During the years I attended college, and shortly afterward, when I was about 21-22 years old, I was flat out broke.
I was living in the middle of a big city all by myself and paying my bills on a server's salary. I had zero savings and was living paycheck to paycheck just to get by; frugal living was a necessity.
To paint you a better picture of my situation, allow me to elaborate.
My apartment was old, tiny, lacked air conditioning, and had bars on the windows. It sat right on the edge of downtown–I could either walk right out of my doorway toward one of the best hospitals in the area or left into a lion's den of run down and disheveled housing, loiterers clearly up to no good, and bars on the window of every business along the sidewalk.
The drain in the bathtub often clogged, and I usually ended up taking some sort of disgusting, lukewarm bath/shower hybrid every time I wanted to get clean. The sink in the kitchen had to be fixed multiple times before it functioned properly. I had no microwave–just a very small and very old oven.
Speaking of things I didn't have — furniture. I had no furniture, save for a cheap Ikea armchair, an old wooden table with two chairs that came free from my Grandma's house, and a mattress that I had classily placed directly on the floor of my bedroom.
My extremely small TV and a DVD player had been gifted to me by a previous boyfriend. They were propped up on top of a crate which also sat on the floor. I had one or two plastic shelving/drawer units scattered around to hold random things like shampoo bottles and bars of soap. My apartment was depressing, at best. I would venture to guess that most would have considered it unlivable upon seeing it in all of its glory. Back in those days, I was taking frugal living to an extreme — and not because I wanted to. I was just completely and helplessly flat out broke.
10 Frugal Lessons I Learned From Being Flat Out Broke
1. I Can Live Without Things, But Not Without People
Surprisingly enough, my biggest problem was not that I had practically no money or objects to my name, but that I had virtually no friends. Meeting people in a big city is hard, especially if you don't have the money to hang out in bars, museums, or wherever else you go to meet people.
Obviously, there are free ways to meet people — but I didn't know what they were. I had spent most of my teenage and college years playing team sports, where friendship came with being teammates, and I had no idea how to go about meeting new people.
As a result, I ended up spending most of my time alone, which I do enjoy and certainly miss now that I have had children and sacrificed any sort of alone time I ever had. (Seriously, why do your kids want to watch you pee?) Despite that, being alone pretty much all the time can get a bit overwhelming after a while, even for the introvert'iest of introverts.
Eventually, I began to long for more people in my life, but I can't remember ever wishing I had more things to fill my empty apartment. More relationships would have been enough for me.
2. Living Above Your Means Is Even More Stressful Than It Is Stupid.
The reason I ultimately decided to move back home from my apartment in the city was a mix of loneliness and fatigue. I was tired of worrying if I was going to be able to pay my rent every month. I was tired of not being able to take a single day off of work, even if I was sick because missing one day of tips would send me straight into the red for the month's bills.
Working just to live is exhausting. At some point it just became silly. I couldn't even afford to go out and do any of the stupid fun things that the kids my age were doing. Why was I punishing myself and my finances when I had a warm, comfortable, and (most importantly) free home to go live in? My parents would have loved for me to move back home, so what was I waiting for?
After all, what is the point of living in a big bustling city if you can't afford any of the bustles?
3. Frugal Things Are Fun Too.
I had three main sources of entertainment when I lived in the city: people watching, going to the library, and feeding the ducks. I was basically an 80-year-old man trapped in a 22-year-old girl's body.
I often found myself jogging or walking around the city, both for exercise and just to see what was going on that day. My favorite area to go for prime people-watching was High Street, downtown's main drag. Walking those sidewalks, I frequently wondered if it had been named for the state of the people who traveled it on foot.
City people are a different breed of people. They are exciting, outgoing, flamboyant, and just plain entertaining. So much different than the buttoned-up small-town folk that I grew up around. I found endless entertainment, just walking down the sidewalks, and observing. Never paid a dime for it either.
Going To The Library
I walked to the library almost every day. There were times I was waiting at the door for it to open in the morning.
The thing I miss the most about living in the city is the library system, hands down. I could go there and get anything I wanted. They had DVDs, CDs, audiobooks, paperbacks — every type of media you could imagine. (Maybe even a copy of Thrawn?) I didn't even have to go to the desk to check anything out because they had a self-scanner. My anti-social soul smiled wide when I saw that for the first time.
The library always gave me this feeling of being so small. The world is so full of knowledge. I would just stand in front of the books and marvel at everything that I didn't yet know. I don't know what it was, but the library just made me feel…insignificant in a good way.
Plus, reading a book is a good way to forget that you have no money and no idea how you are going to pay your rent that month.
Feeding the Ducks
Within walking distance from my apartment was a park that had a small pond. There was always a healthy gathering of ducks on the pond.
When I was feeling bored, I would go to the store and spend a buck on a bag of cheap white bread and go stuff those ducks full of enough refined carbs to last them the week. The ducks didn't care that the bread was purchased off the store “quick sale” rack and was probably five days past its expiration date. Inedible was their favorite flavor.
The bread eating party always ended fairly quickly though, because the geese would eventually see me and waddle their mean asses over. I don't F with geese. Those little bastards will bite your toes clean off. (Better get some affordable health insurance.)
4. Your Own Two Feet Are Your Best (read: Free) Transportation.
I walked a lot when I lived in the city, both to get places and for exercise. Besides the obvious savings in gas, you save yourself parking fees and a lot of frustration by just walking out your front door and going. It's not easy to navigate a city in a car, as you have to worry about traffic, pedestrians, no parking zones, parallel parking, etc. It's so much easier just to walk.
The only problem I ever had with walking was the endless string of panhandlers, begging for money, always with the same story of their car running out of gas. I felt terrible for them, of course, but I was one misplaced wallet away from being right there next to them. They were barking up the wrong tree with that one.
Plus, if you're in your car, you may miss seeing the guy walking down the sidewalk in just his underpants. That would be unfortunate.
5. There's Nothing Wrong With Public Transportation.
The bus gets a bad rap. Sure, it's not the cleanest place — I wouldn't go rubbing any open wounds on the seats or anything. I also ran into a few…odd…people on there at times. However, from my experience, it's a cheap way to get around, and no one really bothers you. Everyone is just trying to get where they need to go. In the city, the bus runs very frequently. When you need to go somewhere that isn't walkable, or it's raining, or cold, just hop on the next bus. I also recommend the bus for one of the top choices for free entertainment–people watching.
6. Budgeting Is The Broke Person's Best Friend.
Budgeting: not just for people with money.
It was also something I should have been doing but wasn't. I would have been so much better off if I had just sat down, taking an average of what I was making most months (tips were either feast or famine) and drew up a bare-bones budget for my spending.
Looking back at it now, I was probably spending way too much in the grocery store and could have walked more than I already did to save on gas. At one point, I even signed up for a gym and personal training package that I couldn't afford because I thought that the sacrifice I was making to pay for it was going to motivate me to get in better shape.
Talk about young and dumb, right? I'll be the first to admit that I was broke mostly because of my own poor decision making. If I had budgeted, I may have found that I had more money than I thought. I just wasn't using it correctly.
7. Work Ethic Pays The Bills.
Literally, my work ethic paid my bills. We know financial intelligence sure wasn't. If I missed work even one time, I was screwed. I had to hustle for every dollar I made. I never ever called off work.
In fact, when I was laying in my apartment dying a slow death by mono mixed with tonsillitis, my parents had to make the 3-hour drive to drag me out of my apartment and to the hospital because I didn't want to have to miss work. You can't tell me I wasn't hardcore.
8. Don't Compare Yourself to Others.
As I mentioned, I didn't need much in my apartment to get by. I didn't feel deprived, but I did feel embarrassed about the lack of what most people would consider basic necessities. When people came over to my apartment, there was always the initial look of shock on their face when they realized that my living room actually echoed with emptiness.
One day a friend of mine came over to help me with some things. Upon opening my door and welcoming him into my place, he actually stood in the doorway and said: “This is where you live?” That person was precisely the same age as me, lived in a really nice apartment on a better side of town, spent whatever he wanted at the bar, and drove a sick car. And that's what I focused on at that moment. That was a mistake.
What I should have been focused on is this: that person had a better job than I did. He had a roommate paying half of the rent at his fancy apartment, and he had parents that owned some sort of concrete company or something in India. (See Social Bubbles)
Clearly, my friend and I were not in the same financial position and never had been. Even still, I remember how much it was a real blow to my confidence. It didn't occur to me until much later that comparing yourself to other people is a flawed way of thinking. Especially if the other people are in a much different financial position than you are, despite being in the same life stage. We all come from different backgrounds, and it's okay not to have as much as your neighbor.
Besides, your neighbor's sick car probably gets poor gas mileage. So there.
9. Don't Make Financial Commitments That You Can't Keep
This is one that I managed to avoid, for the most part when I was broke. I did have a credit card, but I only got it for emergencies, and I never had to use it. Growing up, my dad had drilled into my head the crazy concept of not spending money that I didn't have. It was good advice that stuck. (Don't tell him I said that though.)
However, when I moved home, I had to break my lease. This showed up as a strike against my rental history. Luckily, despite renting one more time several months later, breaking that lease never caused a problem for me. If it had, I don't know what I would have done.
10. Get Creative with Your Finances.
Hindsight is 20/20, but looking back, I can see that I had a lot of missed opportunities to manage my money better. I also could have made some extra money on the side. For example, I had a reasonably reliable and FREE internet connection through my apartment building. I had time, energy, and more than enough space. I could have started reselling on eBay, like I'm doing now, in order to make extra cash. That extra couple hundred bucks a month that I could have been making would have made a huge difference in my quality of life.
Maybe I could have bought a microwave. Or a lamp. Hell, I would have even just settled for a few cinder blocks and a slab of sturdy wood to prop my mattress up off the floor. I guess I blame my youth and the fact that I was caught up in stupid things like finding someone to go to the bar with for my failure to use creative ways to supplement my income. As someone who was just barely an adult, I didn't have the maturity level and foresight to see the opportunities that I was missing. Some people develop financial awareness early in life, but I am not some people. Apparently.
Can A Girl Get a Time Machine, Please?
I made some serious financial errors when I was flat out broke; many of which ended up negatively affecting my life. 22-year-old me wasn't completely stupid, as in, she didn't rack up thousands of dollars in credit card debt. She did have some real issues with misalignment of priorities.
However, all mistakes teach us a lesson. Or, at least that's what we tell ourselves so that we don't feel like such jerks about the idiotic things we've done over the years.
Life lessons learned or not. I think I want to take 22-year-old Michelle and slap her around a bit. If anyone figures out how to invent the time machine, let me know. I have a few bones to pick with that girl!
Michelle, thank you for this personal account of growing up and dealing with honest money mistakes. I'm sure we all wish we could tell our former selves a few things. Good planning is about recognizing what works and what doesn't, and taking the correct actions to move forward. – Michael