Frugal-hacking my way through a month without pay.

Two dates for you:

February 7 – The last direct deposit for my day job

March 11 – The earliest I can expect to get paid again

I’m not saying this because I feel sorry for myself. For reasons I’ll detail below, I’m doing fine. I’m bringing it up to remind other freelancers – and fully employed folks – to get creative about meeting your needs.


The last paycheck was for my final personal finance column for MSN Money, which I turned in on Jan. 25. On Feb. 21 that column morphed into Frugal Cool, a daily frugality blog for MSN Money. In the interim I’d scheduled my first no-deadline time off in four and a half years.

What kept me calm during my visit to no-salary land? A series of frugal hacks.  Spend any time on the PF blogosphere and you’ll see plenty of posts on the tactics I’m about to list.

They’re nothing new. But they sure are effective.


More than one way to work

Second income stream. Usually that means a side hustle, i.e., a second job you can do on occasion (pet-sitting) or part-time (editing, retail, bartending). In my case the second income came from my staff-writing position at Get Rich Slowly, which published three of my pieces in January and paid me in the second week of February.

Extra work. Although I’d sworn to slow down, two freelance gigs came up that I just couldn’t refuse. They took relatively little time (maybe three hours total) and will bring in $550, probably by the third week in March.

More extra work. From time to time I do online surveys. Last week a survey led to being chosen for a focus group, which meant signing on twice a day to answer questions and respond to other participants’ thoughts. The organizers suggested allowing at least an hour a day. Piece of cake – and a $60 fee is en route.

Still more extra work. I used to manage the apartment building in which I live, and still do odd jobs as needed. When snow fell over several days last month, I swept and shoveled the front and back entryways and the sidewalk that winds around the building. The owners took $125 off my February rent. I look at that as being paid to exercise.


Staying busy, eating well

Selling stuff. For at least 18 months I’ve had two boxing programs and two small plastic sports action figures sitting in my living room. Just never got around to putting them up on eBay. During my vacation I listed all four and to my utter shock they brought in more than $1,200. That’s a nice payday substitute. (Went right into my savings account, though. I figure if I need it to pay bills I can always pull it back out.)

Using rewards points. When I wanted to see the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of  “Gotterdammerung,” I paid with a movie gift card I got for free by using points from a rewards credit card. The same credit card got me $25 in scrip to Panera, so I was able to treat myself to rustic bread and good bagels during my time off.

Pantry challenge. Since late January I’ve bought only milk, fruit, eggs and a few vegetables. The rest of my ingredients came from the cupboards and freezer.

Shopping the sales. Any ingredients I did buy were loss leaders. That’s the way I generally shop anyway, but I was doubly determined not to splurge on $2.99-a-pound grapes if I wasn’t getting a paycheck that week.

Cheap fun. Long walks to do my shopping and also to exercise – free and useful/healthful. That six-hour opera movie was the equivalent of three regular films. I printed out a free pass to a movie screening. With luck I’ll also catch a free preview of “Salmon Fishing in Yemen” this week.

I’ve had the option of getting free films from the library or from my Amazon Prime membership. Mostly I’ve chosen to spend my time reading, writing, cooking, helping sort items for Superfluity, catching up with my daughter and with friends (flat-rate national calling on my home phone), and luxuriating in short naps. Oh, and recovering from a gall bladder attack and doing follow-up doctor visits. Nobody parties like a Jersey girl.


Nipping and tucking

Again, none of this is new. But taken together, these tactics form a multi-layered approach to intentional living.

Sure, I have an emergency fund. But why tap it if I don’t have to? I’d much rather nip and tuck my budget until the money starts coming back in.

Economizing doesn’t necessarily mean missing out on life. If you’re in the market to trim expenses in general or need to go to the frugal mattresses to meet a specific goal, I hope this spurs you to think about similar tactics.

Readers: Have you had to cut expenses due unemployment, underemployment, or the rising costs of food and fuel? What tactics do you use for short- or long-term savings?

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  1. Holly Samlan

    I’m currently in much the same boat as my unemployment insurance has hit the new, current max number of weeks and I need to reach June to get FULL social security. No sense taking a lifetime hit in reduced benefits for just a couple months.

    I had a bit >$100 sitting in paypal from previous sales. Requested online an online transfer to my bank accout. I should try selling a bunch of stuff but am feeling lazy (also having computer issues).

    I am also checking my survey sites for gift cards to places like CVS, Walgreens and my natl chain grocery stores. I may ‘pay’ a bit more but I can get reasonably healthy things like milk, eggs and cheese with no out of pocket costs except sales tax.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Holly Samlan: I recently bought a couple of free-after-rebate items at Walgreens, i.e., instead of Register Rewards I had to apply online for a cash rebate. However, I opted to take a Walgreens card with a 10% bonus vs. the cash — the 10% covers the sales tax and I can use the card to buy eggs when they go on sale, etc.
      Hang in there.

  2. We only get paid 9 months, and I always have a plan for the long September just in case.

    Of course, just in case never happens because when it looks like we’re running low we cut expenses automatically (pantry challenge, get CC reimbursement checks etc.) because I can’t handle not having a large buffer. In the end so far we’ve always ended the dry spell with a nice lump sum that then gets applied to the mortgage or an IRA etc.

  3. Bareheadedwoman

    “The owners took $125 off my February rent. I look at that as being paid to exercise.” I love that line of thinking! Coupons pay me to exercise (no car, 12 block round trip, 20 lbs of cat litter, etc.).

    ~sigh~ so envious of your chutzpah. I have no hustle. I wanted and tried for that lifestyle and was hopeless at it. Although I’ve been known as the go-to in the professional world, on my own I find I cannot impose my own structures and denigrate into the creative absentminded professor type who’s always working on something but gets very little done.

    But it’s very nice and a delight to read someone else’s stories living my day dream–especially someone who succeeds so well at many of the very schemes I thought of when the internet was young…at least now I know they would have worked…had I any talent for that sort of thing (and a comparable sense of humor).

    I originally noticed you on MSN but eventually lost track because, other than you, MSN really did nothing for me. I was surprised and glad to see you pop up on GRS. I’ll check out your new column; so if MSN gets a new return-iSP, it’s all because of you. 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      @Bareheadedwoman: I don’t have a car either, and carrying home my groceries does provide a good workout. Thank goodness I don’t have to carry cat litter, though. Have you checked out Wag.com? It gives free delivery for orders over $49 (I think), including heavy items like litter and kibble. You can also designate your “fave five,” and get an additional discount on up to five items that you use frequently. And if you access Wag.com through Mr. Rebates, you’ll get a 6% rebate on the things you buy. (Not a Mr. Rebates member? Please consider joining using the widget at the bottom of the site.)
      Thanks for your good wishes. I’m glad you came over from Get Rich Slowly and hope you’ll keep reading and commenting.

  4. average guy

    yes, hang in there.

    last day on the job was Feb 1. Been actively looking, but nothing firm yet. interview this Wed., wish me luck.

    meanwhile: stopped auto-transfer of funds from checking to savings (since no new funds arriving), walking for everything within five miles (walk to bank 35 min, walk home 35+ min [slower walking home]), walk to library to read and get out of the house, eat what’s at home mostly.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Average Guy: All good ideas. My own walks are similarly long, 1.5 miles each way and doing errands or hitting the library. Here’s a tip: Always have something to eat — even just a couple of pieces of hard candy — with you wherever you go lest you be tempted to buy a snack. My bag always has at least a granola bar (bought on sale with coupons, of course) and my coat pockets hold individually wrapped Lifesavers (a couple of years ago I happened on a coupon deal that meant the Lifesavers were free; still working my way through the dozen or so bags I bought).
      Good luck with the job search, and thanks for reading.

  5. Donna, love the new Frugal Cool site, wish it had an RSS feed though- I have all my blogs in one place that way. Enjoy reading about your resourcefulness!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Suzanne: I’ll pass along your request for an RSS feed. Thanks for your good wishes.

  6. Donna, I am a big fan of the walking and lugging goods home. If you need it bad enough to carry it for a mile or more then it’s a good buy. It’s too bad that in my area it’s a lot of steep hills and bad weather… not the greatest area to walk. When I am short on cash I find that eating through my cabinets is the best way to get through it… there’s always something, no matter how oddly matched the meal.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Lee: Definitely a good workout to pull/carry home a couple of gallons of milk or 20 pounds of potatoes. If the stuff is too heavy to carry I pull my frugal folding shopping cart down to the store with me. It’s “frugal” because I found it by a Dumpster on trash day.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  7. I recently started ordering litter from Wag.com. I’m only 3 blocks from a Pet store but carrying a 25lb box of Fresh Step is brutal! Their service is really great, and you can find coupon codes and get free shipping over $49 and cash back through eBates.

    • Donna Freedman

      @The Girl Next Door: The handle on the box cuts into your hand something awful.
      Just FYI: Mr. Rebates offers a 6% cash-back on Wag.com, vs. the 4% on Ebates. In addition, you can request a monthly vs. a quarterly check through Mr. Rebates. Just sayin’.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  8. Gasp! You’re living like adjunct faculty! Not good for the health…

    Months without income are a regular feature here: No pay during the winter break (December to mid-January); no pay from May 15 to September 1, unless I manage to score a summer course.

    Strategy: Live every month, as best as possible, as though no income were forthcoming. This saves a little to carry one through the threadbare times.

    Strategy: Shovel all income into a money market savings account (including all windfalls, all money from side gigs, all income from the closest thing to a job — teaching); calculate how much is really needed to live on during a year; divide by 12; and dole out that amount from the money market account into the checking account each month. Try to live on that.

    Strategy: Stay out of the car, stay out of stores, quit eating meat, and quit buying clothes.

    Strategy: Remember that money happens. And it does. Strangely enough.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Funny About Money: Adjunct living is the way I’ve been living for eight years now. As you know, it’s do-able.
      Money is happening, but I don’t for a moment count on it. That’s why it goes into savings.

  9. My money situation has been very interesting since I quit my job in December. It’s going to take some time to get used to the ebbing and flowing of freelance income! I had a great January, but February has been a challenge – thank goodness for emergency funds. I’m still searching out ways to diversify and have several opportunities in the works. Until then, I’m just glad I work from home – it’s much easier to save and make adjustments when I don’t have to worry about filling up my gas tank every 4 days.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Andrea: No professional attire, no “I should join my co-workers for lunch out,” no commuting costs, no wear and tear on your car — working from home definitely has advantages.
      Another one of them is that you can start dinner — no more takeout!
      Hope to see you at FinCon 12 in Denver.

  10. Thanks to you I’m always looking out for those My Coke Rewards bottle caps; I found two of them today on the ground, and so far I’ve found more than fifty caps in random places outside without having to spend a dime! I’m saving all the points I get for those caps for a movie ticket, because I know that there will be at least one month this summer where I won’t have a paycheck; I figure it’ll be a good way to treat myself that month. That’s why your post about how you are living this month without a paycheck from your job is really helpful, because it gives me new ideas.
    I also have a second job working for a website; these past couple of weeks I’ve picked up several extra hours, which has been tiring, but I’m saving most of the money for that one paycheck-free month.
    And I’m still picking up coins that I find on the ground, just like you advised us to. Today I found a twenty dollar bill, but I didn’t keep it because some lady accidentally left it behind in one of those self-service stations in a drugstore; she must have opted for the cash back in her debit purchase and left it there by mistake. Fortunately I found the bill just as she was walking out and ran after her to give it to her. It was the right thing to do, but I must admit I hope this means karma will be good to me and help me find/earn money next time that I can actually keep.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Neurotic Workaholic: Bless you for being honest. I think good karma will find its way to you. And if not? At least you know you did the right thing.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  11. Bless you Donna!
    The first I found you was on MSN , and you inspire me to turn my life into frugality when I had a lot of debt on my back.
    Now that I found you again, I find another piece of advice that just makes a lot of sense to me, as I am about to become freelance.
    I am just so exciting for this new stage on my life….
    I will keep on reading you

    • Donna Freedman

      @Isela: Is that freelance as in writing? Consulting? Dog mushing? Keep us apprised. Or write to me at SurvivingAndThriving (at) live (dot) com.
      Thanks for your kind words.

  12. teinegurl

    Hey donna, when u switched did msn money get rid of your old articles? I sometimes refer back to ur articles for reference but couldn’t find it on msn, or by googling it.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Teinegurl: Unfortunately when MSN Money switched platforms some articles did not make the jump to hyperspace. It may be possible to find some version of older articles online in other ways, though. Try searching with keywords on Bing.com.
      Thanks for your interest, and for reading Surviving and Thriving.

  13. Holly Samlan

    I also applied to be and was accepted for election judge position in the upcoming March primary. It pays $175. However, I just added up the REAL hours of my time for training, equipment set up, being a judge and closing down/reporting.

    It will end uop being about $5/hour. Oh well. I really have nothing better to do and it will cover all my gas and groceries for at least a month.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Holly Samlan: Still pays better than most surveys! And as you say, you’re not doing anything else — at least you’ll get paid to contribute to the democratic process.
      Good luck.

  14. ImJuniperNow

    Besides my full and part time jobs I am also a pet sitter. A terrific gig, but the prospect of gas at $5 a gallon is terrifying me. I can’t walk. bike or public transport my way to my sitting jobs. Many of them are quite a distance but I refuse to give them up. So I’m just going to suck it up.

  15. I’m catching up on your S&T articles, Donna. Sorry to hear about the gall bladder attack. I hope that medical problem is taken care of soon.
    Oh, wow! on the eBay sale. Just goes to show, you don’t always know what you’ve got that someone else really wants and is willing to pay for. Makes me want to go through all my old crap. ;o)

  16. Teinegurl

    That’s okay i tried looking through archives on this site and archives on MSN Money , googling etc. I don’t think it’s there 🙁 but that’s okay. I think you should do archive of your writings if it’s allowed or better yet a book! Lol but that’s just me

  17. Ro in San Diego

    Coupons are a great short and long term way of saving money since the manufacturers are picking up part of the cost of whatever it is you just purchased!

  18. You do know that I find you frugally impressive! All around impressive is great but being frugally impressive is the best.

  19. I love the notion of looking at it as “being paid to exercise” 😉 This is how I looked at cleaning houses while working through college. In fact, I still look at many aspects of work like that.

    I’ve been in this spot many times, and I’m sure to be again sometime in the future…great article!

  20. Deanna

    Great tips for people who are between jobs too, do anything you can to keep that positive attitude until additional work comes along. That solid work ethic does a great deal to give you more references as well. It never hurts to have a few more people willing to give you a good word or two.

  21. I’ve been meaning to tell you I owe you one! A while ago, I joined up with a mystery shopping company. Guess what? They’re paying me to get my taxes done. My taxes aren’t very complicated at all and they’re reimbursing me all the costs plus paying me a very nice shop fee. Woot!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Mutant Supermodel: Yay! I hope you can get some restaurant shops. These let you treat friends to lunch — or to go to a restaurant and order a couple of different entrees, which means your lunch the next day is in the (doggy) bag.
      If you own a car, be on the lookout for oil-change shops. If you want to throw the kids in the car and drive to an amusement park two hours away, look for a car-rental shop. Pretty soon you’ll be finding all sorts of ways to cover your needs for free.

  22. Insurancegal

    Commission only here. 50% reduced income since the economy tanked.
    To cut expenses:
    ~No more video store movie rentals. $1 redbox.
    ~Paid 6 months auto insurance in full. Saved $55
    ~Winter boots re-soled for $10 instead of buying a new pair.
    ~Grocery store value card for up to 40 cents off a gallon of gas.
    ~Buy recycled ink cartridges/toner for the office.
    ~Sam’s Club several times a year for frequently used items such as PTs, coffee, canned chicken and tuna, deodorant, etc.
    ~Cut my own bangs
    ~Coupons for my RX
    ~Pick up coins off the ground-even in my business suit
    ~We lived w/o internet at home for over a year. Only recently has DH subscribed to it again.

    I ask for iTune and Starbucks gift cards for my BD and Christmas

    Similar to what Funny about Money states above: I stay out of the stores. For grocery shopping, even a short produce/eggs run, I USE A LIST and stick with it.

    Short term savings: I have several EF stashes at home. One is made up of our yard sale proceeds and a tax refund. 🙂
    Long term savings: Not in the budget at this time.

    Most importantly, I’ve been eating well and exercising (at home, no gym membership for me-ever!) and staying positive with various affirmations throughout the office.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Insurance Gal: Sounds as though you know what needs to be done, and you’re doing it. No whining, no what-if…Good for you!
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  23. maryegankirk

    we had an unemployment scare in our household last year and quickly ‘trenched-in’, employing the same kind of tactics discussed above. unfortuately, when it became clear that the job was not going to be lost (about three weeks), we soon were back to our more relaxed fugality. do wonder how much it would take for us to really keep our spending down to absolute bare minimum and how to get sweet hubbie to comply. : ‘ )

  24. Christine

    I love the attitude of “being paid to exercise”. That can take the sting out, can’t it? 🙂
    I really enjoy your articles and look forward to seeing what new angle you’ve got. I think approaching frugality as a way to be creative is a lot of fun, and my personal challenge too is, “How can I get my needs met for free or cheap?”
    You are awesome and inspiring.
    Big Jersey hug to you!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Christine: Thanks for your kind words. And a Jersey hug right back to you — I was born and raised there.


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