By Paula Wethington, Feb. 5, 2010, paula@monroenews.com

“What’s your frugal story?”

I’ve been asked that question in recent weeks. Yes, there is a story – actually many frugal stories! -  behind the Monroe on a Budget blog.

The first thing most new readers notice is that Monroe on a Budget isn’t the typical frugal living blog.

I work on this project with a newspaper reporter’s eye for news and information, but also as someone who has needed to juggle a real family’s lifestyle on a small budget. Any topic relating to family and household expenses is fair game for discussion and links – including faith celebrations, holidays, hobbies, music for your mp3 player and rants.

My examples often are “thinking out of the box” compared to what is usually considered as penny-pinching. For example, here is a photo of my dining room table, set for a relative’s birthday party. No, we didn’t expect our dinner guests to eat off paper plates. I actually do own pattern-quality stoneware and happily use it every day. How could I afford such niceties? I asked for those dishes as birthday and Christmas gifts, and it took several years to build up the set!

But the most noticeable aspect is that this blog is written for a specific community: Monroe, Mich. If you are one of my national readers, Monroe is in southeast Michigan, near  Detroit, Ann Arbor and Toledo, Ohio.

Here’s the background: in late 2006, the newspaper where I work, The Monroe Evening News in Monroe, Mich., decided to launch a community blog network called BlogsMonroe.

I thought for a couple of months about how I could get involved in that project beyond the local news items that go on the reporter blog, and an idea bubbled up out of my print duties. In January 2007, I went to our managing editor and made a pitch for what I called “Monroe on a Budget.” This translated to: “How to live in Monroe, Mich., on a budget.”

“I’ve got five press releases on my desk that would fit right in with such a topic,” I said.

I knew, based on conversations with customers, that these public service announcements were overlooked by online readers who thought the front-page headlines on our web site was all the information that our newspaper had to offer. It was time to find a way to get those notices on the web. The news team also was starting to hear of layoffs at Monroe-area workplaces, so I thought this topic would be timely.

The managing editor liked the concept. He suggested mixing in my personal stories with the practical information, and within a couple of hours, Monroe on a Budget was up and running.

My co-workers and I didn’t know at the time there was any such thing as a personal finance or frugal living blog. This was just another topic to add to our network.  The nickname my co-workers and I settled on is “the budget blog.”

Now, what makes me a good candidate for writing a budget blog? As readers soon realize, my family actually does live on a budget.

Both my husband and I grew up in middle-class families where both parents worked for a living. We remember childhood days when money was tight, and times when our parents could splurge.

My husband and I graduated from college in the late 1980s – a time when journalism and media graduates could expect to find entry-level jobs in small markets, and then work their way up to bigger cities and bigger paychecks. I have a newspaper journalism degree. He has a radio broadcasting degree.

I have since worked as a reporter for more than 20 years at newspapers in Michigan and Ohio. My husband kept his college-days job as a shipping clerk until he landed his first professional radio broadcasting job in 1994. That job fizzled out in 2002.

Some of the stories I tell of tight funds happened during my single parent days. My ex-husband and I split in 1990 when our daughter was a year old. I was remarried in 1994. My experiences relating to that situation is why I tag some information specifically of interest to single parent families.

But even during our first years of marriage, my husband and I didn’t have a lot of big expenses. For example, our crazy work shifts resulted in minimal day care bills for the daughter. I used coupons, we had only one car payment because the other car was paid off, Christmas presents were low-budget, our rental home had both reasonable rent and a responsible landlord, most of our furniture was hand-me-down, and “date nights” were usually a restaurant buffet lunch.

One day, I saw a job posting for The Monroe Evening News and followed up. I was offered the job and started working here in January 2000.

It was an hour’s commute for my husband to keep working at the radio station in Ohio; but, the upheaval from local to corporate-owned radio stations had begun and that job market was collapsing. He wanted to ride that job out as long as possible. That radio station was sold in 2002 and he was among those laid off in the shuffle. Another workplace where he had made to second-round interviews fell through that same week.

My husband was unemployed for the first time in his life.

The radio station layoff – and the aftermath – is the inspiration for my layoff recovery plan posts. It’s also the main story behind or this blog, because we were living in Monroe when that happened and we had to figure out how to live on a tight budget HERE as compared to the resources we could call on in our former hometown in Ohio.

My husband signed up with a temporary agency and his first post was an office job. The severance check from his radio job helped ease the cash flow transition until we got used to the new pay scale. He took some classes at the community college to update his skills. Because 2003 and early 2004 were relatively calm financially, we were able to buy our home in February 2004.

Three months after we bought our home, my husband was unemployed again. The company where he was assigned was starting to downsize its staff. He started a two-year roller coaster of off and on low-paying, very short-term, blue-collar factory temporary assignments and unemployment.

Our long-established frugal living routines weren’t enough to keep up. There really was a point when I had four days’ worth of food in the house. I put my cell phone on pay-as-you-go service. I shopped at thrift stores. I looked for every possible way to cut grocery expenses. I was desperate enough to try old school remedies for cleaning the house. My ex-husband, who was going back to active duty in the Army,  encouraged us to use the military family benefits for our daughter to help stretch our funds.

Every time a little bit of cash came our way, I would paint a room or buy some cabinet hardware so to get our house in a more livable condition. After all, we were spending quite a bit of time at home.

The immediate cash flow issues were frustrating, but didn’t overwhelm us because we expected our long-term prospects to be OK. The home values were rising, our retirement funds remained intact, and the daughter was a good candidate for college scholarships.

When my husband landed a permanent job offer in 2006, it was at an auto supplier in the Monroe area. We thought that that financial craziness was past us.

And then the recession hit.

When I launched this blog in January 2007, recession was a word only seen in the headlines when describing Michigan. The recession has now rattled the entire country, but Michigan is still one of the worst-hit states.

When Detroit’s auto industry shuts down, so do the auto suppliers. No, my husband doesn’t get supplemental pay when his factory is off line. He gets only unemployment benefits.

Our household income dropped quite a bit from 2007 to 2008, and sunk again in 2009. During the past two years, we’ve watched our home value slide as the real estate market collapsed in southeast Michigan. Our retirement accounts have taken a beating.

The daughter got into her first-choice college on a partial, four-year renewable scholarship. We apply for any and all financial aid to make up the difference. Even as a student on a budget, my daughter was able to work out arrangements for a study abroad and she is currently overseas.

When we look at our income and expenses for the past few years, it’s obvious to my husband and I that frugal living kept the bills paid when we didn’t know from week to week how much money was coming into the home.

“Treading water,” is how I once explained our finances to my father-in-law when he asked how we were doing in light of the repeated layoffs, and he understood that picture very well. The bills are getting paid. We just have to be very resourceful on doing anything extra.

Yes, we’re living on a budget in Monroe, Mich.

And that’s my story.

P.S. If you’d like the backstory of my single parent days, that was told in April 2013 at Paula’s story: When a single mom can’t afford groceries.

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