A Story About Paying Off Debt and the Obstacles Along the Way

, ,

Stretching Our Budget While Living On One Income


As I begin writing this, I'm 19 days into my career break. Almost three weeks ago, I fired my employer and walked away. I didn't know what I was walking to, and I still don't. My main goal was simply to distance myself from the flaming bag of dog poop that was my last job.

I'm happy to say that since then, my anxiety has plummeted, I'm less irritable, and I've been able to think more clearly. I'm no longer running on fumes. I'm not making decisions based on fear. People I see on a regular basis have told me that I look different, as if a weight has been lifted.

Nevertheless, I occasionally wake up in the middle of the night to a herd of questions thundering through my brain. What do I want to do next? How many months will our money really last? Will our side hustles pan out this summer? Why aren't there more part-time gigs listed on the job boards? What if I never get hired for another job ever again? 

Just Breathe


I calm myself down by reminding myself of a few things:

First, we've budgeted for this break as carefully as possible given the circumstances. At best, I can afford to be unemployed until the end of the year; at worst - if unexpected expenses come up or Fortysomething's bonus is less than we've predicted - we still have several months of runway.

Second, we've spent the last two years saving and budgeting, and we've developed wallet-friendly habits and strategies that are pretty much second nature by now. For example, we have only one car; Fortysomething and the Kiddo walk to work and school, and we usually spend less than $30 a month on gas. We don't go on expensive vacations. We don't impulse buy. We don't spend unnecessarily on things like home decor or new clothes. We've cut way down on going out to eat, and when we do, we often use a gift card. By slowly changing our habits over a long period of time, we've acclimated to a relatively frugal lifestyle. That's paying off for us now.

Lastly, we've recently implemented several additional, effective measures to conserve our savings and staunch the flow of cash from our bank account. Some of these measures involve us bringing more money in, while other measures involve spending less. Either way, they're helping us stretch our savings as far as possible, which is important because we can't afford to live on one income indefinitely. This career break comes with an expiration date.

Five Ways We're Stretching Our Budget


1. Fortysomething adjusted his W-4. 

As soon as I quit my job, Fortysomething met with his payroll administrator and updated his W-4. Previously, he'd been claiming zero allowances; now he's claiming two, which means less of his paycheck gets funneled to taxes. The upshot is that his paycheck has increased by approximately $180/month.

Sidenote: Definitely check with someone who's actually a money expert, but if you're currently claiming zero allowances on your W-4 and you're paying off debt or dealing with a tight budget, making a similar adjustment may be worthwhile for you. Your tax refund won't be as large, but the "extra" money you bring in throughout the year can catalyze your debt payoff and/or give you more financial breathing room. The W-4 form includes a series of questions that can help you determine how many allowances to claim.

2. We've cut our grocery bill.

Admittedly, our grocery bill has always been a bit high. Okay, really high. Food is expensive here, we like to eat, we're big on fresh produce, excuses excuses, and so on and so forth. In the past, we've spent as much as $900/month on groceries!

Our grocery bill presents a prime opportunity for us to save some money. We're taking three specific steps to cut our costs in this area:

We're couponing. I can't take credit for that; it's all Fortysomething's doing, and he's getting good at it. Last weekend, his efforts saved us about $25.

We're planning out our dinners, always our most expensive meals, in advance. We don't go so far as to schedule specific meals for specific days, but we assemble a list of options to choose from. This week, we've got tacos, pizza, salad, mac n' cheese, veggie burgers, and huevos rancheros on the docket. These meals are all easy to make and relatively cheap.

Homemade pizza to please both meat eaters and vegetarians

We're shopping just once a week. We've learned that we spend less money on groceries if we shop for everything all at once. If we hit up the store multiple times in a given week, we tend to spend more in total.

Our current goal is to spend no more than $150/week on food and see if we can slowly reduce that total over time.

3.  We're using Swagbucks to earn gift cards for essentials. 

If you're not familiar with it, Swagbucks is a site where you can earn points by completing tasks (like taking surveys and printing grocery coupons) and cash in those points for a variety of gift cards. Fortysomething and I each spend less than ten minutes on the site per day, and we easily rack up at least 2000 points per month. We then use our points to buy Amazon or Visa gift cards when they go on sale; in turn, we use the gift cards purchase essentials like toilet paper and shampoo. Even in a lean Swagbucks month, we'll earn at least $20-$25 in gift cards.

I would rather use my points to buy chocolate and wine, but okay

4. We found affordable, relatively comprehensive short-term health insurance for the Kiddo and me. 

In a previous post, I walked through our various career break health insurance options. These included an expensive, high-deductible ACA plan (we do not qualify for a subsidy); Fortysomething's expensive, employer-sponsored family insurance; and a short-term insurance plan. We decided to pursue the third option. The application process was quick and easy, and we were approved within 24 hours. 

Short-term insurance doesn't cover preexisting conditions and comes with some strange stipulations (for example, you can't check into a hospital for non-emergency care on a Friday or Saturday night). However, the plan we chose features a relatively low deductible, a low out-of-pocket maximum, 20/80 coinsurance, TeleDoc support, and dental coverage for $295/month. The coverage will last for six months; at that point, we can extend it for another six months. 

Is this an ideal solution? Not really, given the limitations of the plan and the fact that these short-term options will make Obamacare more expensive, but none of our options seemed particularly good. At least we have affordable coverage in the event of an emergency.

5. We've curbed our energy consumption. 

Thank goodness for spring: we no longer have to turn on the heat, and it's cool enough that we don't need to use the air conditioner yet. We spoke to our energy company and learned that costs spike between 3 PM and 8 PM Monday through Friday, so especially during that window, we won't be doing laundry, running the dishwasher, or taking long showers. We anticipate that by being more conservative in our energy use, we'll save about $100/month. Bonus: using less energy is good for the environment!

We've acclimated to this temperature, but it took months


Next Goal: Obtain Supplemental Income (But Only If It's Something I Want To Do)


Of course, the best thing we can do to support this career break is to bring in some extra income. My goal is to eventually find a part-time job or a steady freelancing gig. In the meantime, I want to experiment with side hustles.

The caveats: it has to be a job I actually want to do, and it can't cause needless stress. While I have the opportunity, I'd like to give myself some practice in selecting and doing work that I actually feel good about. For now, the only side hustle I can think of that doesn't induce mild panic is pet sitting, so I signed up for Rover, which is sort of the Uber of the pet care world. I like animals. I have some experience (I used to work at an animal shelter), and hanging out with dogs and cats is fun for me. So I'm offering dog walking and in-home pet sitting... and guess what? Someone actually booked me to look after their pet this weekend. I'm not getting paid much, but I'm hoping a positive review will help me attract more business. (Shameless advertising: If you're interested in using Rover for the first time or becoming a Rover sitter, here's my referral code. For new Rover users, you'll get $20 off your first booking.)

Other than that, I have no idea what I'd like my other side hustles to be or what I might pursue as a job. I'm just letting it be and going after the things that excite and energize me.

What are some creative ways you've stretched your income during times when the budget was tight? If you found yourself a side hustle to help bridge the gap, what was it, and was it worth it?
Share:

19 comments:

  1. When I finished my fellowship training, I took 7 weeks off before starting my "real job" to relax and reset. I refused to go further into debt to do it, however, so I lived off the money I had squirreled away the previous year. I got pretty good at being a tight wad - biking instead of paying bus fare, volunteering at festivals to get free admission, and almost always cooking at home. It was actually fun (probably because it was time-limited and because I wasn't working at the time), and it's nice to know that I have some frugal skills in case I ever need to use them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I totally relate to this. I love seeing how much money we can save by making some small adjustments to our lifestyle, and I think my family has gotten on board. I see frugality as a practice that helps us identify the things we really care about.

      Delete
  2. Just those few tweaks have made a serious difference in your budget. Here’s to hoping you stick with the lower energy use even once the money stuff balances out ;) Fingers crossed on an awesome part time opportunity (or lots of Rover time) means that runway will last a lot longer than the end of the year.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We will certainly try to keep the energy bill low! I'm telling you, those hot baths that I took to destress during my last job really cost us. Literally. LOL.

      Delete
  3. Hope this is okay to post but I actually work on a mobile app for survey and mobile missions if you are looking to earn more gift cards. It is called Hatch by C Space and I think it is pretty cool (but I am biased since I work for the company). The only thing is, rewards are not automatic so there is a lag (but you do get paid).

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hehehe I think situations like this is where our community shines. We don't have to make super drastic changes to accommodate for the drastic life situation changes because we've already developed good habits. :D We're looking to go down on one income in a bit, and while losing such huge chunk of $$$$ every month is scary... It's not something that can't happen, because we live pretty lean anyways. It's amazing you can last until EOY without work!! REST TONS AND RECHARGE!! Like I say probably every few days... I'm SOOOOOOO excited for and proud of you for firing your cruddy work!! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Zero. :-) Me too! I'm much happier now, even though I'm completely uncertain about future job prospects. But I'd rather have uncertainty than work in a terrible, toxic job.

      Delete
  5. Glad you're resting up and carefully considering your next job -- and that you've gotten some Rover appointments already. (You said on Twitter you now have multiple ones.)

    One thing: If you're going to need to spend that much on groceries, I'd strongly recommend the AmEx Blue Cash Preferred card. It's got 6% on groceries up to $6,000 a year. The one caveat is a $95 annual fee BUT there's a $250 welcome bonus -- and you only need to spend $1,000 in three months -- which more than evens it out. Just a thought.

    One other hack if you're not already doing it: discounted gift cards. Raise and CardCash are my go-to sites. The savings can be substantial for places you have to shop anyway. It's great when I need to buy pet food (I've gotten as much as 27% off Petco GCs before). I also use it at Target where I get my protein bars. Even 7% off really helps (especially if you can get cash back through Mr. Rebates on top of it!).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for these tips! I sent my partner the info about the Amex Blue card; 6% back is amazing. We'll definitely check that out along with the discounted gift cards.

      Delete
  6. Wow! Major props for you $150 per week food budget. My fiance eats SO MUCH FOOD, we're currently brainstorming ways we can cut our costs down. It seems like the most challenging area for us to budget, even when we're not eating out and only shopping at the cheapest grocery stores.

    Regarding your supplemental income question, both of us have always had good luck with doing some extra tutoring on the side for kids and adults alike. I'm not sure how old your child is, but we've had luck finding clients from friends of my fiance's children at school. If you have any area of expertise (SAT prep, whatever subject area you majored in, etc.) it's seriously the quickest, most fun way I've found to earn some extra cash on my own schedule!

    Good luck! Looking forward to seeing what lies ahead for you.

    Elise

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great suggestion! I would definitely consider tutoring, especially if this career break extends to the end of the summer.

      I'm glad we're not the only ones with a higher grocery budget! We keep chipping away at it, a dollar at a time.

      Delete
  7. Even though we've always been relatively frugal, I'm still always on board with the idea of practicing living on one income JUST IN CASE. We are alas nowhere near that right now with a relentless childcare bill and mortgage but I love that this post is tickling my neurons to think of other ways to bring down our costs wherever we can.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm trying to brainstorm ways to bring our housing costs down. The ideal solution would be to purchase a place with an extra room or studio and then rent it out. We'd be golden. But with bonkers housing costs, there is no way we'll be able to do that.

      Delete
  8. I love how in control of the process you are, and how as a result you are feeling so much better.

    Enjoy the break, I want to hear about all the runs you now have time to do!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! :-D Right now my running is rather boring. I'm just trying to build back up after a winter off. But it's definitely getting easier!

      Delete
  9. I am curious as to why you wouldn't pursue a full time job? Do you think you wouldn't be able to handle any kind of FT job emotionally, or was it just that the ones you had were a poor fit? If you don't think you can handle any kind of FT work I would suggest getting some therapy or perhaps beginning medication because ultimately you will most likely have to return to work full time. Good luck.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I think you're making the right decision. Gosh I wish you were here so I could send Motley to you for $20/day. That's what I pay for daycare right now. It would be easy cash under the table and you'd love him and I'm sure he'd love you! Plus, he's an old man and you could still take on other Rover jobs! He'd just hang out and chill!

    But for real, you have to do what's right for you and this is your time to explore. Who cares what other people think! NO REGRETS!

    Hugs!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Awwwww. Mots is so sweet. <3 I love him and I don't even know him!

      Delete