Sometimes a brief moment in your life can change you forever. That moment happened for me in 1998. I’d been trying to make a living as a freelance video producer and had accumulated $8,000 in debt. I felt horrible and, struggling for a way out, found myself at the bank negotiating the consolidation of my personal debt into a single line of credit.
This was the moment I vowed to change my ways. So I set out to cut expenses and adopt a do-it-yourselfer attitude. The result? I cut $5,000 from my annual expenses without making a dent in my lifestyle.
I wasn’t raised with poor money habits. My parents immigrated to Canada from India in the 1950s, with very little money in their pockets. They made every dollar count. My dad always had a full closet of good shoes, which he’d continually maintain, keeping them polished and repaired. Many of those shoes have lasted him a lifetime. He took this same attitude with the family car and appliances, performing regular maintenance to extend the life of big-ticket items. My parents’ discipline of watching the pennies had a real impact on me. As a single woman hoping to live in Toronto on a modest contract videographer’s income, I realized I would have to keep tabs on my expenses since I couldn’t totally control my income.
I started by tracking my spending for three weeks. It felt like homework but it helped me see consumer patterns that were getting me in trouble. For instance, I was buying two frappuccinos a day, five days a week. That’s $40 a week—more than $2,000 annually. So I Googled “how to make frappuccinos at home” and learned that a pinch of xanthan gum is the secret thickening agent that gives the drink its creamy texture. With some experimentation, I nailed the recipe and surprised myself at how cheap my DIY frappuccinos were (only pennies per cup). I also began making my own deodorizing toilet spray and purging my house of expensive store-bought cleaning products. By switching to baking soda and dish detergent for all my cleaning needs, I dropped my cleaning costs from $30 a month to $10 a year.
Another way I lowered my monthly spending was by making a commitment to call one provider a week (insurance, utilities, etc.) and negotiating that bill down. Scheduling the phone call was key and getting cheaper rates was empowering.
One of the biggest decisions I made was choosing to rent an apartment within walking distance to work. By ditching the car and making my commute a part of my daily activities, I not only cut back on gas and car maintenance bills, I eliminated the need for a gym membership. I also created a shared Google calendar that my friends and I populate with deals, including free events and cheap eats. These days, I can leave my place, have fun and not spend a ton of cash.
For me, the whole DIY lifestyle has become less about saving and more a question of how much do I really need to live well? Saving money isn’t easy or convenient; it takes time to show results, but finding ways to save can be tremendously freeing. I’ve realized that I prefer to spend my money on experiences, not stuff. For instance, I’m currently saving for a trip to Vietnam. At the same time, I’m investing my time and money in a pop-up restaurant devoted to selling toast—one of my favourite foods—with homemade toppings like Green Goddess goat cheese.
Like many self-employed workers living in an expensive city like Toronto, I’ll probably never have a full-time job with benefits, but I don’t feel like I’m missing out. Owning a home probably isn’t in my future, but I have a great place in a wonderful neighbourhood where I can walk everywhere. And because I don’t pay a mortgage, I can squirrel away my extra savings into a retirement account for my future.
Since adopting these new habits, my life has been richer and more satisfying. There’s nothing better than that.
As told to Julie Cazzin