Can Two Live as Cheaply as One? The Final Update (or, “When Our Only Job Imploded”)

Welp, we finally called it: After six months in a row of spending more than we brought in, Mr. Vega got a part-time at our favorite grocery store. That few hundred dollars a month goes a long way, and his employee discount has also helped to lower our grocery expenses. Most importantly, he loves his job, his co-workers and customers, and even after spending 8 hours on his feet, he comes home happy and energized. What a far cry from his previous career in high-pressure sales, which caused him constant stress and anxiety! 

I think that what we were really trying to do should have been called “Can Two Live as Cheaply as One Under-Earner?” because the significant pay-cut that I took in order to work a “full-time with benefits” job sure didn’t help the situation any! What we’re doing now could be categorized as “Two can Live as Cheaply as One and a Half,” which seems appropriate to our Post-Recession 21st Century economic climate. 

Over the past several months, there were some radical changes in my previous employer’s company culture. I tried my best to adapt, becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the changes mounted. But with Mr. Vega in school full time (and doing very well, I might add!), the pressure of being the sole earner in our household had me feeling somewhat trapped. And I was reluctant to leave the group of truly remarkable people I worked with each day… It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve made some friendships there that will be lifelong. 

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First Day of School!

Eventually, though, I came to accept that working where I felt that I was being treated unfairly was taking too great a toll on my health and relationships. On the day I tendered my resignation, so did my direct supervisor and about 1/4 of my colleagues! I’m not wishing the company any ill will, but it was validating to see so many people make the same decision I did. That was a rough week at our little hippie house, made rougher still by the reality that I had just walked away from our only steady income and our health insurance. 

We went to www.healthcare.gov and selected a gold-level plan that would be accepted by most of our preferred providers, and that would give us an amount of coverage we felt comfortable with. It isn’t cheap, but it is something we believe to be more important than many other expenditures that we consider optional.

Throughout my career, whenever I have taken the leap of faith to leave an unhealthy job that I thought I “needed,” luck has been on my side, employment-wise, and this time was no exception: Two of my part-time jobs suddenly had a greater need for my services, and I was all too happy to oblige. One of them also instituted an across-the-board pay raise, the first in eight years. Those two jobs gave me enough work for the Fall that I didn’t have to look anywhere else. Because the work is at colleges, and employment during school breaks can be scarce in my field, we revived our practice of re-distributing that income by putting 1/3 of each school check into a “Summer Fund.”  While that makes for a little less spending money now, it also means that we won’t be scrambling to pay the bills later. 

While your mileage may vary, our takeaway lessons from our year of living on a single (reduced) income are these:

  • The Emergency Fund is Everything: although we were able to manage on one income during “normal months,” the unexpected expenses would have sent us deeply into debt if we hadn’t had any savings. Fortunately, all that saving we had done in the past kept us afloat when things got difficult, and we are now able to add to and rebuild the fund.
  • “Normal” Months are Pretty Rare: One month it was a tax bill that we hadn’t forecasted accurately, another was an large medical co-pay, and then there were car repairs and home repairs to be made. As one of my favorite old radio commercials used to say “Expect the Unexpected.”
  • Equitable Division of Labor Keeps us Healthier and Happier: While Mr. Vega was very willing to take on all of the housework duties, and I was very willing to shoulder all of the responsibility for earning money, dividing things up that way made us miserable! He is an extrovert who thrives on human contact, so that much time at home wasn’t good for him. Conversely, I am more introverted and truly enjoy homemaking, and being gone for so long each day left me too little time to enjoy the home we worked so hard to buy. Our current arrangement allows him more time around people, and gives me more time at home, making us each much happier with how our days are spent.
  • Be Willing to Seek Help: My husband has a diagnosed learning disability that qualifies him for assistance with his post-secondary education through our state’s department of Vocational Rehabilitation. When we made the decision for him to return to school and pursue a different career,  we knew we could afford tuition, but we didn’t anticipate just how much his textbooks and welding equipment would cost. His willingness to explore the support available to him is allowing us to remain debt-free while he completes his degree. And because Texas is in desperate need of welders, they are happy to support his training in the field, making it a truly win-win situation.
  • Work Where you Spend, if you Can: Taking on a grocery store job saves us not only a small percentage on our grocery bill, but also an hour or two each week by eliminating that errand from our schedule. Two birds, one stone!
  • Underearning is as Stressful as Overspending: We are strong proponents of living as far below your means as possible. We avoid car payments by driving used, sub-compact cars, keep our computers and smartphones for as long as there is software available to support them, our house is half a century older and 1/3 the size of the average American home, and we have never taken a trip that wasn’t to visit family. We know that many people don’t have the option to seek higher-paying work, and are already working more hours than they should have to in order to make ends meet, and we are grateful to have the opportunities we do. And there are a few things like craft beer, high-quality shoes and occasional nights out that, while they are absolutely possible to live without, make us happier when we have them. So we’re willing to work a little more in order to keep those luxuries.

There are so many factors that go into deciding how a household operates best, and we are lucky to be able to experiment with different ways of doing things. It’s been a challenging year, but also an invaluable experience in learning more about ourselves and about what constitutes balance in our particular situation.

What lifestyle changes have you tried making? How did they work for you? 

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Can Two Live as Cheaply as One? We’re About to Find Out.

For several months, Mr. Vega has been in slow burnout mode at work. Telecom sales is a constant, high-pressure environment that has been fitting less and less with the person he is becoming. About a month ago, we spent five days camping off-grid, enjoying good food, the company of friends, and time spent in nature. His first day back at work, I got a text from him: I’m sitting here at my desk thinking that I’m wasting my time and my life here… This weekend really did me good.

We spent a week and a half talking about what he wants to do, how we want to live, and how to make that happen. We ran the numbers, and we ran them again. And a few more times, just to be sure.

Ten days later, he resigned.

The plan is for him to start school full-time in January, spending a couple of years training for a career in which he doesn’t have to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything. Or sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed, you know, as a career. *

For the next couple of months, he will be a full-time homemaker, quite literally: there are garden beds to be built, a porch to screen in, rain gutters to install, and a host of other home-improvement projects to tackle in our Little Hippie House. There is a lot that we’ve been wanting to do, but we haven’t had much time for it.

Building Raised Beds

We’ve spent the past few years ensuring that we could handle a shift like this: We are debt-free except for the house, and we made sure to buy a house that we could afford on one income, if it ever came to that. After we paid off all our consumer debt (and before we started saving for a down payment), we built an Emergency Fund that would allow us to continue our lifestyle unchanged for four months with zero income, or for much longer if we reduce our expenses and maintain some kind of income. Since purchasing the house, we have resumed our Emergency Fund contributions, with a long-term goal of saving a full year’s worth of expenses.

We believe that with the right cuts, we can live modestly on my freelance income, without tapping into our Emergency Fund, and maybe even continuing to grow it, little by little. Mr. Vega has committed to getting at least a part-time job if we find ourselves unable to manage, although we would both prefer that he didn’t have to.

There will be sacrifices, mostly involving entertainment and travel, but we’re excited to have the opportunity to walk our talk to live meaningfully, and happily. We’ll continue to work toward making our home as self-sustaining as possible, and welcome all the friends and family who have the means to visit us in Austin. And we’re grateful to be cultivating friendships here with folks who share our values, and who are just as happy as we are to spend a weekend camping or an afternoon playing board games, instead of doing spendier things.

At the end of his training, Mr. Vega will be eminently employable, with a starting income that will at the minimum match what he was earning at his high-stress job, and with the potential to double in a few years’ time. To our farway friends and family, you can expect a visit from us beginning in 2017, but in the meantime, y’all are welcome to come on down any time you like!

*with gratitude to Cameron Crowe, Say Anything (1989)

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?