How I Live on Less than $40,000 Annually: Caine from Colorado

You can call him "Caine," or you can call him "Clockwork Gremlin" -- but you can't call him a spendthrift.

A little about me. On the internet, I usually go by “Caine Volfram.” No, that’s not my real name. I also go by “Clockwork Gremlin.”

I am largely unremarkable. Single white male, just turned 28, Irish descent (among others), living in rural America. Colorado, to be specific. I am fiscally and socially conservative; I am also a casual, but very ardent Christian. My prime motivation in everything is selfishness, and I firmly believe that you should never do something you don’t want to do unless you have a very good reason.

I graduated from the University of Colorado in 2011 after studying Computer Engineering for eight years. Since paying off the remainder of my educational debts after graduation, I have avoided debt.

In December of 2012, my boss and I came to an agreement. While my talents with software design were clear, they did not suit the job I had been hired for. I resigned my position, took the pay from my remaining vacation days, made one final investment, and switched my finances over to emergency mode.

Making Ends Meet on $12,000 Per Year

I decided I could live quite comfortably on $1000 per month, or $12,000 per year.

I live in a rental house with three friends. We split rent evenly, so my personal rent is $300 per month. My monthly share of the utilities is between $50 and $100.

I have no children or dependents of any sort, so I have no need for life insurance.

I’ve gotten sick less than once per year over the last decade, and the last time I had an injury requiring medical attention was in 2010 because I stabbed myself in the hand. It was stupid.

My dental and optometrist bills are paid out-of-pocket. They’re remarkably affordable.

My car is old, and costs me basically nothing, because right after I got it I was rear-ended, and the other driver’s insurance paid me more than I had paid for the car. My car is safe and functional. I drive very little, as I don’t typically have anywhere to go.

Since my necessary monthly expenses are around $400, that leaves me about $130 per week for food, gas, and everything else.

My weekly grocery bill is usually between $10 and $25 per week for cereal, milk, and miscellaneous canned and dry goods. Breakfast costs less than one dollar per day. Other meals are around two dollars each, but I typically eat only three meals per week besides breakfast. That’s all I really need, since my days are fairly inactive. I do snack pretty regularly, though.

Tricks for Living on a Tight Budget

I have several tricks for keeping my budget low. Phones are a big issue I’ve seen people have. I don’t use the phone much, so I found TracFone was the perfect deal for me. The phones themselves are dirt-cheap, and are perfectly serviceable for talking and text. I buy 200-minute cards for about $40, and my phone has a double-minute deal, so that’s 400 minutes for $40. This tends to last me between two and four months. Longer if I’m careful about it.

Almost every store I visit regularly has a clearance section, and I usually check this out first. If I’m lucky, they’ll have exactly what I was looking for. I regularly buy loaves of bread and dry cereal here. If I’m feeling fun, I’ll buy a box of donuts. I also almost never buy big-brand items, unless they’re marked down significantly, and the most important number to look at when buying groceries is not the price, but the price per unit. Kellogg’s and Post cereals can run 30 cents per ounce or more, but I can get bags of store-brand or no-brand cereal for 12 cents per ounce or less. I don’t even know what the names of major brands of milk are, because they cost five dollars per gallon, and they most certainly are not twice as good as the store-brand milk I buy for $2.77 per gallon. Store brands also seem to be on-sale more often than big brands, so my milk only costs me $2 per gallon about half of the time.

Financial tools will vary in effectiveness between people, but for me, the best tool I’ve found for keeping my finances in order is an Excel spreadsheet. My spreadsheet keeps track of the money in my bank account, how much I’ve spent in a given week, and my cumulative average spending, which I use to predict my future spending. This allows me to keep track of how much I spend, and reminds me of how much I’ll have available to spend in coming weeks. I bought myself $100 worth of anime and video games for my birthday. My roommates and I made jokes about how silly it was, but it was well within my budget.

According to my spreadsheet, I spent less than $17000 in 2012 and it was still enough for several high-tech toys, a trip to an anime convention, and paragliding lessons.

I only expect to spend about $7000 this year.

***

If you’re a household CEO who is successfully making ends meet on roughly $40,000 per year or less, I’d love to hear from you. Contact me at Len@LenPenzo.com and be sure to put “$40,000″ in the subject line. If I publish your story, you’ll get a $25 gift card!

Photo Credit: Inti



Comments

  1. 1

    says

    It this $12k from the money at your previous job or is that what your current job is paying you? Do you have plans to get another job? Seems like you could do much better with your degree and skills, either online or in the area you live.

    • 2

      Spedie says

      Contrary to popular belief, graduates right out of college with technical degrees and no experience do not necessarily start making a ton of money. We have to compete with the visa holders from India. Many employers want to hire us as part time contractors with no time to complete the projects given. Our field is highly complex and the technologies are always changing.

      It is true that every time your employer “pushes” out a change to Internet Explorer or the Java program on your machine (for example), the applications we all use at work screw up because they did not consult the technical people first. Multiply that by the dozens of applications on your Windows box and how well they play “together”. Multiply that by stuff you download at work (unauthorized) and then expect us to figure it out!

      We are supposed to come in an fix it all in short order. It is not easy.

      Many employers want us to travel all over the country with the lowest rate they can pay us. I made less as a contractor (sometimes on 1099) than I do now as an employee! Many employers will not pay for relocation expenses at all.

      I, too, tried the online thing for work. It is strange, but teams in India will work for $5 an hour. Been there, done that.

    • 3

      Volfram says

      It’s $12k per year from my savings account. The savings account was stocked with money from my previous job. I hope that helps.

  2. 4

    Ashley says

    This seems absolutely miserly, and also a bit weird. I can’t understand calling himself a Christian and then saying his primary motive is selfishness.

    • 5

      Volfram says

      I do things if I think there’s something in it for me. Donating $5 to a charity gives me a warm fuzzy feeling, so I consider it money well-spent. Letting my roommate borrow my car makes him think better of me, so I also have something to gain from that.

      Most people are selfish by nature. Accepting that, figuring out how to live with it, and especially figuring out how selfishness can make you generous, is a great exercise.

      • 6

        Ashley says

        That’s a lot different, and you should give yourself more credit if that’s the case! Selfless selfishness should be called for what it is: altruism.

  3. 7

    Spedie says

    I work in the IT field with a degree in Computer Science. One of the thing I saw several of my fellow graduates do is run out and find the first job they could find. Suffice it to say it wasn’t in IT. Now, all these years later, these folks are still in low paying (and by chance, non IT jobs). I could never figure out the logic of doing all that work in college (Computer Engineering is a LOT of work) and end up being an Administrative Clerk at $8 an hour!

    It is true in my field that sometimes you have to stick to your guns and wait for that first job in IT to come along, and it usually does not pay well. I stuck to my guns. I was without employment for nearly 6 months in my early days after graduation.

    Once I landed that first job in IT, I was making $15 an hour and remained that way, with that pay, for years while I ate the necessary crow called experience.

    Good for you Volfram. You can do it! Stick to your guns. Once you start to make the coveted 100K per year many years later, you will know how to handle the money because you show character now!

  4. 8

    SassyMamaw says

    This isn’t a lifestyle a lot of us would choose. However, the point of this is to show it can be done. This particular example is temporary, of course. I’m curious about what is planned for the future.

    I agree with Spedie that once you have a bigger income, you will be well prepared to manage it. Good luck!

    • 9

      Volfram says

      I’m currently working on a video game which will hopefully launch my next career. If it doesn’t work, I’m going to have to get another job.

      Part of the problem is that I’m not entirely sure what it is I want out of a job, which makes it difficult to design a resume and find good stuff to apply for.

  5. 10

    says

    I think what you’re doing at 28 is great but remember that it’s just something you’re doing at 28. You may want more variety. There is a lot of world to see. You never know what you will find when you out there and try to find it.

    • 11

      Volfram says

      There IS a lot of world to see, and I look forward to it. Once I get back to making more than $20,000 a year(after taxes), I plan to go looking.

      Honestly, after the exercise of writing this article, I’m not entirely sure how people live on MORE than $40,000 a year without having a positively absurd number of toys. I have lots of silly toys(THREE remote-control helicopters, a VR headset, and a 3D printer!) with a budget of less than half that!

      I guess it’s almost like a game. “I have this dollar. How much stuff can I get for this dollar?”

      • 12

        Sean says

        Automatic deductions to investments? But I agree is hard not to have silly toys when you make more than 40k. It is amazing how inflated my budget is due to full time work (clothes, gas/insurance for commute, lunches).

        Are those remote control helicopters worth it? I’ve always thought of getting one but thought it was a silly toy = )

        And I can relate to your beliefs on selfishness I spent a good hour last night watching Ayn Rand interviews, I know she wasn’t a Christian, but still.

        • 13

          Volfram says

          Don’t bother with the mall copters. It’s not that they’re bad, just that you can usually get the exact same thing at Radio Shack or Woot.com for $5-10 less if you time it right. A beginner should get an IR-controlled one that does up/down, forward/back, and turning left/right, and for about $20-30, they’re a blast.

          I did eventually get a radio-controlled full-function copter. Much harder to control, and it has trim channels for EVERYTHING, but for about $50-60, still a good buy.

          Ayn Rand HATED Spiritual religions, which I think is a bit of a shame. I do agree with a lot of her other philosophies, though.

          • 14

            Len Penzo says

            For what it’s worth … My son, Matthew, has had three of the radio controlled mini-copters. They’re fun, but none of them lasted more than a week or two. He eventually crashed them into walls or — on one occasion — a running ceiling fan. (Not a good idea.)

        • 15

          Volfram says

          Oh, I would like to say, probably my favorite toy that I bought last year is one of these: http://www.amazon.com/Philips-SWW1890-27-Wireless-Connect/dp/B005GSYQ1A/

          It’s JUST a 30-foot wireless HDMI cable. You plug the box into your TV, and the transmitter into any HDMI port with a nearby USB port(to power the thing). It’s especially handy for portable devices(like my laptop) with an HDMI output or when you want to swap between several people with computers, and mine gets used almost as much as my TV itself. I found it for $100.

          In fact I have it plugged into my laptop right now, as I type this, for watching anime.

      • 16

        Jerryaki says

        It’s fairly easy to spend more than $40K a year if you have a mortgage and daycare expenses. But what ultimately matters is not the absolute dollars spent, but the dollars saved.

      • 18

        says

        Kudos to you for living below your means, though to many it might sound like a pretty bleak existence long term. (I agree – you need to eat better to keep your good health going!) I make more than $40k a year and can assure you we do not have an absurd amount of toys. We are a family of 4 (with a disabled husband), so I need health insurance and life insurance and a home that will fit 4 people. I have to feed and clothe 4 people. It’s all depends on each situation, I suppose. If I was single and on my own, I could live on very little, too.

  6. 19

    Linda from ND says

    Thank you for sharing your story! Can I ask how much money you have saved up? How long can you continue living this way if you can’t find a job? Also, were you putting any money in your 401k while you were employed, or did you put it into emergency savings?

    • 20

      Volfram says

      I didn’t stay at my last job long enough for the retirement fund to stick, and I don’t think I put any of my own paycheck into a 401k. I do have a Health Savings Account which is slowly draining due to maintenance fees. I expect it to hit zero before I need it.

      I had about $30k saved up when I lost my job, and expected it to be enough for 2-3 years. Revised estimates are putting that closer to 3-5 years, and I hoped to have my game released by the end of this year. Laziness may push that out to next year, though. It’s coming along nicely, but I definitely aimed higher than most solo developers probably should, and even I’m not doing my own music composition.

  7. 21

    says

    Sounds like our post-college year (2005-2006). :-) I think we lived on $18,000 that year doing very similar things. Although we did have our own, small apartment for $400 a month (500 square feet). It is very doable for a year or two. Any more than that, and I may have wanted to stab my husband in the eye. We definitely needed more space.

    But I really hope this works for you amazingly well while you finish your video game! And good luck on that launch!

    In our world, 8-9 years later, we spend about $4500-$5000 a month now after paying taxes. It was conscious lifestyle inflation though. We went from bringing in a total of $25,000 a year after taxes to about $110,000-$120,000 after taxes. And our expenses cover two houses (one rental that is paid off but still has property taxes of course). Hopefully within the next 9 years, we’ll have our second house paid off and our monthly nut will be around $3500-$4000. We’re bringing in $2300 a month in rent, so that will mean we’ll be living on $1200-$1700 a month plus taxes. That will be a very exciting time for me, lol.

    Good luck!

  8. 22

    says

    I’m worried you’re undernourished! And I’m a bit hazy on whether you have health insurance… you seem to imply that you don’t, a catastrophe waiting to happen since you live in the USA and particularly since you’re “inactive”.

    I wish you the best!

    • 23

      Volfram says

      I’m reasonably well-nourished, and in some ways in better shape than when I was working. I don’t have health insurance. A medical emergency will probably drain my financial reserves, but I’m betting that won’t happen, and out-of-pocket for regular medical stuff isn’t that bad.

    • 24

      Spedie says

      When I got laid off due to downsizing, I lost 11 lbs the first month without trying. Computer people often spend untold hours chained to their desks (an occupational hazard). Now that Volfram is not working and not chained to a desk, it is no doubt in my mind he is more active than at work!

      • 25

        Volfram says

        I’m more active, and my diet is better, too. I used to eat a pair of Hot Pockets or a package of pizza bites for lunch almost every day. Nowadays, when I do eat lunch, it’s more likely to be a can of chile, a ham sandwich, or something else with more fruit-and-vegitable content and less sodium-and-grease content.

        I have also replaced climbing 2 flights of stairs and then sitting at a desk for 8 hours with wandering around the house and sitting on a couch(couches are WAY better than chairs if only because you have more available sitting positions), and while working I never got to walk a mile and back to the grocery store twice a week.

        When relaxing, I also find I twitch my hands and feet more now than I used to.(This is one way some peoples’ bodies, like mine, burn off extra energy, and is a major contributing factor to the fact that I have NEVER been overweight.)

  9. 27

    Paul N says

    If one is happy spending their time living this way then all the power to them. I feel I need to have at least $3K after tax a month to enjoy the present lifestyle I enjoy. (with real inflation taken into consideration, who knows what $3k will be worth in 10-15 years)

    That is why I try to focus on dividend investing rather than other forms. If I can kick out 1 or 2 thousand a month in dividends, then add that to my Gov Pension it’s not an impossible goal. Who cares if a stock goes up or down 20+% as long as that monthly cash flow stays the same or grows slowly with dividend increases.

    • 28

      Volfram says

      My retirement end-goal looks a lot like that, actually. My “savings” account is an investment account of stocks and mutual funds, most of which pay dividends.(The one that doesn’t SHOULD be going up, because it’s an OLED manufacturer, but they’ve been performing uncharacteristically poorly of late. The mutual funds are doing great.)

  10. 29

    Renee B says

    I agree with Kurt @ Money Counselor…not having health insurance is a catastrophe waiting to happen, and in my book, unresponsible. I sure hope your appendix doesn’t burst ($20,000+ expense) or you don’t accidentally fall in a hole and have to have knee surgery. I think you’re playing “russian roulette”. But to each their own. Just remember that there are consequences for each choice you make in life and this is an area where you will only have yourself to blame. I think it’s great you’re following your passion and working on a video game! But maybe you could get a job at Starbucks (yes…they have group health insurance available) while you are launching your game. I just think strategically, you could play your cards smarter, so to speak. Especially since you aren’t raising a family at this point in your life. Good luck to you, and thank you for sharing your story!

    • 30

      Len Penzo says

      Renee, you make a good point about health insurance. Of course, it all comes down to how much money Caine is willing to spend to buy down that risk.

      I just went to ehealthinsurance.com

      A 28-year-old who doesn’t smoke can get catastrophic health insurance in Colorado starting at $87.29 per month. That’s a little over $1000 annually.

  11. 31

    says

    Volfram, just reading your article reminded be of how I lived just 5 years ago. You and I were very similar then. Off and on for about 10 years I worked two jobs and putting myself through college, which took me 8 years to finish with a B.S. degree. It took me 2 years to pay off my $8,000 in student loans. And the seven years after graduating I lived on around $16,000 net a year from my full time job. I didn’t have roommates but was lucky enough to buy a house in a low income neighborhood for $30k and my notes were around $330 a month. A friend with six kids taught me how to make a very simple and cheap chicken casserole so I had leftovers for a week. Other friends shared their recipes as well. I also buy store brand in almost everything. My car was paid for and the $166 I brought home a week from a part-time job went straight into savings for emergencies only. I net almost three times that now but still watch my spending because I remember those days, but now I have more time for travel and anything else I want to do.

    • 32

      Volfram says

      What do you know, a friend of mine taught me some tricks for cheap food. If you have a quesadilla maker, you can make what I call “Tortilla Pizzas,” super-tasty meals that cost on the order of ramen noodles but add variety and are probably way better for you.

      It’s like a quesadilla, but with pizza sauce and toppings inside instead of just cheese. Two is typically a good dinner for me. A jar of sauce will last a couple of weeks eating nothing but. Which I don’t. You’ll get tired of them after about 3 days.

  12. 34

    says

    You have good education, 8 years of college in Computer Engineering, you say. That’s a good field to be in. Did you ever try the big companies like Intel, AMD, GE, even the software giants like Microsoft and Oracle?

    I think you should try to increase your income. With your excellent education, you should be able to get a higher-paying job. If you spent 8 years in college, then forget your minimal spending. Go out and look for a better job.

    It’s not the less spending you should be proud of, it’s the more income you should be seeking. Then you can be frugal and minimalist or anything else you wanna be.

    • 35

      Sam says

      Then he’d be like me: dreaming about leaving my job for a few years to write a game / app and live off the sales. You’re essentially saying: “you have this great education, you should use it to make money at a soul sucking company even if it makes you miserable”. My only criticism is he should define some goals for this game and do his best to stick with them instead of giving in to laziness or feature creep. Oh and do some research on prepaid phones; Tracfone is the WORST.

      • 36

        Volfram says

        While I was still at my job, my plan was “Work here for 5-10 years, build up experience and savings, then retire and make video games/be a mad scientist.”

        I’ve probably learned more in the past six months than I did in the previous year. I also do have a set of goals for the game(I just don’t talk about them much because I don’t want to disappoint people with overhype), and I regularly end up saying “No, I do not have time to implement this feature, it will have to wait for a later project.”

        Sam, if you have a decent savings, I would highly recommend at least looking at how long you could live off it and what you think it would take to live off your hobbies. If you like what you see, go for it!

        Once again, if you’re doing something you don’t want to do, there had better be a REALLY good reason for it. I base my life around this philosophy, and I am happier and healthier because of it. God wants us to be happy.

  13. 37

    Mary Ann says

    Our 25 year old son lives on about $26,000.00 per year in New Hampshire, which has no income or sales taxes. Here in NY, he could never do that.

    • 38

      Volfram says

      Indeed, I will freely admit that most of my strategy involves “Be in Colorado, where the cost of living is very low.”

      There is no shame in utilizing every (LEGAL!) advantage offered to you.

  14. 39

    Againstthegrain says

    Cereal, bread, canned products, snacks, donuts, washed down with some milk? Seriously? Where’s the food? That sort of heavily refined & processed sugar & starch-centric diet that is undoubtably laced with preservatives, synthetic vitamin replacements, and packaging chemicals might be enough to subsist on for a few years, but I shudder to think how the deferred cellular maintenance will play out in a few decades.

    • 40

      Volfram says

      Juices, meats, beans, fresh vegetables, and whole milk. If I have a craving, I indulge it, because that’s how your body says “I need some of what’s in this stuff.”(this is why pregnant women often have strange cravings or eat dirt. The process of making a brand new human requires large amounts of stuff we almost never need during the rest of our lives) I suspect you also grossly overestimate the “Donut” component of my diet. I average maybe one every other week.

      It’s also better than what I was living on before I lost my job. Typical lunch was 2-4 Hot Pockets, and I just felt gross eating them.

  15. 42

    Kari says

    Yea a few things disturb me about your frugal life style. One of those things is that you seem to be “hoarding” money now and not doing anything that you enjoy so that when you DO get to the jumpin’ off point and retire, you will know what you like and be able to be productive and enjoy your life. Another thing is your diet. You can eat really well on very little. Ham sandwiches have a lot of sugar and sodium in them. There’s such a thing as informed cheapism and living well on frugal means. I’m decades older than you and have lived a very frugal life, but never compromise on health, or too much of anything. I just always found a way to get it cheaper. Perhaps it would be prudent of you to learn to cook healthy and nutritious meals so that you live long enough to enjoy the fruits of your labors…

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