Life in the Amato household has been full of interesting “challenges” the past few years since we moved to Richmond. We can’t say that we don’t live comfortably- we are very fortunate to be safe, warm, dry, and not hungry (in fact we eat great), but paying for grad school on a budget wasn’t easy and we had to make a lot of sacrifices and cutbacks. Here are some insights into things that worked, that didn’t work, that we’d recommend, and those we wouldn’t.
1. Housing: We knew we didn’t want to live in an apartment again if we didn’t have to, so we looked into renting houses. Sharing the bottom floor of a duplex was a good way to save money, and we signed a two-year lease when we moved here. Aside from the plagues (you can read about them here- no A/C, flooding, mold, ants, flies, kittens (x2), possums (x3), windows that don’t open, just to name a few) of living in a renovated house from the 1930’s, we also had neighbor issues. While we didn’t have to worry about paying for repairs since we still had a landlord, the duplex did not solve the problem of noisy neighbors that we hated when we lived in an apartment. And we also didn’t get some of the perks we enjoyed when we rented from a big apartment complex (gym, pool, free coffee, trash valet, etc).
Verdict: Wouldn’t recommend. If it was all about the money, perhaps it would be better to just bite the bullet and stick with an apartment. If you really want to get away from neighbor issues, you have to have to rent or buy a single-family home (which we eventually did).
Alternatives: Rent a house, buy a house, sleep in a tent, buy an RV (one of my classmates & his family did this for 6 months!!), hotel, or sleep alfresco.
2. Forego Cable: This was hard at first. We were used to DVR and have at our disposal100+ channels at our disposal. We bought a cheap antenna to get digital local channels, which we opted for one that was free after a rebate. This was perhaps a mistake because at any given time we might only get 1 to 5 channels that actually came in, and even then every time a car or bus drove by the picture would flicker or go away for several seconds. We are NOT big fans of this technology- it works terrible. On the plus side, there’s a surprising relaxing feeling when you don’t have to choose from 5000 shows - simplifying at its best. We are still suckers for binging on TV shows though, mostly online. We tried Hulu+ (totally not worth it- you pay to get back episodes, but still have ads and the content is pretty limited). Just stick with a free Hulu account. If you are lucky like we are to have a friend or family member who will share their Netflix account with you, you can have your own custom queue. If you haven’t watched House of Cards yet, set aside the next 24 hours and watch the first two seasons in one sitting. Best show in ages.
Verdict: Totally worth it.
Alternatives: Netflix, Hulu, other streaming websites (legit…?), read!, RedBox, YouTube, Vimeo
3. Food: Back when we were both working, we would occasionally shop at Whole Foods, and we went out to eat a few times a month (still not a lot, but regularly). When times are tough, you can still eat great, it just involves a little more planning, a little less going out, and learning about what you’re willing to cut back on and what you can’t. For example, we buy generic on almost everything when possible. Corn Chex vs. Corn Bitz… you will never tell the difference. However, some things like coffee- I just can’t sacrifice. A $5 bag of coffee is not the same as a $12 bag of coffee. Same with beer- when you are used to drinking microbrews, it’s hard to switch to Natural Light. We tried switching to Two-Buck-Chuck, and it was all right for a while, but we started to dislike wine. Perhaps because we were drinking crappy wine. Not that it needs to cost $25 a bottle, but there’s a big difference between a $3 and a $12 bottle. We also rotated between the salvage grocery store and Trader Joe’s (we might spend $35 one week and $120 the next, so it averaged out). We cut back on meat almost entirely both for health and environmental reasons as much as money. We also got creative when eating out- coupons, gift cards, and taking advantage of every possible free meal (no such thing as a free lunch, but hey). If you ate out once a week, change it to once a month and make the same meals you would get if you went out- even if you spend $20 on a bottle of wine and $20 on steaks for 2 people at the store, imagine how much you’d have paid if you went to Ruth’s Chris! We also love the farmers market but that can be costly at times- try growing some stuff yourself (we got probably > $100 worth of tomatoes from seeds). Jeni’s splendid Ice Cream from Columbus Ohio: $10 a pint. Cost to make it at home from her recipe: $3/2pints!
Verdict: One of the best areas to save money. We’re total foodies, and some things we just couldn’t give up. It’s hard to say no when you get invited to someplace swanky for dinner but cut back how often you go out, and shop wisely and it’s not so bad.
Alternatives: Salvage grocery store, generic brands, buy in bulk when appropriate, grow tomatoes/herbs, coupons, and cook at home
Exercise Bike: While I had access to the school gym, it wasn’t particularly close or convenient, and we were both putting on a few pounds. We bought the bike after shopping around about 2 years ago. It was $350. After having a serviceman come MULTIPLE times because it didn’t work, we finally started using it after about a year, and now it works great. It’s quiet, and we put it in the living room so we can watch TV while we ride without disturbing anyone else watching.
Verdict: If you use it, then yes. Cheaper than two gym memberships, and more convenient. Downside- you have to use it. For a long time it acted as a cup holder. Almost wasted the money.
Clothes: We are hurting in that department. Not that our new closets have room for anymore clothes, but the ones we have are getting frayed and old. As are our shoes. We really had to cut back, and I’d say we’ve each only been shopping once or twice in the last 3 years. As soon as we have a little more money in the bank this is one of the first things to be addressed. It’s been rough, and we both REALLY want to update our wardrobe. We have saved money, though.
Verdict: A necessary evil. If we bought all the clothes we need and want we wouldn’t have money for necessary things (like coffee! Or gasoline). It was way harder than going without cable though.
Alternatives: Thrift shop, hand-me-downs
Cars: Before we moved, we both had 1997 Honda Civics with ~170,000 on each of them (weird, right??). They were great cars, and were working fine, but the maintenance costs were going up slowly. We knew with me not working, we wouldn’t want to worry about car payments or giant unforeseen repairs, especially when I had to drive to clinical sites and relied on a stable vehicle. On the other hand- we had 2 working vehicles. Should we really spend our money now?? We decided to use some of our savings to get newer cars while we were still working- Robin got a used 2007 Civic from my parents, and I bought a new 2010 Scion XD. We paid cash for both, so we didn’t have to worry about car payments or interest. A lot of people say not to buy new- but our experience was great. We were going to buy a used Honda Fit, but the used Fits were just as much as a new Scion, and the new car came with several years of free oil changes, maintenance, warranty etc. I have yet to pay a penny and have had no issues in over 3 years. I’m glad we did this, although it was costly up front, it has saved us from the headaches and wallet aches of having to make car payments when our income was decreased. And soon, we’ll be able to ride our bikes to work (if this winter ever ends)!!
Verdict: Buying new worked out great- definitely worth it. We loved our old Civics, and miss them dearly. But in our situation, reliability was something we needed, and buying a car we could afford with cash was a huge plus. We haven’t had to deal with headaches like scheduling rides, maintenance, or making car payments
Alternatives: Ride a bike, ride the bus (tried this), carpool, walk, buy used, rent.
TV/Computers: We own an ASUS laptop from 2010, and I bought an Apple MacBook Air in 2011 for school. At the time, the ASUS was a fantastic deal- like < $400 for a laptop! To save money, you can’t do much better (or at least you couldn’t then, now there are tablets which didn’t exist then). On the flipside, the Apple was a tough decision. It was almost too expensive to justify ($1100 after educational discount for an 11” with no CD rom or Ethernet port). Were they worth it? Yes. To both. The ASUS hasn’t aged quite as well as the Apple, but for the price it was still a good deal- considering it was so cheap, it does its job, albeit slowler these days. The MacBook is as fast (and light!!!) as ever. The battery life is the only bad thing. But its increased cost has been justified with its speed (boots up instantly) and portability. And having both a Mac & a PC in the same house has come in handy a number of times.
Verdict: These days with tablets or netbooks, this post might be irrelevant, but it was worth it to buy one cheap and one expensive computer. Each has its own merits, and I don’t think either of us would be happy with 2 middle ground HPs or something. It would be more expensive than the cheap computer with not much more to offer, and slower than the Apple and two $800 would have been more expensive than what we paid for ours.
Alternatives: tablets, netbooks
Vacations: We’ve fortunately been able to take some trips here and there during school, sometimes related to school or paid for by family, etc. But a real vacation for just the two of us was something that we wanted to do after graduation but before life got too hectic with work again. At first we wanted to go someplace like Italy or France, but since we knew we were going in the winter, someplace tropical sounded better. We really wanted to go to Hawaii, but that was going to be too expensive. Robin saved up the last few years, and we could’ve foregone some other things (like the coffee or a car) to go on a bigger vacation but we really saved a ton of money by shopping smart and going all-inclusive. We decided on Mexico, found a deal with Groupon (but ended up booking it independently) and the all-inclusiveness saved us a TON of money.
Verdict: Mexico was great. We had an amazing time and while we still want to go to Hawaii, it is still possible to go someplace tropical and be pampered and not spend a lot. Do your homework and shop around and there are great deals to be had. We were worried about all inclusive… and were pleasantly surprised. Best decision in a long time
Pets: We (I) want a pup. Badly. But pups are expensive. And have to be walked. So we taught our cat to be a dog. He sits, shakes, rolls over, and speaks. To get our dog fix, we sometimes visit the pet store, or play with friends’ dogs.
Verdict: For now, this cat will just have to do. As much as we would like a dog, not having one has been a good way to save money
Other ways we save money:
-Dollar Theatre (Byrd Theatre): $2 movies 2nd run!
-Moving closer to work (less gasoline)
-Buying used ANYTHING
-Buying generic ANYTHING (except coffee)
-Shopping Ikea: great deals. Hope you’re good with an Allen wrench
-Free dates: free music concerts at the local university, picnics at public parks, hiking, window shopping, bookstore,
-Selling stuff we don’t use on Craigslist
-DIY whatever you can (furniture, haircuts, car washes)
-You can totally cut hair. We probably do it every 3-4 weeks, and at what, $20 a pop professionally that’s over $200 a year we save.
-Thrift store for everything: Furniture, books, clothes,
-Take the train (instead of flying or driving)
Advantages: Spacious! WAY better than a plane, with WiFi, outlets, legroom, a food cart, and plenty of room for carry-ons; fun; hands-free (opposed to driving) to read, watch movie, etc.; less expensive than flying
Disadvantages: Slower than driving; parking; more expensive than driving