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Money Management and Living on a Budget for Freelancers – Part 2: Expenses

Posted by on Apr 9, 2020 in Blog Posts, Featured, Work and Career | 0 comments

Let’s continue this series with a discussion of how I keep expenses down. Again, I’m not going to tell you not to buy Starbucks (but I will explain how I don’t). And if you’ve been penny-pinching for years, this might not all be new to you, or feasible for you. Part of my inspiration for this blog series came about after I read The $1,000 Challenge and realized I was already executing most of its tips that applied to me (it’s still a highly entertaining and pretty informative read). But I’m also writing this because a number of these tips have sounded new to people, especially fellow freelancers, who I’ve shared them with–so I want to spread the word about them.

Mint classifies expense categories in alphabetical order, so that’s more or less how I’ll run through them.

Auto and transport: 

It certainly helps that I don’t commute. I drive a Toyota Corolla and I love her–though about 16 years old now, her maintenance needs are low (helped, again, by the fact that I don’t drive a lot. I once got turned away from an oil change because I hadn’t gone enough miles since the last one). And her gas efficiency is good, about 30 mpg. I look forward to the days when used Priuses go up for sale–I rode in a friend’s and watched her mpg climb up with regenerative braking–but I’m not in a rush to get rid of my current vehicle, no matter how many offers dealerships make me to sell her (and there have been a few).

  • Since my Corolla doesn’t have regenerative braking, but does have brake pads that I’ve had to replace on frighteningly short notice (“The trip you’re leaving on tomorrow is how far?” the young man at the Toyota repair bay asked, going pale), I’ve learned to drive in a way that doesn’t require lots of sharp braking. By which I mean, go the speed limit and leave a good following distance, you maniacs.
  • A fellow cheapskate online described a “game” they played which I’ve picked up: every time the car in front of you needs to brake, but you have enough following distance that you don’t have to, you win a point. Your points reset to zero when you have to hit the brake. That said, don’t play this game if you’re going to be so competitive that it keeps you from braking when you really need to. Buying a new car, going through a hospitalization, and/or planning a funeral are all much more expensive than gas.
  • Speaking of gas costs, a Costco membership is worth it just for the fact that their gas is significantly cheaper (often 6-10 cents a gallon, by my estimate) than surrounding stations, plus with their credit card you earn 4% cashback on fuel purchases.

Bills and Utilities

  • My water bill is paid by my landlord, though because my hometown is having a water crisis–the rainwater that used to recharge our aquifer now lands on concrete–I turn off the tap when brushing my teeth and all that.
  • I had a pretty nice, simple and inexpensive cell phone plan from Virgin Mobile, which switched to Boost Mobile–corporate takeover?–and actually became $2/month cheaper. So I can’t complain there.
  • For internet, I found a beautiful solution for a time-strapped person who hates waiting on hold and isn’t great at negotiating with massive corporations: Billfixers. They were able to negotiate a $20/month discount on my internet contract, which we then split 50/50–so I pay Billfixers $10/month and save $10/month for the next year. To be honest, the time and stress they saved me is well worth the $120, which I’d have no guarantee of getting if I relied on my own willingness to call up and negotiate with my provider anyway.
  • In addition to internet, Fillfixers can negotiate bills for cable, phone plans, and more. There are also a few other such negotiation services, including some that negotiate down health expenses (I’ll talk about my own health expense management in the next part of this series). I can only speak to my experience with BillFixers, which was simple and satisfying–uploaded my bill, saved $10/month. Do your research until you feel comfortable before choosing a company.
  • The other major utility expense is energy. And as you might have guessed, I care about the environment, so I want to use as little as possible–plus, if possible, use renewable sources. My utility, WeEnergies (best pronounced “weinergies”) offers a plan where they say they’ll use more renewables to power your home or apartment…and then charge more for it, more or less because they can. My alternative: I signed on with Arcadia Power. Their 50% wind energy plan is free–I pay what I ordinarily pay WeEnergies for my electric bill, but to Arcadia, who matches 50% of my usage with wind energy credits (even Arcadia’s 100% wind plan would be less expensive than WeEnergies for the same amount). And I actually earn some credit card rewards because Arcadia, unlike my utility, allows you to pay via credit card (more on card rewards in my final post in this series. Short version: earn them!)
    • Arcadia also offers a solar panel program, where you can buy a share of solar energy from an existing installation rather than installing your own: to say the least, this is helpful when you don’t own your roof, or when your home isn’t well situated for solar energy. I’m considering doing this when I’m ready for the longer-term commitment.
    • Depending on your location, Arcadia may be able to offer other services that help you save energy and lower your bills. It depends on local legislation. I’m personally pretty envious of people who are able to, for instance, take advantage of off-peak-hour billing with their SmartRate offering.
    • I also find Arcadia’s dashboard easier to read and more user-friendly than WeEnergies’, making it easier to find information about my electricity usage.
    • Overall, this is an example of making sure I get more value for what I pay: getting my electricity while being a little kinder to the environment.
  • But, for all I make fun of WeEnergies’ name, they are a partner in Focus on Energy, which means they offer free efficiency kits to households with items like high-efficiency lightbulbs, low-flow faucet heads, and pipe insulation (and also discounts on similar items in their marketplace). I highly suggest everyone, freelancer or not, check out their eligibility for this or similar programs in their area. It’s good for your bills and the environment.
  • Other tips from Arcadia’s website: use smart power strips, and cultivate a bit more heat & cold tolerance. Apparently, for every degree you set back your thermostat, you can save up to 6% of your energy bill. I really don’t like the cold, but I have enough warm blankets that I can turn the heat a few degrees down at night and sleep through my savings.

person using laptop computer holding card

Business expenses:

Remember to keep records and receipts for these so you can subtract them from your gross (and even grosser, taxable ;P) self-employment income! I am not a tax lawyer, but keep that in mind.

  • For writers, this can include professional services such as book formatting, cover art, and copyediting services (just saying), as well as web design. I don’t think you should be stingy in hiring outside your expertise, though you should also do your research–some companies that offer self-publishing or online marketing services seem to do so at rather inflated rates (and I suspect the freelancers who do the actual work don’t get a large cut of them). There are also some things I’ve chosen not to pay for: for instance, I’d rather rely on word-of-mouth advertising than spend money trying to figure out Facebook or Google Ads.
    • Just because you’re hiring an expert to do something (and often you should), doesn’t mean you don’t need to also know some basic practices and terminology. You’ll be better able to select a freelancer who meets your needs when you understand the kind of work they’ll be doing. You’ll also often save on hours billed when you’re able to put some of your own work in: as an example from my experience, authors who punctuate dialogue correctly and proofread to avoid repetition in their writing often receive smaller bills from me because I work fewer hours on their manuscripts. They’re happy, and I’m also happy because instead of developing wrist strain by replacing periods with commas, I’m able to use my editorial insight to strengthen their storytelling in other ways.
  • Classes, conventions, and travel expenses and also be tax-deductible and there may be ways to find savings here: for instance, if you participate as a panelist or volunteer at a convention, you may receive a discount on your ticket.
  • For my business, I’ve invested in a beautiful (and knock-a-burglar-out substantial) copy of The Chicago Manual of Style…only for a new edition to come out just a year or so later. Remember to budget for periodic updates to your materials.
  • Another environment and wallet-friendly tip, and a plug for what must be my favorite wholesaler: Costco’s photo centers offer refills of printer ink cartridges, which can be significantly cheaper than buying a new cartridge (plus keeps the plastic out of the landfill). Sadly, this service is getting harder to find as more stores are closing their photo centers, but it’s something to be aware of and take advantage of if you can (if you’re not a Costco member yet, you might also see if you’ve got a friend who’s already a member and can refer you in person–when I helped one friend sign up, we both got $10 Costco gift cards).
  • Additional business supplies for me include stationary and address labels, along with pens. You can pick up a surprising amount of pens for free by attending trade shows and fundraisers. As for address labels, stickers, and to-do lists, I get them through a perhaps surprising source–my charitable giving (see next post for details).

Food/groceries and other shopping: 

  • I use coupons for both grocery shopping and restaurants. Of course, when eating out, you tip based on the bill before the coupon is subtracted (and tips in cash are good).

focus photography of person counting dollar banknotes

  • My food bills skyrocketed when my partner and I started dating around this time last year and eating out together, though they’ve settled down now that we’re so in love we’re content with gourmet frozen pizzas (Cedar Teeth are quite good!) and each other’s company. Plus the whole pandemic thing.
  • Plus, I treat most restaurant dining as the purchase of at least two meals: leftovers also mean I don’t need to spend time cooking the next day, win/win! Also, go ahead and take the napkins and butter packets if your waitstaff brought them to you on a plate; otherwise they have to throw them out anyway, at least so a waitress once told me. But don’t snitch all the creamer, jam, and sugar packets set out on the table, that’s just cheap.
  • Back to the coupons: So, my sister used to work in a grocery store and has horror stories about people her co-workers dubbed “the coupon crazies”. Apparently I’m not truly crazy, because I only just learned what “stacking” coupons means–using a store coupon and a manufacturer coupon at once, with each taking an amount off.
  • Most importantly to not receiving unpleasant nicknames, I don’t harangue the cashier if one of my coupons has expired, though usually they’re happy to make sure each coupon is applied appropriately when it’s valid. And I’ve saved as much as $40/month with them.
  • I usually gather coupons throughout the month and then go shopping about a week to three days before the earliest ones expire. I use the coupons as a shopping list, and if I have something on the list that doesn’t have a coupon, I try to buy store brand.
    • Note: sometimes store brand is cheaper anyway, even with coupons. For quick comparisons between brands, check if there’s a per-unit price included on the label near your desired item on the shelf.
    • If shopping without coupons entirely, I try to favor inexpensive stores like Aldi’s or Trader Joe’s, or bulk purchases like at Costco.
  • I shop after I’ve eaten to limit impulse purchases (shopping alone helps with this too–something about having another person along makes the activity more social and thus, for me, more impulsive).
  • My diet is somewhat low-protein, though I use lots of canned tuna and chicken, get frozen fish and ground hamburger inexpensively from Aldi’s, and have made some delicious bean soups from mixes. Because I only grocery shop once a month, I tend to eat canned or frozen veggies when the farmer’s market isn’t running (I also get veggie pasta as a harmless way to inject more vitamins). Part of keeping my food budget is being realistic: sure, it’d be nice to eat those two pounds of mixed greens, but I know I’m not going to because salads feel like so much chewing for so little reward, so I shouldn’t buy them.
  • Bringing bottled water or juice, or a thermos of coffee, out with me can keep me from needing to purchase something additional (like those Starbucks lattes).
  • Also, alcohol is expensive. To each their own, but I’ve found it’s not worth the money to me except for rare social occasions.

Coupon sources: some addresses still get mailers full of coupons; my apartment does occasionally, and my mom gets tons with her newspaper subscription, which she generously lets me clip when she’s not using them herself. MyPoints, which I mentioned in my previous post as a way to earn extra money via their points, has an entire Coupons section and rewards you with points when you use them. I’m also a rewards member at CVS and they both mail me coupons and send them to their app on my phone. Sometimes these coupons can be for as much as 20%-30% off my entire purchase, which signals a time to stock up on things like shampoo, makeup, and first aid supplies.

Other shopping:

  • My indulgences include nicely scented soaps, body sprays, and lotions, which my family tends to get at craft fairs and give me for Christmas and birthday gifts. I’ve also picked up some nice stuff inexpensively at T.J. Maxx. If I ever stay at a hotel, yes, I take the tiny shampoo bottles (after all, I’ve already opened them). I also use one of those handmade soap saver washcloth bags to get the most out of even the slivers.
  • For clothing, I also get a mix of inexpensive items at T.J. Maxx or St Vincent de Paul stories (I enjoy not only the savings but the scavenger hunt aspect–though it can certainly get exhausting to find nothing that fits), and high-quality pieces that fit my goals for ethical purchases, such as Mata Traders Fair Trade dresses.  I don’t care about being on the cutting edge of fashion, so I can keep wearing the same comfortable wardrobe for years.
  • For food, clothing, or anything else, I try to follow the “30-day rule” with my shopping list: I put something on the list, then wait a few weeks to a few months before actually buying it, unless it’s a truly urgent purchase (I try to keep a stock of most “emergency” items, including extra toilet paper, cleaning supplies, tools, batteries, and Pepto-Bismol). This cuts down impulse purchasing, and also gives me more chance to find coupons or sales on the item.

50% discount sign

  • Books are, of course, a significant part of my budget :D. And as an author, I definitely believe in buying lots of books! That said, hardcovers are expensive–purchasing ebooks can be a way to save you some money, while not necessarily earning the author any less in royalties (some authors earn more on an ebook sale than a print book).
    • If you really want to support an author, consider buying their books directly from their website, Gumroad, or Smashwords, which can offer even higher royalty rates than Amazon’s 35%-70% (if the ebook costs less than $2.99, most other retailers will pay the author more than Amazon’s paltry 35% on that price point).
  • However, I read more than 150 books a year. I think I buy more books than the average person reads in a year, but I simply can’t buy everything I want to read. So libraries are saving my life.
    • Incidentally, if you want to read a book, can’t afford to purchase it, and your library doesn’t yet have it, remember that you can usually find instructions on your libraries website for how to request that they stock the title. You get the book, and the author not only gets a book sale but the chance at reaching a lot of other readers.
  • The library is my primary source of entertainment: print books, ebooks, CD books to listen to in my car, DVDs. Most of my down time is spent reading–or, when I need to do something that doesn’t involve words, playing free games on my phone (Candy Crush level 600 and counting) or walking outside when the weather allows it (my area has a number of nice parks and a fairly pedestrian-friendly downtown). That’s right: no Netflix subscription (okay, I can borrow my sister’s login if there’s something I desperately need to watch. I’m also a fan of Star Trek: Discovery, so I subscribe to CBS All Access for the two months or show that new episodes are coming out, then pause my subscription until the next season releases).
  • For books I can’t find at my library, especially books that are out of print, I put them on my wishlist to buy when I have some extra funds for them, or for my friends and family to buy me for Christmas or birthdays.
    • I currently have this wishlist on Amazon, but I’m working on moving it to Bookshop.org instead. Bookshop.org is meant to be an ethical alternative to Amazon that, among other things, supports indie bookstores. Part of managing my expenses means maximizing what I get for what I pay, and that includes supporting causes I believe in–like a more diverse, healthier bookselling ecosystem.

Lastly, the other hand of shopping is saving: I replace items carefully, and often hold on to the older version as a backup. This cuts down on emergency purchases, for one thing! So I was able to lend an old laptop for doing presentations at the Sustainability Fair, I had a backup charger cord when I left my primary one at a friend’s house, and I have a very very old iPhone that I’m currently using as a camera (since my primary phone’s storage card is full of silly pictures I send my family and haven’t the heart to delete).

I also clean out plastic and glass bottles or other containers when I can reuse them. Argo iced teas come in beautiful, sturdy glass bottles–I’m currently using one to store looseleaf tea. An Ice Mountain sparkling water came in such a wonderfully lightweight plastic bottle that I’m keeping it for when I need to carry water with me on hot days (I also have a sports water bottle, but compared to the thinner plastic, it’s extra weight!). Some restaurants have started using microwaveable plastic containers for takeout that I can get at least a few more uses out of (and so I don’t have to buy more storage containers). And so on. You’ll want to do a sweep of your house every so often to ensure you don’t start resembling a hoarder situation, but I find it’s often worth hanging on to a (clean) item for up to 12 months to see if you’ll have a use for it.

Whew! This is probably the longest post I’ll write in this series. But next up, let’s continue talking about some other expense categories. Then, I’ll talk about how I manage payments and finally, what accounts I have (including the all-important savings account) and how I keep track of them.

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