Are you a young, poor person scraping by? Are you sick of bullshit “how to save money” articles on the internet clearly written by people who’ve never brought a calculator to the grocery store?
Well today I have some advice for you from someone who has been legitimately poor.
Me. That person is me.
Unfortunately most of this advice still applies to a level of privilege that includes having somewhere to live, having access to the internet and/or a phone, and being able to afford basic needs. I admit upfront that given that my experience is limited, so will my advice be, and I apologize that I am unable to offer more broad advice.
However, I have, since childhood, ranged from questionable-tactics-to-avoid-going-hungry poor to comfortably lower-middle class (my parents got stable enough by the time I was in high school that even with 4 kids we were able to eat out sometimes, and rent movies, and take day trips to the beach). I’ve learned over the years some hard-knock lessons about being poor and young and stupid and trying to keep it all together.
So here we go. How to save money. Gather round, children.
1. Don’t be above side work.
Employment is a bitch in this economy. I graduated high school in 2008, just in time for the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, and I will tell you—finding a full time job was impossible. So instead, I marketed every skill I had on Craigslist.
I’m not joking, at one point I was scratching together a living off of 7 different gigs cleaning, nannying, tutoring, and giving flute lessons to kids. I did what I had to do, and I ate. Barely.
Even since then, as I’ve moved into regularly having full time work, I always have a gig on the side. I write, I make resumes and cover letters for people on Craigslist, I used to clean homes, I’ll list people’s stuff on eBay for them, I’ll babysit, housesit, petsit, etc—don’t limit yourself. If you’re willing and able, work is out there.
2. Reconsider your luxuries.
Especially if your parents were more well off than you are, this is a hard lesson to learn. I actually count myself lucky that until high school my parents were scraping by, because I learned not to get accustomed to luxuries and how to really appreciate indulgences when they came my way.
For example: you don’t need cable TV. You probably don’t need a Hulu subscription, or HBO Go, or Amazon Prime, or even Netflix either. If you find a lot of respite in shows, maybe pick one service to subscribe to (I usually go with Netflix) and stick to that. Those little subscriptions are individually not very expensive, but they add up quickly.
Consider also: do you need a lot of clothes or shoes, or very nice ones? This depends on what you do for work, of course, but try to simplify. A simple wardrobe is easier and cheaper to keep up.
How about alcohol? If it’s important to you, try getting a fifth of Evan Williams or a 24-pack of PBR and keeping it handy at home—drinking cheap alcohol at home is WAY less expensive than going out. Going out should be at a minimum. It’s shockingly expensive.
Can you cook even a little bit? If not, it’s worth learning. It’s soooo much cheaper to cook at home. I will make a giant batch of brown rice, add some black beans, fried tofu (you could do chicken!) and Cajun spices, and divvy it up into 10 tupperwares for my boyfriend and I for the week on Sunday afternoon. It saves us both oodles of money, and it’s delicious, nutritious and super healthy. Plus beans and rice are dirt cheap.
Is public transport an option for you? How about bicycling, or walking? And when I say “an option” I mean is it possible? Switching from relying on a vehicle to get around to walking or bussing it is not the easiest thing in the world, but it’s soooooo worth it. Cars, car insurance, gas, and maintenance are expensive and will only continue to get more expensive as climate change worsens. Really consider whether you need that car. And if you do, consider if you can get away with a less expensive one.
Also, you’ve all heard this before, but it’s clearly not working because Starbucks is still in business: make your fucking coffee at home. Even if you buy the nice shit that’s $18 a pound it’s still cheaper than Starbucks. Invest in a nice to-go mug (I recommend the locking Contigo; I use mine every day) and just do it.
Stop smoking cigarettes. I know it’s really really hard. But it’s also really really expensive not to, so do it anyway. Ditto other drugs. Consider what’s actually benefitting you (eg most prescriptions, maybe marijuana), and allow yourself those things in reasonable portions. Cut out the pricey or harmful shit.
This brings me to another one…
3. Invest in the future.
Your health is an asset, and indomitable as you feel at 22, when you’re 25 and you get your first grey pube you’re going to realize, holy shit, I’m legit going to age one day and probably before science figures out a way for me to live forever.
So . Eat well. You can do this for very little money if you eat like an old-timey poor person. Lentils, rice, beans, potatoes, tofu, onions, carrots, broccoli, black olives, chicken, and bread are a few substantial, nutritious and inexpensive foods that come to mind (and a suitable range for all dietary preferences). Don’t skimp on onions, peppers and garlic—not only do they make everything taste better, they’re super good for you too. Learn some stews, soups, stir fries, sandwiches, dals, and rice dishes that you can perfect and enjoy forever.
Cut back on poison, even if it’s fun—drink less alcohol, stop smoking cigarettes, and cut out the other drugs too if you can (weed can be good for you, especially if you need it for medical purposes, but try to cut back on it too if you can—it’s good to get used to appreciating the little things in your normal state).
Exercise. If you’re working a lot, and take public transport or walk/bike to get around, this will come naturally. Staying in shape will help keep you out of the doctor’s office (SO EXPENSIVE) and seriously improve your quality of life.
If you can find a job with benefits, even if it’s not a lot of money, take it. Health insurance is hugely important, and so is a retirement account or 401K. Start while you’re young—you don’t want to be one of those people who waits till they’re 45 to start saving for retirement and then has to work until they’re 75 and their bones are shattering in order to survive. If you need to, work some side gigs to supplement until you’re able to get a raise or promotion.
Save money, too, and consider very carefully before incurring any kind of debt. If you’re bad at saving money or you feel like you never have big chunks at a time, try Digit—which I’ve been using for several months now and I love. It’s free, don’t worry. They calculate your income and spending with all this math-y shit (algorithms? I dunno) and automatically withdraw amounts from your bank in like 50 cent to 2 dollar increments depending on whether you can afford it, and deposit it in a separate account that isn’t at your regular bank (so you don’t see it all the time sitting there; you kinda forget about it). And if you need the money, you can get it back by the next day. It’s the best.
If you don’t want to do it that way, consider opening a savings account at your bank that is just for an emergency fund, and setting up an auto transfer every month for right after your paycheck comes in—anything you can spare, even if it’s like 5 bucks. Then if you end up with extra at some point, like one of those glorious 3-paycheck months, you can make another deposit.
4. Hold off on those big decisions until you’re stable (and sure).
Thinking about getting married? Having a kid? Buying a house?
Here’s the thing: lots of people do this stuff when they’re not ready, and I don’t just mean emotionally (but seriously, that too). Getting married is super expensive, and the tax breaks you get out of the deal don’t usually cover the cost of a typical American wedding. It’s 2016; you can just move in with your partner and share bills. Unless you live in Mississippi there’s a good chance no one will say boo about living in sin or whatever, and even if they do, who the fuck cares? Also divorce is expensive. I’ve done this twice; I’m just saying…breaking up is free.
Buying a house can be a good thing, but it’s a huge, HUGE investment and it usually involves a 30-year fixed loan. Do you know what a 30-year fixed loan means? It means that you will be paying not just for your house, but for 30 years of interest on the loan for that house, every single month, for the next 30 years of your life. Are you ready for that kind of commitment? Yes, property is an asset, but it also fluctuates. Have you done your research? Do you understand the housing market in your community and the country at large? Do you know and understand what happened in 2008? Do you have plenty of money for a proper down-payment?
Renting isn’t that bad, folks. Also owning a house with a picket fence and having a 9-5 union job isn’t, in my opinion, the American dream anymore. I think it’s something more like living in a New York City loft and being a famous Youtube blogger.
And having a kid is insane. I mean yes, baby heads smell so good that it feels like you’re getting something out of it, but ask any parent and they will tell you that they hemorrhage money and never sleep. You have to be ready for this shit, and I mean really really ready. I mean several years of stable finances and good habits and a big ol’ nest-egg. I mean “went off contraception on purpose to specifically have a baby, or went through the process of adopting, and planned this shit out” ready.
What do you folks think? Any tips or tricks to add? Share your thoughts in the comments!