Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Living Well with Less Money than a Prisoner

On the bus this morning, I was reading the book "Freakonomics" by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, and took notice to a part of the book that said that each prisoner in the United States costs $25,000 a year for living expenses, etc. Consider now that the average graduate student makes less than $20,000 a year. Does this mean that the only way a graduate student can survive is to live like a prisoner or take out huge loans to supplement their stipend? Absolutely not. For me, not only does my stipend provide enough for my living costs, but also allows me to fund expensive hobbies like photography and world travel. I assure you that $20,000 is more than enough to live on, no matter where you live.

Let's consider the basic costs of a graduate student.
  1. Shelter
  2. Bills
  3. Food
The cost of shelter will depend highly on the area in which you live. However, I will say that there are always deals to be had. I live in a townhouse with 4 other people. It can be crowded and somewhat noisy sometimes, but what grad student really spends very much time in his or her house? We want to seek adventure and that often is not found at home. Find the cheapest place you can in a safe neighborhood close to your school so you can use public transportation or a bike. Driving a car to school and paying for parking should only be a last resort. This is a BIG time and money sink. And besides, riding on the bus is a great place to read books and meet people.

Bills are often pretty unavoidable, but identify which ones you can eliminate. How often do you really watch cable? We can't avoid electricity bills, but you can always save by not using the air or heat unless you have to, turning off the computer at night, and generally being conservative. We live in a time of environmentalism, but the best thing to cause people to conserve has and always will be pure economics. Using electricity costs me money, therefore, I will ration appropriately. The cell phone is pretty important to keep up with your soon to be very active and rewarding social life, so we probably don't want to eliminate that. Keep the Internet too so you can read my blog!

Food is really the way to save money. When is the last time you ate out by yourself or bought food at the lunch court at your school? For most of you, probably very recently. This is a totally unnecessary cost and if you think about it, probably provides little or no value to your life. I am probably an extreme example, but trust me when I say that lunch can be had for an entire week for less than $5. That is much less than the $7 or so many spend per day on lunch to eat alone and waste time waiting for people to prepare it. Consider spending $35 a week on food at school. Multiply that times 50 and that is $1750 a year for just lunch. We can easily make your lunch bill 1/4 of that number. Here is what I do.

A pound of spaghetti costs about $1 at the store and the sauce costs about $1.50. Cook the spaghetti and put it in Tupperware without the sauce on it. Now everyday at lunch you can just microwave some spaghetti and pour some sauce on it. It is easy and delicious. I have been eating like this for lunch for the past 6 months and still look forward to it. This can be supplemented with eating fruits and vegetables throughout the day. I prefer bananas, oranges, and whole carrots. It may sound crazy to eat the same thing for 6 months straight but you can get used to it really quickly. I am sure there are plenty of other cheap alternatives too. Also, do not worry about getting enough food. I am over 6 feet tall and nearly 200 lbs so you will probably eat less. Either way though, it is important to bring your lunch rather than waste time and money going to the cafeteria. I love my cheap efficient diet, but it is also important to know when you can cheat. Having dinner or lunch with a friend every once in a while is a great way to network and develop important relationships with people. Interacting with interesting people is one the most important aspects of a spicy lifestyle. Again, the important thing here is to identify what you really value. Food to me, most of the time, is simply a way to sustain my healthy life. However, when I am enjoying a meal with a friend or group of friends I can really appreciate food so much more. Identify the money leaks in your food budget and eliminate them.

Here is an approximate sample budget for me for a single month:
  1. Rent - $475
  2. Electricty and Internet - $50
  3. Food -$100
  4. Car Insurance and Phone - $125
  5. Gas - $75
My nominal expenses for a month are around $825. I could probably figure out how to make this even less, but regardless, this leave me around $1000 every month to spend or save as I please. How else could I buy thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment or spends thousands a year travelling. These are the things that cost lots of money but greatly enhance my life quality. However, many aspects of a spicy lifestyle are free or much cheaper.

Life is not all about penny pinching and worrying about money. However, it is important to eliminate inefficiencies so you can spend money on things you really value. Having more money is just one part of the equation though. Having more time and using your time efficiently is just as important.


cspice said...

I am going to have to call your bluff on the $100/month for food. Let's say you eat 2000 calories a day. That means you are averaging about 600 calories for every dollar you spend. Given the fact that there are only a handful of foods that provide over 400 calories per dollar, I think it would be pretty hard unless you ate spaghetti for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!

mspice said...

Double that and you still have plenty of money for spiciness! Regardless, making subtle changes to the way we eat will save a ton of money to be used for true spicy lifestyling.

cspice said...

It is funny how my other friend is taking almost the opposite approach. He thinks that you should spend tons of money on organic whole foods since that is one of the best ways to prevent disease and aging. He even went so far as to say that you should never eat pasta, rice, bread, or potatoes! That alone would force our food expenses up a lot! But I guess I find myself in between you and him. I want to get a variety of healthy foods, but I also don't want to go past the point of diminishing returns, such as paying twice as much for cage-free eggs.