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surviving with limited resources

I submitted this essay just now for my online english composition class. A class i tried to get out of during registration despite being a prereq, but have come to enjoy. Hopefully, i get the A that i want hehehe. (i’ve never been this grade conscious!)

The Problem That I Have Solved
Some people are given the chance to move to the US because of a career opportunity. We were one of those people. But unlike most, we weren’t welcomed with high-paying jobs, modern-looking apartments, travel perks, or any of those incentives that usually come when you land on a work visa for a first-world country. My husband was given the chance to pursue graduate level studies on full scholarship under one of the most prominent professors in his field. A different route than most Filipinos take when moving to the US, nevertheless it was a chance to pursue the American dream – so we took it. The experience has proven to be most difficult, yet most satisfying. One problem I can think of that I was able to overcome during our first few years in the US was how we survived with limited resources.
According to www. city-data.com, the average household income in Virginia for 2008 was around $5,000 a month and the median contract rent for most apartments was $791. However, the graduate student salary provided by most universities assumes a typical student’s expenses. In Virginia, this is roughly $1,200 a month with a take-home pay of about $1,000. This salary was never derived as means to support the expenses for a married couple; much more, a couple that also needs to save a significant amount of it for their future. To spend all the month’s salary was not wise in our situation because scholarships for foreign graduate students are as volatile as can be. Being able to save was as important as allocation for expenses because the savings would serve as a cushion, especially if we would have to cut short our US stay and come home without a graduate degree and a job to support us.
This was our biggest problem then. However, it was mainly mine for the simple fact that my husband was too busy with course and research work to deal with it. I was in charge of our family’s finances and failing to be able to get a grip of it would create irreparable repercussions. This would have been solved immediately if I were able to get a job to augment his salary. However, finding one while requiring a non-immigrant worker’s visa was not easy to come by.
Through helpful Internet sites, books, and from precious advises of fellow foreign students who have dealt with the same limitation for years, I was able to come up with methods on how to carefully manage the meager resources we had. These methods basically followed these simple principles: (1) Allocate monthly savings before monthly budget; (2) strict monitoring of every dollar, (3) get it free. If you can’t – find the cheapest alternative to everything; (3) deliberate before buying; and lastly (4) be creative and resourceful.
I used a simple excel file to monitor our finances. Every dollar spent was religiously recorded to this file, all receipts were kept, and bank balances counter-checked to make sure everything was accounted for. Savings was fixed at $250 a month, no excuses. This was kept in a separate account to ensure that we would not be able to spend it unknowingly. To save on rent, we did what most foreign-students do; we shared apartments. We rented a two-bedroom apartment in a high-rise, less than a mile away from campus and shared it with a nice Chinese couple. Included in the monthly rent of $500 was electric, water, gas, cable, and Internet access. This brought us to a balance of $250 for variable expenses – food, entertainment, and gasoline when we eventually saved enough to buy a car. We are both foodies, so scrimping on food was not a welcomed idea. However, I love cooking so this became a good challenge to me. I made almost everything from scratch (pancake, waffles, bread, pasta sauce, pizza, desserts, etc) since pre-made items are the more expensive option. I never bought meat that is not on sale, so I figured out the best days to visit the grocery when meats would be at a discounted price. I don’t bulk buy since we couldn’t afford it, instead I carefully planned each meal to the last detail, buying only enough for each or making use of the same ingredient in different meals. Also for the most part of our graduate student life we didn’t own a car, so I walked to the nearby stores and carried the items in backpacks (free workout!), which also meant I couldn’t carry a lot. Being Asians, rice is our staple food that, fortunately, is dirt-cheap compared to other forms of starches. We also learned to love chicken and pasta dishes, the most-affordable meals you could prepare. Since produce is a bit expensive and we eat a lot of them, we created a mini-garden in our 9th floor balcony and planted cilantro, cherry tomatoes, basil, and other small plants. For toiletries and other house supplies, I got them from the local dollar stores. Entertainment was usually provided by the university and is often free of charge – movies on the weekends, cultural conventions and meet-ups, or cheap tickets for ballet, plays, and musicals by the local theater group. I even volunteered at the IMAX-theater to get free entrance when we watch an IMAX movie. But most of the time we simply explored historic Richmond on foot, with a packed lunch and our camera. Almost all our furniture were acquired in time through donations from foreign student friends that would graduate and were passing on the items they, too, have received from students before them. All other things that we needed: clothes, shoes, kitchen equipments were either bought on sale from the cheapest discount store or scavenged from the local thrift shops that we have learned to love. My mom, who lives at Las Vegas, offered to shoulder a cell phone family plan for the three of us that we could stay in touch. We didn’t carry health insurance so we did our best to stay healthy. When we find ourselves sick and in need of a doctor, we would go to the free clinics in Richmond, which luckily, were staffed with the best doctors volunteering from VCU, a high-ranking US hospital. If we needed to get anywhere that is not within walking distance from campus, we relied on the kind hearts of our good friends or the tedious but reliable public transport on weekdays. We paid everything using our student credit card to qualify for cash rebates, but we paid the balance in full every month so that we don’t acquire any finance charges.
It may not sound as difficult on paper, but it was in real life. By learning to be frugal and being on top of our finances, we were able to stay together while learning what may be one of the most important lesson of our adult life. We could have had easily bought in to the prevailing consumerism here in America when we moved, if we weren’t forced to solve our problems by being frugal. True, we weren’t able to experience the American way of life more during those first years because of our strict budget. We never dined out or traveled as much as we wanted to or were able to buy the things we desired but not needed. However, being able to find enjoyment without the need to consume, in a way, made us less materialistic and more appreciative of the simple things that life offered.
In the end I guess our gamble paid off and I don’t think I would change anything if given the chance to do so. Despite following our strict budget, we still managed to acquire several big-ticket electronic items and a car, as well as travel to New York, D.C., and Las Vegas. Through frugal living, we were able to save 30% my husband’s salary as a graduate student, around $8,0000, which meant we survived on roughly $700 a month for two and a half years! I am very proud of this achievement and I am happy to report that we barely changed our frugal ways, despite my husband’s current sizable compensation. At the rate of saving and investing that we are in and if all our plans will be realized, it is possible that we could retire after only ten years of hard work! Hopefully, that will be our future.
Sources: http://www.city-data.com/county/Richmond_city-VA.html

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