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Feast or Famine

I’ve never been one to diet. In fact I only lasted 4 days on the the only real diet I’ve been on (I went on a detox once so that doesn’t necessarily count because it was about toxins and not fat). Still, I’m not a moderation person. I’ve only been able to lose weight by drastic measures – whether it was living in China, running a marathon, going on that no-carb diet (ugh the worst), or that detox (that was pretty bad too).

That being said, I’m great at financial diets. I love them. I once spent -$2 as my total food budget for one month because the only time I went out for food in the frigid cold was to the grocery store was to return some spices (yeah I’m that person). The problem with diets is that even if you starve yourself for a period of time, you lose all your gains within a very short period of time if you don’t maintain that diet. You gain nothing without maintenance.  Of course, with money, if you save some money one month, you’ll have that money next month, assuming you just keep your normal patterns of spending.  And I would much rather live sparsely for a certain period of time so that I can live more freely or even indulgently later. If I can spend a month of the year living like a monk so that I can have no guilt for spending the rest of the year, or so that I can get a steak dinner the next month, I will.

An integral part, in my mind, of eating or spending, is the lack of worry. I don’t want to worry all the time about what I should eat for lunch or how much each one should cost. It would be much better than missing out on a party or a happy hour later.

At this point in my life, I don’t need to clip coupons or have spendings fasts. It does help me stay sharp and keep the lifestyle inflation in check. But a huge part of my ease now is that I lived so modestly in the past. I can spend freely now because I have earned that right.

In keeping with that spirit.

 

The Cost of Getting Sick

Edit


I got a cold 2 Wednesdays ago and I’m almost completely back to health. Here’s what I spent in the meantime.
Spoiler alert: because I’m single, childless, wealthy and white-collar, it doesn’t cost that much or ruin my life to be sick.

Working from home for 2 days: Free (I couldn’t take off the first day I was sick due to workload though).
Going to a doctor: Free. I pay to be part of a medical service that allows for free video calls to talk to a doctor when I’m sick. So I was able to call a doctor in the evening, wait for 5 minutes and talk for 10 minutes without having to drive anywhere or find a doctor.
Prescriptions: $60 (I had to buy an inhaler because of my bronchospasms. Also, I have a high-deductible health plan).
Groceries and materials to make tea and chicken soup: $48
Tissues from the convenience store: $5

Total: $113

Photo Source: Virtual Shadows

 

On buying investment pieces


There are a few pieces of clothing that I arguably “need” for my wardrobe. I’ve heard about “investing” in certain items of clothing – the idea being that you spend more on certain items that will never go out of style and to ensure quality. And while I agree with the sentiment, I’m torn because

  1.  I don’t believe cost to be a reliable indicator of quality;
  2. It’s hard for me to decide if “this is the one” item of clothing I’m going to want to pay handsomely for and wear for the next 10 years;
  3. I don’t own any clothing that cost more than $150, and it’s surprisingly difficult for me to pull the trigger on things more expensive than that.

Continue reading On buying investment pieces

I don’t use a budget; I just have goals


Everyday there are a few new Lifehacker type articles about how to be more productive or to save time. It seems like a “timeless” pursuit – how to save time. Everyone needs or at least wants to gather up an extra hour here or there, right? But I wonder what it is exactly that people are trying to save this extra time for. I guess there’s this idea that if I could save some time cooking or cleaning, I’d have more time to spend with my children or work on that screenplay. (Wouldn’t it be hilarious if someone wrote an article that literally just said “Cut your social life and you’ll save hours!” Because it would be true, though not necessarily helpful.) But I imagine the average person who finds an extra hour would just use it to watch TV.

Continue reading I don’t use a budget; I just have goals

The Benefits of Saving Even Small Amounts

IMG_2085.JPGKeep saving little bunnies!

It’s been well publicized that the savings rate for middle-class Americans hovers around 0%. However, with an improving economy and rising wages, the reason for the paltry savings rate might not be lack of money.

It could be that even with all the legions of websites and books written about how to save, some people haven’t figured out why to save. For instance, viral poverty writer Linda Tirado recently mentioned in an interview that saving small amounts was pointless because even if she saved $5/week, the most she could amass was $260 at the end of the year, if she didn’t dip into it first. Tirado clearly hasn’t learned the value of saving but here are four reasons why her attitude is completely wrong.

There’s no alternative.

Continue reading The Benefits of Saving Even Small Amounts

Why You Should Buy Stuff, Not Experiences

 

The science has come in and you will obtain more happiness by buying experiences over stuff. However, I just don’t buy it (pun intended).  I will admit that I’m guilty of a love for shopping and a love for stuff, but stuff needs a champion. The right stuff can make us happy. Consider the following.

Stuff comes with experiences

Continue reading Why You Should Buy Stuff, Not Experiences

The Only Financial Lesson You Will Ever Need

You may have heard that old saying that the opposite of love is not hate – it’s indifference. Sometimes two ideas seem to be at complete odds with each other when they’re actually two sides of the same coin. Sometimes people think there are only two options – you either love or hate something – without realizing that there are other, perhaps better, alternatives.

In the same way, when people think about personal finance, their minds tend to go to one of two extremes as the only paths to take when there’s actually a third.

On one end, there is the shopaholic who’s never found a sale she didn’t like. The spender has no idea what she owns or what she wants. She keeps spending because no matter how much she buys, she is always left wanting. The perfect sweater, the newest jeans, a pair of shoes for every outfit. Her house is full but she never feels satisfied; she is always looking for something else.

Continue reading The Only Financial Lesson You Will Ever Need

How I saved Tens of Thousands while in Law School

I didn’t take out the max loans

The max loans I could take for three years of loan school was about $180k, but I ended up with about $92k (and $20k of credit card debt).

I went to a cheaper school

Not everyone has this choice, but it should be a consideration if you’re undecided. With in-state tuition, I saved about $5,000/year on tuition and likely $10,000/year in living costs compared with living in a big city. It’s not just that the cost of living was lower but it was much harder to spend a lot of money in a small college town than in, say, New York City. That’s $45,000 without doing anything at all.

Save money while in school

I treated loan money like real money. I checked my checking account to make sure there would be enough money at the end of the semester. I read the fine print and bought private health insurance, rather than the school insurance – saving me $2000/year and getting better coverage. I carpooled. Of course I bought used books. As I was talking about it with one of my classmates, it’s a little inconvenient to use used books, but it’s the easiest way to save hundreds of dollars a semester for a law school student.

I brought my lunch and made bulk dinners on Sunday. I shopped at Goodwill. I didn’t go on fancy vacations on borrowed money. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t have occasional splurges at nice restaurants but I preferred having a nice, memorable dinner with my boyfriend rather than numerous forgettable meals at the sad law school cafeteria.

Make money in school

I worked at the library from my 2L to 3L year and took a side job while I was studying for the bar. I made quite a low salary but the work was minimal, I was allowed time to study, I met people and the few hundred bucks a month paid for my rent.  Also, having the additional money  meant that I could avoid taking out new loans, which could save hundreds on origination fees and interest. Also any income gets you the earned income tax credit

Max out several 0% cards

This didn’t actually save a ton of money but it helped keep my peace of mind and liquidity. I got a number of 0% interest cards with staggered end dates. I put my last two years of spending on credit, but made sure that I was ready to pay them off once I had a job.

Paid tuition with money instead of loans

I only took out as much loan money as I needed to pay tuition, thus saving origination fees and interest fees for unsubsidized loans while I was in law school. This meant that I maxed out the subsidized and unsubsidized federal loans and only took out higher-interest loans for 1 out of the 3 years I was in school. If I needed to go into loan forgiveness, all of my loans could be forgiven; wouldn’t have private loans hanging over my head.

Basically, I lived like a student, and I didn’t regret it. Though I graduated with over $90,000 in law school debt, I know it could have been much worse. I think even keeping it below the six figure level put me ahead mentally (and of course, financially). Do you have any strategies for saving money in graduate school?

Image Source: Lawschooli

Lifestyle Inflation Shopping Spree

pretty_woman_vivian_after_shoppingOn Sundays after church when I was a kid, we would go to this Chinese takeout place and order our own food. This was a special treat because the only other times we would go out to eat, we would eat family style, so we never got to order. So I would use this amazing Godlike opportunity by looking at the menu and ordering the cheapest thing on the menu – which was chicken fried rice. I hate chicken fried rice. I love fried rice but I only like shrimp fried rice. But that was sixty cents more and I felt guilty. Once my mom found out that I was ordering food that I didn’t want just because it was the cheapest, she assured me that I could order whatever I wanted and not to be so cheap. (I think the most expensive thing on the menu was $10).

Sometimes I find that I have not changed all that much. I will scrimp and save and buy things that I don’t like, just to save money. I will eat that chicken fried rice like it’s the only thing I can afford.

While so many personal finance blogs are all about how to save money, just like a diet, eventually you break (or at least I do. I have only lasted on a diet for a few days ).  And maybe you aren’t interested in living like a monk for every year until you retire – and that’s ok. Also on a totally morbid note, what has freaked me out the most was the idea that I might die, and all the effort I spent saving money would be completely worthless (this is of course balanced by the fear that I will end up old and penniless). But the dollar saved here or there by eating food I don’t even like won’t save me from the latter situation anyway, so I have tried to live it up with some shrimp fried rice!

The problem with lifestyle inflation is not that you have a nicer lifestyle but that you do so mindlessly, spending much more money, becoming much more entitled without becoming much happier. I believe that if you have a problem that money can solve, and you have money, you should at least consider solve that problem with money rather than learning to live with it. Sometimes it’s nice to buy that thing you want, rather than learning to live without it. Personal finance shouldn’t be all about deprivation!

I’ve devised a plan and this is how I want to inflate my lifestyle:

  1. buying classic, good quality items of clothing that I’ve wanted for years rather than just having  (i.e. a nice black blazer, well-made black leather stilettos, a real leather motorcycle jacket, a silk blouse);
  2. buying from brands that are purportedly ethical (don’t test on animals);
  3. buying high-quality fresh whole foods (I’m still on the fence about organic but I love food and I love eating a variety of food);
  4. taking vacations and visiting friends;
  5. outsourcing activities I hate or can’t do (cleaning my apartment, massages, waxing);
  6. upgrading my furniture (a couch that doesn’t sag, buying something that isn’t Ikea via Craigslist);
  7. buying nicer cookware (my stuff is old and not that great to begin with);
  8. buying the occasional new mp3, movie or TV show to watch;
  9. creating a beautiful gallery wall with professionally framed stuff (it always seemed too expensive).

To compensate, here’s a list of things I won’t inflate:

  1. I’ll continue to live without a TV;
  2. I might continue to live without a car or I’ll buy a beater;
  3. I won’t buy any new electronics and will likely keep my phone until I’m forced to upgrade;
  4. I won’t join a gym (I bike everywhere and there’s a free yoga class in my apartment);
  5. I’ll still use coupons, discounted gift cards and will base most purchases on what’s on sale. I’ll still shop at discounters;
  6. I’ll still cook most of my meals;
  7. I’ll try not to buy random stuff just because it’s cheap.

What about you? What things are worth the label of lifestyle inflation? What changes would make your life better just by spending some money?

Image Source: Wild Beauty World

How I saved $65k in 4 years for graduate school

It was spring of my fourth year at college and I was barreling toward graduation with a cool job offer with the federal government. This was pre-recession so this was more or less average, instead of exceedingly lucky.  And I, as a completely entitled millennial, pictured myself in the next 30 years of my life working in a gray cubicle under fluorescent lights at this office. And that frightened me (though I tell myself the sexual harassment was the bigger issue with that job).  When one of my friends excitedly told me she was going abroad for a year with some of our friends, I jumped at the chance.

This is not the story you would expect for someone who saved $65,000 for grad school in 4 years, making, at most, $44k  annually.  But it worked out. I spent one year abroad, where I saved nothing,  but in the other three years I got a job and hunkered down at the whole “being an adult” thing.

My first six months back in the States, I foundered about at temp jobs, though I still managed to save because I was living with my parents.  In my last six months, I was unemployed after having been laid off though I collected unemployment. But for a solid 2 years I was gainfully employed as a financial analyst.

I had read about 401ks and retirement early on and was appalled that I hadn’t started saving at the ripe old age of 23. My dad is an accountant! Why didn’t he warn me?

But my parents had always taught us the value of saving. I decided that when I was fully vested I would max out my 401k even while I was making $42k and then $44k a year.  Because the 401k is pre-tax, I saved a bunch on taxes by maxing it out, and I still had enough money coming in my paycheck for a pretty simple existence. And of course I was already maxing out my Roth IRA. With the company match, I was saving about $20k. Then I saved $5k in my Roth IRA. On top of that I saved a few thousand into my savings account and had saved a few thousand before and after this job while working odd jobs.  So that’s the basic arithmetic answer.

The aggressive 401k contribution was a method of forced saving.  After I made the election, I was far too lazy to do anything about it so I just had to adjust my spending.  Fortunately, I was naturally a hermit and a scrooge.  I was paying $800/month in rent, which was an amount negotiated by my family. That seems quite low for the Washington, D.C. area now, though I’ve known people to still find rent in that ballpark. But also this was ten years ago so this was low but now unheard of amount for a room in a 2-bedroom condo in the suburbs. I lived with my brother. We didn’t have a TV or cable. The furniture was sparse – scrounged from my office’s discarded furniture, Ikea and this sweet Jennifer Convertibles sleeper couch for $200.  (Selling that couch was a huge mistake).

We ate at home and I can’t remember doing a lot during these two years though I do remember studying for the LSAT.  I went to work and I went home and did logic puzzles and wrote essays.  On the weekends we visited our parents. This is a highly effective way to save money and be completely lame.

But the key was having the money withdrawn immediately.  When my sparse paychecks arrived, that was all I could spend. And in fact, I didn’t even spend all of it. I think a lot of people may have worked jobs where they weren’t making bank right out of college and took this as an excuse not to save any money.  Sometimes people think, “I need to make $X before I can save money.” If $X is barely over minimum wage, then perhaps this person is correct. But I think for many people, we can make changes and even if we aren’t making that much money, saving small amounts of money is valuable. And making it harder to spend money is an easy way of forcing yourself to do that.

I’m sure a financial adviser would say I was foolish for withdrawing from my retirement accounts to pay for law school, and I probably was. I’m not going to argue this was a smart thing to do but it was what I felt at the time was a good use of my money.  (And to be fair, I did such a poor job of investing my money, it really hasn’t grown much even as the stock market has soared). My approach was, rather than to take out max federal and private loans, I took out the max federal loans and paid the rest with savings and strategic withdrawals from my retirement accounts.

As I will show as I continue in this series, the money I saved in these two years would have a snowball effect to provide a solid financial foundation for the future.