For my last two years of college, I lived on $14,000/year in one of the nation’s most expensive cities, within one of the city’s most outrageous areas: West Los Angeles. With the national poverty threshold for a single adult household at $11,670, I wasn’t living in what the government considered “poverty,” but I was uncomfortably close.
Although it’s not unusual for college students to live cheaply and be “poor” enough to partake in $2 beer specials, my situation was somewhat unique because I had no financial safety net. I paid for every single expense I accrued with my own money—tuition, rent, food, and transportation. Everything.
My diet consisted of eggs, pasta and peanut butter. No new clothes, gadgets or items entered my possession, and I shared a 500 square foot, one-bedroom apartment with two other girls. My final years of college can be summarized in one word: fear.
Every dollar I spent was excruciatingly painful because I knew there was a finite amount of money in my account, and although I worked three part-time jobs, everything I earned went towards survival.
I graduated college almost six months ago and my financial situation is drastically different. In fact, if someone had told me I would be making this much money less than a year after graduation, I would have started laughing or crying…probably both. Today, my pre-tax salary is exactly 3x my yearly expenses for the past two years.
The main thing I learned is that living frugally by choice and living frugally in order to survive are two entirely different things.
I now live on a mere $300 more per month than I did two years ago. My standard of living is almost exactly the same except that I no longer have two roommates. I do not own a car, I spend less than $200 per month on groceries and my wardrobe primarily consists of hand-me-downs. The main difference? I no longer worry about survival.
As I prepare to whittle down my spending even more in order to knock out $13,000 of student loans in less than a year, I do so from a place of empowerment and not fear. Although I wouldn’t change my financial journey, I also wouldn’t wish the fear, anxiety and stress upon anyone else.
I’ll never forget the privilege I now have: the ability to save out of choice instead of fear.
Due to a mixture of hard work, hustle and luck, I was able to walk away from a life near the poverty threshold and into a full-time office job with benefits. But I will always remember what it taught me about money and sustainable living.
1) Convenience is Not Your Friend
We live in a world in which convenience is king. If it can be done faster and with less personal effort than modern humans want it…now. Uber cars will now come directly to your pinpointed location and drop you off at your destination’s front door. Postmates will deliver food from any establishment in the city and place the entree in your hand. There’s nothing innately wrong with these services. In fact, I’ve used both. But when we begin to rely on convenience, we are essentially trading money for time.
Instead of cooking the dinner yourself or even walking to the restaurant, you are paying a premium charge to have it delivered. During my last two years of college, paying the premium for convenience wasn’t an option and although the adjustment was initially hard, I learned to love the instances that allowed me to spend time instead of money. I began to bake crackers from scratch, walk to work, prepare home cooked meals, repair my clothing with a needle and thread, and so much more. But even beyond that, I’ve grown to love the independence and empowerment that comes from doing things myself.
2) Frugal Living is Good for the Earth
There is nothing I love more than spending time outside. Whether it’s at the beach, in the mountains at a hike or simply walking through the neighborhood, being outdoors is integral to my happiness. During my years in (almost) poverty, I learned something surprisingly: frugality is good for the earth. Biking instead of driving lessens carbon emissions, recycling cans for money ensures that they don’t end up in a landfill and buying secondhand saves the earth’s resources by minimizing the natural resources that are used in production and transportation.
Even though I always wanted to do good and help the earth, frugality gave me the personal incentive that I needed in order to fully commit to a more sustainable lifestyle. But what has surprised me the most is that it feels good. Every time I bike instead of walk or recycle a food container, I feel healthy and whole because I am taking care of the earth that has always taken care of me.
3) Local Living is King
For college students, life is fairly local. The majority of students live near the place they spend the most time: campus. And the set-up is pretty sweet. Everything is within walking distance and all your friends are a few streets away. I decided to capitalize on the awesome college town set-up by living slightly outside the college town center yet still within walking distance of my classes and work. By living outside the center, I saved money on rent but was still close enough to live a local life. Most days I walked to class or hoped on a free bus. My job was about a ten-minute walk from my house and grocery stores were about fifteen. I saved money by not having to commute…anywhere. But I also enjoyed it.
We came to know the local grocery store workers, would stop by for a $2 frozen yogurt date on my walk home from work after a long week and all of my friends were a mere ten minutes away. I would wander through the weekly farmer’s market as I headed to my part-time job and would sometimes be gifted free fruit that would have otherwise gone to waste as the sellers packed up for the day. Hanging out with friends or classmates was impromptu and enjoyable because we didn’t have to worry about a long commute home in the dark. I saved money, but also lived a higher quality of life.
As I continue to move forward with my plans to pay off $13,000 of student loans in 12 months, the lessons I’ve learned from living in (almost) poverty are a source of inspiration, but also a reminder of my current privilege—the privilege to save out of choice instead of desperation.