Three Months of Broke

going to revere beach is a thing you can do for free (or the cost of gas/train fare)

While I do not do new year’s resolutions, I do make seasonal goals. My goal for the remainder of winter (a time when my seasonal depression usually kicks in and I allow myself to be a miserable recluse) is to be more broke, to be a cheap hoe, in other words, to work on saving money.

I wouldn’t say my financial habits are extravagant, and they are in large part informed by my frugal parents. I’d like to believe I’m already pretty responsible with my money. But a trip to Japan, some unfortunate car troubles, gifts for the family–these all took their toll earlier this winter. Last year I bought my first car as well, which involved other new-to-me expenses like gas and insurance (don’t get a car unless you absolutely have to), and at the beginning of the year I changed jobs–all this instability generally made me feel I had less of a handle on my finances as I normally do, if only because the finances themselves also became more inconsistent and difficult to handle. So now that my life is relatively stable, I decided to contract my usual spending for this late winter/spring, with the aim of being consistently more frugal in the future.

For the months of January, February, and March, I aim to make no material purchases whatsoever. Only food and household consumables (toilet paper, toothpaste etc.). That’s the number one goal, but I also have some others; here’s my list:

  1. Make No Other Material Purchases (especially no clothes)
  2. De-Clutter
  3. Eat Out (By Yourself) Less
  4. Cook at Home More

Make No Material Purchases

It’s already the beginning of February, so I’ve been following these rules for a month so far. I did technically violate this golden rule in January, with the following three purchases:

  1. Reusable cups, plates, and utensils for a dinner party I hosted ($38.15)
  2. A portable butane burner ($19.99)
  3. A secondhand bookshelf/pantry ($10, split the cost with my roommate)

Purchase #1 was, in my mind, still following the “household consumables” exception, because otherwise I would have simply bought paper utensils, and you know, the environment. Purchase #2 and #3 were split between my roommate and I–we use the bookshelf as storage in our kitchen, to replace a much smaller, crappy shelf that I built myself out of scrap wood for free. Since we split the cost of this new shelf, it was only $10. I paid for the full cost of the butane burner, but my roommate bought the butane tanks; this is for a hot pot dinner we hosted to celebrate Chinese New Year, and in the future we intend to use it for more hotpot and camping.

But I did not! Buy! Any! Clothes! *applause* (and not even any fancy skin care products)

I actually already plan to violate this rule again in February, with the purchase of a compost bin and bags (we’ve been living here for far too long without composting…) I originally said “only food and household consumables” as exceptions, but I think a more realistic exception might be “household goods” altogether, with the understanding that they must be purely functional and preferably second hand. After all, although I am now in my second year of working, last year I slept on a mattress on the floor, and we bought our first block of knives maybe two months ago. What I mean is, there’s still some basic household equipment we do not have, and one of my key goals is cooking at home to reduce eating out–made easier with the right equipment. I’ll still be very careful with this of course, but as you can see, the point is more so that now, I spend very, very carefully and intentionally.

I was very pleased today when I realized I would end January under-budget!

De-Clutter

One of the things I did at the start of this year was reserve a bunch of books at the local library. I intentionally chose books I knew would help me be successful in sticking to these financial management and reduced consumption goals.

One of these books was Fumio Sasaki’s Goodbye, Things. Fumio Sasaki is an extreme minimalist from Japan. I really enjoyed reading his book, it’s a bit different from Marie Kondo’s books and other minimalists I follow. He focused a lot on the why of minimalism, in addition to the how. And promptly after finishing it, I produced three large shopping bags full of donations that I placed in my car. I don’t anticipate becoming as extreme as he is (particularly with the kitchen equipment–Fumio seems to eat pretty simple food every day…) but I still took some interesting thoughts from this book.

De-cluttering does not necessarily seem like a goal related to finances, but I find that the more I engage with minimalist philosophy and practice, the more I am reminded that I do not strongly need or desire material things. I also currently spend a significant amount on my yoga membership and aerial acrobatics classes, and while it can be somewhat costly, I am very happy with those pursuits. I am very grateful that I now have the disposable income to consistently attend those classes, because I find these classes work a lot better for me than cheaper gym memberships or YouTube workouts and running outside, which are free. Rather than framing this as a year of deprivation, I’m framing it as a year of focusing on my health and my body–who knows, maybe my clothes won’t even fit after I’ve mAdE tHeM GainZ 💪 (unlikely but a useful mental strategy)

I say “year” because, while I gave myself 3 months so that I could use the mental strategy of “this won’t last forever”, I’m already thinking about extending a clothing purchase ban for the full year, with maybe one or two exceptions. Reading minimalist books helps a lot; the next ones I’m reading are The Art of Discarding and The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning!

Eat Out (By Yourself) Less

Additionally, I’m hoping to cook at home more, focusing in on this in February. In January, I “weaned” myself off of eating-out-by-myself habits by giving myself two meals per work week. Sometimes, it’s just really satisfying to eat a breakfast sandwich after hot yoga, and sometimes, I just need to get out of the office and I make a Chipotle run. But I’ve been a lot better at minimizing the instances of these, to the point that now, I think I can give myself just 1 meal per week–and if it’s breakfast, the cost is often under $10. So I’d like to at least consistently bring lunch from home (sometimes its just pita chips and hummus) every day in February, with a very occasional breakfast treat.

Breakfast is a struggle, because I often wake up at 5AM to go to a hot yoga class, and I can’t eat until after the class. Part of the way I reduced my food spending was by buying a loaf of banana bread at Costco, and bringing along a slice for breakfast in the car. While this was great for my wallet, it was questionable at best for my health….I’m only human, and can’t do everything at once…

I also continue to indulge in a $2.50 drip coffee and occasionally a more expensive espresso drink that I do not “count” as a meal purchase since it’s just coffee. This is the same fabled millennial expense that is keeping us all from becoming millionaires, but for now it is too difficult to make coffee pre-yoga and then keep it hot enough to last. I might try and work on a solution to this in March, when the day’s a little warmer, longer, and sunnier. At least when I drive straight from home I always make my own coffee.

I did not extend this ban to eating out with friends–but actually, in January, I hosted a couple dinners at my own place and cooked myself anyway. I found a lovely fish market by my house, am now the proud owner of an oyster-shucking knife (though technically material I lumped this in with the food cost of the oysters, because it’s cheaper than a restaurant!), and I even made a fancy spiced fried chicken dish, which brings me to….

Cook At Home More

Marcus Samuelsson’s Berbere Fried Chicken, with sides~

While this seems similar to goal #3, it’s not as simple as making a lot of scrambled eggs for dinner–I consider that insufficient. I genuinely want to be a better cook and thoroughly enjoy the food that I make myself, which would further incentivize cooking at home. I think I’m already beginning to accomplish this. I’m also trying to reduce my food waste–in January I bought a Costco rotisserie chicken during a busy week, ate half, froze it before it went bad, and then recently defrosted it and made chicken curry rice.

On February 26th Lent will begin, and my focus will shift slightly, because I participate in Ethiopian Orthodox-style fasting. This means no animal products (except fish) and I am further imposing the goal of eliminating added sugar. I think this will make cooking delicious meals at home more of a challenge, but I’m already preparing by browsing vegan recipes on Serious Eats. (It’s not that delicious vegan food is inherently difficult, it’s just that it’s not as prominent among the dishes I know how to make.)

Three Months of….?

Each month of being “broke” I anticipate saving almost double my monthly savings last year–so you could almost think of it as Three Months of Wealth. Although I talked about a lot of ideas and goals here, I think at this point in my life I know myself, and I’ve used pretty good tactics to “trick” myself into succeeding. The biggest realization I’ve had, of course, is simply that it’s all in my head. Whatever I can do to remain motivated–telling myself it’s only temporary, allowing small digressions–have all been little details I’ve created to keep myself on track and never feel so deprived that I fall off the wagon completely.

I am incredibly fortunate and incredibly grateful. I am fortunate because growing up I never had to go to bed hungry or cold, or go to school with worn-out clothes. I am very, very, VERY fortunate that I graduated college with just $2,500 in debt. The grace period had barely started when I paid the whole thing off.

I fully recognize these immense privileges, and I want to have a handle on my finances in part so I can donate to charities, political causes, and MIT student groups, which I did last year and will continue to do this year. I’m doing this so that if one day I want to do something crazy, like start a coffee processing plant in southern Ethiopia, I can jump on a plane and do it.

I also want to do this to reduce my consumption and my impact on the planet. That’s why I thought reusable utensils and a compost bin were okay acquisitions even under this ban, and why going forward I want to try eliminating paper towels and other frequently used disposables in our apartment.

I’m doing this to avoid “lifestyle creep”; I’m going from being a student, to working, to living like I’m a student again, and hopefully taking home the lesson that I should not expand to fill the space my salary gives me, rather the opposite.

I am not nearly as frugal as the FI/RE people, and I don’t think their philosophy and culture motivates me very much (not hatin’ just sayin’). Rather, I see all of this as saving a little more to invest in myself and in my future, while still remembering the only true reality is the present. I invest in my future health, my future planet, my future big risks. I invest in my present friendships, my present experiences, and my present well-being–which always includes delicious food.

 

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