How I (barely) survived on R3.5k a month

Let me put you in my 12-year-old shoes for a second (in 2002). You have an important test at school tomorrow. This evening though, your mom’s abusive boyfriend is drunk again, telling you to pour him another glass of wine. The 6th one for the evening. You dare not refuse and you know why. In this household, you know that there’s more money for alcohol than there is for food.

Contrast this to the next scene.

Again, you're the same 12-year-old, but this time your granddad tells you how proud he is of you for saving enough money for a cell phone - the Nokia 3310. In this household, you now learn that being responsible with money brings future reward. How you were raised will have a dramatic impact on how you handle money.

The four-year struggle:

Fast forward to January 2009 and I get my first salary. R2,900 (after UIF). Was I happy that I got my first paycheck? Not really, but I know two things for sure: How to waste money, and how to be responsible with it. I worked as an audit/accounting clerk for a Chartered Accounting firm in Mossel Bay for four years. My largest salary with them was R3,500 per month. What follows is how I survived these four years and lessons drawn from this experience.

Lesson 1: The dreaded B word

The first thing my granddad asked me when I got my salary was: “how does your budget look?” and “I don’t have one” wasn’t a good answer. I made a handwritten budget on my measly R2,900 (food, clothing, transport etc). Every rand had a place to go.

Few people like doing their budget, but if you can manage a budget with a small salary/income, later you’ll have the skill to manage multiple streams of incomes.

Lesson 2: Flatten your housing cost

I was lucky. Moved into a small flat, right next to my workplace and I also flat shared. My rent was R1,100 per month (over 30% of my income). When I wasn’t flat sharing, I stayed with my grandparents and later with my mom.

If you still can, arrangements like staying with family or flat/house sharing can keep your housing cost as low as possible for as long as possible. Experts say your rent/housing should be between 30 – 40% of your income. Use this as a benchmark.

Lesson 3: Running out of money

We’ve all been here. It’s the 18th of March. Payday is only on the 25th. Bank balance: R 29.85. Too much month, too little money. The only food in the house is 5 packets of two minute noodles, 2 cans of baked beans, one beer and Weet-Bix that’s half full.

This problem is often caused on the weekend right after payday. One night out with friends at a restaurant/club, and the rest of the month is ruined. This is where my “be responsible with money” comes in. After making your monthly payments (rent/electricity etc), divide the rest of your money into 4 weeks. Let’s say its R 1,500/4 = R375

Now you must plan: R200 for food; R125 for transport for example. This method would prevent you from spending R 600 in week 1, and run out of money by week 4.

Lesson 4: Keeping it lean (literally)

I already hinted at this, but when I earned 3k per month, going to a restaurant was a once-off affair. Even if I went with friends, I had to ask a friend to sponsor me at least a plate of chips. My food budget was low, but what certainly helped was meal-planning.

It’s 2021 and I’ve been meal-planning since 2010. As my income increased, I went from beans on toast to my famous home-made Gordon Ramsey style pan-fried pork chops on top of sautéed red onion and red pepper, drizzled with a balsamic reduction. If you can meal prep, you prevent spending too much of your small salary on take out, and have food in the house, even when money runs out.

Lesson 5: Making mistakes

On my R3k per month, I decided that I should get a credit card to build my first computer. Personal finance experts will tell me how stupid I was for taking out debt on a depreciating asset, but the psychologist in me will argue that that computer has taught me invaluable skills, provided me with countless hours of entertainment, access to internet at home, which returned more than the credit card interest. I also bought a guitar and we were out of electricity, so my flatmate’s parents had to bail us out with electricity for the month.

When you can afford it, make your money mistakes early, so you can learn the financial lessons at a young age. Cheap mistakes are cheap… rich mistakes are very expensive.

Lesson 6: Saving cents

The only regret I have from those four years is that I didn’t save any money, and the money that I did manage to save paid for small emergencies. 10% of R3,000 is still R300 per month and having R3,600 saved up over a year is R3,600 more than I had. Instil the habit in yourself to pay yourself first, putting a % of your income aside. Your goals are your goals, but that money that you set aside each month will make you feel like a million bucks.

Lesson 7: The most important thing

Abraham Maslow was quite smart. He invented the pyramid of needs. Basic level needs are: food, water, shelter. He figured that people who meet their basic needs can have an easier time, meeting the rest of their needs further up.

I started this piece, talking about my mom’s abusive, alcoholic ex-boyfriend. He made alcohol a basic need in a household where food was the actual need. I don’t need to tell you that that’s a recipe for disaster.

Lesson 8: Cook with gas

Any chef worth their salt will prefer a gas stove over an electric stove. Why? Gas stoves heat up much quicker, responds to heat change much better and gives you great temperature control. When you’re on a low income, you’re cooking on an electric stove.

Everything is slower, difficult to manage, you run out of money, food, electricity. It’s a real struggle.

In all my four years of earning peanuts, I was preparing a move. A move to the big city. From Mossel Bay to Cape Town. From electric to gas. Moving from the small town to the big city nearly tripled my income (and almost tripled my expenses). In addition to that, I was trying multiple ways of earning extra income (photography, guitar lessons, multi-level-marketing etc). The quicker you can cook with gas, the better.

I can honestly say that I am privileged and blessed to have had a granddad who taught me well and gave me the foundation to build upon. Not everyone reading this will come from the same scenario, background, situation etc – but know this. 

I’m rooting for you. 

I want you to win. 

I want you to cook with gas.

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