April 13, 2013

austerity measures

so, since around the first of the year, I've been on what most people would consider a shoestring grocery budget -- around $30 a week. every time I get paid -- every two weeks -- I go to the ATM and get $80 and that has to be food & restaurant/going out/coffee money until the next time I get paid.

the reason for this is that in november I called a budget counseling service, one available to me through my credit union, and got enrolled in a debt consolidation program. all last year I was totally emotionally overwhelmed by my credit card debt, too shy and ashamed to call the credit card companies and talk to them about how to not have my minimum payment be (in one case) $150 a month -- an insanely high minimum that got that high precisely because for awhile I was throwing extra money at it. did you know this is a thing they can do? they can reset your minimum to the average amount you've been paying. so I accidentally screwed myself in the end.

so I finally got fed up of being terrified about money all the time and enrolled myself in the debt management plan, wherein I made an appointment for a very kind person to go over my budget with me over the phone, and then help me figure out how much I could reasonably throw towards my debt. and then that person would contact all my debtors and work out an agreement where they would hopefully waive late fees and reduce my APR and possibly reduce what I owe by a small fraction. in return, I agree to: a) close all my credit card accounts; b) not take on any new debt; c) pay a set fee every month to the debt management company, which they disperse to my creditors. so that's what I did.

the monthly payment is steep, but is set specifically to be a certain percentage of my income. it's a lot, but it's doable. but if I miss a payment, boom. they drop me and I'm on my own with the credit card companies again. and I will be on this plan for five years.

by the way, I am telling you all this in no small part because I think it's bullshit that money is a thing we are ashamed of, like not having any makes you a bad person by default. it doesn't.


a vast majority of my expenses are fixed. rent, board for cookie, car insurance, phone bill, student loan (which is not rolled in to my plan because the interest on it is already hilariously low). fixed, fixed, fixed. some can go higher (car insurance, phone) but most of them can't go lower. (phone is the only one left of those that can, and this is a spoiled thing to say but I really don't want to give up having a smartphone.)

what's left to cut back on? food, gas. and of course things like clothes and running things and all those miscellaneous things we buy ourselves. I don't spend money on any of those either.

so, I set my food budget at the experimental rate of $80/pay period, and it worked, so I kept it there. but the end result of looking at my budget in this way is that when unexpected expenses come up -- like Cookie's $300 vet bill last month -- the first thing that pops into my head is, "well, I guess I'll have to eat less."

fast forward to this past week. my car has been making a noise, which I've been attributing to a belt that needed tightening or something similar. the check engine light has been intermittently going on and off, but it's been doing that every winter for SIX YEARS. I had been putting off taking it to the shop, because -- well, because of everything above -- but I finally got it in this week. I had to take it in two days in a row because on day one they couldn't make it make the noise, which of course changed the minute I got into the car.

so wednesday afternoon, cindy, the lady who works the desk at my mechanic (and I'm pretty sure the whole shop is two mechanics and cindy), calls and says, "hi honey. well, we have some bad news." that squeaky belt that I thought was going to be a minor fix is going to cost me somewhere between $550 and $1000. in addition, my coolant temperature sensor is bad, to the tune of $330. awesome.

I drive the same car I had in college. the car is 11 years old. it has 130,000 miles on it. it's a base model ford escort, no power locks, no power windows. it has a tape deck. I have known for some time that I might be staring down the barrel at losing my car, but I thought I had a little more time than this. I walked back to the mechanic and called my mom. "I mean, it doesn't seem like it's even worth fixing, mama," I said. "what if I throw $1300 into it and next month some other huge thing breaks? that's $1300 I could have put toward a car."

I got to the shop and they chatted at length with me, explaining that because my car is the only one of its model they get in (they primarily work on european cars), they had never actually seen this particular problem before, so not only were they not totally certain that replacing the broken thing would fix my car, they also weren't sure what would happen when the thing actually broke the rest of the way. "my guess is that the car would just slowly come to a stop," the mechanic said, "but I don't know for sure."

so in addition to having a hefty car repair bill, in the meantime the car might either just inconveniently break down on the side of the road, or it might kill me. okay!

so I took the key and gingerly got into the car and hesitantly turned the key and drove home feeling like I was in a death trap. (but not before I nearly asked out the mechanic, who is cute and, google tells me, the same age as me.) I called my mom back and she called an old family friend, a ford mechanic who my stepdad used to work with, and he told my mom that I should take it to the dealership (BARF), that it would not kill me if it broke, and that I should fix it.

so. that is what I will do.

in the meantime, I am driving it as little as possible, in part because I don't want it to break the rest of the way, and in part because gas is the only other variable line item in my budget and every goddamn dollar counts. so, now I am suddenly a full-time bike commuter! thank god I bought a bike last year! thank god this is not my first time ever commuting in traffic!

on the down side, there is no way to get to the barn without a car. no public transit goes close, and if I took the closest bus route and then biked the rest of the way, the trip would take me THREE HOURS. three hours one way.

so once again I am trying to find somebody to share my horse with me.

the funny thing about these austerity measures is that, surprisingly, I haven't once felt this year like I'm deprived. there's something about trying to live on a very paltry food budget that feels like a game. some weeks I manage to spend something like $18 on groceries. when my best friend said, 'how???', I replied, 'I simultaneously want to tell you that it's really not that hard and that I have no fucking idea.' or, like I jokingly told my mom, 'well, I have been wanting to get back down to race weight.'


  1. Ahhh...I've been wrestling with this all year. Money Shame blows goat. We shouldn't be ashamed! Kudos for staring the bitch in the eyes and saying, "Grrr!"

  2. no joke. the more I talk about it the more I realize that a huge percentage of people I know (which isn't surprising, given the low-paying nature of my profession) have similar troubles, or at least similar lack of money. it's so dumb to be ashamed about it. I might have made some regrettable money choices in the past -- i.e. college -- but now my only trouble with money is that life costs just about as much as I make. I refuse to feel bad about it anymore. and your progress is so awesome!