How to be Happy Living on $20 a Week

3 Approaches that Prove You Don't Have to be Wealthy, to Be Happy

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The happiest season of my life was the summer after my second year of college. I was determined to stay in my apartment with my roommates. I didn’t want to return to the small town I’d grown up in only to search yet again, unsuccessfully, for a full-time job. And frankly, I didn’t want the strict rules of our household applied to me any longer, if I’m being totally honest. Since I’d been living on my own for a couple of years, taking my newfound freedom away from me was just not an option.

My parents made it clear – if I stayed in my college town for the summer, I was financially on my own. But I had known this before I even told them. I was fortunate to have a scholarship for my tuition, but my parents were helping me quite a bit with my living expenses and that would stop if I didn’t come home.

The Plan

Of course, I had a plan – I already had a part-time job that would turn closer to full time once all the other students left for the summer. My boss assured me a minimum of 25-30 hours a week. My portion of the rent was $350 per month. A bus pass was $89 a month. My portion of the joint cable and phone bill was an additional $20 a month. I was earning between $500-$600 dollars per month at my hourly job at the campus pharmacy, store and games room. This left me $20-$35 dollars per week for food, entertainment, personal items etc. I had a credit card but even at the age of 19, I was determined not to use it unless there was an emergency.

What I Learned

1.  The first time my roommates and I went shopping together we discovered: I wanted to spend my money on bread, eggs, fruits, vegetables and peanut butter. Another roommate wanted meat, pasta, sauces/condiments and strangely, lettuce. The third roommate had an expensive palate and an expansive budget. We shared our food and even made a dishwashing schedule. Perfect, right?

After less than a month we were failing miserably. It turns out no one likes to do dishes (unless you need the dish that’s dirty) and none of us could agree on how our money should be spent together, so, we switched it all up and decided to buy our own food. Sometimes that meant 2 jars of peanut butter, 24 eggs and a huge bag of carrots and other times it meant someone bought buns and someone bought cheese and someone bought vegetables and a magical meal of personal pizza rounds that we all loved would spontaneously come together.

Lesson? Learn how to get creative with what you’ve got.

2. Since my finances were finite, there really was no way to not meet my budget. I made paying my rent the first priority and every other obligation came after that. Food and entertainment literally came last. I had to decide whether that spending would be making decent food or going out. On some really lean months, I couldn’t even get the bus pass, so I walked. I walked an hour and a half to work (each way) and I loved it, actually. This definitively is not me complaining about “when I was your age I had to walk…” story. (A friend even loaned me a bike which I rode for a while until it was stolen). So I enjoyed my long and meditative walks and got to know some of the people on my route. One woman did Tai Chi on her lawn and would smile at me sometimes as she shifted her positions. I saw more sunrises and sunsets in one summer than I had in my entire life. I watched the spring turn to summer and the summer turn to fall as I walked. There are countless subtle things to notice and appreciate when you don’t drive.

Lesson? Get outside and walk more. There’s so much to see and experience. 

3. That summer I had also just begun dating a serious boyfriend, who lived a 6-hour drive away for the summer. Bummer, I know. I wanted to visit him quite badly, but a bus ticket was $52.50 – a luxury I could absolutely not make room for. One early morning later in the summer when I could afford to take the bus again, I was sitting in the bus shelter, waiting for the first bus of the day. It came at 6:02 a.m. The streets were quiet. No one else was around. No cars, no people, but the sun was coming up, bright and warm. The wind rustled and I could hear leaves and other debris swishing up the street. I looked down and saw a pinkish red flash of paper go rolling by that looked kind of like…money? (I’m Canadian and this happened in Canada, so yes, Canadian currency is different in that it is brightly colored).

I stepped out of the shelter and reached for it and it was, indeed, fifty dollars. I looked left, right – but still, no one was around, was it mine to keep? I pondered it and when I told my roommates and boyfriend later, they thought I would be crazy if I didn’t keep it, that it was meant to be, that I deserved it. So that night, after getting off work, I bought my bus ticket.

Lesson? When unexpected gifts fall right into your lap, embrace and embody genuine gratitude, then make good use of the opportunity it provides for you.

Twenty Years Later

So I ended up marrying that serious boyfriend and two kids, two cars and a mortgage later, I am fortunate to no longer have to live on $20 a week. But recently, in an effort to track and control our spending which seems to spiral out of control with all the things, something occurred to me. What if I put that $20 limit back into my budget?

So I did. Every week I take out $20 cash. If I want to buy a latte, fine, I buy that $5 latte, but that leaves me $15, so I don’t buy one every day. Same goes for eating out – I’ve been taking my lunch to work for as long as I can remember. But sometimes when you get in the habit of buying it, it’s hard to stop. So I still eat out sometimes, but if it costs $10 or $15 – well, you get the picture. Some weeks I get super on top of things and don’t spend anything and $40 the next week means I might buy a pair of jeans or new earrings – and you know what? I get so excited by what that little or not so little treat might turn out to be. I made it to $60 once, I can’t even tell you how liberating that felt!

I also go for more walks on my lunch break, in my neighborhood and in unfamiliar places on weekends. And what about when the grocery budget’s been stretched? We get creative with what we’ve got. Realistically, there’s always some kind of food in our house – what magic will we make with it?

Lastly, I’m noticing all the little things, that are not things at all. These are the biggest gifts ever, the $50 bill rolling by at the bus stop isn’t the only kind of gift that counts. They can be moments or conversations that you never saw coming. Like the time one of my daughters tearfully said that she’d never seen me more beautiful than when I taught yoga. Or when my other daughter expressed relief that she could talk to me about anything, that she considers me her best friend and wished I could come to school with her to hang out at lunch sometimes. Or how about when your spouse wakes up before dawn (even though he doesn’t have to be up for another hour) to make you a latte so that you can go and teach yoga with some clarity in your brain?

To me, these are not little things and believe me when I say that we are far from a perfect family of individuals. But, there lies within them a recognition of these gorgeous, delicate and profound moments as true gifts that don’t cost anything all, monetarily speaking. Getting the chance to notice, experience and reciprocate in this way of living and loving is accessible to all of us at any time, and it’s priceless.

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