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:
- Financial Progress – We wanted to eliminate $25,000 in student loan debt.
- Perspective – We wanted to appreciate what we already had (instead of what we didn’t have).
- 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.
|Expense||Average Monthly Cost||Annual Cost||Comments|
|Rent and utilities (April and May)||$330||$660||Before moving into our mobile home, we rented an apartment with a roommate for $330 (including all utilities).|
|Mortgage Payments||$0||$0||We own our mobile home.|
|Maintenance||N/A||$271||Window blinds and curtains, new showerhead/faucets, a small space heater, and window A/C unit.|
|Land Lease||$208||$2,080||We 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||$0||We are self insured, which means that we could withstand the loss of our mobile home.|
|Taxes||N/A||$51||In 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||$330||See the discussion below this table.|
|Natural Gas||$9||$90||The furnace, stove, and water heater use natural gas.|
|Water/Sewage||$29||$290||See the discussion below this table.|
|Public Transportation||$0||$0||Jacob's employer pays for unlimited bus usage.|
|Taxes/Registration||N/A||$34||Our 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||$312||Basic liability only.|
|Maintenance||N/A||$93||Two oil changes and brake pads.|
|Gasoline||$40||$480||The 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||$1,260||Obamacare allows us to stay on our parents insurance until age 26. See the discussion below this table.|
|Dental Expenses||N/A||$40||This includes the co-payment for one filling. Dental insurance was provided by Jacob's employer.|
|Entertainment||N/A||$236||This includes local entertainment only, not entertainment during travel. See the discussion below this table.|
|Personal Care||N/A||$84||This 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||$420||We each used the $15 plan (plus tax) from Republic Wireless.|
|Restaurants||$52||$624||We averaged 1 meal per week at $6 per person.|
|Groceries||$220||$2,640||Fresh 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.|
|Shopping||N/A||$561||Books, light bulbs, kitchen appliances, and several purchases online. See the discussion below this table.|
|Clothing||N/A||$105||We had closets full of clothes before getting married, but purchased a few items at local discount stores.|
|Giving||N/A||$318||This category includes donations and gifts.|
|Travel||N/A||$295||We 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.