Mandatory Shoestring Budgeting


I have generally always been good with money. From an early age, my parents instilled in me a moderately healthy relationship to that symbol of fiat, that all-encompassing mode of exchange, that emblem of enumeration utilized in a two-way relationship with labor and goods. It was a relationship that acknowledged the need for money in this current day and age for food, shelter, and clothing while also being wary of its potential for evil, its ability to influence power in horrible ways, and its capacity to dehumanize.

This has meant that while I’ve always been pragmatic about the need for money in order to garner the basic material necessities I need in my life – a house, decent food, passable clothes, as well as other less essential (or more essential depending on how you look at it) things like beer and a computer with internet – I have neither craved obscene wealth nor do I find anything romantic about poverty or extreme austerity.

This early philosophical outlook on money however didn’t really prepare me for making ends meet on a shoestring budget. With my folks, I just took the food, shelter, and clothing (not to mention education and entertainment) they provided for granted. I never had to worry about shoestring budgeting as long as I stayed in Bangalore with my parents. That little life lesson happened for me in the cold and lonely environs of Erie, Pennsylvania as a clueless international grad student bumbling his way through America. For one inglorious semester in the spring of 2003, in Erie’s Gannon University, my middle-class moorings and take-for-granted attitude was dealt a solid life lesson as I had to find a way to live on $400 a month.

Later, when I left Erie in the summer of that year and moved to Baltimore, I got a job as a curriculum developer at Johns Hopkins University that paid me a monthly wage of $800. I was happy. I knew that I could live on such a paycheck easily, and maybe have a little something left over to go out for a meal with friends.

Following that sojourn, when I left Hopkins after completing my Masters in 2004 to work at a non-profit in Boston, my contract stipulated a yearly salary of $32,000 with benefits. I was over the moon at what I perceived to be a mini fortune. I was able to save a sizeable chunk of the money every year for the three years I worked there, having resolved to continue living like a grad student.

My mental adaptability to what some, though certainly not everyone, might consider mediocre wages was not by accident. I believe one of the reasons for it was because in Erie I was earning said princely sum of $400 a month for rent, food, books, travel, and any other miscellaneous expenses.

Gannon University must have realized that international students were desperate. We could legally work only twenty hours on campus, and there was no union to speak of that could fight for better working conditions. All of us desperately needed those shitty-ass jobs to eat and pay rent. So they figured that they could get away with paying us the least that they legally could – the hourly minimum wage, which according to the 2003 federal standard was $5.15.

One of the consequences of having to live only on $400 a month was that I couldn’t escape my gratingly irritating housemates, Fiefdom King and Slovenly Misogynist. I couldn’t afford to. There were, in total, five of us living in a three bedroom house that cost approximately $800 total for rent and a little over $100 for utilities. Fiefdom King occupied a room, Slovenly Misogynist and I shared one, and two others shared the other. As I’ve mentioned before, within the micro-feudal system that desperate immigrants often find themselves in, there was little we could say or do about it, so Fiefdom King had his own abode for an equal share of the rent.

It was still cheap though, which was the only reason I went with it, as we each had to pay only about $200 a month for rent and utilities. We also managed to keep our groceries and household items down to about $125 a month per person by shopping in the cheapest stores we could find. After having grown up in Bangalore on whole grains, lentils, beans, fresh vegetables and yogurt provided in a variety of delectable permutations by my wonderful mum, I made the painful discovery that the cheapest food in America was the most processed garbage one could find on a store shelf.

This left me with about $75 a month for books, travel, stationary supplies, coffee, entertainment, and miscellaneous expenses like cigarettes (that I considered at the time to be a necessity for my own sanity). With a dash of ingenuity and micro-economic strategizing, I figured out how to make that money stretch.

One of the challenges I faced was with getting enough to eat while on campus.

I tried to ensure that I ate at least one meal at home or packed my lunch before I left for campus, in addition to ensuring that I had my caffeine fix so as to not have to buy coffee in school. But I often had to be on campus for the whole day, both for my studies and to avoid my housemates. I would leave early in the morning and return late at night, so I tended to buy at least one meal in the cafeteria. I would then calculate it based on a simple inverse equation of minimal cost for the highest calorific intake that provided a full stomach. A bagel cost around $1. Quite cheap even for someone of meager means. However a bagel tastes bland by itself, it is merely a carbohydrate vehicle for the fatty flavor of cream cheese, which meant that one had to spend another $1.50 to buy said spread.

Not necessarily.

I discovered that condiments such as mayo, ketchup, mustard, and ranch dressing were offered for free in the cafeteria. Large plastic containers resembling over-sized moisturizer bottles squirted these flavor-pastes into small cups meant for people carrying hefty salads or hamburgers. I couldn’t afford the salads or burgers, but I could have my bagel taste quite a bit better without spending that extra $1.50 by squeezing out copious amounts of said condiments in lieu of cream cheese. I would even mix and match to provide new flavors. Two memorable combos were ranch dressing mixed with some mustard to give it a little kick, and mayo mixed with a dash of ketchup to provide me with future perspective whenever I complained about food in later years. I ate a lot of bagels that semester. Not exactly the pinnacle of healthy eating of course. But tight budgets have a way of preventing, say, a desire to go full-on paleo or Atkins in one’s diet.

(’tis the reason why I believe the overwhelming majority of dieters seem to be quite white and socially well-placed, though still quite grouchy. Carbs, while providing calories for those with lesser means, can still be devilishly satisfying.)

I also discovered that American universities often had events with free food in them, even if the events were not necessarily of one’s ideological persuasion. If it got me a meal, I was willing to listen to whatever religious sermonizing or right-wing political discourse on display.

They were not always painful however, and sometimes caught me by surprise in offering me new knowledge without my even seeking it out. I once attended a talk entitled “Sand and Salt” organized by a student group called The Ark. Not getting the group’s obvious reference to Noah, the mythical floods, and his acute obsession with zoology and maritime engineering, I decided to attend. I thought it might be a geological presentation. Not my exact area of study, but of interest to me nevertheless. I was happy to be partaking in a meal while gaining some knowledge in a discipline that fascinated Einstein himself as a child. Following a ninety minute talk and discussion however, I left with a full stomach and a pronounced take on a specific passage from the King James Bible on foolishness, wickedness, and lack of sense. Specifically, I gathered that “sand, salt, and a mass of iron were easier to bear than a man with no understanding” (Ecclesiasticus 22:15), which I took to be Bible-speak for “don’t be an ignorant dumbass.”

So that’s how I handled daily sustenance and uber-Christian morality for cheap.

But travel?

Fiscal responsibility in that regard was undertaken by walking to campus and back. I figured that it probably saved me a couple of bucks each day, which added up to a substantial portion of my monthly wages. The only problem was that my one semester at Gannon University was in the dead of winter in a town that was literally named after one of the Great Lakes, the shores upon which said town sat and doggedly faced the brisk cold fronts that wafted over icy waters. But I was fit. I was an athlete in high school and college. I still did pushups and crunches to stay strong. I figured the walking would counter the daily cigarettes providing me the nicotine-laced relaxation I craved. I had a reasonably good pair of boots and a decent winter jacket, thanks to the foresight of my parents, which held me in good stead during those winter trudges. Walking also helped my mind get greater focus, a practice I have imbibed to this day. Despite the cold, walking was the most agreeable of the cost-saving measures I undertook that semester, and the only one I persisted with even when financial pressures weren’t as pronounced.

Books were a different issue altogether. I needed course-related books in order to study and get good grades, but they were astoundingly expensive and I couldn’t afford them. In India, one had informal networks to get books photocopied for cheap. In America, those networks were not available to me. This was when I discovered the library, and a particularly pedantic way of navigating the limited duration for which I could keep borrowed books. I copied by hand, word-for-word, excerpts from the chapters that I would need to peruse at a later time, along with detailed notes on the rest. I carried a modified version of this practice into the university I transferred to and much later on for my doctoral work. It proved invaluable as a treasure trove of notes to refer to when blasting out term papers. All I had to invest in was a box of felt-tip pens as the ball-point ones I used gave me a sharp pain in my wrist at the end of the day.

Finally came the one expense that was most definitely a luxury and an unhealthy one at that, but one that I rationalized was a tool for sanity-maintenance. When I flew into America, I bought a $15 carton of Pall Malls duty-free during my layover in Frankfurt. This carton of two hundred cigarettes lasted me for some time. But with the increasing isolation and craziness, I was down to my last pack sooner than I had anticipated. I found that the cheapest cigarettes were around $5 a pack, which would have been a big hit on such a meager budget, considering I was up to smoking five or six cigarettes a day. It was then that I realized I was paying a good amount specifically to have cigarettes pre-rolled for me by Messrs. Phillip and Morris. Instead I found that buying a bag of smoking tobacco and rolling paper considerably cut costs for me, gave me a stronger high, and kept my noxious habit to a fairly low expenditure.

The initial attempts at rolling my own cancer-sticks were comically inept. I slathered the rolling paper with voluminous amounts of saliva, causing the paper to rip apart as I tried to roll them. Preventing the tobacco I had carefully placed in the centre of the paper from falling out was like trying to get the bubble in a spirit-level perfectly in the centre. Rolling cigarettes, I painfully found out, were exercises in balance and poise. I’m sure that during those frustrating first days at rolling cigarettes, I must have looked vaguely like an angry pantomime. The necessary tact required for this was hindered by moisture overcoming the thin coat of glue on the edge of the paper. The few sorry looking cigarettes that I managed to roll together would fall apart after a few puffs, and I would restart the painful exercise from scratch. But I soon became quite skillful at it, and the joy of having the stress-busting nicotine at a significantly lower price ensured I continued this practice till I could afford regular cigarettes again.

Thus panned out a semester of survival and several life lessons of varying importance for yours truly – all for just $400 a month.

[Next up: “Bring your Bible with you”]


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