Saturday, October 23, 2010


Hello gentle reader,

My name is Nate and to most Americans, I'd probably be considered poor. Most of my adult life I have been living under the poverty line (that is, earning less than $10K a year). At age 29 I earn approximately $17K and share a small efficiency apartment in north Chicago with my girlfriend. My hope is to use this blog to share the ways in which I manage to live what I feel is a pretty comfortable lifestyle on far less than what most middle and upper class Americans seem to feel they need to survive. A lot of what I have to say may seem pretty self evident or intuitive, yet I frequently seem to encounter prevailing attitudes and assumptions about the way we Americans live our lives that strike me as excessive, wasteful and often quite foolish.

First off, I'd like to acknowledge that there are many circumstances that could make my lifestyle impossible for many people. My aim is not to suggest that everyone should live like me. I haven't chosen to have children, I don't have student loans or a mortgage. I've not got aging parents to care for. For people with those or other considerations in their lives, it would be unfair to suggest they should just get by on the small amount of resources that a young, unburdened guy like me can. Although many all over the world do just that. I've had loads of colleagues and friends that manage to raise families on pretty much the same income that my girlfriend and I have. Its not easy, and it requires a lot of sacrifice, but they do it.

What I really want to do is to provide at least one example of how a person can live pretty well without having to earn a lot of cash. Its my firm belief that we Americans have developed an over inflated sense of entitlement towards the world's resources, and that our only hope for a sustainable future is to change our day to day lives to reflect the reality of our limited capacity for production and consumption. Most of what we consume, we consume on credit and in the last 30 years or so, we have managed to outsource most of the things that we take for granted from shoes to cars...even milk. Thats not even to mention our rapid harvest and consumption of carbon based fuels in the last 100 years. This can't continue. We have to learn to live on what we can actually harvest and produce in an equitable and sustainable way. Doing that while maintaining the same lifestyle most Americans have been enjoying is frankly impossible.

So, you might ask, “what are you suggesting? Should we all live in hovels? Do you expect us to become paupers and live in the woods in hippie communes, foraging for berries?”. My short answer is, certainly not. I am an urbanite, I believe in mass production and division of labor. I am not some kind of Anarchist drop out that thinks the world would be better off without international banking, corporations or government. On the other hand, I believe these institutions could certainly be better managed. Regardless, this is a blog about personal lifestyle choices not politics or economics.

So what ARE you suggesting? You say you live well on very little. What does that mean for you?”

Well, for starters, I live in a VERY small apartment. My girlfriend and I split the rent which is $580 total with gas and water included. We live in a safe, culturally diverse neighborhood on the far north side of Chicago just a couple blocks away from Lake Michigan. The fact that we live in a dense neighborhood with lots of mixed use zoning means we don't have any need for a car. My bank is on the ground floor of my apartment building, theres a grocery store right across the street, and 3 more within about 4 blocks, there are loads of restaurants and coffee shops in the area. My dentist is less than a ¼ mile away. We ride our bikes all year round and for pretty much everything. Work is a 20 minute bike ride away, and my longest commute is to the community college which is about 45 minutes away.

You live in a tiny efficiency with your girlfriend, how is that living well?”

Well, we don't have much space, but we use what we have wisely. I used to work as a construction worker for a small contractor, and I currently study architecture and environmental building technologies. When I rented this apartment over a year ago, I set out to build an infrastructure that could support our chaotic, busy lives in such a tiny space. I've managed to fit a queen sized bed, a fully equipped kitchen with dining area, an office, artist's loft and living area in one 12'x15' room with a 9' ceiling. We have a pretty decent sized library of books and DVD's as well as a respectable collection of vinyl. I've got an espresso station in the kitchen where I brew my home roasted coffee. Under the counter I keep four 3 gallon fermenters for making my own beer, wines and hard ciders. Theres a full sized Yamaha keyboard in my office thats mounted on a hinge so it can hide behind my desk (which is on casters) when not in use. My girlfriend uses our 3 windows (two in the main room, one in the bathroom) to grow herbs and we are excited to have a go at cultivating mushrooms on a log suspended over the doorway this autumn. We keep our fridge stocked with home cooked meals made up of organic ingredients (I was a professional cook in a previous life and have recently started a one man catering service). I pretty much always have a cranberry wine or hard cider on tap to help me unwind from a long day while reading the news online or watching a film with my girlfriend. Despite our low incomes we manage to take trips now and again, last year I spent 2 months in southern Mexico studying Spanish, this last summer We spent a week in a B&B in Seattle, I've also made two bicycle trips to Wisconsin in the last year and a couple trips to visit friends in Detroit. As mentioned I am a student and I manage to keep current with my tuition by working 32 hours a week at a residential facility for adults with developmental disabilities. It may not pay as well as working for a stock brokerage or a law firm but I love my job. The fact is while earning what might be considered near poverty level wages to many in this country, I live far better than most of the people on this planet when you consider how many people in this world live without access to potable water, electricity or anything resembling an environment of safety or comfort.

Here's a few basic building blocks for comfortable low budget living that work for me (but admittedly not for everyone):

Never borrow money from institutions for ANYTHING, EVER. No credit cards, no student loans, no mortgages. If I can't pay for it now, that means I can't have it now. Having monthly payments like these is what seems to bring people with larger incomes than me down to a lower standard of living. Sadly, its just not true anymore that an expensive education will necessarily increase your ability to earn the money needed to offset the cost of that education (plus interest!). Similarly, as many Americans learned in the recent real estate meltdown, buying a house when you don't have the money for it isn't actually a very sound financial decision. I tend to look at home ownership as being synonymous with entrepreneurship. If you buy a house, you should probably have the financing, skills and determination to manage it. People that think its always better to be building equity in a home than to rent usually aren't thinking about burst pipes, leaky roofs or variable interest rates. I shouldn't even have to point out the insanity of using credit cards for your everyday expenditures. Pay as you go and things get a lot simpler.

Get rid of your car. Every time I have ever gone through any serious financial distress it has come down to owning a vehicle. Most people seem to take cars for granted, claim they are a necessity (which is sometimes true, if you live in rural or suburban areas, or if the only work available to you is too far away for public transport or bicycle) and then go and spend an insane portion of their income on payments, fuel, repairs and insurance, just to get themselves around! Ive heard the argument many times that paying the extra rent to live in a dense urban area just isn't realistic, usually from people that earn exactly the same paycheck that I do. The fact is, living in the city WITH a car IS more expensive than living in many suburbs, but doing that ignores the greatest advantage of being a city dweller: you don't need a car if everything you do is within a short walk, bicycle or train ride!

Learn how to cook. If you don't know how to slice an onion, fry an egg or make a decent soup, saving money can be very tough. I'm not saying you have to become the next Bobby Flay or Emeril Lagasse (god forbid!). Just learn how to make a few basic dishes. If you are busy like me it helps to make big batches that will last a whole week or freeze things for later. If you find that most of your meals consist of preprepared dishes from the supermarket or take out from restaurants you are probably spending way too much money on low quality food. I wouldn't suggest that you never eat out, going to restaurants to have a fabulous meal that one couldn't have at home is one of life's great simple pleasures. On the other hand if you find yourself grabbing lunch at fast food chains or getting take out from the greasy chinese place down the street just because its convenient you are doing a great disservice both to your health and your pocketbook. I find that if I eat out once or twice a month rather than once or twice a week, I can afford to really enjoy those nights out by going to a good restaurant. Another way to go is to find those few budget friendly gems that usually exist in most cities that are large enough to have ethnic enclaves. Look for the places with dirty floors and no white people and you might just find that amazing Chinese pork bun for a buck, the tamale vendor under the train stop “Rojo o Verde?”, the 2 dollar falafel, a 5 dollar Pakistani feast or the $3 French Vietnamese sandwich. It helps if you are a little more adventurous about food than your average TGIFridays/IHOP customer. We live in a melting pot/salad bowl people, take advantage!

Live Small. This is really just a general philosophy. In a world overwhelmed with a need to shop, just take a deep breath and ask yourself “do I really need all this crap?” We buy things sometimes not out of any necessity or even pursuit of any kind of real satisfaction or enjoyment. Whether we're in the checkout line of the grocery store or at the convenience mart, cruising Target or Walmart for a pair of socks, we are bombarded with opportunities and enticements to purchase things we never would have imagined we wanted or needed. Then throw social conventions into the mix, holidays and birthdays that come with compulsory gift giving. How many times have you received a gift that you immediately recognized as something you wouldn't ever use? Now, before I get labeled a soulless curmudgeon (perhaps a fair designation) I should say that theres nothing wrong with gift giving. Sometimes you find just the right thing for someone you care about and say to yourself, “thats perfect for....” but the idea that you are some kind of negligent creep for not buying everyone you know some pinche plastic garbage at the big box store every year just because its Christmas is going a little too far if you ask this scrooge.
Who says you need 2,000 square feet of living space to be comfortable? Does that light in the bathroom really need to stay on regardless of whether or not someone is in there? Do you need the massive deep freeze in the basement? Really? If you are headed down the street 6 blocks to buy a carton of milk, why are you driving your car? Are you really in that big of a hurry? Do your legs still work? Do you need that sixth pair of shoes? Is the thrift store such a terrifying place that you can't go buy a stainless steel mixing bowl for a dollar instead of paying $18 at that boutique kitchen store? Are you so lazy that you will pay a 500% mark up to the guy who just bought that nifty modern chair at an estate sale instead of going hunting for it yourself? Start to live like an old age pensioner who lived through the great depression. Become crotchety and grow hair in your ears. Only eat tinned ham and collect stray cats as if they were baseball cards. Sneer at young children wearing over sized clothing in the street. Spend countless hours that might otherwise have been productive cutting coupons from newspapers stolen from your neighbors stoop. Complain endlessly to whomever will listen about anything and everything that comes to mind. Wait, no... I'm sorry, I think I've gone too far...

Anyway folks, I hope my modest ramblings and rantings bring some small tidbit of interest into your lives. If I am able to get someone to try a recipe, help provide tips to save money while living a little better and at the same time slow our voracious appetite for the worlds resources, I will be satisfied that I'm not merely wasting my time by engaging in a vain attempt at self promotion.