I’ve never really shared our story here but I think it’s high time I did! The fella and I weren’t always super savers and our path to frugality was filled with triumphs, failures, obstacles, and a whole lot of love.
Here’s our story. It’s a long one but I figured if I’m going to tell it I might as well tell it all.
When the fella and I met we were both living in Boston. It was 2008. I had just turned 21 and graduated from college. I was working as an intern Copywriter for $15 an hour. He was working as a barista at a cafe making around $14 an hour. He was 24 years old and didn’t have a college degree or any plans to get one, but man did he make a good iced coffee.
We had a love at first sight type of meeting. I was at a bar with my roommates, one of whom knew the fella, and when he walked in she motioned him over. We caught each other’s eyes, ended up hanging out and playing pool as “just friends” for about two months, and then we started dating. About two weeks into dating we moved in together! I know that’s crazy but at the time it seemed totally natural.
The end of my internship coincided with the massive economic downturn of 2008 and I was unable to find any professional work. The day after my internship ended I got a job as a waitress at a failing cafe. On a typical day I made about $50 during an 8 hour shift, which was a little depressing. The fella and I decided we wanted to move to Austin, TX. We thought it would be cheaper and easier to get by there, but we knew we had to save a lot of money to make it happen.
Around the same time the fella got a tip about a great new restaurant that was about to open and I quit my cafe job immediately to jump on that bandwagon. That was a mistake. Months passed and the restaurant still wasn’t open. The opening kept getting pushed back farther and farther. We were both living on his $14/hour wage for months. We got by because we adhered to a strict budget that only covered the essentials. We did not have any “entertainment” or “spending” money, but we were happy and madly in love. The fella worked 7 days a week for months and then the restaurant finally opened.
Financially we did very well working at the restaurant. We loved being together all the time and we both worked 6-7 days a week. I made a lot more money waitressing there than I had at the cafe. On great nights I made $250 and on bad nights I made $40, but there were enough good nights for us to make it. He was the manager of the restaurant and still made around $14 an hour, which was a really raw deal since he often waited tables too.
We decided to move to Austin by the end of the year, and once that decision was made the super saving began. I realized that to make our dream happen we’d have to live on practically nothing. Some weeks I’d only spend $10 on groceries. I’d buy a bag of dried kala channa (dried black chickpeas), a bag of rice, a bag of potatoes, a can of tomato paste, and a bag of frozen vegetables. I’d make it into a makeshift curry because curry powder was really cheap in our neighborhood (yes, I know this isn’t authentic curry, but it is delicious and I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking to make a satisfying meal in a pinch). We ate that simple curry for every meal except our shift meals at the restaurant. I would make the curry twice a week so it wouldn’t go bad before we could finish it. Sometimes I’d serve my signature curry with a side of cauliflower. I will always have a fondness in my heart for incredibly cheap niche grocery stores because of that time.
Life wasn’t always easy but we weren’t in debt or living on credit cards. Every little scrap that went unspent was placed in an envelope labeled “AUSTIN”. Practically all of our furniture was made of milk crates (and zip ties) and we lived with 3 roommates. Somehow we still managed to have a ridiculous amount of fun. All of our friends were as cheap as we were so we had lots of sitting around watching movies and drinking beer nights…also lots of biking around the city nights..and playing pool for $1.00 a game at random bars nights. Good times!
Our efforts paid off and after about 8 months we had saved just over $5,000. We moved to Austin and our lives were perfect! Oh wait, nope. That’s not what happened. We moved to Austin and our rent was much cheaper, but wages were also a lot lower. We hadn’t anticipated how much lower our wages would be. We both got minimum wage jobs (around $7 an hour at the time) and we were suddenly living paycheck to paycheck again with only $20 left at the end of each month. Our apartment was a lot nicer but it was also empty. We didn’t have a car (or even Internet) and we had to rely on Austin’s shoddy public transportation to get around. We ate lots of black beans and rice topped with salsa and avocados. We didn’t love Austin but our neighbors were super friendly and we hung out by the pool in our apartment complex all the time. The fella got pretty good at pool volleyball and I learned how to make Migas.
I ended up quitting my retail job because it was too physically demanding. I was expected to stack large heavy boxes for hours at a time, which is not usually a part of standard retail jobs . Without going too far into it I have had lots of surgery (spinal fusion, thoracoplasty, bone grafts, etc.) due to a genetic condition. To say that stacking gigantic boxes isn’t exactly in my wheelhouse would qualify as an epic understatement.
So there we were in Austin living on just the fella’s minimum wage job, again. I was still applying to professional jobs like crazy but I couldn’t even get an interview anywhere. The economy wasn’t working in my favor and neither was my lack of transportation, my useless writing degree, or my lack of professional experience.
The fella and I decided we’d have to move again. By this point I was 23 and he was 26. He was sick of working low paying jobs and wanted to go back to school. I missed being in a big city and had always wanted to live in New York. We talked, and researched, and planned. His mom still lived in Massachusetts and we realized the only way he would be able to afford school was if he got in-state tuition and went to a community college for 2 years. There were no job opportunities for me in that area. We were going to have to be long distance for 2 years.
The fella moved back to a small town in Massachusetts, got a landscape construction job (and a car), and enrolled in community college. I moved to my parent’s house for a couple of months (thanks mom and dad!) and eventually moved into an apartment with 3 random girls I didn’t really know in a not so great area of Brooklyn. I hit the bricks and got a retail job the day after I arrived in New York City… it paid about $10 an hour! I worked 10 hour shifts 5 days a week, which still left me with free weekends. Eventually I was able to work on commission and I started making a little more money, but still not much. I only saved about $80 a month, but it was something, and I loved the city. I became friendly with other service industry people in the neighborhood, so I was able to go bar hopping for free most weekend nights. New York was everything I hoped it would be except for the fact that my best friend wasn’t there with me.
The fella went to school full time in Massachusetts and worked full time landscaping. On many weekends the fella would drive down to New York to stay with me. He made recordings of himself going over school work so he could listen to them in the car (to study), and he usually spent about half the weekend doing homework at my apartment. Sometimes I’d take a $15 Chinatown bus up to see him and we’d hang out in weird little New England towns. It was hard and all we wanted was to be together but we hoped our long distance arrangement would pay off, and it did…big time. The fella going to community college, and us being long distance for 2 years, saved us literally tens of thousands of dollars.
Eventually, thanks to a family friend, I landed an office job that paid about $30k a year, and I had health insurance and benefits as part of my job package for the first time ever. The fella finished his two years of community college and moved to New York. I had knee surgery because I tore my ACL, he looked after me, drove me to physical therapy, and worked at a cafe 6 days a week. About 6 months after that he got into a public 4-year university in New York and started school the following semester.
The fella got some government financial aid for school, as he had for community college, and paid for the rest out of pocket. He worked full time at as a barista and went to school full time without weekends off. He decided to major in Actuarial Science. I did very well at my office job but I hated it. We lived with roommates in a slightly better but still not great neighborhood. We still had roaches. We still ate a lot of curry but we were doing a little better; there was more wiggle room. We went out occasionally and our roommates were our old friends from Boston, so that part was great! We threw some pretty awesome theme parties.
The fella and I put some money aside each week over the course of a year, and on our 5 year anniversary we went on our first ever vacation together. IT. WAS. AMAZING. People on cruises are pretty happy to begin with, but I think we literally frightened the staff with the ferocity of our smiles and our wild enthusiasm. Would we have the seafood special? OF COURSE WE WOULD! Take in a show at the awful cruise ship comedy club? FRONT ROW AND LAUGHING LIKE MAD. Unlimited ice cream? WE WILL MAKE IT SO YOU HAVE TO CHANGE THAT POLICY IN THE FUTURE.
We also got our lovely little kitty Oliver that same year. It was a banner year for us and for Oliver! We were all moving on up to the…Queens? Yup!
I got a few raises at work and the fella was doing well in school. He still worked constantly and went to school, but we finally had enough money to live without roommates. We found a cheap two-bedroom apartment and moved from Brooklyn to Queens. It was the most glorious truck ride of my entire life. I was 26 and he was 29 and we finally had a place of our own. It was awesome. For the first 6 months or so we kept walking around from room to room gesticulating wildly and shouting at each other, “CAN YOU BELIEVE WE LIVE HERE??!!?!?”
We were finally in a nice neighborhood! We did not have roaches! Our apartment was awesome! There was even a yard! Huzzah!!!
I managed to double my salary in 4 years at my office job and we had hardly raised our standard of living at all so we were able to save a lot more. I started to learn about basic investing and opened a few accounts. Financially things were great, but it was short lived. Due to my unique physical challenges commuting an hour each way and then sitting at a desk for 9 hours began to take its toll. I was always in pain before, but it was starting to get worse and worse every year. I was calling out of work more often and it was becoming a problem. I still got all of my work done on time (and in fact often found myself trying to kill hours of time at work), but it didn’t seem to make a difference to the cubicle folk. My employer did not offer any work from home options and my co-workers were a “punch in the clock every day till you die” kind of group.
After 4 years at a job I hated I decided to make a big change. I knew what living on nothing was like and I felt it was preferable to being in constant pain. I quit my job. I did not have another job lined up. The fella was, of course, completely supportive, and we didn’t know it then but his job was about to change too.
The fella had always hated working in the service industry. I mean he really hated it, and he had done it for over a decade. It’s hard to hate your job, but it’s really hard to hate your job, do a 10 hour shift, then go to school, then go home and do homework, and then start the whole thing all over again after 3 hours of sleep. He heard a tip about a tech company that was looking for warehouse workers and applied. He got the job and quit his barista gig.
The fella started out making around $16/hour, which was great, except for the fact that I wasn’t making any money, we were back to living on one low wage…again, but things were a little different this time. I knew way more about money management and we had a substantial savings buffer, which we didn’t have before. We had a nicer apartment and we had furniture that we had paid for in full when we were doing well. Our life was more comfortable, the economy was getting better, but we were once again eating into our savings.
For about 2 months I did nothing. I was floundering. I knew I couldn’t work in an office so my only possible option was freelance work, and then voila! Just 3 months after quitting my office job I was making enough money for us to stop eating into our savings and start adding to it.
Fast forward a year and that brings us to today.
We’re married now! I’m 28 and the fella is 32. We’re still disgustingly gushy. People often ask us how long we’ve been together because they assume we’re in that early romance phase. I think we just never left it.
I’ve been freelancing from home for a over a year. I stand when I work and as long as I hit my deadlines no one cares how long each task takes me. I took a huge pay cut to work from home, but it was well worth it.
The fella has gotten several promotions and now works full time as a shipping logistics auditor in a corporate setting. He doesn’t qualify for financial aid anymore (go figure) so now we pay for all of his schooling out of pocket. He is set to graduate this Spring and will have less than $10k in student loans. He already has a job offer in hand for when he graduates. We have no other debt.
We have an awesome apartment. Our cat is exceptionally fluffy. We eat delicious (affordable) meals. We have an entertainment budget and spending money. Our bed frame is no longer made of milk crates and zip ties, and a lot of that is thanks to frugal living and hard work.
And that’s why I started small things good.
People think of frugal living as clipping coupons, buying laughably large bottles of ketchup in bulk, and wearing the same clothes year after year, and to an extent they’re right, but it’s so much more than that. People are very dismissive about the power of each dollar they make (compound interest, baby!), but in reality frugal living is a way out and a way up for many people. It’s easy to mock frugal practices, but frugal living can make the difference between getting an education and not getting an education. Frugal living is a way for average earners to play the game and win.
There’s a lot of general anger from the 99% and I understand it. There’s no doubt about it: minimum wage isn’t enough to live on, getting an education is too expensive, many lenders are predatory, and there are a lot of working poor in this country. I wish I had the power to change all of that, but unfortunately I don’t. Sharing the things I’ve learned living on a shoestring budget, however, is within my power.
The way I see it, giant lending corporations and people who benefit from buying and selling debt want you to keep spending, charging, and “treating yourself”. They want you to laugh at those pathetic idiots who shop sales, buy in bulk, and strive to save on a low income. But you know what? If the housing crash taught us anything it’s that the 1% is playing hardball. They’re not worried about you or your life. They don’t care if you ever get your head above water. They’re only looking out for number one and I think it’s high time all of us average earners respectfully returned the favor. Our money has power. Let’s use it!
I wanted to tell our story to explain that when I write about little things like eating leftovers or bulk shopping I’m not just typing meaningless buzzwords and frivolous household tips. I’m sharing all the strategies that helped us get where we are today.
We’re still learning, working, and saving, and we’ve been incredibly lucky, but 7 short years ago we were just two people stuffing $20 a week into a small white envelope and hoping for the best.