Sunday, September 19, 2010

Micro-Frugality, or Making it on a Diminished Income

Upon first glance my financial situation may seem grim. How many lower class Americans can receive a drastic downturn in regular income and keep going? How often do many of them fall behind in rent, or have their electricity and/or water cut off temporarily. As an example here my husband has a co-worker that had his water and electricity cut off, and I have a co-worker without electricity right now. Unfortunately, this happens more often than you think.

We will be fine and the tough times will pass and this post will explain how. For those of you already living a frugal life you may be bored to tears and I apologize. For those new to frugal views or recently impoverished, I hope I can help in some small way.

As emphasized in "Your Money or Your Life" by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin it is very important to track your money. Know what you have, what is outgoing. and what is incoming. This is no time to spend it when we have it and then wonder where it went when the bill arrives. This money tracking does not need to involve fancy spreadsheets, computer software, or ankle bracelets. Just get a notebook and find out here you are. Keep it simple and you will be more apt to keep up with it.

My system is as simple as it could be. I have a three ring binder in my kitchen, with pockets for unpaid bills and receipts, and a calendar I printed from the computer. Each month I keep track of when bills are due, when pay will be coming in, and even when heart worm medication is due. I also estimate how much checks will be so I can determine how big a payment I can put on that last credit card, or if I can afford an item I want to purchase. In the past, many years ago, occasionally a bill would be paid late, not always because we didn't have the money, but because I was disorganized and the mail was misplaced. Never again! I look in my book each week and I know that I receive a check on this day and two days later the electricity and car insurance are due.

For the past several months I have been purchasing a box of food each month through Angel Food Ministries. There are no income requirements, anyone can participate, everything is fresh and I have never found a spoiled or out of date item. I've compared prices and found it is well worth it. I can purchase the same foods for about the same prices if I wait for sales, buy chicken one week, ground beef another, etc. This saves me money and frees up my time. My tiny freezer is stocked once a month with steak, chicken, frozen vegetables, and other varying items. A few pantry items, milk and eggs are also included. I complete my grocery shopping at a produce stand and a bread store because their prices beat the supermarket. The best bread store I found actually has fresh bread at discount prices. Before you say it, no I don't drive all over town. If I need to go past either place on another errand then I will stop, otherwise I don't make a special trip just for one or two items.

Angel Food Ministries

I have a large pantry that was well stocked when times were better. When an item that I will use anyway goes on a really good sale I will purchase several. As long as they keep well, it won't hurt to have ten of an item in the pantry. Sometimes tuna, salmon, or canned chicken or vegetables go on a really good sale. These items can be used for a thrifty recipe on short notice. Pasta, rice, beans, fruit cups, pasta sauces, granola bars, nuts, all of these items and more go on sale for at least buy one get one free prices and lower if you use coupons. As long as you use these items anyway, you won't be wasting your money.

For several months now, I have not shopped to replenish my pantry, and we still have plenty to eat. Shopping lately has consisted of one box monthly from Angel Food Ministries then bread, milk, sandwich meat, cheese, and produce weekly. The current grocery cost for us per month $90.00 to $130.00. Dog care costs considerably more but she has major health issues.

We have one credit card to pay off, one last payment for our washer and dryer (six months/zero interest,) rent, cable/Internet/phone (no cell phone,) and water. We've been steadily getting rid of debt to the point that we seem to drop a bill off the list every few months. At the bottom of my calendar I keep track of my total debt, and have been happy to watch it shrink slowly but steadily.

That is how we are able to survive without assistance. We stocked up when times were better. We are organized and diligent in bill paying. We know what we earn and and what we can spend, leaving enough in the bank for the rest of the bills.

We also have savings, which even in difficult times I add to. It may be twenty dollars or five, but it is something. We are also determined not to panic and spend savings on anything unless it is a dire emergency. That may have to become our moving fund if a job opportunity presents itself, or emergency bus fare for a child or other relative in need. It's important if you do have savings to preserve them at this time. That's how some of the homeless families you read about end up in their situation. They reached a point where they had to use their savings for day to day living expenses. It's a sad feeling to see your emergency fund vanish.

I still have my emergency fund, the pantry is stocked, and none of the bills have been late. This is just a temporary, difficult situation. It shall pass. We are still employed, and we have each other. Life is still good.


  1. "This money tracking does not need to involve fancy spreadsheets, computer software, or ankle bracelets."

    Great post on a serious topic. And the above line (working as I do in a system where ankle bracelets are NOT a fashion statement, but a probation statement) cracked me up.

  2. Great article. Several years ago my wife started coupon shopping a we usually try to get enough for us and the local food bank. Lord knows there are many people out there who could use it.
    Aarn Farmer

  3. Florida in the summer with no electricity. Not even a box fan. Whew.
    Ditto on the stockups. I haven't shopped for staples for months -- I've been trying to empty my cupboards and freezer. The only things I've bought are eggs, fruit and vegetables. I was *so* stocked up that I wanted to empty it all before restocking.
    However, if I see a screamin' deal before that happens I'll just store it in boxes in my bedroom until I make room in the cupboards.
    It's a good feeling knowing that there's always something to eat as long as I'm willing to fix it.
    Tell me: Do you ever glean fruit? I do, in Seattle, with permission from homeowners. It's great fresh, preserved or turned into jams (frugal Christmas gifts!).

  4. April, thanks for commenting on what I was afraid would be a dull and dry post.

    Aarn Farmer, it's wonderful that you and your wife get a little extra for others along the way. Coupons really do help out. Tomorrow I will be picking up a few things I need on the way to work, including a free toothbrush and three bottles of free dish detergent.

    Donna, the families I mentioned have kids too. I couldn't handle it without air conditioning. As for gleaning fruit, there are no places to do this as far as I know. Central Floridas citrus has been killed repeatedly by hard frosts. Some people have citrus in their yards but it hasn't done very well for some time, at least in my area.

  5. You made some really good points!

    You don't need anything fancy to track your budget with. I just use a notebook, too! I am almost obsessive about it, though. Whenever my husband sees me scribbling in my notebook he knows I am "figuring", as I call it. He gets paid every two weeks and I usually comb over the budget at least a dozen times between paychecks so I know it backwards and forwards!

    Your advice "Don't Panic!" is very good, too. Everyone needs to keep it in mind.

    Don't worry that your posts are dry and boring---they are not!


  6. Carrie, you must be like me and balance the checkbook to the penny, daily.

  7. I admire you for many reasons. One is that you are faithful to post often. Two is that you are so well organized. Three is that, because like attracts like unto itself, you are getting comments from like minded folks who GET what you are doing. Four, you are grace personified. Five, you are smart and modest. Six, it feels, despite being half a continent apart, as if we are close friends. Pity we aren't neighbors, too! grin

    Mother Connie