Monday, June 25

How to Survive on a Grad Student's Stipend

It seems a lot of the mommy blogs have this theme in common: living frugally. Typically, when I get into a conversation on saving money, the same solutions are offered to me. They are:
  1. Stop eating out.
  2. Stop going out.
And then the person who gives me these tips exclaims something along the lines of: "I have saved so much money by avoiding Starbucks!"


No offense to anyone who has saved money this way; please, understand I am glad you have conquered your addiction and see a new priority in your budget. However... we don't eat out and we don't go out. The last movie we saw in the theater was The Da Vinci Code and my in-laws paid for it! When we eat out, it's either because my mom is here or it's ice cream at Ollie's (and that's once a month if we're lucky!). So I had to get creative when we moved and decided I would not get a job and thus would have to survive on a $13,000 graduate student stipend.

So without further ado, here is my own personal survival story:

Step One: Come to peace with the fact that your husband is still a student. After voicing your opinion and your desire, let him make the final decision. Then be still and know that God will provide.

Step Two: Make it a game before you lose your mind entirely. I call it the Frugal Amish Game. The point of the game is to survive on less than you ever thought possible through creative solutions. And I'm winning!

Here are some things I've discovered that help me play my Game:
  1. We use cloth diapers. The average cost to use disposable diapers for three years is $2000. And then another $2000 for the next child. The average cost to use cloth diapers for three years is $700. And the next child is free. Since I am a mother of two, that's $3300 I'm saving every year. And then, of course, add in the environmental reasons, and I'm completely convinced. We also use cloth wipes and make our own wipe solution. I love going right past the diaper aisle in Wal-Mart and thumbing my nose at The Man. When you only have $170 each month to spend on household cleaners, toiletries, gas, and emergencies, being able to skip this aisle gives me great satisfaction and I get to move ahead two spaces in my Game.

  2. We don't use a dryer. We live in an apartment that does not have washer and dryer hookups. This used to cost us over $10/week in quarters just on the washing machine downstairs alone. I just couldn't afford to double that for the luxury of a dryer. I have two wooden clothes racks permanently set up in our living room with a fan blowing on them at all times. Recently, I also purchased some clothesline and affixed it to the railing of our balcony because sunny days are here again and that means softer and faster drying clothes! To save us over $50/month more, my husband also (possibly illegally) hooked up our own washing machine in our apartment to the plumbing beneath our kitchen sink. I kept waiting for the water bill to go up, but guess what? It went down. I don't understand it either, but hey, I'll accept it. I was also afraid that the maintenance men would tell on us, but so far they have only expressed how impressed they are with my husband's ingenuity.

  3. While on the topic of diapers and laundry, the next logical play in my Game would have to be.... Make your own laundry detergent. This idea and recipe was completely stolen from this site. It's easy and it's ridiculously cheap and it's extremely effective, and it's even good for cloth diapers (and just about every store bought detergent contains something that shouldn't be used in washing cloth diapers). The cost comparison here follows as this: If you use Tide, you are spending approximately $0.50 per load. With this recipe, I spend less than $0.01 per load. And it lasts forever! I only have to use one tablespoon per load. My original batch has lasted me about two weeks so far (doing 1-2 loads per day) and it's still half-full. And it was only 2 1/2 cups of powder to begin with! I still have an almost full box of washing soda and borax in my closet! *Sigh* Another aisle I get to walk right by in Wal-Mart. *Moves ahead two spaces* (Confession: I still use Downy fabric softener. It's a smell from my childhood that I'm not sure I'll be able to give up! Plus, you use so little of it and my great big bottle will last so long... We'll see how the budget works and if it gets to stay.)

  4. Speaking of budgets - Must have one! Not just one in your mind where you know you shouldn't spend "too much". I tried this method and failed miserably. Then I learned to use Excel. Oh, this was exciting! This program actually adds up your expenses for you, if you program it right! Then my rocket scientist husband comes home and I exclaim to him my recent discoveries about Excel and he gives a very bemused smile as he comes over to see what I've accomplished. Here is a copy of our budget for your perusal. The non-bill section is what we have to work on the most. The "Other" expenses so far have gone towards parking tickets and library fees, and has been reserved for an oil change in the month to come. The "Eating Out" fund is there just in case we actually behave ourselves (financially) all month and then we get to treat ourselves to ice cream! More times than not, it goes to the Wal-Mart fund. Keeping Wal-Mart expenses under $80 is the most difficult thing I have ever done. You might be tempted to quit at this point, but this budget is actually the highlight of my Frugal Amish Game. In a culture where you rarely see actual money, I desperately needed a tangible way of knowing if I was keeping our family afloat. Seeing the "Accumulation" category grow each month gives me an intense feeling of satisfaction I never felt back in my pre-budget days. Two more notes: The "Extra Income" category is for any Pampered Chef work I've done and the "Savings" goes towards Josh's tuition fees this May, August, and December. Just in case you thought we were going on a cruise.

  5. Here's where it got hard for me. You may have noticed on our budget that there is no section for groceries. Not long after we moved here and started receiving our new paychecks, we realized we didn't have the money for food. One day I was at the local Medicaid office to see if Olivia qualified. The caseworker then told me that we not only qualified for Olivia, but myself as well (because I was pregnant), and we also qualified for over $300 a month in foodstamps. I took the paper home to show Josh and we discussed our possibilities. Let me interject here that this was during time when Josh was deciding whether to continue his schooling at Purdue or to apply for the job in Alabama. For me, the choice was easy: Foodstamps or an engineer's salary? Why take money from the government when you are perfectly capable of making it yourself? However, this is when I learned Step One (see above). My husband has a wonderful view of the future for our family, while I only see the here and now. He decided to pursue his dream job, which requires a PhD. We both agreed that getting his schooling over quickly was better than drawing it out over a decade while also working full-time. This way, he has more time with his family and his grades will be better, hopefully enabling him to get that dream job in the future. And so, we signed on the dotted line.

    But I was determined not to take advantage of this opportunity. My cart would not contain merely pop, chips, and Ho-Ho's. I will take the money, but I will spend it on healthful produce. I will bake my desserts instead of buying them. I will make my food from scratch whenever possible. I will save the government as much money as I possibly can so that when we get off foodstamps, they can take the money we didn't spend and give it to others who need it. To date, we have accumulated over $900 of unspent foodstamp money.

  6. Lastly, in playing my Frugal Amish Game, the most important rule of all is to never take off your Kingdom Goggles. This is a phrase I picked up from our old Bible study leader in Indianapolis. One night, he passed around a pair of colorful swimming goggles and told us that we must see the world through God's eyes if we are to resist the worldly temptations that surround us. We must see what will pass away and what will remain of our efforts here on earth. When I put on my Kingdom Goggles in Wal-Mart, I am able to walk past the Little Debbie aisle. I am able to resist the gadgets I never knew I needed until I saw them on display. I am able to see what is needed for nourishment and resist everything else. Yes, we have desserts, but the homemade kind that are cheaper, healthier, and I value them more when I realize the effort that goes into making them! When I put on my Kingdom Goggles, I see the materialism of the culture around me as a trial I must overcome that will test my faith, develop perseverance, and ultimately lead to maturity and completeness, not lacking anything. My Kingdom Goggles also help me to see what James means when he says,
    "The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business." (Chapter 1:9-11)
    When I feel ashamed at not having the material possessions that this world values so much (a house! a dryer! a bigger "Eating Out" budget! a puppy!), I meditate on this scripture and realize my high position. I rely on God for everything. I know where my blessings come from. I am not fooled into thinking I can provide for myself. I just do what I can with what God gives me. If I were a rich man (Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum) I would have to realize everything I thought I possessed in this world, including my proud, self-made attitude, could disappear at any moment and I would be left with nothing but God's grace and provision. I would first have to realize the low position I truly held, where nothing is my own, but God's; then I could take pride in that. Maybe someday I will have to deal with that half of the verse. Right now I just focus on the first half.
So there you go. I've just bared my financial soul to you. What do you say? Do you want to play my Frugal Amish Game? Being married to a graduate student is not a prerequisite. You don't even have to be struggling financially. Just think what you could do for God's Kingdom with the money you save!


Bon said...

Wow. All I can say

You are very blessed. You have what matters most to you, a healthy and loving family. Although not rich in the conventional sense, you are very rich in spirit.

I completely understand your thoughts. It's so difficult to give up selfish materialism to embrace this lifestyle, even when you know it's "right". :)

Joanna said...

Fabulous post, Beth!

I'm so impressed by all the thinking you've done about this, as well as the way you stick to it. SO impressed. I thought we did well, by living off one salary and sticking to a budget- but not as well as you. I applaud your creativity, determination, and ingenuity. It looks like you guys are doing things the right way.

ashley@twentysixcats said...

I echo Joanna's comment, Beth. You are really an inspiration to me when I get discouraged about money. After reading your post I went back to Paul and told him I wanted to be more committed to saving money. :-) Thanks for encouraging me so much!!

David and Bethany Rinn said...

Hi Beth!! I don't know if you remember me--I lived in Gerig our soph. and jr. years, and my maiden name is Bethany Bergstrom. At any rate, I'm not sure how I ran across your blog, but I love looking at it! Your two little ones are absolutely precious! I am so happy for you! I wanted to let you know that I loved this post on being frugal! I love how you make it into a game!!!! That is awesome! I'm wondering where you buy the washing soda...of course, I've never looked for it, but I don't know where you buy it?...I'm going to try making my own detergent--thanks to your inspiration!!! Thanks for your insight! :) Bethany

beth said...

First of all, thank you all for your compliments! *Grins*

And, Bethany, I do remember you! Do you have a blog where I can peek into the life you lead now? (Isn't that what blogs are for?) The washing soda is sold rather randomly, I think. Some people can find it at Wal-Mart, but I had to go to Krogers. (Of course, other people can't find it at Krogers and have to go elsewhere). Just make sure you don't get *Baking* soda! :-D (Even though they do sell it in large boxes in the laundry aisle (Oh, I forgot to say, "Look in the laundry aisle."))

Anonymous said...

Wow! What a journey you have been on. I do admire you for your commitment to your family. Even though it is hard now, your kids will really appreciate you for it one day.

However, I disagree with you about one thing. You see, it is all about choices. You have chosen to stay home with your children, which is the right thing for moms to do when they can. You have chosen to follow your husband, which is also the right thing to do. But you both have also chosen to have children at a time when you knew there was a good possibility that your husband would not be able to support a family. Because you made that choice, those of us who earn our living and pay our taxes have had to buy your food, in effect. We did not have a choice about that. In my opinion, welfare is supposed to be for people who are out of choices... to those who have been dealt a rough life and need some help to get back on their feet again. It was not meant for people who, because it was more convenient, chose to continue their education instead of work to feed their family. Check out 2 Thes 3, especially verse 10.

This is just another perspective that you might not have thought of yet. May the Lord bless you all!

Josh Zapf said...

Whoa! I think somebody needs to get off their high horse. It's not surprising that the last post was anonymous. I guess it's easier to be judgmental when you don't actually have to stand behind your comments. Sorry for ranting, but the attitude that the anonymous commenter has displayed really bothers me.

In response the above opinions, I have a few comments of my own. I find nothing wrong with asking for a little help now so that I can better serve my family and society in the future (as well as in the present I might add). By staying in school I believe that I will be able to contribute far more to the public than I will have taken. The commenter said that he was paying for our food. What would he say to a person who pays more taxes than he does? Wouldn't the higher tax payer in effect be paying for the public services the commenter enjoys? With a PhD I will probably get paid more than most Americans, which means I will be paying more taxes than most Americans. I also hope to give a good portion of my income to the church and other mission oriented organizations. I would not hold this over anyone, however, but would consider it a great privilege.

The commenter also gave me a Bible verse to consider. Don't you love it when people take the Bible out of context to back up whatever their opinion might be? I know I sure do. I'm sure I could find a verse or two to combat the cementer's, but I don't like to do that. It is better that you consider the heart of the scriptures and then decide for yourself, rather than go looking for that one verse that will give you the absolute answer to your overly specific question. Anyhow, the verse says, "For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat." Obviously the commenter has not been to graduate school himself. Anyone who has knows that you work much harder in school than you do in most industry jobs.

Perhaps I shouldn't have taken this comment to heart so deeply. I appreciate that the commenter wishes us well. I will pray that God will give me the strength to wish the same for him. I know it's not the perfect attitude to have, but at least it's honest.

beth said...

First of all, I'd like that say that while I agree with my husbands aforementioned points, I did attempt to make his comment a little less emotional. To which he responded, "Thanks for trying" and published it anyway. :-D I believe one of his chief annoyances was at the anonymity of the comment. *hint* *hint*

Second, to address the "choice" we made of having children while not in the wealthiest of positions:
Believe it or not, we were not trying to get pregnant two years ago. But we sure weren't going to abort once we saw those two pink lines.

Maybe your point should have been that we should not have gotten married until we were financially ready for the possibility of children. However, in today's economy, more and more schooling is required for the better paying jobs. I was 20 when we got married. If we would have waited, first to finish college, then two years to get his masters, then three to five years for his doctorate, that would have added 8 more years. I would have been 30 by the time our first child was born.

Studies have proven that the earlier you have children, the less chances there are of things going wrong, both with the labor and with the babies themselves.

I believe it was not God's purpose for women to wait that long before having children. When Mary was pregnant with Jesus, she was only fifteen! Unfortunately, we live in a fallen world that requires 24 years of schooling in order to get a decent job.

And I believe my husband made a good point in that when he does graduate and get a job, he will be earning significantly more than the average American, which in turn means that we will pay significantly higher taxes. The extra money we give the government when that time comes will pay for the food we are eating today.

Jes said...

I just want to say one thing. You can never afford Children. If you wait until you can afford them you will never have them. Most americans are not making big bucks, those that are either live in places where the cost of living is higher- which evens out the boost in income or have made poor decisions in their past leading to lots of debt. Anyway you look at it you'll never be able to afford the cost of a child, let alone Children. See God has blessed those of us who CHOOSE to stay home and raise our children instead of getting jobs to have stuff. Yes, Beth did make a Choice- a Choice to raise her own children not let some stranger raise them just so she could give them all the worlds junk. There is nothing wrong with needing help from the government every once and awhile. When you choose to ALWAYS take their assistance and rely on it for your life- then you have a problem. But you can clearly see that Josh is working hard to get ahead and be able to give up foodstamps.
I think Beth has made a good choice and that's not just because she's my friend. I would say that to anyone who has young children and is staying at home with them.

Shannon said...

As a social worker, I would just like to say that I am happy that a family like Beth's is using government aid - because I know that they are using it well and for a purpose. Most ALL of the people that I know on food stamps (and I have known quite a few over the years) are not doing anything to better their life or the lives of their children. I would like to think that people who have been "dealt a rough life" (honestly, and through no fault of their own) are the primary people receiving government aid, but in my line of work (granted I am in Southern California, so things may be different in other parts of the country) very few people are without some kind of fault in regards to their current need for welfare (drugs, teenage pregnancy, high school dropout, etc.) I would MUCH prefer for my tax money to go towards the Zaph family than some of my clients - but alas, I image that much more of our tax money goes towards those with ongoing meth addictions than graduate students struggling to provide for their families with a desire to serve Christ at the present and on into the future.

I know my comment on this post is a little late. But Beth, I'm glad you are getting Food Stamps and Medicaid. (I hope you are also getting WIC if you need it.) It actually makes me feel better that the taxes we all pay are being used for good!

Shannon (Blanton)

P.S. I do love my job and my clients. I love to try and help them make better decisions about their money and their future. But in reality, drugs and the cycle of poverty have a strong pull and without Christ, there is little hope.

Amy Jane said...

Found you from 26 cats. I salute you, young Mother.

I've not poked around enough to be sure yet, but you sound a lit like our family-- only my husband chose to quit at the Masters, so we never had to play the frugal game with babies (we found we were pregnant less-than a year after he graduated).

Amen!!! to God-will-provide. He is So. faithful in all things.

I also appreciated a list (like you mention) that doesn't include the "obvious" (read, "already doing") advice.

One question I have, though, is your math on the diapers.

The $3300 might be the total amount saved by you at the end of 6 diaper-child-years (you wanna help me with my units here?) if you know you only spent $700 on the dipes you're using, and haven’t "wasted" any money already on disposies.

Was the $700 using a service? Just buying pre-folds? Just wondered where that "average" came from. Probably from people using the simplest options. Very functional and economical. There are people who won’t even consider them.

I have seen $15 diapers in a popular diaper shop locally, and learned one can spend *a lot* of money on cloth diapers.

I would be sad to think anyone automatically assumed cloth=cheaper, no matter what. Leaving the environment out of this ;o) there are definitely disposable options that are less than cloth options.

Hope that didn’t sound like a rant.

I CD, actually, but I ran the numbers for about 3 weeks (and knew I would use them on an extra kid) before I took the plunge. Turns out to be a good thing, b/c I ended up not being able to continue CDing my first kids, and they’ve just started to pay for themselves on kid #3.

Feels like a different perspective.

Hope that point doesn’t sound like criticism. I am so proud of you for seeking the positive and living with patience.

Well done!

beth said...

Amy - Nice to meet you! You're right; one can spend a LOT on cloth diapers as well. Let's run down the math of what I've spent on my dipes:

Two dozen infant Chinese prefolds at $1.50/dipe = $36

Seven small Bummis Super Wisper Wraps bought on ebay for $35

Five newborn Proraps classic covers for $40

Three snappis for $7.50

18 Premium Chinese prefolds at $2/dipe = $36

Five medium Bummis Super Whisper Wrap for $53.75

So far we're only up to $208.25.

And yes, we did buy a couple of the $15 diapers for night-time diapering. So add another $30.

And for Christmas last year, I asked for six more for babysitters and church nursery workers who don't know how to fold a cloth diaper. So you can include that in the cost if you wish, but technically I didn't pay for it. However, I did get diapers for Christmas - every mother's dream, right? :-)

We also spent $15 on a diaper pail. But so far, even if you include the $15 diapers I got for Christmas, we are still far below average.

Oh, and there is no diaper service available where we live (I looked into it!) So I'm sure that cuts costs as well.

But the best part of all is that I'm done! No more diapers to buy! All future kids are covered!

Okay, that's not true. See, my baby boy is a BIT on the chunky side, and my two-year old is not exactly close to being potty trained, so they will soon be in the same size diaper. So add another dozen premium prefolds and five more medium covers. But THEN I'm done. Promise. :-)

beth said...

Oh, and Shannon, I will be sure to show Josh your comment! Thanks for your support! :-)