Never be broke again: how to avoid being poor

“What’s your power bill worth?” my neighbour asked me. He lives opposite me across the landing, and I’d just dropped off a newsletter I’d made offering my friendly neighbours my help.

After some information sharing, it turns out he was paying close to $700/quarter — more than double my electricity bill. “I’m a fairly frugal user,” I said. Next he asked me if I kept the heater on all night; and it was then I realised he perhaps didn’t really get what I meant about being frugal.

I hear constantly on the news, in conversations, and across the internet about ‘cost of living pressures’ and how much everyone is struggling. And here’s the thing about that:

Right now all kinds of assumptions may have come to mind about me…

· Rich parents

· Married into wealth

· High paid job

· Shareholder or Bitcoin trader

· Tax dodger

· Got a fat inheritance

· Raked it in during the property boom….

But none of those things are true. Not a single one. In fact, I earn less than 50% of Australia’s median wage, which technically puts me on the poverty line. That may leave you wondering 1) how it’s possible I can’t relate to cost of living pressures, and 2) why I think I’m in a position to give advice about not being poor.

I’ll get to those questions, and in doing so I hope to shed some light on how you too can have a comfortable life no matter what you earn.

WHERE THE HELL DOES ALL YOUR MONEY GO?

Have you ever got to the end of the month and run out of cash? And did it make you wonder how it was possible to have spent so much money and have so little to show for it? Yeah, we’ve all been there.

Can you imagine what that must be like to not live like this? How would it feel to not have end of month stress about whether you can pay your bills, or worrying what happens if the fridge breaks down? Imagine always having a pot of savings you can dip in to if you need, and how great it must be to afford the things you really want when you want them. And still have a life.

How the other half live, ey?

Actually I’m not talking about rich people. What I have described here; this is my life. I’m not trying to be smug. There are a lot of people who have a lot more than I ever will, and there are others who look down on me because I don’t have the latest this and that. But I only work 3 days a week, have plenty of time to indulge in my personal passion projects, and never have to choose which bill I can afford to pay this month, so I’m ok with not being the standard definition of rich.

HOW DO I DO IT?

I am going to share with you what I typically spend my money on…. but then we’ll look at what I don’t.

In order of proportion of monthly expenses:

1. Mortgage repayments

2. Groceries (and alcohol at home)

3. Eating out & other social engagements

4. Electricity, NBN, Mobile bills

5. Beauty treatments & products

6. Petrol & other vehicle expenses

7. Gym & Healthcare

8. Gifts & other ad hoc discretionary spending

The total of all these things combined varies a little month to month, but on average is about $1500 — $1800/month. It used to be less, but recently I’m splurging more. When I applied for a home loan, my expenses were so low the mortgage broker told me I needed to increase what I declared on the form because the bank wouldn’t believe me: I had to lie so they didn’t think I was lying!

You might notice there is ample room to reduce these outgoings. Booze, waxes and make-up, gifts and holidays, a social life. If I needed to tighten my belt I have lots of areas I can do that and cut my spending by 30–50%.

These expenses are based on my observations of other people’s typical expenditure*:

Takeout coffee / Netflix, Spotify, Audible, Apple Music, YouTube Red etc

Car parking & car repayments / Uber rides / Credit card & loan interest

Festivals and concert tickets / Huge data allowances / Deliveroo/Uber Eatz

Home delivered meal services / Cigarettes, Drugs / Big nights out

New mobile devices, Google Home, Alexa etc / Online shopping

New clothes & shoes to keep up with trends / Designer hair cuts

Organic & other premium food / Vitamins & supplements

*I don’t have kids so this list is more relevant to younger people

It’s not that any of these things are inherently bad (except avoidable interest repayments), but there are a million things on which to spend your money (and a thriving global marketing industry with the sole purpose of finding creative ways to encourage you to part with it).

SO YOU DON’T WANT TO BE BROKE: WHAT DO YOU NEED TO DO FIRST?

Yes, I have a monthly budget, and yes I do book-keeping (boring, I know). But actually you don’t need to do that.

It’s a bit like Marie Kondo, but for money. Write down everything — yes, every single dollar — you spend both as a regular payment, and as-you-go, day to day. Search your bank statements, check your direct debits, review your credit card, and count the cash in your wallet. (I also keep my receipts and enter them into a free app every other day, then run end of month reports to track my spending.)

Once you have a clearer idea of what you’re spending money on, now comes the hard(er) bit…

As much as we may laugh at smashed avo being blamed for millennials being unable to afford houses, there is actually some truth in the claim that people’s proportion of discretionary spending outstrips their income, and a lot of people waste their hard earned money on short term gratification, and other crap they don’t really need.

Also true is that older generations didn’t have nearly the vast array of ways to flit away their money as we do now thanks to the digital era and a false belief that convenience is king, and we can and will pay royally for it.

Not having brunch every weekend isn’t going to buy you a house in a market that favours investors through generous tax breaks and where houses in a capital city cost 15–20x annual average incomes, but you can definitely do more (or rather, less) so you don’t feel the squeeze every time your rent come due.

NEVER BE BROKE AGAIN

Having a buffer to protect you from financial shocks is absolutely critical to never being broke. If you’re a regular wage earner, you have two ways to create this.

I only work part time (by choice) so sometimes I look for ways to earn extra income. Passive income (where you don’t give up your time for money) is best, but no luck there so far for me, so I have a few side gigs.

Infinitely easier is #2. People’s expenses tend to increase proportionately to their incomes — the more you earn the more you spend. The danger in this is failing to decrease your expenditure (or not being able to) when your wages drop, or you lose your job, or when you suddenly need to find extra money in your budget — for a house deposit for example.

Once you have found areas in your budget to cut out unnecessary expenses, now it’s time to save. Australians currently save less than 5% of their income. After the GFC it was around 10%, so we’re not doing great at buffering against unexpected financial shocks.

Personally, my goal is to save just over 50% of my after-tax income this year. So far, so good.

(As a side note, most of those savings are offsetting my mortgage, so my interest repayments are lower each month — again keeping my expenses suppressed).

BUT WHO WANTS TO LIVE LIKE YOU’RE POOR?

As I’ve said, what I don’t spend money on, combined with the ways I select what I do pay for, are the main reasons why I don’t feel cost of living pressures. And it’s sooooo nice!!

Do I go to dinner with friends? Yes. Do I travel? Yes. Have I bought new clothes in the last month? Yes. Did I drop a heap of cash going to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival? Yes.

What I don’t do is all of these things all the time. If something doesn’t make me happy or enrich my life in a long-lasting way, I don’t pay for it. Simple. What’s more, I look for ways to spend less on the things I want. Dining at cheap and cheerful restaurants. Buy an airfare when there’s a sale. Shop second-hand instead of new. Get a discount code or see a non-headlining show. But also, sometimes I go wild! and buy a take away coffee and a chocolate éclair with my colleagues…because I’m not actually poor so I can afford to waste money occasionally.

Not everyone is built for the simple life, which is a shame because most people come to realise at some point that having lots of stuff isn’t what life is all about. It is very well-worn wisdom that money doesn’t buy happiness.

But being broke sucks.

In Australia, we are extremely lucky on the whole, and although there are genuinely poor people — the homeless and those who are forced to live on welfare — most people have the capacity to meet their needs and live a good life. A huge misconception is that living frugally equates to not living well. I’m here to tell you that’s just not true.

As for my neighbour, I directed him to an energy comparison website and now he pays less than half what he used to. He’s spending the extra cash on something more valuable.

If you would like tips on how to Live Good on Less, head to The High Life for tips, ideas, and insights to save you money and time, earn more income, and enrich your life. (The High Life is a GiveGet initiative)

Reframing what we value — a world which is just, sustainable, and works for all people and planet Earth. Join the conversation!

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