’re currently in escrow on our first home. It’s a two-bedroom house, not much bigger than our current one-bedroom apartment, and we’ve got a healthy down payment so our monthly payments will be about the same as our rent. It’s got a couple of fruit trees in the front, a big backyard for gardening, a good-sized kitchen pantry, and a covered deck where we can hang our laundry but still have it protected from summer showers and the grackles that are ubiquitous here. There’s also a gas stove, more counter space and the opportunity to buy whatever size refrigerator we like. If all goes well, in a few months we’ll be collecting rainwater, composting, eating home-grown vegetables again, and playing host to bees, bats and butterflies. We’ll feel more comfortable inviting friends over for dinner and game nights, because there is ample street parking and zero chance of upstairs neighbors complaining about the noise we make when the conversation gets boisterous at our dining table. It will take some effort to keep our tired bodies moving after we come home from a full day’s work, but I think we’ll be able to do it, because we know from experience the good financial and physical health that any amount of urban homesteading can bring. And loathe as I am to do it, because I’ve come to love the people I work with, once we’re settled and have made a few improvements to the house I’ll be able to leave my part-time job and keep my workweek down to a more manageable five days a week instead of six.

We are not wealthy people, but we have had the luxury of working less-than-full-time, or at least of keeping flexible hours, for most of our working lives. Our year of living like “average” Americans has brought me a lot of compassion for people with fewer options. I now have answers to some of the questions in my head that start with “Why don’t they just…?” This experience has taught me that “they” probably don’t exercise the options I’m thinking of because “they” are exhausted and feeling unwell, and there isn’t always someone else to pick up the slack. I’ve learned that an unexpectedly busy week means that fresh fruits, vegetables, and even meats are likely to go unprepared and uneaten, so it’s easier to just not buy them in the first place. I’ve discovered that something as simple as a poor apartment design can have a big effect on a family’s ability to maintain healthy habits. I can see how a weeklong disruption in a steady income could throw off a working parent’s finances in ways that, if you throw in a few late fees and re-connection charges, could take years to recover from.

Living in this country, in this economic climate, is a real struggle for the average American these days. Working flexible schedules, growing and cooking your own food, staying out of debt, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance can go a long way toward making life easier, but those choices aren’t available for everyone. And they certainly aren’t options that I’ll ever take for granted again.

Have you been able to stay out of the “average” American cycle of work-spend-work? What choices have you made to accomplish that?

All About That Bocce

When Mr. Vega and I moved to Austin last Summer, building a strong social network was (and still is!) a very high priority for us. We’ve read that close friendships prevent depression, extend lifespans, and lessen the likelihood of long periods of unemployment. Oh, also, it’s fun to have friends! Fortunately, Austin has plenty of opportunities to socialize… outdoor films, free music, art walks, fun runs… you name it. One of the activities we happened across was Austin’s inaugural season of Major League Bocce— which sounds more advanced than it is, as beginners are welcome, too! We’d never played bocce before, and we didn’t have a team to join with, so we signed up to be placed with other random folks, and convened in a little park on a hot summer night to see what we’d gotten ourselves into. We were placed with two other couples and one single guy… all of whom had a fair amount of experience playing bocce, but fortunately for us, the learning curve is pretty shallow (mastering the game, however, is another story!). And while the learning curve isn’t steep, the park where we played is We spent the next six weeks chasing our balls as they rolled down the hill into other players’ courts, hollering “Sorry!” and learning how to roll the ball left to make it go to the right. Afterward, we repaired to the local pub for some adult refreshment and conversation. It was a great good time, and we ended up becoming close friends with one of the couples from our team.

We’re constantly looking for ways to be of service in our new community, so when I learned that Special Olympics Texas has a Bocce Competition, we were eager to help out. We had a great time escorting the athletes to their games, keeping score, and cheering them on. Because they had spent eight weeks training for the competition, they actually had more experience than we did, and we picked up a few tips! More than that, we got to see how truly accessible the sport is for people of all age ranges and with a wide range of physical abilities.

We returned to our second season with a renewed enthusiasm for the game, and when we were asked to help out again, we didn’t hesitate. This time it was a special event at a new apartment complex: They have a bocce court on the property, but none of the residents knew how to play, so we spent a pleasant couple of hours on a chilly Fall night showing them the ropes (at least as well as we know them). The neighbors got to know each other better, and we got to drink some free-to-us beer and play our new favorite game!

Season three will find us back on the bocce court, where we’ll team up with some new faces, and deepen our friendships with the folks we already know. I’m also volunteering with the league this season, so I’m looking forward to getting to know people from a different perspective.

Moving to a new city and creating friendships isn’t easy, but organized social events and sports teams provide an opportunity to get to know a group of people who share your interests, and the repeated exposure gives friendships a little time and space in which to grow. And sometimes it’s nice to mix things up a little, even if you’ve lived in the same place for years… you can never have too many friends in your life! Who knows? Trying something new just might open up a part of life you never knew you were missing!

Why I’m Working Full Time

If you do an online search for “full-time work,” you’ll come up with loads of articles about how to fire your boss, escape the cubicle, and travel the world as a location-independent freelancer. I accepted a full-time position last week, and as excited as I am about it, I’m having a hard time finding anything good written about working a traditional schedule. I’ve been a freelancer and part-timer for most of my career, and have enjoyed the higher hourly pay, the flexible schedule, and the not really having a boss thing, but a job came my way that was so well-suited to me that I couldn’t turn it down. So I said “Yes” to spending forty hours each week doing the work that I love, and so far, I’m glad I did.

Probably the most obvious benefit to having a salaried position is knowing that I’ll be receiving twenty-four identical paychecks each year. A quick look at our marriage’s financial history reveals that money tends to get pretty tight each January and July… we’re looking forward to having a consistent amount of money to work with each month. Also, because we’re saving for a house, we’ve always wanted to live on one income, but it’s been challenging having two incomes that can vary so widely month-to-month. We now have an opportunity to try living on our one stable income, and to bank the rest.

Also, my new job, while paying about 75% of the money that I am used to earning as a freelancer, also comes with comprehensive benefits. My new health insurance will save us about a hundred dollars each month over having me listed as a dependent with Mr. Vega’s employer, and the generous retirement package will go a long way toward helping us catch up on the nest egg we started saving for in our thirties, rather than early in our working lives (Millenials, take note: Compound Interest is your friend… start saving now!). Additionally, my new situation will go a long way toward alleviating the stress that comes with my husband’s job in a volatile industry. If his job goes away with the looming corporate merger, it will be unfortunate but not tragic. Or if he chooses to pursue some fabulously creative opportunity that comes without benefits, we’ll be able to keep him covered under mine.

Financial stability aside, it will be lovely to have a base of operations for my work, and not feel like I’m living out of my car during the work week! For the first time in… well, ever, I’m going to have my own office, which means my reference books and office supplies won’t have to compete with my novels and personal stationery for a very limited amount of shelf space at home. Several of my other employers provide break rooms with sinks, refrigerators and microwaves, but I’ve rarely worked in the same place two days in a row, and so leaving food at work has not been a viable option for me. I’m perhaps unduly excited about the possibility of stocking my little fridge shelf with lunches and snacks for the week, and not having to worry about forgetting my lunch when I have a hurried morning!

Another exciting aspect of having a full-time job is that I’m no longer competing with colleagues for work. I’ll be able to focus my energy on collaborating with my co-workers to do the work we’ve been hired for, rather than trying to beat them to the next gig, before this one is even over! Everyone in this new workplace has been so welcoming and supportive, and I can’t help but think that their job security is part of the reason why.

All that said, the folks at my other part-time jobs have been so wonderful to me that I’m loathe to leave them in the lurch, so I’ll be hanging in on a part-time basis for as long as I can… one evening a week at one, and half a weekend day at the other. And you guessed it: those checks will go in the House Fund, too.

But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about my new schedule: for the past week I’ve come home at 5:30, spent a couple of hours making and wrapping holiday gifts, had dinner with my husband, and gone to bed early. When I complained that there wasn’t much time for actual living after work, Mr. Vega replied with a smile “Welcome to full-time work!” I’m sure it won’t be long before I’m one of those folks shouting “TGIF!” and getting very excited about the return of Daylight Saving Time. I’ve already discovered that there’s very little margin for error in my daily schedule: if the dishes don’t get washed before bedtime, breakfast is going to be a disaster, and we haven’t got enough clothes in our closets to be able to miss Laundry Day.

All in all, though, I think the benefits to this particular full-time job will far outweigh the inconveniences. I’m looking forward to finding out more!

How to Start Living Below Your Means

I’m sick today. If I didn’t speak for a living, I could probably still go to work, but I’ve got laryngitis, so I am out of commission. Trouble is, as an hourly employee and freelancer, “no work” means “no pay.” The good news is, Mr. Vega and I have the great good fortune of a fully funded (3-6 months of living expenses) emergency fund, and have gotten the hang of living below our means, so we probably won’t need to dip into savings to cover a few days of lost work.

But it wasn’t always like this. Most of my work has come without paid sick time or vacation days, and before I learned to live modestly, even one sick day could create a financial crisis. Never mind “paycheck-to-paycheck,” I lived “credit card bill-to-credit card bill” for a decade, and viewed due dates as mere suggestions, racking up late fees and ruining my credit, while still getting $100 spa treatments on a regular basis. If I heard the suggestion during those years to live within or below my means, it didn’t register, because I wouldn’t have even known where to start.

It’s been eight years since I found myself living in a small, sad apartment, staring at thousands of dollars in credit card and tax debt, alongside statements for hefty paychecks, wondering how I could have earned such a high hourly rate for so long and have nothing to show for it. Less than nothing, actually, because I had a negative net worth!

Something happened in that lonely apartment, and before I knew it, I was canceling credit cards, filing amended tax returns in search of deductions that had been overlooked in my sloppy record-keeping, and trying out slow-cooker recipes to lower my food costs. I ignored my health and my relationships in order to work as much as I possibly could to get the debt paid. My intense focus got me debt-free within a year, but two years after that, I found myself with a $6,000 credit card bill, and a $20,000 car loan. I had learned how to pay off debt, but not how to avoid it in the first place. I hadn’t learned to budget, and I not learned to live below my means.

My first attempts at budgeting failed miserably, because I based them on templates that had little to do with my actual spending habits. As a single woman living in Los Angeles, I spent more than the national average on rent and transportation, but nothing on child care. Grocery expenses were low, restaurant spending was high, and visits to the hair salon were (and still are) non-negotiable. I came to understand that each of us is unique, and our earning, spending and savings will reflect that. What’s more, even one’s own budget will not remain a perfect fit year in and year out, or from one month to the next. Life changes quickly, and we have to change with it. I learned that if you’re ever going to get a handle on this money thing, you have to write down everything you spend. This is a requirement for success, but I struggled with it terribly until I discovered Mint (with whom I am not affiliated, and from whom I have received no compensation), which made it easy for me to see where the money was coming from and where it was going, so that I could begin to make changes based on what was actually happening.

With the whole ugly truth laid out in front of me, the first thing I did was to stop the most obvious money leaks. These are the areas where economizing is relatively painless: I started buying six-packs of soda at the grocery store and taking drinks to work instead of dropping $1.50 a day into the vending machine. I’d drive around the block looking for street parking instead of mindlessly pulling into the pay lot. My lifestyle didn’t change much, and I was still spending too much money, but I was beginning to wake up to the possibility of doing things differently. Things got much more refined later, but at this early stage, every time I didn’t super-size my order was a win for me.

After I got the hang of easier things, I began to get creative with the less-obvious opportunities for savings. I scoured my auto insurance policy for coverage I didn’t need, checked that my cell phone plan wasn’t more than I needed, and scheduled coffee dates with friends instead of dinners out. It became a game for me, and no savings was too small: the double-loader washing laundromat machine that cost a quarter less than two separate loads, the ten-cent savings at the coffee shop for bringing your own cup (later, of course, I switched to brewing my own coffee), the grocery store that offered a nickel credit for bringing your own bag…. I began to enjoy finding some sort of savings everywhere I went. After all, pennies add up to dollars, eventually.

Another major step in my financial awakening was beginning to declutter. I thought selling some of my no-longer-used things might be a good way to create more space in my home and in my budget. It was quite a shock to learn that I couldn’t expect to receive even half of what I had paid for most things, even if they had never been used! The exercise of decluttering and downsizing my possessions made me keenly aware of the purchases I made going forward. I have since cultivated a practice of buying less, buying for life when I can, and doing my level best to avoid retail prices everywhere else.

When I had just about reached the limits of minimizing my expenses within the life I was living, it became time for me to make a big move. For me, this first meant cutting cable and killing my TV, and later, moving in with a roommate to reduce my rent by $400 a month. And while it seems counterintuitive to not have begun with these things, baby-stepping my way up the ladder of frugality allowed me to garner small wins and develop an experiential conviction that larger sacrifices would be worth the effort. And they definitely were.

With my expenses cut as deeply as I could manage, my next task was to learn to earn more, which was by far the riskiest thing I did, as it involved working less, and taking a few chances with my schedule of part-time jobs and freelance work. But because I had finally paid off all my debt (again!), and brought my expenses more in line with my earnings, I could afford the gamble. The graphs and trends on Mint helped me realize that the job I deemed most stable, but that also caused me the most stress, accounted for only 10% of my annual income. With some trepidation, I left that job and increased my availability with the employer who was less stable, but paid much more. As last-minute freelance assignments come with a 20% premium, I held off on booking lower-paying work in advance, in the hopes that the higher-paying, same-day assignments would be plentiful enough to meet my needs. And I spoke up: when a new manager came on board at the freelance agency, I told him honestly that although the agency was one of my favorite employers, I frequently declined work there in favor of higher-paying jobs. Within the month, I was offered a rate commensurate with what I earned elsewhere. By choosing my assignments carefully, and giving highest priority to the highest-paying jobs, I was able to increase my income and reduce my workload.

Rinse and Repeat. By the time I had found so many ways to reduce my daily expenses, had brought down a few of the big ones, and learned to make more money in less time, life had changed enough that going back to the beginning seemed like a good idea. I had met and married my husband, and we began budgeting together early on in our dating relationship. “My goals” had been modified and expanded to become “Our goals,” which included saving for a house, and while the household income had doubled, regular expenses had not (two may not live quite as cheaply as one, but happily, the cost of running a household doesn’t double when its occupancy does). Eating a nearly meat- and alcohol-free diet didn’t work so well for my husband, so grocery expenses were higher, but cooking and eating at home was more fun with a companion, and so the restaurant budget shrank. And since we moved from California to Texas, we’re spending less on gasoline, but more on mosquito repellant!

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned on the path to living below our means is that you’ve got to have fun doing it. Brown-bagging my lunch means I get to eat healthier, more interesting meals every day, and still have enough money to get my hair done every other month, without having a minor panic attack when it comes time to pay. Losing my loyalty to name-brand products made by companies who aren’t concerned with my well-being means that I can fill our fridge without draining our bank accounts. Finding free fun on weekends lets us enjoy life while saving for a house. And taking a few calculated risks in order to earn more money allows me to stay home and write when I’m sick without fear that the lights will get turned off next month because of it.

Is living within or below your means important to you? What changes have you made, or would you consider making, to do it?