Making Ends Meet: Part 1

Essays, Featured — By on January 21, 2011 at 8:00 am

Editor’s Note: Diane will be writing about her experience during these tough times over the course of the next few weeks. We would love to hear from more of you as to how the “Great Recession” is affecting you.

My life recently rounded a new corner.

After teaching high school Spanish for six years, I was laid off in July. Initially, I was really okay with losing my job. I worked in a tough district and was exhausted by the politics, which only seemed to be getting worse. Before I became a teacher I worked with urban students for 12 years, which brings me to 18 years of working with urban youth. I was not ready to jump back into another professional job for the sake of having a job, and it was too late in the year to devote myself to finding a new teaching position by the time school started. The idea of having a “year off” was incredibly appealing, and I thought I could heal from the wounds teaching had created. I approached the year as a forced sabbatical and decided to look for work as an evening waitress and to spend my days writing.

I overhauled my budget and came up with a bare minimum to live on. If I could make $350 a week then I could cover all of my living expenses but nothing else. It took about six weeks for me to find a waitressing job here in West Michigan, and I think it would have taken me even longer to find a more “professional” job. I was happy to be working, no matter what. I have now been waitressing since August 23. Since then, there have been only two weeks during which I made $350. The first several weeks I made well under $300 but my garden was in full bloom, and I was about as happy as a person can be.

Last month, however, I made only $1100, and I am starting to get nervous. I actually spent this past Friday night online applying for food stamps and tomorrow morning I am going over to the Department of Human Services to apply in person. It is hard to believe it has come to this. I used to be the person who would send people gift cards anonymously. Or shove money in their purse when I saw them at church. I tried to live generously when the moment was right.

Applying for food stamps is no small thing for a woman who loves to take care of herself. While I love to give generously to friends or those in need, I personally live a very frugal lifestyle.

Here is a quick look at my life:

Mortgage – $668
Condo fee – $110
Gas – varies on time of year but averages to $40/month
Electric – $30
Phone – $35
Internet – $65
Car Insurance – $68

For the last four and a half years I have also embraced the Dave Ramsey Envelope System, which helped me become debt free in February 2010. After paying bills, I take the rest of my earnings and divide the cash between little envelopes. Each of the following categories is a literal envelope kept in my drawer, and I really do stuff it with money at the beginning of each month. I pay for the entire month in advance and then spend that month working for the next month. These are my envelopes:

Tithe – $100-$130
Food – $120
Gas for the car – $50
Haircuts – $20
Clothes – $40
Car repairs – $40
Housing repairs – $30
Christmas – $20
Going out – $50

When I do not make enough money, like last month, my envelopes are the first things to suffer. I cannot remember the last time I actually put $20 in for haircuts or $50 for going out. Shoot – I cannot remember the last time I put $40 in for clothes either or even the last time I bought clothes that were not for work. I am quite strict about tithing and my groceries, for obvious reasons. Everything else is kind of fluid right now. This system works for me because it decreases my stress level. I used to be a missionary who had to raise support each month. It was awful, and I barely made my way through each month. When my car broke down – which it often did – I was in a financial emergency. Or when I needed something for my house, I put it on my credit card and worried about it later. I have not had a credit card for four and a half years and when there is no money in an envelope, I literally cannot buy anything. This system allows me to have money set aside in order to avoid financial stress.

Over the next few weeks I will continue to honestly discuss my finances, my journey into asking for food stamps, and how I prioritize my spending. God continually asks me, “How much do you trust me?” and the answer is usually, “Not very much.” My hope is that I can share this story with others who may need to read it. It is cliché to say, “life is hard,” yet the cliché exists for a reason.  Life is hard, and we all choose our battles – this is my battle.

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    25 Comments

  • Debra L. says:

    Beautifully written, Honestly shared…thank you. I can’t wait to read the upcoming articles.

  • Anonymous Em says:

    I feel your pain. After taxes I make $1800 a month, and, before I moved into the community house I live in now, with five roommates and $250 rent, I was getting down to $5 or $10 dollars the last few days before my next paycheck. And this is with a salaried job with benefits, at a good company, that I got because I have a college degree.

    I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong, or how I was so easily deceived into thinking that, if I went to college and got a good job, everything would be fine. It’s not. I have almost $4000 in credit card debt, of which around $3000 is dental work and car repairs, and student loans totaling about $5000. I know it could be much worse, and I’m so thankful for this new house so I can pay off some debt, but sometimes, I just get mad and feel like it’s not fair.

  • Steph Niko says:

    Apart from the money stress, are you happy with your decision to waitress at night and write during the day? Is it worth the sacrifice? Or, are you applying to other full-time jobs that have a more stable pay and not having any luck? I only ask because I do know some writers and artists who choose to live very frugally in order to devote time to their writing, and to them it’s hard but it’s worth it. What’s your perspective?

    I’m really looking forward to reading more of the essays in this series.

    • diane nienhuis says:

      Good questions, Steph.
      I am glad for this year, honestly. The first four months were hard, I won’t lie, as I took one waitressing job and then quit to find another one where I could work at night (the first one had me working from 6:30a-3:30p five days a week and there was no writing during that time).
      It has only been during these last 4-6 weeks that I’ve felt truly content. My work schedule has been somewhat stable and I write at least 3 mornings a week. However, I still lack the courage to submit my work to more magazines. I have no idea what I’m afraid of.
      I do plan to return to teaching this fall. I miss it. But right now I’m thankful for each day that I stay up late and sleep in til 9. I am thankful for ONE year of not waking at 5, of grading papers at home, of hearing cuss words 10 hours a day.
      However, if I work up the nerve and really start writing and get “discovered” as it were, I would give up teaching in a heartbeat. :)

  • Steve says:

    I so look forward to reading more.
    Lost my job recently and though I am working weekends at a shelter and teaching a course at a small Bible College I have been considering applying for food stamps. We are fortunate to have lots of food stored from last growing season so our food budget is minimal but there is the car, housing, medical costs, 2 kids……

    Why does applying for food stamps feel like I’m quiting? Like I’ve lost some contest rather than just a short term bridge?

    • diane nienhuis says:

      Yep. I feel like I’ve somehow failed. Or quit. Or have no pride.

      Like my 9 years of college and 3 degrees have simply qualified me to ask, “Would you like to add a salad to your meal?”

      It’s humbling, to be sure.

  • hannah says:

    Diane,

    Thank you for your transparency in this time in your life. My husband and I decided it was time for a career change for me as well and we are in the process of trying to build a business from home. It takes great courage to lay your life out before the Burnside readers and show them what you and God have been up to! Keep up the great writing!

    Hannah

  • Mom says:

    Hi Diane

    Loved your article and your attitude. You never complain about your money woes and always try and be positive. Getting food stamps is humbling but it doesn’t mean you have failed and its nothing to be ashamed of, but with your work ethic it isn’t an easy thing to do or admit you are doing. We are very proud of you and always will be mom

  • Diane,

    I’ve been toying with the idea of a column on BWC that faces the realities of hardship in the Christian life – a sort of anti-prosperity gospel or health and wealth conversation.

    Thank you for taking the torch and being so transparent to address the fact that Christians can have financial troubles. I admire your candor and your ability to communicate your difficulties. Keep it coming. We love your perspective.

    I find that writing is my catharsis. My most creative times directly relate to the stresses that press me to explode.

    May you find a balm as you share. I’ve pressed the “Like” button and I believe there will be a whole crowd of similar fans.

  • Tim McGeary says:

    I appreciate your piece, Diane, and I look forward to reading more. My wife and I used the envelope system pre-kids (didn’t know who Dave Ramsey was at the time) and it worked fairly well for us. After kids, it got more complicated, and I try to stick to it virtually through a Excel app a friend of mine created (who introduced us to the envelope system).

    Financial security, or solvency for that matter, is hard. And our pride gets in the way all the time. I’m constantly looking at how we can simplify, save better (or at all), and give more. It affects so much of our lives.

    Keep pressing on, and use us to gain that confidence you need to send those article out to publishers. I’m rooting for you.

  • Babu says:

    Diane I’ve told you directly how proud I am of you for the way that you are handling this time in your life. In America for generations we’ve taken it for granted that each generation would have it better than the previous generation. It’s always been that way. But over the last 20 years as America buys most of it’s consumer products from over seas the loss of decent paying jobs and lower level of taxes being paid from the lower wages is changing the face of America. It is hard for my generation to watch the impact on our children’s opportunities. You’ve made all the right decisions, you got all the right education, you have a solid work ethic, you are very frugal in your spending. Fathers like to fix everything for their families but I don’t have any easy answers this time. Until we change our trade policies more and more people may have to live at less than their potential. Dad

  • Mitch says:

    Diane,

    Thank you for writing this piece! Although times are tough I am thankful that you write from where you are in life, the honest truth of each day. That “realness” is inspirational. Keep writing!

    Mitch

  • Diane,

    Great honest writing. There’s something about writing simple truth that allows the reader to feel so much more connected to the writer. Thanks for that!

    Bryan

  • Candi says:

    Good for you!! I’m proud of you. It IS humbling, to be sure. I myself am on WIC and my children have health insurance (thank God) through state assistance. A family of now four and we are scraping by at less than $30k/yr! Construction is not at its peak season to say the least.

    But more importantly, you’re writing again! And have a series to boot! Way to put it all on the line, Diane!

    Candi

  • Cary says:

    Diane,
    I’m so glad you are writing. We will all be richer from your words and your perspective.

  • jeff says:

    thanks for writing this, I am looking forward to reading more.
    In the same boat, applied for food stamps.

    married with 2 kids, and not being able to “provide” is tough as a man.
    living simply is a value for me but it does push you to the limit, yet God shows himself to be the one who is faithful time and time again.

  • Bethany B. says:

    I really appreciated this article.

    “God continually asks me, ‘How much do you trust me?’ and the answer is usually, ‘Not very much’” is beautifully honest.

    I’m looking into applying for medical disability and it’s difficult not to look at government assistance as a form of “giving up.” But not all surrender is bad.

    I look forward to reading more from you.

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