Photo: Tara Howard
It’s no secret or surprise that New York City is freakin’ expensive. As a twenty-something with a decent job, finishing the month with a neutral cash flow – let alone a positive one – is a MAJOR accomplishment. Maintaining a monthly budget is a very delicate balance, and any unexpected expense can throw everything out of whack.
For the most part, I’m a frugal girl. Frankly, credit card debt freaks me out. I’m usually obsessive about paying off the balance as soon as I charge it. But even though I am a responsible consumer, this glamorous city clouds my judgment sometimes. Sometimes my evil indulgent side tells me that I must buy it. That it’s worth it to “invest” in those heels because they’ll be comfortable while I walk everywhere. Or maybe a friend visits and while showing them a good time, I wake up with not just a physical hangover but a fiscal one too.
So recently all in one pay period, I bought a plane ticket and a pair of shoes, and had a friend visit. My finances were a mess. I needed to recover from my consumption gluttony, and I decided to go on a crash money diet (CMD).
My CMD started with the money I had left after rent, and the essential cell phone, Internet, and credit card bills. I was left with $271 of play money for fourteen days in Manhattan. I also had other “current assets” such as various food items (bread, peanut butter, jelly), left-over fitness classes from an online deal, and a couple department store gift cards. My strategy was simple, no $$ or $$$ restaurants, definitely no uber-expensive fitness classes when I already had some banked, and NO shopping unless I used gift cards.
Most days it was easy for me to stay occupied for free, especially during the week. But the weekends were the worst! No brunch. No cocktail bars. No shopping. One day I did two 360s while walking away from a sample sale that I was dying to go to. Why tempt myself? When a fantastic dress is 70% off and still going for $100, “on sale” doesn’t mean inexpensive.
On day five I had $87.35. By this time, one of my roommates had eaten my food… yikes. Panic on day eight: the $50 in birthday money that I sent to my nephew was withdrawn from my account. I thought that had already been deducted. Oops. And then there was $37.
In many ways the CMD was like a real diet. While meeting friends for drinks, worries about calorie count in my cocktail choices were replaced by anxiety over the cost. I was shunned for ordering the CMD equivalent of a house salad with no dressing, Bud Light. I even experienced spending withdrawal and consumption cravings for things I wouldn’t normally buy. I started fantasizing about what I would do with my paycheck when it came. Get a keratin treatment, do a juice cleanse, buy a bike and new jeans.
On day 14 I finally completed the CMD successfully. I wasn’t perfect and I did have to replace the $50 that unexpectedly came out of my account to keep from starving. Fortunately, I didn’t go on a spending binge when my paycheck came (can’t say the same about a real diet), but instead was more conscious about where my money was going. I’m not one to save receipts and keep spreadsheets, but I’m aware and more in touch with my finances (so cheesy, I know!). And when I do splurge, it’s ok! Because 90% of the time I convince myself that PB&J works for dinner, swanky fitness classes are not the only answer to staying fit, and NO! those shoes are not an investment. And honestly, I love Bud Light.
My key takeaways from my CMD:
1 An afternoon in Sheep’s Meadow with a book is just as satisfying as a pricey party brunch.
2 Athleta offers fitness classes FOR FREE! Why pay $30 for spin classes when you can do boot camp in Central Park and not pay a dime? Plus barely anybody attends (so strange), so it’s like a personal training session.
3 The Whiskey Trader on 55th and 6th Ave. has a fantastic happy hour until 9pm. $3 Bud Light! That’s cheaper than my home town in Michigan!
4 I find packing a lunch daily unrealistic in Manhattan, so I made an extra effort to spend less at lunchtime. I.E. Subway instead of Pret.
5 I try to pay with debit/credit cards and not to use cash. This is contrary to what financial experts say, but I can’t manage to track my cash. Where does it all go?!