living with money

I’m Cheap But I’m Still Fun and Have Friends!

Photo: FPG/Getty Images

Living With Money explores the personal side of personal finance: how our bank balances do and don’t define who we are.

In a city as expensive as New York, I take budgeting very seriously. If I can commute by foot in less than an hour, barring a blizzard or torrential downpour, I’ll skip the $2.75 subway ride and hoof it.

Call me neurotic or call me frugal (also, call me lucky, because I know not everyone has the time or ability to do this), but I’ve always been budget-obsessed. Even when I was too young for the money at stake to be coming from my own paycheck or bank account.

My American Midwestern mother, who delights in shopping almost as much as she does in knitting and Barbra Streisand, would take me to the mall and try to buy me stuff I didn’t need or want. She was a single parent, and her nurse’s salary couldn’t support it, but she liked the idea of me having nice things. We’d scour the department stores of the Milwaukee suburbs. After saying no to the first nine items, I’d say yes to the tenth, since I knew it gave her some kind of pleasure.

So I suppose I may have my mother to thank for my thriftiness: I think it’s her relationship with consumerism that’s caused me to veer so severely in the other direction.

My jewelry, my electronics, my housewares — almost all of them are old. I rarely ever update or upgrade. I use what I have, until it breaks or falls apart. I shop secondhand. I try to keep my life simple, because I know filling it with objects is just a distraction.

This financial sensibility — as well as a very real privilege I’ve become increasingly aware of — is largely what’s enabled me to live my life the way I have. I’ve managed to pay off my student debt within a few years of graduating, to roam from place to place and see the world, to call Brooklyn my home base.

And, most importantly to me, I’ve been able to work as a journalist in an industry whose rates have not kept pace with the cost of living.

So when I’m making my overpriced-city budget on an independent reporter’s income, I prioritize the experiences I like with the people I love. After paying rent and utilities, I think about who I want to see, and then what we can do together. I prefer to spend less when I’m alone, which lets me spend more when I’m with others.

I choose libraries over bookstores so that I can put that money toward a concert or show with friends. I cut my own hair and wear drug-store makeup so I can afford drinks at the bar. Buying Nyx over Nars isn’t so bad when the $40 I save on pressed powder can go to happy hour with a friend.

I turn to the same muted wardrobe again and again, because, for me, a new trend isn’t worth the price of a new, if tiny, adventure. If there’s an item I really want, I buy it when it’s on sale or where it’s cheaper, like if I’m on a reporting trip abroad. I cook breakfast and lunch, and eat at restaurants only for dinner, only with others, and only a few times a month. I brew my own coffee at home most days so I can meet friends at cafés on the weekend. Or, that savings goes to getting a cup with a new acquaintance the next time I’m traveling somewhere that arguably has better coffee than Brooklyn.

I seek out budget-friendly social activities — there are entire newsletters dedicated to this — like free museums, writing groups and book readings, panel discussions, park walks and city strolls, community meet-ups, public cultural spaces, trivia nights, and outdoor movies and music. Hobbies can be expensive, so I try to make mine pull double-duty by turning lessons and classes into get-togethers with friends. Also, tracking down cheap thrills can be an excursion in itself. Sometimes, I’ll invite a friend to go with me to the outer boroughs to look at the landmarks, wander random streets, and eat inexpensive Mediterranean, Asian, or African food.

I don’t pay for an unlimited subway pass or a gym membership, because I consider walking to be my substitute for both. Every time I open my wallet to purchase something, I ask myself, “Is this worth it?”

Do I wish I had a bigger salary? Well, obviously. Would it sometimes be nice to spend more on myself? Yes, of course. But am I any less satisfied with my life? Unequivocally, I’m not.

I’m Cheap But I’m Still Fun and Have Friends!