How to live on $12,000 a year


In my first job out of college, I was on 12,000 English pounds per year. That was back in London in 1996, i was single, lived with two friends and only had rent and travel to pay for. And I still remember how tough that was. Well, one person is doing that right now (right here in the US of course) and recording the experience for us all to share.

The story comes from a site called (as you can imagine, it's more radical in its approach than your average blog). I can't say I am an advocate for everything in the list, I actually want to have a life. I like eating out now and then, and I really don't have the time to unplug every appliance after using it to save $20 a month. But, cherry pick the ones you think are applicable and leave the ones you don't. Here is the bulk of the list, with an introduction from the author...

"How can one possibly live on just $12,000 year, unless you live on the streets?" one might ask. Well it is possible, I've been doing it for the past three years, ever since the Iraq war started and I wanted no part of it. I also had some reduction in my income due to the merger mania that is going on in the United States, so as one of the old jokes goes, "This is a non profit corporation, it's not what we intended, but that's what it turned out to be"

When faced with a cash flow problem, the first thing to do is cut all expenses that you can immediately without having to spend money to do so. Use the money that you save to invest in money saving alternatives, then go to work on finding ways to reduce your greatest expense. For most of us, that will be your housing. But it might take awhile to find a cheaper apartment, sell that 4000 square foot monster you were talked into buying or find an alternative living arrangement.

So here is what I did first that doesn't require any "investment" at all.

  • I got rid of the cable TV/Satellite service. That saved me $50 a month. You'll save at least $40 and up to $100 if you got suckered into "Premium" services such as Showtime or HBO. Television is garbage anyway, and you are better off not watching it. True, there are some things on PBS, Discover and the History Channel that are worth while, but it's not worth spending $50 a month for. I still own a television set, but it is used mostly to watch tapes and DVDs borrowed from friends. It's hooked to an outside antenna for the rare moments, such as a flood emergency, that I even want to watch broadcast television.
  • The next item was to get rid of all the "Phantom Loads". What is that? You may ask. That is all the electrical appliances in a typical household that still draw current, even though they are "off". The worst offenders are TV sets, VCRs, anything with a remote control. You see, in order to respond to the power on command from the remote control, part of the set still must be "on" in order to receive commands from the remote. While the drain may only be a couple of watts, the fact that the drain is continuous makes it all add up. I unplug all these appliances when not actually in use or put them on a switched outlet. I saved slightly over $20 a month on my electric bill by getting rid of these phantom loads.
  • I started driving less. I was shocked to find that I was spending over $2000 a year for gasoline, and that was before prices went nuts. Since I run my own business, I don't have to show up 5 days a week. There was nothing at the post office that couldn't wait a day, so I started driving only three days a week. I took the time to work out on a map a minimum mileage route for things that need to be done. Grocery shopping is done only once a week. Before going on the shopping trip, I check the pantry for items that are running low and buy enough to last a week. If I run out of something, too bad, it waits till the next shopping trip and I learn to be more careful about checking stock before I go. Of course I always take advantage of sales, but only if the unit cost of the sale item is less than buying the house brands. Which is a good segue into the next item.
  • I Buy house brands. With few exceptions, house brands are every bit as good as the over advertised national brands. You'll save anywhere from 5% to 25% by switching to a house brand. The only items that I found in house brands that were not as good were dry cat food (the cat's did not seem to do well) and lab tests have shown that house brand dietary supplements do not have the same level of active ingredients as name brand supplements. However note that the house brand OTC drugs and prescription drugs are every bit as good as the name brands, it's only the supplements that have the problem. You can also minimize the need for supplements by eating a well balanced diet.
  • I Cook from scratch. Prepared food is always more expensive, and full of additives that are probably not good for you. Even simple items like Bisquick contain things like soluble salts of aluminum, which have been implicated in Alzheimer's disease. You are better off health wise and financially by making your own baking mix from flour and baking soda. Here is my weekly diet. It is mostly vegetarian, although it does have poultry two days a week.
  • I never buy "Soft Drinks" (known as 'soda' or 'pop' in some parts of the country). Why waste money on sugared water that is not good for you? If I'm thirsty, I'll drink tap water, which is the best thirst quencher.
  • I Eat In, I Don't Eat Out: When you eat out, you have to pay for the rent or mortgage on the restaurant building, the wages of the employees, and the profit for the owner as well as the cost of the food and the fuel to cook it. By eating at home, the only costs are the food and the fuel. I saved $35 a month by switching to Friday night dinner at home. This is in an area where you can get a good restaurant meal for $10 a person. You'll save even more in an expensive city. Even a frugal meal at the local fast food emporium is going to set you back $5.00. You can "brown bag" a meal for less than $1.00. Oh, be sure to reuse the bag until it falls apart, which brings us to:
  • I Never buy garbage bags. Reuse the bags that you get at the grocery store for your lunch container and for putting out the garbage. Sure they are small, but who cares? They all go into a garbage can just fine! I know that some people just set out the 20 gallon garbage bags by the curb, but that is just asking for the garbage to be raided by animals before it gets picked up.
  • I keep the heat down during heating season. My house is zoned, so rooms that are not being used are set to 55 F. Rooms that are infrequently used are set to 60 F. I have one "warm room" that I keep at 65. If you have forced air, you can close off the registers to the unused rooms. If you have electric baseboard heat, those usually have individual controls. If you have hydronic baseboard heat, the best you can do is close the flaps on unused rooms. If you have one pipe steam, you can install a Varivalve in place of the standard vent, as the name implies, the device is adjustable. Don't try to moderate a one pipe steam system by closing the radiator valve part way, you'll just have knocking and banging if you do.
  • I use the wood stove for heat: I'm fortunate enough that the place where I live has a Franklin Stove and 50 acres of woodlot that can be harvested in a sustainable manner, so when I'm home, I use the wood stove.
  • I don't use air conditioning during cooling season. Where I live, there are only 10 or 12 really bad days a year. I set up a bed in the basement on really hot nights, rather than put in an air conditioning system. People in really warm climates can save by setting their AC to 85 F, which is enough to take the edge off the heat and even more important, reduce the humidity.
  • I don't buy things that I don't really need: Making a shopping list before going to the store really helps. I only buy things that are on the list. I don't go to the grocery store on an empty stomach, so that I'm not tempted to buy junk food. Instead of buying music CDs, which probably only have one good cut on them, I listen to music for free over broadcast radio. If it's a song that I really want my own copy of, I buy the single on the Internet for $1.00. Before buying anything, I ask myself, "Do I really need this? Is it of lasting value? If I won't use it that often, can I borrow it from someone or rent it instead of buying my own?"
  • I repair things instead of buying a replacement: A good rule of thumb is repair it unless the repair is going to cost more than half of the replacement cost, or in the case of a car, more than half of it's market value. Learn to fix things yourself, which will reduce the repair cost. There are plenty of places on the web where you can learn how to do simple plumbing, car, and other house repairs. Even if a repair is beyond your skill or should not be attempted DYI because of safety reasons, you should at least learn the basic technology so that you won't get taken by a con artist.
  • If I do need an item, I try to buy used: With the exception of some appliances like refrigerators, where it makes more sense to buy the newest most energy efficient model, I save money by buying used. I buy "last years" computers at close out sales, they are more than fast enough. When my truck is so old that it's rusted out or I can't get parts for it anymore, I replace it with a three or four year old model. Since depreciation is non linear, that is, the value goes down more quickly when it is brand new, you save a lot of money overall. Which is a good segue to the next item in this list.
  • I never pay interest: If I can't afford to pay cash for an item, I either find a less expensive one, such as paying cash for a $9000 car instead of having to get a loan to buy a $12,000 car, or wait until I've saved enough to pay cash. I always pay off the full balance on my credit card every month. The only exception to this rule is if I can get a really good deal on the loan, meaning that I can take the cash and invest it in a municipal bond fund that is paying more interest than the loan interest.
  • Hang out clothes to dry instead of using a clothes dryer. This can save up to $40 a month, depending on the size of your family and how often you do laundry. During the winter, I hang clothes inside, as this serves to add needed humidity to the air. During the summer, this means planning to do laundry on a sunny day.
  • I don't smoke, never have, but if you do smoke quit! Not only is quitting good for your health, it's good for you finances! A smoker with a two pack a day habit is blowing $180 a month on tobacco!

With the money I saved from the first list, I went ahead and made the following investments.

  • I Replaced incandescent bulbs and fixtures with compact fluorescent bulbs and fixtures. I would do this even before the existing bulbs burn out, you can always use the old, but still working bulbs as spares for infrequently used lights. The manufactures of compact fluorescent bulbs have finally worked out how to make the bulbs roughly the same size as what they replace, so you generally won't have to replace the whole fixture. After this, I was using less electricity living in my house than the former occupant who was only there three days a week!
  • I Replaced my refrigerator with a modern energy efficient model. Actually, the old one's compressor decided to lock rotor on a hot Forth of July when all the stores were closed. I beat it into running with a hammer, but figured it was not long for this world and bought a replacement when the stores opened. I was amazed at how much my electric bill went down. If you still have a refrigerator built before 1993, you will probably save enough on your electric bill to pay for the new machine within three years! Be sure that your new box has the Energy Star label and recycle your old machine. It is also best to go with a traditional top freezer model of less than 25 cubic feet capacity as I did. Side by sides and refrigerators over 25 cubic feet use significantly more energy.
  • I put in a vegetable garden: I've puttered around in the garden off and on, with varying degrees of success. The best I've done was to meet all my vegetable needs for the summer, plus have some extra tomatoes to can for use during the winter. I'm still experimenting with the best way to have a garden with my relatively poor soil and the slug problem, I lost all my peas last year to a slug invasion. I avoid pesticides, since they are an additional expense and aren't good to eat. I estimate that I can grow my own veggies for half the price that I would pay in the store. If you live in the city, the best you can probably do is to have some containers out on the patio or inside a south facing window.

While the author certainly seems to be living the ultimate life of frugality, I think there are many pointers we can all take from this article. Using energy-saving lightbulbs is something I've been doing for a while. A vegetable garden is a great idea, you can't beat your own, home grown produce for taste or price. And my mum always hung our clothes out to dry. They smelled so fresh, too. I think most of us have plenty of room to trim the fat in our budgets. Save the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves, right?

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Andrea Karim's picture

Does this not count living expenses? My mortgage alone is more than double 12K per year.

Paul Michael's picture

Good call Andrea. Like I said, not practical for most of us. In the complete article he mentions the housing issue separately. Here's what he says...

Housing is probably the single biggest expense that most people have. I was fortunate enough to find a friend who had a summer home that was largely vacant most of the year. He was always worried about the heating system breaking down during Winter and coming back next Spring to peeling paint and a cracked boiler as happened one year. Even though he had drained all the plumbing, he obviously did not get all of the water out of the hyrdonic heating system. So we came to the agreement that I could live there rent free in exchange for "guarding" the place, as long I paid for property taxes, insurance and utilities. This has worked out very well, and it might be possible for others to come up with a similar arrangement.

So as I said, not entirely practical. Not many of us can do that, and even if we could, would we want to? I'd feel really insecure. 
By the way, my mortgage just about fits into $12k a year with some change to spare, so all I can assume is you live in one humungous house! Are your tips on frugality coming from experience, or are you really loaded and living next to Bill Gates? Hmm?
Andrea Karim's picture

But I'm having an affair will Bill Gates. He's my sugar daddy.

Actually, my home is about 800 sq feet, but I live in the city of Seattle, which has very high housing costs. I also (brilliantly) bought at the peak of the housing market climb, so my house's value immediately dropped when the market went south a week later. However, Seattle's market hasn't dropped as much as some other housing markets, so I guess I can count that as a blessing of sorts.

Seattle ranks 16th on CNN Money's list of metro areas, but they include Tacoma in that, which significantly drops the cost of our homes. You can't find livable home in metro Seattle for under 400K. Condos, maybe, but not homes.

Paul Michael's picture

but I do live in Aurora, Colorado, which has dipped year after year. Our home is now worth $20k less than what we paid for it 5 years ago. We were hoping it would have had a little equity by now. Bah!

Paul Michael's picture

as of right now I'm one post away from having all 7 stories in the popular content list. Dang you Bill Bradle, i will thwart

Guest's picture

Few of us will achieve all of those cost-saving feats, and few of us would want to. But I agree with the author's position that saving money doesn't have to have a negative impact on our lifestyles. And while it may take some getting used to, we may even discover that we enjoy life more when we aren't working ourselves to death to pay for things we don't really need.

Will Chen's picture

My mom tried instituting that system and we all called her crazy.  I think I should call her and apologize.  I guess part of growing up is finding out that your parents were right all along....

Guest's picture
Bill Bradle

Hey, Paul, what is that about the popular content list?

To those in Denver and Seattle--how about Texas? 2 acres, 3,500 sq. feet, pool, four bedroom, three baths--$450,000 in a school system where your kids can learn something and its a public school system.

Done Aurora. I'll take Texas.

LOL? Still learning this stuff.


Guest's picture

being a student. My income is less than $12,000 and I still find a way to feed my biscuit addiction.

Guest's picture
Dan Masq

for writing this article!!! The phantom appliance one is really what I need to fix! I'm going to start practicing the things you wrote about asap!!

Guest's picture
Stuart Long

to get rid of slugs and snails in a veg .garden:-
Put out a saucer of BEER, level with the ground.the critters will get drunk and drown [truly]
put out the shells of GRAPEFRUITS, the slugs/snails will hide under there...scoop them up and dump them.
Use plenty of MULCH around the veggies, they have a hard time crossing it.
Make little piles of organic BRAN, they eat it and die.