Let’s start with my monthly salary
“I’d like to live as a poor man with lots of money.” —Pablo Picasso
I get paid $1545 after taxes on the 1st of every month. That’s my salary for working at the university, and being a graduate teaching assistant. Over 12 months that comes out to about $18,540.
For a single person, that places me about $7,000 above the federal poverty line of $11,490. You’d think I live a pretty comfortable, financially solvent life. And for the most part, I do.
I’m not in poverty. I never go hungry for long. I’m afforded incredible learning and writing opportunities. I can pay for shelter without any concerns. I’m lucky not to have any dependents or pets. I’m not on the brink of losing this consistency of life.
A tight monthly budget, but positive
Here’s what my monthly budget looks like:
Paycheck: $1,545 per month
Rent: -$550 (Housing in Iowa City is surprisingly expensive. This price bundles Internet/Cable, as well).
Utilities: -$50 (Varies month-to-month, but on average…).
Student fees/tuition: -$346 ($1251 per semester (x2), and then summer tuition (not covered) at $1650 for 3 credits — all divided by 12).
Food: -$400 (working to lower this, but in the past…)
Gas: -$5 (I don’t drive, but occasionally I give friends money to carpool with them)
Total costs: $1,351 per month
Partial budget: $194 per month
Notice that within this budget, entertainment, travel, and car expenses are not present. It’s difficult to approximate how much I spend on entertainment (going out to movies, playing pool, or bowling), but I’d say it averages about $10-20 per month.
Because I sold my car, I no longer have registration, titling, gas, insurance, maintenance, or car loan payments. Although, flights still happen and those cost about $300-400 round-trip. I fly about once or twice a year nowadays. Conservatively, that’s about $600 per year, or $50 per month. Subtracting these costs, and the following is my total budget:
Total budget: $124 per month.
If I stay within this budget and repeat it monthly, I can save about $1,488 per year. But that’s only if there are no other fees, expenses, or emergencies. For instance, my computer is hugely important to my business, job, and schooling; if that were to fail, I’d be in deep trouble. A single incident could wipe away my savings for a year.
Settling into the low-income lifestyle
While I might not be in poverty, I lead a low-income lifestyle with little room for error. Now that I’m no longer in massive student loan debt, my monthly budgets are real and accurate — not manipulated artificially by financial aid. When I run out of money, it’s gone — there’s no reserve ready. If something happens, emergency funding may be found using title loans or other secured lending options.
As I paid off my student loans and stopped withdrawing additional credit, I developed and settled into a low-income lifestyle. It’s one without exotic vacations, weekend getaways, cars, fancy dinners out, and the latest gadgets.
Now, I hold onto things longer, avoid purchases, and cook at home whenever possible. But it took me a while to adjust down — to slow down, really. I’ve said this before, but debt fostered an illusion of success that I felt compelled to uphold and continue. I wanted to show people that I could “afford” to treat, spend, and enjoy. Unfortunately, it was all a mirage. I was swimming in debt and stress.
Reflecting on the pros and cons
1. No more debt (or very little)
I no longer take out student loans to cushion my budget. Every month I do have revolving credit from regular purchases, but my balance is paid in full each statement period.
2. Support from family and friends, community
People check in with me more than ever about how I’m doing with my financial goals. Additionally, friends have increasingly begun to ask questions about how they, too, can save.
3. Greater exercise
Now that I sold my car, I take buses, walk, and/or ride my bike. Altogether, I’m getting way more exercise over owning and driving a car.
4. Empathy for lower-income and impoverished populations
Living closer to poverty and working with the homeless population has been an interesting combination. While I have great educational privilege, I do not have any income to show for these “achievements.” For now, this lack of money has helped me try to empathize with those less fortunate than I.
5. Reduced environmental impact
Despite America’s capitalistic ideals, we are doing the planet great harm with our consumption. Without any money or vehicle, I’ve drastically reduced my environmental contribution to greenhouse gases.
6. Eat healthier
To stay within my food budgets — and reduce them even further — I’ve been making more food at home and avoiding fast food alternatives.
7. Provides motivation for stories, articles
Living this low-income lifestyle provides great fodder for stories and reflection. Simply put, I learn every day from it. Comfort can sometimes make us complacent and inure us from others’ struggles. Stripping away income has provided deep insight into income problems in America.
8. Increased appreciation for what I do have
For everything I must sacrifice with my tight budget, there’s far more that I have, which I’m deeply grateful for. From health of friends, family, and myself to comfortable shelter, I am privileged.
1. Restricted travel
I used to travel all over the country. I loved seeing new places, eating different foods, and meeting new people. Instead, I’m mostly here in Iowa City. Traveling is too expensive — other than to see family a couple times per year.
2. Less time with family
I’ve added hours at work to receive more income. Between that additional time and aforementioned restricted travel, I don’t get to see my family as much as I’d like.
3. Awkward date conversations
While I’ve grown to embrace my low-income lifestyle, I can’t afford to go out with people too frequently. When I go out on dates, I’ve noticed that gender norms about who treats still seem to hold strong — the man is expected to step up.
4. Susceptible to emergencies/unexpected costs
If my computer stopped functioning or I had an injury, I may lose the budget surplus. This precarious balance threatens all my financial goals.
5. Psychological toll and nervousness
Being at this level of income takes a psychological toll. I’m working a large number of hours each week for relatively little pay. That’s stressful.
6. Society doesn’t seem to understand
Graduate students made great progress over the last few decades to have their educations paid for through assistantships and fellowships. But skyrocketing tuition has held back graduate funding. State and federal funding has consistently been in jeopardy.
7. Guilt when overspending
When I do spend money outside of the budgeted amounts, I feel tremendous worry and guilt. This emotional reaction sometimes stems the tide of purchases, but also makes me wish for days of financial security.
8. Tiring, test of willpower
Last, but certainly not least, it can be tiring. Following this strict of a budget takes an immense amount of willpower. Unfortunately, willpower is deeply tied to energy levels. With less energy, willpower tends to decline, as well.