Right now, I'm on my first-ever visit to Ithaca, New York. I'm attending my third wedding in the past month. These three weddings have taken me to three different states and three different time zones. My girlfriend and I just got another invite to a sorority sister's upcoming nuptials this fall and had the same first thought: "Do we have to?"
Our friends and family are important to us and we want to support each one of them on their special day. But with plane tickets, hotel rooms, time off work, and modest gifts, these weddings are adding up.
On top of that, while we've been gone, we've both received a lot of text messages from friends back home eager to get together when we return to hear about our travels. After budgeting for all our trips this summer, it means we won't have as much disposable income as most of our friends.
I love the jeans I'm wearing. I actually wear them almost four days a week. Chances are that if you see me, I'm wearing these jeans. They're my only pair. When I bought them, I very gladly put down my $200 cash and left the store with a smile. The jeans I had before them cost the same, and I wore them until they got holes in them, and then I got those patched up, and then the patches got holes in them and the hem came out and I decided to move on.
A lot of personal finance advice I read says that $200 is entirely too much to spend on jeans, no matter their longevity. The problem here is that I love these jeans. I feel confident in them. It sounds weird to me, but having jeans that fit this well have become a value of mine. The jeans aren't the point though. Chances are, we all have something we buy that maybe costs more than it should, or at least more than it could, be it wine, fitness, clothing, makeup, electronics, or pure-bred cats. My goal is to spend on the things I care about, and ferociously save on the things I don't.
I practice the art of conscious spending.
If you're anything like me, you're barely insured. I don't work for a company that offers benefits and so I've had to shop for individual insurance. Setting aside what a headache that was, I've ended up with catastrophic insurance. This means that if I step off a curb wrong and break every bone in my leg, I won't be in totally ruined. That said, I don't get any help with regular checkups or routine care.
There are lots of things I do every day to help keep the Doctor away that go far beyond a simple apple. Every day, I work toward more optimal health and have learned that prevention is far cheaper than treatment. Not only do I consider my health to be my greatest asset, but staying away from MDs is a financial reality I've had to learn to navigate. None of this is groundbreaking, but let it serve as a reminder that just like your financial health, your mental and physical health requires daily attention.
Yes, it's expensive and you'll probably never use it. I haven't had to go to the Doctor since college. The what-ifs however, are too disheartening to ignore. Any sort of grave accident or surprise diagnoses, without insurance, would have me sunk. I have an extremely high deductible and not surprisingly, it matches my emergency fund. If you feel like you don't need insurance at all, you don't necessarily need get much, but get yourself something.
We all have our ways of destressing after a long day. One of my weirdest and most beloved post-work, take-a-load-off strategies has always been cruising the aisles of gourmet grocery stores just to look at packaging. Give me an aisle of fancily bottled extra virgin olive oil, and I'll need at least an hour. Nothing is more calming to me than fancy fonts on fancy jars of fancy imported foods.
I don't even need to buy anything. Often I just stroll around, try a sample of pickled figs, and continue my stroll home. Sometimes though, I'll splurge on a $3 glass bottle of spring water from some promised fountain-of-youth in Italy. This, to me, is the quintessential quandary of wants vs. needs: I need to drink water, but I don't need it to come from a hydro-spa in Lurisia.
What's a Want? What's a Need?
There were a lot of comments in my last article about spontaneous spending as to how to determine wants and needs when budgeting according to the Balanced Money Formula in Warren and Tyagi's All Your Worth. Whether you use their formula or not, figuring out the essentials of your budget is important. For those of you just tuning in, the balanced money formula says that 50% of your income should go toward needs, 30% to wants, and 20% into savings. I think this comment exemplifies some of the confusion:
Most of us struggle with some psychological aspect of money that can impede our savings. Whether it be the lure of clothing stores, nights out with friends, or stocking a top-shelf liquor cabinet, there tends to be one thing or another that creeps from our wants category into our needs. I've never been a compulsive shopper and always preferred voluntary simplicity, both in the kitchen and in my closet. This means that for most of my young adult life, I had good control of my finances.
Then I Started Dating…
Dating quickly made gift giving my Achilles heel. As with other debt-inducing habits, it seemed harmless at first. Here are some things I started doing, not realizing how much money I was shelling out:
- I never liked to show up at my girlfriend's apartment empty handed so I always had her favorite Snapple or a magazine for her in hand. (Six bucks, just to say hello.)
- I always wanted to pick up the check, even when we were out with a friend or two. (Could be upwards of $100, just to show I cared.)
- I brought expensive bottles of wine to dinner parties, not to show off, but just to enjoy with everyone, even if I was just as happy with $7 bottle myself. ($25 to try to find community.)
- I was sent to the store to get simple baking supplies, but instead of getting the normal vanilla extract, I would get the fancy packaged one for twice the price. Take that philosophy down the entire list of supplies and I'd racked up a pretty hefty bill. ($50 extra just so we could feel high society together.)
It was never about seeming rich to my friends or girlfriend. I took pride in my penny pinching in every other aspect of my life. I honestly thought it was about generosity and showing affection, nothing more.
Prom dresses have started to appear in the windows of downtown department stores, signaling that in the next few months, another crop of seniors will be heading off to college. By now, the ones on their game have kept the grades up, participated in extra-curricular activities, researched the value of a college education and the best-value colleges, applied for scholarships, and found a good deal on housing.
Still, a whole new world of financial responsibility awaits them. I thought I'd share some of the best (and worst) financial decisions I made as an undergrad.
Find a good place to put your money.
One of the first things I did was join a local credit union, instead of one the big banks that setup tables on campus and offered free checking accounts, t-shirts, and laundry bags that read “off to a clean start.” By joining a credit union, I avoided overdraft fees. (One of the big banks handed out a card to new customers that said “sh*t happens.” It was a get-out-of-jail-free card for your first overdraft fee.)
It was always my dream to be paid to travel. I thought I'd write guidebooks or be a tour guide. A few years ago, my wanderlust was acting up again, so I crunched some numbers, adding up the cost of living where I was (New York) versus traveling for month. With some careful planning, I spent a month in Paris and ended up with more money than when I left.
The cost of staying in one place
I'm sure most of us know our monthly expenditures. Rent, utilities, Internet, cable, Netflix, gym membership, gas, cellphone, and the list goes on. Granted, all of us have different interests and different monthly expenditures, but there's usually a basic bottom line for all of us. I thought if I could zero that out, then a month away would become more of a reality. Living in New York made it easy to sublet my apartment for a one-month stint. I raised my rent price a couple hundred dollars to cover my utilities, Internet, and cable. I put my Netflix and gym memberships on hold, and at the time, pay-as-you-go was all the rage so my cellphone had no contract. My car stayed parked out back and my gas expense dropped to zero. My monthly expenses dropped from around $1,500 to nothing at all.
I knew I wanted to be centrally located in Paris, but didn't need much more. On Craigslist I found a lot of graduate and doctorate students who had to travel for their dissertations. They were looking to rent out their apartments for cheap, real cheap, just so their rent wouldn't be a total loss. Not only that, most everyone I talked to was willing to negotiate. I ended up with a small room on the top floor of the building (the former maid's room) for â‚¬150 a month, less than a fourth of my rent back home. The student was traveling to Africa and was happy to have someone to watch his cat. (If you want to go even cheaper than that, you can try house-sitting. Friends of mine have been paid to stay in beach houses in the Caribbean or mountain homes in Montana. I have yet to do this myself, so I'm curious if any of you have stories.)
Food, and becoming the invited guest
When I travel, everything is new. Yes, five-star restaurants are appealing, but street food gives me the most pleasure. Some of my best meals had been Nutella crepes and crusty baguettes, often for less than â‚¬3. At home, not only was I prone to $8 burritos when I didn't have a chance to make something after work, but I'd also have a small dinner party for friends at least once a month. This often meant having either wine or liquor and cooking for five, a lot pricier than cooking for one.
When abroad, I'm usually the one who's asked to dinner. Through volunteer work, attending free book readings, or helping someone carry groceries down the street, I found myself being the invited guest to at least one dinner party a week, and it was a great way to try some of the traditional French dishes, learn the language, and interact with people. Put yourself out there, learn some niceties, and you might be surprised how willing people are to want to share their culture and open their doors.
It's Friday night. A few friends and I are debating whether or not to go to the college bars down the street to get a drink when my friend Steve chimes in that his apartment is just up the way, and says, with his chest slightly puffed, “I have a fully stocked liquor cabinet — something for everyone.”
Steve obviously likes to keep his apartment ready for impromptu entertaining. There's ample seating, surround sound, and yes, a bar separate from the kitchen that's almost equal in size. Behind the bar he keeps bottles upon bottles of spirits, all lit from underneath. He puts on some Miles Davis and takes his spot behind the bar.
“What are you having?” he asks me.
I remember when my parents gave me a raise in my allowance. I was seven and I went from $2 a week to $5 a week because I started doing my own laundry and washing my own dishes. I was so excited to be a model employee. I remember that day plotting out just how many extra GI Joes I could buy in a year and how impressive and extensive my collection would be. Then I remember going to the pharmacy down on the main avenue and buying $4 worth of candy instead of $2. My whole GI Joe plan started to disintegrate in a heap of peanut butter cup wrappers.
You know what I remember more vividly? I remember the day my parents stopped giving me an allowance. It was the same year I moved my lemonade stand from Wednesday afternoon to Saturday morning and from the corner of my side-street to right down on that same candy-filled main avenue and saw my revenues rise tenfold.
Lemonade stands are so tired! This young entrepreneur is selling jokes.
From there, I started going around the house finding things that needed to be done, whether it be the deck re-stained or the water damage on the basement ceiling redone and I'd negotiate with my parents fair pay for the task. It usually didn't matter that I had no idea how to replace a bathtub or efficiently organize a closet, there were books in libraries, helpers at local hardware stores, and now, google to offer a quick afternoon of learning. I now had an eye for opportunity and was learning skills that set jobs into motion.
It's a common refrain that today's college graduates are entering into the worst job market and economy since Hoover was around. We're told that an undergraduate degree means less than what a high school diploma once was, yet we're investing more in school than ever before. Post college debt is a major emotional weight on the backs of this newest generation, and colleges encourage debt with ease — don't worry about it; you don't have to pay it off until after you've graduated and have a well-paying job.
We're sold on it and it's a hard sell, not only by schools, but by the banks' ad dollars, as well. Previous generations didn't start life with so much debt, and in the middle of a job-killing recession no less. You probably aren't going to pay off that kind of debt waiting tables. Realize that college debt most likely means postponing life goals such as mortgage, car, marriage, and maybe even children.
Good-to-know facts about college debt
How big of a problem is the cost of college? Consider the following: