Living normally on the cheap
October 11, 2004 1:18 AM   Subscribe

What is the cheapest you could live and still maintain a fairly normal lifestyle?

Somehow when thinking about (Canadian) Thanksgiving and both the gorging on food that would ensue and also about those who are less fortunate, a friend and I began comptemplating the cheapest we could live and still maintain a fairly normal lifestyle. Here's what we came up with for monthly expenses...

Rent - $300 for a VERY inexpensive bachelor apartment
Utilities - $200 for gas, power, water
No TV and only use Internet at library or possibly $20 for dial-up
We debated whether we could survive with no phone and in the end decided it was possible.
Food - $10 per day should provide 3 basic but healthy meals
Transit Pass - $50/month
Clothing - $20 per month
Entertainment - library books, people watching

I may be missing some stuff but adding it all up, we figured that a person could probably survive on $40 per day.

Does this sound reasonable to you? (I know there are a LOT of assumptions in my question about what a "normal" lifestyle is, what a "cheap" apartment is, etc.)

PS - Sorry to post two questions so close together!
posted by Jaybo to Grab Bag (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Join a monestary: $0
posted by Pretty_Generic at 1:51 AM on October 11, 2004

Response by poster: Oops, typo. I meant $30/day. And I'm probably high on what utility costs would be for a small, cheap apartment. But I also wonder if you could find an apartment for that much - I looked at our local paper and $400 was the lowest I saw at a quick glance.

But still, the main question is: does what I laid out seem accurate? $30/day = $900/month. Where I live minimum wage is $5.90 (which is the lowest rate in Canada) so if you work 40 hour weeks, you make $1000/month. I guess that could be workable (and I know many people do live on this much) IF you manage to avoid *any* extras - as I said, no TV, no phone, no entertainment or dining out, etc. (I was also making the assumption that you would live without relying on credit in any form.)

The more I mull this over, I don't even know what I'm getting at - what started as a hypothetical exercise for two middle class guys to think about how much they could cut-back their current lifestyles of frequent dining out, concerts, beers after work, etc. has gotten me sort of depressed thinking about how many people this isn't even an option for.

Sorry for being depressing, especially if you're celebrating Thanksgiving today. I'd still love your comments on my initial question if you have anything to add...
posted by Jaybo at 1:58 AM on October 11, 2004

A few bullets, off the top of my head:

-You may want to consider phone service. It's useful, even important for employment/contact/emergency purposes, more so than SMS or email.

-If you know how to cook, and are willing to plan ahead, you could comfortably spend $25-30/week on groceries, staple items included. You'd have to cook meals which would allow enough leftovers to last a few days, devote freezer space for broths/stocks, and save room in the cupboard for homemade preserves. Brown bagging would be a given perogative. As for snacks, make your own; flour/batter not used for deep-frying could be used for fritters, cookies, or and/small pastries.

-You're going to need an emegrency fund. This can't be stressed enough. Should you or your roomate get injured, seriously sick, or face unforseen complexities (rising rent, tax increases, fines), your budget could be wiped out in an instant. Save accordingly, as much and as often as possible.

-Recognise that human weaknesses are sometimes impulsive. As much as you'd want to live frugally, either you or your roomie are going to give in to impulse buying. It can be healthy to splurge once in awhile, though you'll have to plan for it. Dipping into one budget with the intention of "paying it back sometime" only leads to disaster.

In planning your entertainment, remember you can rent videotapes/DVDs from the library, though streaming music off the web may require you to find a connection elsewhere.

-You're going to need alternatives to transit passes, especially in the winter. Unforseen delays, or even strikes may require you to hail a cab, or carpool. Getting a bicycle for warm weather, can help, but you should be prepared not to wander too far from it, or it'll end up vandalised or stolen.
posted by Smart Dalek at 5:56 AM on October 11, 2004

..."borrow", not rent. Heh.
posted by Smart Dalek at 5:59 AM on October 11, 2004

Your utilities seem high. I spend about 60/month (US) on utilities and I pay for everything though I hate air conditioning even if it's over 90 so that might be part of it and I typically keep it around 66 in the winter.

I think your observations about minimum wage are correct. If you want cheap calories sadly these cheapest calories are junk food. Check out a bag of chips sometime. For a few bucks you can get your daily recommended calories. Don't look at the nutrients or bad things though.
posted by substrate at 6:07 AM on October 11, 2004

I live way cheaper than that, and I don't think I'm really pushing the boundaries either. Rent $300 (for an old but decent apartment -- of course this is in Minneapolis so YMMV), utilities $40 or so (this includes my cable modem access actually, split between a few roommates), and food however cheap you want it. It's entirely plausible to live on $2-3 in food a day, assuming you make it yourself.

Additional expenses include car and cell phone, but in a pinch those could both be dropped -- they're not really necessary. Toiletries etc. would be maybe $20 a month, I would think.
posted by neckro23 at 6:11 AM on October 11, 2004

Once you have clothes, you no longer need to buy them anymore. I manage to eke out a fairly good living on somewhere between 12K - 18K USD, depending on the year. I pay $300/US for rent which includes utilities, we share cable modem among our household [~$50/mo for three], borrow DVDs from the library, cook most of our meals at home [~$100/mo for two of us] and basically don't buy anything. We have a combination of web-based and non web-based hobbies, none of which require expensive upkeep, and most of our vacations involve visiting friends or family. We're in a more rural area so one of our biggest expenses is travelling when we want to leave, or getting to work; cars are necessary as is their upkeep. On the upside, insurance out here is cheap.

There are a few keys to being able to live hyper-frugally:
- Reduction of debt to zero or near zero. Mortgage payments can be a good investment, car payments less frequently are, credit card payments aren't. Kids cost money but are - according to most people I know - worth it. Student loans are often unavoidable, but worth paying off as soon as practical, avoiding further interest payments later.
- Emergency fund. In the US this often involved shelling out big bux for some sort of health insurance. Regrettable but true. One of the differences between truly being poor and the live-cheaply life that I have is that I have back up emergency resources if something goes really wrong [family, friends, good problem solving skills] so this can be a bit more relaxed.
- Don't buy anything. This is different from a budgeted lifestyle where you basically allow yourself a certain amount of money for movies, CDs, vacations. If you live frugally you try to not buy anything you don't need. This means wearing shoes and clothes until they wear out, avoiding fashion trends, haunting freecycle lists, reusing things that may be ratty but serviceable, doing your own oil changes, haircuts, mending, yard work, home repairs and cooking.

There's a big difference between "we are trying not to spend any money at all" and "we would like to live on a reasonable budget." You find that once you've acclimated to whatever your preference is, your lifestyle starts to feel pretty normal as long as you don't have some group of friends around telling you it isn't.
posted by jessamyn at 6:39 AM on October 11, 2004 [1 favorite]

I dunno, I think these overlook a lot of things. Depending on where you live and what you do, wearing things until they wear out or paying no attention to fashion may not work. Sometimes going out is the crux of networking, which though I don't do often and don't generally enjoy, cannot be ignored. Even if you aren't a big career whore, getting to a position to get paid for things you enjoy may take connections.

But beyond that, don't underestimate the grinding, dull throb of not being able to do what you want, of always having to think about money. Scrimping can get tired fast and can add other pains. What if the book you want from the library is reserved for the next four months? Does the transit system run all night or do you have to be home before hour X or be screwed? Did you have to work through dinner unexpectedly? If so, are you going to eat out or starve till you get home?

Regarding your cheap apartment: have you lived in a poor neighborhood before? Do you like having the last roads to be shovelled, the worst pot holes, the stingiest garbage service? Do you like being reminded every day that the city you live in thinks you are worth less than shit?

Living frugally can totally be worth it if it's your choice (see Jessamyn), but if it isn't, it can really, really suck. I don't mean to poop on a hypothetical, but having been poor (for less time and less severly than a lot of other people), I hate to see the difficulties of living on minimmum wage underestimated.
posted by dame at 7:37 AM on October 11, 2004

Do *not* forgot about those yearly fees. Examples from my own life include property taxes, car & home insurance, union dues, vet checkups for the cats, and stocking up on contact lenses. Also purchasing Christmas/birthday gifts. Tally up all those annual financial hits and save for them throughout the span of the year, just as if they were any other regular monthly expense.
posted by Sangre Azul at 7:40 AM on October 11, 2004

You definitely need a phone. You can wear the rattiest clothes in the world and hop on a pogostick to work, but when you no longer have a phone, you cross the "poverty/possibly homeless" line in a lot of people's minds. If it's between phone and Internet, I'd pick the phone and ration out my NetZero hours or go to the library (or use WiFi card and find a hotspot/unsecured office network).
posted by 4easypayments at 7:46 AM on October 11, 2004

What's normal ?
posted by troutfishing at 8:01 AM on October 11, 2004

You would need a phone for dial-up.
posted by mischief at 8:13 AM on October 11, 2004

If you have a job that requires a car and no savings to pay for the car, your costs go up. Most banks won't lend less than $5,000, and insurance costs are higher when you are paying your vehicle off than when you own it. So assume at least $200 per month for the vehicle--more depending on the amount of driving required by your job (which affects gas and maintenance)

If you went to college in the US, add $100 to $200 per month in studet loan payments.

Debt adds a big burden to many people's lives--and it isn't always because of imprudent decisions. Sometimes it's the only way to get an education, a car, and other daily essentials.

Are you paying for health insurance? Emergency coverage is about $90 a month for a single, healthy young woman--that will even pay for a doctor's visit once a year, but not dental, vision or prescriptions.

Dentist visits probably average out to about $15 to $25 per month, depending on the health of your teeth, assuming you go twice a year.

Are you sexually active. What are your monthly pregnancy-prevention costs? You can buy generic birth control for about $22 a month--probably less if you go through planned parenthood.

If you can sew, however, it's easy to reduce your clothing costs to about $20 every three months.

If you have one or two roommates you should be able to add a phone and still pay only about $100 per month in total utilities costs, and then your $300 rent figure starts looking more reasonable. Utilities vary big time around the country, however. Are you in paying electric to one of the former Enron power companies (higher bills)? Is it hot in the summer (A/C)? Is it cold in the winter (heat)? Are you in the western US (water costs more)? I'm sure there are many other variables.

For some very frugal people, trying to living on less than about $900 a month would be tricky.

Don't forget: If you get sick, your costs go up. If you have kids, your costs go up. Imagine trying to pay all these expenses plus keep a non-working human alive on minimum wage.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:17 AM on October 11, 2004

I spent some time outside an Ohio college town a dozen or so years ago paying rent yet living on maybe $10,000/year. I had enough money for beer and comic books, both of which I consumed plentifully back then, but I was perpetually broke the two days before each paycheck.

The stress of living that poor sucks, though. But it teaches you plenty, like smarts when it comes to feeding and housing yourself cheap and keeping a junker car running, not to mention a certain empathy for the impoverished, the homeless, people living off social security, migrant workers, etc.
posted by Shane at 8:26 AM on October 11, 2004

Troutfishing asks the right question.

That said, there are a lot of ways to slice this. I have a friend who lives in a converted bakery-delivery truck on someone else's wooded land. If she wants to cook or boil water, she chops wood and starts a campfire. She "borrows" electricity from her host. She has a cellphone, and that probably costs her about $1/day. So her day-to-day expenses for basic necessities are very, very, low.

If you really wanted to puzzle this out, you'd find the city that combines good public transit with low rents (preferably in a country with socialized medicine); get rid of your car (if any) and get a beater bike. Find a house in a cheap neighborhood and move in with some roommates; it might be cheaper to buy than rent, and if you separate investments from expenditures, it certainly would be. Buy cheap vegetables and make soup. You could probably get your monthly outlay for food, lodgings, and utilities down to, oh, US$400.
posted by adamrice at 8:27 AM on October 11, 2004

Unlimited, ad-free, dial-up, most anywhere in the US, is $12/month. I pay my mom's bill, so I know that well.
posted by NortonDC at 8:57 AM on October 11, 2004

If you want cheap calories sadly these cheapest calories are junk food.

This is wrong, and it's a lesson a lot of poor people would do well to learn. The cost per pound, cost per calorie, and cost per meal is higher for most junk food and fast food than raw materials bought at a market or grocery store. In most places in the country, for the same cost as a single value meal at McDonald's, you can buy enough at the grocery store for three meals, with better nutrition and a reasonable possibility of leftovers. A pound of tomatoes at 99ยข a pound alone is a better value.
posted by Mo Nickels at 9:07 AM on October 11, 2004

Cheapest cost of living by a non-transient I ever saw was my friend C. who lived (and gained weight) on $20-25/week for food (secret: coupons, mooching) and $200/month for rent (furnished apartment in seedy building). This while making a pretty decent living and just saving like a maniac. He stole cable and spent $60/month on bus fare. With local telephone service (had a calling card for long distance, which basically involved calling the other person up and telling them to call him instead) he must have lived on $350/month.

Even allowing $50/mo for "luxuries" like movies and such, which I don't think he did every month, that's still only $13/day, and he did not live in any kind of real deprivation either.
posted by Hildago at 9:07 AM on October 11, 2004

Going over the initial list I see a gapping hole, toiletries, paper goods, and sundries. Basics include: laundry soap, cleansers, dish soap, toilet paper, kleenex, paper towels, shampoo, body soap, shaving supplies, aspirin, toothpaste, floss, antacid. This is the extreme minimum and doesn't cover birth control, contact lens supplies, menstruation supplies, and OTC medicines for acne, allergies/colds, and superficial wounds.

As for the basic grocery bill, I'd stick to rice and beans, your choice of dairy, and fruits and vegetables in season. While it would be more economical to eat off your favorite fast food $1.00 menu, nutritionally you would be buying future health problems.

Oddly enough this is one of my favorite day dreams. While I'm walking the dog, for example, I love to imagine the ways I could severely streamline my life.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 9:09 AM on October 11, 2004

I've begun to live on average of $700 a month, varying a bit from month to month because of picked-up freelance work. I live in the Minneapolis area in a house with four roommates, and pay about $300 a month for rent; $50 for utilities.

After various bills (cell phone, car insurance, student loan, etc.), I'm left with about $150 for the month. I set aside $80 of that for groceries. I second Gravy's idea of: "As for the basic grocery bill, I'd stick to rice and beans, your choice of dairy, and fruits and vegetables in season." I've learned to be an Xtreme Grocery Shopper and can usually buy a week's worth of food on less than 20 dollars. I make a LOT of cheap, healthy casseroles. I don't drink soda or eat candy or junk food, but I don't crave those things, so that might be easier for me. I bring a bag lunch to school or work. Right now, my roommate works at a wine shop, so I'm lucky to get free wine in that aspect.

I have a car, but rarely use it and share it with a roommate. The bus is (sometimes) my friend.

Like jessamyn said, I just don't buy things. I borrow movies and books from the library. If I need new work clothes (I have a tendency to stain and tear almost all my clothing), I hit up the thrift store. I often buy shampoo and other toiletries from the dollar store. Otherwise, I can't remember the last time I actually bought something I didn't need.

For entertainment, I go to parks or see free rock shows (or, go to ones where I know the people and can slip in). Otherwise, I'm very much a homebody and am perfectly content staying in, working on computer things, reading or watching movies. Once a month or so, I'll splurge on a night-out, but it's never more than $30, and I'm surprised if it's even that.

I don't really feel like I'm left wanting. I grew up in a household of excess where I was spoiled (not in a negative sense, as it didn't ruin me, really) and never felt "deprived."
This is a lifestyle I've learned to maintain and feel okay about. I think a lot of it might be a personality thing -- like I said, I don't go out much by choice and don't have shopping cravings -- but I think all of this easily done. Every once and a while, I'll think, "Man, if only I had _____, I'd be happier," but I realize what a silly thougth that is.

This will all change down the road, once I (finally) finish school and go back to full-time work and move into a place where I'm not splitting rent and utilities with four other people. But, for now, it's feasible, and I'm happy. So. You can be, too! (/end informercial)
posted by Zosia Blue at 9:36 AM on October 11, 2004 [1 favorite]

If you went to college in the US, add $100 to $200 per month in studet loan payments.

You can defer these based on low income, of course.
posted by Shane at 10:04 AM on October 11, 2004

Having a community makes life more affordable. Shared rent, phone, utilities are much more manageable. You can borrow equipment from your community, anything from a canoe to rototiller. And having lots of friends and family around means that there's often something to celebrate, like birthdays, anniversaries and varied religious holidays. I don't necessarily mean an isolated community, I just mean a circle of friends and family.

Kids are expensive, but it's good to teach them the skills they'll need to cope in the world, like budgeting and cooking from scratch. Pants from Goodwill can be fashionably baggy. I do enjoy splurging on my child occasionally, but I don't cater to the desire to have lots of trendy clothes and stuff. Now that he's working, he's buying it for himself, and learning to make his own decisions.

It's nice to have money to travel, buy art, music and books, go to concerts, etc. I enjoy that when I have spare $. When I need to scale back, I make my travel local. There's plenty to see and do near where I live. I get my music and books from the library. For concerts and other treats, get an ushering job, and check out the nearest University. They often have a lot of free or affordable concerts and art shows. My broadband is shared, but even if not, it would still be the last thing I give up, but cable could go. Good meals for parties are still possible on less money.

I've lived on much less, and rather more, than I live on now. Healthcare is always the catch. I always budget for dental care and health insurance, but, like a lot of Americans, major illness could really ruin me financially. Fortunately, I have employer-paid health and disability insuances right now, but job security is a thing of the past. That's what savings and borrowing capability are for.

Interesting question and answers.
posted by theora55 at 10:12 AM on October 11, 2004

One of the things you'll notice in these on-going reports and one of the things that I think I got used to but bears mentioning is CHOICE. One of the things more money gets you is choices. You can choose where you live, choose what you wear, choose what brand of shampoo to buy, choose what company to buy cable from, buy a TV from, buy your food from, buy your furniture from. Buying whatever is cheapest, all the time, removes many of these choices, or forces you to examine them closely.

For a lot of people, having to go with offbrand this or that is a major hassle, for some people it isn't. Almost everything from SLoG's toiletries list we get at the dented can store for cheap, I couldn't even tell you what brand detergent, soap, or toilet paper we use. Having a lack of choices surrounding many consumer items [this band or that? this soda or that? these tires or those?] can give you a new perspective on what the important points to those purchasing choices are. For example, when it's time for shoes, I'll spend more money on better quality shoes because I think that's important. My boots are 13 years old and I get them resoled every other year or so. I have an iPod. However, I get all my books from the library or booksales and don't personally miss the lack of options there. It's a huge YMMV point and everyone draws the "how frugal is too frugal?" line differently.

Zosia and I seem to have a similar background in that we grew up comfortably. As a result, I don't have negative associations with not having money in a way that other friends of mine who grew up constantly worrying about it do. I had choices and I passed some of them up, this is much different than never having had those choices to begin with.
posted by jessamyn at 10:38 AM on October 11, 2004

I cut my budget to like 1/3rd by moving back home to Chile (from the US). Income dropped too, of course, but overall my standard of living is much higher than before. YMMV.
posted by signal at 11:09 AM on October 11, 2004

I had choices and I passed some of them up, this is much different than never having had those choices to begin with.

Amen, amen, amen. If you go through a period of real poverty in childhood -- "the throbbing, dull grind" dame speaks of -- lacking money is a hardship for reasons that don't easily occur to people who've always been well off. If you had a poor diet and bad dental and medical care, you'll probably pay for it as an adult with far higher costs in those areas. Far, far higher costs, and unpleasant choices like "Shall I cap my teeth, or pull them?"

And thrift store chic is a funny thing: notice how you can always tell who dresses that way out of choice vs. those who do from necessity. That's because stylish thrifting takes time, energy, the ability to wait for that perfect thing. If you thrift by choice and it's cold, you buy the cute coat you can't find. You are then living a lifestyle, a much simpler thing to do build if it's on foundation of education and prior privilege.

Or, as someone dear to me put it: Those damn hipsters dress the way I got teased for when I was a kid. Damn hipsters.

Jaybo, you know, it's really hard for someone in the US to think about these decisions without thinking about healthcare and all the other social net expenses that you're not factoring. I don't even know what it is that you don't have to worry about. I just know the top five money problems in my personal peer group revolve around dental and medical expense, transportation, housing costs, child care, and school debt. Fifteen years from now and it'll be elder care and paying for the kids' college tuition. Eep.

So, I hope a few more Canadians pipe up to give you a perspective more on point. Whatever the case, I think it's cool that you're using a holiday of affluence as a springboard for thinking about simplifying your life.
posted by melissa may at 11:45 AM on October 11, 2004 [1 favorite]

It depends entirely on what your wife thinks a 'reasonable lifestyle' is.
posted by mecran01 at 4:55 PM on October 11, 2004

Depends what you start with too.

If you get your boots resoled every two years, then a) you already have boots and b) they were good boots to start with and c) you have some other footwear while they're being resoled.

I can live quite cheaply for long stretches, because I already own most of the things I need.

This is also part of the dame view, I think. If you were comfortable to start with, you factor in all the stuff you have already: clothes, furniture, vehicle, whatever. If you already don't have enough of that stuff, or it's about to wear out to uselessness, then you need more income or smaller desires, because a car repair or new shoes or replacing your broken spectacles will wipe you out.

If you were a business, in other words, you would need to account for the cost of depreciation on your current assets.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:44 PM on October 11, 2004

ditto signal's experience. in our case, joint income comes to about the same, but lifestyle is significantly higher.

on the choice thing, this is the basis of the (nobel prize winning) work of amartya sen.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:24 PM on October 11, 2004

Jaybo, share the apartment and you can lower that cost to about $200 to $250.

You can get internet for $2.95 a month here.

Basic phone service is about $20 a month. You shouldn't have a reason to call long distance. If you do, steal it from work. :)

Utilities shouldn't be that high. We ran the air conditioner at the shop 24/7 and didn't nearly get that high. I'd probably budget about $75 each a month (shared accomodations).

$10 a day is plenty for food, if you are careful.

That's $427.95 with the clothes and bus fare. And that sounds about right, because single person welfare is about $500 a month, and you don't see people on welfare starving to death in Canada.

Is that comfortable?

I doubt it.

Minimum wage is (about to be) $7.45 an hour. 35 x 50 x $7.45 = $13,037.50, or over $1,000 a month. So minimum wage is plenty to live "comfortably", although not nearly enough to live really "well".
posted by shepd at 10:15 PM on October 11, 2004

in nickel and dimed barbara ehrenreich mentions more than once the fact that money buys you time, and time buys you ways to save money in the future. a lot of the answer to your question depends on what resources you're starting off with--if you don't have enough money to start off with, you will lack a situation stable enough for you to spend time shopping around for the best buy, having the equipment, time, and means for cooking big pots of food to portion out during the week (thus saving money by not eating fast food or frozen dinners), having enough dough before payday for normal bythemonth rent or a security deposit (thus resigning you to spending a relative arm and a leg for a cheap hotel room week to week), etc. i know the context of your question makes this point moot, but it's something to think about when discussing this on a hypothetical level. i get upset when my peers or even my own family (i am well off and my family has always been so) criticize poorer people as if they're stupid for not doing the aforementioned moneysaving things. they can't! it all assumes a place of stability to begin with.
posted by ifjuly at 6:05 PM on October 22, 2004

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