Thursday, August 18, 2011

Extreme Frugality: The Sink or Swim Method

This post is a continuation of my "How I Escaped from the Rat Race" series... though as this one illustrates, "How I Never Entered the Rat Race" might be a more appropriate title. To read the series from the beginning, click here.

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)
Phone: $20/month
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.

Of course, I had a great deal of support during those years. Unbeknownst to me, settling in the folk music community landed me right in the heart of some incredible frugal living experts. The people I worked with were all professional musicians, which meant that most lived at or beneath the poverty level.

It was also a very close knit community where nobody expected you to have nice things or keep up appearances.

And most of the folks were hold outs from the 1960's... they were the real deal too... hippies in every sense of the word.

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!

Make Your Own Fun

One thing I never had to worry about in those days was entertainment. Our organization hosted concerts twice a week, plus most of the teachers were out performing all the time, so there was always a free show that I could attend. Plus, everybody hosted jam sessions and music parties. I still wonder what non-musicians do when they get together. I mean, what fun is a party if you're not jamming and singing?

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.


  1. Awesome post. I love this! There should never be shame attached to frugality. If someone turns their little nose up at my happy goodwill shopping mornings, I just laugh. They don't have a clue what they are missing!

  2. How wonderful to find yourself in a community that just doesn't 'do' consumerism. I'm really enjoying reading this series of posts :-)

  3. This post makes me want to give you a standing ovation.

  4. This is wonderful! Your life has been very similar to mine and I read your posts with interest as I rarely meet people who have lived like we have: unconventionally and bravely, despite criticism. I believe it's the way people are supposed to live though. 70% of the GDP is shopping for disposable crap that we don't need. The economy will never get better unless we change this fundamental flaw. And bartering keeps you connected with your local community and is much more fun than an anonymous trip to a mindless mall.

  5. Barefeet - I have never EVER understood why anyone would be ashamed of frugality. To me it's just evidence that they've been caught in the snare of the giant marketing machine.

    Rachel - I'm glad you're enjoying my little series here. I don't think I am quite conscious of how rare my little community is/was. Whenever I find myself mixing with "normal" people, I generally walk away shuddering in horror. How do people live that way?

    CF - You can come boost my ego any time!

    JNU - I would LOVE to hear more about your unconventional adventures! You know, I think I forget that the rest of the world didn't go right along with me on this life changing journey. My experience of shopping malls pretty much ended in high school. When I hear that people still do that sort of thing I'm sort of incredulous.

  6. You are so blessed. No, I'm not religiously organized, but I believe in the concept of blessing.

    Structure, support, lessons in survival and self-making are concepts so unfamiliar to my experience at that age that I hadn't even been aware that I needed them. As a result I spent years in fear-based living and still struggle with it. I'm just starting to peek my head out from under a shell to wonder if I could really make my own life, create it the way I want.

    Thanks for the post, ECL.

  7. Steph - Awww, what a sweet comment. I'm not entirely sure I've ever had much structure, I fear I tend to run screaming in the other direction whenever I see it. But I do firmly believe that I am blessed. I also believe that blessings surround us all every day, it's just a matter of being open to them.

    Remember... there is no life without fear. It's only a matter of facing your fears. But I think it's also important to honor yourself and your past, especially when you're trying to make a change. Obviously whatever patterns are familiar to you are familiar for a reason... they served you somehow. I think that even when we're trying to let go of certain behaviors it's important to recognize that you did those things for a reason... it's almost like you have to thank the old ways for what they did for you before you can let go of them and move on.

  8. Great post! You're a great example for people who want to get out of the rat race but don't really know where or how to start. I'm slowly coming to the same realizations about crafting my own life and not strapping myself to my parents' and social expectations. It's just taking a bit longer, since I never had the sink or swim experience. :-)

  9. NotEasy - Hooray for You! I am often grateful that I had low enough tolerance for BS to be pushed over the edge at a fairly early age. Not strapping yourself to anyone else's expectations is a wonderful way to put it! You Go Girl!!!

  10. I've enjoyed reading these old posts about your path. I admire your moxie!

  11. Ha! I'm not sure if it was "moxie" or just good old pigheadedness! Glad you're enjoying my ramblings. :)

  12. EcoCatLady,

    Finding your blog just made my week! I grew up in a family that valued frugality. My parents and grandparents owned businesses, so they really knew how to make through the hard times. Now, my husband and I not only strive for frugality out of necessity but out of desire. We balk at the thought of ever having to work a job but enjoy working hard for ourselves. Real freedom comes from having choices. We choice how to spend our time and our money. I hope that my 6 children will take away something from our lifestyle.

    I'm very much enjoying your blog!

    Warm wishes from Kansas!

    1. Hi Poppy!

      Thanks so much for stopping by. It's always so nice to meet kindred spirits! Heading over to check out your blog now!

  13. Such a fantastic post. I meted out reading the series so I could drag it out for longer, I don't want it to end! Please immediately commence writing more in this series so that when i'm done you have fresh stories of woe and glory.

    This post resonates with me in that from primary school we are asked what we want to be when we grow up, and then we hit grade 8 and are expected to 'wisely choose school subjects that will lead us to the careers we will spend the rest of our lives doing' and then in grade 10 we must again choose wisely to ensure we choose the correct courses to allow us into university where we will study what we want to do for the rest of our lives. PRESSURE AND FEAR!

    I have had such a struggle knowing what I wanted to do with my life, because I was pressuring myself to know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life - as society demands. I ended up in such a place in my life that well, it was terrible.

    I read an Australian book that I highly highly recommend for anyone regardless of age called Thirty Something & Over It: What To Do When You Wake Up And Don't Want To Go To Work. Ever Again. This book was literally responsible for the most massive changes in my life including going back to school, moving, getting a trade, making new friends, getting myself out of a pit of despair and having the courage to follow my gut (and whims and fancies because what is life without those?). Everybody gets something differently poignant out of the book, but for me it was the simple realisation that I do not need to know what I want to do with the rest of my life, only what I would like to do NOW.

    I have been crafting my life ever since, and it's better late than never. In fact it's NEVER too late. I am loving your series so much! I may have to find a way to incorporate a reblog into my own blog.

    Love love love

    1. Ooooo... that sounds like a fantastic book! I'll have to see if I can get my hands on a copy. I'm sort of coming to the conclusion that I'm never gonna figure out what I want to be when I grow up. And since I don't intend to ever "grow up" this is just fine with me!

      In truth, the only thing we ever have is right now.


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