What We Learned From Living On Less

Dixie Stampede
Amber and David as newlyweds.

The onion made me cry as I chopped it. This was the third time this week we were having baked potatoes for dinner. To spice things up we’d throw on some cheese and chopped onions. Maybe some peas or carrot sticks on the side. Nothin’ fancy. I’d snag the 5 pound bag of Idaho spuds when they were on sale for 99 cents—you really couldn’t find a meal much cheaper than that. But it kept us fed and David always told me it was his favorite meal.

We were recent college graduates and newlyweds, $55,000 in debt, and determined to pay it off. So that meant not buying much meat and instead getting protein from beans and eggs, trading clothes with friends instead of buying new ones, selling our TV and watching Netflix on our computer instead, splitting a meal instead of each ordering our own when we occasionally ate out (portion sizes at restaurants are way too big, anyway)—basically finding any way to make our daily routines a little less expensive.

I was a first year teacher, making just a little more than you’d make working full-time at McDonald’s. Thankfully David had health insurance through his job and made a little more than I did, so we lived on his income, and used mine to pay off our debt. I also picked up extra babysitting jobs, freelance writing jobs, any extra work we could find.

Looking back, what surprises me is how this process strengthened our marriage. It could have been a stressful time: living in one of the most expensive cities in the world (we were in New York City at the time), working long hours, adjusting to married life. And we did have our arguments, moments when I felt insecure. But mostly our efforts to double down on the budget and get out of debt were an opportunity for us to become a team. We were co-workers with a common goal: financial sustainability for ourselves and our future children. We were allies with a common enemy: debt, credit cards, and anything that stood in the way of that stability. The challenge was before us, and we saw it as something of a thrill to overcome together.

Working hard towards the same goal of being debt-free helped transform us from starry-eyed lovers only looking at each other, to dedicated spouses looking forward at a dream that we shared and actually taking steps toward it. For us, getting out of debt was not so much about having money, but about being at a place where we could have a family. Having control of our debt meant that we would be better prepared to bring children into this world—and having children was something we really desired. It was the real motivator behind our zealous campaign to pay off our student loans and medical bills. And because we knew what we were working for, making and keeping a budget became almost fun, almost an adventure.

David with our first son, a few weeks old.
David with our first son, a few weeks old.

And sometimes it was literally an adventure. Like the time we found ourselves pushing a ruffled white bassinet and high chair on the sidewalks and through the crowds of New York City, down the stairs to the subway train, onto the (very) crowded subway train, up the stairs and down the sidewalk to our 500 square foot apartment where we were setting up a little corner as a nursery. We were pregnant, and thrilled.

But we still had debt to pay, so we rounded up as much of our baby gear from freecycle as we could: a baby bathtub, clothes, toys, spoons and bibs, bottles and breast pump, a portable mini crib, a car seat, a stroller. All for free. We just had to pick it up and haul it back.

That was over four years ago, and since then, we’ve welcomed two sons into the world and paid off all 55,000 of those dollars. Once that hurdle was cleared, we were ready for the next: saving for a down payment for a house. I drew a thermometer shape on a piece of paper and marked it with lines for every hundred dollars. We taped it to the wall of our rental to keep it visible and us motivated. When I’d forgo the Starbucks I’d think to myself, “That’s $3.50 closer to buying our house.”

After a year, the thermometer was all colored in. We’d reached our goal. We are now in our own home, a lovely little fixer upper with so much character.

Looking back, what surprises me is how delightful duty can be—doing the thing you know you ought to do even when it’s not what you want to do. Duty seems like it’d cramp your style, restrict your freedom, but then you find that it’s mostly duty that has taken you to the places in life that you most desired to go. The dutiful daily choices to show love to your husband or wife (especially when you don’t feel like it) have added up to a lifetime of loving. The small daily sacrifices—no Starbucks this morning, one less cigarette today—have added up to a savings that can be turned into something—a home, a car, an education, a place for a family to grow.

Looking back, I can see that we weren’t depriving ourselves when we scrimped and saved. I may have cried onion tears while preparing yet another meal of baked potatoes, but they weren’t real tears, because we knew that while we were giving up some things in the moment, we were doing so in order to be able to enjoy something even greater in the future.


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