How We Get By (and Live Large!) on One Modest Income

The ultimate act of rebellion in a consumption-based society is frugal simplicity. And I am nothing if not a simple, frugal guy who likes to rebel against the soulless dictates of capitalism. I derive exquisite satisfaction from beating the system (preferably to a pulp).

It’s been nearly 7 years now since we starting being a 1-paycheck household. My wife has been working her tail off at home with no monetary compensation since our son was born, and my income is manageable (depending on who’s doing the managing) but decidedly modest. With 2 kids and 1 mortgage, each paycheck needs to go a long way. Despite these seemingly long odds, though, and in this harrowing post-Covid inflation economy, we’re financially stable and are comfortably maintaining our nest egg and retirement savings.

So how do we pull it off? After all, the American hive isn’t exactly built for the benefit of the worker bees. In this era of creeping kleptocracy, the rich queen bees are getting even richer and the rest of us drones are being squeezed tight. But that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to a life of anxiety and credit card debt.

Below, you will find more than $5,000 of annual savings that we have happily carved out of our family budget for the sake of making our simple little life economically viable. Without taking these actions, we would slowly hemorrhage money until our nest egg eventually collapsed. But by making these simply choices, none of which impede our enjoyment of life in the slightest, we have made ourselves financially solvent.

This, my friends, is how you beat a system that’s coldly engineered to beat you.

This is how you stay afloat in an economy that’s bound and determined to hold you underwater, gasping for breath.

This is how you (or at least we) get by.

1. Politely tell your cable provider to shove it.

In a world of infinite streaming content, overpriced cable packages will be obsolete within a decade. So hasten the demise (or more likely, strategic restructuring) of those dreaded cable providers — and save yourself a boatload of cash — by canceling your cable bill!

In my experience, 2 or 3 streaming platforms are more than sufficient to mentally overwhelm you with viewing options. Who needs an additional 500 TV channels to turn that mild anxiety into a full-blown nervous breakdown? Plus, as an added bonus, streaming platforms don’t have commercials! So you’ll never have to listen to a Liberty Mutual jingle again.

What we do: For most of the year, we subscribe to Netflix and Amazon Prime. Now and then, we swap out Netflix for Apple TV+ or HBO Max. Either way, we pay a fraction of the price of a cable package and get all the viewing we could possibly find time for — times 1,000, let’s be honest.

What we save: $2,000 per year ($30/month compared to $200/month)

2. Break up (over the phone!) with your phone carrier.

It’s common knowledge that both cable and cell phone providers are the bane of our 21st century existence. Calling Comcast or Verizon for customer service is the modern equivalent of getting a root canal — a procedure which, ironically, is now not all that torturous by comparison. So why do we put up with the Verizons and Sprints of the world? Because we think we’re stuck with them.

Well, I have some news for you. News which surprised me when I learned it myself a few years ago. There are “little guy” phone carriers that can save you a ton of hassle and a ton of money. They’re not commonly known; you just have to dig a little. And by doing so, you can extricate an overpriced cell phone carrier from your life like the rotting cavity it is.

What we do: We ditched Verizon 3 years ago for Ting, a charmingly low-key Canadian carrier with consistently responsive, warmly affable customer service. Ting somehow utilizes Sprint’s network, but without Sprint’s exorbitant costs. If Sprint and Verizon are sharks — and they are — a company like Ting is a friendly remora. So rid your life of sharks and find yourself a nice remora.

What we save$950 per year ($48/month compared to $127/month for 2 lines)

3. Hug an Amish person.

Wait, let me be more specific. You’ll first need to find a specific Amish person. One who manages one of the 5 sensationally cheap BB’s Grocery Outlets located in southeast Pennsylvania.

And then hug that Amish person. Because he’s about to (in a manner of speaking) stuff a bunch of cash in your wallet.

The first time we visited BB’s and saw the prices, our eyes probably bugged out of our heads like Looney Tunes characters. $3 for olive oil. $2 for high-end cat food. $1.50 for cereal. 50 cents for a box of tea. 25 cents for yogurt. I’ve never seen anything like it. BB’s has utterly ruined us for Giant and Weis, whose prices are double, triple, quadruple, even quintuple what you’ll find at their unassuming Amish competitor. Plus, the inventory is different every week. So you never know what you might find on any given visit. I could gush about this place for days, but here’s my simple pitch: If you like to keep your money, shop at BB’s.

What We Do: For 5 years now, we’ve been making one monthly 45-minute grocery run to BB’s. The gas money we spend to drive there is paid off after walking down just one aisle — and sometimes sooner than that. Plus, we get genuinely giddy each time we go. That’s how good it feels to save money. It almost feels like BB’s is depositing money directly into our children’s 529 accounts! Awfully thoughtful of them.

What We Save: $1,200 to $1,800 per year (It’s hard to pin this number down, but we spend $200/month at BB’s on food that would cost much, much more than that at any other grocery store.)

4. Instead of amusement parks, amuse yourself at a park.

Don’t get me wrong. Amusement parks are awesome. They amuse me to pieces. But if you want to get outside for some fun in the sun and streamline your budget, then get to know your local parks, state parks, and National Parks. Your kids will thank you — both now and when they’re old enough to realize how invaluable parks are — and you’ll thank yourself too. After all, outdoor amusement is the cheapest (and deepest) amusement there is.

What We Do: Visit local parks regularly. 3 or 4 times a week, even! It’s pretty easy since we live 100 yards from one. And I’ve taken the kids to 68 different parks (state, township, municipal, and otherwise) in the last 2.5 years. Plus, when the kids get old enough to take cross-country family trips, we will resume plundering the National Parks for all they’re worth, as we did when it was just the 2 of us.

What We Save: This is hard to quantify, but our typical outdoor weekend activities cost us less than $10. Sometimes they even cost us less than 10 cents!

5. Find random little ways to beat the system.

As you might have gathered by now, I greatly relish beating the system and sticking it to the man. At least when the man tries to charge me more than he should. Here’s a goofy example that only works for us because of our proximity to my parents.

When our rural trash pick-up service suddenly ratcheted up its prices to $33/month (from $23), I quickly hatched a plan. With my parents’ blessing, every Thursday morning on my way to work I would drop off our trash and recycling at their house. By adding our disposables to the rarely-full bins on their curb, we could kick our overpriced trash company to the curb.

I don’t take kindly to price gouging — in this case the result of a rural monopoly — so this was a very satisfying act of rebellion. Plus, I now get to briefly catch up with my parents during the week! Maybe even mooch a Keurig off my sweet mom and regale her with something cute the kids said last night. Win-win-win.

What We Do: See above.

What We Save$400 per year ($0/month compared to $33/month)

These are just a few of the most notable ways we make our low-income little life work. We find all sorts of corners to cut in the pursuit of the dream — or at least our own particular one.

The dream of a life where I can be fully present with my family every single minute that our 9-to-5 work culture will possibly allow, by working a sane amount of hours and never having to bring my work home with me.

The dream of a life where the 4 of us live simply. Live happily. And despite the relative smallness of my paycheck, live large.

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