Can Live Without

It was five a.m., and out of habit, I strolled to my front door to seek the sliver of shadow alerting me that the New York Times was waiting on the other side. But all I could see in the gap between door and floor was light coming from the hallway. It was then I remembered I had cancelled the paper's home delivery and switched to online.

This change wasn't based on a desire to be environmentally conscious and reduce the number of trees required for my daily papers. Instead, it was one of many cut backs I was forcing on myself to save money.

For the past three years, I have been living in pricy apartments and spending madcap, as if I were an heiress with unlimited funds instead of a jobless, 78-year-old widow with occasional gigs and a dwindling retirement account.

But lest you shed tears at that dour description, remember I am blessed with two daughters who have vowed to help or house me when my balance sheet flattens. And, I'm aware that many are in true poverty, and I am a person of privilege. Thus, I'm not seeking sympathy.

Actually, what I need from you is encouragement. Something along the lines of: You've done it before, Elaine; you can do it again. You're a sharp cookie; you'll make a frugal plan and stick to it.

Thanks for reminding me that I had indeed donned this fiscal corset in another point in my life, and that experience turned out well. Interestingly, the previous belt-tightening, and the current one, have something in common: both were spurred by the tug of Home.

My first penny-pinching plan took place 22 years ago. After a divorce in my first marriage -- although left with a fair sum -- through careless spending, I became $35,000 in debt. This predicament forced me to sell my home. With the sale, I paid off the tab and rented a trendy loft apartment in River West. Unfortunately, this move did nothing to alter my habit. Instead of credit cards, I now used house-sale profits to finance my lifestyle.

A few years into my lease, I decided I wanted to be a homeowner again. But at the rate I was tapping my savings, I wouldn't have enough for a down payment. I found a rowhouse under construction in Lakeview and had six months to prove I could survive on my public relations income.

I read books on living as a tightwad, perused business and money sections in the newspapers, and dropped all spending I categorized as "Can Live Without." By the time my coveted house was ready for move-in, I was free of debt and had my signature on a mortgage.

My newest quest to curb spending was sparked by this realization: If I continue to draw from my retirement account at the same rate I have been doing, I will run out of money in about five years.

My first thought was the simplest: Move. I live in an expensive studio apartment in downtown Chicago. Surely I could find a place somewhere in the city that would be hip, and half my rental fee. But the more I pondered that thought, my mood shifted from grit to grim. I cried at the thought of leaving my adorable cocoon and lovely high-rise with concierge, a maintenance staff, and indoor swimming pool and gym. I'd miss my proximity to doctors and hospital and my Michigan Ave. jaunts. So, that's when "Can Live Without" plan #2 went into force.

Thus far, along with switching from the New York Times' print to online -- which is saving me $50 per month -- I cancelled a class I had enrolled in at Old Town School of Folk Music ($186) and a woman's retreat sponsored by my synagogue ($350). I cut monthly expenses by dropping in-home massage ($80), personal training ($120), switching hair cuts from salon to barber shop ($80 reduced to $33), eliminating Adobe Pro DC ($14.99), suspending Dropbox's Pro ($9.99), patronizing Trader Joe's more often than Whole Foods ($100), declining most lunch invitations ($200), reducing charity contributions ($81 to $18), and avoiding mindless clothes shopping ($115).

You'll have to do the math because I'm too lazy, but I think you'll agree that I've already sliced a significant sum from my outlay. So, if I can steadily spend $500 less each month that means my retirement account plus Social Security will buy me more time and I can stay put. Maybe I can even add years to the day when my dear daughters open their door and find Momma -- not the Times -- at their doorstep.