How I Survive On $20K A Year

I’m not a millennial. In fact, I’m a Gen X-er. My twenties, and even my thirties, are long behind me.

At my age, I should have done the college thing and gotten my first low-paying job that would’ve eventually catapulted me into a successful working-class status. I never really aspired to be a part of the one percent. To quote The Notorious B.I.G., “mo’ money, mo’ problems.” But I did long to be a solid member of the middle class. I wanted to own my own home, have money in the bank, and go on vacation at least once a year, like so many Americans.

I have to say that, growing up, I had the fervent desire to surpass my mother in terms of success. She always encouraged me to do better, to be better. I went to school and got good grades. My endgame was to attain greatness. I wanted to reach the point where I was able to care for her and my family when the time came. Unfortunately, things did not work according to plan.

Nevertheless, my thirst for middle class was still strong, and I wanted to achieve that dream. So, I worked hard climbing the ladder of success. I followed the rules and worked in a corporate environment, making copies and pushing pencils, grasping for independence and career fulfillment. But in the end, I failed. Not because I wasn’t capable or determined — I was. However, I learned quickly that I did not want to play the games. I didn’t want to do the meetings and pointless projects, business lunches, team-building, back-biting and all those things that came with working for the man. I had to face facts; I was not a team player. (It started making sense that, in grade school, my report cards always said, “Plays well alone, but shows no interest in group activities.”)

As the years progressed, I became a willing victim of upward mobility. I was deep in debt, way behind on my student loans, and in the credit card crunch up to my eyeballs. In the past, if I wanted something, I saw no reason why I shouldn’t have it, whether I could afford it or not. And then I hit the wall.

By this time, I was well into my thirties and making just shy of $30K a year. I was increasingly unhappy and unable to focus. Depression became a regular guest in my home, which added to my downward spiral. After some much-needed therapy and mental help, my outlook changed. I no longer craved being middle class. Instead, I aspired to be healthy and whole, which came with its own requirements. From now on, I came first. I stopped chasing status.

I picked myself up and started anew. I found a job — not a career — where I could work from home. It’s part-time, which has a couple of benefits for my new lifestyle. I don’t have to deal with people. I enjoy what I do, and it has freed me up for those things that are truly important to me, like engaging with friends and writing. This year, I published my first novel.

As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And that is what making $20K forces you to do, especially when you’ve made the choice to live a simpler life. Luckily, I’m at an age where I want fewer material things. Also, because I work from home, my expenses are low. Things like transportation, eating out, and a clothing allowance are not a factor for me. Most times, I am dressed in my pajamas. Although my income is not substantial, I regularly contribute to my company’s 401K plan. It’s not much — just 10 percent — but it’s something. In two years, I will be going on a long-awaited trip to Italy funded completely with cash — no plastic — and that feels great.

Bottom line, I make just over $20,000 a year. I’m definitely not going to set the world on fire making that kind of money, but I’ve learned to adjust. I wouldn’t call it settling. I just think long and hard about the choices I make and the things I want. I’ve learned to budget and say no to myself about frivolous stuff.

My income dictates everything I do, how much I spend, the things that I buy, and even where I live. For example, I wanted to move to the Hyde Park neighborhood, close to shops, fine dining, and cafes where I often socialize with friends. But the rents in that area for a one-bedroom apartment started at $1200 a month. There was no way I could afford that. My solution was somewhat simple. I found a spacious studio in an adjacent neighborhood where the rent is much more affordable at $685. That’s just a 20-minute walk or a 7-minute bus ride away from all the action. Problem solved, and the studio suits me just fine.

Thankfully, the rest of my expenses are quite reasonable. Things like utilities, internet, cell phone and insurance (life and renter’s) average no more than $250 a month. I have a student loan payment of $140. Add in a tithing of 10 percent to my church, the cost of groceries, miscellaneous and household expenditures, and there you have it.

Of course, no life is fun if all you’re doing is paying bills. There have to be some concessions, even when you’re living from paycheck to paycheck. I’ve become a saver — and before you scratch your head, yes, it is possible to save money even on a $20K income (it’s hard, but not impossible). Saving money seemed so out of reach for me. However, once I began to budget, I was able to see places where I blew money needlessly. Now that extra money gets divided between an emergency fund — as suggested by all the financial gurus — and sinking funds that allow me to plan for vacations and satisfying all of my wants. I am not in a position to buy everything I want when I want it. My financial experience has taught me to be patient. Delayed gratification is something that must be learned, and when done right, can even be fun. I tend to appreciate the things that I have more than if I plopped down my credit card and made a quick purchase. I even save all of my change. My goal is to start investing a little at a time.

Now, you may ask, “Is living on $20K easy?” The answer is no. It requires constant planning, budgeting, and sacrifices. To be honest, I may not make a middle-class salary or even what constitutes as lower class, but despite that obstacle, I live what feels like a middle-class existence — meaning I don’t want for anything. My bills are being paid, and I make time for those special things in life. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not my desire to remain living at this economic level. But in the meantime, I make it work. Who knows — I may even dust off my dream of homeownership one day. Anything is possible.

TaKaylla L. Gordon is a freelance writer and author of The One Date Rule. A native of Chicago, TaKaylla is on a quest to live her best life no matter the income.

Image via Unsplash

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