Cheap Tricks

Slate readers share extremely clever, occasionally grim, and surprisingly inspirational tips for getting by when money runs low.

How do people survive once they break the piggy bank?

How do people survive once they break the piggy bank?

Photograph by Photodisc/Thinkstock.

Recently, I asked readers to send stories about living on vastly reduced income for this, the latest installment in  DoubleX’s occasional series on life in the Great Recession. Your responses were simultaneously harrowing and inspiring. Many of you, for example, told of the shock of finding yourselves turning to food banks; of learning to take home slightly moldy produce, cut away the bad parts, and make a decent meal of what remained. This meal turned out to be a pretty good metaphor for your more general strategies of coping with a prolonged economic slump that has left more than 25 million people either unemployed or underemployed: Some of you wrote about what you’ve given up, others wrote about what you can’t bear to part with, and others considered how the economy has changed your relationship to material goods and even each other. Here are your stories and advice.

The Things We Left Behind

So many people are so financially strapped that those of you who were able to sell your biggest possession—the house you could no longer afford—actually turn out to be the lucky ones. Others packed up and walked away, or were removed. One woman whose family business is going broke sued their mortgage provider over a paperwork error, a snafu that has proved to be a blessing. “If we weren’t in a house that’s involved in a lawsuit, we’d be homeless,” she wrote.

Many people have also shed their second largest possessions; Cars. The wife of an unemployed salesman said this: “I was forced to give up my beloved Mustang I waited 25 years to buy. I insisted that the bank come and pick it up because it was too stressful driving it, thinking they’d repo it while I was at the store.”

After the big things were gone, people wrote, they started assessing everything else. One woman who is the paralegal for her husband’s solo law practice said that before the bust they were making $200,000 a year. Now their income is $25,000. “We gave up cable TV, eating out, movies, date night, and steaks,” she wrote. “My husband gave up his martial arts lessons, I gave up my gym membership, buying art supplies, buying clothes or getting my hair done. Our youngest didn’t get to be a cheerleader in high school because we couldn’t afford the $2,000 it cost for uniforms and cheer camp. She wears hand-me down clothes and doesn’t go out with her friends because there is no extra money for ice cream.”

A single mother of two children still in day care who has had to take a 20 percent pay cut from her administrative job at a university wrote this: “I lost 40 lbs and I’m still wearing my size 18 pants because I can’t afford to spend money on clothes for me. We moved to a smaller apartment to save money and I don’t have a bedroom, so I sold my bed. I now sleep on a mattress on the living room floor. I sold my laptop, dressers, computer monitor. The most heartbreaking was selling my standing KitchenAid mixer. I used it all the time and I miss it a lot. This year, for Christmas, we are not going to buy a tree. We’re going to use butcher paper and glitter and make a paper tree and stick it on the wall.”

Then there are the intangible sacrifices. Pamela, 70, whose aviation technician husband was involuntarily retired from his job a few years ago says that they can no longer afford to travel. This hurts, since their families are several states away. “I have not seen them for four years,” she wrote. “Mom is 93.”

What We Can’t Do Without

Not everyone can become an ascetic and renounce all worldly goods. Pamela, who now cleans houses three days a week to supplement her Social Security while her husband does handyman work, wrote that she still indulges in some luxuries—“but a lot less than before. I have acrylic nails which I maintain at $17 every three weeks.” A minister who had her pay frozen and who is married to a mortician whose pay has been cut (could it be that people don’t think they can afford to die?) echoed other readers when she said that although one of the first things to go was cable TV, “We got Netflix instead.”

Freelance writer K. Schipper and her husband used to make a good living writing for trade magazines in the building industry, but when their income took a nosedive, she discovered her limits. She did away with the second car and takes the bus a lot, but “we bucked up and paid up when both the washing machine and the dishwasher died.” She also couldn’t give up the newspaper, but when she’s done with it she passes it on to a friend who can’t afford it.

A man who with his wife runs a computer repair firm said that since the downturn they have fallen behind on their bills and run through their retirement savings. But, he wrote, “We still go out on date night to local restaurants, and we tip well. If you want to make yourself feel better and make a direct positive impact on someone else—tip well.”

Don’t Try This Without a Safety Net

People wrote about the humiliating realization that they not only qualified for government assistance, but needed it in order to avoid going hungry. Here’s the story of one woman who at the end of 2008 went on maternity leave from her job as an architectural drafter, only to have her husband’s position as a mechanical draftsman disappear the same week. She applied for the federal Women, Infants, and Children program so she could eat, but the welfare payments—she notes she graduated form college with honors–filled her with shame: “My baby was due any day. Her gorgeous crib and layette seemed a sick joke. I didn’t deserve this baby.” The baby arrived anyway, but when her maternity leave was up she no longer had a job to go back to. She and her husband went jobless for more than two years, during which time he started drinking, then left the state to look for construction work. Upon his departure, she discovered she was pregnant again. “I don’t think I can explain how demeaning it was to go down to the social services office and apply for food stamps and Medi-Cal,” she wrote. “I sometimes had to hear from my own mom about her disbelief that a child of hers was on government assistance.”

Then, miraculously, things turned around. Her husband came home for the birth of the baby, stopped drinking, and found a job—with health insurance!—as a garage door technician. They got off food stamps. She wrote: “For all the people out there who denounce government assistance, I am deeply grateful for the help that was given when we desperately needed it.”

Bye Bye, Baby

The Census Bureau recently tallied one of the unseen consequences of the downturn: the children who were never born because people in their childbearing years concluded that they couldn’t afford them. According to this count, which compared birthrates before and after the bust, some 200,000 babies have failed to materialize.

The minister and her mortician husband, who have one child, are among those who said that they wouldn’t be having the second child they had planned. She wrote, “We have run the numbers, and there is no way to either pay for a second daycare fee, or have one of us stay home, unless we foreclose and move into a tent.”

But financial burdens aren’t just keeping family sizes down; they’re also keeping unattached young people from even contemplating having families. One 23-year-old assistant teacher who signed himself, “Cynical” has moved back home with his unemployed fiftysomething mother to help her pay the mortgage after she lost her teaching job. The mother remains hopeful about the future, but her son is not sure she’ll ever find work in education again. “Our household is one of the formerly middle-class homes that are slipping into inescapable poverty,” he wrote, adding that he would like to move out and start his own family one day but doesn’t know how he’ll do that, let alone pay off his student debt, while trying to help bail out his mother.

A young architect who can’t find work in his field and now has a job at a grocery store wrote that he doesn’t even think about romance anymore. I can get along fine but I am ashamed of my situation and don’t want to be a dark cloud for someone else. My vision for the future does not extend beyond the next month as I have to struggle to pay this month’s bills.”

Sometimes love conquers numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, though. Wallpaper designer Given Campbell and her boyfriend, a fellow artist, put off marrying for years because of the economy. They finally tied the knot in 2010 and both got rid of their studios. Now they work at home and sleep in the dining room.

At Least We Have Our Health (Insurance)

Health insurance, or the lack of it, is a continuing burden for the under- and unemployed. Because their client base has shrunk, the middle-aged, self-employed computer repair consultant and his wife dropped their insurance. The premium was $800 a month and came with a $5,000 deductable. “Since we’re basically healthy,” he wrote, “this huge expense has a much lower priority than paying the mortgage, eating, and putting fuel in the car.”

Giving up one’s insurance is a gamble, but having health insurance is no guarantee a health crisis won’t be financially ruinous. One single mother of two teenagers lost her job selling advertising but kept her children’s health insurance through COBRA. Then her daughter broke her neck. “The ten percent that was not covered by insurance was insurmountable, it was more than I ever made in a year,” the mother wrote. The electricity was turned off before she finally declared bankruptcy. (Her daughter, fortunately, made a full recovery.)

One man wrote that during an extended period of underemployment he signed up at a temp agency that offered health insurance for $12 a week, as long as he worked that week. Because he could drive a stick shift he was able to get a guaranteed gig driving cars through the line at an auto auction. At the end of the day he would pocket only $25 after taxes, but, he wrote, “The peace of mind of knowing that a trip to the doctor wouldn’t wipe me out was well worth it.”

Barter and Swap

A retired teacher who racked up a lot of credit card debt when times were good found herself unable to pay her bills and so has turned to bartering. She gets her house cleaned in exchange for piano lessons, she catered a dinner party in exchange for fabric (she sews), and she drives a friend to appointments in exchange for symphony tickets.

Once a month, Pamela’s weight-watching group holds a clothing exchange. She wrote, “My wardrobe has improved significantly over the last two years doing this.” Another woman who’s seen her income decline said that she gets free hair appointments from a hairdresser friend in exchange for running the salon’s Facebook page.

A woman laid off last year from a communications job in Washington, D.C., wrote to recommend her experience renting out an extra bedroom with Airbnb. “I make two to three times what I’d make by bringing in a roommate,” she explained. “Plus it’s been really great to meet people from all over the world.”

Some people have turned to the informal, or cash, economy. The young architect who works at a grocery store does small rehab projects for cash: $800 for a yard, $1,000 for a kitchen. Because he lives in a college town, he also offers his rental house for $300 a night to students looking for a place to party.

Redefining Fun

No matter how grim life may have become, almost all of the people who wrote me refuse to see it as a Dickensian slog. The paralegal whose lawyer husband’s salary has been reduced by almost 90 percent described discovering that “packing a picnic lunch and going to the beach is more fun than going shopping at the mall.”

One young woman with a husband, a baby, and a pair of reduced incomes (plus student loans) wrote that weekends used to be about spending money: “We used to go shopping, to the movies. Now, we try to do things that aren’t consumer driven. We go to the park, have picnics, go to story time at the library, take drives, go hiking, go to the farmer’s market, go stargazing, we pick apples in the fall and strawberries in the summer. We go to museums—there are several in our immediate area that are free or inexpensive.”

K. Schipper, the writer, told me that she and her circle have developed frugal substitutes for the dinner party: “We’ve found with several of our friends that dropping by for a glass of wine at the end of the afternoon or stopping in for coffee and dessert after dinner is just as good.”

A middle-aged architect who’s kept his practice going but hasn’t drawn a salary in two years (his wife is still employed) said they used to go on expensive resort vacations. “Now we drive to state and national parks and have grand adventures with our kayaks and bikes.”

One woman who has kept her administrative job in the construction business, even as her husband, in the same line of work, lost his bigger salary, wrote that entertainment has changed for the three of their five children who are still at home: “We learned to enjoy our weekends at home, washing vehicles with music playing and dancing in the driveway. Yard work encompassed laughter along with sweat. Being frugal has become such a way of life that we have come to realize just how much money was wasted on a daily basis in the past.”

We Appreciate What We Have

While economic hard times have provided plenty of desperation, many people also made a point of noting that they still experienced gratitude. As the paralegal wrote: “We have gone from fairly affluent with regular vacations to below poverty level, and guess what? We’re still here! Our experience with this has brought the family so much closer that it has been worth it.” The young wife with the baby who used to spend her weekends shopping added this: “We are better off now than we ever were when we had more money.”

The woman who gave up her Mustang wrote of seeing her salesman husband turn to washing dishes at a restaurant, of paying a huge penalty for dipping into their 401(k)s, of declaring bankruptcy, and of facing the loss of their home. And yet, she wrote, “We gave it a good struggle, but it’s just a house. I have a healthy family, a strong marriage, and a good college kid. I’m tired but there are people worse off than me. So what if I have to shop at thrift stores and clearance racks at Wal-Mart?”

The middle-aged architect said that although he’s not a religious person, the bible story of seven fat and seven lean years made a powerful impression on him as a young man. “My most creative solution to my economic situation was planning a frugal lifestyle 30 years ago,” he wrote. Now that he’s living the lean years, he’s found some compensation: “With more time on my hands, my quality of life actually improved hugely. I have time for a hot breakfast and make a home cooked dinner every night. The house is cleaner. And my wife and I have gotten much closer.”