The Cost of Living

As Jake and I were getting down to the last 50 fence lengths, a small green pick-up truck slowed down on the tar and chip road in front of us and then stopped. The window rolled down to reveal our neighbor, Mr. Corwin. Mr. Corwin chatted with us until another car came down the lane and then pulled over to the side to continue the conversation.

It had been a long, hot week of painting horse fencing on our property. In Virginia, the fences have to be painted every three years (if you’re using the good, tar-based stuff) and it always seemed like we had just finished when we had to do it again. Painting fences paid well, but the smell and the heat of wearing a Kevlar suit in 95 degree weather, and the bugs and the sunburn, not to mention acres and acres of fencing, made it less than desirable as a full time occupation. Apparently that’s what was on Mr. Corwin’s mind when he pulled up alongside us that day.

“You like painting?”

Jake and I looked at each other, not sure which of us the question was directed to or who should answer.

“You,” he said, gesturing to Jake, “what’s your name?”

“Jake,” my friend replied.

Just then, my mom showed up with a pitcher of lemonade and a couple cups. “Thought you all could use a short break,” she said cheerily. “Hi Darren!”

“Howdy Ms. Grace, I was just asking these young’uns if they liked painting fences. So, Jake. What do you think? Is fence painting for you?”

“Gosh, I don’t know. It’s definitely not my favorite job, but it pays ok,” Jake replied thoughtfully as he sipped his lemonade.

“Well, think about it this way. How much do you think a house like your parents’ costs per month? Do you know what your utility costs are?”

An Unexpected Revelation

Mr. Corwin fired question after question at Jake and I that hot and hazy July afternoon and our eyes must have been like saucers at the end of our chat.

“You’ve gotta know what you’re shooting for before you decide what you’re going to do with your life. If you don’t want to paint fences forever, you’re going to need to get an education that will set you up for living the life you want. It might be a lot of fun to raise horses, but if it’s not going to pay the bills, it’s not the career for you,” My Corwin drawled as he finished up his lemonade.

Mom had thrown her two cents in during our chat as well, helping us think through all the “hidden costs” that are easy to miss from a high school perspective, like clothing and kids’ activity fees and laundry detergent.


That conversation changed my friend Jake’s life. My mom and I had talked about these things before  – but Jake had never thought about his career choices from this perspective.


Week 1 Challenge: How Much Do You Need to Live On?

So that’s the first challenge for this Financial Literacy month: Determine how much you would need to make to live either a) the “lifestyle to which you are accustomed” (Mom and Mr. Corwin’s phrase); or b) the life you think you want.

Money Sense for High School Students

If you think you’re going to have the same kind of life you’re living now once you graduate from high school or college, you need to make sure your expectations are realistic so you don’t end up with a rude awakening. Take an hour one evening and talk to your parent or guardian about cost of living per month; make sure you explain why you’re asking these questions so that they don’t feel defensive. Money can be a touchy subject. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • How much do we pay in rent or on a mortgage each month?
  • What are our utility costs (water, gas, sewer, electricity, trash service, heat, A/C, etc.)?
  • What is our average monthly grocery bill?
  • How much do we usually spend on going out to eat each month?
  • How much do we spend for entertainment (Books, magazines, movies, music downloads, etc.) each month?
  • How much do you spend on clothes for work on average each month?
  • How much are your personal expenses (makeup, haircuts, personal products, etc.) each month on average?
  • How much do we give to charity or a religious organization each month?

Once you’ve got the answers, you can use this great tool from JumpStart. It’s also a good idea to put together a spreadsheet and look at the fixed costs and variable expenses for a monthly budget. That will help you know how much you need to make in a year to live the life you want and, therefore, what kind of career paths you should look at.


Money Sense for College and Beyond

Are you discontent with your life right now? Hopefully some of the tips that have been posted in previous blog posts and on The Debt-Free Student facebook page have been encouraging and inspiring as you work towards financial freedom.

Looking at finances holistically and determining “wants” vs. “needs” can really help slim down a budget. While you want to be realistic and sustainable in your choices, sometimes it takes some real dedication and intensity to get out of debt and on a path to living the life you want. Just because you can take a vacation on your credit card doesn’t mean you should. Those memories and fun times can be completely overshadowed by the stress of knowing you can’t really afford what you’re doing.

Take some time to look at your fixed and variable expenses with a friend or family member who will ask hard questions, or your partner or spouse. Throw out the deluxe cable package, the beer and wine purchases, the extra movie tickets or Youtube Red. It’s time to slim down and set a new course for real financial health. You can do it!


If you have specific questions about how to make a realistic cost-of-living-analysis, where to find information to help you assess your own expenses, or more information about our journey, please don’t hesitate to contact me or ask in the comments below!