By Beth Buck
In a recent post, I talked a little bit about the journey my family took living off of our food storage and savings for eighteen months so my husband could finish college. During that time, we never missed a mortgage payment or electric bill, and no one ever went hungry.
At least, if any of the children went hungry it was their own fault for not eating the nutritious meal I (Mom) prepared for them.
I know there are many people within the reach of this blog who are like me and worry regularly about their finances. Maybe you’d like to finish school but don’t know how you’ll make the money work. Maybe you know (or sense) that joblessness is imminent and want to soften the blow to your family and lifestyle. Or maybe you’re in a secure work situation and just want a cushion in place for a rainy day.
Joblessness is always a scary prospect, but with the right preparations, it can be far more comfortable and secure than we might imagine.
Item One: The Art of the Shoestring Budget
If I had to sum up the philosophy that got us through our hard times, I would say: “Worry about money early so you don’t have to worry about money later.”
This is a proactive philosophy. You need to worry and plan every aspect of your finances up front so you don’t end up broke or in debt down the road. This is what we did (never perfectly) to keep our outgoing expenses to as close to zero as possible. We tapped into our emergency storage. We stayed basic. We planned for leftovers. We stuck to our grocery list. The moment you start letting things “just happen”—fudging on your budget, going more than a few days without checking up on your accounts, etc.—you’re on the road to tipping your apple cart.
Here are a few ways we planned early and reaped the benefits down the road:
- If you’re anything like me, you’re constantly fighting to keep grocery bills. It’s amazing how much you can spend if you aren’t careful. This was an area we knew we could save in, so we made a plan. You know all those “tips to save on grocery shopping?” We did those. All of them.
- We ate at restaurants rarely, if at all.
- We kept our utility bills down by resigning ourselves to being chilly in the winter and at times uncomfortably hot in the summer.
- When we needed new clothing, unless it was given as a gift by sympathetic family members we purchased it second hand.
- We shifted our expectations surrounding birthdays and holidays to be simpler but more meaningful. In practice that meant fewer presents and parties, but more time spent as a family, which is what everyone really wants for Christmas, anyway.
Managing money in this way is very difficult for a lot of people, especially when there are funds sitting right there in the bank begging to be used for something new and shiny. Quite honestly, I myself wasn’t fully on board with this stringent lifestyle of penny-pinching until several of my friends confided that they were living paycheck-to-paycheck, despite earning a higher salary than we were at the time. Budgeting can set you free. Money piles up very quickly when you don’t spend it.
Item Two: A Nice Refinance.
Due to our budgetary measures taken in Item One, over the years we had been able to take some of our savings and apply them to the principal balance on our mortgage. We watched interest rates and when they hit a particularly low point, we refinanced the mortgage at a lower interest rate that also lowered our monthly payments and applied more money to the balance rather than being mostly interest. Don’t mistake a refinance for a home equity loan – the latter is a glorified second mortgage that has the ability to bring you farther into debt. Refinancing allowed us to free up a significant chunk of our monthly budget for other things.
Item Three: A Well-Stocked Food Storage Pantry.
All well-known food storage advice applies. Eat what you store, store what you eat. Don’t go into debt for food storage by spending four thousand dollars all at once. Instead, budget for it and spend a small amount on dedicated food storage each month. Occasionally we’d drop a couple hundred dollars at a time on powdered milk, or wheat, or oatmeal. Don’t purchase cases of canned beets “because they were on sale!” if no one in your household can stomach them. Learn how to cook with your food storage now, instead of when you’re in the midst of those dire times when trips to the grocery store are not an option. Even when our budget was at its tightest, I still bought things like fresh fruits and vegetables, butter, eggs, milk and so on, at the local grocery store. I got really good at shopping for things at case lot sales. I bought fresh meat only when it was on sale for half off because it was going to expire soon, and then I’d keep it in the freezer until I was ready to cook it.
We knew we were preparing for something because we are “preparedness people.” We didn’t have a specific goal in mind until about nine years into our marriage. Until then, this was just our lifestyle. Once we decided my husband should leave his job, we thought, “Well, we’ve been scrimping and saving for something, it might as well be this.” Then we had some more purposeful things to keep track of.
Item Four: What Goes Out Has to Come In, First.
We made ourselves a nifty little spreadsheet keeping track of our expenses for utilities, insurance, groceries, the mortgage, and everything else. Using that data, we extrapolated how much we could stand to cut down, and then how much we would need to be able to live on just the savings for eighteen months. Seeing it all laid out is essential, whether you use a spreadsheet like we did or dedicated software like gnucash or YNAB.
During that period between making the decision to go back to school and executing it, we made an extra push to get more food storage in our basement and to make sure everything else was in order.
What about student loans and other debt? Because of our lifestyle, we didn’t have any debt apart from our mortgage before we embarked on this little adventure. To pay tuition and other fees, we applied for FAFSA grants and other scholarships available through the university, so it was not necessary for us to take out student loans of any kind. A lot of prospective students worry about paying off student loans, but there are circumstances where that need not be the case. There is a lot of student aid available for those who look for it.
To address the elephant in the room – why did not I, the other spouse, get a job outside the home? Simply put: the daycare issue. Our kids are still fairly young, and we found that the cost of putting them into daycare would eat up so much of my wages as to make it hardly worth the effort. In a very real way, being a stay-at-home parent is saving us money. That doesn’t mean I sit on my backside eating bon-bons, oh no. The day-to-day task of remaining in our budget largely falls to me. Our reliance on food storage means I cook from scratch a lot. Plus I pick up side-gigs whenever I can.
While things are not as tight for us now as they were during my husband’s undergraduate years, odds are we’ll still live that same lifestyle of extreme saving once he finishes graduate school and moves into the workforce. Life circumstances can change quickly, and we want to be prepared for that eventuality.