The Year We Saved $10K: Working Like An Animal

Today’s “saving $10K” stories are about working three jobs, cutting back on expenses, and what happens when you take a job that comes with a higher salary as well as a higher cost of living. Also, they both involve farmers’ markets!

Marne: I read “The Year I Saved $10,000” on The Billfold and jumped up and down a little with recognition — I did this! I’ve never met anyone else in my age bracket (I was 22 at the time; I’m 28 now) who did something similar, so I’ve never really had anyone to talk to it. But yeah, there was a moment when I had what felt like a serious amount of cash, and it was beautiful.Someone told me (or somewhere I read) that it won’t matter when you’re old if your career was 30 or 35 years long; what will matter is if you made the time in your life to do all of the things you wanted to do and enjoyed yourself along the way. The same source of that advice also suggested that traveling was a lot easier and more fun when you were younger and unattached and not so old that you had to be on a big tour bus full of other old people. I thought that all made sense.But traveling requires money and I had none, so between the autumn of 2008 and autumn of 2009, I held three jobs: first, I worked full-time at the University of Washington in food service. A former employer had suggested trying to find a job in any capacity at a public university specifically for the benefits package, which turned out to be excellent advice. I got great health benefits, paid sick days and vacation, and a solid retirement package, all of which made up for the fact that my salary might as well have been a paperclip and a handful of wooden nickels. The other downside: my hours were something like 7:30–3:30 and I stood during all of them. If I had a free evening, I would get home from work and lie on the couch and prop my legs up against the wall and encourage the blood to drain from my swollen feet and legs. On a typical evening, though, I went straight to one of my two other jobs. On those days, I took a lot of Advil.

A few afternoons and evenings each week, I babysat. I advertised myself on Craigslist as a queer-friendly babysitter with a CPR certification. Within a week I had a great gig with a five year old. We spent a lot of time in my car heading home from pre-school in the never-ending Seattle gridlock, listening to the same Mika CD over and over and talking about reasons why city planning is good and public transportation is cool. His moms were executives at the university who insisted that I was worth more than the hourly rate that I asked for. They paid accordingly. My hourly wage from babysitting ended up being double what I made in food service.

On Sundays I worked at a year-round farmer’s market for a large organic farm based forty minutes east of Seattle. The job paid $10/hour, but I worked something like a 13- or 14-hour shift and got a big free box of vegetables to take home every week. When I hit certain sales targets, I earned commission, which happened a lot. Plus, sometimes I traded veg with other stall owners for things like fruit or eggs. I drove out to the farm early on Sundays before the sun was up (before the bridge over Lake Union connecting Seattle with the rest of the state became a floating parking lot). From there I loaded up a 16-foot truck with everything one needed to set up a nifty little produce stand, drove back into the city, did an eight-hour market, packed up, drove the truck back and unloaded, then drove back home. It was a marathon at the end of an exhausting week, but it was the one job I had that felt slightly connected to something I cared about (sustainable agriculture), and navigating a giant truck through Seattle’s 18 percent graded one-way streets gave me impressive hard-ons.

Job #1 covered my rent ($420), utilities, food ($100/month), cell phone, and the occasional necessaries (THERAPY); I had paid my student loans forward after receiving a $5k education award from a year of service with AmeriCorps, so I wasn’t making any other payments. The money from jobs #2 and #3 went directly into savings — all of it.

The other way that I saved was that I never did anything. If it was your birthday, I made you something like a cookbook or a scarf; inexpensive, thoughtful things I could spend hours working on during my many nights home alone. It wasn’t very hard to never go out — I worked so much that I didn’t have time to do much of anything, nor did I have any time for any of my friends. Most of my friends eventually got the message that I was never available and stopped calling, which I remember thinking was much better for all parties involved. If I did go out, I fell asleep at 8 pm, wherever I was. I tried to have a girlfriend, but I had no interests other than having my feet rubbed. I lived in a house with three roommates who I loved, but constantly snapped — they would send sweet e-mail saying things like “we should hang out more” and I would yell things back across the house like “but we already live together?” They continued to cook me dinner three nights a week anyway.

I saved about $13,000, or a little more than $1,000 per month. After a year of 90-hour work weeks, I quit all the jobs, took my money and went to New Zealand for seven months. Right before I booked the plane ticket for that big trip, I got a little trigger-happy and looked up my student loan information on Sallie Mae’s website. I had enough money to pay off my entire balance. For a few hours I sat around the house and itched and thought about it — how I could be debt free in minutes; how I could send Sallie Mae away forever and start my travel fund over again from zero and go traveling the following year and do another year of what my mother referred to as “working like an animal.” It was one of my wonderful roommates, the one who made me a coconut curry every week, who gently reminded me how miserable I had been all year. She told me that if I didn’t get myself on a plane soon, that I never would, and I believed her. The university had offered to put me on the management track, and I had been considering their offer. Then she bought me a piña colada and toasted me to an exciting and debt-filled future. I looked up a flight to Auckland that night on cheaptickets and clicked “buy.” And I went.My savings funded that entire trip. There was enough money left over afterwards to fly back to the States in a new dress for my best friend’s wedding. There was still enough money left after the wedding for me to (barely) make another big move — to Berlin — though I was running on fumes at that point and probably should not have moved to Europe with less than $3k left in savings. However, I’m still living here in Berlin, so it can be done. But it’s been paycheck to paycheck ever since.

Caitie: The first year I saved $10,000, I maintained a Rust Belt budget on a Beltway salary.

In the summer of 2011, my tiny Ohio-based non-profit asked me to please wait till we (hopefully) received our next tiny grant before I cashed my next two $1,000 paychecks. By the fall, I’d used almost all my savings to pay for a move back to Virginia and a hunt in DC for a non-profit with a vision I could get excited about and that they could finance.

My starting salary was $12,000 more than I was making before. I was over the moon, despite looming concerns about how that would translate in a city where people paid $1,000 a month to rent basement studio apartments.

I rented a room from my cousin’s fiancé for a couple months and commuted over an hour each way to work while I tried to figure out how to sign a lease that was closer to Toledo prices than to DC’s. I spent a lot of time overlaying Google maps, the Metro map, and hotpads.com to figure out how to minimize travel costs and time among a handful of college girlfriends considering a move. In Toledo I paid $550 a month for a turn-of-the-century flat with 9 foot ceilings, two bedrooms to myself, front and back balconies and an attic with sad wallpaper from the days when it was used as servants’ quarters. I was thrilled when we finally found a 4th floor 2 bedroom apartment, where I paid $680 a month to share a bedroom and commute only 40 minutes each way.

That single decision, combined with the luxury of having no significant debt, allowed me to start working towards my most pressing financial goal: the ability to survive if my income suddenly disappeared again. I wanted the freedom to be able to do work I believed in, even if it meant I would never have a household income like the one I grew up with.

Continuing to save at this rate has required mindfulness about lifestyle inflation more than anything else; in general, my needs are few and my wants not particularly extravagant. My one area of total indulgence is spending a bajillion dollars on farmers markets and other ethical food choices. I find that if I keep the ratio of dining out to grocery expenses in check and don’t buy a huge amount of (pasture-raised, from a farm I’ve visited) meat, I can keep my monthly food costs from being entirely absurd, but at the end of the day, I feel fine about spending above the norm on my food.

In the next year, I hope to move back to a smaller city, though not in Ohio. It feels great to know that I can take a substantial cut in salary if I need to, and that the savings I’ve accumulated in a larger city will stretch even farther with a lower cost of living. These days I stalk Zillow in the city I hope to live in, calculating what kind of down payment I could afford while still holding onto enough savings to weather a few storms.

Previously: The Year We Saved $10K: Homes and Weddings

Photo: John Tornow

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