Posted by contributor Nia Williams.
Recently, I stuffed the remainder of my severance into an envelope addressed to my landlord, settling up my housing for the next three months. Checking account thoroughly decimated, I set about balancing my monthly expenses against my unemployment benefits.
Turns out my budget is tighter’n a pop-star’s pants. The balance left over after my rent, utilities, student loans, COBRA premium, credit card, transit costs, food and pet supplies are paid each month? $14.
Now, I realize the fact that I can actually pay all that with my unemployment benes is, as a more fiscally conservative friend pointed out, Really Lucky. There are many people who simply cannot stretch the money that far. Still, should I at any point find myself in need of a visit to my doc, a single co-pay would put me in the red. I need to trim more from my budget, somewhere.
I made several cuts right after I was laid off: I canceled my bundled cable and switched to the lowest tier of internet service offered, within 24 hours of the layoff, saving me about $30 per month. My poor cat, once lavished with all-natural food costing roughly $45 per month, now dines on fish-flavored Friskies, available in $14 32-packs at Target. (Despite my enormous guilt over this, he seems to be fine with the change.) Going out? Limited to very special occasions, like close friends’ birthdays, and rare visits from out-of-towners. I, once the queen of rib-eye-’cause-it’s-Tuesday, now refuse to purchase any meat over $2/lb. I eat a lot of pasta these days. It shows.
I did save money this way, obviously, enough to knock out three months’ rent in a single go. But I clearly need to cut more. The question is, where? I’m fortunate that I have no dependents, save the fuzz-butt, and that President Obama saw fit to push that COBRA subsidy through (without that, I’d be $300 in the red instead of $14 in the black). But, as a 31-year-old single, hundreds of miles from family, I am also at a disadvantage: no spousal income to fall back on, no way to move in with the folks without incurring more expense than I can afford (and they certainly couldn’t afford another mouth to feed, anyway). Unless I can get my budget in better order, I am one prescription, or doctor or vet visit, from disaster. So I run through my budget again, looking for additional ways to cut costs:
Rent: Downsizing is not an option. I already live in a studio in a slowly gentrifying ‘hood. My rent is about as cheap as it can be.
Food: I had been budgeting $50/week for food, which allowed me to continue with little luxuries like fresh fruits, budget wine, or occasional takeout, but I think I need to trim another $10-15 per week, so most of that will have to go. I tried the food stamps online pre-screen; as a single with $14 to spare, I don’t qualify. I’m considering turning to a service like Angel Food Ministries, which, for $30, provides participants with a week’s worth of dinners for a family of four (and so should, with the help of my freezer, certainly cover a month of dinners for this family of 1.25). For another $22, I can get a month’s worth of fresh produce. Supplemental food, like eggs, milk, and cereal bought on sale, or with in-house store labels, should only cost another $20-30 per month, according to my considerable research (read: regular Wednesday night grocery circular perusals). That would effectively cut my food expenditure in half. Hey, maybe I could continue to spring for an occasional $5 bottle of wine, then!
Entertainment: Already practically nonexistent. I haven’t been to a movie, theater, or museum in months. The library is my very best inanimate friend. As Mary Gustafson noted in her post on the etiquette of unemployment, joblessness takes a toll on your social life, or can. For better or worse, most of my friends and I were already in financial crisis-prep mode by last summer. I’m the only one to have been laid off, but no one is rolling in dough right now. We’ve been making the rounds of each other’s apartments for movie nights and bellying up to bars with $3 PBR specials for some time. Now I’m cutting out the rare bar trips, and we’ve agreed to rotate the hosting of budget dinner parties. Did I mention I’m good with the pasta?
Student loans: Looks like this is also where I’ll have to make a cut, at least for now. I’ve avoided a deferral as long as possible, because the last thing I want is for the interest on my already astronomical debt to grow, but at this point, a deferral seems the best way to keep money on hand in case of emergencies.
That’s it, really. I haven’t had a haircut, or any salon treatment, since 2007, so I can’t chirp cheerfully about saving money via at-home hair coloring and manicures or somesuch. I have one “pricey” hobby: I’m learning guitar, something I’d paid for just weeks before my layoff, and frankly, that structure – having someplace to go every week, social interaction, purpose outside of finding a new job – is something I am reluctant to let go. I have a few more weeks before the last paid class, and then I’ll have to decide whether or not to use a month of money saved via student loans or prepaid rent to continue.
I’d like to include resources or data for single, child-free, laid off people, but apparently we don’t exist, at least not in any way that translates to interest in the media. (Nothing new, apparently. I lamented this dearth of info with a friend. “It’s one of the annoying things about personal finance,” she confirmed. “The standard is a married couple with kids. Everyone else is an exception.” We singles are on our own, as much as ever.)
I’d be interested in hearing how other singles in the same position are faring, or if anyone has discovered better tips for cutting corners. It’s scary going joblessness alone, like walking a tightrope without a safety net. I almost want to start a club for folks like me, just so we can trade stories and resources. Or at least qualify for a group discount at the Goodman.