How can we make our low-income year a little easier?
October 27, 2009 4:45 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend and I are making very little money this year. What are some services/discounts/aid we can qualify for? This is in Berkeley, CA, USA, and we live together.

The gal & I make less than $35K combined this year (pre-tax) - she is a student getting a teaching credential and works part-time as a teaching assistant (no benefits), and already has large debts from college and so is trying to take out only enough loans to pay for tuition. I have a part-time job that luckily provides full medical benefits for me, but doesn't pay a ton. The Bay Area is an expensive place and it's proven challenging to make it work.

We are lucky enough to have low rent, and neither of us needs to drive to work very often so we don't spend much on gas. We can definitely survive the year as is, but are wondering what type of financial help there is out there - so far, we have qualified for a reduced gas & electric bill (20% discount for low income). We've thought about joining the YMCA, which offers very good financial aid, but that may end up being frivolous even with the discount. I also have a free Costco card through work, which helps.

Regular expenses include cell phone, internet, car insurance, basic health care (for her), BART (the subway), food... the usual, really.

Thanks for any suggestions you might have! Oh, and this is hopefully temporary - next (academic) year she should get a full-time job, and I will hopefully start supplementing my hours with more income fairly soon.
posted by ORthey to Work & Money (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Is there a food co-op near you? Often you can volunteer some hours and in return, receive free or reduced groceries.

If you only work part-time yourself, it seems reasonable to look for another part-time job with perks that will help offset some of your other living expenses as well.
posted by HeyAllie at 4:53 PM on October 27, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks HeyAllie - the food co-op is a good suggestion.

I should clarify that I work part-time at one paid job (about 27 hours/wk), but work other hours on various creative projects that I hope will lead to money eventually but are not right now.
posted by ORthey at 4:56 PM on October 27, 2009

I read about Demand Media in this month's Wired (article). Long story short, their algorithm pumps out data based on what people are currently searching for online. They produce an idea for an article, short video clip, tutorial, etc and post it at Demand Studios and then you can log on and accept the job. The online application doesn't look difficult/time consuming.

According to the article, the freelance per product pay isn't stellar but they're not looking for much content wise and the work isn't too difficult. If you and your lady are living off of $35k a year, $15 for writing a few hundred words in your free time is definitely worth considering.
posted by ASM at 5:19 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Regular expenses include cell phone, internet, car insurance, basic health care (for her), BART (the subway), food... the usual, really.

See if you can talk a friendly neighbor into sharing their DSL/cable with you in exchange for beer (unless you live in the boonies, a cheapo wifi repeater will extend their network into your place). This is less useful advice this time of year, but if you go to your local farmers market half an hour or so before it closes, you can usually get insane discounts on veggies that they would otherwise have to haul back to the farm. I assume you guys are already cooking most if not all of your meals at home and aren't buying packaged food. If you aren't, you'll save a ton of cash by doing so. You might also consider selling your car and buying a bike.
posted by foodgeek at 5:26 PM on October 27, 2009

Response by poster: These are great suggestions, thanks so much!

foodgeek, we actually both have bikes and I use mine all the time... we've definitely strongly considered getting rid of the car, but it's very old and we wouldn't be able to sell it and have pretty much decided we do need it for various reasons.

And yes, definitely cooking most meals at home!
posted by ORthey at 5:32 PM on October 27, 2009

actually, in berkeley, land of the year-round farmers' market, it is always useful!

(I live across the bridge in SF)

In the winter months most of the stuff at the farmers market is storage crops so they can sell the same veggies next week that don't sell this week. It's a different story when they've got boxes of tomatoes and strawberries that will spoil in three days without refrigeration. You can still save money this way, but it's crazy how cheap a box of berries can get in the middle of the summer as the market is closing.

foodgeek, we actually both have bikes and I use mine all the time... we've definitely strongly considered getting rid of the car, but it's very old and we wouldn't be able to sell it and have pretty much decided we do need it for various reasons.

In that case as long as you've got liability insurance and not comp/collision on the car, you're not really going to save any significant amount of money by ditching it. Have you checked to see if your insurance is as cheap as it could be? Most insurance companies charge less if you rarely use your car.
posted by foodgeek at 5:39 PM on October 27, 2009

1) Don't go out to eat, to the bar, or to a coffee shop. If you want to socialize in a drinking/dining situation, throw a potluck and invite your friends over. This will save you hundreds, if not a couple thousand, of dollars a year.

2) Learn to cook from scratch and use only the most basic ingredients. Prepared and processed food costs more money. Avoid foods that are empty calories like soda, cookies, chips, etc. Avoid the frozen section of the grocery store.

3) To help with #1 and #2, join a buyer's club or co-op. You can get things in bulk for a lot cheaper than buying piecemeal at a regular grocery store. Sometimes co-ops will give you an additional discount (10% or so) if you buy things a case or 5-gallon bucket at a time. Buyer's clubs can be even cheaper. Buy your fresh produce at a farmer's market if you can't get it through a buyer's club. Talk to the farmers and see if they have any "scratch and dent" produce that they would normally dispose of. They may be willing to sell it at half price instead of trucking it home to the compost pile.
posted by bengarland at 6:55 PM on October 27, 2009

Sell the car, get Zipcar. Best decision we ever made as Seattleites.
posted by halogen at 7:47 PM on October 27, 2009

As part of an effort to crackdown on my spending, I switched to a prepaid cellphone, and told everyone that it was only for emergencies, and really stuck to that. I spend eight bucks a month on it because the cheapest deal I could find was 100$, expiring in a year.

I also periodically go to Grocery Outlet. There's one in Berkeley near fourth street, one in Oakland on Broadway. The key is to ignore all the weird shit you don't need and buy the stuff you'd buy anyway but at a deep discount. They often have organics and health food items if you're into that stuff as I am. Health food store wise, I think the Bowl is the most reasonable option. My roommate and I instituted a per-week spending cap and I literally put stuff back if I overshoot that.

While we're on food - depending on your squickability level - dumpster diving is a respected tradition here. Acme and Semifreddi's dumpsters are always full of day old or slightly imperfect bread. For the less adventurous, planting even a couple little crops can make a big difference. Even if you just started a few pots with lettuces and radishes, pretty easy crops, you could save money over time.

Also, many people on this site and elsewhere advised me to track every single cent I spent, and I did that for a couple months, and it was the single most effective intervention I've ever tried for spending less. I was shocked at how much I was spending on donuts and parking.
posted by serazin at 8:41 PM on October 27, 2009

Oh and the coop near you is the COG.
posted by serazin at 8:44 PM on October 27, 2009

No restaurants -- eat at home, good, healthy but inexpensive foods. Rice and beans, here you come. Quinoa. Lentils. Oatmeal. Eggs are not the cheapest but they are really filling and damn good protein. Cheap bread is junk, it's not filling, it leaves you hungry -- buy good bread on sale. Always look for what you purchase on sale. Etc and etc.

No movie theatres. DVDs at home. And if you want you can quit your Netflix (though it's an expense I find worthwhile, like nine bucks a month for more movies than I can watch, not to mention streaming movies, etc and etc) and get movies from the library.

No more book purchases -- again, the library.

Turn down your water heater -- you can't believe how much that cut my power consumption. Fluorescent bulbs in your fixtures also seem petty maybe but it does add up.

Not sure about California, but in Texas if you take defensive driving your insurance costs go down a certain percentage, and stays down for three years; it's a break-even the first year but the second and third year are money in your pocket. And you can do it online anymore, hardly painful at all, and worth it over the long course.

Clothing. You're kidding, right - you're going to Eddie Bauer for your socks? How's about the thrift shops? When I was a starving (almost) student, learning programming, I bought three suits in thrift shops (I needed suits to go to work for corporate America, programming their computers, all I had was jeans), and these were really nice suits, cost next to nothing. And I'm real tall and real thin, it was hard to find. It's fun, a challenge. I bought a set of $200 wingtips for like $25, wore them for years, two new sets of soles on them, they were still in great shape when I let them go. Screw pride. Or, rather, walk tall in pride, in glad-rags you bought for next to nothing.

You live in one of the very best towns in the states; I'd love to live there, and may, if I can find a way. (I love it but was amazed at how expensive food is. Jesus fucking christ.) Remember how great Berkeley is, when you're afraid about money, when you've got but fourteen bucks and payday isn't until Friday, try to bring to mind the fact that you live in that city. Enjoy it, best you can. Put an ad on Craigslist explaining your situation and saying you'll crew for someone, go out on a Sunday sail in the bay; what's better than that? If you blender breaks, put a 'Wanted' on Freecycle, explain the situation, cross your fingers. Also put a 'Wanted' on Craigslist -- you never know.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 12:24 AM on October 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

join your local freecycle. Not only could you get clothing, or other items you would otherwise need to buy, sometimes under the right circumstances you can sell on stuff you get there. For example in my group some of the posted offers have a sentance saying "suitable for car boot sales" so they just want to get rid of the stuff quickly and don't mind if it gets sold on.
A friend of mine is a member and has asked people if they would mind if she sold on any excess clothing on eBay once she had taken what she needed from it and no-one has ever said no.
I know if is not the point of Freecycle but if you are honest with everyone they can refuse so I think in such tight circumstances it would be legitimate.
(last night I installed a 6 year old fridge, replacing my broken down one and saving me about $600! yay for freecycle!)
posted by Wilder at 4:24 AM on October 28, 2009

We are in a financially easier situation now than you, but we continue to be frugal, and we've certainly been through tough times.

1. Cashflow is king. Don't get the Y membership. Aggressively pare down your recurring expenses, and be very cautious about adding new ones. Which leads to:

2. Think before spending. The usual problem for people, no matter what their income, is simply "not knowing where the money went". You can't afford that mistake. It's not that you can't spend money, it's that you have to realize what it means when you do. You're making a conscious decision not to spend it on something else, and not to save it, to do X. Is it worth it? I don't know--it's your life; it depends. But if you actually make the decision, you can be happy with the outcome.

3. Acceptance, and your goals. You mention this is temporary. You both know that this is just the path you've chosen. Every time you're feeling down about this, remember that this is the way you're getting to where you want to be; it's a necessary point to get from A to B. It's a lot easier when you keep remembering that this frugality is part of the process, something you need and want to do.

Check out the Tightwad Gazette and browse online frugality sites for day to day tips. Use coupons religiously. Our family of 5 (three kids) eats on about $300/month grocery bill, due entirely to my wife's awesome couponing skills. We generally only buy things on sale, with coupons. We buy only the Sunday paper, only if the online scuttlebutt says there's good coupons. If they're good enough, we buy several papers.

Oh, also--be careful with your time. There are lots of opportunities to trade time for money: obviously you could pick up another job, but think of things like couponing or searching for deals/free stuff as trading time for money. The more spare time you allow yourself, the more opportunities you have to save money. So this will be a lot more manageable if you're not, say, working 60 hour weeks or something.

Contradicting this a bit, you may want to pursue something on the side to make a bit of extra cash. There are previous threads here that have suggestions.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 8:24 AM on October 28, 2009

When I was in a similar situation, I quickly realized that the cell phone and internet were the things costing me the most.

Do you travel frequently? If not, MetroPCS is an excellent option. No contracts, cheap unlimited airtime and in the SF Bay Area, their service is excellent. If you're *really* worried about costs, perhaps cell phones aren't the best idea.

Same with internet connectivity. See if you can share. You didn't mention what package/provider you have.

Selling the car is a good idea, but when you get one again, you might be hit with higher auto insurance rates because of the "lapse in continuous coverage." (That one cost me...ugh.)
posted by drstein at 1:20 PM on October 28, 2009

If you end up needing food, you can volunteer at second harvest and get a bag of groceries in return.
posted by bananafish at 3:13 PM on October 28, 2009

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