Surviving on next to nothing, part 1

The other day, Erin at garden now – think later! was talking about the financial challenges she faces in a single income military family.  She went on to discuss some of the things she does to keep her family occupied and afloat on a limited income.  Since I lost my “day job” a year ago I’ve found myself in a similar financial situation, and thought I would share what I’ve been doing to survive on an extremely limited budget.

A little bit of background, to put things in context:  I have a family of four.  We live in subsidized housing, which means we rent rather than being homeowners.  It’s a bit of a double-edged sword.  I could not survive on this budget if this were not the case, but while I avoid the expenses of homeownership, it also means that I cannot make changes to the house or property that would make our lives easier – namely adding rooms (this house is truly tiny!) or modifications like a root cellar.  While we have managed to avoid needing Cash Assistance (Welfare), we do have food stamps, which helps.   Finally, my daughter has significant autism.  This is really the root cause of most of our financial difficulties.  There is no local appropriate childcare for her, and with the current job market, I have difficulty finding someone willing to hire a person who can only work part-time, no evenings or weekends, and needs all school holidays and snow days off completely.  This also means that we have some expenses that would be “wants” for most families, but are “needs” for ours, just so that we can maintain our sanity 🙂

These are the things I have done to survive.  A lot of them are based on ways to shift some of the real cash burden to the food stamps, because it’s easier to control how much we spend on food than how much we spend on gas.

I looked at our non-food spending and realized that a large chunk of it was spent on cleaning supplies and various disposable products.  In order to reduce our spending here I…

  • cut up some old, ratty bath towels and started using them to wipe up spills instead of always reaching for paper towels. I now spend about 1/3 as much as I used to on paper towels.
  • started making my own cleaning products.  Food stamps will only help you buy food – they will not pay for soap!  However, many homemade cleaning products rely on vinegar, which you can buy with food stamps!  Now, instead of spending 3$-4$ each on five different cleaning products that will last maybe a month or two, I spend about $8 total on a few key ingredients (I use dish liquid, rather than the liquid castile soap a lot of recipes call for.  It’s cheaper, and it doesn’t separate with the addition of vinegar, as I found the liquid castile soap did), and can make enough different cleaning products to last for six months.
  • started making my own soap.  This may seem like a bit of a stretch, but again, it comes back to the “food stamps won’t buy soap” deal.  You can, however, use them to buy olive oil and coconut oil.  Real soap is made with oil and lye (sodium hydroxide).  I spent about $15 on lye a year ago.  I think I still have enough left to provide as much soap as I need for another three or four years!
  • stopped using shampoo to clean my hair.  Instead, I use a baking-soda solution to wash, and a dilute vinegar to rinse (BTW, if you look for “no poo” info online a lot of people refer to the vinegar rinse as a “conditioner.”  The vinegar does not “condition” your hair.  What it does is neutralize the baking soda, which is necessary because hair can be damaged by long-term exposure to alkalies like baking soda.).  More “cleaning” with food products!  My sister the hair stylist tells me my hair is in great shape, and no, it isn’t greasy, and no, I don’t smell like salad dressing.
  • got washable pads to use with our Swiffer (DH likes to mop every night – he finds it relaxing), and found a way to refill the Swiffer cleaner (we drilled a hole in the bottom of the bottle and stuck a plug in it) so that we could use our homemade floor cleaner.  I think this saves us about $20-$30 a month!
  • started using cloth diapers.  Because of her autism, our daughter can’t be allowed outside her bedroom without supervision.  Unfortunately this includes overnight, which means she can’t use the bathroom when everyone else is sleeping.  We have had her in pull-ups for a long time, but I recently found a pattern for waterproof underwear intended for children with enuresis, which I have adapted to our needs.  This is a savings of about $30 for me.  If I had a child still in diapers all day, the savings would be even greater!
  • made my own “baby wipes.”  Some accidents require more than just toilet paper.  I had some lightweight cotton terry remnants that I cut into squares to use as “washcloths” instead of wipes.  No need for any special liquid – I just wet them in the bathroom sink as I need them.  Probably another $10 savings there.
  • do the numbers!  Sometimes, due to economies of scale, making things myself is not cheaper than buying the cheapest store version.  I found, for example, that while it was cheaper to make my own laundry detergent, it was not cheaper to make my own dishwasher detergent.  The store brand dishwasher detergent actually had a lower unit price than my own homemade.  

Wow!  This is a lot longer than I’d expected it to be!  I’m going to have to continue this topic tomorrow, and lay out the things I do to save money on food and other expenses.  I hope some of these ideas have been useful to someone!


6 thoughts on “Surviving on next to nothing, part 1

  1. I think it's great that you've been so pro-active in finding ways to lighten your burdens. A lot of people would just sit down and moan about how hard their life is. But you take that route and happiness just flies out the window. Making the best of things, staying positive will always be the better option. 🙂

    We live on a really tight budget, too. I've been a SAHM since my oldest was born nine years ago, and sometimes it's a struggle. We always get by though, and you will, too! Better, easier days are ahead!


  2. Alison, great post! It is so nice to be able to see others like you that would rather make the best of a situation and accept the reality and continue to live a good life, rather than the “other type”! I noticed the same thing with the dishwasher detergent, I buy the cheap store brand but have been making my own laundry soap for over a year now. I have the lye I bought a year ago, but still have yet to make soap! With hubby deployed, having the kids underfoot all the time makes me nervous to try… I think I will learn this winter when I have a bit more time after they go to bed. Although your struggle with an autistic child is definitely more challenging, I have the same job issue. Being a stay at home mom was a very easy choice because most people don't like to hire military spouses, knowing they may leave at any point. It's hard to build a career path while on the move. I used to go crazy at bookstores, but now I go in and enjoy looking, but then go to the library and stock up! That's funny you mention the swiffer, I don't have the wet mop but I used my old yarn leftovers to knit a few of the sweeper cloths, I get to learn new stitches at the same time as making reusable sweepers LOL! We were on the WIC program when the kids were little, that really helped with the milk prices once the kids were weaned from breastfeeding. You know what's pretty maddening? I was worried about qualifying for WIC, embarassed, all that stuff that happens the first time and then I found out we had a WIC office on base because I was told “pretty much all military families qualify for WIC”… I thought wow, our spouses have been over in that godforsaken desolate war zone fighting for years and they can't pay us enough to stay off assistance programs? Anyway, I am slowly learning that all the things we used to have as a dual income couple really don't matter anyways, and if I could do that phase over again I would choose to be more thrifty knowing what I know now. Thanks for posting and giving us a peek into your life, you are doing a great job and are an inspiration!


  3. Thank you all for the encouragement! I consider myself lucky that I've always liked to make things, so it's perhaps less of a psychological burden to me to make rather than buy. It's always a matter of whether I have more time, or more money. Right now I have more time, and while my time may be valuable, it doesn't cost me cash money to put some sweat-equity into maintaining my household!

    Erin – there aren't too many military families in my neck of the woods (I'd have to travel an hour or so southeast to Groton for that 🙂 ), so it had never occurred to my that military spouses would have those same job issues – of course now it makes perfect sense that employers would feel like that. I'd started trying to sell my jewelry when my daughter was DX'd because I knew I'd have to find something I could do from home – too bad the recession hit before I really got the ball rolling 😦 Jewelry, of course, is a want rather than a need. I should have started taking classes in web design 🙂

    I absolutely agree about the Military salary/WIC thing. It goes along with the rules that say you can't have more than 10K in order to receive food stamps – this includes retirement accounts! They make you spend all the money you've saved before you qualify, thus ensuring that when you retire you'll still have to go on assistance. Great system there!


  4. I had no idea about the retirement accounts, that is insane! Like penalizing people for being smart with their money and planning for the future. Ridiculous.


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