Before I landed a full-time teaching gig, I was an instructional assistant in special education. Basically, that means I worked with students with disabilities in self-contained classrooms, but I was supporting the teachers’ plans without having to create lessons, communicate with parents, or complete the thousands of other requirements of a teacher. Because I had fewer responsibilities, I naturally made less money. As an instructional assistant, I made less than half of a first-year teacher.

I want to type that again.

I made less than half of a first-year teacher.

Teacher salary has been a controversial topic for years. I’m not here to stand on my soap box. Instead, I’d like to share how I was able to live a full life while making so little money as an assistant.

frugal food

living on half the cashFor the three years I spent as an assistant, I was slowly transitioning into a plant-based diet. I was learning to cook a week’s worth of food on a Sunday afternoon, so I had no excuse to get breakfast, lunch, or dinner out. It was all ready and waiting in the fridge. I frequented my local farmers’ market and boasted about my $20/week food budget, only needing to spend additional money when I ran out of bulk staples (e.g., dried beans, rice, quinoa, oats, spices). I was giving up frequent alcohol use, which saved significant money, and I didn’t drink coffee at the time, so $5 lattes were never a guilty pleasure.

frugal shopping

During this time, I also learned to make my own cleaning supplies (laundry soap, kitchen/bathroom surface cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner) and toiletries (shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, lotion). I hadn’t worn makeup since I was in high school, so that was never a concern. I used to ride to work with the windows down to dry my 20-inch-long hair, avoiding any need for product with my hippie-like, windblown ‘do. I even cut up half a dozen old, poor-fitting t-shirts to use as toilet “paper” to save on expenses (cue the disgusted faces).

frugal exercise (below is a celebratory picture taken after a 13 mile run to silent lunch ASL Meetup group. Free exercise, transportation, and social outing)

IMG_1146I ran, biked, hiked, and played on a longboard, none of which cost money except the initial splurge on basic gear. I also used the weight-lifting room at work after a football coach showed me how to use the equipment.

frugal entertainment

I’ve never been one to splurge on entertainment unless it involved a band or play I wanted to see. I played music with friends, read incessantly, watched documentaries on Netflix, and spent time with friends. We didn’t have a need for the background noise of a restaurant, movie, or expensive coffee. We enjoyed each other’s company.

what happened?

Once I started teaching, my salary jumped to a gross $44,000 my first year. With more than twice the money, I, of course, needed twice (three, four times?) the stuff. Apparently, I needed a gym membership (that I at least used five times a week), multiple trips to Starbucks each week, dinners out, and a constant supply of new clothes and sports equipment.

In interest of full disclosure, while I was able to feed, clothe, and shelter myself with $18,000 a year, I still accrued debt, mostly with random emergencies on my ’97 Ford Ranger. My savings account was nonexistent. So, while I enjoyed farmers’ markets and a $0 entertainment budget, I was still living paycheck to paycheck.

I’m not on a strict shopping ban, but I am making more mindful decisions with my money while bringing some of those paycheck-to-paycheck habits back to the forefront.

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