The Cost of Living

Drawing: Dollar signs being swallowed by an open shark mouth. Caption reads: "Where does the money go?"

The Cost of Living by Iris Carden

I saw an article from the Wall Street Journal shared on social media the other day.  It was titled: To Save Money, Maybe You Should Skip Breakfast

Because the actual article’s behind a paywall, I don’t know if it’s a satirical commentary on the cost of eggs in America (which is apparently a real issue right now), or if it’s a serious attempt by people who have never been financially insecure to tell people on low incomes how to save money.

If it’s the latter, I guess, if skipping breakfast doesn’t save enough, the next step is skipping lunch and dinner. I find myself imagining someone with a secure, liveable, income thinking: “Malnutrition is a great way for people, who aren’t me, to save money.”

I actually have struggled financially for much of my life.  I would like to suggest there are other cost-cutting measures to try, before opting for starvation. 

These are the things I most recommend:

  • Know where your money is going.  Write down every transaction.  Use a budgeting app (Fudget is free), or a spreadsheet, to keep track of everything.  You might be surprised where money disappears to.  
  • Don’t ever have a credit card.  Credit cards are designed to keep you in debt, interest and fees swallow your income faster than anything except perhaps payday loans.  Don’t have payday loans either; those are killers.  If you have an emergency and need to borrow money there are other options.  In Australia, there are companies like Humm and Zip that will loan you money, interest-free, but with a smallish set fee each month.  Even with those, don’t borrow more than you can afford the payments for.  Missed payments get you into serious trouble.
  • For many people the biggest expense is accommodation.  That’s one that can’t be changed, unless you’re able to downsize or move to a cheaper location.  (When I got too sick to work, I found myself renting a friend’s granny flat, because I’d been unable to continue to afford the rent where I’d been living.)  Take the cost of accommodation out of your pay before you even begin to look at how to budget the rest.
  • There are ways to save a bit on your food budget, even without having to skip meals. The big one is to shop around.  Greengrocers often have fruit and vegetables cheaper than the supermarkets, and some greengrocers are cheaper than others.  The greengrocer I go to sells discount fruit and vegetables by the bucket, usually better quality then other places are selling as premium.  Beans and lentils are cheaper than meat, so a few meat-free meals a week can cut the cost of food as well. 
  • If, like me, you are sometimes too sick to prepare food, have some prepared meals on hand.  Cooking more than you need and freezing the extra can be a big help.  Try to avoid take-away. Food is much cheaper prepared at home.  Even supermarket prepared meals are cheaper than take-away if you’re short of options.
  • Most communities will have a food bank, which is more than happy to help whether you need help all the time, or just once in a while.  You don’t need to wait until you’re desperate and you don’t need to prove that you’re struggling.  You can find details of where they are and when they’re open online. If there’s no food bank in your community, you may find help from a local church or other religious or community organisation.  I’m a former minister, I can tell you people would come, embarrassed at needing help, and with the bills they’d paid to prove where their money went, and things like that.  I wasn’t worried about whether they could prove they were “worthy” or “deserving” or “truly needy”;  I’ve never met anyone who didn’t deserve to eat. I think you’ll find most organisations you can go to for help will have the same attitude as I did.  
  • Learn what you can’t live without.  We each have some things that matter to us more than other things.  For me, a big thing is good coffee.  I paid off a coffee maker on one of those credit companies I mentioned earlier, and I order good quality locally-roasted coffee beans. (I get them from Aromas in Brisbane, if anyone wants to know.)  Instead of my old habit of constantly drinking coffee through the day, I now have one cup of really good quality coffee in the morning, and I take time to savour it.  My coffee craving is satisfied, and it actually works out cheaper than guzzling cheap coffee.
  • Learn what you can live without.  I don’t go to hairdressers. I cut my own hair.  I buy cheap make-up, and don’t wear it all that often. (I do use a good foundation because of my sensitive skin, but colour is colour and brands don’t matter.)
  • Get creative.  Make, reuse, repair, recycle and upcycyle. I sew most of my own clothes, using a stash of fabric and patterns I mostly bought when they were on special.  When I was working and bought clothes, I would find something I loved in a shop, and check on it each time I went shopping, until it was moved to the sale rack, when I could usually get it for half the original price. A couple of friends of mine buy and upcycle old furniture, which looks fantastic.  I have the most wonderful silky oak hall stand in the  front room I got for next to nothing from Facebook, the lovely woman I bought it from even delivered it for me. Second-hand doesn’t have to mean second best, and home made isn’t bad.
  • Check out money saving sites like the Cheapskate Club for other ways to save money.  I use their washing powder recipe to make washing powder that works, and doesn’t aggravate my sensitive skin. They do have some less useful ideas like cleaning with bi carb soda and vinegar together. (An alkaline and an acid cancel each other out, so you get the fizz of the chemical reaction, but no real cleaning is happening.  Using either of those alone can actually clean many surfaces.)
  • Do your maths on bulk buying.  Some things are much better bought in bulk, others are best bought in smaller quantities when they’re on sale.  Check, and compare unit prices.  (Unit prices, the price per kilogram or  per litre,  or sometimes per 100g or 100ml, is the smaller printed price on the supermarket shelf, so you can easily compare prices for different volumes of food.)
  • Only buy what you’ll actually use.  Buying a case of bananas seems a great savings, but only if you’re going to actually eat a case of bananas before they’re overripe.
  • Generic brands used to be horrible.  Most of them are good now.  They come from the same factory as the name brands, often from the same production line.  They’re worth trying.
  • Learn to accept help.  It’s a hard lesson for many of us, but sometimes when we’re struggling people who care will offer to help.  There’s no shame in accepting.  One day you will be able to help someone else when they need it.
  • If you’re buying gifts, set a price limit, and get creative within the limit.  My family has a tradition for Easter, where everyone gives a set amount of money to one person who buys a single Easter egg for each person.  That means no-one has a stupid amount of chocolate, and we’re not each paying stupid amounts of money. For Christmas, we set a limit on the amount of money for each gift, if we want to give someone a “big” gift, a couple of us will combine the money we’d planned to spend on that person. In a time when everyone’s short of money, it’s good to find out what the person you’re buying for actually wants or needs. If you’re really short of money it costs next-to-nothing to make homemade fudge or biscuits, and many people will be thrilled to receive those as gifts. Be aware that sometimes the gift of your presence is better than any present.
  • Check out the federal government’s Moneysmart website for useful information and advice. It’s part of ASIC (Australian Securities and Investments Commission), and has tools for budgeting, and other useful information.

Sometimes, when you’ve done everything you possibly can right, unexpected things can happen, and it all still falls apart. Financial Counsellors can help you get back on your feet, and can negotiate with creditors on your behalf.

*Note: this isn’t a paid post.  None of the brands/companies/sites I’ve mentioned has paid for promotion.

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By Iris Carden

Iris Carden is an Australian indie author, mother, grandmother, and chronic illness patient. On good days, she writes. Because of the unpredictability of her health, she writes on an indie basis, not trying to meet deadlines. She lives on a disability support pension now, but her ultimate dream is to earn her own living from her writing.


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