Most people hate to budget. It can be restrictive, frustrating and down right tiresome. Plus, anything that takes time and extra effort is a great recipe for procrastination, which we all tend to struggle with from time to time.
However, budgeting and ramping up your savings can also be extremely eye opening and rewarding. Who doesn’t love to accomplish goals?! Building discipline in your spending habits can also lead to financial independence faster, more opportunities and an easier and more comfortable retirement = win, win, win. Utilizing free financial tools can be a big help too, they’ve certainly helped me a great deal.
Everyone faces different monetary challenges and living in expensive cities like NYC, San Francisco, D.C., Boston, L.A etc. can make it especially challenging to stick to a budget. Here are some thoughts from Colleen Kong-Savage, a freelance artist and mom based in Manhattan, who shares her thoughts and struggles on trying to cut costs. Check out her work at ckongsavage.com
Notes from an aspiring penny-pincher
Once you cross into the boundaries of NYC, there’s this hole that magically opens up in your wallet, and all your money starts flooding out. Some days it feels like I’m paying $5 for every step I take outside my apartment.
My spending habits are modest—I replenish my wardrobe with Old Navy and shop at Trader Joe’s—but I pay rent of $146 a day for the privilege of living in prime New York City real estate. The crazy thing is that that figure is under market value for my neighborhood (the fire station next door and two neighboring construction sites might have something to do with it). I live in a creaky but spacious two-bedroom apartment courtesy of my ex-husband, who wanted me close by because we share custody of our son. Thus, he’s been handsomely supplementing my anemic income as an illustrator-designer.
Recently, a friend said to me, “Every time I walk out my door, I spend a minimum of $20.” So I started calculating what I had spent that day: bubble tea plus tip was $6 and a beef patty plus tip was $4, so $10 in all. I felt quite smug as I came home and closed the door behind me, until I remembered that I had also just spent $75 with health insurance on a doctor’s visit.
That was two weeks ago. Just as an experiment I wanted to see if I could live a week without spending money. Subway ($2.75/ride) wouldn’t count because my Metrocard was already paid for. I’d start right after I finished buying eye solution, milk, yogurt ($25), and while I was at it, a coffee and scone ($5)…
A week without spending requires planning. I drew up a 7-day meal plan so I could grocery shop and load up the fridge accordingly. I got the laundry done and made sure to treat my friend for coffee that Friday so that she would treat the following Friday.
Day 1: I wanted to do some cardio, except my plantar fasciitis was acting up, meaning running was out. Swimming cost $25 and weather was too miserable for biking, so I settled for working out with Gillian Michaels on DVD. I always feel like a dork and sheep-like following workout videos, but I just drew the window curtains shut against anyone who might witness me.
Then I remembered a Thursday date for drinks with my agent celebrating a successfully negotiated contract. Sooooo… I postponed my experiment to start the day after.
Day 1 (#2): I’m stuck in the apartment all day working (I’m a freelancer). It gives me cabin fever. Normally I would simply change my workspace to a cafe, but I’ve got my austerity measures in play, so I settle for a walk in the cold.
Day 2: I found out my kid’s best friend from elementary school—who my kid and I adore, but never see since she changed schools—was finally able to visit us. I planned to take the kids to see Dr. Strange, and I used the discount movie passes ($33) bought long ago, so I wouldn’t have to spend another dime for tickets. I thought. I had to pay an extra $18 because we were seeing the movie in IMax. The woman behind the register misinterpreted my look of dismay and pointed out, “Well if you didn’t have the passes you’d be paying $66.” Experiment failed again, but I saved $15!
Day 1 (#3)—oh screw it.
Penny-Pincher’s to-do list
I know thousands of people in this country have no choice but to not spend. However, the brain power I was expending to attempt this experiment can be put to better use. Instead of putting an artificial cramp on my lifestyle, I’m brainstorming for ways to scrimp here and there. Here’s my list. Feel free to add your two cents in the comments.
1) I gave up on paper coupons, but I love Groupon, Living Social, and sometimes ScoutMob for food, shopping, kid activities, services—someone I know just took her family of four on an 10-day tour of China for $2600, airfare and hotel included, through Living Social.
2) If you live in NYC, you have to take advantage of IDNYC, which is not just a form of ID, it also gets you free memberships to a number of cultural institutions (e.g. Museum of Modern Art, the Met Opera), discounts on movies (Dr. Strange!), sporting events, Broadway shows, and fitness.
3) Always google the words “coupon” or “discount” when you are shopping online. For example, if you need a new vacuum, type “bed bath beyond coupon” or “best buy discount.”
4) If you’re good at paying credit card bills, take advantage of ones that offer reward points. I love my Amazon Visa: points accrued on my account can be redeemed anytime on anything sold on Amazon. My old printer died the other year; I got new one for free courtesy of my Amazon Visa. Just be sure you are solid at paying your bills, otherwise you end up losing money in penalty charges.
5) Throughout the year, take advantage of sales and stock up on gifts. For example, if you have a child, he will inevitably be attending birthday parties throughout the year. Why not load up on toys during the after-Christmas sales?
I Like to Move it, Move It
6) I prefer running (very slowly) to gyms. You need good shoes, but after that, running is a free exercise program. Plus you get to be outside at whatever time you want, almost anywhere. Throw a friend in and you’ve got the incentive of a social date too.
7) Look into gyms that don’t charge you your firstborn child to join (e.g. Planet Fitness charges $10/month after a $40 start up/annual fees).
8) If you have a bike, and you’re relatively safe from rabid drivers, bike to work. Save $5.50 a day in subway costs.
Buy, Sell, Swap
9) Buy stuff at consignment shops: clothes, furniture, books, games and toys, dishes, bags. You even have consignment shops online, e.g. swap.com, snobswap.com, chairish.com. Plus if you’re shopping at a place like Housing Works or Salvation Army, you are also contributing to a cause.
10) OR do a swap amongst friends. A girlfriend was sporting a sweet new dress the other day after organizing a clothes swap. Swap books, swap DVDs. You can even swap books online.
11) Conversely, if you need to clear out some closet space, get rid of stuff by selling it. Have a yard/stoop/garage sale, or post a flyer in the elevator of your apartment building, or post on Craigslist or eBay.
Feed Yourself Without Starving Your Wallet
Food can be a big expense. When I was married, we ate out most of the time. When I visit my family, we eat out. Nobody I’m related to wants to cook. Curbing my preference to dine out was hard. It’s not so much the food prep that makes me grimace, as it is the time that gets voraciously eaten up in the creation of a meal. With cooking, there goes two hours of my day. If I have a freelance gig that week, that translates to $90 worth of time for one meal.
On average I spend $160 a week on eating out, with and without my 12 year-old, and $135 a week on groceries. So that’s about $1200 a month on food. I see all you folks outside of NYC with your eyeballs popping out. Put them back in their sockets. If you saw the prices listed here in the menus and store aisles, you would know I’m not Trumping up my diet. Every time I leave the city, I want to start hoarding food because it is so cheap on the other side of our bridges and tunnels.
So how do you feed your face in one of the world’s food capitals, keep a happy jingle in your piggy bank, AND have time for your kid, your work, and the rest of life. Sadly, I don’t know if you can without x amount of dollars. But here are some thoughts:
12) When you eat out, order modestly. I met friends for brunch the other day at a restaurant in the beautiful, posh Gramercy Park Hotel. Looking at the high menu prices ($20 for a kick-butt frittata garnished with frisée greens is still a $20 omelet), I wondered why on earth my friend recommended this restaurant when she struggles to make ends meet. Then upon ordering our food, I noticed that while the rest of us asked for $20 entrees, my friend requested a pastry and coffee for $10. Thus she got to enjoy a fine restaurant with friends without going broke.
13) Have leftovers. Hallelujah for the microwave oven (that does not fit in my tiny kitchen). When you cook at home, make enough for two meals. When you go out, bring home whatever you don’t eat.
14) Cook in bulk. Three days is my begrudging max that I can eat the same meal in a week. I DO cook steel cut oatmeal in bulk, load it up with coconut, flax, raisins, nuts, enough for 4-5 servings. Then each day I have it, I use a different fruit to top it off.
15) Use the freezer. a) Trader Joe’s makes great frozen meals which I supplement with salads. For $4-5 and a few minutes you can enjoy chicken tikka masala or bibimbap or any number of dishes from around the world. b) Make food in bulk then freeze it in single portions for later.
16) Get your own coffee machine. For you coffee addicts, you can lose that monthly Starbucks tax of $40-50, if you’re willing to make your own cuppa joe. There are plenty of good coffee makers for under $50.
17) Drink at home. No, not by yourself in a closet. I mean invite your friends over, rather than always defaulting to the bar—although I suppose it is harder to pick up men and women at home. It is much cheaper to get drunk on your own couch than the one in that self-important lounge by your office.
Help Your Finances Avoid Culture Shock
18) If you live in one, take advantage of the big city. Here in NYC, I can go gallery hopping to see art for free, or visit the major art museums on pay-what-you-wish nights.
19) During the summer, free performances and movies abound in public spaces, and for performances that are not free, you can often find discounts. For example, the Metropolitan Opera offers Standing Room Only tickets for $25-30 in the back.
20) Go to your library to borrow books, DVD’s, computers, and classes. The NY Public Library offers a plethora of programs including workshops in computer literacy, arts and crafts, online language lessons, even how to carry your baby in the baby carrier.
At Your Service
21) Babysitting costs about $16-20/hour in New York City. You could probably get away with hiring a teen babysitter for $10/hour. But better yet, if you are good friends with another family, take turns babysitting each other’s kids.
22) Head about to explode, but can’t afford a therapist? Try e-therapy.
23) Swap services. If you’re strapped for cash, look for ways to swap services with friends or people in your network.
If I really wanted to save money, I would have to move out of this city. Or at the very least get a roommate to move in with me. Or boyfriend. The rent is too damn high. Many couples break up but continue to live with each other because neither can afford to move. I realize how lucky I am to live in New York City as a single mom and graphic artist with health insurance.
Even though I failed miserably at my experiment to go longer than 48 hours without spending cash, the brief experience did highlight to me how much work goes into living on a tight budget. Much thought went into planning the week (albeit not enough), thinking what foods will last until I can spend again, how can I socialize without spending. Money buys not just quantity and quality of stuff, but convenience, choice, and most importantly, time.
Untemplaters, have you ever tried to go for an entire week without spending any money? How long did you last and what was your experience like? What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced when trying to save money?