So, it was the fall of 1990 and I had just taken my first "real" job (heavy emphasis on the quotation marks.) I took a position at a folk music organization making $5/hour 20 hours per week... For those who aren't great at math that works out to $100 a week or $5200/year.
Now it's true that the dollar went a bit further in those days than it does now, but not that much further. According to this nifty calculator, $5200 in 1991 dollars (the first full year I worked) works out to $8217 in 2010 dollars. Pretty grim any way you slice it.
But, since I had the Human Popsicle for motivation, I persevered.
Some of my recollection of those years is a bit fuzzy, but as near I can figure, my finances looked something like this:
Rent: $270/month (basement apartment with utilities included)
Student Loans: $180/month
Health Insurance: $90/month (catastrophic care policy)
Auto Insurance: $40/month
Total Fixed Expenses: $600/month
Now if you'll notice, $600/month is a tad bit more than the $433/month that my "salary" provided. And that only included the fixed expenses, not the other things like, um... food.
So, my first step was to earn some extra money! Since my goal was to be a professional musician, for me, that meant gigging. As it turns out, I did pretty well those first few years. According to my Social Security records I managed to bring in a total of about $12,000/year in both 1991 and 1992.
So when you figure in the extra money I brought in performing, I had about $400/month for food, gas, and everything else. In reality, it wasn't that bad. And with some effort (and a small bit of money inherited when my grandmother passed) I had my student loans completely paid off by 1993, plus several thousand dollars in savings.
I wish I could provide a step by step guide as to how I did it, but in truth it can all be boiled down to one simple statement. Don't spend money on anything that you don't really need.
It was also a very close knit community where nobody expected you to have nice things or keep up appearances.
So here are some of the strategies I learned during that era.
Share and Share Alike
Living in the world of musicians was sort of like being in the middle of one big FreeCycle community. Whenever anybody had anything that was surplus, they brought it in or put a note on the bulletin board to see if anybody else could use it. I got most of my kitchen stuff from a teacher who had recently gotten married and was getting rid of duplicates. My furniture was all cast offs from folks who were upgrading. And most of my clothing came from our annual Women's Clothing Exchange, where we'd all bring in anything we no longer wanted, and we all left with a bunch of new stuff.
Lend a Helping Hand
Our little community also had an informal sort of bartering system going on. Nobody kept records or anything like that, but we all just did favors for each other. Since I had a functioning car, (which was a bit of a rarity in that community) I often gave people rides or helped them haul equipment. And since many of the music teachers knew much more about instrument upkeep than I did, they often helped me with repairs to my guitar and fiddle. I also got quite a few free music lessons! I helped lots of folks move or clean out their garages, and they gave me lots of surplus stuff that would otherwise be hauled off to the dump.
Waste Not Want Not
I actually am going to write a whole separate post about food and frugal eating, but when you live among the chronically broke, nobody ever wastes food. Those with gardens always brought in their surplus produce, which is how I became an expert at using monster zucchini long before I ever had a garden. We never let leftovers from pizza parties or potlucks go to waste, and whenever anybody ended up with surplus food of any sort, they brought it in and it soon found a hungry stomach that was happy to have it. For a while one of my co-workers had an additional job at a pizza joint, and she kept us all quite well fed with surplus slices!
One Man's Trash...
In our little community there was no shame it using something that someone else had discarded. Each year we'd hold a fundraising rummage sale, and when it was over we all eagerly picked over the booty before hauling the discards off to the thrift store. And speaking of thrift stores, we were all regulars. Going shopping with friends meant a day at the Salvation Army. I also learned the fine art of dumpster diving. Seriously, I still have some end tables and bookshelves that I rescued from the alley back in those early days!
Create Your Own Life
But of all the lessons I learned during those lean days, one stands out above all others. The hippie musicians taught me how to live a self-crafted life. I think that most people in our society are taught that adult life means they should "sign up" for some sort of career, and then follow the rules that somebody else sets out for them. My experience couldn't possibly be further from that. I learned to live in a world where there were no corporate ladders to climb, no career tracks, no "opportunities for advancement" or "steps to success." Even at work, my job basically involved doing whatever seemed like a good idea to make the organization more successful. These were self made people who understood that the world is full of opportunities, and life really is what you make it.
When I look back on those first years of "adulthood" they may have been lean in terms of dollars, but they were incredibly rich in community, friendship, life lessons and skills that have served me well ever since.
For the next post in this series click here.