I’m eternally grateful that TLC never discovered Erin Lowry circa 2011 to 2012 because my lifestyle would’ve made great fodder for a network with shows like Extreme Cheapskates and Extreme Couponing. I was a 22-year-old working three jobs and trying to make it in New York City. Part of my mandate for “making it” included eschewing all debt and being able to afford my life. The problem: I was earning just over $23,000 a year with rent eating up $950 per month. So, I ended up getting crafty when it came to saving a buck or two in order to preserve my cash reserves (and even build them), which is why I could’ve easily made for a binge-able reality TV show.
- Marauder of leftovers
“Go grab some garbage bags,” the closing manager told me. I obliged and retuned with black bags in hand. “Check the sell-by dates on the food and chuck anything marked today, including the pastries,” she informed me while turning back to cash out the registers.
I couldn’t believe I was throwing away perfectly edible food, but that was the requirement at this national-coffee house chain at which I’d recently become a barista. After stuffing yet another wrapped and safe-to-eat panini into the garbage bag, I asked my manager if I’d be okay for me to take some of this food home?
“I don’t care,” she replied, succinctly.
From that day on, I brought a large tote to every closing shift I worked. Any edible food that was past sell-by would get taken home and put in my freezer. I also scavenged leftover pizza from my primary job working for a late-night show. These behaviors may not have been ideal for nutritional value (I certainly had a high sodium intake), but it helped significantly reduce my grocery budget.
- Finder of frugal and free
Yes, New York City is expensive and often thought of as a playground for the wealthy. However, New York City also boasts oodles of free activities. My young sister had gifted me a book called “The Cheap Bastard’s Guide to New York City” as a college graduation gift and it became my bible for all things frugal. I learned how to apply to become a volunteer usher in order to see off-Broadway shows for free. Which museums offered free hours to residents and which were donation-based, meaning I didn’t really need to pay $20 to get in the door. I found the best bars with the best happy hour deals. Sometimes I’d just spend hours meandering through the streets of New York and getting to know my new home.
- Getting cool
Like most New York City apartments, mine lacked central air conditioning. Instead of buying a window unit to try and cool off in the sweltering summer heat, I took a slightly different approach. Given the number of hours I worked, I usually came home to sleep. I was lucky to live in an apartment with decent air movement, so open windows did an okay job of drafting in the occasional breeze and a fan helped. But on the nights when the heat felt absolutely unbearable, well, I pulled a frozen water bottle out of the freezer, put it against my back and it cooled me right down. I even started to put towels in the freezer and lay those on my pillows to chill me as I drifted off to sleep.
- Gifting within my beans, I mean means
The anticipation of the Christmas season added some serious anxiety to my financial situation. I already lived on razor thin margins and I didn’t want to dip into my emergency savings funds. With limited art skills (outside of performing), I couldn’t quite figure out how to make people presents. Then, I realized I did have access to stock piling gifts ahead of time in the form of coffee and tea. The coffee company for which I worked allowed baristas to have one free bag of beans or tin of tea each week. I could also buy mugs and other wares for 20% off. I started to stockpile the tea and beans as presents and waited until some of the previous seasons mugs went on sale right before the holidays and bought those with my employee discount. Christmas morning smelled of coffee beans!
- Saved the unexpected
The final, and arguably least crazy and most important way, I preserved my cash reserves during my early days in New York City was to always save the unexpected. All three of my jobs offered potential for either tips or overtime. Every unexpected penny that came my way went directly into savings. For babysitting, this almost always took the form of cab fare money a parent would give me if they came back later than expected. The subways run 24/7 and I never worked in areas where walking late at night could be a threat. I pocketed that extra $20 and caught up on my reading while waiting for the intermittent night trains. Saving the unexpected actually ended up netting me an extra $500 in savings my first year. That doesn’t seem like much now, but it sure was an achievement then.