About 75% of Angel's college education was paid for by scholarships. He lived in a basement bedroom that had been offered to him by a lady who charged him low rent for the area, and he used her kitchen to cook meals at home. He worked on the cleaning crew and in the health center at college in order to pay for all of his living expenses, graduated with 25K in loans and a very marketable degree, immediately passed the NCLEX, moved to Texas which had a nursing shortage at the time, got hired as a nurse, moved in with his parents, worked overtime shifts (the nursing shortage helped with shift availability) and paid off all of the debt in a year and a half while also contributing to his parents' household. We got married weeks after he paid off his last loan.
That's the backstory on how we got married without debt--and with basically no material possessions, other than his car and my car. We moved into a rental house that had appliances and borrowed whatever of my parents' furniture that they'd left in storage in America, and bought the rest at thrift stores. Ever since, we have consistently lived on a percentage of our take-home income, which has allowed us to save the excess to fund occasional larger expenses that seemed worth it to us: a custom-made bed made of cherry wood; plane tickets for a trip to Malaysia; getting TEFL certificates and moving to China to teach; buying a car after moving to Malaysia.
We live below our income level, and that habit has provided us with a sense of peace. True, we've never been faced with insurmountable expenses, but when surprising* things have some up (oh, like a car stopping and refusing to go any further on a country highway because the alternator is shot), we've always had more than enough to meet the costs (*side note: there's nothing surprising about unfortunate expenses, is there? Such is life.). Our income has gone down significantly since our most recent move last year, and adjustment to a job without health insurance or retirement benefits has been a growth experience. We're working with the smallest budget we've had in our marriage, but we're able to do so and have peace about our finances, and I'm grateful for that, because I know that financial problems have a special way of sucking the joy out of life when they get out of control.
I credit three factors with our ability to live well while spending much less that what we earn:
Cute young us on our Glasgow, KY honeymoon
1. We're happy whether or not we own awesome stuff.
Neither of us have the need to have the newest, brightest, and best. Between the two of us, I probably care slightly less about the quality of my worldly possessions. Angel has often said that he loves the fact that I didn't grow up "rich," because I'm easy to impress--I get giddy when he comes home with a Snickers bar, partially because I'm easily excited, and partially because it would never occur to me to buy myself a Snickers bar for no good reason.
The things I've purchased aren't very impressive. My sledding and snowboarding gear in Michigan were comprised of a 2-decade old set of coveralls that my mom wore when I was a baby, a pair of indestructible boots I got from the 2nd hand store for 50 cents, and a toboggan that had been handed down through a few generations of my family. Let me tell you, no one "oohs" and "aahs" when you tell them your honeymoon was a road trip in a '96 Chevy to tour caves in Kentucky. The most impressive thing I've ever owned was my beloved cherry wood bed, and seeing as that was stationed in my bedroom, few people saw it besides me. I drove that Chevy with a smashed up door right up until we left the country, because I didn't see the point in spending money just to make it pretty when the ugly door didn't affect the performance.
That bed though....
Oh man, guys, this is the thing. I can't even tell you all the ways that people have practically showed their care and love for us. We've never bought a TV--right when we got married, a relative of a relative was getting rid of an older 20'' box TV--they thought that we could use it, and we took it joyfully! A few years later, some relatives gave us a nearly-new, bigger TV as a belated wedding gift. My sister has given me plenty of dresses that she's decided are too short/not her style (being a few inches shorter than all of your sisters has an advantage...). Since moving to Malaysia we've hardly bought any of our furniture, since we were given so many nice 'hand-me-downs' from family and friends.
I mentioned in the intro that I lived with my grandparents for the first 5 semesters of college, from when I was 17-19, and Angel lived with his parents after graduation. There seems to be a big stigma in our American culture about living with family, but thankfully, our relatives welcomed us into their spare bedrooms, which ended up really helping us start out in life in a good financial situation. Our relatives have always looked out for us--offering us their own spare possessions, lending us tools for random home repairs, or even, on several occasions, rides, when one of our cars stranded us.
Some find it shameful to accept help from family members, but we've chosen not to. We're spoiled to have an extended family that makes a habit of looking out for each other--and we're happy to make that sort of generosity a part of our lifestyle. We're not doing life alone, we're doing it in the context of a bigger community. What a humbling and amazing truth that is. We hope to always be the kind of people who can, in return, help our families in whatever ways are available to us--that's why, when we made the big move, we chose to give most of what we owned away to our siblings/cousins who are also starting out in life instead of selling it all.
My darling Brother how I miss you...
In Michigan, we heated our home to 60 degrees, and sealed off the top floor during the winter, resulting in a freakishly low gas bill. In China, we shared one Nokia phone between the two of us instead of having separate smart phones. When we go away for our anniversary, we rent oddball Airbnb apartments for a fraction of the price of hotel bedrooms. Since moving overseas, we go without a dryer or a microwave or oven or other little things that we've learned to live well without. I don't drink alcohol and Angel does only very rarely. Things like avocados or bubble tea drinks are luxurious treats, not something we think we 'deserve'. We don't have pets--and when we did, they were barn cats, not known for requiring large financial investment.
Angel's current favorite strategy for saving on groceries is: whenever he's hungry for a snack, he heads to my parents' place and eats some random leftovers...because they nearly always have leftovers. They've learned not to clean out the fridge of random stuff that no one wants to eat because Angel will eat it. We don't shop randomly, usually shopping expeditions are for birthdays or Christmas or to replace a worn-out item, or, in my case, to find a specific item of clothing that I've been dreaming about (i.e. perfect green skinnies, only I already own the perfect pair of green skinnies). Speaking of shopping, I recently noticed how frayed Angel's khaki shorts (he's had them as long as I've known him) are and decided I probably ought to get the man some new khaki shorts...
We also avoid expensive hobbies. Sewing is a favorite non-current hobby of mine that is pretty costly (considering buying a machine), but other than that, I stick to blogging, reading free books, and cross-stitch. Angel runs, which he assures me is the cheapest sport, requiring little equipment, although I admit I'm sometimes shocked by the cost of Asics Gel-Kayanos and the speed with which he runs through them...
Who needs a taqueria when you can eat like this at home?
When you have old cars, they tend to break down often. Angel's knowledge of how to fix cars--gleaned from his dad and from watching Youtube tutorials, saved us thousands of dollars, as he was able to fix whatever was wrong with our vehicles for just the cost of parts from either the junkyard or Autozone.
When there was a hole in the wall of our house, Angel figured out how to fix it with a chunk of drywall, and I repainted the room--a fix far less expensive than it would have been if we'd had to call in professionals. When we had a pile of wood in the backyard that no one was planning on using, Angel made a picnic table out of it--a very ugly picnic table, that's something everyone will admit, but one we've sat on at plenty a family barbecue.
I cut Angel's hair (which wasn't a cheap skill to learn, in my case)...and the hair of everyone else in my family, and I color my own hair. I recklessly hand-wash the vast majority of "dry clean only" clothing, since I tend to view that tag as more of a guideline than actual rule (don't follow my advice). I can cook anything and everything I've ever attempted to cook, even when my only cooking implement is a small gas stove--I'm able to make large Easter or Thanksgiving feasts. When my parents sold the house we lived in, we packed and moved with a U-Haul instead of hiring movers. I've done my share of roofing and painting projects (and one time, I even painted a roof! That was fun.). We usually figure our own labor is always cheaper than everyone else's labor, so if it's a job we can do, we do it. Both of us, however, are not very good at plumbing. We call in my mom when the shower stops working...
5. Debt isn't an option.
Kind of like that whole old "divorce" principle, right? We won't put anything on a credit card unless we have the cash for it right now--in fact, we haven't bought anything with a credit card, other than airplane tickets, in a couple years, because all of our cards have international purchase fees...haha!
Like the 'divorce' rule...this is applying to normal circumstances. Abnormal circumstances can occur that would require abnormal behavior, but as far as everyday normal life goes--we don't consider spending money that we don't have a viable alternative. If we don't have the money for that trip or that dress or that lunch or that Master's Degree, we won't buy it.
We've had a very easy hand dealt to us. Having a place to sleep, food to eat, and a way to get to work has never been a question for us--instead, questions like, "Should we invest in a used Xbox 360 for Christmas?" or "Look, a two-story sample dollhouse is on clearance on Hobby Lobby! Don't you think we should buy it? How often is there going to be a deal like this?" have been the kind of questions we've asked. Angel has always been employed. We don't worry ourselves about retirement and long-term investing (that is to say....we don't 'do' either, haha..) and don't know anything at all about the stock market and don't own a home, but we have always had what we need. But we don't use our wages to the fullest extent by spending all that we earn right away--and thus far, that habit has served us well.