In last week’s Ask Me Anything (AMA) on Instagram, which I do weekly if you don’t follow me there, I posed the question “Ask Me Anything about ways to afford life’s necessities in a budget-friendly way”.
Of course the basics of food, clothing, shelter and transportation are part of life’s necessities. But the times have changed and access to the internet, a computer and a cell phone are also necessities now. Not just for pleasure and entertainment, but in order to do many jobs and stay connected with people. It still makes me chuckle when I get asked to make a call on a landline. I haven’t had access to a landline phone since 2007 when I went to college! (Hmm, that’s starting to date me now…).
Obviously, a smartphone is an absolute imperative for me to do my job. I couldn’t even host the AMA without one. However, the cost of buying one be painful at best and prohibitive at worst for many people. For this AMA, I partnered with ZTE, which recently released its latest phone, the Axon 10 Pro. The Axon 10 Pro is not only a legitimately beautifully designed phone, but it features 256 GB of memory, which means no longer having to keep deleting photos to free up space! (Or is that just me?) Best part, it starts at only $549.98 — which is significantly cheaper than comparable models.
Want tips on other ways to keep life’s necessities affordable? Below is a recap of what I had to say during the AMA.
Question: Healthy groceries is always a struggle for me to keep in budget.
Answer: Oooh, I understand this very much. It’s insane how expensive it can be to eat healthy, especially depending on where you live. The quality of food in my grocery basket went up significantly when I started earning more money.
One thing I’d start with is focusing on where the difference between fresh or frozen/canned makes the biggest difference in your eating style. Also, identifying the types of food for which you’re willing to pay more based on taste and/or ethics. E.g. I always buy organic milk, grass-fed beef, eggs from free-range chickens too. But I’m less picky about fruits and veggies. I’ve also started baking bread at home in my Dutch oven (so easy!).
Be sure to also comparison shop between available grocery stores and/or farmer’s markets to start seeing where you can get the best deals. And if this is a top value to you, then where else can you pull back in your budget to better fund healthy groceries?
Question: Groceries and gas??
Answer: There are definitely plenty of options to more frugally shop for groceries depending on your access. From Aldi to Costco to Trader Joe’s to farmer’s markets to growing some of your own produce, it really does depend on your location and your level of pickiness with food. (Btw, this isn’t a judgement. Often times our budgets dictate our pickiness. I subsidized my food budget with “expired” bistro boxes and paninis and other leftovers from work my first year in nyc. Then I’d do a lot of rice + egg + veggie dishes later to eat healthier but on a budget.)
Meal prepping + bulk cooking though is one of the single best ways to maximize your return on groceries. You strategize and can make a lot of meals + freeze some!
Gas wise, it’s important to know your options where you live. Or download an app to help scout it for you so you aren’t driving all over comparing (sorta defeats the point).
Another thing to consider: rewards credit cards. If you are a shrewd credit card user and never carry debt, then use rewards cards that maximize your purchases in areas like gas and groceries. It’s ideal to have it not be a rotating categories card, but that can work. Or make sure you have a flat-rate card that offers 2% back or something comparable.
Question: How to recognize a need vs something just being a good deal?
Answer: (Aka me everytime Banana Republic or Gap sale alerts hit my inbox!) It’s easier than we think to identify need vs want, but we do have to be honest with ourselves. It’s so easy to justify a new purchase in our head because “oh, I could always use a new professional outfit or a new pair of shoes, especially at this price point!” but are those truly needs right now? Maybe your go-to blouse now has pit stains or your work shoes have a hole, so yes, it’s now a need. But if it’s just pretty and you would use it, that’s not a need.
The perfect blend is the marriage between needing something new (computer, phone, car, clothes, cookware, etc) and finding a good deal. And even when it is truly a need — not allowing that to be a justification for overspending. It’s insanely easy to fall down that rabbit hole.
Question: Exercise and physical health! Especially as winter approaches and outdoor exercise isn’t an option.
Answer: YouTube for the win!!! Seriously, there are so many exercise classes on there. Or you can invest in all the bougie online ones with a subscription model. Plus, having some kettle bells or resistance bands are great for at home workouts, especially in a small space (like an apartment).
Also see if there are deals with local gyms during hte winter for bundle packages or options like ClassPass where you can mix it up and don’t get locked into a 1 year membership.
Question: How to find jobs where meals are included? My hotel job has been great at providing free meals.
Answer: For me it was being a barista and taking home “expired” leftovers that would’ve been thrown out. Babysitting gigs usually fed me. Then, when I worked in public relations I would keep tupperware around to take home leftovers that remained after client meetings. Lots of startup and tech jobs certainly have the perk of free meals. Some offices provide breakfast or kitschy things like bagel Friday.
I want to crowdsource this one though for more ideas!
Question: How do you feel about the statement “you get what you pay for”?
Answer: It can be true, but a very much “it depends” situation. There are plenty of examples where people are overpaying for a label not for quality of the product.
I guess I think of “you get what you pay for” more in services than products. For example, you want to hire a photographer or hair stylist but aren’t willing to pay for the more experienced person. Well, hiring the budget option could correlate to someone who isn’t as skilled. Not always of course, but it can happen.
Question: How to be active with a social lifestyle without constantly spending money out?
Answer: Investing in your friendships is important. One of my biggest regrets of my early twenties was how often I’d prioritize earning money over social engagements. To the point that I just kept telling people no and eventually stopped being invited. It’s important to invest time, and sometimes money, into your friendships. One way is to have a “fun fund”. Put a modest amount of money each month into the account to pay for activities with your friends.
But you can’t always be spending $$$. So here are some frugal alternatives:
- Potluck dinners or brunches
- Museum free admission hours (or donation hours)
- Going for walks, hikes, bike rides or runs together
- Movie night at someone’s home
- Scout free/cheap entertainment in your city
- Classes or events at the library
Question: Tips for scoring cheap travel deals?
Answer: Subscribe to flash sale lists like @scottscheapflights if you can handle the constant temptation!
Traveling in off seasons is a HUGE budget saver. And seasons vary by country, so researching when it is peak season can help.
Decide what you value in the trip and then skimp in other areas. Maybe stay in a hostile or AirBnB but eat at nice restaurants. Or fly the cheapest ticket possible, but stay in a nice place or take cool tours or go to live events.
Of course, credit card hacking aka travel hacking is a big way you can score deals. But only if you don’t struggle with cc debt and you know you can always pay off on time and in full. Don’t go chasing rewards if it’ll put you in debt, because then the interest kills the value of the rwards. @thepointsguy has a ton in-depth info. @nomadicmatt provides budget travel guides. @clubthrifty shares A TON about their travel hacking.
Question: I feel like an idiot not totally understanding how to utilize a travel rewards card
Answer: You and me both! I have the basics but some of the next level jedi master travel hacking tricks boggle my mind!
It does take time, research and practice to really level up the travel hacking game. Plus, as just mentioned, you need to be meticulous about not incurring any debt.
You also have to do the math on cards with an annual fee. Sometimes it pays for itself in perks. Other times you may want to cancel (which yes, could ding your credit in the short term).
I break down travel hacking in a 3-Minute Guide video here.
Questions: Tips on starting sinking funds. I’m overwhelmed by how many things I can use them for.
Answer: For those unfamiliar, a sinking fund is a way to set aside a little every month for a large pending purchase (or potential issue). For example, I use credit card rewards to pad my Christmas shopping budget, so my cash back is a “sinking fund”. Or I set aside about $50 per month to cover all the annual fees for various services I use in a year. That way I always have money to cover the cost when they pop up.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, start with the biggest pending expense (e.g. needing to buy new tires or a friend’s wedding). Then consider bundling other ones. I don’t have a separate sinking fund for every annual expense. I added them up, divided them by 12 and put that much away each month. Also, consider when you can just supplement a general savings fund. For me, my travel fund isn’t a “sinking fund”.
Question: Do you have key points for saving on groceries in general beside lists and coupons?
Answer: Evaluate the cost per meal/serving.
Think about what and how you eat and do the math on how much it costs. Peach and I are really picky about quality of meat and it’s pretty expensive. So we’re careful to only do one or two meals per week with meat. But that usually produces 4+ servings, so we get a dinner and a lunch each.
We also will bulk buy meat and/or eggs if the kinds we like are on sale. Then we’ll freeze the chicken/beef and won’t need to buy eggs the following week.
Another idea is substituting certain produce in a recipe if it’s on sale (or cheaper) and wouldn’t really make a difference. If yellow onion is cheaper than red onion and it doesn’t truly matter for taste, then just get a yellow onion.
Another consideration, if you’re flexible on what you eat and not picky, is to see if your community has deals on boxed produce like a CSA or imperfect produce. I’ve done this and like the challenge of mixing up dinners based on the veggies we received. Plus they’re super fresh!
Someone also DM’ed that local distributors and butcher shops do this in her community. Ask around and see if that’s an option where you live.
Question: How do you budget for future babies when employer doesn’t provide paid maternity leave?
Answer: My thoughts are knowing if short-term disability is offered through the company and if that covers pregnancy. Also, start to aggressively save to allow you at least six weeks (preferably more) of breathing room to be able to take unpaid maternity leave.
Much easier said than done, but consider looking for another job that offers paid maternity leave. Or at least a short-term disability policy. You can also look into getting your own short-term disability policy if it’s an affordable option (which you’d need to do pre-pregnancy).
I also crowdsourced some suggestions for this question, which produced the following ideas from the Broke Millennial community:
- Save, save, save. As soon as you find out. Fight hospital bills, buy diapers through the 9 months.
- Saving ahead or finding a new job if possible, sad that companies still don’t offer this.
- We don’t have it where I work, so people just use short-term and save up vacation days.
- If available, put away money in HSA or FSA for the necessary doctors appointments for mom & baby in the first year.
- Hoard any paid time off that will roll over
- Organize your workplace now so that won’t be an issue in the future.
- Hoard sick days for years, go negative on sick leave, save to be unpaid
- There are some gigs you can do from home. They might not pay as well, but it’s something.
- Co-workers donated their vacation/personal time for mine (I work for a nonprofit).
- Save, save, save. Maybe get a part-time gig which allows you to bring child to work.
- If you live in WA, FMLA (family medical leave act) for pregnancy is going to start being paid starting in 2020!