Our Minimalist Lifestyle: Thriving on $1,000/month

Last updated on July 23rd, 2017

During our engagement, Vanessa and I began evaluating our spending habits and estimating how much money we would spend in marriage. After much discussion, we set a goal to spend less than $12,000 in our first year of marriage (roughly $1,000/month), something we called a minimalist lifestyle.

We set this goal for several reasons:

  1. Financial Progress – We wanted to eliminate $25,000 in student loan debt.
  2. Perspective – We wanted to appreciate what we already had (instead of what we didn’t have).
  3. Discipline – We wanted to learn the art of self-discipline (including how to say “no” under pressure).

The first year has now passed (are we still newlyweds?), and it’s time to share our results. We initially hesitated to post everything online, but decided that our experience might encourage other couples to embrace a minimalist lifestyle.

We were able to track our spending using a free Personal Capital account, and I have summarized our results in the table below.

ExpenseAverage Monthly CostAnnual CostComments
Annual Total$11,614
Total Housing$3,872
Rent and utilities (April and May) $330$660Before moving into our mobile home, we rented an apartment with a roommate for $330 (including all utilities).
Mortgage Payments$0$0We own our mobile home.
MaintenanceN/A$271Window blinds and curtains, new showerhead/faucets, a small space heater, and window A/C unit.
Land Lease$208$2,080We own our mobile home, but lease the land. Following our apartment rental in April and May, we paid 10 months of rent and utilities for the mobile home.
Insurance$0$0We are self insured, which means that we could withstand the loss of our mobile home.
TaxesN/A$51In Texas, personal property taxes are paid by whoever owns the property on January 1st. Because we purchased in May, we didn't owe taxes in the first year, but I've included the annual amount anyway. (Yes, the property taxes were $51 for the entire year.)
Electricity$33$330See the discussion below this table.
Natural Gas$9$90The furnace, stove, and water heater use natural gas.
Trash Service$10$100
Water/Sewage$29$290See the discussion below this table.
Total Transportation$919
Public Transportation$0$0Jacob's employer pays for unlimited bus usage.
Taxes/RegistrationN/A$34Our 1996 Saturn is worth about $1,500, but the local county tax office assessed the value at $100 and the actual tax liability was less than $9 for the year. Annual registration was roughly $25.
Auto Insurance$26$312Basic liability only.
MaintenanceN/A$93Two oil changes and brake pads.
Gasoline$40$480The commute to work is less than 5 miles each way, and the Saturn averaged roughly 35 MPG.
Total Living Expenses$6,823
Healthcare Expenses$105$1,260Obamacare allows us to stay on our parents insurance until age 26. See the discussion below this table.
Dental ExpensesN/A$40This includes the co-payment for one filling. Dental insurance was provided by Jacob's employer.
EntertainmentN/A$236This includes local entertainment only, not entertainment during travel. See the discussion below this table.
Personal CareN/A$84This includes all cleaning and care products: paper towels, toilet paper, toothpaste, floss, soap, etc. We already owned some of the necessities, and purchased the remaining items at the Dollar Tree.
Cell Phones$35$420We each used the $15 plan (plus tax) from Republic Wireless.
Restaurants $52$624We averaged 1 meal per week at $6 per person.
Groceries$220$2,640Fresh meat and produce, select grains, and healthy fats. We eat very little sugar, pre-packaged foods, or refined grains.
Internet$20$240$20/month in our mobile home community.
ShoppingN/A$561Books, light bulbs, kitchen appliances, and several purchases online. See the discussion below this table.
ClothingN/A$105We had closets full of clothes before getting married, but purchased a few items at local discount stores.
GivingN/A$318This category includes donations and gifts.
TravelN/A$295We took two small vacations with family. See the discussion below this table.

How is that Possible?

We accomplished our goal – spending just $11,614 in our first year of marriage (April, 2013 – March, 2014).

If I had to attribute our success to one thing, it would be intentional spending decisions. By monitoring, analyzing, and discussing our spending habits, we were able to reduce spending in almost every major expense category. You can read about our specific methods in the discussion below.

Housing

Our first two months of marriage (April and May) were spent in an apartment. In the last week of May, we purchased a 1980’s model (2 bed, 2 bath) mobile home for $11,500 cash, which is less than most people spend on a car. Ironically, we paid for the mobile home by selling Vanessa’s Toyota Camry (she owned it before we got married) and a few other profitable electronics.

Our only monthly expense is $208/month in land rent. For comparison, a small apartment runs about $650/month in our location. 2 BR apartments run between $800-$900/month. Let’s just split the difference and say that an apartment is approximately $500/month more expensive than our mobile home. That means our mobile home will pay for itself in less than two years.

Utilities

Managing the utility bill is pretty straightforward, even in a poorly insulated mobile home. We limit water usage with low-flow showerheads and aerators, We limit the electric/gas bill by running the central heat and air as little as possible, turning the water heater down to a reasonable setting, and using the natural climate to our advantage.

In the spring and fall, we almost never run the heat or A/C. We plug in two large fans and allow the natural airflow to heat and cool the house (depending on the time of day). In the summer and winter, we focus on controlling the temperature in a single room (the room we occupy) using a window A/C unit (summer) or single space heater (winter). By acclimating to our home’s natural temperature fluctuations, we are able to keep the monthly utility bill to a minimum.

Transportation

We sold Vanessa’s Toyota Camry to purchase our mobile home, and decided to share the 1996 Saturn SL1. Sharing a car was a great financial decision, allowing us to cut our total auto-related expenses (insurance, gasoline, taxes, maintenance, etc.) in half.

The Saturn has been an excellent car for almost three years. It’s inexpensive (cheap insurance and taxes), reliable (very little ongoing maintenance), and gets great gas mileage (40+ MPG when hypermiling). If we need an additional transportation option, my employer pays for unlimited rides on the local bus route.

Travel

The easiest way to minimize travel expenses is through credit card rewards. Using the rewards earned from credit cards, we were able to take several short vacations with family. All of the hotel stays were 100% covered by reward points, leaving gasoline and food as our only expenses.

Insurance

Obamacare allows us to remain insured through our parents (until age 26). Vanessa was covered at no additional cost, because her father’s existing plan includes the entire family. My coverage required an additional $105 in monthly premiums through my father’s plan. We had no other medical expenses.

Food Expenses 

We shop the weekly grocery ads, and then meal plan around the discounted meat and vegetables (see – how to save money on groceries). Buying real food is important to us because research has shown that diet largely determines overall health and longevity.

For the most part, we cook our meals at home. When eating at restaurants, we always attempt to find a 50% discount through Groupon, Restaurant.com, coupon apps, etc.

Shopping 

We established a very simple shopping strategy – purchase nothing unless (1) it’s necessary, and (2) the price is right. Using this approach, we were able to keep our total shopping and gift expenses around $1,000 for the year.

Our approach highlights the importance of planning ahead. By consciously evaluating our existing possessions, we were able to distinguish between wants and needs. Between our wedding registry and existing possessions, Vanessa and I needed very few items after getting married. When shopping for the items that we wanted (not needed) to purchase, we waited for a bargain before pulling the trigger.

Entertainment

The best part about working full-time while completing a PhD is that I’m always busy. There is always another book to read or paper to write. Vanessa is in the same boat, because she is a motivated self-learner. Our dedication to learning results in less time for leisure and fewer opportunities to spend money.

In addition, we have changed our philosophy on entertainment. Instead of eating out or having drinks at the bar, we invite other couples over to our house for dinner. Instead of paying full price for bowling, we play disc golf at the beautiful local park for free. Instead of paying for cable TV, we stream entertainment through the internet for free. By changing our mindset, we enjoy great entertainment at a much lower cost.

Cell Service

We have been using the $15/month plan from Republic Wireless, which includes unlimited talk and text.

Why did we Choose a Minimalist Lifestyle?

We could have spent a lot more money without getting into financial trouble, but we purposefully chose to live on $1,000/month. The experience was challenging at times, and there were situations that required extreme discipline. But Vanessa and I can both confidently say that we wouldn’t change a single thing. Through the year-long experiment in minimalist living, we emerged wealthier and wiser.

We made huge financial progress. In one year, we paid off all of our debt (roughly $25,000), purchased a mobile home with cash, and were still able to save and invest a considerable amount of money. We achieved all of these things on a limited income (less than $50,000 combined).

More than that, we created a strong financial foundation on which to build. With no debt and minimal monthly expenses, we can now save a large percentage of our income and focus on achieving financial freedom.

Most importantly, we learned a ridiculous amount about the relationship between money and life satisfaction.

The American culture is overwhelmingly focused on consumerism as a source of happiness. Every advertisement is meant to persuade you into buying more material possessions, newer cars, and a bigger house. There is constant pressure to work, consume, waste, and repeat. The worst part – it’s impossible to find freedom in this never-ending cycle of consumption.

Our experience was entirely counter-cultural. We learned that material possessions are not a primary source of happiness. We learned that a simple life can lead to more free time, fewer money arguments, and less overall stress. It’s a paradoxical concept really. The less money we spent, the less we coveted material possessions, and the more we learned to appreciate what we already had.

In our first year of marriage, we figured out that it’s possible to live a privileged life on $1,000/month. What a valuable learning experience it was.

*2017 update – Many readers have asked for an update, so I will be creating a brand new post that summarizes our 2017 minimalist lifestyle. You can expect that to be published in early 2018.

Comments
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    • Jaimee
    • April 4, 2016
    Reply

    This is fantastic, great job! You two are incredibly inspiring.

    • Austin
    • August 20, 2015
    Reply

    Great job guys! I also try to follow some of your frugal methods specially on “gadgets, cell phones”. I will never buy an iPHONE/iPAD/iMAC etc. since they are way over-priced for the value they provide. It is not always the price but what value they provide compared to alternatives..

      • Jacob
      • August 21, 2015
      Reply

      Thanks Austin, glad to hear you are being wise in your purchases.

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    • Lad
    • September 3, 2014
    Reply

    Great job during your first year of marriage. Hopefully this review will keep you motivated for years to come.

    Have you considered purchasing your own lot of land, instead of renting? I would think you could purchase a lot for 20-30k or less and you would be able to pay that off in <5 years.

      • Jacob
      • September 3, 2014
      Reply

      Thanks! We aren’t likely to stay in our current location more than another 2-3 years, so we will continue renting until the next major housing change.

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    • Janet
    • June 7, 2014
    Reply

    A bit late to the party here, but congrats and happy first anniversary! Here’s to many more years of love and frugality. 🙂

      • Jacob
      • June 8, 2014
      Reply

      Thanks Janet!

    • Sam
    • May 21, 2014
    Reply

    This is incredibly inspirational! Well done you two.

    I’m definitely going to be looking at this on my new frugal test. Probably in the next month or so, I’ll be trying a radical spending cut. Wish me luck! 🙂

    Sam

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    • ncognito88
    • May 9, 2014
    Reply

    Yea we had a singlewide mobile home before we purchased our house. It was paid for but we decided to bite the bullet and get a house because mobile homes usually depreciate in value. I plan on buying a double wide again in a few years and plan on paying cash or put a big down payment down. My goal is to be mortgage free again.

    • Shawn
    • May 4, 2014
    Reply

    Enjoyed the post. Thank you! And thanks for breaking down your expenses. You have inspired me to become more frugal.

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  10. Reply

    Wow!

    When I saw your annual expenditures, I thought..”Well, they must be excluding their housing.” But NO!

    Smart, smart to pay cash for your home.

    I have a friend who actually makes seven figures in real estate, and he told me something a long time ago.

    “Only finance appreciating items; never depreciating.” So if you have $3000. for a car, you buy a $3k car.. You don’t put the $3k down on a $25k car. He was willing to finance property where tenants paid his mortgage but he that’s about it.

    You two have blown his words of wisdom right out of the water. 🙂

    I have a question..and forgive me if you’re written this somewhere.. but are you planning on being frugal indefinitely? Or is this for the first few years of marriage to get yourselves financially situated the way you’d like?

    ~darlene
    p.s. Hello from Texas, btw!

    • Nate
    • April 30, 2014
    Reply

    That is true discipline and you guys show that happiness is not all about the gadgets or the next best thing. What a lesson all of us can learn from the Cash Cow Couple. Congrats!!

    • Wade
    • April 30, 2014
    Reply

    Great job. Some crazy low spending.

    As your incomes grow hopefully you can continue to save and keep “spending creep” in check.

    I also hope you don’t live in a tornado alley.

    • Taylor
    • April 30, 2014
    Reply

    I also want to know where you get your care insurance. I thought that I was cutting back, but you guys have me beat big time and now I have something to work towards. Congrats!!!

      • Jacob
      • May 7, 2014
      Reply

      We use Liberty Mutual. But I recommend that you shop around to find the best rate.

    • Tara
    • April 29, 2014
    Reply

    People poo-poo mobile homes but don’t realize how great at cost saving they can truly be. Also, we have low utility bills in our apartment because with things like a/c, since we only have window units, we only cool the room we’re in to a bareable level (still sweating in shorts) during the day and only crank it down to 72 to sleep. Sleeping is the one time of the day I need the a/c on as I’m someone who gets extremely “exothermic” when I’m in in a deep sleep and need a cool room to stay asleep. But otherwise, I get comfortable sweating when it’s 95 degrees out, or better yet, I leave the house and head for a shady park (or air conditioned friend’s house, lol)!

  11. Reply

    I knew you guys were going to beat that goal, but it’s great to see it all written out like this. Great job! Keep it up!

    • Terry
    • April 29, 2014
    Reply

    It is so awesome to see a young couple start out the right way. I’m getting a late start, but finally on the right path.

    Can’t wait to read more of your stuff!

    • Datt
    • April 28, 2014
    Reply

    Wow, this is truly inspirational! Best of luck for your second year of marriage!

    • John
    • April 28, 2014
    Reply

    Congrats, guys! This is awesome. I love hearing about people achieving defined goals, especially when they’re financial goals.

    • Bobby
    • April 28, 2014
    Reply

    So, I have a question, and please don’t hate me for asking this. I am not trying to criticize, I am just curious – How are you able to stay on your parents insurance when you’re married. In every health insurance plan I have ever heard of you can’t stay on you parents insurance after you’re married.

      • Jacob
      • April 28, 2014
      Reply

      We’re able to stay on our parents insurance because of the Affordable Care Act.

    • E.M.
    • April 28, 2014
    Reply

    Great job! Very inspiring. I am grateful to be on my parents’ health insurance as well. One less thing to worry about (for now). Your housing costs are so low; I would be fine looking into a mobile home, but my boyfriend isn’t a fan. Now that we are paying for utilities, I’m leaving the AC as a last resort. Luckily this apartment came with a nice ceiling fan in the living room, and we have a fan in the bedroom.

    • Brian
    • April 28, 2014
    Reply

    I remember the day when I got too old to be on my parents insurance… that was a sad day for me.

    Interesting that you are charged an additional fee for trash removal. Up here it is included in our property taxes, so if you were a renter you never actually saw that cost (yeah I know it would be rolled into the rental rate).

    • Brad
    • April 28, 2014
    Reply

    Wow! I’m impressed. You have really kept your expenses down in a lot of intelligent ways. I had a Saturn. It ran forever. It was very inexpensive to maintain. My only exception to your budget is this, there is always money for a dog!

    • Clarisse
    • April 28, 2014
    Reply

    Good job guys, you really did well on your first year! I’ve been trying to cut some expenses too, like cutting our cables, lessen our dining out and tried to control our monthly bills.

 

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