Lifestyles of the Broke and Fabulous: Ten Tips to Survive and Thrive For Less

Perhaps you’ve been reading this blog and thinking, “Hey wait, you can’t be as poor as you say you are.  You live in the 2nd most expensive city in the world.”  And to that I say, “Touche.” and “Exactly.”  Surviving in this Never-Never Land that calls itself a city is an art that over the past 8 years I have been trying to master.  It is completely exhausting but the rewards are the almost constant experiences of beauty all around, so I’m going to keep running this marathon as long as I can, because the views are amazing.  Here are some sneaky tips I’ve used along the way so far:

1. Clip & Collect: Do y’all know those Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons, that come in the mail so often you’ve considered wallpapering your apartment with them?  Yeah, those shits don’t expire.  They say they do, right there on each one is an expiration date, but save ’em up, bring ’em in, and watch the price of that wet-vac go down, down down.  What we do is collect them for ages then bring them in and use them all in one-fell-swoop, buying all the crap we’ve gone without all damn year.  For instance, right now here is a list of the things that have broken/gotten ruined in our house that we are too poor to replace: the toaster, bath mat, mop, ironing board, set of wine glasses, and teapot.

2. Live Simply: Of course we don’t do such luxuries as pedicures, vacations, and air conditioning.  However, there are also a boatload of things we consider “luxuries” that other people consider necessities: smart phones, cable, a house, a car, and juice.  That’s right, juice is a luxury in this home.  Enjoy your tap water, luckily in SF it comes from Hetch Hetchy and tastes delicious.

3. Work that Transit System: If you live in a 2 person household, and you can only afford one monthly fast pass, one person uses it all month, then, on the first, gives the old one to the other person, who gets free bus fare for the next 3 days.  That doesn’t work on BART, just MUNI — you get to use the old pass for 3 days of the new month.  If you are poor, you’re thinking “Yeah, No doi.  Everyone does that.”  If you are rich, you’re thinking “Ew.  The bus.”  But if you’re new to SF and are somewhere in the middle, you’re thinking “The gross bus could be free 3 days a week and then maybe I wouldn’t mind so much when someone sits next to me with a live chicken in a plastic bag, because I didn’t pay to ride 20 bumpy blocks to the park.”  In that case, you’re welcome.

4. Safety First: The next time you need a pair of glasses, you may be looking at all the designer ones they put out, dismayed at the price tags for nerdy-looking boxy pieces of plastic to wear on your face.  In such a situation, ask for where they keep the safety glasses.  I recently had to get glasses, and instead of paying $300 for fancy-pants frames that would probably only have made me look more like Zooey D., I got safety glasses, which are durable (important when you have a 15-month old who says “No!” and knocks the glasses off your face every time you wear them) and sort-of-chic, especially when you have to do a whole bunch of welding.  And they were $10, including a 2-year warrantee!

5. Book It: I estimate that I have saved $884 this year by utilizing my public library.  They have this great feature where you can look up books online, request them, and have them shipped to the library closest to you.  Then you go and pick them up from a special area by the front door, check them out yourself, and read to your heart’s content.  What I like to do is browse my local bookstore, picking up & buying the tomes I have to own forever, but making a list of the ones I just want to try out.  Then I go home, request them from the SFPL, and await my treasures.  It’s the closest thing to Netflix for books out there, and I feel like I’m getting a present every time I get the email saying “your books are in, come and get ’em.”  Also, they have Family Passes to all sorts of places in SF, you can check them out like a book and go to the Zeum, the Zoo, the Academy of Sciences, and the like.  How do you think Olive got to see the giraffes this year?  The public library saved that day of course.

6. Community Culture: Before we had Olive, we spent over three years living in community with some awesome folks, in a huge 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment with a back patio, roof access, a washer/dryer and a dishwasher.  Living with roommates is pretty much the only way you can live in a place in SF that is big enough to ever throw a party.  And the parties we would have… they were so epic that we would read about them the next day on the internet.  We would look around and realize we only knew a quarter of the people there.  I met people at those parties that were in my own house that I cherish as friends to this day.  The costumes, the dancing, the gossipy hook-ups — it is all legend now, as we live in a place where we can’t even sit 4 people at the dinner table.  Anyway, as long as you can, live in community.  Then, when you can’t, join a church or other spiritual community.  This will provide you with a venue for your tamer events, like birthday parties and baby showers, and, more importantly, a whole bunch of people willing to invest in you on a heart level, who care about your soul and your living situation.  Plus, if you’re lucky, they’ll be great cooks and you’ll get a free meal once a week at the delicious potlucks they organize. I’m not saying that you should join a church for the stuff you get being a part of one.  I’m simply saying that if you want to live in an expensive city but you don’t make bank, you’re going to need other people in order to do it.  That brings me to my next suggestion:

7. No Shame In Your Game: If someone offers you something, something you really want and could use, say yes.  Practice with me now, “I accept.”  There are a lot of people in this town that make a lot of money, mostly in the tech industry, and are also incredibly generous.  They don’t use their money for evil, they are kind-hearted and as baffled as the next person as to why they make so much more sitting at a computer than they would teaching children in a classroom.  Often, they will offer to buy you a meal, or take you to a show, or give you a ride to the beach.  This is not your moment to be a martyr, to be prideful or embarrassed.  It is the time to give them a chance to use their money how they want to, and to promise to pay it forward, if you ever find yourself in the situation to do so.  When I look around my bedroom, I see that almost all our furniture was handed down by kind souls who couldn’t use it anymore.  They are lovely pieces, and I am grateful for them.  They make me think of the people who gifted them to us, every time I use them.  Wouldn’t you rather think of your friend Doris than your buddy IKEA when you use your dresser?  I thought so.  So say yes.

8. Charming Child = Free Babysitting:  Our kid is wicked cute and likeable.  Therefore, folks line up to hang out with her.  We have yet to have paid a babysitter for a date night.  Our friends love our child and find her more entertaining than a night at home watching sitcoms.  So, do your best to have a cute kid, and rad friends, and you’re golden.

9. The Swap Economy: For six years, I swapped massages for Pilates classes with a wonderful massage therapist who became a close friend.  It was a win-win: I got body therapy every other week, she got toned abs with a boomin’ soundtrack.  If there’s something you want in your life — homemade jam, haircuts, whatever — see if there’s someone that would swap for a similar good that you are talented at.  Paint pictures for roller skating lessons.  Grow vegetables for knitted scarves.  Make a friend in the meantime.

10. Don’t Skimp Where It Counts: There are two things we shell out for, gladly.  One is childcare.  I grew up going to whatever daycare my parents could afford, and hated a good part of my childhood summers as a result.  Therefore, we have been doing a nanny share with a wonderful nanny who gives our child the best care possible, and we get another family to bond with.  The other thing we have tried to cut corners with and have just submitted to coughing up hecka cash for is coffee.  SF has some of the best roasters in the country, and once you’ve had Blue Bottle or Philz you simply can’t go back to Folgers in your cup.  So we pay for it, and love every damn sip.

As I am about to be even poorer than I was before, I am gladly accepting your tips in the comments section.  How do you save money and manage to look so good, dammit?  Fill me in, I’m dying to know.


7 thoughts on “Lifestyles of the Broke and Fabulous: Ten Tips to Survive and Thrive For Less

  1. There’s more !

    1 .We tested 3 laundry mats this year and went from paying 20 a week to between $10-15.
    2. I have not bought one piece of musical equipment in over a year. Sweet Jesus.
    3. MF’ing Du Loi!!!! Organic for cheap!

  2. This post is awesome, I’m gonna pimp it out on facebook. Not even asking your permission first. My comments:

    1. I often think of riding the bus here as “paying two dollars to feel like I’m gonna barf.” This reminder to myself really cuts down on transportation costs, as long as my bike continues to hold out, anyway.
    2. I took one art history class in college, and the professor claimed that all art museum “admission prices” are actually suggested donations. He used to go study paintings at Moma for twenty-five cents. I was only brave enough to try this once, at the Seattle Art Museum, and it totally worked! If you want experiment with the SF museums on your next free date night, let me know if it works here too.

  3. tips: drink coffee at home (the good stuff!!). eat meals at home. if you are going to go out, pre- funk at home, hit up happy hour specials on date night, pack your lunch to work every. single. day. bike as much as you can- it’s cheaper than the bus and you get a work out. (except is Olive big enough for a toddler seat?)

    clothes: i have been wearing some of the same stuff for the past 5 years and i am Fing sick of most of it. the weird thing is, I get compliments on outfits on a Daily Basis. I just update things that get holes in them really easily like tights and socks. i also have been buying the occassional good pieceat fancy consignment stores, which are Everywhere here in Chicago (but I am sure you are good at that too!)

    don’t scrimp on: shoes. again, i have been wearing the same boots and shoes for the last two years and i spent some serious coin on them 2 years ago. again, i am bored out of my mind with wearing them but i STILL get compliments on them.

    we LOVE the library, church communities, free museum passes in Chicago. rock the broke and fabulous and smart phone-free life!

  4. this is such a breath of fresh air. i’m so tired of people who prentend to be wealthier than they are, and i feel like there’s always too much of that around the holidays, when it strikes me as even more disgusting than usual. it’s really nice to encounter the real every now and then. let’s just f*ucking admit it already that most of us struggle financially.

    i still make my mom send me glasses from the “philadelphia eyeglass lab” at 20th and chestnut. 2 for $89. i won’t go anywhere else, and luckily my prescription hasn’t changed in years…

    but my only piece of advice is this: start a business. doesn’t matter what. doesn’t matter if you have a job too. if you can make it a non-profit, even better. doesn’t matter if it doesn’t earn money. if it loses money, you’ll get tax credits. you can use it to improve your quality of life with luxuries such as a car, food, a/c, etc…

    love the blog. we’ve gotta do another baby get-together. xx

  5. Another wonderful blog. We need to talk more about money and how it is okay to not have money.
    I have had to do that the past few years. I retired and no longer got a salary. I had to adjust and for me where I live is important. I am payng too much rent but I feel safe and warm. However, if I don’t work at all I will have to look for something else and there are not many options for single people in this city. I think of starting a retirement community for women who still want to have fun and have parties like Rhea wrote about. Well, maybe not exactly—-I am much older—but parties are still necessary and fun.
    I have found that people are so generous if I am honest about what I can do and can’t do. I have been generous at times when I could be but now I try and help someone with rides, with help in their home for older people, and as Rhea said build up friends I can be with. I belong to a very good church and there are a lot of activities there. If your church doesn’t offer ways to get to know one another look for another one. I also am part of the 12 step movement and there are so many friends to make there.
    And since I have been disabled for the past year I have made friends with my physical therapist and met people at their clinic.
    There it is for me. Reach out and make friends. Staying in doesn’t work. We all wish it did but the main way to overcome not having enough money is through friendship and sharing. I got my dear dog Sammy because a friend was so generous to pay for the shots and all the other expenses it is for a dog. And I have met so many people through Sammy. There is a group that meets in Stern Grove every day at noon. They are lovely people.
    Now this isn’t money per se. I have a set budget now that my sister helped me divise and she is helping me stick to it. I had never had a budget so now I really know how much I have and can spend.
    Coffee is on my entertainment section of the budget.
    Thanks again Rhea for getting this started. Many older folks are on fixed incomes and depend on Medicare and Social Security. That doesn’t cover everything. But I am grateful for every penny I now have.
    I won’t write about Christmas. It is so hard to begin to celebrate in a simple way. Please try not to stress over giving too much. It is so hard to do but it can be done. First turn off the TV and go to a book store, then make baked goods to give and then someway get the children the special gift they want if they are older—almost impossible in this electronic age, and get younger ones one or two gifts and create a Christmas gased on food, community, music, books—you know all about it. Much love.
    Thanks Rhea. Genie

  6. I’m forever grateful that a lot of my friends pass their awesome clothes over to me instead of Goodwill. I don’t seek out labels, but I sure do love to feel of a Banana Republic skirt or sweater. And I even got a Marc Jacobs dress out of it!! We should do a “recessionista” swap! Also, we do have the best thrift stores (Chloe’s Closet, Crossroads and Buffalo Exchange) in SF!!

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