Is It Possible to Live Well Earning $30,000 a Year in America? Yes--With These Conditions

July 3, 2024

Can a couple of hardworking people live well in America on $30,000 a year in earnings? Yes, if they're willing to do what's needed to make it happen.

Is It possible to live well on $30,000 a year in America? Let's start with the raw numbers. I am starting with a couple, not an individual, so we're talking about two people living well on $30,000 earnings a year.

Why $30,000 a year? Several reasons. One, it's a full-time wage at $15/hour, a rate that is (or will be) minimum wage in some states and two, it's about half of the median annual earnings of full-time workers in the US. In other words, it's within reach of most workers with a few years of experience.

$30K a year is $2,500 a month. Average Social Security/Medicare and income tax withholding is around 22%, or $550 a month, leaving the wage earner $1,950 net income. Self-employed people have to pay the employers' share of Social Security/Medicare on top of the employees' half--an additional 7.65%, a total of 15.3%. (Yes, that's a big chunk. You get used to it. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.) That pushes their withholding closer to 30%, leaving around $1,750 to $1,800 a month income net of withholding.

So under what conditions can you live well on $1,950 a month in America?

First, own your land and house free and clear, or have the right to live in a house that's free and clear of debt. In the status quo, that requires a huge inheritance. But since few of us actually receive a huge inheritance, let's stipulate that we're discussing lifestyles that are outside the conventional status quo.

For example, building a micro-house on a friend's land in trade for helping them. This is what I did at the age of 24. My buddy was a retired US Marines vet (in-country 'Nam) with acreage he couldn't possibly use so we made a deal that worked for both of us. We built a sturdy micro-house without any electrical power, just hand tools, and after living in a tent my femme and I found it pretty luxurious. I went back 30+ years later and it was still in use.

Alternatively, find a way to live cheap and save half your earnings for enough years to buy a plot of land somewhere where people with lots of money don't care to live. The longer we scrimp and save, the more capital we save to invest. If we have to borrow, borrow as little as possible so it can be paid off with a few years of work.

Or find someone who's needing to sell, or willing to sell a piece of their land, and try to work out private financing. Of course you still need an experienced attorney to draw up the contract so both parties' rights and obligations are stipulated and protected, but the basic idea is seek older folks who may be happy with the monthly income at an interest rate lower than a bank mortgage.

Nothing is easy outside conventional debt-serfdom. Sacrifices and trade-offs abound. That's why so few people venture off the beaten path. The point is there is no substitute for owning whatever you own free and clear, zero debt, zero mortgage. Whatever it takes to get there, fair and square, win-win, that's the path we choose.

2. Choose a state with low property taxes. Every state and local government collects tax revenues. The ideal arrangement for those of us living on less is low property taxes and high sales and/or income taxes, because if we consume/buy very little, the sales tax is no big deal, and if we earn a modest income, the income taxes are not that big a deal, either.

The states to avoid are those where property taxes of $1,000 a month or more are normal. That's a lose-lose situation for those of us living on less income. The target is $100 a month in property taxes, $300 at most.

3. Figure out whatever healthcare arrangement works for you. For some people, that's a job that offers healthcare insurance for oneself and one's mate / significant other. For others, it's qualifying for whatever government insurance is available to low-income workers. For some young healthy people, staying healthy is their plan. For vets, it might be a nearby VA clinic / hospital.

4. Get a reliable high-mileage vehicle and learn to maintain it. A buddy of mine just bought a clean 11-year old Toyota sedan with 100,000 miles for $5,000. His existing Toyota has over 300,000 miles because he's maintained it well. 100K miles is no big deal if the vehicle has been properly maintained. A well-maintained Corolla or Civic routinely gets over 40 miles per gallon on the highway. If a vehicle needs $100 to fill it up, it better be making serious money as an essential work vehicle.

5. Grow some of your own food, buy only real food, waste nothing. Ideally, grow some of your own food, growing whatever grows well and without too much care in your locale. Like what you can grow. Trade your surplus for what others raise/grow, or give it away to people who appreciate it (and you). Only buy and eat real food, meaning there is only one ingredient. No salty, fatty addictive snacks, no sugary beverages, no processed foods, no packaged food, no frozen glop. Whole grain crackers, OK, sure. Chocolate chips for home-baked cookies, of course. But homemade is what counts here: we control the ingredients and provide the labor, which is the highest value input in meal preparation.

Once we taste real food, all the processed stuff no longer even qualifies as "food." As for the cost of real food, ethnic markets are cheaper and more fun than supermarkets. Some markets have discount bins. Much of traditional ethnic cuisines are basically peasant cuisines: cheap, locally grown ingredients with very little meat, which has long been dear. Living well means eating well, and nothing beats home-prepared meals with fresh ingredients.

6. Waste nothing. It's estimated that Americans throw out a significant percentage of the food they buy because they didn't plan the purchases and stick to the meal prep plan.

7. Get lean. We need less food when we're lean, and if we're eating home-grown and/or fresh, real foods, we're getting nutrient rich foods so we're not starved of essential nutrients, a hidden form of starvation that drives us to eat more in a vain attempt to get the nutrients we need.

8. Minimize the amount of time wasted on media, social media, screens and TV. There are better things to do with our time.

9. If there's extra living space, take in a boarder for the extra income. This is a time-honored way to earn extra income with little investment or outlay required. Choose roomies / boarders wisely and they'll add something to life.

10. Insurance is a rip-off until you need it. Needless to say, avoid locales where property insurance is unavailable or unaffordable. Shopping around is worth the effort. Consider buying a little extra insurance, as even a few extra dollars a month can buy more coverage. Even minimal collision coverage on an old car can prove useful.

Having a goal and a plan helps. So does having a Plan B in case Plan A doesn't work as hoped. Being disciplined helps. Having someone to share the work helps. Being able and willing to work hard helps. Having a mentor or three helps. Being able to ask for advice helps. Learning from others helps. Continuing to learn helps. Changing course when things aren't working helps. Having faith helps.

Is any of this easy? Heck no, a thousand times no. I wrote a little book about this entire journey to Self-Reliance based on what I've learned from experience and from others in 54 years of working. There is literally nothing easy about the journey. Risks abound. Every decision is imperfect because it's made with imperfect knowledge.

OK, all of this is "impossible." If that's what somebody decides, then it's true for them. But that doesn't mean it's true for the rest of us.

Can a couple of hardworking people live well in America on $30,000 a year in earnings? Yes, if they're willing to do what's needed to make it happen, which is step off the conveyor belt of conventional status quo resignation and debt-serfdom.

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