expenses

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been getting our American life back.

We’ve moved to a new city, got a new apartment, my husband started a new job, and we’ve started replacing everything we sold or canceled before Colombia.  It’s almost like moving out of our parents’ houses again.  We are basically starting from scratch.

But now that we’re pretty much settled, we’ve been working on ways to optimize our expenses.    Here are some ways we’ve been rocking it…and some other ways we’ve failed.

Wins

Housing

We have rented an uber cheap studio apartment in the not-so-nice part of town to save on housing costs.  Because we want to do our first house hack in the next year, we opted for cheapo rent for 9 months until we can get to know the real estate market here and save for a down payment.

I love our studio.  It’s small, so we can’t collect a lot of crap, plus it’s super easy to clean.  I like that we are utilizing every inch of the apartment, instead of having a lot of extra space.  It just feels good to know that I’m not paying extra for extra space. And at $595 a month, I love the price!

The only problem is…we’re in the ghetto.  Not the scared-to-go-outside ghetto…but pretty close.  Our neighbors all play super loud music at all hours of the day or night.  The druggies downstairs go outside to yell at each other at 4:30 in the morning. And the guy next door yells at his “b*tch” all day.

Sometimes when we can’t sleep because the neighbor’s weed is so rank, I wonder what we got ourselves into.  Then I remember that we have a 9-month lease. After living in Colombia for 15 months, I feel pretty confident that I can take anything for 9 months.  We’ll see how that goes!

Car

This is one of my favorite wins.  We sold one of our cars before moving to Colombia so we only had one car between us when we got back to the States.  I didn’t really want to buy another car.  I was hoping for a way around it.  And then we got one!

My husband’s new job comes with a company car!  That saves us thousands of dollars because we don’t have to buy a second car.  We also don’t have to pay for gas or car insurance for that car.  Woohoo!

Food

I started meal planning in Colombia, and I am obsessed with it.  Once a week, I sit down and plan all of my dinners for the next week.  I usually make a list of produce/dairy products, etc. that NEED to be used up before they go bad, and then I’ll pick recipes that use up those items.  Then I make a list of the ingredients for the recipes and buy pretty much only the items on that list.

Meal planning has so many benefits:

  1. We don’t stress about what’s for dinner
  2. We don’t get lazy and decide to go out to eat
  3. My food waste is basically nil
  4. I only have to go to the grocery store once a week
  5. I’m cooking meals that I actually want to eat, not just microwaving a so-so frozen meal
  6. My cooking skills are improving

Because we are buying just what we need and are using everything before it expires, we are saving a ton of money.

Another way we save money is to only have substantial meat (pork, beef, or chicken) 3 or 4 times a week.  I usually plan 3 chicken meals every week and every other week or so I’ll buy hamburger or pork chops.  This saves us a ton of money, because meat is expensive.  However, my husband is a sucker for bacon, and I am a sucker for him, so we do have bacon 2 or 3 times a week as well.  It’s our weakness, and a pretty costly one.

But we offset the bacon cost by eating a lot of pasta, rice, and potatoes.  I say it’s to offset the cost, but really I just really like all of those things.

So that’s how we save money on dinner…but what about the other two meals?

For breakfast, we usually have cereal 6 days a week, and pancakes on one of the weekend days.  For lunches, my husband takes a turkey sandwich and assorted cheap snackish things, and I usually eat a PB&J or a salad.  Or, if we have leftovers, I’ll gobble those down.

Food is one of the areas we can further optimize, but we’re pretty content with our spending for now.

Maybe you noticed…housing, transportation, food…those are the top 3 expenses of most households!  And they are all in my win category!  Woohoo, we’re starting off good!

Utilities/TV/Internet

Included in our super cheap $595 rent are water, gas, and sewer.  So the only utility we have to pay for is electricity! We have always been super good at keeping our electric bill down.  We never leave lights on and we very rarely turn on the AC.  So hopefully our electric bill will be in the $20-$30 range.

We have never had cable in our married life, so that’s automatically $100+ saved.  We do have a Netflix subscription, and because we reordered it in Colombia, we pay in pesos instead of USD.  So it’s like $5 a month instead of $7.  And yes, we did opt for the cheapest, non-HD plan.  Because, who cares?  Honestly, I don’t even notice a difference.

Also, we got a free TV and Xbox 360 from my mother-in-law (thanks mom!), so we had no upfront TV costs!

I HATE paying for the internet.  Why can’t we all get free WiFi like Pawnee?

I think it is one of the most ridiculous costs ever.  And it’s rising all the freakin time.  But…we just don’t want to get by without it in our family.  So we bought Cox’s $30 a month service, which unfortunately is the cheapest.  And supposedly the slowest, but it works perfect for our needs. Things download fast, I can have multiple internet tabs open, we can both be on our phones while Netflix is playing, and Netflix never has to buffer.  That’s all I really want from internet anyway.

Car insurance

I shopped around online to find the cheapest car insurance, and Geico came up way cheaper than anything else.  Because my husband’s car is a company car, we only had to insure our 2005 Honda Element, so we only paid $400 for 6 months of coverage.  I did pay for the 6 months upfront because it was $30 cheaper than paying month-to-month.  Sometimes it pays to have idle cash sitting around!

The insurance is so cheap because we ONLY have liability insurance.  We do not have comprehensive or collision insurance.

That means that if we hit someone and wreck our car, insurance is not going to pay us.  Or, if someone steals our car, insurance is not going to pay us.

Seems pretty risky, right?  Here’s the thing.  We paid $7,000 cash for our Element.  We will probably pay even less than that for the next car, because the Element was my husband’s dream car “splurge”.  So I would rather set aside $2000-$3000 in savings for a possible replacement car, than pay hundreds of dollars every year to protect against these possible situations.  It’s called self-insuring, and I, for one, am happy with this decision.

If we’re “self-insuring” why did we even get liability coverage?  Because it’s required by law.  If we hit someone else’s car and they need repairs or medical attention, insurance will cover it.  Nevada’s state minimums are super low, like $10,000/$30,000…but I did opt to spend a few more dollars a month to up that to $25,000/$50,000 coverage, just because I don’t want to end up paying out of pocket for someone’s $23,000 car.  Just because we buy cheap cars doesn’t mean everyone on the road does.  It was worth the extra few dollars for my piece of mind.

Furniture

We didn’t have any furniture because, Colombia, so we had to get all new furniture!  This could easily have been a costly expense, but it hasn’t been so far.  Like I said, we got a free TV from our mom.  Then we found a $15 couch at Deseret Industries (kind of like Goodwill or Salvation Army).  Then, because our carpet is like taupe felt, I “splurged” on a $30 super cute rug.  We were also able to talk the mattress salesman down from $369 to $250, so I feel pretty good about that.  Alright so far, right?

We did look in many consignment places, Goodwill, Savers, etc. for furniture.  We even went to a bunch of garage sales.  But the prices were still pretty steep to us, especially because most of the stuff needed work or was just “good enough”.

Since then, I have been looking for “under $20” or “free” stuff on apps like OfferUp, letgo, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and a local buy and sell Facebook group.  And I’ve had some success!   We picked up a free headboard the other night.  Then, in my search for a bedframe, I found a lady giving away a bedframe AND another headboard.  So now I have my choice of two headboards and I plan on selling the one I don’t want.  So instead of being in the hole a couple of hundred dollars, I’ll make a few bucks.  Can’t beat that, right?

I have also found some free dressers, bookshelves, TV stands, etc. that would work, but were taken before I came along.  Now I just check the apps a few times a day for new stuff, so hopefully, we can continue this free streak!

Travel

We were just accepted for our first travel hacking card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred.  We need to spend $4,000 on the card (paid off in full each month, of course) in the first 3 months, and we get 50,000 bonus points.  These bonus points are more than enough to pay for one roundtrip ticket to South or Central America.

And the good news is, we still earn points on every purchase we make, so we can hopefully earn enough to get another ticket make our trip free!  Or, depending on how we feel after having this card for a while, we may get another card with another bonus so we can rack up tons of points.  Either way, a free international trip ain’t bad!

Cell phone

Because my husband will be using crazy amounts of data and minutes for his job, he asked his boss for a phone.  And he got one!  They paid for the phone, a case, and the monthly plan.  So my husband gets a free phone!

Fails

Cell phone #2

I’m counting cell phones as a win and a fail because, although my husband’s phone is free, I tried to optimize my own cell phone plan with pretty disastrous results.

I figured out that I could use a company called Ting and pay like $15 a month.  With Ting, you use WiFi for calling, unless you’re in an area that doesn’t have WiFi, and then it seamlessly switches to a T-Mobile tower.  And you can pay for different tiers of data usage, text messages, and minutes.  So, essentially, you’re only paying for what you use.  I planned on using WiFi as much as possible, so I figured I could easily stick in the $15 range.

When we got to Washington, my mother-in-law gave me her old Samsung Galaxy S4.  Ting said that it was compatible with this phone, so I ordered a Ting SIM card to get it going.  Long story short, there is a known issue with these old Verizon phones, that being that they would not be able to text using another phone carrier.  So phone calls worked fine, data worked fine, I could RECEIVE texts fine, but I couldn’t respond back to them.

After a frustrating 3 week back and forth with Ting and even T-Mobile’s support for Ting, a manager responded and said this was a known issue and they shouldn’t have even told me that the phone would work in the first place.  Thanks a lot, Ting.

I’m not super impressed, but because I will already have to pay for this month’s usage, I’m using them through the month.  Hopefully, I can find the next best solution and only have to pay $20-$30 a month.  But because that phone doesn’t work with anything but Verizon, and the cheapest plan at Verizon is $40, I will probably have to buy a new phone too :(.  So, it’s a fail.

Kitchen items

This is another win/fail.  We had hoped we could get cheap dishes, silverware, pans, etc. from a thrift shop or garage sale.  After having no luck for a few days, we were tired of eating frozen pizzas off of paper plates, so we bit the bullet and paid for new dishes.

When the choice came down to paying $3 for someone’s old scratched pan or paying $5 for a brand new pan at Ikea, the choice was pretty simple for us.

Although we didn’t save as much in this area as we would have liked, we have still kept costs super low.

We bought pans, silverware, and other assorted items from Ikea.  Then we bought dishes and pretty much everything else from the dollar store.  I have always been a huge proponent of the dollar store but WOW are the Vegas dollar stores great.  Some of them are almost as big as Walmart.  We have saved so much money buying stuff from the dollar store.  I have even been buying a large portion of my groceries from there as well!

If you’re not buying your spices at the dollar store, you are wasting money.

So this was a slight fail…but also a pretty big win.

Taxes

My husband’s new company, although full of all the perks mentioned above, including paying for his health insurance, does not have a 401k.

I’m super bummed, because my husband is getting paid pretty well, and when I get a job, it will almost certainly put us in the 25% tax bracket.*

If he had had a 401k and we maxed it out, that would have put our taxable income $18,000 lower and we may have been able to stay in the 15% bracket.  And we’re also missing out on growing $18,000 each year tax-free.  A bummer, but it is what it is.  And I’m definitely grateful for all of the other perks he gets.

*Confused?  Check out my post on the tax advantages of a 401k.

My job

The other side to this idea of increasing savings is to increase our income.  My husband is getting paid more than either of us expected this year, so that is a huge plus and a weight off.

I, however, already know that I will not be making nearly as much as I used to make in California because 1) we’re in Nevada now, where wages are lower and 2) I really want to try something new.

In California, I worked in the mortgage industry and was making pretty good money.  Now, I really want to be a bookkeeper, office manager, receptionist, or just try something new!  The problem is, I am not qualified to do any of these things, because I’m really only qualified to do mortgages.  So I don’t think my resume is getting a second glance.  It’s been tough.

It’s also hard to get used to the idea that I may have to go back to getting paid $14 an hour again.  But ultimately, my husband and I decided that it’s more important for me to be happy in my job for the next 10 years, than be stressed out of my mind but making good money for the next 7.

I hope it works out that we can retire earlier than 10 years anyway, but even if it doesn’t, at least I will be happier and have fewer gray hairs.

Although I LOVE saving as much money as possible, there are some things I am not willing to compromise on.  My happiness, for one.  Because what is the point of all this, if it’s going to make one or both of us unhappy?

Everyone’s priorities are different.  I’m sure many people would opt for the higher-paying job, especially if they knew it would only be for a few years.  But I made the decision to put my happiness first.

You also probably noticed that we opted for the more expensive option in some cases.  We could have purchased a new mattress for $99, or even picked up a used one for free!  But we were willing to spend a little more for better quality.

But then we purchased 90% of our kitchen from the dollar store, because I know that even expensive dishes break, and expensive utensils melt.  My choice was to spend less on these items because it didn’t seem worth it to me to spend more.

Optimizing expenses is like a game for us.  And it’s a game that is super beneficial to our bank accounts, our peace of mind, and our future.  I know that some of these ideas may be too extreme for some people, but I hope that this gave you some good ideas on how to think outside of the box.

How do you save money on your living expenses?  Do you have any other tricks or tips for us?

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2 thoughts on “Hacking Life’s Major Expenses”

  1. It must be both liberating and daunting to start over from basically scratch!

    That apartment sounds like an amazing deal-minus the noise and weed. I hope things calm down so that you can stick it out until you’re able to buy.

    We bought a house with a walk out basement and converted the basement into an Airbnb rental. We make about twice our mortgage each month, and way more than if we rented it out to a single long term renter. I am so all about house hacking! We originally wanted a multi-unit place but the ones we could afford wouldn’t have paid our expenses and the ones we wanted were too expensive. Just something to think about when you start your house search if you don’t find anything right away-sometimes single family homes can be an option!

    1. Starting over has been a fun/stressful adventure. But the year in South America was definitely worth it!

      Things at the apartment are already better. I’m not sure why, but I’ll take it!

      Yours sounds like an amazing house hack! We don’t have very many basements here in Vegas, but you’ve got me thinking…I’m sure there are other options if we can’t find a suitable multi-unit. And we would love to try AirBnbing one of our units. It’s pretty encouraging that yours is doing so well! Thanks for the advice!

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