Surviving (and thriving) on $12,000 a year
I've made my choices, and they include no more husband, an education and huge changes in the way I spend money.
I'll be living on just over $1,000 a month this year. That doesn't sound like much -- and it isn't -- yet I plan not just to live on it, but to build a savings account.
My 2007 "income," the money I can actually count on, will be $12,084. I know this because it consists of alimony and a portion of a school grant. (I went back to school last year; the grant covers tuition and books with a little left over.) I already know my big-ticket annual costs, too: rent of $6,300 and $1,200 for car insurance. Subtract these from my income and I'm left with $382 a month for food, utilities, clothes, medical deductibles and co-pays, gasoline, renter's and life insurance and any help I give my daughter, who lives on even less than I do.
Make no mistake: I'm poor by choice, because I needed to change my life. I chose to leave my marriage, and I chose to become a student. I can live this way because I know it won't be forever. I'll have my degree in two more years, and I'll go back to work.I survive on economies large and small. I bring my laundry to baby-sitting jobs (yes, I ask permission). I brown-bag my lunch every single day. I combine coupons and rebates to get items for free (I haven't paid for toothpaste, shampoo or other toiletries for years). I drink water, not soda.
But in order to thrive, you have to hustle, too, always looking for ways to save a dime or to make one. I exchange spent ink cartridges for reams of printer paper at Office Max. Whenever I see a candy dish, I put a piece in my coat pocket; if my energy flags midday, those toffees and peppermints keep me from buying snacks. After I won a basket of specialty coffees at a school event, I immediately sold it on Craigslist.org; I sold a "free after rebate" phone that way, too.
If you've never been really broke, all these desperate little economies might seem silly. You're probably thinking, "Why not have a soda? It's only a dollar." Because I've got just 382 of those dollars each month, that's why, and those dollars have other places to go. The insurance runs out in May and I'll need to get student insurance, at $389 per quarter. The car needs a 60,000-mile check-up. My share of a dental crown is going to be $486; I will ask for a discount if I pay in cash.
Jill of all trades
Last year I survived on a number of here-and-there gigs: freelance writing, work-study, baby-sitting, mystery shopping, resident manager (read: janitor and handyma'am) of my apartment building, paid medical research and writing for the community-college newspaper. (I was the oldest living cub reporter.)
There was little downtime; when I wasn't working I was studying, doing homework or writing papers. And I was perpetually weary and frequently ill all year long. Fact of life: A 48-year-old college student simply doesn't have the energy of an 18-year-old college student.
This year I'm dumping most of the part-time gigs. I'll still freelance and baby-sit, but very selectively. My new school means tough classes, a long bus commute and lots of reading and studying. More to the point, it's a great opportunity, and I'd like to take full advantage. So I'm choosing to work less in 2007, focusing instead on getting healthy and getting my education.
That means careful money management and a fair amount of sacrifice. I'm willing to do both. As a freelance writer and recent divorcee, I'm accustomed to lean living. Here are some of the mantras that have kept me going thus far:
It's not what I have, but how much of it I can keep. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, every dollar I don't spend is a dollar I have earned. So when I think I need something, I ask, "Can I do without this?" Often I find I can. If I can't, then my next question is...
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