Plenty of people survive on a monthly budget of $1,000 or less. But when you’re accustomed to spending $4,000 or $5,000 a month without thinking too much about it, abruptly switching to a $1,000-a-month budget requires some serious lifestyle adjustments.
Chris Butterworth, who works as a marketing manager at a top consumer packaged goods company in Nashville, Tenn., and who blogs about personal finance at Dealerity, recently completed a four-week “$1,000 challenge.” All of his expenditures for February—rent, gas, YMCA membership, car insurance, baby shower gifts—totaled $998, including $124 on food and $54 for cigarettes.
What was the biggest struggle when it came to cutting four-fifths of his usual budget? Interestingly enough, it was loneliness—because so often he had to pass when friends were going to the movies or comedy clubs or doing anything else fun that was out of the budget. Butterworth answers my questions below:
What did you learn about how you normally spend?
Chris Butterworth: Going into the challenge I thought I was a relatively frugal person, but I learned that I wasn’t tight fisted at all. I was spending like crazy! I had become so out of touch with where my money was going. All in all, I was spending $4-5K per month. That’s why I wanted to experience living on a $1,000 budget. It’s not that $1,000 a month is such a ridiculous target to hit — there are plenty of people that live on less. But it was a huge stretch for me.
(Read Q&A: The Year of No Clothing Purchases)
What did you learn you could go without — without much difficulty?
CB: With most things it was pretty easy to go without. There are easy ways to save money everywhere you look. I was able to reduce my car insurance by $50 a month. I didn’t pay to get my house cleaned. I skipped elective visits to the doctor. My biggest hurdle was in controlling my food budget, which I basically had to cut by two-thirds.
How did you eat, and what kinds of things did you cook? Did you wind up losing weight or anything?
CB: At the beginning of the month I was very energized about cooking and made a lot of things from scratch. I found a great site early on (supercook.com) that tells you what you can cook with only the ingredients you currently have in your pantry. I ate chili, a lot of grilled chicken, and pasta. Towards the end of the month when my budget was getting tight I reverted to peanut butter sandwiches and hot dogs. I suspect that I lost 5-10 pounds but it’s hard to tell. I tried to weigh myself but my scale was out of batteries. And I didn’t have the budget to pay to replace them.
(Read: How to Eat on a Dollar a Day)
What things did you buy that you wound up later regretting for one reason or another?
CB: Not a whole lot. I wasn’t able to cancel my gym membership in time to get a refund and I really regretted that. I also really bemoaned my gas purchases and wish that I had done more carpooling.
I see that you didn’t give up cigarettes during the $1,000 month. How much did you wind up spending on cigs that month? Do you think about smoking differently now?
CB: I did keep smoking and this is the expense that I caught a ridiculous amount of flack about. Before the challenge began I was contemplating quitting smoking, but I’m glad I didn’t. The challenge was stressful enough that I needed at least one vice to keep me going! I spent $54 which is probably a third less than I usually spend because I bought smokes that were on sale and used coupons.
(Read Q&A: 100 Days, $100 for Food, and Lots and Lots of Coupons)
What foods or “stuff” did you want the most but go without during the month? Did you indulge in anything after the experiment was over?
CB: To be honest, I wasn’t really craving “stuff” during the month. What I really craved was fellowship because I had to turn down hanging out with friends quite a bit. I often had to pass up on eating out, going to comedy shows, rock climbing, or the movies. I’ve definitely been catching up on my social life since the experiment has ended.
What, if any, of the lifestyle changes made during the month will you continue now that the challenge is over?
CB: The biggest lifestyle change will definitely be in eating out less and cooking more. To me it’s less about the “frugal hacks” that I learned over the course of February and more about what I’m taking away from it: is a greater empathy for how it feels to have to truly stretch a budget to make ends meet.