When my wife and I split up a year and a half ago, it felt like my finances were out of control.
She made more than twice as much as I do. When we met I was a dumpster diving couch surfer and she was a normal person who bought things in stores. Living with her, I came to understand the joys of buying things new and going out for cocktails. Also: airport lounges.
While I now love cocktails and online shopping, I also love the nonprofit I run. I was going to have to roll back years of lifestyle creep. We hadn’t been lavish spenders, but we had a very nice lifestyle that I wasn’t going to be able to maintain on my own and still hit my financial goals.
I was spared the horror stories of so many separations, but it was still a huge upheaval that threw all of my financial goals out of whack. My soon-to-be-ex-wife and I had plans for our financial future. I’d had a financial plan for myself before that. Now, I was going to need to sort through things to see where I stood and figure out a new plan.
Assessing where I was at
As someone who doesn’t have the option of a 401k match, I’ve always known I have to be careful to plan for my future. Graduating into the recession is probably what pushed me to embrace the FIRE movement.
Sure, I didn’t have an impressive salary (or any salary at all, for most of my career) like most people aiming for FIRE, but that made it seem all the more important to save.
The first few credit card statements after the breakup were tough to swallow and I was a little bit afraid to sit down and take stock of everything. We broke up in June and I didn’t take stock until February.
In my defense, it wasn’t until February that my life felt settled enough that creating a budget seemed useful at all. I moved twice in that time, with storage expenses in-between. I had a lot of vet bills and spent a few weeks thinking I’d have to put my wandering on hold indefinitely. I spent six weeks in contract on a new place, thinking it might fall through. I bought the apartment and replaced a bunch of household items. Then I started house sitting and kept delaying my return home. My expenses fluctuated a lot and I wasn’t worried about being able to cover my bills. Plus, we didn’t hash out the details of our separation until this October, well over a year after our breakup!
Knowing where I stood, financially, actually made me feel a lot better. Rather than focusing on what I’d lost, I could think about what I wanted for the future.
Choosing a budgeting tool
I played around with a bunch of budgeting apps, but my finances were a little too complex for anything automatic and I didn’t want to spend hours tracking my spending — I already do enough tracking receipts for work! In the end, I came up with a weekly target for my discretionary spending and simply track it in a note on my phone.
It was amazing how much simply tracking my spending kept it in check. It’s one thing to be cognizant of individual expenses, it’s another to watch them add up!
I also track the weekly mean, median, and my running surplus or ‘debt’. This way I can have an expensive dinner or buy a new coat and still see that my average spending is just fine. I am currently running over my target by around $500 after six weeks in New York City and the holidays, but hopefully I’ll cut that down after a few (okay, a bunch of) weeks of staying under budget.
Rolling back lifestyle creep
When I was younger I would go to some absurd lengths to save money. Now I’m not willing to give up something that matters to me. It’s a fun challenge to find ways to go out, be social, and live my life without spending a ton of money doing it.
Most people talk about cutting back on shopping. Even before I lived out of a backpack, I was never much of a shopper. I hate shopping and I’d still rather buy something online than go to six different thrift stores to save a little money. Some people love the thrill of the hunt and the whole experience, but that’s not me.
Last winter I gave away a sweater and bought a virtually identical sweater in a different weight of wool. It felt kind of absurd, but it was always a little too warm and it seemed silly to own something I don’t feel comfortable in. I have so few things in my bag, I’m going to be wearing that sweater practically every other day until spring. When I was younger I would have never done that. I had a lot of things that didn’t fit quite right and I didn’t feel comfortable in. Now I have a lot less, but everything feels right.
How I’m saving money
One counter-intuitive way I’ve cut expenses is by cooking less. My ex and I got really into cooking and really made the most of the grills in our condo. We were spending a lot of money on groceries. I’ve remembered that not every meal has to be something special and nutritionally balanced in itself. I’m perfectly content eating the same handful of simple, healthy recipes for most of my meals.
Traveling slowly and hopping between nearby cities means that my housing expenses have been reduced to thank you gifts and bus tickets. House sitting isn’t exactly free, but it’s great.
The first few weeks of house sitting I was still over spending like I was on vacation, but I fixed that by getting a museum membership with reciprocal benefits. Plus, after traveling for a few weeks it starts to feel like normal life again. People assume I’m working from coffee shops all the time, but I’m only paying for lattes for in-person meetings or if something comes up and I need wifi access. Those lattes are tax-deductible.
When I decided to keep house sitting for the year, I set the goal to spend no more than I was making from my side hustles, pre-tax. Once I adjust it for taxes I won’t be putting my entire salary in the bank, but it’ll be pretty close.
Of course, by “the bank” I mean in low-cost index funds. Or maybe the downpayment on a new rental property. I’ve looked at a bunch of places this past year, but nothing has felt quite right. I had one contract fall through, an offer rejected, and another property that sold while I was getting my financing together.
My biggest budget killer is going out with friends. Even when I was young and very serious about my budget, my rule has always been to never skip being social because of costs. This is a lot easier to do when my friends have similar financial situations — or at least don’t think its normal to spend $100 or more on a normal dinner.
Now almost all of my friends make more money than I do, so it’s easy to end up doing something expensive if I don’t steer our plans. Spending time with them makes an unattainable (for me) lifestyle seem normal. Quite a few of them have more disposable income than I have income. I feel weird about it sometimes, but I love what I do and I have more than I need.
Right after the breakup I didn’t really the mental energy to make plans, which is an easy way to overspend on mediocre food and tickets to all sorts of random things. Now that the big life decisions are settled for now, it’s fun to find things to do that make the most of my money (and time!). When I eat out I try to either go somewhere I’m excited to try or find something inexpensive. I love a good diner and I’m not alone in that. No one has balked when I suggest going to a bar with a great happy hour.
Since I work from home, it feels important to get out and do things! It’s easy to make lunch plans, happy hour plans, and dinner plans all in one day. There are so many things I want to do and people to see. I’m working on slowing down the pace of my social life, mostly because my hectic schedule was stressing me out. I wasn’t making time for myself!
The challenge is adjusting my habits. Keeping a budget gets easier over time as my defaults shift to things that are more sustainable.
Does savings require sacrifices?
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve made any sacrifices. Drinking less, having fewer steaks, and embracing unscheduled time has been really good for my life in general, not just my finances. I’m in a fortunate position where I can afford everything I need, it’s just been a process of figuring out which wants actually matter to me.
If I was really serious about budgeting and saving money, I’d be spending time in cheaper cities where I’m not tempted to go out with my friends every night. I could also be spending more time consulting. I don’t want being frugal to dictate my life, though.
Talking to high-earning friends about finances has made it clear to me that I’ll never worry about money less than I do now. If you’re earning (and saving) money to fuel a lifestyle, you’re always going to be afraid of losing something.
Luxuries add to my life a little bit, but not having them doesn’t take anything away from my baseline level of happiness. There’s a certain freedom to knowing what matters to me.