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No-Spend Weekend Update

I survived my no-spend weekend on March 3-5 (the only exception was buying groceries for the upcoming week). Admittedly, it was not a really difficult thing to do. What helped was 1) finding free activities, 2) making the most of what I already have, and 3) having someone willing to treat you every now and then.

On Friday, 3/3, Dennis and I went to Free Fridays at MoMA, where admission is free from 4-8 p.m. I have visited MoMA as a paying guest and even then, it was crowded, so to say that Free Friday was an absolute zoo would not be stretching the truth. We had to fight our way through crowds to catch a glimpse at the Pollocks, Picassos, and Rothkos on display, but it was still a fun and intellectually stimulating way to pass the time.

On Saturday, 3/4, I went to the gym (okay, not really “free” since I pay a monthly fee), bought groceries at Trader Joe’s, and then spent the night in watching “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (“free” via our AmazonPrime subscription) and drinking Old Fashioneds with bourbon we already had on hand.

On Sunday, 3/5, Dennis and I participated in a free wedding registry event at Crate and Barrel. We got to come to the store two hours before it opened to the general public and complete our registry, which was a nice experience because usually the SoHo C&B is totally overrun with people. There was free coffee and muffins, yummy wedding cake samples, and at the end of the event, we got to take home two free stemless wineglasses! As far as I could tell, C&B doesn’t really check to make sure you are actually getting married. So if you want some free food and wine glasses, just borrow a friend’s engagement ring, make up a wedding date, and register online for the event. Afterwards, we met up with some friends for brunch. I had warned Dennis beforehand that I was doing a spending fast, but he offered to treat me so I of course accepted.

I ended up not spending much money the rest of the following week, either, even though no spend-weekend was over. I brought lunch to work every day, which saves at least $50/week. As the weekend approached, I thought about repeating the spending fast but I decided to give myself a $40 allowance instead. I ended up spending all of it on Friday night, when Dennis and I went to Harlem for happy hour and dinner. The happy hour  was incredibly well-priced – $6 shots & beer, well drinks, and wine – and I will not disclose the location because it is a tiny hole in the wall and we want to make sure we get a seat next weekend.  The only regrettable portion of the night was the food we got at a restaurant next door, which was fairly mediocre and we both agreed that we would have been more satisfied if we had grabbed some slices of pizza near our apartment for a quarter of the price. Since I had spent all my money in one night, I had to refrain from other purchases this weekend, including tickets to see a documentary at Film Forum and buying some pastries from the Hungarian Pastry Shop. Without the allowance, that would have been probably another $20 or so. Not enough to break the bank, but I knew that the upcoming week was going to be expensive: on Monday, we’re having dinner with out-of-town friends and on Tuesday, we are going to a Brooklyn Nets game ($20 tickets! but obligatory happy hour drinks and arena food for dinner).

Would I do a no-spend weekend again? Sure, but the conditions have to be right: unpleasant weather, no guests/visitors, a couple of good books to get lost in, and a well-stocked home bar. I do like the idea of establishing a weekend budget, and I think it’s a habit that I will try to adopt going forward.

A Good Decision

When my parents dropped me off at college, after all the dorm room furniture rearranging and unpacking, my dad gave me a hug and, before leaving, said, “Make good decisions.” Presumably at the time, he meant “Don’t drink or do drugs” or “Make sure you graduate within four years.” It was a simple, catch-all piece of advice, much like the only financial advice he gave me and my sister when we were young, which was “Save.” The advice at times has been frustratingly vague. How much am I supposed to save? Where do I put it? Is taking on a massive amount of debt to attend graduate school across the country a good decision? It seems like only after the fact do I realize whether a decision I made was a good or a bad one.

Case in point: Dennis and I need to find a new apartment starting May 1. Here in NYC, landlords typically put out listings a month before the current tenant’s lease expires, so we really don’t need to be looking seriously until about the last week of March. I’ve been peeking on Streeteasy and Craigslist since January. We are looking for a unicorn of an apartment: less than $3,000/month, a true one-bedroom, in Prospect Heights/Crown Heights/Park Slope/Downtown Brooklyn a half-mile or less from express subway stops, relatively new construction, lots of natural light, central AC, in-unit washer dryer, dishwasher, and some access to outdoor space. I know that it will be impossible to find everything we want without significantly increasing our price, so we are prepared to make some tradeoffs. On Friday, I stumbled across an apartment that pretty much had EVERYTHING going for it, with the exception of central AC. It was well under budget ($2700) but the catch was this: 1) you basically had to become a gardener and 2) the lease started April 1. The apartment is on the ground floor of a brownstone and this tenant’s responsibility is to maintain a really nice garden — we’re talking multiple flower beds, shrubbery, trees, etc. I was less concerned about the gardening than I was about the lease start date, which is a full month before we will be ready to move. I crunched the numbers in vain, hoping to find a way to make it work, but there was no way to blunt the financial pain of paying full rent on TWO apartments for the month of April. Could we do it? Technically, yes, but it would have meant diminishing our savings account and basically not spending any money besides subway fare and beans and rice. It was time to make a decision: ignore the numbers and find a way to make it work anyway? Or accept the financial facts, close the Craigslist ad, and hope that another awesome apartment will be available in May? I chose the latter, and I think my father would agree that it was the right decision.

Preparing to Fast

I am not going to spend any money this weekend, except for groceries. Normally I try not to deprive myself of things completely because then I go nuts, but I think I can handle not spending for 72 hours (Friday-Sunday). The past couple of weeks have been more expensive than normal and I am feeling the pinch from brunches, dinners, and movies (it was Oscar season, after all). This past weekend alone I spent $180 on drinks, two dinners and two movies! I am living, yes, but not exactly saving or working towards paying down my debt, either.

I’ll be able to fill a few hours of the weekend with standard chores and errands, like cleaning the apartment, buying groceries, and going to the gym. While it helps that I won’t have any out-of-town visitors and the weather is going to be meh at best, I am still going to find myself tempted to spend just so I have something to do when all the chores and errands are done. So, I’m compiling a list of free activities to keep myself occupied:

  • Clean out my closet, since spring is (finally) around the corner
  • Read (I have three books checked out from the library: The Underground Railroad, The Zookeeper’s Wife, and I Contain Multitudes)
  • Work on some outstanding wedding tasks
  • Catch up on other Oscar-nominated films and documentaries on Netflix that I haven’t seen yet (like “The White Helmets” or “13”)
  • Go on a long walk somewhere if the weather is nice (and only bring my Metrocard)

Have you done a no-spend weekend before? What did you do to keep yourself busy?

Checking In

No real good reason for why I haven’t posted in over a year, but part of it might be feeling a little embarrassed that I haven’t made much progress in paying down my debt. Simply put, life has gotten in the way and there are other things I’ve prioritized over paying down my student loans — saving for our wedding and honeymoon, putting away money for the move to a new apartment in a few months, spending money on food and drinks to catch up with people I haven’t seen in a while. Maybe I’m just not willing to sacrifice more than I already do to keep expenses down and funnel more money towards debt.

There are two ways to handle the remaining ~$60,000 of my debt:

  1. Status quo: Continue making the minimum monthly payments until December 2023, at which point I will be 37 years old.
  2. Accelerated pay off: Make a promise to myself that I will pay off my debt well before the end of the repayment term, and make more than the minimum payment each month. If my goal is to pay off my debt by the time I am 35, that will give me ~4 years to do it, or ~$15,000 per year. I need to crunch the numbers but it might end up being a little less than that as more money is applied to the outstanding principal rather than interest.

Obviously Option 2 is the better choice. Two years of freedom from debt equates to $25,000 in my pocket to do whatever I please! I never really thought about it this way until now, but it is inspiring and might just be the light under my ass I need to get started.

Between now and June 2, 2017, my focus will remain on saving enough money for our wedding and honeymoon so that we don’t add to our debt. I plan to start the accelerated payoff plan starting July 1, 2017. Between now and then I will determine the best method to do this for ME (snowball vs. avalanche) and what I can realistically afford to pay each month without feeling more pinched than I already am.

Shit I Didn’t Buy Today: Crate & Barrel Edition

When I embarked on this journey to improve my finances, the first thing I had to do was learn how to say “NO!” to unnecessary purchases. $5 here, $20 there at the time never seemed extravagant, but over time it adds up and you’re left with an empty bank account and a house full of (pretty) crap you never truly needed in the first place. Since I started this journey in earnest about a year and a half ago, I’m pleased to say that I have gotten a lot better at turning my back on stuff that –  in the moment – feels like I need to have. That’s not to say that I don’t ever covet unnecessary things, because I still do and I guess I am a masochist because I like going into stores full of stuff I don’t need. Case in point: CRATE & BARREL.

I found myself in Soho this afternoon with a friend after grabbing lunch. I was getting ready to go home and the subway station was right there…underneath the Crate & Barrel flagship store. I’m not even going to pretend that I thought about putting my head down and hurrying down the steps to the subway. I went inside and spent the next 45 minutes touching everything in sight and rationalizing why I needed it. Here are the items I came thisclose to buying:

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  1. Plastic cereal container ($17.95): why would I want to look at the box when I can just look straight at the good stuff?
  2. Syrup pitcher ($12.95): a triple-threat pitcher that can hold syrup, beverages, and flowers
  3. Decorative pillow ($49.95): expensive back-support apparatus for while I’m watching TV
  4. Shower curtain ($59.95): raindrops, shower, hahaha get it?
  5. Wastebasket ($19.95): garbage should look good
  6. Serving bowl ($17.97): for the dinner parties I’ve never hosted
  7. Dish towels ($12.95): ok, I actually really wanted these

But you know what? I left empty handed. And saved $191.67. In all honesty, I didn’t think about these items again until I sat down to write this post, which is a sign that I never really needed them in the first place. I’ll add them to my C&B wishlist and let out a sigh of relief that I dodged a financial bullet.

The Cost of Running a Half Marathon

I recently signed up for my first half marathon (!), which will take place on October 10. The training so far has been challenging, to say the least, but it’s great to have a concrete goal to work towards. When I signed up, I underestimated the cost associated with running in these types of races – especially for longer distances. It’s not just about going outside for a quick run. I’ll be out on the course for at least 2 hours (not trying to break any records here) and I’m going to get sweaty and hungry and thirsty and my knees are going to start hurting and my feet are going to blister… as I write this I realize I’m not making running sound very attractive but oh well, too late now. In other words, I had to buy a lot of shit to make sure I’m well prepared for training and race day. Here’s a picture of my recently acquired loot and the cost so far:

Don't worry, there's a paper towel underneath my shoes.

Don’t worry, there’s a paper towel underneath my shoes.

  • Registration fee: $96
  • Shoes: $95
  • Pants: $58
  • Equipment belt and water bottle: $48
  • Energy gummies and electrolyte/sodium water mix: $6
  • Total: $303

Wow. I hadn’t totaled it up until just now but that is definitely an investment for what will be the hardest physical challenge of my life thus far. Time for the justification game:

  • The shoes were totally necessary. My last pair was 2 years old and my knees would hurt so bad after my runs. The new shoes provide a lot more cushion and I’ll be using them for another year so I don’t regret this purchase.
  • The new Lululemon pants were an indulgence. My sister gave me a gift card for my birthday but I had to pay the balance in cash. But look good, feel good — right?!
  • I think the equipment belt will end up being a good investment. I can run hands free and stash my phone, keys, gummies and some cash in there. Most women’s athletic clothes – or at least the ones I own – don’t have deep pockets like men’s so it’s hard to figure out where to put everything. The water bottle could also count as an indulgence but my biggest fear in the world is literally dying of thirst, so this will at least give me reassurance that I can take a sip of water on my long runs even if there is no water fountain in sight. I also like that it’s made of a grippy, rubbery material so hopefully it won’t fall out of my hands when they get sweaty.

I think I am pretty set for now, although I could see myself potentially purchasing another pair or two of performance running socks which make all the difference in the world. Looking at my investment through the lens of my banking account, I am now even more determined to totally own this run! And maybe run more races in the future to make all of this stuff worth it.

Cooking from the Cupboard

I’m coming back down from a spendy long weekend: I was at the beach with friends for 3 days and also purchased a new pair of running shoes. Both were essential for me, in terms of mental and physical health; however, that doesn’t mean that I’m not still a little anxious about the hit to my monthly income. As I rummaged through my fridge and cupboards today wondering whether or not I needed to make a grocery run, I came up with a goal to make as much food as I can from what I have in store already.

Here’s what I found in my kitchen:

Freezer: 3 chicken cutlets, 2 chicken sausages, 1 pound of ground beef, half a package of Trader Joe’s Japanese fried rice, and 3/4 of a loaf of bread

Fridge: 6 eggs, hummus and tahini, 1 apple, lunch meat (turkey, roast beef), provolone cheese, red sauce, Siggi’s yogurt and leftovers from last night (whole wheat pasta with pesto, edamame, almonds and lemon)

Cupboards: whole wheat pasta, couscous, quinoa, nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans), dried fruit (currants, golden raisins), fig bars, asiago croutons, pretzels, a couple of granola bars, a can of tuna, chicken stock, oatmeal, 1 can each of black beans and white kidney beans

Here’s what I plan on making/eating:

  • Continue eating my leftovers (2-3 more meals)
  • Chicken cutlets with couscous
  • Sausage with pasta
  • Fried rice and eggs
  • Tacos
  • Sandwiches (for lunch)
  • Granola (for breakfast)

I know I’ll need to stock up on some essentials, so I will budget $40 for them this week. Things I will probably need:

  • Milk
  • Salad greens and frozen veggies
  • Fruit
  • Peanut butter
  • Taco fixings: cheddar cheese, salsa, avocado
  • More bread

Keep in mind that I’m trying to stretch this food between two people! I’ll keep you all posted on my progress. If you have any suggestions for what I can make from my ingredients, leave me a comment!

Anatomy of a Weekend

One of my favorite personal finance websites is The Billfold, whose tagline is “How other people do money.” It’s full of stories written by individual contributors about their unique financial situations. The site also has two series that appear weekly on Fridays and Mondays. On Fridays, the editor estimates what he will spend during the weekend and invites readers to share their own estimates in the comments. On Mondays, the editor then recaps what he actually spent and how it compared to his budget; readers do the same. I’ve been creeping on the site for about a month now and have yet to leave a comment. I had a fairly interesting weekend so I am now going to dive into the details — and perhaps finally make a contribution to the site!

Friday: Every year, my boss invites my company (we’re small) to her summer home in Fire Island for a day full of sun, sand, food and booze. Since it’s a work outing, we get to charge everything to the company. That includes transportation (Long Island railroad, a cab, and a ferry) as well as whatever we contribute to the potluck. So I basically got to chill on the beach and eat delicious food all for $0. I wish every Friday was like this.

Saturday: While I have significantly cut back my coffee consumption, there’s nothing like an iced coffee to start the weekend off right. I think of it as my little treat and at $3, it provides quite the bang for my buck. I had to pick something up from the drugstore ($7) and then made my way to the farmer’s market, where I bought some apples and juicy summer peaches and some bread ($11). I also stopped at the grocery store to pick up some milk and eggs ($7). I hurried back to my apartment to drop off my loot since I was going to head into Manhattan to meet my friend at the Whitney Museum. It recently re-opened in a gorgeous new Renzo Piano-designed building right at the terminus of the High Line and had been getting a lot of buzz. I’ve wanted to check it out for a while but it’s one of the few museums in NYC that doesn’t have a “pay as you wish” policy. However, I did some research and found out that Bank of America covers admissions for cardholders during the first full weekend of every month. Score! So, instead of the $22 admission, I paid $0. That made the air conditioning and the views (as well as the art) that much better. We checked out Chelsea Market afterwards and I had to give in to a gelato ($5) which was the perfect treat for a sweltering day. I went back home and took a quick nap before embarking on part 2 of the day.

One of the things that I’ve cut back on is going out to dinner AND drinks with friends. Not trying to be a social hermit, I will agree to go to one or the other (and it usually ends up being just drinks). The key to keeping it reasonable when doing both is 1) picking a fairly priced restaurant and 2) sticking to beer. I met up with grad school friends at The Pickle Shack, an awesome beer and vegetarian sandwich place in Gowanus. I split a tofu banh mi and fries and had a grapefruit IPA ($27). Afterwards, we went to the Royal Palms, a shuffleboard club right down the street. One friend treated us to a round of beer and the other bought a round of shots, so I was covered for the night, with the exception of me paying $9 to push biscuits around the floor with a tang for an hour. (More fun than it sounds!) Ample Hills ice cream was right next door and I mean, I couldn’t say no… so that was another $3.50. I finally put myself in an Uber ($8.50) since I didn’t want to walk home by myself at 11:30 p.m. Safety first!

Sunday: I knew leading up to the weekend that Saturday was going to be spendy so I made a mental effort to limit my spending on Sunday to the absolute essentials. Started the day off with a run in the fresh, hot air ($0). I needed to buy groceries so I made the trek to Trader Joe’s and stocked up for the week ($57). There were a few impulse purchases added to my basket but it could have been worse (the greek yogurt guacamole dip is actually not as disgusting as it sounds). Then spent the rest of the day chilling out in the air conditioning and made some granola for the week ($0) and went to mass ($4 donation).

Analysis: Going into the weekend, I had budgeted $110 and ended up spending $141, an overage of $31. Looking back, I can think of a couple of ways I could have trimmed this down (did I need the second ice cream, or the chocolate wafers from Trader Joe’s?) but it’s not worth beating myself up over. I had an excellent weekend and felt like I really took advantage of NYC on Saturday. A museum, dinner and drinks, shuffleboard, and the country’s best ice cream? Might need to repeat this next month.

A Decision

Trying to be a mindful spender has had the inadvertent effect of me refusing to purchase certain items that give me genuine pleasure. I’m talking about books. Look up “bookworm” in the dictionary and you will see a picture of me. There is no greater thrill for me than walking into a bookstore and browsing, keeping a mental list of all the books I want to read and feeling proud of myself for seeing the books that I have read. The smell of ink on paper, the heft of the book, the complementary bookmark —  all of it is intoxicating to me. Whenever I visit a person’s house/apartment for the first time, if there is a bookshelf, I am instantly attracted to it and scan over every single title. When I’m on the subway and a person near me is reading a book, I crane my neck trying to figure out what they are reading without looking like a total creep. I love recommending books to friends and sharing my copy or borrowing something myself. I have this fantasy in my head of quitting my day job and working at a small neighborhood bookstore and eventually becoming the owner. So that’s why I feel incredibly hypocritical browsing independent bookstores in New York City, writing down the titles that catch my eye, and walking out without spending a cent. I am effectively working against my dream by not patronizing my fantasy business.

I rationalized not spending money on books for a few reasons:

1) The Brooklyn Public Library has an incredible selection and I find that most books I want to read are available to download on my Kindle for free

2) They’re heavy. I have a 40-minute commute to work, both ways, often standing the whole time, so I try to keep my bag light. My Kindle weighs next to nothing so it has the advantage there.

From a purely practical perspective, of course it makes sense that I don’t buy books anymore. They cost money and can be heavy. But it doesn’t make up for the sense of disappointment and guilt I feel every time I leave a bookstore empty-handed. That might sound dramatic, but visits to the bookstore hold a really special place in my heart. Some of my best memories are going to the bookstore with my dad. He used books as a reward for me: if I did well on a test or an assignment, that translated to X number of books for me to pick out. I also benefitted from books as bribes. If I agreed to go on errands with him and not complain, we would stop at the bookstore on the way home and I could pick one out. I had to make such tough decisions as a child, knowing I could only get 2 or 3 during the visit. HOW WAS I EVER GOING TO CHOOSE? To get an understanding of my passion, one of the first things I will do after I win the lottery or pay off my student loans, whichever comes first, is to go to a bookstore and buy every single book that piques my interest.

I’m tired of depriving myself of something that makes me truly happy. So today, I made the decision to make books a part of my budget. I established two ground rules: 1) limit myself to $30-40/month (so ~2 books/month) and 2) buy books that aren’t available to download from the library on my Kindle, or where there is an impossibly long waitlist (for example, I am #302 on the waitlist for The Girl on the Train). Starting today, I will stop sabotaging my fantasy job!

Wanted: A Sense of Urgency

So much for that “blog more regularly” New Year’s resolution. I didn’t even bother writing a post about my 2015 financial resolutions!

Alas, different year, same scenario: haven’t moved the needle much in terms of paying down my debt. The premise of this blog is to enjoy life while paying down my student loans, hence the “spend” in the blog name. However, I feel like I am missing a sense of urgency to motivate me to pay it off as soon as I can. I like to think about what I would do with the extra money in my pocket when I’ve paid everything off, but I don’t like to think about what it will take to do so. I’ve cut expenses here and there but am still having trouble staying within budget for going out to eat and drink with friends. I blame it on a combination of willpower + New York City.

There are other things standing in the way, too. While I did get a raise and a bonus at the end of 2014, all of that money was spent. I made an extra $500 payment on my loans but the rest was spent on paying off credit card debt, adding to my emergency budget, and saving for the four weddings I was invited to this summer (I am a bridesmaid in two of them). I learned my lesson from last year and made sure to save a good chunk for them to avoid falling into massive credit card debt. I also hoped to allocate a good portion of my tax refund to my loans but was unable to because my company forgot to take out NY state taxes from my paycheck. (I mean…) So that meant that my refund essentially went back to the state of NY.

Like I mentioned in my last post, I am already thinking of my annual review in 2015 and what I will spend my bonus (hopefully) on. Only one wedding on the horizon in 2016 (so far) and Dennis and I would like to go to Peru for his graduation trip. There is also the big unknown as to where we’ll end up for his residency so I would like to save a little something for that too, in case we have to move, put down a deposit on a new apartment, buy cars, etc.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this post. It sucks not seeing the balance go down. I know I need to do something soon but I’m not quite sure what. At the end of this year I’ll be two years into my ten year repayment and want these shackles off as soon as possible. Does it really have to come down to rice and beans for the next year?