If somebody was looking for a great example of how to live lean, to truly be efficient in spending and maximize savings… we would not be it. Or at least, we wouldn’t be a good example today
It just takes a quick look at our detailed expenses to see that we are by no means a frugal household. We rent 5-star accommodations, eat out 2 to 3 times a day, and buy whatever we want whenever we want.
This is one reason that I find it a little humorous when the idea of early retirement gets some mainstream press, and people go nuts in the comments.
“Yeah, right. Like I’m going to live like I’m in poverty now, so I can save enough to allow me to live like I’m in poverty forever. No thanks. I’m going to work forever and live a little”
“Yeah, you can do that in Whereverville, but here in my high cost of living area it is impossible (turns on TV)”
Besides ignoring the effects of compound interest, or the value of time and freedom, this type of comment ignores the obvious. A person that lives well below their means can always choose to increase spending. A person that is already spending everything they earn has few options, in spending or in life
So I thought I would look back and see what we were spending while we were still accumulating, to see what 10 years of “living like we were in poverty” in a “high cost of living area” looked like
We don’t budget now and we didn’t back then. We just made budget conscious choices on the big expenses, like rent, transportation, and food.
I also didn’t track spending to the degree that I currently do, and if I wasn’t writing a blog I wouldn’t pay as much attention to it now. That said, Personal Capital is doing a wonderful job of detailing all of our non-cash expenses with zero work on my part. (If you aren’t tracking your expenses religiously, Personal Capital can help you get started)
But with a few hours of digging through old Excel files and mint.com, this is a good representation of our accumulation phase spending.
- Housing – We rented a large 900 sq. ft. 1 bedroom apartment near the University for $980.We were a block from a weekly farmer’s market, a block from a Safeway grocery store, 8 blocks from a public library, 9 blocks from a Trader Joe’s, and 5 blocks from a large city park with walking trails along a stream in old growth forest.(Prior to this, we rented a 400 sq. ft. apartment for $465 and discovered it was too small for us. But if you never try, you never know)I offered to pay a year’s rent in advance for a discount, but the management declined. When we left Seattle, much of our furniture was sold for a profit
- Utilities (included in Housing in the graph)
- Rent included unlimited hot water, garbage, and sewer services. We just had to pay electricity, which averaged about $10/month (more in winter with electric heat, less in summer with 18 hours of sun per day)
- Internet – We had DSL at home for $38.33. This was a discounted rate that we received by simply calling and asking for a lower rate
- Phone – We used WiFi and our laptop or cell phone to make/receive calls at home. Free
- Cell phone – We had 1 cell phone with a monthly expenses of $10 through Air Voice Wireless. Think of it as AT&T, but without the AT&T price tag. Republic Wireless is also a great option:
No contract Moto X from Republic Wireless. Plans starting as low as $5/month
- Healthcare – We had a HDHP with HSA through work. Preventative care was free, and included our annual physicals. This plan cost $0 out of pocket unless we needed healthcare, which we never did. In a big way, our groceries and transportation choices were also our healthcare
- Transportation – Average monthly expense: $30. We didn’t own a car, so had none of the hassle or expense of car ownership. I had a free unlimited bus pass through work, but most days I rode my bike. Even in the rain. Because we were in a very walkable neighborhood, 90% of our non-work life was spent within a few blocks of home.My main transportation for 2 years was a bike I bought on Craigslist for $50. I never even changed an inner tube, and eventually sold it for $60.On occasion, we would attend a dinner party at a friends’ home. Usually we would bus there ($2.50), and take an Uber home (~$15.) Give Uber a try with a free ride
- Groceries – We spent about $400/month on groceries. Most came from either Trader Joes, the Farmer’s market, or our CSA. We loved our CSA from Jubilee Farms, a biodynamic farm near Seattle. For $40/week, they would deliver a box overloaded with seasonal produce. Sometimes the box was so heavy, I needed help to lift itWe would also get grass fed beef, pasture raised eggs and chickens, and the occasional produce from the Farmer’s market. Prices were similar to the mainstream crap at Safeway, and about 1/2 the price of Whole Foods99% of our food came out of our own kitchen. Winnie made kombucha, kimchee, and artisan bread. She made French food, Italian food, Thai food, Chinese Food, American food, and some of her own creations. She is an amazing chefI’ve heard a lot of people say they eat out often, or get take out, because “I can’t cook.” Don’t tell Winnie I said this, but she wasn’t always queen of the kitchen. Over the course of our last 3 or 4 years in Seattle, she really came into her own through a tried and true method: practice. This was one of her favorite text books: The New Best Recipe
- Dining Out – Total dining out: $80. Dining out was rare, with the exception of the occasional weekend pastry from an amazing bakery or for date night. When we did dine out, it was usually for traditional Asian food for ~$15/meal. Or sometimes for pho, where a large bowl for 2 cost $5.95
- Alcohol – Drinks with friends was a regular event for us, usually at one of the more upscale drinking establishments available: the back porch of a friends’ home. We would usually buy a box of fine wine for $18 at Safeway, and it would last a month. Sometimes there was too much wine so we might go 2 months without buying more. We would also sometimes go for Happy Hour at an Irish Pub, with 2 for 1 Guinness or Hard Cider for $5(I once bought a wine making kit from somebody on Craigslist for $5. The result was undrinkable, but provided several months worth of cooking wine)
- Entertainment – Actual Entertainment expenses from Oct 2012: $25.93. This was $15 for 2 tix to a concert in a small venue, $8.75 for Netflix, and $2.18 to print some photos at Walgreens.Not included here is all of the FREE Entertainment that we would enjoy regularly… walks through a nearby old growth forest, bike rides along the lake, talking with vendors at the Farmer’s Market, reading books from the library, or dinner parties with friends (already included in groceries and alcohol, above)
- Misc – Actual Misc expenses from Oct 2012: $38.13. This included a birthday card, laundry, some cleaning supplies, and $18 for RAM for our Macbook Air.Sometimes we bought clothes, often from a thrift shop. I once bought 10 new t-shirts for $1 from a thrift shop because they were turning over inventory.
Seattle is a high cost of living area, true. We certainly weren’t living in poverty, spending 25% more than the Federal Poverty Level for a Family of 2. And certainly some months we spent more than this
But it was this kind of spending that allowed us to save 70%+ of our after-tax income for years, and even deposit my whole paycheck into our brokerage account once the dividends and interest covered all of our expenses
On the flip side, we had friends that were spending 2x our total expenses just on rent, while also having a lease on a BMW 3-series, paid parking, regular dining out, etc… (And maybe commenting on blogs about how they want to live a little and it isn’t possible to save in their area :-P )
We definitely spend more now, but we would both happily return to our little oasis in Seattle. Spending more hasn’t translated into greater happiness, although much more freedom certainly has