I am a single-low income mother, and this is my story.
I live on an income of roughly $11,460 a year. This is difficult if not impossible for most people, but here is how I do it, since many people ask.
The bulk of the money I make a month goes straight to rent and utilities. My 1,700 square foot home has a rental price of $500 per month. I can’t really afford the house, but I cannot afford not to have it either. My average electric bill (on a level payment plan) costs an average of $130 a month. My water costs about $80 a month. My phone is a basic cell phone with no texting service. It costs around $10-$14 a month depending on my usage. The only two utilities I really don’t need but pay for anyway are cable TV ($26.50 a month) and internet (approximately $30 a month.) I do get a bit of criticism for paying for these things, but in all fairness, I live in a small town where getting a free over the air broadcast signal is too fuzzy to actually see anything. As for the internet, I do have neighbors who would gladly let me piggyback off their WiFi, and they have done this in the past, but in all fairness, I don’t like doing that. I use the internet to communicate with friends and family, to write (as I am doing now), for things like crafts patterns, to order free samples and other free items, and run a few Facebook fan pages. Us poor folks deserve to be entertained too, especially since the town where I live offers very little by way of entertainment. Our town lacks a bowling alley, video arcade, movie theater, etc. So watching TV and browsing online is a great treat. I do read too, but I’ll get to that a bit later in this article. The whole point of this is showing folks how it can be done, with a bit of ingenuity and creativity.
I will cover how my family manages to eat pretty good for less. I have a strict food budget. I keep it to about $300 a month. Due to my Mormon religion, I have learned the fine art of food storage, canning, and freezer meal planning. Not that I didn’t do these things anyway when I was younger from my mother, who grew up in the hills of West Virginia.
When I shop, I look for the best bargains. I only shop at our local supermarket and use coupons whenever there is something on sale that I need that they put on sale for a discount, that I have a coupon for, because that store doubles coupons. A bit of math is required though to figure out if the price is worth the hassle of clipping coupons in the first place as opposed to the regular price at a different store. We have a wonderful little store in our town where things are dented and dinged, and slightly outdated, and I always look for things there. I really save a lot of money by buying things there. For example, I got a case of 32 packets of taco seasoning for $5 there recently and I found the industrial sized (three pound) bags of white queso sauce identical to what is served at a local Mexican restaurant for $1.50. A big box of taco shells was just $1. This means the same tacos I can buy at the local restaurant for $5 each, I can make for very little at home and they taste virtually the same. What I like about our little dent and ding store is the fact that they are not only cheap on their grocery items, they also double as a food bank. Shopping there gives them money to turn around and purchase food items for those who just need a boost to their pantry. So I shop there and support their business whenever I can. I am a regular customer. The Cheapo Depot also has food items and they have such things as frozen chicken nuggets for 69 cents a bag. The Circle K store sells milk for $2.98 a gallon if you buy two or more so I go in there and get several gallons and freeze it. I only buy fresh meat if I can find it reduced for quick sale, or manage to get to a store where they have a 5 packages for $25 sale. My family eats a lot of beans, rice, or pasta based dishes. I shop a lot at Wal-Mart and Dollar General also. I have friends who hunt and fish and they share their excess and/or barter it with me also. I can easily build my food storage in this manner, as I get one bulk can of something and break this down into smaller packages which go into either the freezer or in a special pantry. Eating at a restaurant is a very rare occasion. I can cook meals at home just as good as what I can get at a restaurant. The last time I ate at McDonald’s, it was because I redeemed a gift card that was given to me in a birthday card.
There is one major expense I do not have: the maintenance on a vehicle. I don’t now nor have I ever owned a car! I know how to drive but I do not like to. With gasoline costing nearly $4 a gallon, and insurance and tags being pretty expensive, there’s just no way I would be able to afford to maintain a car. So how do I get around? I put a lot of miles on my bicycle, a Huffy Beach Cruiser. I actually bought it new for $88, by saving up a little bit of money at a time until I had enough to buy it. It was an item that has managed to pay for itself many times over. I have severe arthritis and it is difficult for me to walk, and the bike is easier on my joints than walking are, but I do both. I had a guy give me a rickshaw type trailer to hook to the back of it, which gives me the freedom to carry heavy items or go get larger loads of things but often times, I don’t use it, instead asking the clerks at the store to please double bag my purchases, and I hang it all on the handlebars and pedal home. And yes I actually make it just fine. The little cart (actually a child carrier) does come in handy, and it’s one main reason why I carry a wrench in my purse. I think I surprised the woman who works at Dollar General that I actually managed to carry two thirteen pound bags of dog food home on the handlebars without them slipping. There is actually a somewhat sad but interesting story on how I learned to do that. My dad was one of those men who was controlling to my mother and would not let her go anywhere by herself or buy certain things even when he was with her on the rare occasions he did let her go somewhere. So, since I would be out riding my bike as a kid, she’d sneak me money and ask me to get things at the store when I was out. I am used to this and it takes a bit of balance and ingenuity but it gets the job done. The bicycle has an added benefit for me health wise also. I have lost quite a bit of weight as a result of getting exercise just because I need to get from point A to point B.
There are times when I need transportation other than my bike or a car to get somewhere. About the only times I ride in a car is to church, which is in a different town from where I live. I simply ride with other ladies who are more than happy to stop and pick me up for all the church events, since they are going there anyway. I also have friends and family members who will ask me if I’d like to go get groceries or go shopping for things at stores outside of my normal shopping trips. They have to go anyway so it’s not out of their way or an inconvenience. I also have a friend who can take me to the hospital if that is ever needed. So far I have only had to call her one time for an emergency.
Hobbies and entertainment are sometimes the biggest challenge for a person on a low income but I manage to enjoy many hobbies for little or nothing as well. I love to knit, crochet, embroider, and do other crafts, but crafts supplies, yarns, and the like are expensive. Ladies from my church often give me their excess. Recently a friend of mine send me a big box of yarn that she was never going to do anything with. One other time a friend of mine cleaned out her mother’s garage and came across several big boxes of needlepoint and crewel embroidery kits that she was never going to use. So she gave them to me. I often knit and crochet hats, scarves, mittens and baby blankets. I can use these to give to people as gifts (because Lord knows I can’t afford to shop for these things) or sometimes sell them on occasion. I recently made a baby blanket and donated it to a local battered women’s shelter. The yarn was free to me, so someone can benefit from something that was free to them.
I enjoy gardening and house plants also, so I buy seeds off season when they go on clearance. I also get cuttings and seeds from friends and neighbors. I have many other hobbies such as reading and watching movies. I have a big movie collection. Many of the DVDs and VHS tapes I have were purchased when times weren’t as lean. I inherited many more when my sister in law decided to give away all her VHS tapes. (I’m not picky.) I get others at yard sales. If I get tired of them or don’t want them any more, I trade them to friends or sell them on eBay. I rarely if ever rent them. I don’t even use services like Netflix. I haven’t purchased a new movie in many months: the last new one I got was given to me for Christmas. Our local library sells books, ten cents for each paperback and twenty-five cents for each hardback. I also have the option to check books out of course.
Clothing is sometimes an expense that many families fret about. I’ve never been one of those women who is into the latest fashion trends so I browse thrift shops and yard sales, or trade hand me downs around. We have a thrift store run by a local church where everything is free. So, I go in there on occasion and find some great things. All the fun of retail therapy without spending ANY money is a great deal. About the only time I buy anything new is if it is extremely cheap on clearance, or if I use money made from an online survey to get a t-shirt or something of that nature.
I don’t have the expense of self-destructive habits, such as smoking or alcohol, so that saves money in the long run.
Yard sales and flea markets are where I acquire household decorative items, and other items. I for one don’t care if my sheets are mismatched.
I do use the internet for money making opportunities. I sign up for online survey and product testing opportunities for places such as Pinecone research, and get paid $3 per survey through them. I save that money for small indulgent personal items: a new book, body spray, bottle of Pepsi, or a scented candle.
Whenever I get paid, I pay all the bills first, and then get necessary household items with what is left over. I put a dollar or two into a piggy bank, and don’t touch the piggy bank except in an extreme emergency. Usually items like pet food or larger items, such as my bicycle or my laptop, were purchased out of this fund.
I like a bit of retail therapy now and then but because I lack the money to do it, I peruse sites that offer free samples and items. I have managed to get magazine subscriptions, books, product samples, promotional items, and the like. I recently managed to get a full year of The Wall Street Journal for free, just by doing an online survey! My son took a stack of the papers to school for a recent papier mache project for his class, and I also use them to make my own fireplace starter logs. (I have a separate article on that subject.) If I get enough of these sample items, I make up little gift baskets or stocking stuffers.
Household items I manage to stay stocked up on: toilet paper, shampoo, laundry detergent, and dish detergent. When I find them on sale, I use coupons. I can get four packs of toilet tissue for 88 cents at Wal-Mart and six rolls at Dollar General for a dollar, bottles of shampoo for a dollar at either store and boxes of laundry soap for $3 or less, so every time I go there, for any reason, I pick up one of these items, even if I don’t need it at the time.
Heating and cooling of course are a big expense for anyone. My landlord installed a wood burning heating stove in my living room. A rick of firewood costs anywhere from nothing to up to $45 a rick. I buy it through the year, and stock up and usually have enough wood to get me through the winter months. It is a little extra work of course but it is preferable to a huge natural gas bill.
Finally, I make good use or recycling and repurposing. My son and I pick up aluminum cans to sell for a bit of extra cash. We do the same with copper, old circuit boards, old cell phones, and the like. I had a plastic lid from a store bought pie that I turned upside down for a drip pan for a plant, rather than throwing it out. The bottom part makes a good pet bowl. Ditto a rotisserie chicken container. (I recently used one of these to refrigerate a chicken I had baked.) Since I have the stores double bag my groceries, I never have to buy garbage bags. I also use reusable bags.
Since my town lacks a lot by way of entertainment, we find a lot of free ways to enjoy ourselves. We take the metal detector to the nearby lake and hunt for treasure. We go to the creek to look for crawdads and snails. We take the camera out and take photos of flowers, birds, or events. We attend parades, potlucks, and free community events. Election years always bring free community dinners served by the candidates. There are Cherokee language courses offered for free by local Indian tribes. The school often hosts pow wows and basket weaving workshops, all for free. We go to the park. We hang out with friends. We pick flowers and berries. Depending on the season of the year, we go hunt for edible mushrooms or other items in nature or attend car shows or festivals. Our church often has get-togethers like potluck BBQs, a corn maze, or other fun activities.
It is not easy to live on the kind of income I make, but the important thing is, my family and I have our basic needs met. I don’t make as much money as I’d like of course but all in all, I would say that my family is able to make it with careful budgeting and a bit of ingenuity.