30 comments

Reader Case Study – How can I Climb out of the Gutter?

A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Money Mustache received a request for help that threw him off balance a little:

Dear MMM,

I just found your site from lifehacker. Your articles are very good. But I did notice that they are all written from the perspective of someone with assets.
I would like some advice. I’m only 22, I’m upside down on my car, I have recently lost my job and can’t seem to find another one. I’m recently married, and my savings just dried up. I have a few hundred left of wiggle room on my credit card.
I’m not particularly skilled with much, but I’m good with computers. How am I to build myself up financially in this crazy world and down economy when even fast food jobs seem hard to come by? This next part sounds bad but I want to do it rather quickly. Zero to hero asap kind of thing. My wife’s studies are rather expensive.

Wow.. this guy is right. I have been writing mainly from the perspective of people with jobs, and fairly reasonable starting points, financially. But what do you do when you have fairly low expenses and debt, but an even lower income? So I wrote back to this guy and asked him for a few more details. Here’s what I learned:

Other Details:
Monthly Cost broken down into categories:
Debt: $223, Insurance: $120, Rent: $800 Phone: ~$90 Internet: $52
Gas: $60, Gym: $60 (Use it 5 days a week) School: ~$200
We currently get food assistance from the state @ $220/mo.
“Useless spending” (i.e. shopping) is kept to about $109/mo.
The only income we have right now is $590 every two weeks.
Skills: photography and part of a computer science degree.
Area:Portland OR. Wife’s parents live nearby.
For our area, we have decent rent. $800 is a bit expensive, and when looking at this from a purely financial standpoint we should find a cheaper place. Unfortunately if we move our transportation costs go up exponentially. My wife walks to work and uses free public transportation to go to school. She also doesn’t have a license and there’s no parking by her work unless we pay.

OK. Let’s add it up: Monthy income: $1400 including food assistance. Monthly expenses: $1934 assuming the $220 food assistance is equal to the food expenditure. Debt: not specified.

Let’s focus on the spending first, since I see a dangerously carefree mentality that could lead to problems down the road. If your expenses are greater than your income, it is AN EMERGENCY!!! That means everything goes out the window until you are back on track. For example, a $60 per month gym membership would be a decadent luxury even at my level of wealth. That’s why I work out at home. For a struggling person, even if you use your gym 7 days a week and steal free rolls of toilet paper, it’s more than you can afford. Pick up some cement blocks and an old rope from an alley and tie them around your shoulders, then start running the many steps of Portland during the rainy nights. Do concentration curls off of the concrete railing of the waterfall bridge as you look to the sky and bellow out your determination to get rich. Rocky Balboa Style.

You aren’t rich enough to afford a car yet. Unfortunately, you bought one when you also couldn’t afford it (hence the loan). Since the lien on the title might prevent you from selling it until you pay it off, I’d at least take it off the road to save the insurance money, and pay off the unfortunate loan as soon as you can.

If your family will let you move back into a basement, do it – and pay them a few hundred of rent if they need the cash.

Drop the cell phone plans and use prepaid phones and voice-over-internet like Google Voice when at home.

I also notice the debt payments sound very high, at $223 per month. At 5% interest, this monthly payment would service the interest payments on $53,520 of debt. If your debt is just a few grand on high-interest credit cards, see if you can get a family member to pay them off for you, then you responsibly pay the family member back ASAP with 5-6% interest.

It should go without saying that you will never carry even a $1 riding balance on the credit card for the rest of your life, and if you don’t think you can achieve this, just cancel the credit cards and never hold them again until you’re ready. Credit card interest rates, unless they are below 6%, are predatory and thus should never be paid.

Now that the mandatory tough talk on spending and debt is out of the way, we can move on to income. This reader sounds like a smart and capable guy, being a lifehacker and MMM reader, as well as having a high school diploma and some University education. So he needs to put the brain to work.

I’d advise him to avoid minimum wage jobs if at all possible, just because they suck up much of your time for very little reward. Instead, he could check out the Jobs section of the Portland Craigslist. Focus on things demanding as much, or slightly more, skill than you currently have. In computer or office work, or even in skilled trade construction. Then make up for any skill shortage with incredible professionalism and responsiveness with the prospective employer. Despite what they state in the job postings, every hiring manager or company owner is not hiring a collection of skills, but rather a person to solve their business problems.

I have hired people from Craigslist in the past myself, and I find that 90% or more of the responses are messy or disorganized or represent an incorrect understanding of my request. Your job is to beat out the first 90% of your competition with a fantastic, instantaneous response to the employer with good grammar and meticulous attention to the detail of their posting. If you do this for 50 job postings a day, I bet you’ll have a job at least doubling minimum wage within a month. Hopefully much more. You can also check other online job postings like Monsterboard and network with everyone you know who currently has a good job, to try to ride in on their coattails.

As a retired man, I admit I am a little rusty at getting jobs, but during my working years it was always one of my favorite parts of our wonderful capitalist economy. It’s like an exciting hunt, or an elaborate courtship dance, getting your prospective employer excited about how well you can solve their problems and take a load off their mind. I remember the thrill of each interview, and the feeling of that magic moment about halfway through the chat when you could sense the employer decides they want to hire you. At this moment, the conversation shifts from “are you good enough to work for my company?”, to “here’s how great my company will be to you, if you would be so generous as to come and work for us”. I am far from being the world’s most desirable employee, but yet this attitude towards interviews has helped me get every single job I have ever interviewed for! (For the record, I’ve had 15 job interviews and 15 offers in my life, and I have accepted and worked 10 of those jobs. I still miss the thrill of this hunt and may return to the job world someday if a meaningful opportunity arises and I ever run out of stuff to do in retirement. Unfortunately, I’m busier than ever at six years into it, so jobs will have to wait).

I’d like to wish my Portland friend the best of luck in getting out of the little financial gutter he’s in right now, and if any of YOU have advice for saving more money or winning in the current job market, share it with him in the comments!

  • DT August 29, 2011, 11:41 am

    First, find out how much you owe on the car, and put the free ads out to try to sell the car for the same sum (or more if feasible).

    If not, use “take-over-my-payment” option and advertise that.

    Lastly, use the car for income generation – find a delivery route for mail or goods (for example, for local small brewery). Even delivering pizza or chinese food will provide net-gain even when you add costs of gas. Plus, you get free food usually by hanging at the pizza place.

    Reply
  • Geek August 29, 2011, 11:43 am

    @MMM Did you just offer an interviewing tips Post series? Because that’s totally what I heard. I know that I don’t come off confident enough in my intereviews, for example, and would love a little series on applying for jobs.

    Reply
    • Val August 29, 2011, 11:55 am

      I totally second that!
      I would love to read some interview tips from someone that got every single job he interviewed for.
      Even though I am smart and prepared, I don’t feel confident enough in a job interview.
      MMM… I know you’re trying to help people retire, not get back into Corporate America… but some of us still need to hang in there in order to build our stash!

      Reply
      • MMM August 31, 2011, 7:25 pm

        Aww, thanks Val and Geek. It would be quite fun doing at least one more article on that subject. I am actually quite fond of Corporate America – both getting and working the fancy office jobs was always great fun for me – so I will probably have lots to say about it once I unlock those distant memories and start the torrent of typing. ;-)

        Reply
    • Lisa September 3, 2011, 8:25 pm

      I will be looking forward to the interview tips series! I am not currently job hunting but I have never been comfortable interviewing.

      I love love love your advice about the gym membership and the way you present it. I know so many “broke” people who do not want to change their lifestyle and seem to have this sense of entitlement that just amazes me!

      Reply
  • Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple August 29, 2011, 11:50 am

    Those were some very good tips. I am not very skilled on the job hunt side (though I guess I’ve gotten every job I’ve applied for, but still that’s only 9 jobs, one of which I turned down). But your expenses tips were spot on. If you don’t have the money, you can’t afford it.

    I have a nephew who is 18 and has had a car payment since he was 16 and bought a truck. He just wrecked the truck and used the $8400 payment from it, and another $8000 he borrowed from my (economic outpatient care providing) mother to buy a bigger, newer truck. Ugh.

    The only thing I could see to keep for this guy would be the at-home internet, as that will be instrumental in getting a job. But even then, that can be replaced with the library if necessary.

    I also like your exercise philosophy. I’ve always been a gym rat myself, and I find my frugality and my gym-rattedness at war a lot. My gyms have been anywhere from $45/year, to $1200/year (for two), to $1175/year (family plan). And everything in between. I really really want to be able to work out at home. But boy, I get bored. Exercise is such a big hobby for me. I’ve accepted that it’s where I am going to spend my fun money, and I have the money to do so. I’m also a joiner. I like the group thing. I can do solo (trained for a half marathon all by myself), but love the support of a group.

    We recently joined the YMCA – family plan is $1175 per year, or thereabouts. I wanted to teach my son to swim, and we found that swim lessons, without regular access to a pool, were useless. As we live on the Pacific, I want him to grow up without my complete fear of the water (well, at least until I did my first triathlon last year). I put off joining for many many months, but am glad I gave in for the pool access. Still, that $98/month fee bugs me.

    What I enjoy doing at home for exercise (my husband travels for work, and even when he’s home, we take turns going in the morning) are DVDs. I’ve got P90X and a few other DVDs from Craigslist or for Xmas presents. These have been great – a few sets of dumbbells (from 3 lb to our adjustable 25 lbs), a mat, and a pullup bar will get you far. I still get bored after a few days. I’d love to have a home gym, but our little 1146 sf house just doesn’t have the space. Then again, I live in So. Cal, so I’ve got the great outdoors at my fingertips. And footsteps. And bike wheels.

    Reply
  • Gregg August 29, 2011, 12:03 pm

    He lives in one of the most bike friendly place in the world. DITCH THE CAR!

    Reply
  • PNW August 29, 2011, 1:55 pm

    I really appreciate having a “how do I get started” tutorial, as I was in a similar place just a few months ago.

    A few things I noticed:

    1. Regarding the car. The lien holder may not allow you to uninsure it. Check into that before cancelling insurance.

    2. Does the wife work? Most students are able to work at least 10-15 hours per week.

    3. Have you talked to a financial aid counselor at her college? Explain your situation to them, they may be able to reduce costs or find some aid to help your expenses. They want to keep her in school and will often do all they can to help accomplish that.

    4. Redirect your $109 useless expenses somewhere else whenever possible. Don’t eat out.

    5. Put together a free website showcasing your photography skills. Get cheap business cards online (I’ve seen 250 cards for $3.99 offers) and start promoting a photography business, this time of year you can start marketing senior pictures, then holiday pictures. By next summer (wedding season) you will hopefully have built a reputation and can get business during that busy time.

    Reply
  • Jason August 29, 2011, 6:25 pm

    Lazy of me, I know, but I didn’t read the comments. I’ll however put in my two cents.

    $52 a month for internet is waaaay more than you need. I guarantee there is free computer/internet usage near you – get on that! Think of how much you’re wasting on just accessing the internet? Especially because of how much you’re already paying for a phone…that probably has internet on it itself. I know you’re a tech but get your fix from a job and not from wasting your own money. Get PAID to play with machines and cool gadgets man!

    I’ve been there, you can do it! Question everything. Best wishes

    Reply
  • GL August 29, 2011, 6:31 pm

    A couple of highly unpopular but effective tips:
    1. Donate plasma. You can do it twice a week, for about $30 a pop. That’s $240 a month for one person, or $480 for both of you. Not the most glamorous or time-efficient way to make money, but it works.
    2. If you absolutely can’t find a job anywhere (and craigslist can be really competitive), hang out with day laborers next to your local Home Depot. It’s quick cash, if nothing else…

    Reply
  • Massive August 29, 2011, 11:51 pm

    I cannot recommend strongly enough the book:

    Where’s My Oasis? by Rohan Manahan

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wheres-My-Oasis-Essential-Handbook/dp/0091899982

    It is quite simply the best book I have seen on finding a job.

    Order it from the library (of course)…

    Reply
  • Massive August 29, 2011, 11:54 pm

    And good luck my friend!

    Regards,

    Massive

    Reply
  • Smurph August 30, 2011, 6:56 am

    50 jobs a day might be a little much. When I was getting ready to graduate from college, I made myself apply to 8-10 jobs a day for a while. I used to hate companies that had online applications because of the lack of human contact, but it does make it easier to apply to mass quantities of jobs. By the time I graduated I had 6 offers to pick from.

    Reply
  • Value Indexer August 30, 2011, 9:12 am

    I’ve never applied for a job that didn’t involve fries and special sauce (ok I did once but I never heard back so it doesn’t count!). But I did go freelance and then start a business so I’m a little biased towards that route :) A valuable source for me, covering both personal finance and earning money without a job, is Ramit Sethi’s site http://www.iwillteachyoutoberich.com/. Three things he talks about:

    - Craiglist may be competitive but it’s mostly a competition to look bad (Ramit has a much funnier name for it). If you break the North American tradition of acting like you’re giving someone the break of their life just by showing up, let alone doing a little actual work, it may not be hard to find a few people who will pay you. I don’t use Craigslist or live in the Northwest US so I don’t know exactly how effective it will be but no one will put a price on your life just because you applied for a few Craigslist jobs.

    - Websites don’t pay you, twitter doesn’t pay you, and business cards don’t pay you. Talking to 20 people (in person if possible) who need some variation of your skills, and finding 3 who like you, will pay you. Once you do that do everything you can to make them happy and ask if they have friends who need your help. Keep repeating these two steps and you can work your way into a good income.

    - Don’t just hold up a sign that says “will do anything for $$$”. And don’t just tell people what you can do – ask them what they really need and will pay for. Think about what they’re thinking. Do they really just want you to do X, or do they want to stop worrying about having to redo it 5 times? How can you help them with that? Are there very specific groups you can target, such as photographers who need to learn how to use software better? This might seem like you’re limiting yourself but try looking in the yellow pages for “people who help photographers in Portland learn about software” and you’ll see the level of competition you face. Valuable services + low competition = $$$. But remember no competition might mean the services have no value.

    It’s not easy and rarely fast, but once you get to break-even you have a lot more options. Focus on that and then steady growth from there. It worked for Warren Buffet – those who “get rich quick” are often building a castle on a foundation of sand and get wiped out by the tides.

    Reply
    • MMM August 30, 2011, 10:10 am

      Great points there, VI.

      I also checked out your valueindexer.wordpress.com blog – very nicely crafted articles!

      On the subject of getting jobs and doing well in them, I have to admit that I fully agree with Ramit Sethi’s techniques. They are fun and effective. Perhaps the difference in our opinions on simple living and frugality just come down to our age. I was a bit more like him in my 20s (although I’ve still only bought about two $4 coffees in my life). Then I gradually came to the realization that a certain amount of wealth and spending is Enough, and have since moved a bit more to the simple living side.

      Reply
      • Value Indexer August 31, 2011, 8:43 am

        Thanks, I just discovered your blog and it looks like it will do well!

        I myself prefer conscious spending to 100% frugality. If more people decided what they really want, let alone need, we could all be better off. I read your scale of financial stability and I’m shocked that despite having a long way to go I’m between 2 and 1!

        Reply
    • CH12 August 15, 2012, 8:09 am

      For anybody who wants to read about the concepts mentioned in more depth:
      1) Craigslist: http://www.iwillteachyoutoberich.com/blog/the-craigslist-penis-effect/
      2) Why both business cards and focusing on minutiae are useless: http://smallbusiness.yahoo.com/advisor/blogs/profit-minded/business-cards-waste-time-171519111.html
      and perhaps harmful according to dan ariely, the author of predictably irrational:
      http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2012/08/12/understanding-the-dangers-of-ego-depletion/
      3) Focusing on niche markets to launch a business: http://www.mint.com/blog/how-to/make-more-money-sethi-02032011/

      Reply
    • Shelley Chase October 28, 2012, 6:38 am

      Wow, you’ve certainly inspired me! Great words of immense value “Value Indexer”. Thanks.

      Reply
  • Ginger August 30, 2011, 9:26 am

    Wow, I don’t think I would have a $60/month gym at anything close to that income. He is spending about 5% of his income on that. When you have debt, you don’t have luxuries, especially not one that cost 5% of your income. He needs to find a job, any job including restaurants or fast food and start bringing in more income. You can’t live an $15340/year. I agree with sell the car, you can get by in Portland without one.

    Reply
  • DT August 30, 2011, 10:23 am

    As a manager who hired hundreds over the past 15 years and interviewed close to 1000 people, I have a long list of things you should do. But, here is the nutshell version:
    1. Wake up every morning at 8am, get dressed (like you would for work), and then pretend that job search is your job. So, 8 hours per day, 5 days per week, you do nothing but look for work.
    2. Create 5-10 versions of resumes and use the appropriate one for each job you apply for (no need sending detailed Microsoft Certification diplomas to burger flipper McDonalds job). One of the most common reasons why I did not hire someone was because they were overqualified. I know, it feels good to toot your own horn, but don’t.
    3. Make sure each resume (which BTW is one page, simple black and white page without frills – or in the case of email submissions – a text-only resume) includes one paragraph cover letter about why you think you can help the company.
    4. Don’t just look for job postings – they are used in less than half of all hiring – find companies you want to work for and send a resume, read news and look for new companies opening and see who is in charge of hiring etc.
    5. Instead of wasting your time on Facebook, Twitter etc, use social networking to look for work. Ask people if they knew of any job openings. Ask them to be on the lookout for you. Offer reward (even if it is just a lunch).
    6. Get a job to get a career – it is much easier getting a job if you already have one. Even if you cannot find perfect job, take any job and then keep looking – it is much easier to say in the interview that you were working picking mushrooms while waiting for the opportunity for a job in your field, than saying that you were sitting on your a$$ spending $60 per month at the gym.
    7. Finally, do something in your field, even if it is for free. As a computer geek, find charities and startups and offer services for free on a 2-8 hours per week basis. It will open more connections, you will have some experience to show, and it will make you feel good and not depressed.
    Good luck. Many were in your shoes before and you don’t see many old people begging on the streets – you will find the job and this all will look like a bad dream soon.

    Reply
    • Yuriy February 22, 2012, 2:10 pm

      I know this is an old post, but I really just want to reply to #7.

      As a computer geek (and even as an artist and many other things) there is something you can do to gain experience working on real world projects: Work on Free Open Source Software.

      There are many benefits to this — from the feeling of making a contribution to gaining technical experience to making connections with people in the field.

      I’m surprised this never gets mentioned on this blog considering MMM is a former software engineer and it is a great opportunity to do something productive and meaningful during retirement if you are into computers.

      Reply
  • the Neva river cheapskate September 1, 2011, 12:29 pm

    All the readers’ answers and of course MMM’s elaborate advice seem perfectly useful!

    Still personally I don’t see why everybody shuns the gym so aggressively ;), when it’s obviously the rent that eats 50% of the man’s income.

    Reply
    • MMM September 1, 2011, 2:30 pm

      Well, I did suggest he moves back in with family for a while if possible. But the man wisely pointed out that living in the $800 place saves on transportation. If you start commuting 20+ minutes every day just to save $200 in rent, you’ve gone backwards, both in money and in sanity. Meanwhile, workouts can be had almost free. If MMM, who loves barbells more than most, doesn’t have a gym membership, many people can go without.

      Reply
  • Bakari Kafele September 2, 2011, 2:53 pm

    $52 a month is a lot to spend on internet.

    I watch streaming video regularly, and I have found that the lowest speed DSL keeps up just fine. It costs $25 a month. I pay another $2 a month for metered rate universal lifeline phone service (with no income, he should qualify for the program as well). Thats a savings of $324 right there. Or, use the local library, and pay $0 a month, saving $624 dollars a year.

    When I was unemployed – which has been very often, due to a habit of quitting jobs without having secured a new one – I would go to 3 or 4 temp agencies and fill out applications. Whichever one called first, I took the job they offered, whatever it was. Anything from manual labor to administrative.
    That takes anywhere from one day to one week.
    Then, if I got a better offer, I would take the new one (temp jobs are usually by the day, so you can leave at any time without notice and they don’t hold it against you for next time).
    Usually pays better than minimum wage too.

    Reply
  • terpteach November 20, 2011, 6:17 pm

    Thanks for this alternate perspective. I am in a similar situation, though not quite to this extent, and it is good to hear some advice for someone who has a lower-than average income. Now if only I can make it work for me…

    Reply
  • Brittany May 20, 2012, 5:12 am

    Would love to see a follow up on which advice he took and how he is doing now!

    Reply
  • Danny October 16, 2012, 3:44 am

    I’m with Brittany – any chance of a follow-up to see how it worked out for this guy?

    Reply
  • Shoe January 27, 2013, 1:38 am

    I need to do everything in this article. Working a part time job myself with slightly higher than minimum wage i am almost always broke even though my spending is low .

    Reply
  • Mitch April 24, 2014, 10:08 pm

    I know this is an old post but I wanted to give a possibly unique experience. I just turned 21 and working since I was 18 I have had 5 interviews and 6 jobs, I count getting rehired after quitting a success without a interview. Every time that I have looked for a job I’ve only applied to the one place I wanted to work and got the job. My old supervisors have told me the following reasons why they hired me. The big thing they said was I called and showed interest. Even if there’s only an online application call anyways can’t hurt. If there’s only an online application still walk into the physical place and try to give them a resume. They may take it they may not but if they do you have one thing staring the hiring manager in the face saying pick me! Also when going to an interview no matter what job wear the right clothes. My dad always told me don’t dress for the job you have dress for the job you want. So even if your going to McDonalds walk in with a nice dress shirt and slacks when you walk in or even when you try to drop off a resume, they will remember this! Also something that seems to never come up is work as a security guard. I’ve done this multiple summers and it brings in at least $11 an hour where I live, Phoenix AZ. Also these companies usually have a high demand for overtime so there’s an automatic bonus to get ahead of things. This has just been my experience so far but I hope it helps anyone reading back to these old posts. Sometimes the simple things like a phone call or dress slacks opposed to nice jeans make the difference between a job and not.

    Reply
  • Dor May 29, 2014, 10:06 am

    I wonder what ever happened to that guy. if he did take your advice and how is he doing now.

    Reply

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