How to survive a short fall off the fiscal cliff

The annual bleg

Statistics predict that of the several thousand people who visit this site every day, the vast majority live in households that make between $20,000 and $200,000 a year. That’s quite a range. But one thing we have in common is our paychecks will be lighter come New Year’s Day if no deal is reached, by about 50 to 500 dollars a check depending on where you fall into that spectrum. Being poor sucks, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is begging readers for holiday handouts this week. But it has taught me to be extremely frugal. These are all obvious, I’m sure we all know about them, but being reminded doesn’t hurt, and knowing and practicing are two different things.

It’s Christmas and that means gifts, assuming you can afford any. Be smart, with an eye toward the looming drop off, think of something with a special thoughtful twist. A broke guy like me can’t buy Workout Girl much. But when we were kids I bought her a ring with an emerald chip on the back of a tiny lace butterfly. She treasured that dinky ring for decades, through two kids and a divorce, she felt terrible when she lost it during a move a few years ago. I found one that looks identical for less than forty bucks — which is still a lot for me right now — and I’ll wager she’ll turn on the waterworks when she sees it. I have three precocious teenage nephews who are in awe of their skydiving, rock climbing uncle, they have never left the ground. I found a coupon a few weeks ago at the website of a local flight school, called them up, and worked out a deal where all three kids can go up for half an hour and even get to take turns holding the stick for a minute or two. Total cost for something they will remember for the rest of their lives? Less than fifty dollars.

And speaking of spending on people, is there anyone in your life who is a major pain in the ass, who always seems to expect you to cover them in some way, the wost of both worlds, high maintenance without any benefits? Maybe they’re just naturally inconsiderate, maybe they’re intentionally using your generous nature, who knows. Either way now is a good time to unilaterally make the change you’ve been thinking about.

I’ve done that with two people this year, I guess they thought of themselves as friends, but it was more like host and parasite. One of them bugged me incessantly to send their kid some cash for graduating, they just could not process me saying I couldn’t afford to. Then it struck me: every single goddam time I had any interaction with them it was always the same, it was me giving them stuff and doing stuff for them, which is mostly my fault because that’s how it’s always been with that person. Ending that not only saved me from being nickel and dimed, it boosted my self-esteem and confidence and I don’t miss them being in my life one bit.

Buy your food at the grocery store, avoid restaurants except as a treat, take your lunch to work. A fast food lunch can cost five and 10 dollars easy, a sit down meal twice that, now multiply by 20 work days every month and you’re out a cool c-note or more. Rice and beans are fine, but my fave is pasta. It’s cheap, it doesn’t take much energy to cook, you can make a huge pot of noodles, a quart of sauce, and two loafs of garlic bread for about ten bucks, eat until you burst and fill up containers with the rest. Viola, dinner that night and lunch for a week, for less than one delivered pizza. Mix that up with an occasional sandwich and a few TV dinners. Not only does it save money, it’s healthier and I don’t miss lunch from Taco Bell or Applebees three or four times a week at all. You might even lose a few pounds.

The last thing, something that kills me and everyone closer to 20k a year than 200k, are late fees. Late charges are like loan shark levels of interest. My cable/internet bill is just under $100/month including taxes. The late fee is 20 bucks and the activation fee to turn it back on once it’s been turned off is another 25. That’s a fifty percent surcharge! If you have disposable income, don’t wait until you’re late to pay bills. But if you’re like me, living paycheck to shitty paycheck, you won’t be able to avoid them all. So take a second and list what the late fees are on each bill, then take the hit from the one that does the least damage when and if you have to be late. And don’t be too embarassed to call them, you can often work out a deal to avoid being turned off and save that turn on fee even if you do have to be late.

In general, do not fall into the trap of “I’ve worked hard and I deserve this” when tempted or depressed. This has nothing to do with you deserve or what your friends and family deserve, this is about what you can afford. It’s not about your philosophy or your worth as a human being, it’s about math. And trust me, I have lived this life for a year now; no matter how depressed you might be when you can’t treat yourself, you will be way, way more depressed and stressed when that treat threatens your Internet access or water supply.

Odds are the fiscal cliff/curb/gentle slope will be avoided. Even if we do go over, most experts think a deal will be reached quickly. Especially when people start bitching at their House and Senate reps. My advice is, once that happens, yes, by all means, if you can afford to, treat yourself or those special people in your life. One of the few advantages of having to tighten up is you’ll find out real quick who the special people really are; they’ll stick out like a sore thumb. They don’t want money or gifts, they just want you.




  1. lurker in a strange land says

    You could save yourself a chunk of money by dumping that cable bill and going to Netflix or Hulu Plus for only $10 a month. We did and our kids find plenty to watch on Netflix.

  2. Brandon says

    As a general rule, I don’t buy Christmas gifts. Gifts that are given out of obligation and expected to be reciprocated with an item of equal value juts don’t interest me much at all. I only like gifts that are surprising, fun, and something I will use and would not otherwise have purchased. I think the only gift I’ll be buying this year will be some nice carbon fiber bike pedals for my mom.

  3. magistramarla says

    I was thinking that the fiscal cliff thing might not be a bad thing at all. Then, at yesterday’s holiday party with my husband’s colleagues, I learned that they are worried that if it happens, federal workers might be furloughed.
    Like you, we live paycheck to paycheck. We lost my income when I became disabled. We moved to another state temporarily for my husband’s work, so we’re paying a mortgage in one state and very high rent in another. We’re still paying the bills from raising five kids, including some parent loans for college expenses that we can’t get out of.
    My hubby’s paycheck has been frozen for three years, thanks to Congress, but our rent has gone up each year.
    If there is a furlough, we will have no income at all, but plenty of outgo.

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