writ by Dawn
A little over five years ago, I left my job to start a career as a freelance writer. My goal was to have more time with my kids, more energy and time to be a better mom, and to get back to my fiction writing.
I didn’t expect to get rich and I didn’t care. All I needed was to be able to pay the bills so that I could get back to writing my books. I expected to make a lot less money and I was willing and prepared to live on a lot less, too.
I would be leaving my job with no savings above a couple of months’ expenses, no contacts in the writing field, no experience writing professionally and no idea how long it would take to become self-sufficient.
What I did have, though, was a pretty good idea that the lower my monthly expenses were when I worked my last day, the longer I would have to get going and the more freedom I would have to write what I wanted to write.
Although I’ve never been much of a spender, I found several ways to cut my expenses to the bare bones and I actually had a lot of fun doing it. I love a bargain, for one thing. But I also found that some of the cuts I made had some very nice side effects--effects that were far more valuable than money.
Because my budget was already pretty tight (the year after my divorce, three kids still at home, mid-level management job), I really had to look closely at what I was spending in order to figure out ways to cut my budget even more.
I discovered that there are really only four areas where you’re free to cut at will, meaning that everything else is either a necessity or out of your control, like rent, utilities, medical insurance and so on. Those four areas are groceries, entertainment, clothing and personal upkeep, and miscellaneous. To me, miscellaneous included things I never thought about, like a pack of gum, and things that were my niceties, the extra things that I treated myself to.
So here are some of the ways that I found to slash my expenses dramatically, even on an already tight budget. In this first post, I’ll talk about food-related expenses. In Part Two, we’ll cover some other areas of the budget.
1. Switching good food for fast food
Every Mom on the planet knows what I mean when I say that you don’t usually plan for or even want half of the meals you go out and buy. But you ran late at work, you ran late at baseball practice, you forgot to turn on the crock pot, or you’re just too exhausted and you didn’t do last night’s dishes yet anyway. Am I alarming anyone or are all of you nodding your heads?
Even though I despise fast food, at the end of my outside working life, I was relying on it quite a bit. I had a long commute and worked horrendous hours anyway. Even if we didn’t go out for fast food, we went out to inexpensive restaurants just to get dinner ticked off the to-do list with a minimum of time and energy.
What really got to me was that we rarely actually enjoyed these meals. It was just calories. It was just filling.
So I decided that fast food was just off the table. Non-negotiable. I planned ahead, I used the crock pot, I cooked two meals at once, I did a little freezer cooking on weekends, but I made sure that we never HAD to go out for a meal just because.
However, I do really enjoy a nice meal out, and I wanted all of us to have some incentive for this change, so that the kids didn’t nag or guilt me into a Big Mac run. So we earmarked $40 per month for going out to a really good meal (we don’t have expensive tastes). This $40 was far less than the $200 a month we were spending.
So once a month, we planned a meal out and we went someplace we really liked, ate food we really enjoyed, and did it guilt-free. It wasn’t just calories, it was a family outing. To make it even more fun, we took turns deciding on the restaurant. MONEY SAVED: $160 per month or $1920 per year.
2. Be Your Own Barista
My longest successful relationship has been with coffee. Additionally, I am a coffee snob. I grew up on Cuban coffee, called café con leche, which is similar to a latte. I cannot and will not drink American swill.
When I was working outside the home, I spent a huge amount of money at SeattleStarbuckanera. I knew I had to cut it out, so I got myself an inexpensive espresso machine and a really cute travel cup and started making my own.
Please don’t tell me you’re more attached to your “coffee place” coffee than I was to mine. Starbucks once called my work to find out if I was okay because I forgot to tell them I was going on vacation.
Please don’t tell me you’re more particular about your coffee than I was about mine. “4-shot 2% grande latte, 120-degrees with four raw sugars, please.” And everybody that worked there knew it by heart.
The coffee I make at home is better and I save a ton of money. I used to spend as much as $80 a week at Starbucks. That’s $4000 a year, people. My last few months of working, I had cut back to one coffee per day or $90 a month. Now it costs me about $15 a month for three really good cups per day, guilt free. That’s a savings of $75 per month or $900 a year.
Get Over the Grocery Store
One thing I have never been able to scrimp on is nutrition. As a kid, I knew what it was like to be hungry. I have always made it a top priority to have plenty of food in the house and to make it as nutritious as possible. That meant organic dairy and produce and stuff to pack healthy lunches for the kids.
I used to spend about $600 a month for the four of us, and that was using plenty of coupons for pantry items. Then I discovered our local grocery salvage and my first trip there, I swear I heard an angelic chorus singing.
For the record, a grocery salvage isn’t about dented cans and expired store brands. Grocery salvage stores typically buy stock of both fresh and pantry foods by the semi-truck load and pass the savings on. Those savings are enormous.
Here are some of my recent buys:
- A case of 14 fresh, marinated 3 to 4lb chickens - $11
- A case of 24 Muller Greek yogurt – 99-cents.
- ½ gallon of Full Circle organic almond milk – 79-cents.
- Whole fresh cauliflower – 2/1.00
- A case of 26 rib-eye steaks - $35
- 12-oz. wedges of brie cheese - $2.99
- 2lb marinated and frozen Hormel pork loins - $2.99
- Organic cantaloupe – 2/1.00
- 1 lb. bags of fresh organic kale and spinach – 4/1.00
As you can see, you can get some huge deals on really high-quality foods, in addition to the normal canned and boxed goods. Since I started shopping almost exclusively at the salvage (I sometimes have to get milk or eggs or butter at the grocery store) my monthly grocery expense has dropped to $300 per month. That’s a savings of $300 per month or $3600 per year.
To find a grocery salvage near you, check the internet and your phone book for grocery wholesalers and grocery salvage. And don’t let the outside appearance of the place fool you.
With these changes alone, I managed to cut my expenses by almost $6500 per year. But as you’ll see in Part Two of this blog post, four other changes added an additional $5500 per year to my savings. Did this translate into actually putting that money in the bank? No, but it meant that I could get by on $1200 per month income for the first few months of my freelancing, which meant that I had time to learn, make mistakes, make a name for myself, and make a success of my freelancing career.
Now I make a good deal more per hour than when I started (I average about $35 per hour), but because my expenses are so low, I only have to work about 20 hours per week. If I want to take a week off, I can. That means time for the kids, time to write my books and time to live a balanced, whole life. I cannot put a price on any of those things.
Stay tuned for Part 2...