A friend’s spouse just lost his job and she posted on Facebook, asking for help/leads/ideas on finding a job, since they’re now living on less than half of what they used to live on. I have no job leads (I’m still searching myself), but I do have a year’s worth of experience living on a dramatically reduced income and that’s my best advice: Learn to live on less. You have very little, if any, control over when you’ll land your next job, so, control what you can.
Needs vs. Wants
Take a fresh and creative look at what can be cut from your monthly budget. Think of it as a game or personal challenge – something fun, rather than depriving yourself. Call it “Our free/frugal summer” (or something like that), giving the endeavor an end date (at least in your mind). You’ll find yourself saying, “I can do anything for 8 weeks,” then be surprised how much longer you can keep it up. Some suggestions:
- Cancel your cable service. Nothing good is on during the summer anyway, right? You can try any number of streaming services (Hulu Plus, Netflix, Amazon Prime), all for about $7.99 a month. You could borrow DVDs from your library (most libraries have entire seasons of television shows) or even rent a movie now and then from Redbox (they’re just $1.20 and free codes come along now and then) and save lots of money. Plus, when you’re ready to sign up for cable again, companies will woo you with great “new customer” deals!
- Call your cell phone provider and car insurance company and tell them about your situation. Ask, “Can you help me find a cheaper way to get the same or similar service?” Nine out of ten times, they will!
- Stop spending non-budgeted money on anything other than groceries and gas. It’s fascinating (and scary) to look back and see how often we spent money on non-essentials, without thinking twice. Trips to the craft store, feathering our nest, buying a new shirt or shoes – we used to treat those as errands, rather than options. Now everything is preceded by the question, “What will happen if we don’t buy that?” (the answer is usually, “Nothing.”). You may be down to only three or four shirts you feel good wearing, but try to describe what your coworker or best friend wore yesterday. How about two days ago? Now, go wash and wear one of your four decent shirts again.
Lighten Your Load
Look around your home and you’ll be surprised at how much extra cash you have lying around. Okay, not literal cash, but things you don’t really use or need anymore, that could be sold. Half Price Books will give you cash on the spot for books and magazines. They pay .05 cents per magazine. Before you dismiss that, remember: 20 magazines is $1.00 and a few dollars will buy a gallon of milk. Ask your friends to give you their magazines when they’re done with them. Sign up for free magazine subscriptions (MoneySavingMom.com is a great site to watch for those). Keep an eye on recycle bins. It adds up.
If you’re on the fence about selling your books, think about how rarely you use or even refer to some of them. So much information is available online now. Although I loved having the beautiful library of books I acquired during college and graduate school, I now love the free space I have and the cash they earned for us when we needed it. In addition to HPB, check out Amazon.com’s trade-in program. It costs you nothing (they even pay shipping), you can see exactly what they’re willing to pay for your book, based on its condition, and Amazon will even return it to you (at no cost) if they reject it for any reason. Credit on Amazon.com can buy more than you think (even groceries!). We usually use Amazon credit for gifts – birthdays and Christmas – throughout the year.
The same process applies to good, but rarely worn, clothes and shoes (you’ll get cash on the spot from some consignment shops, like Clothes Mentor) and anything you’re willing to put on Ebay. Don’t assume anything is junk. I’m always amazed at what sells.
One of the biggest challenges is changing your mindset from that of a long-time employee to someone under-employed and barely getting by. Assistance is available and it’s likely you qualify for it.
- If you have any student loans, Google “income based reduction” and explore lowering your monthly payments or getting rid of them altogether!
- If you pay for health insurance, explore what’s available thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Our family of four has good, basic coverage for about 1/4 of what we used to pay when I got coverage through my last employer.
- If you fill a monthly prescription, ask your pharmacist if there are less expensive options. We were surprised to learn it’s cheaper to fill our prescriptions without using our insurance, just a national prescription discount program. I didn’t even know that was an option. We found Kroger especially helpful with this. (Note: Start at the “Prescription drop-off / Patient questions” window, rather than the “Prescription pick-up” counter. You’ll be more likely to get an employee who has experience with what’s available, as opposed to the high school student working a part-time job, running the register.)
- If you have any outstanding medical bills, send something every month, but don’t feel pressured to pay it off all at once. Some doctors offices and hospitals will end up offering you a discount (average is 20%) if you pay it in full (saving them from having to bill you every month). We’ve even had a hospital send us an application to have the remainder of our bill waived, if our income level proved low-enough (and it did).
- Anything that offers a “reduced rate” – from school lunch programs to summer camps – apply for it. We put off taking advantage of those, convinced we still weren’t poor enough to qualify for any help. We were wrong and we probably would have qualified for some level of assistance even when I was employed full-time. Look online for a chart of what the government says a family of your size must earn in a month or year to be considered above the poverty line. You might be surprised.
Last, but not least, don’t miss the silver-lining (in my book): your level of compassion and empathy for anyone who is struggling to make ends meet will grow immeasurably during this time. None of the suggestions I’ve made here are quite as simple as I make them sound. If you clip coupons, fill out paperwork, wrestle with service providers, and are constantly searching for ways to make more (or spend less), “just getting by” can be a full-time job all by itself.
The good news is you’re not alone. The bad news is you’re not alone.
The number of people in your shoes increases daily and I wouldn’t be surprised if you discover several of your friends are in the same situation. Notice I said “discover.” North Americans are a proud bunch and money, or the lack of it, can be an uncomfortable subject. But the best advice you’ll find comes from those who have struggled, and that’s something you’ll be rich with: experience. So don’t hesitate to share yours!