::For those who know, sing it with me::
March has been a crazy month, y’all. As I write this, the world is literally in a panicked frenzy around coronavirus. I’m on spring break, the spring break just got lengthened, and I’m fully expecting my job to shut down because entire school districts in the mainland are on mandatory “lockdown” for two and three week stretches.
There has literally never been a less fortunate time to be a Montessori toddler teacher— we don’t make a lot of money as it is, and here we are in a global crisis behind COVID-19. If our schools shut down, you can’t exactly deliver infant/ toddler Montessori classes over the world wide web… (can you?). To any of my toddler Montessori brethren and sisteren out there holed up at home, a) it has been fascinating learning how other schools are responding through this madness, and b) thank God we’re all in this struggle together.
Luckily for me (and now you), I have at least a solid decade’s worth of experience living as a “broke *ss preschool teacher”. I have earned as little as $10 an hour preschool teaching in California, in a beach town where rent can cost $1400 a month for a room to rent. Yepp. Since I was 19, I survived with my own income while renting rooms in shared housing. I’ve been fully broke before, and I’ve been on food stamps before. My sister once said of me, and I quote, “you’re good at being broke”. She was right even though that comment was likely passive aggressive at the time. I’m also good at surviving down here at the bottom of the income ladder.
When you choose to be a preschool teacher, unfortunately you also choose to be broke most of the time if you don’t have any other income besides just the preschool teaching. And I know that’s sad; but it’s a reality that basically comes with this job. I just didn’t realize the full ramifications of what it meant to persistently be a low-income earner when I was 21 in 2006, and decided to become a Montessori classroom teacher.
The one exception to all of the tips I’m about to give is that if you have a life partner or any other format of financial assistance; in which case you’re basically teaching as a passion project or a hobby that happens to make your family extra money, none of this really applies to you. And I don’t mean to be rude but I’m just being honest. If you genuinely don’t neeeeeeeed to technically even work at all because maybe your partner, your parents, or a trust fund is your “real” financial support system, you likely won’t need to resort to using a lot of the money-saving, money-stretching tips that await.
The tips about to come your way are for the people who genuinely rely on teaching for their livelihood, who are legit living paycheck to paycheck, and who aren’t sure how to make ends meet most of the time. Teachers who are questioning whether teaching was the best career choice because they get paid so little. Teachers who have not yet found a way out of teaching. Teachers who want to make teaching work because it is their life’s passion, and who know it’s gonna be a long ride financially.
I’ve lived everyone’s worst nightmare– going broke. More than broke, actually. A teaching job that I fully thought was going to be my long-term, “forever committed, until I get bored in a decade” job ended up laying me off unexpectedly. So trust me, I know the struggle. I know how financially precarious preschool teaching can be. And I also know that God got me through and restored me financially such that I now live in Hawaii, which was a dream I waited for years to come true because… I have always been broke. I had to work and save up for this dream.
So Here are my top broke preschool teacher hacks that I think every poor early childhood educator deserves to know in these times of uncertainty and scarcity.
SAVINGS AND EMERGENCIES
Always pay yourself first. I don’t care if you are literally using every last dollar of your paycheck for survival, or what advice you may read about the order of financial priorities one ought to have. Always, ALWAYS consistently stash a certain sum of money in a savings account when you get paid, no matter how small.
I obviously get it that other kinds of professionals aren’t as broke as a teacher can be. So a LOT of other people’s financial advice doesn’t always apply to people who actually paycheck-to-paycheck, like we do. I have made as little as $10 living in an expensive California beach town, and I survived living with complete financial independence. No matter how little money I made, I always maintained a savings account. It doesn’t matter how small your savings account is– it just matters that you have one. Why?
Emergencies don’t care how small your savings is. Either you have money stashed for emergencies, or you don’t. Period. And if you don’t, you will have no choice but to use credit cards to survive. And then you’ll have another bill that doesn’t fit into your already too small budget. You will rack up those credit cards uncontrollably thanks to interest. And then you will have to spend years paying back your credit card debt. And you will be locked into survival mode for longer.
I also used credit cards as my emergency fund for over a decade because I had to. So I’m not shaming anyone who must do that and who has credit card debt. I still have credit card debt, let’s be real. But my point is, you must also always save for yourself. No one will do that for you. Not your boss, that’s for sure. I may have credit card debt right now but I also for sure have a savings account I might have to survive off of through COVID-19.
I built an emergency savings system most easily by automating the savings on the same day of every month around the time I get paid. That way, I never even notice the money leaving. I don’t even factor the savings money into my monthly spending budget. I just plan my budget around the sum of money left after I deduct the savings money.
I know Dave Ramsey says we should all build a $1000 emergency fund, then immediately start debt snowballing. But my advice is that instead of building an emergency fund, then immediately shifting gears from saving to debt snowballing, just never stop paying yourself savings.
Continue to save while you simultaneously debt snowball. Again, no matter how little said snowballs may be. Teachers are too poor to ever stop saving, do you hear me? Dave Ramsey has never been a preschool teacher (or a woman for that matter. Women typically get paid less than men in the same roles). So please listen to someone who has survived off of this job my whole entire professional life. And who is now surviving– in Hawaii; and who has a savings. I didn’t plan on ever touching it unless I was laid off, fired, or in the ER on life support. But yes, it’s there.
YOU NEED 2+ INCOMES
Always have more than one income stream. This is advice I have both heeded and foolishly ignored during different seasons of my life. But the truth is, I always needed a second form of income even if I didn’t want to have to work extra. Again, teachers are too poor to operate within the same “financial rules” as people in other careers. Until a preschool teacher has $5,000 in the bank and zero debt, marries a life partner, gets an inheritance, or wins the lottery (fat chance), you always need two jobs. Only after those criteria are met may you ever stop working two jobs.
We’re too poor to ever stop saving, and we’re usually too poor to ever work only one job. We have to keep it real. Your second income stream can be whatever you manage to rummage up. Selling beauty products, driving for uber, a second part-time job (target, cleaning vacation rentals, and pouring beer have been popular part-time teacher jobs), babysitting, dog walking, flipping thrift items– whatever. As long as it actually makes you reliable, consistent side money, and isn’t some bullsh*t false promise from the internet, do it. and do it when you don’t need to even feel like you need to still be doing it, and just throw all that extra money in your savings or at your debt.
I’ve tried a bunch of those fake side hustles pintrest recommends, like transcription, online surveys, etc.– they aren’t legit and they will waste your time. The surveys pay you like five cents a pop and the transcription files are so poor-quality it’s impossible to transcribe them quickly, easily, or well. You will waste way more than an hour on like, one terrible audio file that sounds like it got recorded by aliens with accents in outer space and get paid maybe $5 an hour when it all shakes out. Dog walking is legit. Baby sitting is very legit (even though it’s often the last thing you think you want to do, babysit a child well out of your typical teaching age range or a child you know is a dream). Participating in focus groups is legit, I’ve made hundreds of dollars doing focus groups in the past. Tutoring is legit if you have the patience to teach more after teaching. Dog walking and babysitting my favorite kids are the best side hustles IMHO.
Teaching jobs are also never secure; so if you have more than one income stream, you’re prepared for the economic fragility of this field. Case and point: schools are shutting down left and right as we speak. I’m a preschool teacher, and a 30something year old babysitter because I do what I have to do. Also a second income stream does not mean you have to have a second part-time job, let me be clear about that. Teachers are often financially poor and time poor. I don’t have time for a part-time job unless I never want to take care of myself. And if you don’t take care of yourself, and you get sick or injured, you can’t work. So for me, the gig economy is the most viable.
FOOD AND NECESSITIES
Try to save money on food, and anything else that doesn’t need to be expensive. I keep food costs low by shopping predominantly at farmers markets, choosing bulk bins over processed foods in packages, only eating meat once a week, and by eating way more “real” than processed foods. I rarely spend more than $40 a week for just me. And that’s here in Hawaii where groceries are $$$.
Eating real food also keeps you healthier not to mention thinner. My friend Harold once joked when someone asked him how he stayed so lean and fit, that he was on “the poverty diet”. This is half not a joke. Broke preschool teacher life means you have to make sacrifices. Except just because you don’t spend a lot of money on food, it does not mean you choose to eat a lot of junk food, carbs, and fast food. You have to eat real, nutrient-dense, healthier foods with enough protein and a ton of vegetables. I rarely buy meats as I mentioned. My go-to meats are chicken, turkey, tuna, and sardines unless I’m eating at Sunday family dinner or potlucks which are both huge in Hawaii. Salmon, steak, and crab ain’t a thing for me unless I eat it outside of my house (but the occasional container of poke as a rare treat can’t be avoided forever, because #HawaiiLife).
For self-care products, there have been seasons of my life as a teacher where I had to choose the $1 bar of soap over the $3-9 bottle of body wash. Where I can’t say yes to the expensive brands of hair care products even though I have curly hair (which yes, is more expensive than straight hair). Why? Because I literally couldn’t let myself wash money down the drain, y’all. I will go so far as to make some of my own beauty products to save money and because my body responds better to something natural.
If there’s a choice between generic and full cost non-food necessities, I always choose the generic. I also search the clearance end caps at stores for deals. It is also worth mentioning that survive using maybe two rolls of paper towel a year by using reusable cloth napkins to dine and rags to clean, Montessori style. Again, why? Because we do not throw our money in the trash if we are a broke ass teacher. I actually use a lot of reusable things, too. Reusable tea strainers, reusable period cup, reusable coffee thermos– I swear I was a grandma from the great depression in a past life.
You don’t need to buy as much clothing as you think, ladies and gents. And clothing can be a huuuuuge money waster for a lot of people. I would even go so far as to say I observe a trend among some of my poorest family and friends that there is usually some material item they own a TON of. And I’m sure they don’t realize they have spent a lot of money on that “favored” material item despite their lower-income status.
We all have some particular material item we mindlessly over-purchase. Just gaze around your home one day, and you’ll finally spot what I’m referring to. Do you own like, seven pairs of jeans? 50 shirts? A whole basket of crafting supplies you never touch? 10 bottles of perfume? That all used to be money. And clothing just happens to be an easy material item to mindlessly over-buy that you can easily get control over. If you can manage to save money on clothing and other material things, you will benefit financially in the long run.
There was a point in my life where I made a lifestyle shift around clothes shopping. My mom was hardcore clothes shopper and basically a lightweight hoarder. So having lots of clothes even if they were all on sale was my “norm” growing up. Then I moved into my first studio apartment where the closet was only four feet wide. This was the smallest closet I had ever had. And I didn’t want to buy a dresser, because I was paranoid about making rent in this studio which was the most expensive rental I had personally ever paid for in my life (even if most of you might laugh at how cheap it was).
Soon thereafter, I discovered Marie Kondo, and Project 333. And I radically and permanently altered my lifestyle around clothes shopping. I currently own a 3-foot closet, 2.5 baskets of tops, bottoms, rompers, and workout wear; and one small drawer of underclothing and swimwear. I could easily kiss half the closet rack of clothes goodbye if needed, but I keep it all for special occasions, just in case. I already own it, so fuck it. I’m now stuck on an island, so I felt compelled to just keep it.
They say people usually only wear 20% of their entire wardrobe anyway, which you can easily and honestly assess on your laundry day. Anything that usually never makes it out of your drawers or out of the closet usually doesn’t make it into your preferred 20%. So be mindful, and don’t buy any more of the items that sit in the drawers and on the rack. Don’t be afraid to get rid of things either, because that clutter clarity is gold.
Women do need a fairly diverse assortment of clothing for a lot of different occasions depending how feminine your style is. So don’t ruthlessly get rid of everything that doesn’t make the cut for Konmari or Project 333– be mindful about occasion wear and seasonal necessities. But most of your life will actually be spent at work (until now, ironically; and right now we’re all in pajamas, LOL). Weekends only last two days. Which means you can get by with a lot fewer clothing items than you think.
Part of not owning a lot of clothing is choosing the right pieces that meet your needs and have high pairing versatility. A couple rules that help me not hoard or buy a lot of clothing are the “one in, one out” rule; and the “you can have two of each item” rule (jeans somehow creeped up on me in quantity because I moved here then discovered I had more jeans than I realized given that I rarely wear jeans now).
You can also re-wear a lot of staple items; you should hand-wash things you want to last longer, and it would surprise you to discover that literally no one except you is keeping track of what you wear. I only wear one pair of jeans to work (mostly because I don’t want my favorite other jeans covered in boogers or ruined by bleach water). I own one (1) pair of jean shorts that fit me right now– and I live in Hawaii. No one cares.
When I do shop for clothing, I use the buyerarchy: borrow/ free cycle from your friends and family –> consignment/ thrift –> anything on sale or clearance –> cheap stores (Ross, TJ Maxx, Marshalls, H&M, Forever 21) –> black friday and surf shop warehouse sales –> full price “higher end” stores. I opt for surf shop sample sales or end-of-season sales for items that need replacing and that I want to last a long time, and I’m never afraid of a good rummage. I covet certain items I currently own that came from thrift shops. I have found things from thrift shops that last for years. Also I have default brands for certain clothing and material items; and when they get too worn to keep, I literally re-buy the same brand again because it lasted like five years last time.
Here’s the thing about clothing that moving to Hawaii taught me: no one cares about your clothing unless it is in fact designer and in immaculate condition. If you’re a teacher chances are high you don’t have that kind of money to be spending anyway unless “designer” was thrifted or gifted. When I had to empty my apartment and pack my life down into two suitcases, it really showed me how much clothes don’t matter. At the drop of a hat I was ready to part ways with huge bags of clothing that I thought mattered.
Right now, with everyone concerned about coronavirus, do you think anyone poorer cares about shopping for clothes? Nope. Clothes are fun, I have fun styling my own wardrobe, and I care about looking professional and taking pride in my personal style. But clothing is a functional necessity at the end of the day. Unless it’s your “love/hobby”, in which case, keep reading.
When you’re poorer, you have to prioritize your health. I really can’t stress this enough, because if you ever get sick or injured, you can’t go to work. And if you can’t go to work, you may not get paid. And if you don’t get paid, you can’t eat or make rent. No matter how broke I am, I eat fresh produce, I know what I need in the medicine cabinet, and I always have the willingness to “splurge” on health supplements like trace minerals once a year, or anything I know will boost or correct my immune system as needed.
I always engage in at least one hobby that forces me to work out (Tahitian dance and yoga are my physical hobbies); and I always do functional workouts (strength train and cardio) for free on a near daily basis in my hale, and probably annoy my poor neighbors 😂. I got my workout equipment for very cheap from craigslist, Target, and TJ Maxx.
I use food as my medicine. Maybe it’s woo-woo but I legit believe in la’au lapa’au. I have fully harvested a noni leaf or two from my neighborhood as needed. Olena, ginger, garlic, and lemon are staples in my arsenal. I have some sort of hippie, voodoo food-based go-to remedy for no joke, nearly every ailment that could ever possibly pop up for me.
And that’s because I work with toddlers. And I don’t want to have to spend money on medicine products or put those chemicals in my body if I can self-heal naturally. Everyone should own tylenol and maybe a bottle of pepto and a packet or two of electrolytes for emergencies. But I have not owned Dayquil in years. Health should matter to everyone, because even if you are flat broke, we are all still stuck in our own bodies, alone.
TRANSPORTATION AND TRAVEL
I have dabbled in the spectrum of travel in order to get to work and get around town. Except riding a bike. I have walked, I have taken the bus, I have had to catch an uber from time to time when the bus was unreliable, and now I drive. When I lived in the SF Bay Area, BART was an option I might use for recreational travel; and I used to pay bridge toll with FasTrak. I have had free parking for work, and I have had to pay for parking. Travel should be budgeted in accordingly. If you ride the bus, don’t lag on getting your monthly bus pass because they do run out. My car is used and paid for in full; and when things break I hit up Autozone before I ever resort to a mechanic.
Get your car’s oil changes and tire rotations regularly, and learn how to DIY a few of the upkeep things yourself like filters and lightbulbs. The mechanics want to charge you a ton of money for maintaining those details when the parts cost $15 or less. Stay on top of your car’s maintenance schedule, find a consistent mechanic you can trust, and avoid car washes. I swear the drive-thru car wash compromised the integrity of my car’s clear coat. Hand wash your car and wax it to protect the car’s paint job over the long haul.
While you should indeed take care of your car, at the same time, cars are for driving. So if you’re limited on the cash you have to spend on a car in the first place, don’t buy a more expensive car hoping it’ll save you money (like an electric car or hybrid) that you end up being too scared to drive. That takes the fun out of it. Honestly if you’re the one who owns the hybrid or electric car, you should be the one driving everyone else around because you don’t have to pay for gas.
Also, if you have to commute a very far distance for your teaching job, you need to genuinely consider whether it’s truly worth it financially. Because there are schools in every neighborhood of every state in this country. You may not realize that a school closer to you is in fact hiring, will actually pay you more, and is a better quality school than the school you’re commuting to. So if you are currently shelling out tons of cash in gas and car upkeep, commuting an hour or more one way for a teaching gig that pays you $30K or less per year, you need to eventually strive to get a job closer to home so you can save and enjoy your money.
Teaching jobs aren’t like jobs in other industries where people are commuting for an hour or more… in order to make $50K or more a year. I know a girl who commutes for over an hour to be a Montessori teaching assistant at a school I’ll tell you right now is not exactly top quality. And then she has a part-time retail job back in her home city such that she works 7 days a week. In my head, I’m like “what are you thinking? There are preschools in your own city or other cities closer to you where you can be the lead teacher, not just be the assistant, get paid more, and commute less”. I sense that the reason she stays at this job is because she’s in a comfort zone there, not because it’s genuinely worth a multi-hour commute every day.
RAISES AND INCOME POSSIBILITIES
Don’t ever be afraid to ask for the amount of money you desire to earn as a preschool teacher. The worst thing that can happen is they say “no”. But at least you asked. But also, don’t have high expectations because this is teaching. Generally there is a cap to how much people in the world of ECE can expect to earn, and it is quite low. I think it’s also worthwhile to consider the possibility of moving into different positions within your job that might be able to get you a little more pay. But not all jobs even offer the possibility of mobility, so ask about this during the interview process. For some schools, being the head teacher is as high as one can ever expect to climb.
FINANCIAL TEMPTATIONS AND LIVING A LIFE YOU LOVE
Know your financial temptations and be honest with yourself about what you love. This can be a hard one to really tease out. Life is meant to be enjoyed, right. And everyone has a “thing”. Always take time to track your spending and do an honest analysis of your habits and your material possessions once a year, and get in touch about what honestly makes you love living your life. Not all of us exist to just teach and then go to bed. Chances are, something gives you pleasure in this world besides work. Even if you’re a fan of doing free things, going to the beach and going on hikes still requires material goods that aren’t free (unless you hike and swim naked 😂). Only babies and kids get to enjoy life for free. As grown ups, we do not.
I had to admit to myself when 2020 was approaching that in the past year, one of my weaknesses was Starbucks. That Cloud Macchiato tho! 🤤. And then I legit had to break up with Starbucks in 2020. I bought a cheap espresso maker off of amazon, and I have not looked back. The one time I did go to Starbucks post-breakup, I had a gift card and needed lunch while out all day visiting a friend in Kailua. And when the barista rang me up, I couldn’t believe how fast the bill rose. I was pretty disgusted at how much I ended up paying for an espresso drink and a sandwich.
Turns out that what I really love is espresso and milk foam. It’s not that it’s starbucks, per se. A $50 espresso maker, $2 carton of nut milk, and espresso from the bulk bins that I grind myself and throw in my reusable insulated coffee mug from Ross is waaaaay cheaper and way less guilt-inducing than caving into a starbucks addiction I know I technically can’t afford.
If you have a hobby or a love that isn’t free, try to save money in another area of your life so that you can re-divert more money to your hobby and the things you love. I use cloth napkins and rags because I’d rather spend my money on other things besides paper goods.
JUST BECAUSE YOU DON’T MAKE A LOT OF MONEY
Just because you don’t make a lot of money doesn’t mean you’re relegated to an existence where you can’t take pride in yourself and your life. Just because you don’t make a lot of money doesn’t mean you have to live or look like you exist in borderline poverty. Just because you don’t make a lot of money doesn’t mean you always have to accept and settle for things that are broken, very poor quality, tattered, and look cheap. It just means you get to learn how to be more resourceful.
Just because it’s not new doesn’t mean it wasn’t meant for you. Just because it’s not new doesn’t mean it isn’t reliable AF. Just because it’s not new doesn’t mean it’s not awesome. And just because it’s not new doesn’t mean you can’t love the heck outta things. You can save money and still have an awesome life.
If your belongings are wearing down, there are ways to fix things and replace things very cheaply. I have sewn my teacher tote bag back together twice. #NoShame. If your furniture is in shambles, pay attention when you’re driving around. And when you see something on the curb that could replace your broken, tattered dresser, investigate. Keep your eyes open at thrift stores, on craigslist, facebook marketplace, and offer up. Let people know you’re looking for a new (whatever it is).
For example, I got my couch (which I frickin love, OK) from a kupuna in Manoa who lived a clearly abundant life, and happened to be getting rid of some old furniture that she took amazing care of. It was clear that this was a very clean family with no pets so I didn’t need to worry about bed bugs or fleas. This couch is vintage and could have easily ended up in Anthropologie’s “found objects” collection. It fully meets my dream aesthetic, I fall asleep on it all the time, and it was $70. I’m sitting on it right now! It’s the first time I’ve had an ottoman too. I’m over here living the height of my own personal luxury with my $70 couch, in my pillbox of a studio.
And those, ladies and gents, are the core of my main teacher hacks for managing my funds and living a good life on a limited income. Stay safe and healthy through this corona scare, everyone. The schools can’t stay closed forever! We will resume a normal life again eventually.