Reality Bites the Budget

I want to just take a moment to say thank you to everyone for your kind words and encouragement after last week’s post: The Last Rant You’ll Ever Read Here. It is so uplifting and inspiring to be part of such a great community! We love you all!! 

Well, we made it 162 days without having to dip into our savings to pay the bills. We made it through the holidays, 3 birthdays, a 3-week visit from my aunt, and a weekend getaway. We prepped for garden season, kept our pantry and our gas tank full, and continued to help others along the way. In a way, it feels a bit like a defeat, but I know it’s really not. Our savings was saved for that very purpose – to use for bills when freelancing wasn’t enough; so to go 5 months without touching it, I know that’s not such a bad thing.

When I left my job on September 20th, we had $4423.91 in checking and cash (excluding our savings). Over the past 5 months, we’ve earned $5,139.37 from a number of freelance gigs and side hustles, including our quarterly real estate survey gig.

Sources of Income

Out of that, we’ve paid 6 months of rent, utilities, insurance, and entertainment (which is basically just Netflix these days). The biggest portion of our expenses – rent. I know this is something we need to re-evaluate but I don’t know that that’s going to happen this year.

9/20/19 – 3/1/2020

The remaining $774.28, along with $755 in cash and gift cards we received at the end of 2019, has been what we’ve used for gas, groceries, and miscellaneous spending. That roughly equates to about $300/month.

On paper, everything looks good. I mean, it balances, at least. But in reality, it’s rough to live like this. And that’s something I never thought I’d hear myself say!

When we were experimenting with living on half of our income, I always knew that if push came to shove, we had the other half to fall back on. Now that we have to use all of our income and then some just to cover the bills and basic living expenses, it can be scary at times. Using part of our savings for bills – regardless of whether or not it was saved for that purpose – feels stressful, because I know that once that money is gone, it’s gone.

My mom’s advice – get a real job. I admit, the pressure does get to me and I do consider how much easier life would be if I took her advice. But I don’t want to be someone’s full-time employee again, just because life gets a little hard. So I’m exploring my options.

Last week, I talked about trying to secure one steady freelance gig to boost our income. In 2014, I used a website called Flexjobs to find a similar job. For 8 months, I worked as a freelance editor for a company in California that operates several coupon code sites (like It was a fun 20-hour a week gig that I could do from home (or anywhere). Here’s a picture of me working from my “mobile office” at a campground in Savannah, GA. I loved that gig and was sad to see it end, but thinking about it this week reminded me that where’s there’s one such job, there are sure to be others like it.


So I went back to Flexjobs. While I do recommend this site, I wasn’t able to find anything that I was looking for there this time. Instead, it was while scrolling through Facebook on our mini-vacation that I found my inspiration.

One of the side hustles that we’ve enjoyed over the past few years is mystery shopping. It doesn’t pay the bills (by any stretch of the imagination!) but it does give us a chance to try new restaurants, attractions, and services for free – and get paid to do it. If you’ve ever mystery shopped, you know that the reporting process can be quite extensive at times. The client paying for the shop may expect a lengthy and detailed narrative. While almost anyone can be a shopper, not everyone is a good writer, so mystery shopping companies employ what they call Quality Control Editors. These work-from-home jobs involve checking reports for errors and inconsistencies, correcting grammar, and generally tightening up the narrative to present to the client. This was the job I saw on Facebook. This is the type of job I’ve been applying for all week.

While not all of the positions are freelance, most are very flexible part-time jobs. You aren’t likely to find these jobs on Indeed or other job search engines, but a quick Google search of “mystery shop editor jobs” will show you all you need to know to apply for one. Today, I have an interview with the company that I first saw on Facebook. I have my fingers crossed that it will be a good fit.

I’ve lived the American Dream, with it’s ladder-climbing career path and over-the-top spending for things you never even thought about wanting, much less needing. I’ve also been broke, adding a hot dog to my nightly ramen to mix things up a bit while sorting through a stack of bills to see which one could and would get paid that week. I wouldn’t want to go back to either. Nor do I want to go back to where we were even last year – even though, looking back now, we had it kind of easy. But easy isn’t always good and challenges are what help us to grow as a person, and as a couple.

Our life is in a bit of a transition phase right now as we try to define the role that working for wages will play in it. As with any good experiment, we’re going to try a lot of things that don’t work before we do find the one thing (or combination of things) that does.  There’s a sweet spot out there where work and life really can balance, in the way that we want them to, and I’m hopeful that we can find that sweet spot here in the very near future.

Using YouTube in the Garden

I’ve been on Facebook since 2008. Before that, I had a profile on MySpace. I’ve tweeted, snap-chatted, and once I even used Skype to call my mom from the jungles of Costa Rica. While I’m not the most social person in real life, I’ve always been an early adopter of social media and connectivity apps…except when it comes to YouTube. I can’t tell you why, but for the longest time I practically loathed the platform. Maybe it was Justin Bieber or the plethora of videos of people doing really stupid things, I don’t know. I always thought of YouTube as the Craigslist of social media – a place where people just posted junk.

Then I found Tiny House Tours. It was on YouTube, of all places! And I wanted to watch it. So I did. And that led me down a rabbit hole of discovery – from vanlife videos to beginner beekeeping. Both YouTube and I have come a long way in the past 15 years and I’m okay admitting that it’s pretty much my go-to site now when I want to learn something new. I’ve used other people’s experience to help me fix a vacuum cleaner, change the oil in our lawn tractor, create a sourdough starter, plant garlic, prepare more recipes than I can count, cut Angie’s hair, and DIY my way out of so many situations it’s not even funny.

I’m sharing this little story right now because I was about to sit down and write a post about seed starting and building a raised bed garden when I realized that 100% of the things we’ve done this week on both those fronts came directly from YouTube. I’d love to take credit for these lovely ideas, but alas, they are not mine, so I will credit the folks I borrowed them from.

Self-watering Mason Jar Planters

On Saturday, we restarted our lettuces and a dwarf kale in self-watering mason jars on the windowsill. We borrowed this idea from Kevin and Sarah at Living Traditions Homestead and adapted it a little to save money. The tiny pots came from Dollar Tree (8 for $1) and I drilled a few holes in the bottom with a Dremel. The “wick” is an old cotton t-shirt. So far, the dirt has stayed moist. Lettuce pray that the seeds germinate and we have an entire windowsill full of greens! You can watch the full video here.

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A $10 Raised Bed Garden

On Sunday, we ventured outside to get started on our $10 raised bed garden. This idea was borrowed from Stivers Homestead, and honestly, neither Angie or I had thought of using fencing for the sides of a raised bed before. But…it was perfect! Each piece cost $1.60 and is 6 feet long, which worked out great for hauling them in our tiny car. The result – 18 square feet of additional garden space! We put our own compost on the bottom of the bed and covered it with topsoil. When we get ready to plant, we’ll add some additional gardening soil to the bed. You can watch the full video here.

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Recycled Seed Starters

And then there’s this nifty little idea that we borrowed from Thrifty Fun – recycling toilet paper tubes into seed pots. You can watch that short video here.

We started all of our tomato, pepper and cabbage seeds in these little pots and parked them under the grow lights. Hopefully, they grow! If not, I guess I can blame it on YouTube.

What YouTube channels do you enjoy watching? What cool ideas have you found there?