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Surviving (and thriving) on $12k a year: The reboot.

th-1Recently a reader named Laura H. e-mailed to ask if I could re-run “Surviving (and thriving) on $12,000 a year,” an article I wrote for MSN Money back in January 2007.

When I wrote that I was 49 years old, back in college and coming off a two-year-long divorce. At the time the assignment seemed like a one-off freelance gig. I had no way of knowing that it would ultimately lead to a career as a personal finance blogger; at that point I didn’t even know what blogs were.

People still mention that $12k piece. Some ask me where they can find the piece. Unfortunately, MSN Money changed platforms and the work I did there between 2007 and 2013 can no longer be accessed.

Fortunately, I keep copies of everything I write.

Instead of running the version that appeared on MSN Money I’m putting up my original essay, the piece I wrote before the editor punched it up a bit. (Hint: I hadn’t yet learned to write MSN Money-style.) Asterisks indicate that updates can be found at the end.

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, is $12,084 – a blend of alimony and education grants. (I went back to college last year, and just transferred to the University of Washington.) The big-ticket annual costs are 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: a $788-a-month disability check.**

Last year I survived on a number of here-and-there gigs: freelance writing, work-study, babysitting, 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 down time; 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 babysit, but very selectively. Transferring to U.W. 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.

 

How much can I keep?

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:

Float, to stay afloat. Cash flow is a challenge. The rent is due on the first, my credit-card bill on the 15th and the COBRA health-insurance payment at the end of the month. (I use a mileage-plan credit card even for small purchases; one wedding gift to my daughter is going to be a frequent-flier ticket for the honeymoon.) But the alimony and the previous month’s COBRA reimbursement arrive in the middle of the month.

The education grants are my financial safety net. After tuition is paid on the first day of the quarter, “leftover” funds get direct-deposited into my checking account, providing a cushion to pay each month’s bills while waiting for the next month’s funds.

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…

How can I get it free, or almost-free? The obvious answers are sites like Craigslist.com and thrift shops, especially ones like Value Village that offer coupons and half-off sales. My 99-cent clock-radio wakes me up every morning just as efficiently as a high-tech alarm from The Sharper Image.

Rummage sales are swell, too. My church has an annual sale called “Superfluity” (I love that name) at which I bought my desk for $4 and a small chest of drawers for $1. I also buy Christmas and birthday gifts at Superfluity and an annual “500-family” rummage sale. No one has to know that that hardback bestseller under the tree cost you only 50 cents.

Enough is as good as a feast. I love to eat. I don’t love paying for it. Because I don’t have a “regular” job of at least 20 hours a week, I don’t qualify for food stamps. So I shop very, very carefully and I go to the food bank. Most weeks I can count on potatoes, apples, bread, and a can or two of vegetables. Some lucky weeks I get milk, orange juice, pasta, tomatoes, rice or a small package of meat.

I cook a lot of beans and stews, and I’m adequately fed – maybe not as richly or as conveniently as I’d like, but well enough to keep me going.

 

Always hustling

Every day is casual Friday! When my jeans are in tatters I buy a “new” pair at Value Village (one pair cost me just $1.63, and it was new – still had the department-store tags on it). I spend $15 or less on running shoes from clearance tables. I’ve bought a couple of thrift-store tops, but mostly get by with shirts I’ve had for ages. (Hint: The clothes dryer takes years off the life of your duds. Get a drying rack.)

Some days I wish I looked nicer. Most days it doesn’t bother me, and I doubt it’ll bother anyone else since U.W. students have been known to wear flannel PJs to class. Bonus: When you dress the way I do, panhandlers hardly ever ask you for money.****

Announce my intentions. Time and again I have found that when I need something I should “put it out in the universe,” which is also known as “prayer.” One night last fall, squinting over my homework, I realized I needed more light in the apartment. A day later, a halogen floor lamp landed in the Dumpster outside my window.

Recently my umbrella got cranky about opening. The next week I was given a high-quality bumbershoot as a thank-you gift for helping with a campus blood drive.

Coincidences? Maybe. Or maybe it’s true what they say: “Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

Other survival strategies: bringing my laundry to babysitting jobs (yes, I ask permission); using a 3.1-cent-per-minute phone card; buying textbooks online (saving hundreds of dollars so far); brown-bagging it every single day; combining coupons and rebates to get items for free (I haven’t paid for toothpaste, shampoo or other toiletries for years); rarely going out, and seeking free entertainment when I do go.

And always, always hustling – i.e., 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 mid-day, those toffees and peppermints keep me from buying snacks.

After I won a basket of specialty coffees at a college event, I immediately sold it on Craigslist; I sold a “free after rebate” phone that way, too. I buy overripe “red-band” bananas for 29 cents a pound instead of paying 69 cents a pound for their greener cousins. I drink free water instead of buying juice or soda away from home.

 

Feeling rich

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 COBRA runs out in May and I’ll need to get student insurance, at $389 per quarter. The car needs a 60,000-mile checkup. My share of a dental crown is going to be $486; I will ask for a discount if I pay in cash. (That is, if my monthly “float” will allow it.)

Yet despite my money mania, I’ve decided to increase my monthly church tithe to $20. Sure, I could use that extra $240 a year. It just about equals the university registration fee, or the money I promised my daughter toward the price of her wedding dress. It also represents almost half of the car insurance premium heading my way in April.

But giving that money away makes me feel rich. No matter how straitened my circumstances, I can be a part of services the church provides for the homeless, the impoverished elderly and those living with AIDS. In other words, tithing reminds me that there are lots of people worse off than me, people who’d love to have my so-called “problems.”

That’s not to say that I wouldn’t like to have more cash. It would allow me to help my daughter, to secure my future, to buy more roasts and fewer pinto beans. But I figure I won the cosmic lottery just by being born in America, a country where I can not only work on a college degree at age 49, but also find scholarships and education grants to help me pay for it.

I have a roof over my head, food every day, family and friends, and occasionally even a $10 student ticket to the Seattle Symphony. Some days I feel like the luckiest person in the world.

If I really am lucky, then I’ll make it through 2007 with a positive bank balance. Check back with me next December and I’ll let you know how I did.*****

Updates:

*Clearly I vastly overpaid for car insurance. Still shaking my head over that.

**Abby eventually found a job she can do from home and is no longer on disability. She blogs about money, disability and “perfecting imperfection” at IPickUpPennies.net.

***This gig amused me greatly, since my most recent writing job had been on the city desk at the Chicago Tribune.

****Once the recession hit I started getting asked for money no matter how shabby I looked. I’d set a limit, though and would say after that, “I’m sorry, I’ve given away all I can afford today.”

*****I did, in fact, have a savings account in December. In part that was due to my mad financial skillz. Yet it was also because of three unforeseen income sources: a handful of additional MSN Money freelance pieces, getting the chance to run an MSN Money board for a few months and being hired in September to write the Smart Spending blog.

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75 Comments

  1. Denise

    This is the article that led me to you as a regular reader! Thanks for reposting this. I know now where to find inspiration when needed. More power Donna!

  2. Thanks for re-running this. I read this way back in 2007 and I still think about it sometimes–that bit about picking up a piece of candy for when the energy fades has stuck with me.

    You did get hosed on car insurance, though. Live and learn, right?

    • Donna Freedman

      Yep! As I wrote in the linked article, if I’d taken some of the time I spent on frugal hackery I could have found a much better insurance deal. Too soon old, too late smart.

  3. Make Do Mom

    Donna, I remember reading your article in 2007 and being impressed, inspired, intrigued and just a tiny bit intimidated. I followed you through the years, adapting and using many of your ideas. Little did I know that practicing frugality would become a necessity rather than a choice for me. Thank you for revisiting and reminding us how very far you’ve come. That alone gives me tremendous hope.

    • Donna Freedman

      I never meant to intimidate…! I’m sorry that things have gone south financially and hope that you’re digging your way back out. Appreciate your sticking around.

      • Make Do Mom

        Intimidating only in a very good way. You were (are!) so determined and focused, and uncommonly strong.

        • Donna Freedman

          Interesting that people think that, since I was terrified on the inside… I suppose the determination came from knowing that no one would do these things for me — I had to do them for myself.

  4. Betsey

    That article was our introduction, Donna. I think I mentioned before that my seniors were assigned a short paper on how to save money while in school; the sources were to include one book, 2 internet articles, and 3 interviews with 3 different ages of people. You and Liz Weston won internet sources, and Dave Ramsay was first on the booklist. Especially helpful were people who had gone through the depression, graduate students, and church members.
    I couldn’t wait to research you and Liz more.

  5. Vicki

    I find this article very inspired and inspiring! I often see similarities between us in what you do to make ends meet and to have a full and happy life. I did chuckle at the part about the candy bowl and pocketing the candies. I did this very thing yesterday at a over the top kids party ( a professional face painter, hired bouncing castle and a train ride….puleez). Candies ( or lollies as we call them in Australia)were everywhere and so I threw a bunch in my bag and today when I needed a sweet there they were 🙂 As far as I am concerned those kind of events are free ( the present was home knitted slippers) and my kid is happy with a full belly and s sugar high. I also like that you asking the universe for what you need. Always works for me! Thanks for sharing this

  6. teinegurl

    May be know I can print it !!! Still love this article

  7. When I read this article in 2007, I was so impressed that I alerted group of 10K people about your and your article. I have followed your work all this time.

  8. jestjack

    MAN….2007….time does fly. I remember reading this article way back when as well as viewing the short video of you “picking rocks” out of a pot of beans you were preparing to cook. It’s been quite the “journey”….

  9. SherryH

    Ah, even in 2007, your signature style shines through! I found your blog some time later–can’t remember when or how–and have been following ever since, minus some time I was off the internet for a while.

    You are definitely an inspiration and a role model, both as a frugalista and as a writer. Keep on keeping on, and best of luck to you!

  10. Ro in San Diego

    I, too, started following your column as a result of reading this article. I see some familiar names in the comments that harken back to where we used to follow you (shout out to Practical Parsimony!).

    I am glad we have become acquainted and I have you in mind when I think of new ways to make money outside of my normal “day job”.

    My current “side hustle” is helping us through a rough patch while we wait on my husband’s first paycheck from his brand new job to come next week. And I’m getting really good at this second job; good enough to plan to do it during my fast approaching retirement years which is another bonus for us.

    I am so glad you re-ran this! It’s still an excellent article!

  11. Still my favorite piece of yours! 🙂

  12. We’ve all come a long way since 2007!
    Congrats to you.

  13. Sandy

    I read the original article when JD Roth linked it in an article he wrote. I have searched for it several times since then to reread it and finally realized it was no longer available. I loved that you posted it again, in the original form. Despite being 62, I find myself in a position of looking for every penny and reading this again was a great inspiration. I wonder if you realize just how influential and inspiring you are to your readers. You certainly are to me. Keep writing!

    • Donna Freedman

      Thank you, Sandy. That means a lot to me.
      May I suggest you check the tag cloud elsewhere on the page? Click on stuff like “frugal hacks,” “food” and “saving money” to help you stretch those pennies? Don’t forget to enter the (mostly) weekly giveaways, since some of them are helpful (PF books) and others just plain fun (gift cards) — and any of them might boost your budget.

      • Nancy

        Donna,

        What is a tag cloud?

        Thanks.

        • Donna Freedman

          It’s that jumble of article topics under the “Archives” section and above the Amazon widget. Stories are tagged with topics like “Money” or “Travel” and you can look up articles that way.

  14. I have read that article many times and I never tire of it. I too have used many of your ideas. Thank you for reposting it.

    • Donna Freedman

      Thank you, Ash, for being such a consistent reader and commenter. I was glad to see (via Get Rich Slowly) that you have been steadily improving your finances. Go you!

  15. Lisa O

    That was my first article that I read of yours and I have been reading ever since. You have a gift with words that make being frugal seen so okay! Thanks…

  16. Teresa Campbell

    I also began to follow you and those saving tips after reading that article on msn. I wanted to save as a recent college grad in a field where I knew I would never be rich, but rich in memories. (Child Development aka glorified babysitter as one name I’ve heard throughout the yrs.) I was sad when I didn’t see your articles anymore but was glad I found you on this site! Makes my day when I see an email from this site. Keep up the great work!

  17. mdoe37

    “There’s usually a rock in almost every pan of beans….”

    starts out a Youtube video called Living “Poor” and Loving It. I’ve had it bookmarked for years and watch it from time to time when I need a boost. Not that I’m broke, but a reminder that we’re all just a moment’s away from it and to be prepared to handle it. Those are skills everyone should practice… rich or poor.

    One day, I decided to find out who this person was in the video and, lo and behold, here you are, Donna.

  18. karla

    Eight years doesn’t seem that long. Your writing is always entertaining and fresh. I appreciate both yours and your daughter’s blog. And if you’re not getting taller, then you’re not actually getting older. In my opinion.

  19. Raine

    Thanks for reposting. I also distinctly remember this article on MSN Money in 2007. Your voice is so clear and different than anything else out there. Thank-you for continuing to share your journey, common sense & wisdom!

  20. Cathy in NJ

    I found you on MSN Money but it wasn’t in 2007. 2007 was a super rough year for me and I had no time for anything. Coincidences are God’s way of being subtle.

  21. I don’t know how you did it. At least, we will have a lot to talk about in the nursing home.
    I was on a $1200 a month budget when Anna was a toddler and rent was $585 a month. The funny thing was my ex had just left and left me in so much debt, plus I had to pay for lawyers for a custody battle and I was still better off than when he lived there. I didn’t get financial aid and was a careful budgeter. When he lived there, he had been spending his check, running up debt and dipping into what I made. Ain’t life grand?!?!?!

  22. This is by far my FAVORITE personal finance article I’ve ever read. Thank you for sharing again! It gives me motivation when I feel discouraged.

  23. Vicky Fox

    Donna, remember when I said that it was this article that turned everything around for me? I remember that night crying about not knowing what to do because I had $25.00 left over and a pile of bills to pay. I will never forget that 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      I do remember that! You packed lunches for both you and your DH and started looking for articles about frugality and money management.
      So glad you found mine.

  24. Finally seeing the original post in all its glory! Thank you. It’s amazing what we can do when we try, isn’t it? I’m going to print this out and re-read it every chance I get.

    • Donna Freedman

      It’s amazing what we can do even if we think we can’t but know that we have no choice but to try. And thanks for your kind words.

  25. Amber

    I too found out about your writing from this piece, and I still like it! It’s impressive to me that you hung in there despite the age difference, and despite the fatigue factor. You are proof that grit is rewarded. More power to you. And thanks for this blog, which still gives me tips and things to think about incorporating in my own money challenges.

    • Donna Freedman

      The fatigue got worse and worse until Liz Weston suggested I have my thyroid checked. Yep. That was it. Am now on a small daily pill to keep the hormone levels within a normal range.
      Well, that was part of the problem: The other half was a Vitamin D deficiency, very common in Seattle. Now I take a supplement and am feeling fine.
      Thanks for your kind words. I hope the site can keep meeting your needs.

  26. Mirabella

    Thank you for reposting your original article in all its unedited glory. I did not encounter you through your first article but through your videos that fell under the heading “Living ‘Poor’ and Loving It.” Since then I have been a loyal reader who has turned to your works for inspiration not only in frugal living but also in enjoying the middle part of life. Nothing is truly over until it’s over.

    Do you think you will make more videos in the future?

    • Donna Freedman

      Everyone seems to think that bloggers should make videos, but ugh…I’m not a natural in front of the camera. Besides, those that I did appear in were shot by MSN Money professionals. Not sure I could measure up.
      Thanks for being a loyal reader!

  27. That article is how I found you, too…

    Would you consider running some of your other classics? I remember an article about picking up change that I thought was wonderful — but can’t find that one anywhere. (Maybe it was on MSN Money, too…it’s not the one you did for Get Rich Slowly.)

    You were an inspiration. Husband started as an engineer, but due to the 60-80 hr workweeks, had a breakdown and took a job as a school bus driver. For many years, until recently, we lived on $20,000 annually — in one of the most expensive counties in the country. We were eligible for food stamps, but didn’t take them. I wrote about that time recently:

    http://cindybrick.blogspot.com/2015/06/debt-or-no-debt.html

    Husband is thinking about retiring now…and a check of our finances says he could do it, in great part because we know how to live carefully and frugally, and because even in the leanest times, we still put money away. That’s a wonderful feeling!

    You’re absolutely right, Donna. Money is NOT everything. Thank you for sharing yourself with us.

    • Donna Freedman

      Maybe it was the “See a penny? Pick it up!” post. That one had 1.6 million hits before MSN Money changed platforms.
      I’ll look back through my originals and from time to time re-run one. Thanks for your kind words, and congrats on DH’s imminent retirement.

  28. Glasgowrose

    Most of your articles can be found on the Wayback Machine under MSN. I recently searched for the original “Surviving and Thriving” article to reread it. If you look, you can find it.

    One of the reasons I’ve always loved your writing is that you sound so calm and sure of yourself. It’s really soothing to someone like me who’s a Type A worrier. Like many of your long-time readers, I’ve undergone some financial changes myself since 2007: a divorce will do that to you, especially in midlife (my husband dumped me; it wasn’t something I wanted). And now I go from upper middle class wife to single mom with debts and very little to spare. But you made it and I’m sure I will, too.

  29. This is the one! Thank you for the reboot… I remember returning to the computer daily to re-read this article, sometimes in the middle of the night. “If she can do it, ” I thought, maybe I can too.

    We’re signing closing paperwork on our first house this week, and I couldn’t have done it without you!

  30. Catfight

    Something about that article. The honesty of it. I remember reading it the first time at work. I had never heard of you, but it spoke to me. I live in Dallas/Ft. Worth, the land of the $30,000 millionaires, and had just bought a house on my own. That article inspired me to tighten up and pay it off in five years. I would read it every time that things got tough–when the hot water heater broke and I did not have the budget to easily cover it, when people teased me for driving a paid off 1992 diesel truck, when I had to take a calculator to the grocery store, when I had to search for a low cost vet for my sick pet. Yep, it inspired me. Thank you.

  31. This continues to be one of my all-time favorite personal finance articles. Thanks for reposting this Donna, now I can link to it all over again.

  32. Cakester

    A classic! I remember looking up the msn version and saving it so I could be inspired anytime I wanted to be. After reading your article in high school I went on to read a lot more financial articles. It’s possible that without this article I wouldn’t know as much as I do about personal finance.

  33. steve Dragoo

    Donna – a terrific article (and updates). Makes me feel wealthy living on $1711 a month, supporting a son in 1st year college, and helping my family in the Philippines. Medical is mostly free as a USA veteran. – That’s a terrific help.

    A couple years a go I was Blessed to have Upwork (previously oDesk which combined with Elance)put in my pathway. It is one of several advanced freelance platforms and has many positions spread over dozens of professional categories. Even though I have no real English teaching skill a Brazilian hired me a year ago to teach conversational English. It was easy to find relevant material and instruct him with quizzes and recorded practice sessions. There are many blog and writing positions, legitimate telemarketing and sales positions toom and much much more.

    So Donna, when you have some extra time and want to fill it with income look Upwork over or Freelancer.com – requires some money though and Upwork does not.

    Hope that helps you and your readers find work when they want to in their perfect niche. Recently I wrote a blog article for a client in the USA while I was in the Philippines. That part is really cool. Have a laptop and Internet connection – that’s all I need as the funds are direct deposit into a state-side bank I can access from just about any ATM in the world.

    Thank you for your tips!

    Steve

  34. Donna, I love that you reposted this. That article was what introduced me to you, and I still can’t believe that it took several years before I finally met you in person in Phoenix this spring at Press Publish! I’m also glad that you reposted it because its initial publication was in the pre-Evernote, pre-Pocket era, so while I’d bookmarked it, obviously the original link is gone and I’m grateful that I now have the full version again, now tucked safely into my Evernote files!

    This article continues to be an inspiration to me, not the least because I’m going through a period now with my family where we’re in Frugal Mode to fulfill some longstanding dreams we’ve had for awhile (pay off debt, buy a house, and finally achieve strong financial security). The article reminds me that we’re actually very blessed, debt and all, to have each other and to have stable, steady jobs with good paychecks, plus the wealth of resources on the web (like this one) to help us manage all those blessings and help us reach our dreams.

    So glad to connect with you again! Keep blogging, keep writing, and keep inspiring us frugal sisters. 🙂

    Salut,
    Marjorie

    • Donna Freedman

      Thanks, Marjorie. I wish you luck with your family goals and have no doubt that you’ll achieve them. I enjoyed meeting you, finally, in Phoenix. Who knows: Maybe the next FinCon will be in Texas.

  35. Thx for sharing this I read years ago before going through a financially devastating divorce. To this day I still say enough is as good as a feast when I’m thinking of bailing on my sack lunch and getting takeaway. Thx for keeping it real!

  36. Hi, I live in Anchorage too, actually bought your daughters book from amazon & didn’t know she was your daughter. I liked it & then found your book also on amazon. Ordered the physical copy & they offered the ebook for just a bit more so got both. Love your writing style & your ideas, very invigorating & motivating. I live on disability for various reasons for the past few years, it’s been tight. finally got on Ak Housing less than a year ago & things have been better. I also do swagbucks which earns me around $50.00 in amazon GC’s a month. I love amazon so that helps. I don’t have a car anymore, my last car was paid for but even insurance was too much also I take meds that kind of shouldn’t be taken while driving….Anyway, thanks for your blog & all of the ideas! Keep it up!

    • Donna Freedman

      A fellow Alaskan! Right now I’m out of town, but I’d love to say hello in person some time after I get back. Send a note at SurvivingAndThriving (at) live (dot) com to let me know if that’s possible.

      Thanks for buying our books, too.

      • Hi, would LOVE to meet you in person, i remember when you wrote for the ADN. Just read about your daughter getting sick where you are at, that’s gotta be hard for both for you.
        Do you go to Title Wave? Maybe sometime we could meet there if you ever plan to be there anyway. Guess I have yet to meet anyone in Anchorage who doesn’t like Title Wave….Hope things get better with the illness stuff.

        • Oh, meant to say somehow I couldn’t figure out how to contact you via the email you listed? That’s why I wrote back on here. Tell your daughter I hope she feels better soon from a fan of both your books…

        • Donna Freedman

          I do go to Title Wave. In fact, I need to go there — we have a lot of credits and I’d like to do some early holiday shopping.

          The e-mail I listed spelled out “dot” and “com” because I wanted to avoid the (probably small) possibility of my e-mail address being picked up by a bot and spammed. Go up to the “About” button at the top of the page, under the Surviving and Thriving title, and use the e-mail address at the bottom.

          Hope to meet you once I get back.

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