So the local economy is in the shitter in case you haven’t noticed. Things are getting a bit ugly out there for a lot of folks. To them I say, sorry about your luck but also, welcome. Welcome to my club; I have been waiting over here for you for quite some time. I’d offer you some refreshments, but that shit’s expensive. To be honest, I’m kind of glad you’re here because being broke is lonely and all those bootstraps folks out there assume you’re just a lazy asshole.
My husband and I are what I like to call Hipster Broke. We were broke WAY before it was cool. This blog has never been about giving advice; I don’t think I’m remotely qualified to dole out life tips on much of anything. This blog is more like a what not to do instructional, where you can generally come to feel good about yourself and have a laugh. Or at least that’s the goal. However, I’m writing this today because I feel like it’s important to impart the wisdom I have gained over the years of brokeness to the masses who may now benefit from our struggles. Or at least make them feel a little less scared and alone about their financial future.
First, it’s important to explain my classifications of levels of financial security. You may have other definitions for yourself and your family, perhaps financial aspirations that go beyond what I am listing here. That is OK. If you’re broke for long enough, your perception of what equals financial success will likely change. Here is a drawing:
So, it’s pretty simple. If you can pay your bills and have money left over, have reliable personal transportation, money in your RRSPs/savings and can go on a holiday once per year that is not purchased entirely with a credit card, to me, you are RICH. My husband and I started our marriage young and romantically broke and worked quite hard the way we were told to get good jobs and promotions. Those bootstraps folks would have applauded! We became rich for a couple of glorious years. We went on trips, we contributed to savings and charity every month, and had the luxury of being able to financially assist friends and family.
But too soon we became BROKE. I had to leave my high-paying job after a couple years in a toxic work environment which led to a lawsuit and my health completely deteriorated. I could only work a few hours per week at a much lower rate of pay and it started getting harder and harder to pay the bills.
When you’re broke, home and vehicle repairs start to get put off until later, as do any sort of out-of-pocket health care needs. All saving grinds to a halt and you start taking money out instead of putting it in. Eventually, your savings are gone. Your credit card interest is piling up, you’ve bounced a couple of cheques (incidentally, I recently discovered that my bank now charges $48 for any NSF payments. FORTY-EIGHT DOLLARS. That is insane. Like, I realize that there are administrative costs to pay for when that happens but that’s a freaking tank of gas or a week’s worth of lunches. Seriously.), and you’re starting to get notices from the electric company. You are definitely not doing anything fun like going on vacation, or out to dinner, or to the movies. Being broke is stressful, but it’s much better than being POOR.
After being broke for awhile, unless something changes, you are most likely going to become poor. Poor to me is when your credit card is way over the limit and the interest and fees are completely out of control. Collection agencies are calling, your bills are all overdue, there are serious repairs needed to you, and/or your home, you sometimes go hungry and what you are eating is cheap and non-nutritional, and you have no reliable transportation. It’s highly likely that your utilities are in danger of being cut off, if they haven’t been already.
When poor, you won’t be afford dental implants and will have to pay for a ‘temporary’ plastic denture with instalment payments.
Unfortunately for us, after we spent some time being broke, my husband was laid off. I’m self-employed, so with perfect timing one month later, a company with whom I contracted my work to had to cut my contract. This led to a downward spiral into poorness despite me having worked back up to more hours.
Luckily, we never became DESTITUTE. And thankfully, it’s highly unlikely that we ever would because we are privileged to have friends and family who would never let us go hungry or homeless. Or, if we did, we could crash on any number of sofas. Destitute is when you have nowhere to live, go hungry, and completely forgo health care. Many times the destitute are those like me who have health issues but don’t have the amazingly good fortune of having a safety net of friends and family. Like, I can go to my parents’ house and my mom will probably be like ‘they had bonus Air Miles on stewed tomatoes so I bought seventy-two tins. Grab a couple’! Indeed I will mom, and while I’m at it, I’ll take a couple rolls of TP.
My parents’ toothpaste stash. Think they’d notice if I grabbed a couple?
Currently, we’ve just managed in the past year to pull ourselves out of poorness and back into brokeness. It was scary there for a bit as I’d just recently recovered from the loss of another large contract (from the same company that fucked me over before dammit), when when my husband got laid off again right before Christmas. He had to take a temporary job with a much lower paycheque before he found one making the same salary as before. And this all happened right when I started an expensive and painful treatment from a decades-old car accident injury. Just a bunch of stupid shit that happens no matter what you do or how hard you work.
But we’re getting there. Over the past several years of constantly having to adapt to massively fluctuating income, we’ve learned some ways to save or make money and with the current economic situation, maybe everyone else could use the tips.
Food security is a big issue for me and I know some of you will probably roll your eyes right out of your head when I say this, but seriously people, GROW YOUR OWN FOOD! We have all seen insane produce prices lately and it is the perfect time to start working on this. This season will be my fourth year of gardening. I started doing it for exactly this reason, I was broke and being broke makes it harder to eat healthy. Well, that and I’m getting prepared for the impending zombie/climate change apocalypse.
Not having healthy food available gives me anxiety. In fact, if I ever get to a financial status beyond RICH, I am going to hire a person for a household position I would call Food Procurer. I would pay my Food Procurer to do all my grocery shopping, plan and cook all my meals, and be on stand-by to deliver me snacks. I would call my Food Procurer Benson regardless of their actual name. It would be so great.
Anyway, I’m a little bit obsessed about growing everything humanly possible, which isn’t feasible for most people. I also realize that it takes a certain level of able-bodiedness that not everyone may possess. You’ll also need a spot of dirt in a sunny location. But even if you don’t have that, it’s very easy and cheap to grow some greens in a container on your windowsill.
Last year from about May through October, I rarely bought any produce, making grocery shopping a cheap and painless breeze. It can be a bit pricey the first year, if you are building raised beds but there are cheap options. My raised beds are built from shipping pallets (free) and you can get free dirt and compost if you know where to look (Kijiji). Or, start a community garden and share the costs with your neighbours.
I’m calling myself the Trash Gardener because my goal is literally to spend as little as possible on it. Fuck fancy trellises and expensive garden paraphernalia. Sticks and ties made from old clothes do the trick. And planters? Drill a couple holes in the bottom of plastic coffee or cat litter containers and voila! Free planter. Too ugly for you? Hand your kids or nieces (in my case) some glue and paint and dollar store ‘jewels’ and let them go to town. If you start saving seeds and making your own compost, pretty soon it’s a completely self-sustaining venture.
Part of the Trash Garden, in all its glory.
Regarding food, aside from growing some of your own, I highly recommend making meals using high-protein vegetable sources. If you buy bulk dried legumes, you can spend a tiny fraction of what you would on meat. My broke sister also seconds this tip as she is queen of lentil-based meals. Lentils, and other pulses like chickpeas, make delicious and wholesome stews and curries. Bulk quinoa, also dirt cheap, when cooked is very similar in consistency to ground meats. I use it in chilies, soups, and tacos.
Also: Potatoes are filling and delicious and cheap. Apples are one of the cheapest fruits and have a long shelf life. Also, they keep the doctor away. Green peppers are half the cost of coloured peppers. Buy fruits and veggies in season. Root vegetables are your friends; pound for pound your best value. Avoid packaged/prepped meals to do the work yourself but save; buying a head of lettuce is a fraction of the cost of a tub of washed and torn lettuce. Eat leftovers for lunches. Make your own bread. Do a weekly fridge inventory and plan meals around items that are going to go bad and weekly grocery store specials. Vinegar is pretty much the only cleaning product you ever need to buy and BONUS you can also use it to make tasty and cheap homemade salad dressing.
When my mom heard I was writing this post, she chipped in a tip too, which is to shop, if possible, from several grocery stores by price comparing. It’s time-consuming but you will save money if this is a feasible option. Often, I’ll hit Superstore at lunchtime and then Safeway on the way home to grab meal components. Seriously, there are a lot of ways to save money on food. I could go on and on.
One of the big things about being broke and even more so about being poor is that often, things break and you can’t afford to fix them. Lucky for me, I am the product of broke parents so am used to my dad freaking out about repairpeople. I’M NOT CALLING SOMEONE! could be on our family crest. Actually, THAT’S ENOUGH JUICE! or MILK IS FOR CEREAL! or TURN OFF THE LIGHTS! or PUT A DAMNED SWEATER ON IF YOU’RE SO COLD! could all be appropriate family mottos.
Now, not everyone has the skills or tools to fix things themselves, but I found that when you actually learn how to do things, they’re not really that hard. Plus, you can find videos on YouTube showing you how to fix or make anything and everything. It showed me how to install a toilet and properly level the phlange. It showed me how to clean out the filters on my vacuum when I thought it was fucked. It showed me how to wire a new bathroom fixture and how to change those plug-in thingies in the wall. It’s going to fix the shocks on my car when we can afford to order the part. (Ok. That’s not 100% true, YouTube will show my husband how to fix it. I’m really bad at machines). It showed me how to jank together some pipes and install a new bathroom faucet.
Like, don’t electrocute yourself or fall off the roof of your house, but be open to learning how to do it yourself. Sometimes just slapping some duct tape on something is good enough for now (like with my car heater). And when you’re broke, suck up to friends and family who have skills or tools that you may not possess but can borrow.
My personal motto for the past several years has basically been ‘Never Buy New’. Mostly because of the poorness but also because if you are buying something used, it’s not going in the landfill. My favorite way to buy used is through garage sales. We’ve gotten really amazing at ‘Saleing’ on weekends in the spring. You bring a buttload of chump change and haggle on everything from $0.50 used books to old Tupperware. My favorite thing to buy at garage sales are tools and garden stuff. A $5 circular saw? Don’t mind if I do. A brand-new mandolin veggie slicer for $2, still in the package? Put that shit in my cart! A 40 foot soaker hose for $1.50? Yes, please. And if you have kids, get thee to a parade of garage sales. Seriously. Toys, clothes, baby equipment, everything you could possibly need for those expensive mini humans and almost always barely ever used.
Another favorite is Kijiji, although I am not going to lie, I make my husband go pick up anything we buy there because, well, rapists. But still a great place to find stuff you need on the cheap in your local area and you can always bring a friend for protection. And, it’s a great place to unload some of your crap if you need to make a few bucks.
If you prefer a more authentic shopping experience, I recommend Value Village. My husband goes there all the time for cheap work clothes. He found a pair of brand-new, never used steel-toed boots for $10 that would have cost close to $200 new in stores. This sort of amazing savings makes me practically jizz myself.
As far as household expenses, when we became poor I was desperate to trim any excess off utility bills. Being skeptical of how much we would actually save, I went around the house doing all the things my google searches for saving money on bills told me to do. I unplugged everything that doesn’t need to be plugged in all the time and we programmed the furnace and were actually surprised by the noticeable reduction in costs with very little effort. I use a rain barrel in the garden and we haven’t watered the lawn since 2007, and with just two adults in the house I wasn’t too concerned about water usage. However, we did go around fixing any leaky taps and saw our water bill drop too. Apparently, even just pulling phone chargers out of the plug ins when not in use can make a difference. Plus, you’re using less energy, and that’s a good thing in any case.
Another thing to watch out for are sneaky bank fees. Like the aforementioned absurd NSF fee, the bank will charge you through the nose for over limit fees, overdraft fees, handling charges, transaction charges outside your monthly plan, and ‘off-brand’ ATM fees. When you’re rich, you don’t even notice these things, namely because you won’t incur them. But for broke and poor people, these fees can make a huge impact on your bank account balance.
The main thing that really saved us the past couple of years was making money on the side in addition to our normal jobs. I’ve always thought it was incredibly important to have multiple income streams, even if that income isn’t huge. That way, if one of your incomes disappears, you have something to fall back on. In high school I babysat and hired myself out to a neighbourhood teacher, making posters and correcting math tests for extra cash. When I was at University, I worked two part-time jobs. Even when I was making excellent money at my old company, I still worked evenings in a coffee shop for years and had a home-based business selling skin care and cosmetics. My husband has worked occasional weekends doing roofing or other construction jobs since high school.
So, you may be thinking, do I really need that second kidney? Yes, you do, so stop thinking about selling your organs on the black market. There are other options. When you’re in this sort of dire situation, it’s very easy to see how some might turn to unfortunate or even criminal activities just to get by, which is sad. A lot of ‘criminals’ out there are just poor folks trying to survive.
Luckily, over the past couple of years of fluctuating broke/poorness, I have been able to do all sorts of legal activities to make additional money to pay the bills. I’ve done makeup for weddings, painted walls and fences, planned, dug, and planted gardens, made/grew and sold teas, herbs, and spice mixes from stuff I grow in my garden, participated in focus groups and surveys and many, many other things. The point is, monetize your skills and talents in whatever way you can. Someone will pay you for them.
One thing that anyone can do that is really flexible that really helped us out was mystery shopping. While it’s not particularly lucrative, it’s incredibly easy. Sadly, my poor old dad is the hardest-working person I know, but he was in telecommunications in the mid-90s, which was chaotic and marked by rounds and rounds of layoffs. To make ends meet, my mom started doing mystery shopping, which is where I got the idea. Mystery shopping has evolved since then; it just takes some work signing up for the mystery shopping companies online and checking for jobs in your area. I found I could make about $500 per month doing this, but you have to be organized and learn which companies pay the best with the least amount of work.
A thing that I liked to do back in my old rich days was to pay my broke sister, who lived with us at the time, to do horrible chores I didn’t want to do. Like, $10 to scoop the litter boxes and clean cat hurk off the floor. Or, I’d pay her to do the grocery shopping or to make dinner. Back then, I valued the help more than the small amounts I was paying her. So, if you are a person who is relatively unscathed by the current economic situation and can afford it, do the same for someone who needs it! Buy local products and services and and keep the money in your community.
I think my most important tip regarding being broke is that you must remember that your worth as a person is not related to the worth of your bank account. It’s a hard thing to remember, since society is usually grossed out by poor people and judges them harshly without knowledge of their circumstances. What IS an indicator of your worth as a person will be how you handle the adversity. Will you develop resilience and resourcefulness or succumb to misplaced rage and bitterness? Will you learn new skills and adapt, or will you lament the past? What I do know is that you can get through it and you will be a better, more empathetic person in the end. And you’ll realize what is truly important in life and it’s really not money.