Rent is the largest monthly expense for many Americans, often devouring more than a third of their take-home income. With affordable housing options dwindling, many people are looking for ways to reduce housing costs. One of the last types of affordable housing available comes in the form of housing cooperatives.
I chose to live in a housing cooperative so I could cover all my expenses while on an AmeriCorps stipend. The benefits of living in a cooperative weren’t just financial, though. By living in a cooperative, I’ve also helped the environment and improved my social life.
A housing cooperative is a unique residential setup where each member lives in a room in a shared house and votes on issues, such as allowing new members to join. Co-ops also give members a chance to create their own community because they participate in events and govern their own residence democratically.
Housing cooperatives have existed in America since at least the 19th century and are present across the nation. Some target specific interest groups, like vegetarians, artists or environmentalists, while others are open to anyone interested.
Living in a cooperative isn’t all that different from renting a room anywhere else. Members sign leases and make monthly payments to cover their room, utilities and shared pantry or household items. The main difference is that cooperative members are responsible for attending house meetings and doing chores.
Some housing cooperatives have rules about who can become a member. For example, some allow families with children, while others are adult-only. There are cooperatives just for students and others just for seniors. Many, but not all, allow pets.
Members in a cooperative divvy up household tasks, so everyone helps keep the house clean and functioning. At my cooperative, chores are randomly assigned every three months, and members hold each other accountable for completing their tasks. As a result, my house is a lot neater than one would expect from a building shared by 13 people, three dogs and four cats.
[caption id="attachment_72346" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Barry-Garland pays only $500 a month for her bedroom, her share of utilities, and ingredients for a weekly household meal and shared household supplies in her housing cooperative. Photo courtesy Maura Barry-Garland[/caption]
Thanks to my housing cooperative, I reduced my yearly expenses by a quarter while forming strong friendships.
Fair market rent in Austin, Texas is nearly $1,000 per month for a one-bedroom apartment, and $1,200 for a two-bedroom unit. Because I chose to live in a housing cooperative, I pay only $500 a month for my bedroom, my share of utilities, ingredients for a weekly household meal and shared household supplies, like toilet paper and laundry detergent.
Living in a cooperative saves money because shared kitchens and bathrooms lead to lower rent. On top of that, the cost of keeping the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter is split many more ways, decreasing each resident’s burden.
If I didn’t live in a cooperative, I’d probably share a three- or four-bedroom apartment, but even that would cost around $150 more per month than I pay now. My friends who live in more traditional housing in Texas spend upward of $100 a month for utilities. Add to that the $20 a month on household supplies I would spend if I lived alone, and my savings on housing from living in a cooperative are $270 per month.
Not only do housing cooperatives help their members save on rent and utilities, they also help save on food. I save $30 a month on groceries because my $500 monthly payment includes a weekly house meal, which a different resident plans and cooks each week. It often produces leftovers for multiple days.
I also find I do less shopping since moving into my cooperative. The free pile at my house, which is where residents can give away old clothing, furniture and other belongings, helps keep me out of stores.
Not only have I not spent any money on clothes since I moved in, but I also received a free bookshelf, mattress and couch through my roommates and their friends. I’ve never been a big shopper, but these free items easily save me another $30 a month.
Perhaps the greatest perk of cooperative living for me is being part of a community. I always have someone around to chat with in the kitchen, and my roommates with nighttime work schedules play with my dog while I’m at work during the day.
I have my own room so I can retreat into my own space when I need it, but I always have friends to spend time with when I want to be social. My ability to satisfy my urge to socialize at home with my 12 roommates has helped me spend less money at restaurants and bars, saving me about $50 every month.
As with all living arrangements, cooperative living isn’t for everyone. If you’re someone who needs a lot of quiet time or gets annoyed by waiting to use the kitchen or bathroom, then living with a bunch of people might wear you out. I find that having my own room provides me with enough me space, but I know some people want more space to themselves.
If you’re someone who tends to put off cleaning when you’re particularly busy, then cooperative living might not be the best choice for you, as many randomly assign chores. People who live alone aren’t making anyone other than themselves suffer if they put off taking out the trash for a week, but in a cooperative, you have to think of your roommates.
A cooperative exists to fit nearly every set of interests. If you’re interested in finding a housing cooperative near you, you can search the National Association of Housing Cooperatives website or just Google your city name and “housing cooperative.”
Different cooperatives have different interview processes, but most will want you to attend some co-op events and meet the members. Depending on the size of the cooperative, it may not have frequent openings, so it’s a good idea to reach out to several if you are interested.
Maura Barry-Garland is a graduate student who was living in Austin, Texas and working for a social services program at the time of writing of this piece.
The expensive green juices and jackfruit tacos on Instagram make it easy to assume veganism is for those with plenty of money to burn. Many vegans spend $50 or more a week on groceries just for themselves, according to this Reddit post.
But I’ve been able to eat a varied and healthy vegan diet for only $30 a week, which is down from the $45 I spent when I first went vegan more than a year ago.
With these strategies, a budget doesn’t have to be a barrier to going vegan. Here’s how to reduce your dependency on animal-based products without spending a ton of cash on groceries.
Dried bulk foods are incredibly cheap and form a hearty and healthy base for any meal. Dried beans are up to 68% cheaper per serving on average than canned, and bulk grains like oats and quinoa are versatile and easy to use.
Cross-shop your local stores (as well as online sellers) to find where your favorite bulk foods are cheapest; right now, I shop mostly at HEB.
Remember, though, buying in bulk is only cheaper if you actually use everything you buy. Don’t buy an ingredient in bulk the first time you try cooking with it; if it turns out you don’t like couscous, the five-pound bag you purchased is a drain on your budget.
Plant-based milks are delicious and nutritious, but many of them are pricy for a product that is mostly water.
So, how do you avoid eating your cereal dry? I make my own plant-based milks in my blender.
Quinoa milk is my favorite due to its high protein content and how easy it is to make; the only equipment I need is my blender, which only cost me $15.
Rice milk is just as easy and even cheaper. More adventurous folks can try their hands at almond or cashew milk.
If you can find it in the grocery store, you can find a way to make it yourself.
Produce is expensive!
Luckily, you can still meet your nutritional needs by hitting the freezer aisle or canned-goods section and loading up on store-brand fruits and vegetables. Use these affordable options to supplement the in-season fresh produce you can fit into your budget.
Canned fruits and vegetables are far cheaper than fresh with little nutrition loss, according to this study from Michigan State University.
Not a fan of the canned versions of certain fruits and vegetables? Some of their frozen counterparts are also cheaper than fresh produce.
If your home cooking is bland and boring, you’ll be tempted to spend too much money at restaurants and on pre-made grocery store meals. Invest in some spices so you can make home-cooked dishes that satisfy your hunger and your palate.
My go-to spices are cumin, turmeric, chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder and dried ginger. Yours will depend on your tastes; Google recipes for your favorite cuisines to get a feel for what you should stock in your spice cabinet.
Just as lack of flavor can tempt you to eat out, you may also feel the lure of restaurants if you don’t know how to make quick and easy meals.
Breakfast can be as easy as filling a jar with oats, plant-based milk, flaxseed and fruit, then letting it sit in your fridge overnight.
Packing a lunch is no problem if you schedule a meal-prep day once a week to whip up a bunch of burritos, sandwiches and salads.
Store-bought protein bars and shakes are often expensive and full of sweeteners. By making them at home, you can save money and tweak their composition to meet your needs.
Are you a fueled-by-carbs cardio monster? Try oat-based energy balls.
Working on increasing the protein-to-carb ratio in your diet? Buy an unsweetened, plant-based protein powder and make your own shakes.
Do you need to shop at a health-food store to be vegan? No! You can actually save money and eat better by not going to a store filled with fancy, processed vegan foods.
When I shop at HEB, I tend to buy mostly legumes, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. If I go to a store like Whole Foods, I end up breaking the bank on a Daiya cheesecake -- a delicious, occasional splurge, but not good for my wallet or my health if I make it a weekly habit.
This might not seem like a personal-finance tip, but taking care of your health is the most important investment you can make. I take a multivitamin that contains B12, zinc and iron. In addition, I incorporate foods like ground flaxseed in my diet to get omega-3 fatty acids.
Make sure you’re taking care of yourself in addition to the Earth!
1 cup bulk oats (21 cents)
½ cup homemade quinoa milk (28 cents)
Seasonal berries or fruit (50 cents)
Chana masala burrito:
Tortilla (27 cents)
1 cup chana masala, created using this recipe but substituting dried ginger and garlic for fresh ($1.72)
Spaghetti (56 cents)
Tomato sauce (24 cents)
Frozen or seasonal vegetable (50 cents)
Total for the day: $4.28
Your Turn: Do you eat vegan? How do you stick to your grocery budget?
Maura Barry-Garland was born and raised in Alaska, attended Columbia University in New York City, and is currently serving as an AmeriCorps member in Austin, Texas.
At emergency kitchens across the country, employees and volunteers navigate a larger-scale version of the puzzle that every household faces: How do I make enough nutritious food with the resources I have available?
In my time spent volunteering at an emergency kitchen, I’ve learned a lot of lessons, from how to julienne vegetables to the importance of questioning my assumptions about others. One of the many valuable skills I’ve gained from my experience is the ability to feed myself on a budget.
Thanks to what I’ve learned from my weekly volunteer shift, I’ve been able to take my weekly grocery bill from $55 to $40… in a town where food prices are 35% above the national average.
Here are the top six tips I’ve learned from one of the best kitchen managers in the game:
[caption id="attachment_35613" align="aligncenter" width="640"] gashgeron/Getty Images[/caption]
The emergency kitchen where I volunteer once received a large donation of bread. The day before the last few loaves were set to expire, my kitchen manager shredded them, soaked the cubes of bread in egg, and stuck the combination in the oven to make a “French toast bake.”
Not only was the French toast bake a clever strategy to use up the bread before it went bad, but it was also a simple way to make a popular breakfast dish.
To make a delicious meal on a budget, first look at what you already have or could purchase cheaply, and then come up with innovative ways to combine those ingredients.
[caption id="attachment_35622" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Kathleen Franklin under Creative Commons[/caption]
At first, I didn’t think I could apply the recipes I learned at the emergency kitchen to my own life, as I cook for dozens of people at the shelter and only one at home. Then, I realized I could just freeze my leftovers and eat them later.
Preparing meals in advance saves money because I’m less tempted to eat out when I know I have a freezer stocked full of delicious home-cooked meals.
Need ideas? Here’s a list of great recipes for meals you can prepare ahead of time.
[caption id="attachment_35623" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Andrew under Creative Commons[/caption]
Would you expect to see king salmon and blueberries at an emergency kitchen?
The kitchen I volunteer at is located in Juneau, Alaska, and my boss often receives donations of wild berries and locally caught fish. What might seem like expensive foods to many are actually completely free.
I was able to reduce my own grocery bills when I stopped paying so much attention to what people thousand miles away from me were eating on Instagram and started paying attention to the resources I had on hand -- including the wild berries I gather from the trail behind my house.
What’s expensive in one location might be cheap in yours and vice versa, so learn to work with what is available to you.
[caption id="attachment_35616" align="aligncenter" width="640"] thebittenword.com under Creative Commons[/caption]
In addition to researching what’s available close by, you can also research the times of year that your favorite produce is cheapest -- and stock up then.
If you’d like to take your appreciation of seasonal veggies to the next level, you can even start your own garden.
The emergency kitchen where I volunteer has a community garden, and my kitchen manager freezes and pickles vegetables to make them last into the winter. Loading up on favorite foods while they’re cheap and making the effort to preserve them pays off months later.
[caption id="attachment_35624" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Tim Sackton under Creative Commons[/caption]
Letting food go bad is no better than throwing away money, and it’s a lot stinkier. The kitchen manager where I volunteer is very careful not to let anything go to waste, despite the high volume of food that cycles through the facility.
Every time we open a container of food but don’t completely use up its contents, we label the lid with the date we opened it. That way, we never have to wonder how long an open container has been in the fridge.
[caption id="attachment_35626" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Michael Dorausch/Getty Images[/caption]
Second chances apply to people, too, but in this case I’m talking about giving second chances to food. In the emergency kitchen where I volunteer, nothing is ever a “leftover” for long, because it quickly becomes a new meal.
At nonprofit kitchens, leftover ham from breakfast becomes lunch meat for sandwiches, and rice from one night’s dinner forms the base of a pudding for breakfast the next day.
Viewing leftovers as a bounty instead of an inconvenience saves a lot of money, and can save time as well because pre-cooked food can easily be converted into a new dish.
Now that I’m saving money on my own grocery trips, I have extra cash that I can give back to my community.
If you can donate to your local emergency kitchen or another community nonprofit, that’s fantastic. If your financial situation makes a money donation impossible, then give some time. You might bring home ideas you can apply in your own kitchen!
Your Turn: Have your volunteer experiences helped you save or earn more money? Share your stories in the comments!
Maura Barry-Garland is a recent graduate of Columbia University. She was born and raised in Alaska and will begin an AmeriCorps term of service in Austin, Texas, this September.