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 ultimatecoupons.com). 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.

MobileOfficeGA

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.

2019 Goal Check-In (Part 2 – The One About Money)

Money…that thing that so many of us obsess about. How best to earn it? How best to save it? How best to spend it? I know these questions are important, yet for more than a little while now, I’ve felt their importance was far too exaggerated…especially in my own life. So, at the beginning of the year, I set out to redefine my relationship with money and figure out where it fit into a simple, minimalist lifestyle.

As with any project I take on, I like to start with a bit of research. In this case, I read several books on money – but probably not the types of books you’re thinking right now. I read:

  • Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder
  • $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin
  • Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado
  • Flat Broke with Two Goats: A Memoir by Jennifer McGaha

Going into this project, I thought my biggest problem with money was my tendency to romanticize the concept of living without it. What can I say? The idea of a moneyless society has always appealed to me. My best friend growing up was born in a hippie commune and, while she hated it, I absolutely reveled in the stories she told me. It seemed that everyone took care of everyone else and the need for money was so minimal, she never even mentioned it. Of course, she may not have mentioned it because we were 10 years old and at that age, money wasn’t all that. Like I said, I may have glamorized the ideal just a bit. 

Like every other version of Utopia, a moneyless life is not very realistic. The Daniel Suelos of the world are extremely rare. Most folks living without money are not doing it on purpose and their life is far from sublime. Which is why I thought perhaps reading a few books about real people living in real poverty might give me some much-needed perspective. And did it ever! 

    First and foremost, let me say – I never want to own a goat. Seriously. They make great cheese, but they are nasty creatures. I also never want to work at Amazon in my 60s, permanently reside in a RV park, sell scrap metal for groceries, or donate plasma to pay the rent. You may think I’m being funny but I’m really not. Reading these books showed me (rather quickly, I might add) that I would never survive the realities of an actual moneyless life.

    Reading about extreme poverty reiterated for me the fact that I am privileged. Even in my leanest times, I had options – too many sometimes. For a lot of people, there are no options. My disdain for money is something I can afford to have. The ability to choose to live with less is just that – a choice, that I get to make because I am privileged. I know these things but sometimes, I simply need to remember them. So, while I let that tidbit of wisdom sink in, I also read a few books about frugality to balance the playing field, including:

    • Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living by Elizabeth Willard Thames
    • Money Secrets of the Amish: Finding True Abundance in Simplicity, Sharing, and Saving by Lorilee Craker

    Let me say again, when I started this quest, I assumed that I would find justification for my contempt for all things money related and perhaps even a path to living a close to moneyless existence. Imagine my surprise when I felt my heart (and mind) being pulled in exactly the opposite direction. In all my railing against consumerism and hating on excess, it turns out I was also inadvertently equating the act of earning, saving, and spending money with these things I found abhorrent. Um…note to self…these things are not the same.

    I soon realized my problem with money is that I don’t know what to do with it. Let me clarify that a bit. I am not financially uninformed. I’m a pretty savvy budgeter. I know to avoid debt, pay bills and save for emergencies and retirement, but I was raised (like most of us) in a spending economy. Even if you were saving money, you were saving it to spend on something – like a house or a car. When you are brought up this way then decide you don’t really want to own too many things, the idea of money seems arbitrary. And in some ways, it is; but money can do more than just buy things.

    Money is a tool, just like a shovel is a tool. Most folks dig gardens with a shovel but how many times have you watched movies where someone gets whacked in the head with one (or buried alive)? My point – all tools can be used for both good and evil. Money is no exception. In recent months, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time seeing only the evil money can cause and now it’s time to focus more on the good. Always equating money with consumerism is where I lost focus. To fix this, I need to shift my mindset on money to match our lifestyle and find a financial goal that has meaning for us.

    So that’s where I’m at. No earth-shaking revelations on money management. No financial road map for the next 5 years. No match to light us on FIRE. Just more questions that we will continue to ponder.

    Side note – On the more practical side of things, we tried doing the “hands-off budget” for a few months. I’m not a fan. I thought I would be (again, imagine my surprise!) but I didn’t trust “our system” to work without my guidance and I didn’t like not having a plan. I’m all about purposeful spending but I know me all too well. I can find purpose in all sorts of stuff at the grocery store – things that wouldn’t normally be on our list, like Magnum non-dairy ice cream bars. We also opted not to micromanage our investments. That ended when E-trade closed one of our accounts for failing to fully fund it before the deadline – something I would have known about had I logged in sooner.