On the Money

Dew Abides living on minimum wage
Courtesy of Flickr/Ken Teegardin

We survived the first month on the new budget, but there were some surprising revelations.

Withdrawal. And not the kind from an ATM. The first week, I went into what can only be described as physical withdrawal. Each day, I fixated on something completely out-of-character, until I was climbing the walls. One morning, it was fresh gingerbread cookies from the coffee shop. Another, I obsessed about getting a massage. As if I always pass the time gnoshing on gingerbread while hanging at the spa. It made no sense.

For two days, mid-week, it was sweaters. I had to have a new sweater. The second day, I stopped by The Boutique to try some on, with no intention of buying, just to push that brain button.

After a week, the spending DTs stopped as suddenly as they had begun, and I’ve been fine ever since.

As uncomfortable as that transitional period was, I’m glad it happened because it taught me a valuable lesson. Like most of us who enjoy a cushy, middle-class income, I’ve always scratched my head at the bad financial decisions made by folks of limited means. Why, for example, would you buy a fancy new television on credit when you’re only making minimum wage? Well now I understand the ungodly amount of willpower needed to ignore the calling of things you can’t have, so I’ll reserve judgment next time.

Nickel and dined. Holy sloot, I didn’t realize how much money we ate every month, in $10 bites here and $15 there. Brad and I aren’t extravagant, but it’s not extravagance that gets you. It’s the beer after a movie, the $3 boxes of granola bars when you didn’t bake snacks, or the pizza when you’re not in the mood to cook after a rough day. Once we began to track these previously ignored expenses, our monthly spending dropped by two-thirds.

Tracking incidentals is like keeping a food journal when you’re on a diet. You don’t realize what you mindlessly consume until you add it all up on paper.

Cucina povera. Brad and I have gotten in a pretty good routine of cooking and baking, so we’re not tempted to eat out or pay too much for snacks. On the weekend, he whips up a double batch of breakfast granola and two pans of muffins or cookies. I make big dinners on Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday that provide lunches for the week.

Since we’re trying to limit trips to the grocery store, we’ve been doing quite the Pantry Raid, using up leftovers and every random package of food on the shelves: pasta with honey-cream sauce and chopped pistachios from my Christmas stocking, pho with stock from beef bones and year-old glass noodles, red beans and rice spiced with frozen summer jalapenos, and tomato-basil soup from our preserves topped with Brad’s homemade croutons (i.e. broiled stale bread).

Setting restrictions has had the odd effect of stimulating creativity, and we’re more excited about cooking than we have been in months. If what we’re scrounging is the stuff of peasant food, then viva i contadini.


I don’t say all this to pat ourselves on the back for living on a prayer because, let’s be honest — at any moment, we can go back to our spoiled, middle-class life. This is a choice. But one that has been eye-opening for a couple of cheap homesteaders who thought the transition to retirement mode would be seamless.

Getting started was a pain in the flat-walleted arse, but knocking out one-sixth of that remaining mortgage feels wonderful. And a little self-inflicted discipline has made us recognize those Saturday morning coffeehouse splurges or dinners out with friends for the gifts that they are.

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