An Unreasonably Frugal Person Tries to Figure It Out

by Lauren C. Ostberg

I used to be unreasonably frugal. What were once rational, economically efficient decisions — limiting “impulse purchases” to the change at the bottom of my bag — became, on the aggregate, absurd.

When I started college 10 years ago, I refused to pay 65 cents for a morale-boosting cup of coffee, because I had an unlimited supply of “coffee” available at the dining hall under a pre-paid “continuous feed” plan. My clothing budget is around $50 a year. I spent two years sleeping in a sleeping bag on a futon on the floor, because I thought sheets and a bedframe were too expensive. If life were a game of Oregon Trail, I’d be the wagon party on barebones rations.

My parents are absurdly financially responsible — champions of the Midwestern middle class — and much of my frugality was influenced by them. Their income was average, but their expenses were tiny. They paid off their mortgage in five years. They paid for their cars in one payment using cash. Their honeymoon was a camping trip to Indiana. We went out to dinner as a family once a month (if even that), and when we did go out, we did not order appetizers.

The costs of a few permitted luxuries — air conditioning the summer of my mother’s pregnancy, a family vacation … to Michigan — were still kept to a minimum. Sometimes, we bought our groceries at the Food Town Outlet, and we indulged by buying two dozen paczkis on Ash Wednesday, which was the day they went on the reduced rack. We stopped doing this after my brother and I got sick on 50%-off cinnamon bread a week past its sell-by-date.

Of course, extreme frugality isn’t healthy — it’s the bare bones wagon parties that are usually the first to die on the Oregon Trail. An adult, 28-year-old woman cannot wear her high school wardrobe to work, and she cannot maintain a social life by ordering “water” (tap water — I carry my own bottle) every time she goes out with her friends. More importantly, she cannot live on store brand bread alone.

Actual “living” should include affordable luxuries, and my unreasonable frugality came with a high opportunity cost. I had a chance to fly to Italy for 100 euro, and I didn’t do it. I figured that with the cost of a hostel and incredibly delicious food, I would probably spend three hundred euro. I repeat: three hundred euro. FOR FIVE DAYS IN ITALY.

I’m getting better about this. I recently bought one pair of new, full-price boots. Two years ago, I inherited (but eventually paid to move) a queen-size bed, frame and all. I took myself on a vacation.

For a while, I was doing great. I’ve always been interested in maximizing the value of my dollar. As a kid, I loaned my brother portions of my allowance, on the condition that he paid it back with interest. I bolstered my savings, and tucked some money in a 401(k). So I got smug — financially smug. And I was lucky.

But I also haven’t earned much money, and have been in the low-income bracket for a while. In my best year, I made about $35,000; my worst, $12,000. I’m a former English major, a liberal arts graduate, and I’ve spent at least three of the six years since undergrad cobbling together part-time, temporary, and freelance jobs. (I spent most of the non-cobbling years as a funded, but still low-income graduate student.) If you live close to the bone, and are a few bus rides out of town, $1,000 a month can be enough to live on, even in Boston.

Well, it’s enough if you don’t have debt, or health issues, or any dependents, which I was lucky I didn’t. My parents are (surprise) intimidatingly responsible savers, so they covered a large portion of my college education, and I covered the rest with scholarships and three work-study jobs.

I’m now in debt after starting law school this fall. Tuition is north of $45,000, and even with some scholarship money and an unbelievably cheap housing situation, I expect to go six figures into debt. It’s enough debt to buy a house, and because the legal field’s employment prospects continue to look grim, when I get that house, it probably doesn’t have a roof. And it’s haunted by poltergeists. See Stambovsky v. Ackley.

I’m also getting married in May. He’s getting a Ph.D. in experimental music (so: also low-income). A wedding is not a house-sized expense — well, it doesn’t have to be — but even a family-only wedding with a pizza-and-beer reception requires money, and it’s money I don’t have.

So I’m left with no recourse: I have to realistically approach my debt, a subject I find terrifying. I have to figure out loan payments, and aim for an occupation with a salary that exceeds my tuition. I might be tempted to sell my hair and donate my plasma and work three jobs and mooch, mooch, mooch (and I’ll probably do all of those things), but it won’t be enough. I have to manage the way I spend money, instead of merely spending as little as possible. I have to become that aspirational construct: a reasonably frugal person.

In the coming year, I’ll be documenting my law school bills, my upcoming wedding, and my career prospects right here for you all to see. Stay tuned.

Lauren C. Ostberg is a beard enthusiast, a nonfiction writer, and a law student. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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