Michelle and I married in college, moving to an apartment near campus the summer of our junior year. We lived on very little while we pursued our education. Much of our income came from parental support, some came from after school jobs or honorariums and other small amounts earned from campus activities. In her post, Frugal Food: Stretching the Grocery Budget, Michelle offers examples of how we managed.
Michelle graduated the next winter, I graduated in the spring. Michelle’s earlier entry into the adult working world established her as our household’s primary fiscal manager. This holds generally true to this day, although I try to provide redundancy.
Early on, Michelle used a method her parents taught her. She labelled an envelope for each debt, including rent, utilities, and loans. She physically placed cash or checks in each envelope. Any leftover funds went toward food, gas, and entertainment—literally and soberingly in that order. Hands on manipulation of household money, nearly unheard of in the current electronic age, deeply impressed upon us our reliance on and the limitations of our income.
Upon graduating, our household fell immediately into debt. Our combined student loans saddled us with about $24,000 all at once; Michelle figures our total debt load at that time may have reached $30,000.
Like many graduates today, our degrees did not prepare us for easy employment. Michelle earned a degree in Psychology, I in Communications, with which I intended to continue a radio career I’d begun in high school. This required us to use skills we’d acquired growing up, and our ability to learn new skills, to find incidental jobs while pursuing career employment. Michelle worked retail, I did temporary office work and even sold cars between radio jobs.
When I found work in my field, pay was never good. We seldom had health insurance. In one apartment we fell victim to an unscrupulous landlord, with no legal recourse against his crimes.
I remember walking to work at a small town radio station one night. We had run out of money about a week shy of our pay days. I found a $20 bill on the sidewalk! We used it to make ends meet till our next checks arrived.
Radio jobs kept us mobile; mobility kept us frugal. We couldn’t afford much furniture or other household goods, nor could we afford packing and moving what we had. We moved house 14 times in the first 11 years of marriage.
How did we manage? We lived simply, and not just because we could ill afford luxuries. Michelle cooks well, and neither of us have expensive tastes in food. We like our own food, and we like leftovers (see Eating Garbage: Making the Most of Our Food). We rarely ate at restaurants. If we did, we chose them frugally, going on discount nights, using coupons when we could. Back then we didn’t share entrees, as we often do now—we would have saved even more!
The Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend played a small role in our finances while I attended college, and after we moved back to Alaska. It offered a small annual boost, but not as much as many people think (see Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend: It’s Not Just Free Money).
We entertained ourselves cheaply. We loved to dance, but tended to avoid bars, partly because Michelle barely tolerates cigarette smoke. We attended outdoor concerts and dances, which were usually free or very inexpensive. If we did go to bars, a couple of drinks apiece sufficed. We hiked, visited museums, beaches, parks and public lectures. We learned how to be tourists, enjoying local pleasures most residents knew nothing about (see Be a Tourist in Your Own Town). We also enjoyed evenings watching television, reading, and visiting friends. We took responsibility for our entertainment more often than paying someone else to provide it.
We steadily paid our debts. We rarely borrowed against credit, paying cash for most purchases. We bought or were given several well used cars. We owned no vehicle at all for long stretches, walking wherever we went, taking public transportation if available. I owned a motorcycle for several years, far cheaper to run than a car.
We owe an unrepayable debt of gratitude to family and friends. Family often helped with finances and offered aid that reduced costs and debt load. Generous friends improved our lives in countless ways. We did not do it alone. Wherever we lived, we participated in communities of caring people. I hope we gave as good as we got.
By our tenth anniversary, we felt secure enough to buy a house and have a child. Imagine our astonishment when, after years of feeling we couldn’t or shouldn’t afford so many things we might have liked to own, our Realtor judged we could afford a more expensive house than we could have dreamed! I feared that our constant moving would hurt us. However, a financial officer observed that my progression of jobs showed steady pay growth, and our finances were impeccable.
We restricted our house hunt to the bottom of our range, and found a house at less than half our potential purchasing power. We established a frugal home as a result of our natures rather than our need. As soon as we finished paying school loans, we redirected funds to our mortgage, to pay it down faster. We lived high by our standards, accumulating virtually everything we wanted. We just didn’t seem to want very much.
This helped when I lost my last radio job three months after Aly arrived (see Further Thoughts on Swimming Vs. Drowning). My next job paid as much as that radio job. Every subsequent job paid more—far more, eventually!
Reading the book Your Money or Your LIfe provided a mechanism for better gauging the benefits of frugality. I talk in depth about it in the essay, The Homestead Reference Library: Your Money or Your Life. The authors’ concept of regarding money as life energy puts money in a particular light we find very useful.
Leaving my chosen profession to work in fields for which I had no formal training opened my mind to other possibilities, even beyond steady wage work. We dared to purchase a brand new vehicle, build boats, and even invested in land. Eventually, that led to our life here on the homestead, which brought all the frugality that came before into sharper focus and greater importance.
That’s how we lived before the homestead. Next, I’ll describe how things changed when we moved off-grid.