Consider me kinda wierd, but I love making a budget and sticking to it. There is something really wonderful about knowing exactly where all your money goes and that you are not just throwing your hard-earned cash into the wind.
At the start of every month, I re-evaluate my financial situation and create a budget: First I write down how much money I actually have on hand. Then I figure out how much money that I can (and will) earn that month, based on how much I've been making (or know that I will be making). If I won't be earning any money (that I know of), then I dedicate all my time to finding work and making some cash.
I am not a bum.
I am willing and able to work.
Based on that "financial picture" (how much cash I've already got plus how much I know I can earn that month), I figure out what I can reasonable afford to spend that month, and I make a strict budget for myself. If I don't have as much money one month, I cut out any unnecessary splurges. But if I have a little bit extra, I might get a few extra cappuccinos, check out a museum, go to a movie, or go bowling. (I'm still a light spender).
I always try to make my spending budget as tight as possible, and I stick to it solidly for that entire month. On top of that, I love to always play this little game, where I try to live even tighter than my budget. I find it pretty fun, trying to "beat my budget," and live even cheaper than I did the month before. It helps me get creative and find new, fun (and inexpensive) things to do. Then I am able to maybe save a little money for the next month, whenever I can't find work, emergencies, whatever. Having a little something saved is extremely important. Even if it is only a couple hundred bucks. Any money I've got leftover each month is not spent. It's saved.
Every month, my spending plan is usually pretty much the same as the month before, but I still take the time to re-evaluate it and make sure than I'm not over spending. I've gotten myself into a nice routine, spending about $575 to $625 per month. That is about $650 per month less than what I spent when I had my house mortgage or was renting my apartment (due to the payment itself/interest, homeowners/renters insurance, property taxes, gas bill, electricity, water, garbage pickup, house maintenance/repairs, furniture, dish soap, draino, etc...)
Here is a rough idea of where my $575/month is spent:
$200 - food ($7.00 per day)
$200 - gasoline ($50 per week)
$65 - cell phone
$10 - laundry
$50 - my AAA van insurance
$25 - gym membership or tentative cost of shower usage
$25 - vehicle emergency fund (maintenance/parts)
$50 - entertainment/fun (if i actually spend this, my monthly budget is $625 instead of $575)
Ok, let me get a little more specific here on a couple of those topics..
Jon, from Clearwater, recently emailed me and asked me (word for word) "You eat on 7 dollars a day? How is this possible? Is it really that cheap if you cook all your own meals? Are you a vegetarian?" This is how I responded:
"I really do only spend about 200 bucks a month on food, which calculates out to 7 dollars a day. Sometimes, sure, I might spend over 7.00 on food for one day. But then I have leftovers and eat that for another day or so, so I don't spend any money on food for those days. Kinda like that. I eat mostly vegetarian, but I also buy things like jerky, cans of tuna fish, or a box of cereal and munch on those for several days. I rarely cook. But if you do want to cook and spend 15.00 on enough things to cook a meal, then I'm sure you'll have some leftovers and be able to eat what you made for 2 days. Then it is still like you spent 7 bucks a day. Even if you eat out and get 2 cheeseburgers at BK for lunch, that is only 2.12 out of your daily food budget. That leaves you with 5 bucks left for breakfast and lunch. I buy a big, cheap container of quick oats and mix them with hot water (I also mix chocolate protein powder in there and sprinkle on a little cinnamon to make it taste even better and to make it more healthy). Oatmeal is so cheap and you can live off it for SO MANY breakfasts!! So if you spend 2.12 at BK for lunch and eat the oatmeal you bought the week before, you can spend 5 bucks on your dinner, which can get you lots of things. Going out to eat is what gets expensive. But buying your own stuff? Not too expensive. I snack on granola bars, crackers, apples (get a big bag for pretty cheap), stuff like that. I buy things that are on sale and just kinda snack all day. I don't eat huge meals." I have also heard that sometimes when you think you're hungry, you are really just thirsty. I drink lots of water and drink lots of green tea. Quite often I end up not being so hungry after I drink my cup of tea.
With gas prices all over the place, $200 per month is just an estimate. I used to spend $25 per week, before I was actually living in my vehicle. But in my van, I'm always on the go. Often traveling to a new city or state, always driving somewhere. Always moving my van to different places to park & be inconspicuous. Things like that. It all takes gas, and my van isn't very fuel efficient. You definitely have to allow yourself enough gas money. And if you really don't want to spend much on gas, park in a friend's yard or driveway for a while. Or go head up into the hills and camp for quite a while. Park for free in "dispersed camping" areas out on National Forest Land. Lots of possibilities. Or if your vehicle is diesel, do you know anyone who makes bio-diesel for cheap? Gas is actually really cheap right now though. I am thankful for that!! You should definitely be able to get by on $200 per month (or much less, if you aren't traveling around). If you are staying in one city, I bet you can spend closer to $125 per month on gas (about 30 bucks a week) or less.
If you can get a cheap cell phone plan, maybe you'll be paying less than I do, at $65 per month. I am still on an old Cellular One plan (before it switched to At&t), which is great, because I have a nationwide plan, unlimited nights & weekends, free mobile-to-mobile, 200 texts, and like 1600 anytime minutes. I don't even use 1,000 of those, so that is pretty nice. You can't get a plan for that much with At&t anymore though. I guess I am grandfather-claused. Or whatever you call it. Also, some people have the internet right on their phone plans, which could be convenient for you. My boyfriend has an Apple i-Phone 3G, with unlimited internet, and I think he pays $78 per month thru At&t. It really is convenient, I love his phone. But I am cheaper, so I use the free internet on library computers or pick up free wi-fi on my Sony Vaio laptop. I have a little clicker in my van that lights up with how strong the wi-fi signal is in my area. It's really handy. I bought it at Radio Shack for $25 or $30.
Lets see.. I think $10 per month is probably what I spend on laundry. I just try to save up all my change for that occasion, and I do laundry maybe every week or 2 weeks. Laundromats can be a nice place to hang out and relax. You can meet some real characters there! I also put a "spring-bar" type curtain rod (stays in place with pressure) up near the ceiling in my van, between the two front seats. I use that to hang any special laundry on to dry, that I don't want to put in a dryer. I also hang my wet beach towel and bathing suit up there to dry. I don't really like dryers that much. I also sometimes hang laundry to dry by draping it over the bike rack on the back of my van. Oh, and I also have some clothes pins and a cord that runs along the inside of my van, next to my bed.. That is perfect for hanging wet washcloths, socks, small things. The cord actually came in my van, and I think it was intended to hold my curtains up against the wall. But I'm not sure. I think it makes a nice little clothesline.
You definitely need vehicle insurance, and it can cost more or less than $50 bucks a month. I got the best deal with AAA. I love AAA. I wrote an entire post about them. I highly recommended them for insurance. I used to be with State Farm until I realized what a rip-off that was.
I put $25 in my monthly budget for a gym membership, because they are so handy for showers and getting in some exercise. However, if I am traveling, I obviously don't get a month-long membership. In that case, I use this money for "walk-in" daily passes at some gyms. Or i use this money to maybe get a shower somewhere else for cheap, like a public swimming pool, pay a friend to use theirs, or do a walk-in rate for the pool & hot-tub at some hotels (call around..I recently found a local AmericInn that charges 3.00 to use theirs)
Always be sure to allow a little emergency fund (in my case, $25) for vehicle maintenance and parts. If you don't use that money one month, still save it in an envelope towards vehicle maintenance!! Obviously you might not have many maintenance expenses one month.. But the next month, you might have a big problem that costs you $150. I can't recommend AAA enough. If you have a problem on the road, they will come and help you. Read my post about them. They will even give you money towards your food, lodging, & whatever else when you've got a problem! This may help you so that you don't have to tap into your emergency vehicle fund for towing or a locksmith or something like that.
Lastly, I sometimes give myself a $50 fun-fund. Sometimes I've been doing so many of my favorite free activities that I don't spend any of that $50 bucks. Other times, I really just want to splurge here and there. I use this fund maybe once every other month. Or use $25 bucks a month instead of $50. But again, any extra that I have, I just save it for some rainy day when I really need it. If you find that you spend more than this, maybe look into finding some cheaper hobbies. Then again, if you have a steady job and can afford to spend a little more on fun, have at it! Who am I to say? I am just happier when I'm not spending my money on things I don't really need.
As a final note, there is more great info on the cost of living in a vehicle on Bob's Cheap RV Living site. He lays out some neat budgets on his main page, living on $500 or $1,000 per month. I notice that I allow myself more food money than either of his budgets, but everyone's costs are going to be a little different. I'm sure you can live on hardly anything at all if you are willing to eat lots of ramen noodles and oatmeal, able to park in one area all the time and ride your bike around, use a calling card at payphones (no monthly cell charge!), find free places to shower, and have cheap habits like reading books (or renting dvds!) from the library or going for walks & taking photos. You'll never know how cheap you can live until you try.