I don’t mean to get into poverty consciousness, but for some odd reason, I’m almost too fascinated with how to live on very little and still have an amazing existence. I grew up with my mother struggling with money. However, we always had a nice home, I wore a lot of hand me downs but I really loved getting bags of clothes that were new to me. We ate healthy and good food as my mother was a decent cook and knew how to feed us through lean times. I only knew that we had times when money was a whimsical idea because my mother fretted and was constantly working the figures in her head (out loud). But this was her own doing, being poor at times. She was awful with money and never had a solid budget or saved for those lean times. When she had money she would spend it all quickly on a home renovation project instead of being happy with what we had and just doing little projects that were affordable and would make the place cozier.
I play poor in theory. We live on around $30K to $35K a year for a family of four in Northern California. For some, this would be a struggle but through wise choices and future thinking, we live luxuriously on this sum. But I pretend that we have no money because it ensures that we will always have plenty in the long run. I pretend that we have no money to buy anything…unless it is something that will improve the quality of our lives.
For example; we took the smallest loan offered and made do. It was not easy and we searched far and wide for a home to purchase. We were outbid many times and it looked hopeless. My husband pleaded to wait for a bigger loan that would be offered when he had two years of employment under his belt but I refused. I loved the challenge (even though I did cry in my coffee a couple times) and I wanted a tiny mortgage. My philosophy is “why buy a house unless you will save money by paying less on a mortgage then you did on rent?”
I also wanted a mortgage that was so small that if hard times hit…I mean really hard times, Bali could work bagging groceries or flipping burgers and still pay the mortgage and bills and I would remain home.
I get our utilities down as low as possible, had solar installed, switched to a new gas company, use our extra water as grey water for the garden, and cut the cable. Making homemade cleaners and using rags and cloths to clean and wash dishes with save a lot of money. Buying in bulk, cooking from scratch and having potatoes, rice and beans as the foundation of our dishes saves hundreds. Using a stovetop percolator that doesn’t require filters, a vacuum that doesn’t require bags, and a mop with a cloth head that can be washed saves money.
We go out when there is a little extra coinage in the money jar. We will have a slice of pizza at Whole Foods because it’s the darn best anywhere, or a box of reduced day old vegan cookies at the health food store. We don’t mind not going out to dinner as we are usually disappointed with the fare and I lament the loss of $50 or more that could have stocked my pantry.
I am no seamstress or able to knit up a nice sweater for the kiddies, but I can plant food. I have two large kitchen gardens in my front and back yard. I have improved the soil that was a lawn for 70 years with free homemade compost and horse manure from horse stables a few miles away. We planted 16 trees of fruit, nut, and grapes. The organic produce bounty increases each year and our grocery bill decreases.
I save all sorts of metal coffee cans and large tomato cans. These can be used for plants, pen holders, storage, baking, and can be decorated by the craftier soul.
If I were truly poor this is how I would live.
I would rent or buy a super cheap house. I frankly don’t care if it’s a cabin or trailer as long as it is suitable and can be improved with some painting and scrubbing. A can of paint can do wonders on the appearance of old, ugly walls and you can search the paint and hardware stores for paint that is selling cheap because it was “oops!” paint that was returned because the color was simply not right for someone but may please you. A good cleaning can also make all the difference. I would plant all around the house with flowers and gardens.
I would dig up whatever land I had, be it a small yard or large, and buy seeds at Dollar Trees (4 to 5 bags for a dollar) or find places I could use food stamps to buy fruit and nut trees, seeds, herb plants and so on. You can even save seeds and pits from your own eating and plant those. We grew an avocado tree from a pit we saved from an avocado that made a nice sandwich. I had the most successful and abundant tomato plant that grew from tomato seeds in the compost probably from a salad. You could just save every seed, and start from there; apple, avocado, lemon, tomato, cucumber…look up on gardening sites and YouTube to find ways to grow these things. If I lived in an apartment I’d plant my seeds in pots in the front or on the patio. I’d plant trees from seeds in big containers to take with me when I had land of my own. A tree from seed takes years so I’d have time to transplant. I would ask neighbors if I could have some trimmings from geraniums to plant in my front yard or for pots on my stoop or porch.
I would save all my tin cans, large and small, to plant trees, plants, produce, and to bake cakes and bread, and decorate with. I would save plastic containers to use as Tupperware and all the plastic bags from produce at the store for storage.
I would hope for a wood floor so I only needed a broom and I would use a pot and rag to wash my floors and for all my cleaning. Vinegar and a little dish soap are all one needs for a cleaning solution for everything from windows and mirrors to floors. Baking soda is a good scrub and deodorizer. I would plant a lemon tree as lemons are a great cleaning agent and for lemonade on hot days.
I would take ROP classes for free through my college to gain skills. With a BOG waiver and financial aid I could do this and with ROP programs I could do it at my own pace and time, thus eliminating the stress of deadlines, classes, and a schedule that might be hard on me.
I would join a Church or Spiritual Center for community and activities to be involved in, have spiritual food and many other things that would be fun, good for my family and free or low cost.
I would learn to mend our clothes and keep them nice as long as possible. I would find a rope and make a clothesline and hang my clothes to dry to save on the electric and gas bill and makes clothes last longer. I would learn to knit blankets and find yarn at garage sales or free on Craigslist to make nice blankets for the couch and to keep the kids warm in winter.
To decorate my home I would search on the streets on garbage night in nice neighborhoods or after garage sales ended and the person was just getting rid of the last of their goods or selling very cheap. I would wait for big sales at Thrift stores, Thrift Hospice, and Goodwill. I would search the Free section of Craigslist and Freely Wheely. I would accept hand me downs no matter what so people got the word that I was open to receiving. I would ask for trimmings from house plants that I could root and grow my own house plants from.
Dollar Tree actually has some good things cheap; kitchen utensils, clothespins, garden seeds, table clothes, hair clips. I’m not a big fan but it can be a useful store if used right.
I would cook from scratch and mostly, if not all, vegetarian. I would drink water and pass the dairy sections. My food would be simple, clean, whole foods; beans, lentils, rice, potatoes, and the cheapest. Pintos are the cheapest beans, brown rice is cheaper than white, and so on. Buying in bulk and buying produce in season and using the clean 15 and dirty dozen to get organics is how I would shop always.
I would treat myself to coffee at Church events. I would go to free park concerts and volunteer at soup kitchens to get a free daily meal. I would make use of food pantries if money was so tight and I had a family to feed. I would get the help I needed and work on improving myself and my skills to build a better life for us all.
I would use things sparingly, save every penny, look for ways to save all the time.
I would go without the internet and have a very cheap cell or house phone…probably just a house phone. I would love this, not having distractions and being plugged into the dramas of others or the world. I would maybe not even have a TV. I would just find a cheap radio for the kitchen to listen to local stations while I cleaned and cooked. If I did have a TV I’d only have an antenna for local stations. I would love an excuse to not have all the modern gadgets, to spend my days peacefully working on the home or garden and slowly building a little life for me and the family.
I would cook simple but nutritious foods, Depression style with lots of fried potatoes and onions, baked beans and homemade bread, wacky cakes, and using good stuff like bacon just for flavoring the greens from our garden.
I would save up for jars and equipment to can my own food and I would find farms I could pick from for pennies or glean for free after harvest. I would ask people with fruit trees that let their fruit just rot on the branch if I could pick some fruit in exchange for a few dollars or in exchange I would clean up the rotten fruit on the ground so they wouldn’t have to when they mowed. I would ask stores to give me old produce that they just throw away. I would go to coffee houses and collect old coffee grounds for my garden. I would stock up on big sales from dented cans and damaged boxed foods. I would build my pantry with huge sales and damaged but good foods. I would search out every sale for food, clothes, needed things.
For extra money, I might rent a room to a good person if I had that extra room or I could babysit for side money. House cleaning or dog walking on hours I could work.
I would fix up old furniture or clothes with a cheap can of spray paint or dye to make it like new.
The library would be a great source for everything from books, magazines, movies, to computer and internet time. Maybe I would have an old VCR and buy .25 cent VHS movies.
The community college and the library are two places I would spend a lot of time.
Even poor, one can have a good life, you can homestead anywhere and anytime. You can build a sweet nest with cleaning and dragging home items found in creative ways. You could even dumpster dive…not my thing, but it works for others. You don’t need much to be content. Actually, the more things I cut out the more pleasant life becomes. All that “stuff” is really distractions and create desires for more and more, an insatiable pit that is unfillable by material things.
I love our life as it is but sometimes I wonder what it would be like without the internet and cell phones. What it would be like to just tidy and garden, simmer soups, and commune with God and nature all day like Connie Hultquist? Yes, I can create this but as long as we can afford it we have the extras and my spouse would not be fine with cutting out the connection to the outside world.
But there are many ways I have created a simple and humble life in town and turn to an older generation to find ways to live quietly and without all the hustle and bustle. This way of living also promotes huge savings and preparation for when times do get lean and mean…you will sail right through unscathed.