Last week, we ran a story on living well on $40,000 a year, featuring a special education teacher who supports his family of four on that relatively modest salary. Fifty people commented on the article, many of whom argued that living on $40,000 a year was hardly an impressive feat.
“I could live like a king on $40,000 a year. Try living on $22,000 a year and see how that goes for you. And I have a family of three,” said Joyce of Maine.
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Connie from Texas expressed a similar sentiment: “I would feel really rich if I made that kind of money… Why don’t you have an article on how to live on $17,000 or $20,000 a year?”
To do just that, we tracked down Joseph Fonseca, a writer currently living in Seattle who supports himself on $20,000 a year. Fonseca, 28, authored a first-person piece in the Washington Post over the weekend describing his “10 cities, 10 years” project, in which he moves every year and starts over in a new town. An aspiring novelist, he plans to eventually write a book about his quest. We spoke with him by phone to get more details about just how he makes ends meet. Excerpts:
Do you avoid a lot of the expenses that many of your peers spend money on, such as technology and meals out?
For the most part, yes. I have a lower-end Android phone because I needed a new phone. I went as cheap as possible. I don’t own a car, I rely on public transportation, and sometimes biking. I have a laptop, because I need it for writing. I do have Internet access because it’s pretty important to get online. My only extra bill is Netflix, and I’m considering getting rid of that. I don’t go out to eat, or just for special occasions. I cook for every meal. I don’t drink coffee. I try to stick with water. I do go out to bars, but not every night. That’s my best way to meet people and experience cities.
What’s your typical meal?
I usually buy a pound of beef and a package of chicken and make easy Mexican dishes. I get some vegetables and mix it all together and throw it on a tortilla. I do a lot of pasta dishes. When I’m working, I usually pack a lunch, I make a sandwich plus chips or cookies to get me through the day. Then I get home and cook a fuller meal. I try to have a good mix [of food] so I don’t get sick. My brother taught me little tricks to take different ingredients around the house, like seasonings, to make a sauce that’s different and more unique, to give yourself different tastes.
What about clothes?
Once or twice a year, I might get a few new things, like an extra pair of jeans or pants, or a couple shirts, but I still have shirts I wore to college, so they’re six or seven years old or older. If a job requires certain clothes, then I’ll buy clothes for that. I maybe get one new pair of shoes a year and make them last as long as possible. I mostly shop at cheaper places, like thrift stores or Salvation Army or Goodwill. Those are good places to hit up.
What about going on dates?
I was in a relationship for a couple years, and we’d go to movies or bars. I like to go to movies, so I try to find cheaper movie places. We’d go to parks and take books or play a board game out there. We’d go to free art exhibits or save up and make a night of it. When I lived in Nashville, I’d get free passes to art museums where I worked, so I’d use that.
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Do you indulge in any luxuries?
I splurge on things with friends, like going out to bars. To me, the most important thing is to have fun with friends. I’d rather spend $30 or $40 to go out with friends and have those memories that buy a bunch of CDs or random things. What’s the hardest thing to do without? There are days that I wished I had a car. Sometimes public transportation isn’t great. But for me, the benefits of not having a car outweigh that [feeling].
Do you have health insurance?
I don’t. I had one job that offered it, so I had it for a little and went to the doctor and got a clean bill of health. I do have the thought, if I get sick or hurt, I can’t afford to go to the doctor. Luckily, I rarely get sick. If I start to get sick, I try to eat a little healthier. I’ve been hurt a few times, but just made do.
Do you have any savings for emergencies?
My savings all go toward the move each year, so long-term, I don’t have any savings. I also don’t have any debt. I try to save $3,000 for each move, and that gives me a little security to settle in and put down deposits.
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Do you anticipate or look forward to having a higher salary one day?
Not necessarily. I hope to make my career as a writer. My goal has always been to do that. I’ve never been someone that wanted to be settled into a career. I may or may not have a family some day. I don’t see myself as someone that will own a house and have property. I basically just want to be someone who at some point can say, “I’m a writer full-time.” Hopefully it would pay more than $20,000 a year, but I could live a satisfactory life on $50,000 a year and be a writer and do other things if I had to. To me, life experience, traveling, and meeting people is so much more valuable than having a nest egg.
If I had children, I would want to make enough money to support them. But as long as I’m unattached, I’m just concerned about my life. I don’t imagine I’ll ever be a well-off business person. As long as I have enough money to be happy in my own life and satisfied with my goals and not relying on others, then I’ll be happy.
What about retirement—do you plan on ever saving enough to retire?
I don’t think about it too much. To retire requires having a career to retire from. My ambition is to be a writer, and I’d love to be writing into my old age, to be like Vonnegut and write until the day I die.
Do you have any advice to others trying to live on $20,000 a year?
You can get rid of so much stuff and you’ll realize how little you’re really missing. It’s about prioritizing what you really need in life. It’s hard to save and stick to a strict budget if you don’t have a reason, or if you’re just vaguely saving. You should have a goal you’re working toward, a career goal or an artistic goal.
Corrected on 10/3/2011: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the amount Fonseca saves for each move. He saves $3,000.