Recently I was floored by a comment from a Twitter follower:
You are lucky you get to do all the crazy stuff. Some of us just have to work to pay the bills…
It didn’t seem fair. I also have a job and bills to pay. Maybe I’m just better at making it look like I don’t.
Here’s How it Works
First of all, I do not have a trust fund, inheritance, alimony, or a settlement, nor have I won the lottery.
I might have a talent managing money, though.
I moved out at the age of 15 and have supported myself about 95% of the time since then. I put myself through nursing school at OHSU (an expensive school, racking up about $26,000 of debt). So I worked tough but well-paying jobs to pay off the loans as quickly as possible. Seven years in hell. During that time I bought a Toyota Prius and paid it down at $1000/month, 0% interest. People think that’s crazy, but I owned the car outright in under three years, and it still had value. When I was debt-free, I quit my job as a nurse and sold my car for $20,000. At that point I had been running Little Package for several years, and was confident I could cut costs and simplify my life to the point where a 90% pay cut would work. I used $10,000 of savings from my Toyota to ease that transition. I put the other $10,000 in the rainy-day fund.
That transition wasn’t easy. I could no longer buy whatever I pleased at the markets. It was no longer organic everything, fancy label clothing, eating out whenever, or even paid amusements. I rode my bicycle everywhere. If I didn’t need something in my household, I returned it or sold it for extra cash. If I saw an opportunity to flip something, I took it. I consider myself an extreme bargain hunter. Though I try to have some scruples about this as far as “putting my money where my mouth is,” and buying socially-responsibly, when you are poor this isn’t always an option. Though I bought less overall, I bought more from Amazon, eBay, and wouldn’t be too proud to shop at Walmart if need be. I hunted, clipped and actually used coupons.
When you have to choose between eating and having what you need, suddenly you have a lot more empathy for people who shop places like these, and for the choices they make. Take a moment to appreciate your privilege, at whatever level it’s at.
I had 4 years practicing frugality before I saw my chance to sell all my belongings and hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Over a few months, I denuded my 450 square-foot apartment of its furnishings and decorations. Everything was carefully gifted, sold via Craigslist, or donated to thrift shops. At the same time I was selling all my furniture, half my bicycles, and most my kitchen gear, I was selecting backpacking gear for the PCT. I was moving into a backpack. How thrilling!
During this hectic time I was still running Little Package, even fulfilling custom orders. But I also made time to create digital versions of my sewing patterns and program software that would automatically watermark them upon sale (protecting my intellectual property). I manufactured many paper copies as well, sewing their spines and packing them myself, and sold those wholesale. In other words, I was industrious and trying to be forward-thinking. Finally, I sold all of my sewing equipment. The total plunge.
Although the hike dropped my expectations even further, finding me eating the cheapest food, wearing the sloppiest and dirtiest clothes, and taking freely from whomever offered anything, I was still spending too much money. I ran out of funds and accepted help from friends who were vicariously enjoying my hike. That was weird, but looking back I know it was the only way I could finish my hike and still afford re-integration. Re-integration was budgeted as well, and sometime during my hike I decided to spend my rainy-day money on a VW Vanagon. That was a huge decision, because it meant I would no longer have a safety net. But my van would be my sweet home, and Vanagons hold their value.
At this time I am living out of my van just south of Brookings, Oregon. I am trading work for a place to stay, and again working on forward-thinking, money-making projects. I do work nearly every day, but I work for myself, whenever and wherever I want. My income is beyond below the poverty level at this point, but I cost-cut at the extreme level. Case in point: last week I hitch-hiked across Oregon back and forth to surprise visit my favorite man. In the past month, I have eaten at soup kitchens and once showered at a homeless shelter. Trivial purchases are deliberated and surprises (such as the car insurance bill that just turned up as I wrote this) are dreaded. I pay $20 for my Verizon data plan on my iPad (allowing me some Internet and rare phone calls). I do not have children or own pets (but I want a dog!). I am still medically uninsured, as I find it more affordable to pay cash for visits* and was declined catastrophic coverage. I am almost debt-free**. I just try very hard to not spend money I don’t have.
A lot of making it work just has to do with faith. I’m not saying “just pray” and everything will work out. No no. But I am saying that if you are confident, resourceful, and drop your standards a bunch of pegs, you can manage. And life automatically becomes a heck of a lot more adventurous!
* My broken collarbone August 2012 cost me $9. But I never went to the hospital or the doctor’s office for it.
** It does seem like credit issuers have radar for when people make less money. I just got issued another credit card. They’re evil (but my new safety net).