How do I survive on a pittence while returning to school?
January 1, 2013 9:30 PM   Subscribe

Job hunting and money hacks for less-than-shoestring budget while returning to school? Help me not become a fatality of class warfare. Very complicated and snowflakey stuff inside.

Okay. This is going to be a little long, so I'm sorry.

First, some background. I had a very nontraditional high school experience and some severe medical problems that hindered my ability to attend college immediately after I graduated. Once those problems abated, my drive was totally sapped. I'm visually impaired and have been able to subsist on government aid for the majority of my twenties. It's been a totally miserable existence. Eventually, I attended college majoring in English. I had some naive ideas about automagically turning into a writer with the right degree. You can guess how that turned out. The short version is that I spent two years in school, ran into some mental health issues, left for a semester (as of last May) and reverted to my old way of doing things. While out of school, my dad passed away, my sister did some terrible things to me related to a drug addiction, and I fell into a seriously deep depression. It's been a shitty year. But there's a silver lining.

A friend of mine from school left for a semester at the same time I did. He bounced around a little bit, and eventually lucked into a decent living situation with some seriously cheap rent. Five bed, two bath house at $250 per room per month. When I was in school previously, I lived on campus. Between my advanced age and the dismal dorm environment, I think that contributed to my dissatisfaction with higher ed. So when I heard about this friend's living situation, I asked about rooms opening up. Two did. Bless the mercurial nature of college towns and students! It looks like I've scored one of the rooms. The house is also only a mile from campus, so walkability is definitely there. Basically, I couldn't have asked for a more fortunate set of circumstances if I tried. I'll be re-enrolling in Summer courses, and I'm moving in February.

Here's the rub. I'm still on government aid. It totals to about $550 a month. That's fine if you've got the support of someone else backing you, but it's just not sufficient for the situation I'm moving towards. Thing is, even scraping by is more appealing than my position of comfort with no autonomy. I know this is a little reckless, but I feel like I need to make a reckless move to get back on my feet.

My school funding is covered by Pell grants and Vocational Rehabilitation, so educational programs won't eat up any of my meager funds. Basically, my budget while unemployed is about $200 per month. I can and will scale back my cell plan to add as much to that as I can, but I rely on my cell for a lot of accessibility related needs, so there are limitations. I need the data for accessible GPS, for instance. There's only so much I can trim without crippling myself further.

So here are my questions.

1. First and foremost, employment is a priority. When my father passed away, I met a lot of family I didn't know, as he and I were estranged. One of my uncles is very wealthy, and has offered help. I don't feel good about asking for money directly, but I'm happy to ask for work. So that's my first line of defense. But I need to prepare for the potential of that not being viable. With minimal job search experience, I'm not entirely sure how to go about the process. I figure I'll hit the pavement and ask anyone and everyone I know around campus and in the immediate city if they know of anything, but outside of making contacts, what are some good job-hunting techniques I can make use of? Tangentially, are there any resources for finding jobs that are more friendly to folks with disabilities? I know what I'm capable of, but finding employers that are more amenable to my circumstances would be ideal. I'm not picky about the job, but I am understandably a little limited in what I can realistically take. I'm no invalid, but I'm very intimidated by this.

2. Assuming it takes longer than anticipated to find work, how can I stretch that $200 as far as it'll go for food. I'm operating on the assumption that this is literally all it's going to go towards. I don't see being able to feed myself for less. There are other essentials I'll need too, but we're concerning ourselves with me staying alive and relatively healthy here. I know this sounds ridiculous, but humor me. I've chosen the course and I'm sticking to it. Plus, this is a worst-case scenario.

3. Any other general tips for getting established on one's own with almost no external support? I'm not going to get any financial help from my family. All of my friends are pretty strapped too. There's the possibility of student loans, but I have a golden opportunity to get my degree debt free and I feel like I shouldn't pass that up.

Anything else I'm failing to see or ask that seems obvious? This is an immense undertaking and I'm some combination of excited and terrified all at once. If there's obvious blind spots (har har) I've overlooked in making the decisions I've made, please let me know.


I'm poor and blind. I'm trying to support me and only me on $200 a month till I find work. I need financial strategies for a less-than-shoestring budget and job searching techniques to maximize employment opportunities. I'm seriously against the wall here. On the upside, I thrive under pressure and education-related expenses are a non-issue. So sorry for the length and verbosity of this thing, but the hive has come through for me before, so thank you in advance.
posted by Ephelump Jockey to Work & Money (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
One of my uncles is very wealthy, and has offered help. I don't feel good about asking for money directly, but I'm happy to ask for work. So that's my first line of defense.

Don't ask him for money or for help finding work at first -- have the first conversation be an outline of the issues you've listed here, and ask for his suggestions on how you tackle all of these related issues.

People who care about you, and who aren't facing the extreme (and stressful!) resource crunch that you're confronting are going to be able to think of smart, levelheaded options that might not be obvious to you right now.

But above all else, don't be shy or ashamed about asking for help. You're in a tough spot in your life when you need it, and even people whom you might know have known or expected to be helpful may step up. Let them have the chance to help.
posted by anildash at 9:39 PM on January 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

One of my uncles is very wealthy, and has offered help. I don't feel good about asking for money directly, but I'm happy to ask for work.
There's the possibility of student loans, but I have a golden opportunity to get my degree debt free and I feel like I shouldn't pass that up.
Anything else I'm failing to see or ask that seems obvious?

I apologize if I am way off on this. But those two sentences that I pulled here seem like deliberately putting problems and difficulties in your own path, making this WAY more of an "intense undertaking" than it has to be.

You mention:
-Feeling "some combination of excited and terrified" about this being an "immense undertaking"
-Thriving under pressure.

You mention:
-Being dissatisfied with the dismal dorm environment
-Running into some mental health issues/falling into a deep depression because of the multiple hardships of the past year.

And you mention:
Reverting to your old ways when school didn't work out the first time.

Based on the first set of things, it sounds possible that you use pressure and stress to kind of amp yourself up, give you adrenaline, and get yourself started. I worry that you may make situations more stressful than they have to be to give yourself that adrenaline.

Based on the second set of things, it sounds like your environment and problems in your life can have a strong negative impact on your emotional state and really derail you from the things you want to do. I didn't see any mention of an emotional/mental health support system for you - a therapist or counselor, for example. Or a support group. I think you will be more likely to be successful if you can set that up for yourself before you begin. I ALSO think, based on this second set of things, making things more stressful and difficult for yourself than they have to be is setting yourself up for failure.

And the third thing - reverting to your old ways. Even if the old ways suck and are miserable, it can be scary to try to branch out from them and comforting to go back to them. I am worried that you could be setting yourself up for more likely failure because of that, even if you aren't consciously thinking it.

My 2 cents.
posted by cairdeas at 9:47 PM on January 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

Have you looked into applying for food stamps?
posted by entropyiswinning at 9:53 PM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your school's financial aid office should tell you if you are eligible for federal work-study jobs. Many on-campus positions at most colleges are filled by students earning work-study aid. This includes all the folks sitting at desks in dorms or buildings at strange hours to let people in, lab monitors, office assistants, and library circulation desk workers. There's probably also a student employment office that acts as a clearinghouse for these positions that can help you find jobs. There is also likely a student disability services office (or person, depending on the size of the school) with people who are trained and experienced with assisting students with disabilities and securing them any needed accommodations.

Basically, colleges can have lots of really wonderful resources (in part because they are acting in loco parentis for a bunch of teenagers), but it's up to you to exploit them. Educate yourself in advance via your school's website (required to be section 509 compliant iirc so you should be able to navigate it with your usual assistive tech) and then hit the ground running talking to people you need to talk to.
posted by silby at 10:02 PM on January 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

I work with people with visual impairments. Here are my thoughts:

Since you are funded under vocational rehabilitation, you should also have a Vocational Rehabilatation counselor from your state agency that deals with blindness/visual impairments. Ask him or her to assist you with job readiness - resume/job search/etc.

Go to your university's Office for Students with Disabilities. They can help you find jobs on and off campus and can help advocate for you. Do you have absolute blindness, or do you have light perception and some functional vision? I'm assuming you use Jaws, Zoomtext, or some other assistive technology? As you know, many employers just aren't aware of what accommodations you might need and it's helpful to have Support/advocacy for your job search.

Be on the lookout for job fairs for people with disabilities. My city recently held one for people with visual impairments. It was a great success, and many attendees felt great relief knowing that the employers already knew about the applicants' visual impairments.

Scholarships - do a search on local agencies that assist people with VI. There is a lot of scholarship money that gets wasted every year.

Feel free to memail me for more info. Best of luck!
posted by Sal and Richard at 10:11 PM on January 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

There's the possibility of student loans, but I have a golden opportunity to get my degree debt free and I feel like I shouldn't pass that up.

Looks like a golden opportunity to get as close to starving yourself as possible, and let that pressure make you drop out once more. OR, you could take all the options you have to get yourself enough funding to live on reasonably - I mean, are you sure you don't qualify for food stamps? Don't screw yourself out of getting a degree at all because you think you should do it 'perfectly'.
posted by jacalata at 10:30 PM on January 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

Do you have a fear of success? You detail your struggles and say your fear is financial viability through this programme. You then say that you have two great potential channels to funding – family and loans.

I don't know why you would shy from family funding. In terms of loans, it's about the size of the loans that counts. If taking $2k a year helps you out, then go do it. No one says you have to come out with $50k in debt.

J.K. Rowling has said there's no glory in poverty. There's some glory at getting yourself out – maybe a little bit – but there's no glory in choosing suffering. If you want to maximise your chances for success, I would look at whatever part of your ego is preventing you from making your life a lot easier.
posted by nickrussell at 10:47 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Great answers so far.

I guess y'all are totally right about placing more obstacles in my path than necessary. My fear of debt stems from a mother that has always been self-employed and flying solo when raising my sister and I. She attempted to start a business later in her life and it destroyed her financially. She's in her mid-fifties now and has no retirement fund to speak of, a drug-addicted daughter dependent on her, and it's obvious, while she worked with what she had, she's come into the twilight of life a little battered. Thanks to that, I feel immense pressure to rise above the shit laid out in front of me, both for my family's sake and my own... And when you live broke, it's hard to imagine living any other way... but it's obvious I'm making success more unlikely by not taking help that is offered. Just one of those twisted double-standards of poverty, I guess.

So assuming I use the uncle as a first line of defense and lay all this out in front of him and/or take student loans, what general advice would you offer for getting established? Even with hypothetical extra cash, I'm still a little bemused.
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 11:04 PM on January 1, 2013

Just one of those twisted double-standards of poverty, I guess.

Don't think it's poverty or class warfare or anything like that. Sounds more like fear of debt after seeing what your mother went through. Not all debt is bad debt. Debt is fine, as long as it's managed well and of a reasonable amount.

Stop listening to the world around you about debt and money. The foreclosure rate, for example, is spoken about as a national issue. It is important, however the national foreclosure rate on homes is 1 in 775. That means for every person that cannot pay their debts, 774 are doing fine.

Further, depending on your programme, some loans have interest that is deferred. In the case of those loans, you can take the loan, and immediately pay back whatever you don't use, only keep the debt you actually need. Most students I know spend the hell out of their loans, often purchasing a lot of things they don't need. I had a friend in grad school who looked at it as a credit line. He had a loan of $50k, it sat in his account for the year, and then he gave it back. The key thing as it was there if he needed it.

Short version of the point is maybe have a strong think about debt, and where you're getting your information and mental models from. Generalised themes like poverty are probably not helpful. Specific examples of cases where you've seen people have problems with debt can be very instructive.

It's probably not a popular opinion right now, but debt is there to be used. Many people have gotten into trouble with it, for they didn't understand what it meant, or didn't really have a think about the larger macroeconomic conditions. $200k in private college tuition to be a pre-school arts teacher may not be a great choice. It's a noble profession, but it's not financially viable. Make intelligent choices about debt, and it can certainly be used as a lever for your advancement.

In terms of the uncle, don't overdue it. He has money. He wants to help you. If all he wants is a spending plan, give him a spending plan. Don't get all Shakespeare and Dickens with talk of poverty and class warfare, nor Tom Clancy with first-line of defence. You're going to university, not war.
posted by nickrussell at 11:31 PM on January 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

NB: overdue (like library book) = overdo (like gangham style)
posted by nickrussell at 12:12 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

If your uncle is willing to make a loan to you instead of a gift, would that be more acceptable? You might feel less stressed about debt that is owed to family and presumably has no or low interest rate and flexibility on a repayment schedule.

I had a horrible three years trying to make ends meet on a shoestring budget when I put myself through university without loans. I am so angry with myself now when I look back on times when I literally risked my health (by eating nothing but lentils or rice for weeks on end, getting anemic and vitamin deficient, or not going to the doctor when I had pneumonia), when an extra $100 a month would have made so much difference. And the ridiculousness of working minimum wage fast food jobs from 8pm-2am every night to pay the rent, instead of just taking on a little debt and getting enough sleep to be able to really appreciate my classes.

Because honestly, seeing as a "normal" white collar job pays about eight times per hour what I earned back then, I could pay that debt off so easily now, even though it seemed like an enormous thing to take on back then. I can't believe I didn't choose to pay the biggest expense I had in my twenties using the increased earning power of my thirties. It just makes much more sense. To me. YMMV.
posted by lollusc at 12:43 AM on January 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

A teacher of mine in junior high school once commented that the best time of her life was during college where she could feel fully independent, but not yet have the full responsibilities of work. Many years later, that was my experience, too.

You seem well-primed to not take advantage of debt; people who do tend to abstract the debt because "it's not real money." And you have a family member who may be willing to make low- or no interest loans, as well as gifts. Don't take extreme advantage, but take sensible advantage. Clubs, extracurriculars, debate societies, internships, sports, or even just meandering around and meeting students with different backgrounds and courses of study from yours are some of the most important intellectual interactions you will have during this period of your life. Moreover, as my teacher said you likely won't ever have the mix of freedom and independence again. Don't work so hard that you never experience it. Understand that a fair amount of socializing in college is—or can be—educational, too. It's also valuable networking, if you insist on being wholly practical.

Speaking of practicalities, as one with a hard-core liberal arts/humanities background, I'd recommend a course of study with a good job outlook, and a range of applicability. You mentioned writing in your earlier studies, and you mention having a visual disability. The government requires its contractors and agencies to adhere to various Web-based accessibility guidelines. Knowing how to communicate them, while knowing about tech, and having had personal experience of visual impairment might set you up for a well-paying and not uninteresting career. I mention this because the idea of being broke during school and then being broke and unemployed after graduation is not something I'd wish on anyone.

Best of luck.
posted by Violet Blue at 1:07 AM on January 2, 2013

I'll also add, when it comes to taking money from your uncle, it may be easier for him to just give you money than it would be to find you a suitable job. Lay out your situation to him and if he offers you money, don't let your principles get in the way of you taking it. Insist that it will be a 0% interest loan if you must, but taking money from rich uncles is a time-honored way of getting a start in the world.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:41 AM on January 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

As for eating cheap and healthy food, lentil and/or bean soups made with a can or two of tomatoes and a whole bunch of vegetables (onions, carrots, turnip, squash, kale, etc) can be really low cost and also nutritious.
posted by lulu68 at 7:29 AM on January 2, 2013

So before you took this apartment, was your dorm and food plan paid for by your grants, etc.? See if you can keep the food plan.
posted by clone boulevard at 7:50 AM on January 2, 2013

I've been solely responsible for my university funding. No parental help at all. But I've had access to a lot of government aid, both through Voc. Rehab and Pell grants. I totally forgot about the meal plan somehow. Don't know how I overlooked that. It's a little less substantial as a commuter, but it'll definitely fill in some gaps.

I spoke with my uncle this morning about my situation. He's willing to get me moved in. He offered to totally cover rent as well. I did ask about the job thing. I failed to mention that he runs a business with high potential for remote work via phone and the net. That's why I wanted a job with him, as it fits my skill set nicely and lets me put my irrational dislike of handouts to rest. He's got something for me. Between that, and y'all knocking some sense into me about loans, I think I've found some solutions here.

Thanks so much for all the advice. This has been a massive, massive help. Not to sound hyperbolic, but you guys have lead me to some borderline epiphany shit here about self-sabotage. It's something I've always been vaguely aware of, but never before has it been so clearly spelled out. Also, I'm looking into sliding scale therapists in the area today. No stone unturned and so on. Thanks again, so much.

My question about living cheaply and efficiently as a first-time renter still stands though. Any general tips in that regard?
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 8:21 AM on January 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

Budget Bytes is a great recipe site that focuses on eating cheaply, and breaks down the cost of each recipe to the penny. The recipes are very well illustrated with photos, but I believe the text instructions will be enough to let a visually impaired person follow along.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:43 AM on January 2, 2013

clone boulevard :

Sorry. Misunderstood your question. Yeah, it was all covered and will continue to be. I'll quit threadsitting now. Heh.
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 11:04 AM on January 2, 2013

I like the Complete Tightwad Gazette because it has so many thrifty suggestions that you are bound to find some that work for you. I don't know how easy it would be to use with vision impairment, but I'll let you be the judge of that. (And really, she is incredibly extreme in the extents to which she will save money -- not just coupons and baking her own bread, but buying all clothes for the family from garage sales, re-using aluminum foil, drying on the line instead of a dryer, and so on.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 3:30 PM on January 2, 2013

Followup: Moved in about two weeks ago. The situation is great. Really love the house and location and once I swallowed my pride and let my uncle help me out, things hummed along pretty smoothly. Thanks for helping me get my head out of my ass, folks.
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 11:52 AM on February 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

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