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Itinerant writer talks of living, and dreaming, on $20,000 a year

By Joseph Fonseca,

I am a perpetual stranger, moving to a new city every year.  I’m not a businessman, or an international superstar for that matter. I’m a writer. My average yearly income hovers just north of $20,000 and comes from waiting tables and manning the till at bookstores. I live on little. I plan and I save. When my itinerary was loosely designed six years ago, my main motivation was to gain greater life experience to inform my fiction. Much like people who save money to buy a house or to pay for their children’s education, I budget to live a writer’s life. Seattle will be my seventh city in seven years. I have never before set foot in this bastion of coffee and computers. I arrive with only a few contacts in my phone and a roommate whom I’ve met through e-mail and Facebook.  There is no work lined up for me, and my bank account holds just enough money to last me a couple of months before paying rent becomes a crisis. This is where you panic. This is where I get started.

While my college roommates were planning careers and marriages, I was contemplating the life of an itinerant novelist. I joked with my friends that I would be homeless, but a part of me knew it wasn’t quite a joke. Before I started calling it 10 Cities/10 Years, my only aspiration was to keep moving. The project arose out of a feverish case of wanderlust and a serious aversion to settling.

Two weeks after graduating from Kansas University in my home town, Lawrence, I moved to Charlotte, N.C.I was simply satisfied to put distance between myself and Kansas. Just over a month after moving to Charlotte, I landed a job as a barista at the neighborhood Books-A-Million. That I had applied to be a bookseller and didn’t drink coffee were mere details.

I settled into Charlotte, made friends, filled notebooks with prose and poetry, went on dates, stayed up way too late drinking and woke up far too early to walk to work. When my first six-month lease was up, I found another apartment down the street. And when that lease ended, I packed up everything again and shipped it to a 150-square-foot apartment in Philadelphia that I had rented via Craigslist, sight unseen.

Over the past six years, I’ve lived in six cities and eight apartments, acquired nine jobs and become intimately entangled in dozens of lives. In that time, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, we fell into the worst recession in memory, one of the biggest oil spills in our history ravaged the Gulf of Mexico, political inaction has led to a downgrade in our national credit rating and, now, we appear to be on the verge of a double-dip recession.

In such dire times, how do I survive year to year on customer service wages and tips from waiting tables?

I know how to stretch a dollar.

Bare necessities, prudent planning

The first thing you should understand about me is that I own next to nothing. When I started out, I had more than a dozen boxes. Now, everything I own fits in four medium-size cardboard boxes, a suitcase and one over-the-shoulder bag.

Possessions tend to breed more possessions. Once I started ridding myself of them, it became clear just how little I needed and how easy it was to live without. A suitcase worth of clothing, a collection of books, DVDs and writing journals, and my laptop are pretty much all that I take with me from city to city. My furniture needs are predominantly met by Craigslist and helpful strangers.

Secondly, I live to my means. Even when working in the relatively uncertain field of waiting tables, I budget ahead so that I’m certain to hit my weekly and monthly targets. If I have a subpar week, I know I’ll have to tighten my budget the next week to make up the difference. In Nashville, my most recent city, that meant averaging $350 a week. Some of my co-workers aimed for $500 and still fell behind with their bills.

I am a worst-case-scenario planner. This means that while some might spend their money before they make it and hope they have a good week, I plan on a lean week and reward myself with a meal out or an extra drink at the bar if I surpass my target. As common-sense as this seems to me, experience tells me that across this country people are living beyond their means. The national debt doesn’t concern me much. It’s individual debt that I find so confounding.

Budgeting with a purpose

Necessity is the mother of austerity. When I moved to Philadelphia, I briefly worked in a used CD/DVD store, where my crack-addled boss found paying his employees to be just too much of a bother. In San Francisco, it took nearly five months to find work. In Chicago, over two months. All the best planning in the world is meaningless when your economic fate is in the hands of others. While I can’t always control my income, I can control my spending.

My budget for groceries and toiletries ranges from $150 to $200 a month, depending on the cost of living in the city. Once I’m established and working regularly, I budget to put aside $300 a month for the next move. After rent and bills, whatever I make is extra — to spend at my discretion. When it comes to discretionary purchases, I’d much rather buy concert tickets or an extra round of drinks than a stereo system or a brand new wardrobe. Life experiences never depreciate.

The fact remains, though, budgeting is only half the story. Even the most fiscally responsible person is going to fall off track unless he has a purpose, a goal worth saving toward.

Evolution of a project

Like Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Kerouac before me, I felt a little worldliness would go a long way to informing my fiction. Even two or three years into the project, the idea was little more than a writing prompt. A part of me figured something would distract me eventually and I’d settle somewhere.

Over the years, though, the project evolved. It stopped being about having a few wild stories to tell my future kids and became about the people I met, their lives, their aspirations and, unfortunately, their roadblocks.

A lot of people travel these days. There are countless blogs and Web sites devoted to the globe-trotting adventures of vagabonds and housewives alike. Most of these writers are either backpacking through countries in Europe and Asia or are stationary individuals who use their savings to take trips across the world. I admire all of these travelers and jealously read about their international tours.

What I do is different.

Living in a city for a year requires that I be more than a tourist, more than the passing ghost. It’s not enough to pay my bills; I become a citizen of the city and, with that, a part of people’s lives. And, in turn, they become a part of mine. I have been asked how I can possibly build relationships in such a short period. If I’ve learned anything doing this project, it’s just how much one can pack into a single year. And these relationships are vital because I would never have come this far without the liberal assistance of friends and family.

What originated as a, frankly, self-indulgent attempt to avoid adult entanglements has morphed into something complex and unwieldy. It’s equal parts sociology experiment, performance art, historical record and endurance test.

Capturing the zeitgeist

I have a year in Seattle ahead of me, and just like the previous six years, there is no guarantee that I will make ends meet. All I can count on is my unyielding determination to see this project all the way to its conclusion. It’s having a destination that’s bigger than any material wants or momentary pleasure that keeps me going.

I have never wanted to be an example of spiritual asceticism. This isn’t the “Kerouac Guide to Financial Security.” What I do isn’t a practical way to live, which is why I do it. Everyone reads “On the Road” as a teenager, then they graduate college, put on a suit and start thinking of their 20s as “the best years of my life.” That path didn’t work for me.

It was seriously bad luck for me to embark on this endeavor during the most financially unstable period in recent history, but we don’t choose the generation we live in. Like my literary heroes, I have the modest desire to help define mine. This is most definitely not the Jazz Age, and our generation seems more beaten than Beat, but we are writing our history all the same. I think we owe it to ourselves to be more compelling than a footnote in a chapter on financial collapse and political ineptitude. I’m trying to do my part.

There is an art to living.

This is my ill-advised life, one part Kerouac, one part Darwin, two parts whiskey and a splash of luck.

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