How To Live a Champagne Life on a Beer Budget

Yes, you CAN live a champagne life on a beer budget! A cute home, a nice wardrobe, even travel - it's possible! //

Dear Sarah,

So this is a pretty awkward question, but I do hope you’ll answer it. I know that you are a teacher at a non-profit and you’ve made a few references to you salary of “two dollars.” But you are always dressed so well! And you travel all the time and it sounds like you live in a really nice neighborhood! How do you do it? You don’t have a trust fund do you? ;D

You’re right! That is an awkward question! But, in an effort to hook up some other ladies who are trying to squeeze liquid gold from the proverbial stone, I’ll share my secrets of financial skulduggery.


Buy second hand

Guys, it is not an exaggeration that 75% of my wardrobe is thrifted. And a lot of it is swankity swank brands pilfered from deep in the racks of my local Goodwill. Not only does thrifting save me heaps of money, I feel endlessly clever and lucky when I score an Anne Klein cocktail dress for $20.

Anybody can walk into Anthropologie and put together a cute outfit for $500. It takes an artist to create an ensemble out of the $2 bin. Here are my trusted thrifting tips.

Swap clothes with your friends

Most of us have tons of perfectly nice pieces that – for one reason or another – we’re not wearing. Maybe it doesn’t fit anymore, maybe we’ve progressed past our stripe obsession, maybe we got dumped while wearing it.

Whatever the reason, you can rehome your gently used goods and get some free goodies of your own by hosting a clothing swap! Essentially, you just invite all your girlfriends to your house for drinks and bags of second-hand clothing, but if you’d like a better breakdown, check out this post.

Be extremely intentional + strategic about what you buy

You won’t spend as much money on clothing if you think very, very carefully before you buy something new. Before you add something to your shopping cart (either in real life or online) ask yourself these questions:

  • Can I wear this with at least three other items that I already own?
  • Do I feel comfortable and confident when I put this on?
  • Is this the best cut for me? 
  • Is this the best color for me?
  • If I layer this with other things, can I wear it for more than one season?
  • Is this classic enough that I’ll still be able to wear it next year? And the year after this?
  • Is this well-made? Will it still fit and look good in a year or two?
  • Does this fit my body today? Not five pounds from now?
  • Am I comfortable with the production practices of the company that’s selling this item?

Ooooof. That’s a lot of questions for a fitting room at Marshall’s, right? You might not be able to check every box for every item you purchase, but keeping these questions in the forefront of your mind when you go shopping will reduce buyer’s remorse by approximately 99 percent.

And a weird tip: I feel better about my thrifted, second-hand clothes when I display them nicely and keep them in tip top shape. I splurged on those fancy ‘huggable’ hangers so everything I own hangs nicely. I display all my prettiest jewelry and I keep my boots shined and my sweaters lint-free. My wardrobe looks like a million bucks even though it costs $20!


Eat out less

Under the heading of “so incredibly obvious I hesitate to mention it,” eating out is expensive. And unhealthy. And unless you’re enjoying haute cuisine, you’re probably perfectly capable of making food at home that is just as delicious as the $13 plate of pasta that TGIFridays is serving you. My favorite pizza is $20 for a 12-inch. I CAN BUY THREE FROZEN PIZZAS FOR THAT PRICE.

If you find yourself eating out because it’s Friday night and the cupboards are bare, make a practice of stockpiling “emergency” food for such occasions – frozen pizzas and burritos, Trader Joe’s curries, or those frozen vegetables with sauce. These cost a fraction of a meal out and you can store them almost indefinitely.

Learn to cook awesome things at home

Again, painfully obvious. Cooking will help you save money, maintain a healthy weight, and impress potential lovers.

If you, like me, are lazy, you can spend your Sunday night making one giant pot of soup, one giant pot of oatmeal, one non-lettuce salad thing, a casserole-y thing and eat all of that over the course of the next week. Super easy! Super cheap!

Leann Brown’s cookbook Good And Cheap is a revelation and teaches you how to eat well on $4 (!!!) a day.

And a weird tip: I find I enjoy dining at home a lot more when I make it a proper ‘experience.’ I use placemats and cloth napkins. I plate my food nicely and garnish it if I have some parsley kicking around the crisper. I put ice in my water and light a candle if I’m feeling ambitious. You can create a restaurant-worthy atmosphere in your breakfast nook with pretty minimal effort!

Be your own mixologist

Did you know that most bars charge a 1,000% markup on their bottom shelf liquor? A ONE THOUSAND PERCENT MARKUP. Why is no one rioting in the streets?!

Of course, there are lots of reasons people go to bars, but if you’re really going there for the Vodka Gimlets, you’ll save yourself a lot of money if you just learn to make them yourself. Here’s what you need to stock a party-ready home bar and here’s a bartending guidewith 780 drink recipes. Get to mixing my friend!

Stop wasting food

Americans waste 165 billion dollars worth of food every year and I’m responsible for at least one billion dollars of wilted fresh herbs that I only used in one dish.

You can waste less food if you only buy what you need and eat what you buy. It sounds obvious, but check your fridge and pantry before you head to the grocery store and always shop with a list. Only buy enough fresh produce for that week and learn to adjust recipes to fit what you’ve got on hand.

Freeze extra portions if you don’t think you want to eat soup every day this week and if you see that fruit is about to go bad, peel it, chop it and freeze it for future smoothies.

Figure out which foods make you feel fancy and purchase accordingly

This post is titled “How to live a champagne life on a beer budget” but you might not feel very champagne life-y if you’re eating beans and rice every day. We’ve all got a few foods that feel “fancy” to us – mine is a nice chunk of high-quality Parmesan. Maybe yours is prosciutto or chocolate souffle.

If that food makes you feel like a baller, find a way to make it part of your life. Use it as a garnish or watch for sales. Learn to make it yourself. Eat soup for lunch so you have more space in your budget for cured meats.


I have the least awesome car you could ever imagine. Seriously. Does it get any less awesome than a 2003 Ford Focus? But it’s rust free, only has 100,000 miles on it and isn’t going to get stolen when I go thrifting in a dicey neighborhood. And I bought it with a personal check. No big monthly payments for me!


I do, in fact, live in a nice, slightly swanky neighborhood. I’m a total design and home whore, so living in a boxy, seventies-style apartment in the suburbs was simply not an option. I squeezed my way into this pricey real estate market by sheer luck and by taking an apartment in need of a really good cleaning and a new paint job. I’ve gussied it up using these tricks.


I am huge fan of the thriftyhipster and generally trawling the internet for free or cheap fun. Honestly, you can usually find me doing ridiculous things to entertain myself (see “visit Scientology church” 30 new things goal) but I’m not opposed to dropping change on an event I really want to see.


Of course, travel can be expensive. But it doesn’t have to be! I religiously follow my own advice for traveling on the cheap. And honestly? I just make travel a priority. I’m always planning and saving for my next trip (Next time? Mt. Everest base camp and the Trans-Siberian!) Some girls save up for Jimmy Choos, I save up for Jakarta.

Money Tricks

I only really have two bits of financial wizardry, but I’m happy to share them.
I created a basic budget for myself, just using a spreadsheet and cataloging my monthly income and bills.
From there I figured out how much money I should be putting away each month for retirement, future travel, etc and then a gave myself a weekly allotment of fun money.
I go to the ATM once a week, withdraw that amount in cash and once that money is gone, I’m stuck eating at home and watching library dvds till Sunday comes round again.
I realize that putting yourself on an allowance seems pretty dire and deeply unsexy, but it has actually made shopping more fun and made me appreciate my purchases a lot more.
The other trick I employ is the money vs. time mind game. I think about how much time I’d have to spend at work to equal the cost of the thing I’m about to buy.
It’s crazy to think that I could take two days off for the cost of a purse! And given the option, wouldn’t you rather have two days to do what you want rather than a different thing to carry your phone around in?

How to do you guys fake the good life?

P.S. If you love this kind of stuff, you’d love my free, private Money & Happy Facebook group. Click here to join 3,000+ awesome, like-minded people!

Photo by Marion Michele on Unsplash

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  1. Erin

    Dude. great tips. I totally do the money vs. time thing, too. And I can attest to the unawesomeness of a 1994 Ford Tempo–I drove one until I totaled it during college. Also, the hubs and I have bought 2 cars with cash in the five years we’ve been married. SOOOO worth it to drive decent used cars and not have any car payments!

  2. Darcie

    p.s. you are not faking the good life.

  3. Sarah Von Bargen

    Darcie: ahahahahaha! This is why you are my BFF.

  4. Leia

    These tips are excellent. I give myself a monthly allowance, too, although I don’t withdraw it all in cash (that doesn’t allow for online purchases!)

    eBay is also a great place to find excellent items at a discounted price. I highly recommend saving your favorite searches because eBay will email you every day to tell you that new things have been listed. Exercise self-restraint when it comes to eBay, though! As with thrifting, one really should remember not to buy something just because it’s cheap, if you don’t really REALLY like it.

  5. Chrissy

    excellent advice! i follow most of this already, but you make it sound easy and even fun!

  6. Sal

    I seriously need to take a page out of your book, S. SO impressed by these wise and wiley rules for living well cheaply.

  7. ML

    oh my gosh, please write a book. lol. i work at a library and also make two dollars 😉 and already use some of your tips but just LOVE having more.

  8. Renai

    I don’t think I’ve ever commented before, so HI!

    I make okay-ish money, but due to HUGE medical bills and student loan payments, I see very, very little of my paycheck each month.

    I don’t buy ANY clothes at full price, ever. Tons of my clothes are thrifted- and often I’ll take them in or alter them to make them fit my style, if it’s a quality piece of clothing that doesn’t quite fit right. Other than that my clothes come from eBay, Target, sometimes Forever 21, and Nordstrom Rack. Shoes are one of the only things that I will “splurge” on, and it’s still only if they’re on sale.

    I don’t drive at all- instead I bought a bike for $300, and was able to talk my employer into buying anyone in the office who doesn’t drive a monthly bus pass.

    I’m vegetarian (mostly vegan) which means very little eating out. I cut back dramatically on drinking as well, which saves an insane amount of money.

    I also give myself a monthly cash budget- and I actually managed to make $150 spread over two weeks a little while back, because I gave myself no other choice.

    I usually try to pay all of my bills right away for that month, and then from there I work with what I have. It changes depending on various things, but I’m at a point now where I can actually save money every month, which is pretty huge.

    Whoaaaaa, longest answer ever.

  9. Sarah Von Bargen


    Welcome to the party! Those are really fantastic ideas … I’m working on becoming a better and more devoted biker myself. 🙂

  10. Delilah + Jack

    Miss Sarah Von: Greetings from Istanbul! I very much enjoyed your postcard from your travels…but have you changed address from the one you sent prior? How can I send you a postcard from abroad???? Email the new address [email protected] 🙂


    ps I love the save money tips…your singing my tune!

    PPS buying second hand is even a moral choice for moi rather than buying full price, give new life to old things

  11. Bridey

    You are my hero 🙂
    Great ideas I really need to follow

  12. Ms Constantine

    Fantastic post. I've already got these tricks down pat from the days when I was living on a sickness benefit. I've had enough money for the last few years while I've been employed, but from today (woo!) I'm self employed so it's back to the budgets and thrifting. The great thing is that now that I'm at home all the time I'll have to write the budget and go thrifting. 😀

  13. George

    Also, buy less, buy better. Who needs 10 average things when you can have 1 or 2 wonderful ones, and money left over?

  14. Gene

    Fantastic ideas. My wife and I do many of these things and it's worked out very well for us.

  15. choirinmychest

    Ahhhh you are incredible! I LOVE that you consider travel a priority and my tip for being a thriftster.. ermmm living at my parents? Ughh not actually by choice but good for saving.

  16. Sherin

    Wow. Great tips. I'm definitely going to use them. Thanks a lot for posting them. Shopping thrifted is so much more rewarding…I love finding something ridiculously cheap, thats over priced somewhere else.

  17. George

    Oh yes, another thing. Buy a good knife. For the price of a few meals out you can get something that will make cooking a dream. Or at least a lot nicer.

  18. Amber

    Good tips! As I adjust to freelance life I'm printing them out and sticking them on my noticeboard 🙂

  19. Katie

    i know this is a (relatively) older post but i just had to comment on its helpfulness! i do that work time vs. cost thing too all the time! if it'll take me half a day's work to earn that tube of lipstick at sephora, i'll haul my butt down to cvs, thank you very much.

  20. Katie,

    Thanks for pulling this one out of the archives to share again! I like surrounding myself with tips for living a fabulously frugal life. I wear thrifted clothes, my wee one wears hand-me-downs, and since we've gone vegan (me) and vegetarian (him), our eating-out budget has turned into our savings contribution. It's never too late to start spending smarter!

  21. Shireen

    I LOVE THIS POST and live my life in the same budget-friendly way. My friends always compliment me on my cute outfits…little do they know, my entire wardrobe comes from consignment stores or Goodwill! Woo! You go sista

  22. Sarah

    Your blog inspires me! I shared this with a friend who recently left a job she hated for a low paying job that makes her smile every day. Thought she could use these great tips!

  23. 25castleson25clouds

    Taking my treat money for the week out of the ATM is brilliant, I so need to do this!!

  24. Sparklez Bright

    i also shop at Goodwill and i use coupons and promo codes when i'm not shopping at Goodwill.

  25. Leah

    Thrifting is the best! I only shop at Crossroads, Goodwill and Nordstrom Rack if I need something specific like shoes or underwear. I always get compliments on my finds and it makes me so much happier to spend $10 on a J.Crew cardigan than to pay whatever ungodly price it would be.

  26. Johannah Betts

    Religiously packing my lunch for work. What I cook at home is always more healthy and delicious than that $8 sandwich place anyway. And making coffee in the morning at home. Coffee and lunch out add up quick!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yes! <3

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