Monday, October 03, 2011

Adventures in Debt: Grad School Edition

A while ago, I made it my goal to rid myself of credit card debt and save money, both of which I accomplished. And then Nathan and I quit our cushy, nicely paying jobs, moved from Texas to North Carolina, and I'm currently a full grad student and he's still looking for work. Suddenly, "adventures in debt" got a lot more real.

The move wiped out a good chunk of our savings and that lovely little zero on my credit card statement is long gone. Now that it's a new month (hello, October!) and a new season (welcome, fall!) I've decided to get serious about our finances and take a hard line with our spending.

You see, when you start spending money you don't have, it can be hard to stop. Suddenly, you find yourself rationalizing things you never would have considered before. "We already charged $800 for the moving truck, what's another $30 for pizza and beer?" and "We have to go out to the bar three nights this week. We're meeting new friends and building a community - this is an investment!" and "We simply cannot live without some nice throw rugs for these scuffed up hardwood floors. To Lowe's we go!" And on, and on, and on.

Thus: a budget. Rent is not negotiable, but our household bills can be tweaked. Food is important, but I don't really need vegan cheese and non-dairy ice-cream every week. Even self-professed beer snobs can learn to love PBR. Here's just a glimpse of our new strategy for staying out of debt and living within our new means.

Goodbye, smart phone. It's been great but I cannot rationalize the monthly bill for the convinence of checking my email while I'm grocery shopping. We'll keep our iPhones and use them to connect to our WiFi, but for calls and texts we'll be kicking it old school.

Our first electric bill was $177, and I knew we could do better. We turned off the AC, opened the windows, and saved $100 over the course of a month. Nice! Now it's getting cold but I'm going to avoid actual heat for as long as my toes can take it. Extra layers + a quilt on the couch + cuddling with Nathan and the dogs at night = warm enough! Wilmington enjoys fairly moderate temperatures, so I think we can make it to December. And once it gets really, truly cold, I will keep the house at 65 degrees and I will not complain.

Food is a tough one. I love food. Food loves me. I like fancy ingredients and complicated desserts and specialty items. Well, no more. I need to cut corners where I can and learn to experiment with simple, healthy dishes. I already buy dried beans instead of canned, but I've also traded in my natural cereals for Cheerios and have started to buy Natural Jif peanut butter. I still try to get most of our produce organic and local, but I'm sticking with the Dirty Dozen for now. I've given the two of us a budget of $300 per month for food, which seems reasonable. (I have no idea what other people spend, but we rarely eat out so this seems like a good number to aim for.)

I still want to be social and go to the bar, but I don't need to be doing that more than once a week. House parties are my friend, as are cheap drinks. $100 a month for going out, which includes drinking, movies, dinners, etc. This will also help me maximize my social time - a birthday party at karaoke, where at least 30 MFA friends will be singing and dancing? Yes. A Tuesday at the bar after class because three other people invited me? Let's just have a beer on my porch instead.

Other small changes: practicing yoga at the YMCA ($13 per month) instead of the studio ($99 per month); taking the scooter everywhere instead of the car; waiting until Christmas for things like a wireless printer and new Kinvaras; running less races and making the ones I do sign up for count (half marathon on November 6th: yes. 8K this weekend: sadly, no.); and hoping Nathan finds a J-O-B, STAT.

I've said it once and I'll say it again: I'm good at being broke. I like the challenge of spending as little money as possible, and living within my means feels good, even when I have to say no to a night at the bar or a trip out of town. It makes think of more creative ways to have fun and helps me appreciate the times I do spend money. And that's a pretty great way to live.

Money? Just enough is just fine with me.