How You Can Get By With Less and Still Be Happy…

by Sarah L

I was raised in a very religious, conservative family. My parents had several of us kids that they were putting through private schools, so there was never any extra money. We lived below “paycheck to paycheck”. I’ve been to food pantries, salvage stores, garage sales, and used coupons. Anything to save money. I decided when I was grown I was living high on the hog…no more pinching pennies for me!!

Well, turns out saving had become a way of life. When my ex-husband left us, I discovered he had taken my credit cards and charged thousands of dollars. At the time I was working a part-time job (and recovering from cancer and had 2 toddlers). I immediately was put into a dire situation of paying these bills off or ruining my credit. I used a debt consolidation place for over a year only to discover the total amount of my bills wasn’t coming down. I then got a signature loan from a credit union and was able to pay off my bills within the next year.

One way I used to mentally trick myself into paying off more of the debt faster was to pay a few extra dollars on my monthly utility bills (works best with utility bills as they credit your account). If I owed $60, I’d pay $65. I would do this every month until I was one full month ahead on that bill.

Then I would move on to another utility bill. I would do the same thing there. Eventually, I had enough paid ahead that I would “cash in” and use my credits to pay those bills that month. That way, the month I used all the utility credits, I would be making a double payment on my debt. I know this is really just a mental trick, but it was easier to put a few extra dollars onto a small bill and then be able to make a larger payment on the big bill as opposed to putting a few dollars on the big bill and not really being able to see any progress in paying it off.

You have to have a mentality that you will not spend unless it’s absolutely necessary. We were eating as frugally as possible, not going out to eat, not going anywhere that cost anything. We found lots of free entertainment and activities to do!!

Another way of saving money or stretching what you have is to use coupons. I’m not into the “Extreme Couponing” craze. If I have a coupon for something I normally buy, I will use it. However, if I don’t normally buy name brand products, then I’m not saving money by switching to a name brand to use a coupon when it’s still more expensive then the off brand. I know how much money I can spend each month. If I don’t have extra money, I don’t look at the ads that come out (other than grocery stores). I don’t go to a garage sale (no matter how tempting it may be) if I don’t have money to spend. I also weigh the cost of saving a few cents with driving across town (is it worth the gas to save a penny-probably not!).

During this time when I was newly divorced and had NO money, I picked up a deer that had been hit on the road in front of me. I called a friend and he helped me field dress it. We had been eating tuna helper with no tuna so having a freezer full of meat was a huge blessing. Another friend invited me to go deer hunting the next year.

He loaned me a gun and took me with him to some property he had permission to hunt on. It took 2 years but I finally got a deer and have every year since. When my son shot his first deer at 8 he was so proud to tell everyone that he had brought Bambi home for his family! Now, we bag at least 3 deer a year and that’s our meat for the year unless I can shoot something else we can eat (squirrel, rabbit, etc.).

I’ve learned how to hunt all kinds of game (and cook with the meat – it’s all in the way you cook it.) Hunting is a great way to get inexpensive meat for the table. Most hunters would gladly help a newbie and show them the ropes, lend a gun, etc. I would encourage anyone interested in taking up the sport to go to a Hunter’s Education Class. Most state Fish & Game Departments have programs to teach new hunters (or anglers). Most Departments have hunts for new hunters where they provide the gun & the place to hunt.

I’ve gardened and canned since I was a little girl. Most University Extension offices have canning classes. If you buy a “Blue Book” it walks you through the process step by step. A canner is a big expense but well worth it as it will last for years. If you can find someone who cans they can mentor you and help you along the way.

I’ve been fortunate to garden my whole life. I always meet people who are just starting to garden and decide to grow 50 tomatoes or 20 zucchini plants. They are just setting themselves up for a failure (with the weeds alone). I advise going slow if you are new to gardening.

Plant a FEW plants, that you know you’ll like. Learn about gardening, then plant a few more the next year. I tell new gardeners to plant what is native to the area or will grow well in the zone you’re in. If you’re in northern Wisconsin, for example, peanuts and okra won’t be good plants for you!!

Plant both vegetables and flowers that are native to your area and you will have a lot fewer headaches trying to grow them. Do some research…there is a ton of information online. Go to a garden center…go to a garden club…stop by someone’s house that has a garden and ask for help. I’m always excited when someone stops by my house and asks for gardening help.

There are also a lot of free edible things out there in parks, cemeteries, etc. It’s amazing how many people I meet picking mulberries that don’t know what a mulberry is! Do a little research and learn what’s out there. It’s exciting to get food for your family from little seeds or from areas that people don’t think of.

I hope these hints can help someone.

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  1. Good advise for all of us. If we have not had financial hardship(s) we most likely will. I tell my kids that if you are debt free, you can live through financial disasters with a lot less consternation.

  2. Each item is good advice for saving money. Thanks for reminding us of these. Most Americans do not know what real poverty is, so it’s a big shock when it really hits. I make a decent salary and I still do these things you mentioned in your article and so I can do a lot toward helping my in-laws who really need help. Paying it forward is a good idea too.

  3. sarah!
    you are a wonder!
    you have really got the bit between your teeth.
    i have often seen deer by the road that i knew weren’t there a few hours before.
    wondered if it would be good to take it.
    i should check if a license is needed for road kill.

    on cooking deer, which i have never done, a friend of mine who worked for extension services, said that the trick is to add fat because game is so lean.
    she cooked a delicious deer dinner by swathing the meat in a layer of raw bacon. very tender.

  4. Excellent article. Sarah is a survivor, she made it but what if she were not as mentally strong as she is? What may have happened to those two toddlers without their Mom and a deserting Bio-daddy? One question we all should ask is “what kind of people are we producing these days that split at the first sign of trouble?” I believe we could all agree that it would be much less difficult to face a financial challenge as a family, work out your differences. This brought me back to the first time my wonderful bride was diagnosed with breast cancer at a very young age. Apparently, a small lump was missed at Susan’s regular check-up. No one looked for cancer in a woman her age. Her chances were 40% for survival and well, 60% perhaps not. We faced this together. One well-meaning professional suggested I get counselling in the event my wife had to have a mastectomy. What the H%&L are men made out of today? I responded that “I did NOT marry a tit, I married the whole woman.” and “if a small part of her is missing, it will make no difference to me.” Susan survived and we were blessed with an additional 16 years together before cancer returned and she was called home 12 years ago. Guys, consider your family first before running away from a partner with a medical issue. Do the right thing, work out problems and care for one another.

    • Amen, I have been through 2 surgeries, with my husband and never ever thought about leaving him..

    • Jack,
      Unfortunately the odds are the man will abandon a sick wife but most women will take care of a sick husband. I have seen that to be true many times. I am glad you took care of your wife.

      I agree that couples split too easily. I am married to my 2nd husband and I am his 3rd wife. We will celebrate our 34th anniversary in a couple of months.

  5. Jesse Mathewson

    This was an amazing article, thank you!

  6. Another way to save money..
    . Find one item you can cut your costs on.. get/make that item and caculate how long that item you have chosen will last. Transfer all of those funds to another area for that amount of time..
    . We were fortunate to not have debt, but I needed funds for starting my deep pantry. I started making my own laundry detergent and hacked our dryer sheets.. cutting our laundry detergent and dryer prodcut to a fraction of the cost of previous.. Fabric softner liquid for 1$ from Dollar Tree will last me a year. ..18$ worth of launry ingredients will allow me to wash for 8-9 months.

  7. That Extreme Couponing show, really ruined couponing, for the rest of the real couponers, year’s ago I could cut 50 to 60 coupons, and really save now I’m lucky to cut 1 to 5 that are worth it. We did a lot of yard sales, when the kid’s we’re Young getting clothes, and nice baby, toddler toy’s, even two toddler beds that we’re both under 10 dollars, then selling them at a children’s consignment store one went for $35.00 the second went for $60.00, after we used them both for several years. Never ever turn down any free garden seed’s, or plants, or vegetables. Great article thanks for the great wisdom.

  8. Prepared Grammy

    The bottom line on getting by with less and being happy is one thing: You have to know the difference between needs and wants. I need food; I want a prime rib dinner at a fancy restaurant. I need clothes; I want designer clothes. I teach my primary-age students this simple lesson, and we try to use the correct terms. I’ve also taught this to my own three kids. When we order at DQ, I say “I want a sundae,” not “I need a sundae.”

    Our needs are simple. Our wants are putting us in debt.

  9. My father was born in 1930. My grandfather was a farm foreman and part time share cropper. In the late Thirty’s he hit big on cabbage and was able to buy his own farm. My dad farmed with him but continued live like the Depression was still on. I always thought we were poor. No AC in the house or the new car he bought to replace his eight year old one. For several years we didn’t have a TV and when he did get one it was a small black and white one.

    While both my dad and grandfather lived poor while having plenty of money we lost the farm before I made any. I was left with a good truck and a modest but paid for home. I was used to living like I was poor so actually being poor felt no different. Instead of gardening and hunting I just worked 60 and 70 hour weeks at two or three jobs. I did save money by doing all my home and auto repair myself. Even then I barely got by, how people pay rent and make car payments at the average wage is beyond me.

  10. One key to being happy is to NOT base your happiness on THings. Happiness comes from within. Stuggling financially can be a strain on normal life. Learning to live within our means, is the best way to be happy and content.

    • I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The most freeing words I have ever learned, “I can’t afford it!”.

  11. As for getting by on less & still being happy, I say yes, there’s no question that that is possible, although only a minority are willing to try it. Religious beliefs, spirituality, the meaning of life, love, family & friends – these are not dependent on money or material things. My wife & I had our first child at the about the same time as I was finishing grad school in our 20s. So we had student loans to pay off, while she stayed at home with our children. We had to live frugally for years. Going out to eat was a luxury. But today, looking back, our adult-kids have fond memories of growing up. So yes, it’s possible to get by on less & still be happy.