Champagne lifestyle on $20,000

Although the title of this post is a bit cheeky, I chose the picture above – taken at Wallagoot beach, NSW in 2015 when we were home to have our daughter – because in that moment, I truly felt like I was living the dream.

The air was warm, the sea was warm and green, baby Callie ate sand with our friend Kat while we swam, and I felt like a dolphin.

[As any woman who has had a baby can tell you, it doesn’t take much to feel like a dolphin in contrast to the lumbering of late pregnancy!]

I recently wrote a post about living below the federal poverty line, and several people have asked me to explain how that works, exactly.

Because Haak and I have decided our marriage wouldn’t survive if one of us got to live in their homeland, and the other only got to visit their’s, we’ve moved a lot in the last ten years.

Moving a lot is not conducive to making money the traditional way – by sticking with a job or industry, seeking promotion, and networking to move up.

Because people in our communities know we are transitory, employer’s have to be willing to hire us short term. The school district here employed me as a teacher’s aid and mental health worker when I first lived here, and some of those jobs I was able to work for two years.

Haak has worked part-time at our local hardware store for the almost three years we’ve been stateside this time.

And we pick up jobs painting, building, child minding, cleaning, cooking …

When we are in Australia, our income has typically been higher, [more like 26,000-30,000] but the dollar is worth less, wages are higher, and things are more expensive, so our quality of life is similar.

[Except we drink waaaayyyy more alcohol here than in Australia – a really good six pack of local craft beer costs $7-$8.]

Especially in the six years since we had kids, working less and keeping our income low has worked with our life – we wanted to be around  when the kids were small, so we’ve chosen to do paid work 2-3 days a week and work which is not paid but adds value to our lives, saving us money, the rest of the time.

[Like how Haakon built/is building our house, so our loan is only $38,000, but the value is something like $100,000, and I make us such delicious food that we don’t even want to spend $10,000 a year eating out. Also, there is nowhere to eat out in Troy!]

Our basic monthly expenses in Montana are:

$650 – mortgage, house insurance, land taxes

$130 – utilities [sewer, electric, water]

$45 – car insurance

$150 – health insurance

$70 – phone/internet

$400 – food

$100 – gas/petrol

$10 – Netflix account.

We rent our basement studio to our friend Laura, who pays us with $200 per month and by delivering sanity playing with and helping our kids.

[An aside: I still find it hard to think in months with finances, not weeks. Australian’s are generally paid weekly, and costs are measured in week’s, or by that uncommon concept in the US: the fortnight]

We do have a credit card, which we pay every month. I think it has an insane limit – $20,000, which is our emergency money.

In the years we travel, we need to buy plane tickets – I typically search online for months and buy the ticket’s that are so insanely cheap I run out of the house screaming: Get me the credit card! NOW! [this year I found Seattle-Sydney, via Hawaii, one way, four people: $1,600]

Some of our monthly payment’s are notably low compared to the national average – it’s because we do live below poverty line*** that our kids have free health insurance, and we have cheap government-subsidized health insurance.

Also missing in our budget, but common for many American’s our age are college loans [Haakon got an amazing scholarship to attend college, and worked summers, coming out debt free] and car payments. As far as I can tell, the combination of these costs can be $300-$500 per month for many people.

Luckily, there is a strong tradition of driving old, quirky and sometimes unreliable cars in both our families, so we’ll never have to worry about car payments or the cost of comprehensive insurance.

In March this year, we lost our first half decent car [a 2007 Subaru Forester], to engine failure in Pocatello, Idaho, on the way back from a trip to Utah.

It was hard to walk away from $5000 of value, but here’s where our real riches are: in the few months we have left before leaving for Australia, we are driving Haakon’s grandma’s 1989 Toyota Camry.

Not having to replace the car because of family generosity means the money in our savings account – $6000, accumulated from our tax return and saving when I was working last year – can be used to finish siding our house, take a trip to Denver to visit relatives, and fund a few days in Hawaii on our way back to Australia.

I once went to a training when I worked for the after school program here at Troy Elementary. It was about poverty and was designed for middle-class teacher’s working in poor area’s like Troy to better understand the actions of their student’s and student’s families.

The presenter talked about social capital – how instead of buying insurance, people living in poverty rely on their community as insurance.

Although I don’t feel poor very often, this part of our reality is true.  Haak and I are so lucky that our family’s back us, not by giving us money, but with grandma car’s, mechanical help, eggs and garden produce, work connections, and the assurance that if we ever really need it, they will loan us money.

I like the way not having lots of money stops me from buying things all the time without thinking about it.

We almost never buy new clothes, except boots and shoes [and my Darling jacket!].

If I had money, I would buy all new bedding, I would buy all new, handmade mugs, I would buy a new couch … I don’t need these things… I already have them.

I like the way being poor makes me appreciate gifts SO MUCH.

A friend gave me a gift voucher to the local plant nursery this spring, and it was pure luxury to just go and get all the plants I wanted. I never would have done that on my own [thanks, Tess!].

So there is some control, some deprivation, to live within our budget.

It’s easier for Haakon than it is for me because he truly prefer’s the free and recycled, whereas I occasionally lust over new stuff, or long to travel more.

The time I most often wish we had more money is when I want to be generous – and my tactic here is usually to use money sitting in savings from the other country [for some reason it doesn’t count???].

 

We’ve had good luck and good health, and I don’t feel poor.

I feel rich.

 

How much do you make? is it too much/too little? how do you budget? save? are you in debt? have you lived below poverty line? I’d love to hear from you!

 

*** in 2017, the US federal poverty line for a family of four was $24,600

 

 

 

5 Comments

  1. I’m so glad you posted this! I think being open about our finances is so important…it helps put perspective on our decisions. So in that vein:

    We make roughly $50,000 / year. Our monthly expenditures: $500 mortgage, $500 in student loans ($250 each, this varies depending on how much we made the year prior), $200 in utilities (a bit higher than your wood heat, though if you buy the wood I think it pencils out), $40 car insurance, $50 gas, $400 in food, $75 life insurance (I think), and we spend $150 dining out or at bars. Living the lux life, I guess!

    Cell phones and internet I pay for with my freelance business (internet) and Sturdy Girl (pays for all my family’s phones).

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    1. Thanks, Kate, and thanks for sharing your finances. It’s liberating, right?! I love your comment that sharing, or even just knowing, how we spend our money puts our decisions in perspective. So true – no right or wrong, but if we know what’s going on, we can confidantly decide it’s worth it/not worth it to cut wood, for example.

      Like

  2. Oooh, I want to find out how you search for those cheap airfares. I’m like you, I’ll search for ages to find one at ‘the right price’! Tips on websites? I appreciate your reflections. It is hard to balance the pragmatic (yes, my couch is perfectly fine) with the desire for novelty, style or beauty (but I want to get it covered!). I’m very fortunate financially, but to afford travel, I have to be very cautious with my financial choices, like you.

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    1. I’d love to share how I find the cheapest
      flights: the last two flights were throughJustfly.com and cheapoair.com. I think my best tip is to keep trying, and if you have flexibility with when you travel, try different departure and arrival dates – sometimes there is $1000 difference when flights to a destination flip over into peak season. Good luck!

      Like

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