Becoming Jill: Adventures in Adulthood

Chapter Two: In Which I Become a Cheapskate and a Trendy Environmentalist at the SAME TIME!
March 12, 2010, 9:42 am
Filed under: Food, frugality | Tags: , , ,

I didn’t get into this position by spending money with wild abandon. Mostly, it’s a combination lifestyle choices (eternal grad school), unemployment (what happens when you quit grad school during a recession), vet bills (when diabetes strikes!), an extremely low income (join AmeriCorps, receive foodstamps!), and poor money management (you mean you really need to PAY your bills? What’s that all about?).

I’ve been living on a fairly low income for years, but when I made the decision to join AmeriCorps, I knew I was going to have to make some changes to get by. Clearly, not enough changes were made, which is why you are reading this blog, but I think I have hit upon some fairly decent ideas in the past year or so.

On the plus-side, I have also found that being broke is really eco-friendly! So not only am I poor, but I am also “green,” which immediately makes me cool. I’ve never been cool before— it’s kinda weird.

  • Instead of wasting money on paper towels and paper napkins, I started using the great collection of cloth napkins I have, but had only used on special occasions. I had always been a big user of dishtowels in the kitchen, but now I use them for even more things, like using a terry-cloth towel to clean the floors (more on that later). I do keep some paper towels on hand for cleaning up things like cat barf that I want to throw away instead of throw in the washing machine (gross! ). Instead of disposable Swiffers, I dust with re-usable microfiber cloths. I kill fewer trees and save money, hooray!
  • Buying regular fruit and veggies and chopping them myself. No baby carrots in my fridge, but carrot sticks. Takes time, yes, but saves cash. Also, during the warmer months, there is an amazing Hmong farmer’s market near my apartment, which is incredibly cheap and delicious. I come away with huge bags of amazing local produce for less than 10 dollars! I just wish they took foodstamps! Yummy, trendy, eco-friendly. Go me!
  • Along the same principle, grating my own cheese. Not only is it cheaper, but it tastes better, too! I have grated my knuckles a few times, but that’s mostly because I am a klutz.
  • I clean pretty much everything in my apartment with white vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice. It’s pretty much the best thing ever! Good for the wallet, the lungs, and the environment. My studio apartment is really tiny (about 250 sq ft) and has wooden floors.  I mix some vinegar and warm water in a re-usable spray bottle, and just kneel on the floor and clean with a terry cloth towel. Works great!
  • I work in downtown St. Paul, where the parking rates are exorbitant. For example, in the parking ramp across the street from my office, the daily rate is something like 17 bucks. No thanks! Taking the city bus system is a better option, but at up to $2.25 per one-way trip, not exactly  cheap. Luckily, I live very close to downtown, so instead of getting on at the closest bus stop, I walk half a mile to the edge of the bus system’s designated “Downtown Zone.” If you get on and off within the downtone zone, the trip only costs 50 cents! So I get to work and back for a dollar a day, and I get to walk a mile, too! Again, better for my wallet, my health, and the environment.
  • OK, this one isn’t a win for anyone but me, but I’ll include it anyway. The lovely and amazing Karen and her wonderful husband Jeremy generously let me do my laundry at their house for free! This isn’t without its hassles, since they live about 20 minutes away, but the savings far outstrip the annoyance of lugging around huge bags of laundry. I try not to abuse their generosity, and still do some laundry in my building’s coin machines, but it is a HUGE budget saver.
  • I have started cooking lots of things from scratch, which saves a ton of money, and generally tastes better. I do use my Crock Pot once in a while, but mostly I just do things on the weekend. Here’s a list of things I have learned to make all by myself:
    • The world’s best tomato sauce- very flexible, very cheap
    • No Knead Bread! It’s really easy and yummy.

    • Corn bread- it’s almost as easy as mixing a box of Jiffy, but tastes way better!

    • Dried beans- I was scared of dried beans for a long time, but it is so simple, cheap, and fairly yummy. My advice: add a little bacon, serve with sour cream and cornbread.

    • Banana bread- I am super-picky about my bananas, and won’t eat them once they get a single brown spot. I used to throw them away, but now I just make banana bread!
    • Soup- you really can throw a bunch of random things in a pot and make a pretty tasty meal. Triumphs have included potato soup made of things from the Hmong farmer’s market, and what I called “VISTA Foodstamp Surprise,” made out of random canned goods from the pantry.
    • Steel-cut oats are amazing! I have always hated rolled and instant oats, but I recently decided to give the steel-cut variety a try, and they knocked my socks off! Great texture and taste, and a batch only takes 30 minutes to make. I make a batch every weekend and eat it for breakfast every day with some milk and jam stirred in. Yum!
  • Instead of plastic baggies, I store most things in reusable containers. I already had some pretty high quality Rubbermaid things, but I also repurpose things like empty glass pickle jars.  Again, cheap and green. I am so cool, I can hardly stand myself.

That’s all I can think of now, but since I am increasingly interested in frugality, I am sure to write about it again. Please pass along your own tips!

Chapter One: In which I create a budget. Pizza is eaten. Tears are not shed.
March 11, 2010, 5:22 pm
Filed under: money | Tags: , , ,

After making the choice to turn around my life, I instantly realized that I was going to need some help. Now, I have never liked admitting to needing help, or asking for it. I prefer to do all things well, and to just not DO the things I don’t do well (which, as it turns out, is a bad idea). I realized that I had an amazing resource in the person of my best friend.  After I worked up the courage to admit to her that I was in over my head, the lovely and amazing Karen generously agreed to be my financial guru and sort through my monetary pit of destruction.

After I made some attempts to figure out my sources of income and expense, we sat down together for a few hours on Sunday afternoon. I learned all KINDS of things!

  • Who knew that one could include annual expenses like car tags and gasoline for trips home in one’s budget and save for them all year long? Amazing!
  • You can negotiate things like credit card payments. Again, who knew? Not me. I just don’t pay them!
  • If you eat cold feta, garlic, and tomato pizza before working on your budget, you will be in a much happier mental place to work on said budget than you were when you were starving!
  • I am actually capable of discussing money without crying. Hooray!

We made a fancy Excel chart to track everything, and now I have a clear idea of how much money I need to devote to every area of my life, every single month. It feels so grown-up and official! The end result of all this math was realizing that my expenses currently exceed my income by about $300, which could explain why I was having to pay my bills on a rotating basis… In order to make up the short-fall, I will be

  • Rethinking my current cell phone and plan. I bought a smartphone last fall, not realizing that you are unable to turn off the data plan and just use it like a regular phone, so I am currently paying $30 per month on top of the regular plan. I still have a lot of research to do in this area before I decide the best path to take. It would be pretty pricey to break the contract and switch to another carrier, so I am looking at purchasing a used basic phone and downgrading to a basic plan without a lot of minutes. Anyone have any brilliant suggestions for affordable cell phone plans?
  • Calling my credit card company to try and negotiate my interest rate and the minimum payment so that they are more budget-friendly. I am feeling pretty apprehensive about this, as I have never attempted anything like it. Ideas?
  • Calling the loan company that refuses to put an educational loan into forbearance, despite the fact that I am volunteering for a year with AmeriCorps VISTA. All the other companies cooperated, but Great Lakes Financial Services refuses. Sadface! I could certainly put that 80 bucks a month to good use, like PAYING THE RENT or something!
  • Trying to negotiate a lower premium on my car insurance.  Again, no experience with this. When I got this policy, I was told that the rate is higher because I only live a mile or so from downtown St. Paul, which apparently costs more. Boo!
  • Getting my food support re-established. AmeriCorps members are eligible for foodstamps, and the $200 per month has made all the difference in the world. Unfortunately, I am having to re-apply, and haven’t gotten any benefits since December. Beans are good?
  • Getting my taxes done and figuring out if I will get a rebate, which could go towards rounding out the budget.

Based on how all of these negotiations work out, the amazing Karen and I will looking at the budget a second time and making adjustments. Hopefully we will be able make it balance! As an AmeriCorps VISTA, I am not allowed to earn any money outside of my monthly living stipend, which makes it a bit more difficult. I think we are up to the challenge!

PLEASE let me know if you have good tips for negotiating these kinds of things— I can use all the help I can get!