How to Save Money on an Entry Level Salary

'Money' photo (c) 2010, 401(K) 2012 - license: level salaries are a lesson in irony.  You’re earning next to nothing, but you need to be saving and you’re probably eager to set up a place to call your own.

When I started working full time in 2006 I earned $33k a year before taxes. That money went about as far then as it does now, but I still managed to save a little bit each month. $25 here, $50 there, and it started to add up.  I got hooked on savings and wanted to watch my savings account grow.  My salary wasn’t about to change anytime soon, so I looked for ways to cut expenses.  Below are my 20 best tips for how to save money on an entry level salary.

20 easy things I did to save $$$

  1. I didn’t have TV service.  I didn’t even miss it and without it, I wasn’t even aware of all the cool things I wasn’t buying!
  2. I barely furnished my apartment.  With the exception of one sofa, everything in my apartment came from my parents or my own bedroom.  My kitchen table was a card table, my nightstand a short bookshelf.  All my chairs folded.  It wasn’t magazine-worthy, but it did save me a fortune.
  3. I bought very few video games. :(  SO SAD.  And ironic, considering my job was developing video games.  When I did buy a game, it was usually a Nintendo DS game from GameStop pre-owned selection for $10-$20.
  4. I didn’t subscribe to anything.  No magazines or newspapers – the Internet’s got more than you’ll ever read, anyway.
  5. I didn’t adopt a pet.  Unless you already have one, consider growing your salary to a more comfortable level before adopting.  A pet may also limit your apartment options and/or increase your deposit and monthly rent, and being mobile in your early years is helpful in some fields.
  6. I didn’t buy any books.  I did, however, check out numerous books from the library a mile away.  Added bonus: I didn’t have to move them (twice!) when I moved (twice!) in 2008 (twice!).
  7. I cooked everything at home/brought lunches. I don’t think I ate out more than a few times in my first year working. A meal out seems to run me about $8-15, but that much bought me several days worth of meals in a grocery store.  Conservative savings estimate: $5 x 250 work days in a year x 7 years = $8750.
  8. I didn’t buy much new clothing.  I dressed fairly nicely in college and was able to wear the same clothing to my first job, which had a casual dress code.
  9. I discovered Sunday morning movie dates. Jim and I would meet at a theater halfway between our homes to see movies for $5 on Sunday mornings.  It’s the same freakin’ movie for 1/3rd the cost of a Friday night showing.  We still go see movies on Sunday mornings.
  10. I bought few electronics: I did treat myself to an iPod so I wouldn’t have to lug my Discman and giant bag of CDs into the office each day.
  11. I dated cheaply.  Dates were walks, home cooked meals for two, surfing the web together, sitting and talking.
  12. I never bought soda/juice.  Once I saw how much soda and juice cost, I quit drinking them.  I probably saved several hundred dollars by going water-only (and probably avoided a few calories, cavities, and kidney stones).
  13. I shopped sales.  I never had the patience or time for coupons, but I did use sales to stock up on things I was going to buy anyway like meat and toilet paper.  BTW, buying crap on sale that you weren’t going to buy otherwise isn’t a deal.
  14. I didn’t socialize much.  Drinks, movies, GameWorks, dinners – socializing should just be renamed to “spending”.  My introvert brain didn’t mind not doing this stuff. :)
  15. I had cheap hobbies.  Painting in Photoshop, sewing, walking, and reading were all dirt cheap ways to spend my evenings and weekends.
  16. I moved to an apartment a few miles from my job.  I went from spending $80/week on gasoline to filling up maybe once every 3 weeks. This also extended the time between car maintenance.
  17. I didn’t vacation.  Sad but true.  I didn’t take any time off until I was nearly 2 years into my job, and even then we saved money vacationing in Michigan (a few hours away by car) in the off season (everything was boarded up, it was cool!).
  18. I bought store-brand everything. Most of it is just as good as the name brands I was raised with.
  19. Leaned on Mom and Dad.  They covered dentist appointments, let me do laundry (for free!), and occasionally filled my car with gasoline.  Visiting Mom and Dad has benefits. :)
  20. I set up an automatic money transfer.  By automating savings, I never even had the chance to see it pile up in my checking account. It just magically appeared in my savings, and I became very motivated to help my savings grow larger.

My frugal hobby #1: Painting! As a former art student, I already had a decent computer, Wacom tablet, and Photoshop.  (Ironically, TV show characters remain a favorite subject, despite my lack of TV :D )

Save money on an entry level salary with cheap hobbies
My frugal hobby #2: Sewing plush. I designed and created these little dudes my first year working full time (they are basically a part of our family now) .

Save money on an entry level salary with cheap hobbies

If you’re just starting out, see what you can do without.  Your list will be different than mine, and that’s okay.

I refused to cut back on

  • Meat. I must eat meat.  I don’t know how people live on noodles. Cutting from nutrition is like, a last resort option in my opinion.
  • Renter’s Insurance.  Nothing bad ever happened, but renter’s insurance was so cheap (like $100/year) and the peace of mind was good to have.
  • Quality toiletries, like good razors and deodorant.  Some things just have to work.
  • Internet: lol wut, give up the Internet?

Your 20s are the best time to start saving, so don’t let a piddly salary get in the way of that.  (The next best time to start saving is right now.)

Also, remember that saving money doesn’t do you much good if you just turn around and spend it on something else.  Move the money to a dedicated savings account (my favorite is my Capital One 360 savings account, formerly ING Direct – totally free, easy to use).

Last and Most Important Step

Once you have some savings, don’t let yourself spend it frivolously! 

Sharing One Car: Our 4 Year Experiment

Jim and I started sharing one car in 2008 when his 1999 Ford Escort (with 110k miles) quit at life weeks before our move from IL to WA.  We had already been propping the car up with regular trips to the mechanic and jumps (and pushes), and we decided it wasn’t worth shipping to WA.  We donated it to a charity and moved to Washington with one car between us.  Money was tight and sharing one car (my ’02 Ford Taurus) seemed like something we could make work, at least for a little while.

Obligatory car pic:

My husband and I shared this 2002 Ford Taurus for 4 years

What followed was a 4 year experiment in negotiation, sharing, practicality, and major savings.

Where to live when you share a car?

Answer: close to wherever you go most often.

We knew we’d be sharing one car, so we chose our first apartment in Washington state based on its closeness my new office.  We were awkwardly far from shopping, but we could bike or walk to/from work in a pinch (4 miles) and that mattered more to us.  (There are few, if any, public transit options and biking everywhere isn’t realistic for us.)

Being four miles away made it possible for Jim to drop me at work and then drive back home (or off to errands) with minimal extra mileage.  We go to work every day, but we only go shopping once a week, so this was a good trade off and made sharing one car a lot more possible than if we’d chosen to live somewhere further away.

The first three months

A week after arriving in Washington I started at my new office job while Jim continued to work for his previous employer from home.  At least one day a week, Jim dropped me at work and then completed errands during the day. This was a wonderful arrangement.  Our only gripe was that Jim had to go through that painful transition from driving a small car to driving a land boat with the turn radius of a tank.  He basically had to re-learn how to drive and park.

One car, one company

Three months after moving to Washington, Jim accepted a designer position at the same game studio I was working for.

Working remotely for the old employer was convenient and profitable, but the new employer offered stability and much stronger networking and engagement with the local developer community.  While this saved us a lot of money (the cost of owning, maintaining, and insuring a second vehicle), sharing one car came at the following costs on our time:

  • Whenever one of us was told to “take the afternoon off”, we didn’t get to take advantage of it.
  • One of us working late? Usually we both ended up staying.
  • Or sometimes one of us would drive home, and then drive back (15 mins each way) at what would normally be bedtime (or worse).
  • Car trouble made us both late to work (or up early) – and lot of freaking out over “the only car” being out of commission
  • Dropping the car off for repair/maintenance also resulted in us walking a mile to the office from the dealership, so we tried to time this with the rain (or lack of)
  • Errand to run after work? We both go.
  • Need to be two places at once? Someone gets dropped off way early.  A common example: I’d drop Jim off at work an hour early, and then go to my own before-work doctor’s appointment.

We used to say, “Sharing one car is great, except for about one day a month when it really sucks.”  When we became frustrated with the arrangement, we’d go hang out at a car dealer for a little while and look at stickers.  This cured any resentment we felt.

Even “beaters” cost several thousand dollars.  The insurance costs and buying into the same set of problems our aging main car never seemed worth it to get rid of the occasional inconvenience.

One Car, two companies

Sharing one car became more of a challenge when we were working two separate jobs.  When Jim changed jobs, he also took on a 10 mile commute in the opposite direction of my job.  We tried a few different arrangements, but the least-worst one ended up being Jim dropping me off at 9:15 (for a job that started at 10) and picking me up at 7:45 (from a job that ended around 6:30).

Being at work 45 minutes before everyone else was my favorite part of the arrangement.  I mostly spent this time creating artwork at my workstation and I occasionally used it to get ahead on work for the day.

But the extra hour and 15 minutes at the end of the day was pretty rough.  I brought a small “first dinner” to work with me to eat around 6pm (I ate a “real dinner” at 8, once I got home) to help with being hungry.  I got involved with projects I could work on from my workstation at work.  I walked around the building.  I surfed the web.  Some of my co-workers seemed to pity me, but I filled the time productively.  I’m just glad I had useful tools at my workstation.

This arrangement lasted about three months.  In that time, I had the car during the day just twice.

The first time it was so I could go to a doctor’s appointment in the morning.

The second time it was because we were going to a concert after work and it made more sense for me to drive south to get Jim, rather than him driving north just to drive south again.  That ended up not mattering.  In a fantastic coincidence, this was the day my company did its first mass layoff (me included) so I was super fortunate to have the car that day because I ended up spending the morning boxing up my workstation and going home early.


I was unemployed for three months (don’t feel bad, I had a blast).  During that time, Jim was pretty much the exclusive driver of the car.  He took the car to and from his new job each day, and I ran errands on Saturdays. We felt no pressure for a second car, but it helped tremendously that the car was A) already paid for B) 10 years old and not massively expensive to insure.

Back to Work

Three months later I accepted an offer at the same company Jim was working for.  Our new employer is 10 miles from home and the car we’re sharing just hit 85k miles.

During our four-year run as a one car family, we talked a lot about what would replace the Taurus. We banked money with the expectation that we would either add a second car or outright replace the Taurus at some indeterminate point in the future.  Perhaps emboldened by Subaru’s 0% financing and my new income (and general fatigue with the topic of whether we should get a second car) we finally bought a second car.  You can read more about why we chose a Subaru Forester here.

The second car addressed two key needs:

  • We need a vehicle that can haul stuff
  • We need a reliable car

It’s sort of an insurance policy against trouble with our 85k miler.

Life with two cars

The biggest benefits of having two cars are A) the new one hauls big stuff and B) I sleep more soundly at night, unafraid of how much work we’d miss and how much we’d freak out if our only car broke down.  Having two cars did not, however, solve any of these issues:

  • We work at the same place, so when one stays late, we both stays late because it’s a waste of fuel and mileage to drive separate cars
  • The new workplace is much further, too far for making habit of dropping someone off at the office and then driving back home for whatever reason
  • Our insurer doesn’t discount the second car (nor will anyone else that I’ve called.  But they will discount a third car. WTF, NO!)
  • The garage holds just one car, so one car gets to be rained/sunned/snowed on

Some perks of having two:

  • We have an  “old car” to take to places where we’re afraid of something bad happening to our “nice car”
  • If one car is low on gasoline we can take the other one

Whether we’d replace the Taurus if/when it “goes” is an ongoing discussion, but we’d be okay with going back to one car if we had to.

Estimated savings?

Had we immediately replaced Jim’s car with a new one in 2008, we’d have paid about $12,000 (most likely for a used Honda Fit, given our preferences and budget at the time).  At $1000 a year/car (which is roughly what our insurance costs here), we’d have paid about $4500 in insuring it since 2008.

The hypothetical Honda Fit would have lessened the need for the Forester 4.5 years down the road, but I’m much happier with the Forester than I would have been with a Fit and I’m glad we held out for it.  And, since the Forester only cost us $10,000 down and $350/month thereafter (with nothing to insure for the last four years), we’re still ahead of the costs of having bought a second car four years ago.

All things considered, the four year shared car experiment was a success.

Why my husband and I quit giving gifts to each other

It’s July, kind of far from the usual gift-giving season in the US but gifts are on my mind because it’s Jim’s birthday. Too many people I know spend the days leading into loved one’s birthdays, Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, and Christmas agonizing over The Perfect Gift. Well, 

Well, I say stop that nonsense! Quit giving gifts!

My husband and I love holidays and birthdays, but we don’t give each other gifts on these special occasions.   We skip Black Friday and we save our money for birthday occasions instead of birthday stuff. I know this is shocking to some people, but read on and I’ll tell you why this works so well for us!

quit giving gifts: experiences are worth so much more

Happy Birthday, Jim! I got you an experience instead of a thing, enjoy it!

1) It’s easy

What do I get someone who has all his needs covered?  Rather than agonize over what knicknacks to get him, I just skip this entirely and he does the same for me.

2) We both hate shopping

Do you dread gift shopping?  We do. We don’t ask each other to do things we both dislike!

When we decided to stop giving gifts, an enormous weight was lifted from both of us.  Especially Jim, since he’d be shopping in November and December for my mid-December birthday… along with everyone else in the US.

3) Neither of us can read the others’ mind

Jim and I have lots of interests that don’t overlap.  But we’re both grown ups, and we can handle taking care of our needs relating to those interests.

This also spares the other one from the agonizing process of “dropping hints”.  (And we both suck at picking up on hints.)

4) Experiences > Things


We spent Jim’s July birthday in North Pole, Alaska, where we were almost devoured by a gigantic angry Santa.

We think it’s more satisfying to spend money on an experience rather than on a thing, and science agrees.

I could spend $100 to get Jim a bunch of books, DVDs, and trinkets that I’m sure would delight him and probably entertain him for a while before they morphed into more things to dust, move, and organize.

~ OR ~

I could book another night in a cabin at Denali and we can spend his birthday in each other’s company, at a remote and beautiful place, with memories we’ll bring up for years.  Bonus: no things to move or dust.

We spent 7-5-12 in northern California, and 7-5-2013 in Denali National State Park in Alaska.  I can’t remember what we did for Jim’s birthdays before we started traveling instead of gifting, but I’m sure it included working a full day at the office, and then opening gifts and eating cake in the short evening before bed.  I love, love, love our new tradition.

5) Things are hard to get rid of

When you buy a knicknack and give it as a gift, you probably don’t think of the day it will be sold at a garage sale or donated to charity.  You don’t think about that person moving and having to sort “keep” from “don’t keep”.  I know I don’t, because that’s depressing!

But I find gifts given to me get “imbued” with an essence that makes them very difficult to donate to charity when no longer needed. I end up with boxes (rooms) full of things that are special because I got them for a birthday or a holiday years ago from a person I love and now I just can’t let them go.

Then one day, after years of moving them and not enjoying them, I give up and donate them.  You know what happens?  I still love the person who gave them to me, and that person still loves me.  Phew!

6) Gifts are not love

I know Jim loves me because of the things he does and says every day, not by the monetary value or “thoughtfulness” of the gifts he buys me.

If you only feel loved when your S.O. is giving you something of value, there’s something wrong in your relationship.  You deserve to be loved. Find someone who loves you with their heart instead of their purchasing power.

7) The right time to buy something is when you need it

Do you need that new book by your favorite author?  Tickets to see your favorite band?  A new game on Steam?

Are you sure you need it?  Do you have room for it? Is it amazing?

Then buy it.

Don’t wait until some arbitrary date rolls around. If your budget has its act together, you should have bandwidth for regular treats.  If what you want is expensive, save your monthly fun stuff budget for a few months and then buy it.

By buying things when you need them instead of when our gift-saturated culture tells you to buy them, you’re dropping out of the insanity that our culture creates around holidays and birthdays.

8) My birthday is right before Christmas

And so is my sister’s, and my mother’s is right after Christmas.  My dad’s comes in January, when everyone’s sick of celebrating stuff. My parents did a good job of recognizing my birthday separate from Christmas when I was a little kid, but now it’s kind of nuts to be a grown-up expecting back to back gifts.

Kids with summer birthdays seemed so entitled to parties and mountains of gifts.  Their day was all about them. I guess I just didn’t get a big head about it growing up in the shadow of my country’s biggest holiday.

My parents got me things year round with the justification of “well, your birthday’s so far away, and you need this now!”  A 12 month dry-spell is super depressing, so I’m glad they decoupled the celebration of my annual trip around the sun from heaps of presents.  (Note: I still got presents on my birthday, but it wasn’t the only time I got things. :) )

Also, stores are hell on earth in December and asking people to endure that for me is cruel and unusual punishment.

stop giving gifts: can you even remember what you got three birthdays ago?

Birthday close to Christmas = hard know whether a photo was taken on my birthday or Christmas.  But this one was definitely birthday. 

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying don’t celebrate the birthdays of the people you love.

Frankly, Jim and I celebrate more elaborately now than when we were just swapping small gifts. Now we make a whole day of it: we started taking our birthdays off work (or some day near them, we’re not militant about things happening on The Exact Day of My Birth) and doing something new and special with the day. We travel, we converse, we indulge in amazing foods – we spend the day living.

I am saying gifts for the sake of gifts is ridiculous.

Our culture is saturated with gift-giving, but to what end?  Our gift-giving culture is supporting entire industries (how many people go to a bookstore outside of their annual holiday shopping, I wonder?). In turn, those industries count on the crush of purchasing in the weeks up to Christmas to keep themselves financially solvent.  If everyone celebrated birthdays the way Jim and I do, the economy would shudder and collapse.  But people might find themselves with fewer burdens: less credit card debt, less animosity over who has what, less to move and maintain.

If you’re the person expecting people to shower you with perfect gifts, get over yourself. 

You don’t need any more crap, and the people you love don’t deserve the burden of finding the Right Thing. If you truly desire something, then it’s a need and you should budget for it and buy it. Isn’t that liberating?

But it’s fun to give and get gifts!

Oh I know, I love opening a big heap of gift-wrapped stuff at Christmas.  And I definitely loved it as a kid (which is why I feel this advice is for adults – please spoil your children as you see fit).

Right after Jim and I moved to WA, I was yearning for a “real Christmas” and spent a good $600 giving us one.  We still haven’t opened some of the Blu-Rays or beaten some of the games we bought. I wish I hadn’t gone so nuts.

If you absolutely must give gifts:

  • Give practical things: My favorites are Safeway and Home Depot gift cards, small kitchen appliances, tools, computer accessories  
  • Give passes to experiences:  Tickets to parks, shows… you know, stuff you do instead of stuff to store
  • Give gift certificates: Amazon, Target, grocery stores, etc.  These are immediately useful.
  • Give cash: my favorite!

But if you’re bold enough to go gift free, here’s what you do: 

Agree to skip gifts this year.

Don’t buy your husband a stack of DVDs for his next birthday.

Don’t buy your wife any more books or clothing accessories.

Spend time together instead.  Stay home and enjoy each other’s company.  Or go somewhere and see something new. You won’t even miss the gifts.

Subie Appreciation Post

We love our new 2013 Subaru Forester.  I mean, we super duper love it.

I can’t believe how long we lasted without a hauler.  I love our Taurus, but it was never meant to haul big stuff.  I cringed every time I drove from store to home with a new purchase sticking 5 feet out the back.  The Taurus moved me twice, and I’m sure at least 10% of its 85k miles are from carrying my belongings piecemeal style, box by box, over the course of several weeks to the new place.

In short, welcoming the Subie into our family has completely changed our lives.  In appreciation, I give you:


This awkwardly huge IKEA desk top:


Our new toilet:


All of these yard supplies:


Me (in the backseat, for a 6 hour road trip):


Three arborvitaes:


“Hazardous” household materials:


Tons of yard supplies:


Our new IKEA bookshelf:


A load of things for charity:


And our long-awaited television!


Thank you, Subaru, for making an SUV that I:

1) completely love

2) can use to haul big things without actually having to drive a humongous car

3) don’t feel like a stereotypical asshole SUV driver in


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