Suburban Snapshots

How to Be Broke Like a
Real Person

Sunday, February 19, 2012

During the sixty-five eternities it seemed like we had no money, it felt as though no one else had money either. Every news show and morning magazine had their own 'expert' tips on surviving tough times, with helpful advice like, "Make sure you save at least two months worth of expenses in a back up account." and "Take the yacht on local jaunts instead of Mediterranean cruises."

We'd done all of their suggestions even before things got super tight; we hadn't had full cable for years, we were always on a programmable thermostat and Steve is genetically predisposed to turning lights off and unplugging electronics. The news wasn't telling us anything we didn't already know.

A whole lot of us are still living week to week, so following are actually helpful things I did to stretch our money without resorting to extreme couponing, because fine, maybe all that food in your basement was free, but how much barbecue sauce does one family need?

1. Modify your mortgage. The process was long, frustrating, often redundant, and it knocked our credit down, but in the end it's been worth it. Our monthly payment was reduced by five-hundred dollars when it was all finally over.

2. Barter when you can. I offered my photo or web design skills for perks like landscaping, painting and even a personal chef. Not entirely necessary, but good for networking and the perks made us feel less broke.

3. Trade babysitting with neighbors. We didn't go out much, but if we felt like hitting up happy hour for three-dollar beers, we'd exchange a couple hours here or there with neighbors. They like this arrangement better than us showing up with Anna and drinking all their booze.

4. Don't fear the dent rack. At our grocery store, we have the day-old bread, dented box and can, and "Manager's Special" meat and veggies racks. I'd shop on Thursdays when things were about to turn over and get dollar boxes of cereal, half-off bread and discounted meat, which I'd either cook that night or immediately freeze.

5. Institute pasta/vegetarian night. Once or twice a week dinner was pasta with whatever combination of beans and vegetables I had on hand. I learned from my mom how to make a delicious meal out of almost nothing, it's a skill I rely on not just when we have no cash, but when I'm too damn lazy to go to the grocery store.

6. Use Craigslist/Ebay. About once a month we'd turn over Anna's baby stuff and clean out the basement and garage. I'd pluck things I thought I could sell and make a few extra bucks that way. If you're with the IRS, of course I paid taxes on that income.

7. Second-hand is your friend. We had some really generous friends and family who gave us clothes for Anna, but when I needed to fill in the gaps or wanted to get her a special little treat, I'd check Craigslist or Goodwill. Sometimes I'd find something nice for myself, too.

When your kid gets four million toys she doesn't need at Christmas or birthdays, stash what she won't notice and re-gift for those preschool birthday parties. 

8. Eat your damned leftovers. I hate wasted food in general, and when things are tight I hate it ten times as much. Knowing Steve doesn't love leftovers, I'd re-heat and plate them for him so he wouldn't have the chance to raid the fridge, ignoring the three servings of last night's dinner staring him in the face.

9. Use your neighborhood library. We have a great, amazing library with all kinds of free programs and a huge selection of books. While Steve was out of work he'd spend chilly afternoons there with Anna bumping into neighborhood friends and teaching her about current electrical code.

We'd also spend a dollar for coffee and use the McDonald's indoor Playspace for hours. Germophobes and people who aren't comfortable telling some stranger's feral kid to stop biting should skip this piece of advice.

10. Treat yourself. Being broke sucks balls. It's hard, it puts stress on everyone. So now and then, use some money you shouldn't be using to go out to dinner. Go walk around the mall sipping a nine-dollar coffee, get a manicure, buy new music. Try to think about something besides your bank accounts.

Eventually, things will get better again.

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