As for many people, 2011 was a year of financial reckoning for me. Not only was I underemployed, earning about one-third of what I had before, but my student loans from graduate school began to come due, and for the first time in my life, I had to look hard at every dollar I spent — which also might explain why I am in a significant amount of credit card debt.
Before this year, I had this idea that I could spend whatever I wanted, since I was making such great money at my last job, and I expected that amount would keep going up every year, which it did — until it didn't. More interesting than my financial particulars is how I budgeted; not only what I got rid of, but what I kept (while still maintaining my dark green lifestyle). I offer this as information; I am just learning the real financial ropes, and certainly don't think anyone should follow what I do. But I always find it helpful to hear about what other people do — specifically — to stay within budget.
What I cut out:
1. My home phone was $22 a month ... for what exactly? I don't know who needs a home phone anymore, but I don't.
2. More than one cocktail out, unless it's a serious, special occasion. If I know I'm going to meet people for drinks, I usually have one at home before I leave, and always choose a delicious, high-end, bartender-spent-six-minutes-concocting-it beverage to sip on. If I'm going to pay for alcohol, I want it to be fabulous and not something I could make myself.
[Related: 20 unique ways to save money]
3. Health insurance: I could have cut my phone and eaten cheap food to afford health insurance, but since I usually see alternative health practitioners, and have basically disavowed Western medicine at this point (it's been a decade since I've taken an antibiotic or any kind of pill beyond aspirin) this works for me as I was paying out of pocket for my occasional alternative doctor's visits anyway. I realize that this is not an option for many people, but it is for me, for now. I'm going to be thankful for my good health every day and keep up the healthy foods and exercise.
4. Personal trainer: I asked a lot of questions and learned so much from my trainer, and made real gains in strength and stamina over the last few years, even as I've gotten older. But it's just too costly to keep going. My gym now offers "small group" personal training, where two or three people can pool together for training, and I might try that a couple times a month. In the meantime, I'm trying to vary my workout up as much as possible, and to channel my trainer's reminders about form when I'm lifting weights and using the various balls and balancers at the gym.
5. Yoga classes and Spin classes at spin-only gyms (I adore FlyWheel and I've heard SoulCycle is great, too). At $28 a class, even with the packages, it's just too expensive. I've been taking a spin class at my gym instead, which is less hardcore and less fun, but also free. I signed up for yogaglo for yoga classes, and at $18 a month, it pays for itself if I just use it once a month — and there hasn't been a week yet where I haven't done 3-4 classes in my living room.
6. New shoes: I have always invested in good boots and shoes, so this year I'm just wearing my existing pairs. I have resoled a couple of my favorites, and so far, I don't feel like I'm missing much. My boots especially just keep on keeping on.
7. New bed linens: I really kind of need new sheets and towels, but you know who sees these things? My roommates, me, and my boyfriend, and I'm sure none of them care as much as I do. So I'm waiting on these items, and sheets especially DO get softer and prettier over time, after all.
8. Music: I have been enjoying Pandora and putting up with the annoying ads. And this is only a half-truth; I did buy about 15 albums last year, but that's one-third or less of what I bought the year before. Whenever I have a bit extra, I tend to spend it on new music, and I believe in supporting musicians when I can — they bring a solitary writer such daily enjoyment and inspiration.
What was worth keeping:
1. Netflix: With free streaming movies and TV shows, and discs for the things not online (I have the 1 DVD at a time plan), it costs just as much to drive to the theater and watch one movie as keeping my Netflix for a month. There's so much on offer that even when I was sick for a couple of days, I still found plenty to watch. Who needs cable?
2. My iPhone mobile phone plan: I travel and spend half my time at my boyfriend's place in the city, and my family mostly lives abroad. I also run two websites and contribute to three others, so I need to be able to access them — and my email — at all times from my phone. I also have a terrible sense of direction and the iPhone is the only service that provides a free GPS (you have to pay for the feature on a Blackberry, bringing costs up, even though overall plans are cheaper). I just can't do without my iPhone.
3. Organic fruits and veggies: I still shop at farmer's markets and Whole Foods for produce — my health affects how I feel every day, and determines how well I will be into my old age. Healthy food is the VERY last thing that will go, no matter how small my budget gets. I refuse to compromise my health — and I think my healthy eating habits are the foundation for my general wellness. I grew up on local meats and eggs, honey from my backyard, and veggies from a giant organic garden my grandma tended. I can't tolerate cheap, processed food and this is one place I haven't cut back at all.
4. Espresso drinks and good chocolate: Fair-trade, high- quality coffee and cacao shouldn't be cheap — I've seen both plants growing in their native habitats and they are labor-intensive and take space and care to grow without destroying the environment. Cheap chocolate and coffee pollutes land and water, and takes advantage of already poor people, and I refuse to take part in such a system. A well-made cappuccino or cortado takes skill and finesse that's worth paying for. And I always tip the barista — my budget woes are no excuse to be a cheap tipper.
5. Travel. I've never traveled extravagantly — I find many high-end resorts to be so sterile and boring anyway. But all my extra money this year (precious little) is going towards continuing my adventures abroad. New places and faces are the things that make me the happiest in the world, and so I'm scrimping for my next trip (and using up all those air miles I've carefully put aside for times like now).