Thursday, May 7, 2009

Life on the Cheap: A Primer

Photo of me, left, with my neighbor's dog, Chloe.

I applied for medical assistance this week, because, as a self-employed person, I have no health insurance. (I can't bring myself to open the pile of hospital bills for my recent gallbladder surgery.)

If you report no income on the application, you are requested to explain how you survive. And you know they don't want to hear you're participating in the "alternative economy" in your alley...

I did report income: I earned $7,120 last year, doing bits and pieces of freelance publishing tasks.
(I supplemented it with the tail-end of my inheritance from my mother and my auntie, who both died six years ago, leaving me a combined total of $35,000. That explains my dental crown and the Star Trek con in Las Vegas. But that money's gone now, and I'm not earning any more, so...)

Since $600/month is pretty close to poverty-level in the United States, and I choose to live this way (mostly), so I can write, I thought I should explain a bit about how I manage it. Most importantly, because I have always chosen to have time rather than money, I don't own anything or subscribe to ways of life that require much money to keep up: I'm house-free, car-free, debt-free, kid-free, and fashion-free.

I live in a cheap, little apartment (300 sq. feet) in a "lively" neighborhood (don't worry--that noise was just kids setting off firecrackers). I like knowing that, as a Spanish friend said, my apt. would be a steal in Madrid or Paris. In fact, I love my place, and it requires almost no upkeep, which is ideal because I have negative interest in taking care of physical things. Though I do keep duct tape and paper clips on hand. In good weather, my little porch (the landing of the steps outside) gives me a whole extra room.

I wrote something abbreviated along those lines on the application form.
Then I got thinking about the deeper level of how to live on the cheap. The thing is, if you're an artist, writer, actor, Trekkie, philosopher, single parent, saint-in-training, or committed loafer (without Bertie Wooster's income), you need to know how to live cheaply well, because those pursuits take most of your time and generally pay little or nothing.

I'll start with Tips for Living Cheaply based on elements to be found in the above photo.

Tip #1: Borrow Pets
Pets cost far more than you'd think, especially in America where the law requires you buy them designer toys and pay for teeth-cleaning. But so many Americans leave their pets alone for long stretches at a time, owners are often happy to lend them to you, if you crave a pet fix. Sometimes they will even pay you money to do this. Or let you drink their gin in return.
(If you like children and don't have any, I've found parents are often more than happy to loan those out too.)

Tip #2: Scrounge
The United States is filthy rich. (According to the US Census, the overall median personal income for all 155 million persons over the age of 15 who worked with earnings in 2005 was $28,567. The average [GNI PPP per capita] in the world in 2007 was $9,600.)
That means lots of people buy more than enough stuff, and many of my fellow citizens casually throw out perfectly good things, from clothes to computers, which you can often pick up for free (or cheap).
Literally pick up.
I'd started to take this photo with the self-timer, before Chloe jumped on me, to show you my new linen jacket. I found it last Monday, marked FREE, in an alley. It was sitting with a pile of unsold stuff left over from a weekend garage sale, including an unopened paint-by-number-kitten kit, a plastic stadium-drink container with a hockey emblem on it, and several half-used rolls of Christmas wrapping paper, none of which I needed or wanted.

Scrounging for clothes can be problematic, as they won't necessarily fit well. I love this jacket and have been wearing it, but it has been pointed out to me that its ill-fit is not flattering. So, the corollary to this tip is: Learn to sew. (I don't sew much myself, beyond patching my jeans, but, remember, I'm fashion-free.)

You can't see in the photo, but the chair I'm sitting on comes from the alley too, as does most of my furniture. Living in a cold climate helps, in this case, as you can be sure the sub-zero weather kills invisible life-forms in your finds. But honestly, I've never had problems with this because people throw out good, clean, almost new things all the time. Especially on moving day, at the end of each month.

Of course, it's not just strangers who give stuff away. As a middle-aged member of middle-class social circles, I know many people who own cars, for instance, and generously drive me to the Emergency Room, home from late-night parties, on grocery runs for heavy laundry detergent, and so forth, for which I offer thanks (and gas money).

While I can't count on getting what I want, exactly, or always getting a ride when it rains, it generally works out that I get what I need.

Tip #3: Get Online
You can see this in the above photo because, obviously, I have posted it online, where you are.
(Remember when we used to pay money for photos?)

The Internet is the best thing that's happened to living cheap since lined paper and libraries.
(It goes without saying, right? that one uses the library instead of buying books and magazines. For that matter, in my town, you can use computers at the library for free, 2 hours a day. I also buy recent New Yorkers for 25 cents at my library's used-book store so I can read them in the bathtub.)

I used to have pen-pals, but the web is better. For instance, I look forward to word from Star Trek friends around the world (USA, UK, Finland, Sweden, Italy, and, in a few weeks, Japan) who go see the new movie opening tonight, not to mention an explosion of opinions from people I don't know all over the nets.
In the meantime, I can watch classic Trek episodes free online. Or create more of my own Star Trek fan-vids and post them on youTube.

I bought an Apple laptop with my inheritance in 2004. I used it heavily until it started to fall apart (or maybe it was scone crumbs in the keyboard), whereupon a generous friend gave me her old one. I share the cost of wireless service with my neighbors, but the library also supplies free wi-fi. I used to write a lot in coffee shops with free wi-fi, but that was a false economy: I'd always get hungry and spend $3.25 for a scone, on top of coffee costs.

Tip #4: Barter
In my case, this often involves pets. My friend and neighbor Karla is a hair-cutter, and she cuts my hair in exchange for me pet-sitting.

Tip #5: Reevaluate the Dictates of American Mores
I've gotta admit, this is the kicker for me. It calls for valuing yourself and your contributions on a different scale than the predominant American one: money. If you're like me, this is a good opportunity to make friends with your neuroses, because they'll act up when you try to do this. We do not highly value writers, loafers, Trekkies--even parents--per se. In fact, sometimes they are downright scorned. Living cheaply is generally condemned as lazy, which is a capital crime in the moral courts. (Active Thinking does not exonerate you from this crime.)

I've found the courts are harder on men than women in this case, as women's decorative value counts in their favor with the judges. Also, women are not supposed to be as ambitious as men--cf. Hillary--so we can get by with not owning a car. A man without a car in the USA, however, had better be secure in his manhood.

Until last month, I've been lucky enough to be illness-free. The loss of that bit of self-sufficiency is making me think again about how I live. Right now, I'm wrestling with feeling like a Bad Person for asking for state aid. I justify it to myself all sorts of ways. Like, how fair is it that weapons manufacturers have primo health care packages while I have none? But, you know, deep-seated mores (like, asking for help is wrong) are beyond the reach of the intellect. I'm just going to have to live through my feelings of worthlessness. This isn't comfortable, but it's good practice in intentional living.

I find this kind of living can be destabilizing, which is fine, but sometimes it's a bit too much. To help stay centered, I recommend:
Tip #6: Maintain a Spiritual Practice
Living on the cheap is one huge invitation to enter into a close relationship with immaterial goods. Partly because you won't be able to afford all the material ones on offer.
Living cheaply will provide you with plenty of time to sit quietly, doing nothing, instead of getting in your car and driving to the mall for distraction. It just so happens, sitting quietly, doing nothing is the central practice of mystics of all presuasions through the ages.

All you have to do to be a mystic too is the next time you're sitting there thinking, Why the fuck don't I have a car/house/rich spouse? is start to breathe.
You're already breathing, right?
You got it! And it's FREE. Just pay attention to it.

It's basically self-evident, but there's a lot of advice about how to do this, in library books and online. I like company and encouragement, so I cherish Pema Chodron's teachings on how to breathe. She's an American-born Buddhist nun of the Tibetan tradition.
Here's a site where she writes about the practice of tonglen, or breathing as a way of awakening compassion.

I combine breathing with drinking coffee every morning and counting my rosary beads. I don't usually actually say the rosary ("Hail Mary, full of grace..."), but the practice of counting beads helps calm and focus the mind.

Tip #7: Share
Pain and lack can make us narcissists. I first became aware of this when I had an abcessed tooth at nineteen---all I could think about was my own pain, and I realized emotional pain can do that too. Cultivating generosity keeps me from closing in on myself. Besides, it's fun!

I'm not a fan of Pollyana philosophies like "prosperity thinking" that insist we create our own realities and hence are somehow responsible for our own abundance or lack of it --I mean, unless you are a monster, that line of thinking doesn't really hold up in, say, eastern Congo--but nonetheless, within limits, we can choose to cultivate a sense of "I have enough to share," which is like an antidote to narcissism.

Final thought:
Tip #8: Splurge Sometimes
What's the point of living cheaply if you're living miserably?
For me, thinking deep thoughts, revisioning American culture, playing with other people's pets, practicing compassion, and rummaging in dumpsters just don't cut it all the time.
Splurging on material things has its place.

Case in point: While I usually wait and see movies at discount theaters, on DVD, or at least pay matinee prices, I pre-paid full price ($8.50) for the first show of Star Trek tonight. And I'm buying myself a vodka martini at a swank restaurant, with friends, beforehand.

Sometimes the best things in life aren't free.

"Socrates was a loafer who cared for neither world history nor astronomy. But he had plenty of time and enough eccentricity to be concerned about the merely human, a concern that, strangely enough, is considered an eccentricity among human beings."

~Soren Kierkegaard, from Deanna


deanna said...

I can't help but think you could get paid for an article along these lines. :o)

I aspire to #1 (no more pets after the two I have bite the big one), have learned to embrace 2-4, am so there on struggling with 5, but I'm working on it (and I guess women have it easier, but I'm not sure about that, after feminism), can't help intensely practicing 6, and possibly get more opportunities than you do for 7; however, usually I'm splurging in someone else's style and would rather be home (but Star Trek's different!).

deanna said...

P.S. Can't wait to hear thumbs up or down for ST! Have fun.

fresca said...

Hey! There's an idea, Deanna! I could make money writing about not-making money! : )
(Really, I suppose I should look into that sort of thing, trading words for money, one of these days.)

THANK YOU for saying you struggle with #5 too--even writing about it, my neuroses flared up like an old war wound. Sigh.

I based that bit about women being judged less harshly for not having a car on personal experience--I have a couple men friends who get hit hard for "living simply"--people have accused them of being less than men!

But I don't mean to get into the game between men and women of "who has it worse"--it's really a matter of learning to live authentically as ourselves and weathering whatever comes our way as a result.
That's challenge enough for ANYone.

I will immediately post at least a thumbs up or down about Star Trek (but no spoilers, of course).

ricaria said...

mine again for two I LOVE shopping the alleys! My favorite coat is a red wool, beautifully cut coat that a friend found in the alley. Say, I have a large and furry cat for loan in the second half of July...

bink said...

gee, you must have been home for a half hour by now...where's your Star Trek review?

fresca said...

Hi, Ricaria! Thanks for commenting. A wooly coat and a furry cat--you are set for a wonderful life!

Bink: It's up. Of course I had more to say than thumbs up or down.

Margaret said...

Hmmmm, I'm supposing you won't see this since this was posted ages ago, but I just now discovered this post, (ah, the beauty of tags), and couldn't resist commenting.

"The thing is, if you're an artist, writer, actor, Trekkie, philosopher, single parent, saint-in-training, or committed loafer (without Bertie Wooster's income), you need to know how to live cheaply well, because those pursuits take most of your time and generally pay little or nothing."

A proper quotable quote! I like it.