I’m so frugal, I make my own toothpaste, why am I always broke?

Dear Penny,

University is a struggle for me. As a student with a learning disability, I struggled and went to school longer. When I got my MFA in 2008, the economy collapsed and we went into survival mode.

After 10 years of struggle, I finally found my dream job, which is part-time. Now I have a second job, using my master’s degree, but only 10 hours a week. With the help of our family, we were able to buy a house. With two jobs, I was finally able to start paying student loans instead of deferring them.

We are trying to stay on a budget with three kids. With the price of the base model rising, we found ourselves back in that space of struggle, overdraft, and panic. We’ve tried budget apps but found them confusing or difficult to keep up with.

We do everything we can to survive: We keep our grocery budget down by eating lots of rice and lentils, buying eggs from friends and milk from local farmers. We use a library of free apps and streaming apps. We make our own toothpaste. We are thrift store champions in clothing.

But…I want to save. I want a future. I wonder if I can retire one day. So, how can I do this? How do I get started?


Dear J,

People don’t go broke buying grocery store eggs and designer toothpaste. What you have is not a matter of spending. You obviously have income problems – which means you’re not bringing in enough income to cover basic expenses and save for the future.

You can only cut so much out of variable expenses, which are things like groceries, clothing, and entertainment that you can control each day. Your fixed expenses, like housing, transportation, and student loans, tend to take up the bulk of your budget and are harder to cut.

You have two part-time jobs. But in terms of pay, two part-time jobs usually don’t equal one full-time job.You may not be eligible for benefits such as health insurance or company 401(k) Match when you are not a full-time employee. Career development can also be difficult when you are a part-timer. Not to mention the brain drain that often accompanies two jobs.

You didn’t say what subject you got your master’s degree in. But it doesn’t sound like a particularly lucrative field.

So you need to ask yourself some tough questions. Would you rather have your dream job or one that provides financial security? How important is it that your job actually uses your master’s degree?

If you earn a master’s degree in a subject such as art or social work, you may need to accept higher-paying jobs that may not take advantage of your degree. That’s not to say you’ll never use the skills you gain from your education. But you may need to switch gears and look for jobs that don’t require your specific degree.

It can be difficult to take a hard look at your current job. After ten years of struggle, you have finally found your dream job. You made significant sacrifices to get a master’s degree, but you’re still paying for your education.

Remember, most people don’t have their dream jobs. That doesn’t mean they don’t pursue their passions. It’s entirely possible to take a full-time job, which offers a good salary and benefits, and then do what you love. There are countless 9-to-5 people who are truly passionate about blogging, podcasting, volunteering, or playing in a band.

As you figure out your long-term career path, you still need to master managing your day-to-day expenses.Since budget apps are not for you, I recommend using a program called cash envelope methodEssentially, you continue to pay bills like mortgages and student loans as usual, but you withdraw cash to cover variable fees. Then mark one envelope with each budget category.

For example, you may have separate envelopes for groceries, clothing, gas, and pet expenses. You put the cash amount you budget for each category in the envelope. If you run out of cash for that envelope, your spending in that category for the month is complete. You will only use a debit or credit card in a genuine emergency.

This method can help you avoid overdrafts. Sometimes it can help people identify areas where they didn’t realize they were overspending. But I suspect that in your case, this approach would highlight the difficult reality that many Americans are facing right now, which is that income is the problem.

You have done so much here. You’ve found creative ways to be frugal while still serving your family. You own a home. Your student loans are making progress. Now is the time to evaluate how to maximize your income, even if it means your passion won’t become your full-time job.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and senior writer for The Penny Hoarder.Send your tough money questions to [email protected] or chat with her penny hoarders community.

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