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.


  1. I would rather not drink beer than drink fucking PBR. With that said, I think your approach is very sensible. The additional cost is one thing that has been preventing me from signing up for yoga classes and from upgrading to a smart phone. M. has been either unemployed or underemployed for over two years now.

  2. Just so you know, I'm also a broke grad student with an unemployed boyfriend and we spend about $300 a month for food, too.  We buy very expensive meats and eggs from the farmer's market because it's the only way I'll eat meat--to balance it out, we buy almost nothing from the grocery store except produce and bulk dried goods (and the ocassional bottle of olive oil).  No processed foods at all.  You can do it!  And you're right, it is kind of fun!

  3. I think when it comes to budget, a good attitude is half the battle.  You've clearly got a great attitude about making the new situation work!  I think it's probably not a bad thing that during the move and first few months in NC, you were more social and therefore spending more money on being social.  It is important to make friends in a new place.  But I like your can-do spirit about the new budget.  And how funny that we're both writing about money this week!  Though I've moved in the opposite direction because time has been my most limited resource...

  4. Ha! I am amused by your anti-PBR passion. Let the record show that I would never drink PBR at home or bring it to a party. But I despise Bud and Coors, which are the other cheap beers. And I like a few beers when I'm out, because if I don't stay buzzed I get really, really tired. So PBR it is. Plus there is a place here that has pints of PBR for 75 cents, which really can't be beat. 

  5.  Oh, and yoga + smart phones were easy to afford when we both worked full time, in a place where the cost of living was insanely low. Not so much now but still - it's a small price to pay for living the dream, as it were. ;)

  6. Good to know! I do splurge on eggs, since I won't eat commercial eggs, but they're such a good source of protein and fats that it's worth it. Plus, I don't like sad eggs :( We also avoid processed foods, so eating well on $300 should work. And the bulk bins are my best friend! 

  7. Thanks for helping me rationalize my bad behavior. :) Just kidding. Moving and starting a new life is expensive business and you're right - now that we're settled and comfortable (not to mention busy with school!) being frugal should be much easier. I'm glad you're also writing about money this week - I love reading about the spending/not-spending adventures of others! 

  8. Those are some nice saving tips. Food is the one thing I find hard to cut spending on. And the wonderful bulk section at the HEB here doesn't help. Keeping my fingers crossed for a job for Nathan.

  9. Oh finances, I hate them :(  You seem to have really worked out a good plan though!  And I can't believe how cheap your YMCA is!  Amazing!   There's no student rate here, so when I was waaay below the poverty line with my Hollins income, they still charged me $50/month.  Ouch.  That was a tough part of my budget.  Keep us updated with how it goes!  I'm always so inspired by fellow bloggers who stick to their guns--makes me reevaluate what I'm doing and start actually practicing better budgeting.  Rock on!

  10. For cereal, have you considered making your own granola? I make mine with rolled oats (super cheap), coconut, honey, canola oil, nutmeg & cinnamon, and whatever nuts I feel like grinding up in the food processor. The honey and nuts seem spendy when you look at the unit price, but I find that a batch of granola goes a REALLY long way. It's cheap, delicious, AND wholesome. Plus it makes the house smell fantastic. Makes me wonder why I ever bought expensive natural cereals at the store. I'd be happy to share my recipe with you :-)

  11. Food is tough for me too. I don't like to compromise too much because food = health! (And happiness!) 

  12. The YMCA here has a program for low income people, which we've applied for. We definitely qualify, so I am just waiting on the letter that says we've been accepted! I'm excited because in addition to yoga they have a really nice pool. It will be nice to start swimming again. I need some cross training in my life. And thanks for the encouragement! Blogging stuff like is actually what helps me stick to my guns. ;)

  13. I used to make my own granola but they start up costs scared me off when I got here. If you have a cheaper recipe, I'd love to try it out! 

  14. I am proud and envious of your bold new life! I would also like to encourage you to replace that thermostat with a $30-$40 programmable digital variety. I miss you, b-t-dubs!

  15. Jen, I'd love to replace it. But considering how long it took our land lady to fix our washing machine hose (an actual necessity!) I am not getting my hopes up. How goes the house hunting? And I miss you too! 

  16. Clearly I am not a beer snob because I have no idea what PBR stands for! I hope you get accepted to the YMCA program. Being a part of programs like that really makes a world of difference!

  17. Sorry this took so long! Here's my granola recipe:
    4 1/2 cups rolled oats
    1 cup shredded coconut
    1/3 cup hazelnuts
    1/3 cup almonds
    1 tsp nutmeg
    1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
    1/2 cup honey
    1/2 cup canola oil

    Preheat the oven to 350.

    I usually dump the nuts in the food processor and grind them up pretty small, but feel free to put them in whole or chop them to whatever texture you prefer.

    Stir the nuts, oats, nutmeg, cinnamon, and coconut together in a large bowl until everything is evenly mixed. Add the oil and honey and stir with a big wood spoon (or something) until the granola is evenly coated.

    Spray a cookie sheet with cooking spray and dump the granola mixture onto it. Level it out with your spoon and stick it in the oven for 15 minutes or so, stirring about every 5 minutes. Take it out when the granola is golden (it won't feel crispy yet -- that happens as it cools).

    Cool granola completely in the pan, then transfer to an airtight container, breaking up any big chunks.

    This recipe is easy and fast and relatively cheap. As far as I'm concerned it's also super good for you. All natural with lots of protein. I love it and one batch lasts me over a week. I keep a half cup measure in the container and use it to scoop out exactly 1/2 cup (about 185 calories) and pour it over 2/3 - 3/4 cup of yogurt. With the yogurt I use it's about 300 calories, which is exactly how much I need in the morning to maintain a healthy weight and diet.

    Hopefully this adds a delicious treat to your budget-conscious adventure, especially since you're thinking of producing your own honey!