I’m a normal-ass person.
Well, scratch that, I’m relatively badass. But normal in what I consider the financial sense. Even though apparently over half of America lives paycheck-to-paycheck and has a credit score around 600 or lower. So statistically, I guess I’m above-average financially.
I might act urban-bougie now, probably because despite not having much, I learned frugal quality and value EARLY. If you’ve read other blog posts of mine, you’ll know I didn’t grow up with money. I wasn’t poor by any standard, but I was for sure lower-class, statistically. And what saved me from growing up on welfare in the projects was my mom’s inherent hustle-nature. Seriously; she has shamelessly haggled with small children selling hand-made crafts in Hawaii for her souvenirs on vacation. But through a life of fake addresses for better educational options, well-intentioned church connections for better living conditions, and finely-honed discount instincts for better clothing and sustenance choices, I was able to at least go to the best schools in the districts, look presentable through thrift-store clothing, and eat good off sale-priced foods and discounted goods sold from dented cans and imperfect crushed boxes (that little warehouse in Queens was like a wonderland growing up). I knew not to ask for much unless it was my birthday, Christmas, or back-to-school time (RIP to the OG WholeSale Liquidators in SoHo).
It took until I was 13-years-old when my mom was finally able to secure a co-op and we didn’t have to move around anymore; I now had my own bedroom and an address I didn’t have to lie about so my mom could utilize my student-issued bus passes and Metrocards to save money on transportation costs. Stability was nice. We were finally on the come-up.
I settled into that comfort all the way up until college, where it really hit home what adulting would entail.
I was broke.
Broke broke. While my mom was working her ass off to make sure she could put me through state-college, I was left to figure out how to survive off everything else. I couldn’t ask her for “spending money” since she was already helping me pay to go. I tried work-study jobs for meager earnings but those earnings went to necessities, like securing used textbooks off Half.com. I couldn’t even contribute $5 for Dominos $5/$5/$5 deal when my friends ordered pizza. I couldn’t afford Chinese food. I didn’t go off-campus with them to party and dine at Applebees or bar-hop. The dining hall options were gourmet and abundant to me. Sale racks at no-name mall stores were my best friend when I had a bit of cash to myself.
When I graduated, with about $13,000 in student loan debt (and I am supremely grateful for my mom’s help and that I chose to go to an economical SUNY at the time, otherwise, it would have been much higher), I left home directly after college and moved to Boston.
Right around the start of the recession.
Now I was broke without the lifeline of living at home, AND learning that since the job market SUCKED, all those promises of how easy it’d be to make it with a college degree held little weight. I tried holding down multiple jobs for awhile, but I was overworked, underpaid, and depressed (Urban Outfitters made me vow to never work retail again, and you know it’s bad when the actual customers tell you they feel sorry for you). I couldn’t even afford internet. I got two library card memberships, one for the Boston Public Library system, and one for the local town of Everett where I lived. This granted me 2 free hours of Internet a day between the two, which I used to furiously apply to as many jobs as I could to improve my living situation. I couldn’t afford to partake in any common leisure activities like movies, events, restaurants. And when my ex-husband-then-boyfriend-at-the-time couldn’t seem to keep a steady workflow of hours to pull us out of this situation either, I finally grew TIRED of being broke.
That was my catalyst.
I was tired of my family coming to visit me and not being able to do much with them because I had no money. Tired of fearing when my student loan deferral period would end and I’d have an additional bill on my hands. Tired of living a life that essentially seemed like a prison, needing to be frugal 100% of the time, with nothing to show for it. There’s no freedom in being broke. I had done it for too long, and I was sick of it.
After 2 years in Boston, I moved back to NYC where I immediately got a job on Wall Street; the best paying job I’d ever had at the time. But that was not the “cure,” simply choosing to move where the money was and make more of it. Ask all those broke lottery-winners and once-famous rappers who file for bankruptcy. I needed a plan and habits to retain the now more-money I’d be making. I needed to NOT spend more just because I had more. And luckily, my thrifty upbringing had already trained me for this.
Despite my sudden jump in salary, I made the very conscious and difficult decision to NOT be dazzled by the more-money and continue living exactly how I’d already been living, with the goal of eliminating all of my student loan debt, because I’d finally reached the point where I could no longer defer them. Even though I was sick of it, I had already been doing it for so long; I could wait another 6 months to a year and stay uncomfortable for a greater end goal to benefit my life. At least now I was consciously choosing to live broke for a real purpose, with better days on the far horizon if I could remain disciplined enough. So all that additional salary went to hacking away at my student loan debt in chunks, to pave the way to my financial freedom.
My second priority after eliminating my debt was building a cushion in my bank account and a savings account on the side, so that I’d no longer have to live paycheck to paycheck, and no emergency expense would rattle me. Fun fact: If you’re not budgeting for emergency situations, you’re doing it wrong. It takes a lot of unexpected circumstances to realize, they will always happen. I used to budget $200 a month for random shit. Someone’s going to come into town. Your friend is going to invite you to some spontaneous thing. You’ll discover an unadvertised pop-up event only active for one weekend, or you’ll suddenly discover that thing you’ve been keeping your eye on for awhile is now having a whopper sale and you need to buy it like now.
There will always be an unexpected circumstance that costs money. Plan for it.
Since I had reached the core of my “I’m sick of being broke”-ness, I was committed to achieving this goal as SOON as possible, so even though I was technically no longer broke, I still lived like I was, until I had eliminated my debt and amassed enough of a financial cushion to finally be able to breathe easy.
Even now, I still choose to be economical. Just because you have money, does not mean you have to spend it. Most folks are bad at simply holding onto the money that they already have. If you’re shit with less money, you’re still gonna be shit with greater gobs of money. And yes, we can cry foul at the government and capitalism and unfair labor practices, but at the end of the day we’re still broke and we still need tactics to get around a system that exists and ain’t really going nowhere.
Learn to chase value.
I know everybody’s momma (Black ones anyway) said a variation of the phrase “There’s food at home. You got [eating out] money?” I never thought that phrase would make so much sense now.
Cooking is one of the biggest things that got me through broke times. Maybe I couldn’t get a pizza or splurge on Applebees, but I could at least make sure I ate good. I do not cook for presentation, nor to impress anyone or post my culinary masterpieces on a Facebook food group or Instagram (unless I did a damn good job). Some of those internet recipes got too many damn ingredients and I leave out 1/4-1/3 of the shit and make modified versions, just because I don’t want to spend money on the extra herbs and spices and juices that will go bad in a week cause I didn’t have anything else to use them on. I mostly cook for UTILITY. Because I need to eat. Does it take work? Sure does. Is it economical as hell? YES AF. So I put in the work to do it. My boyfriend ordered ONE gourmet pizza one night a couple of months ago, and the shit came out to $40 with taxes and delivery fees and such (Delivery fees have SKYROCKETED since Covid). For ONE PIE. I strongly urged him to reconsider. But he really wanted to try this pizza. Shit was smaller than the average large pie when it arrived. Now, was it delicious and hearty? Yeah. But 2 weeks prior, I’d gotten a pie from Papa John’s WITH cheesy bread and honey chipotle chicken tenders on the side for $30. Value.
Leftovers. Leftovers. Leftovers. If I have leftovers at home, 95% I am eating at home. And in the unlikely 5% of the time that I eat out with leftovers at home, I’m coming back to the leftovers somehow the next day. I will eat the same leftovers for 4 days straight, and if I get bored, cook something more so that I can rotate between the new thing and old leftovers until ALL THE THINGS ARE GONE. I do not like to waste food. Food gone bad is money in the trash. Likewise, if I buy a 16 oz soda, you will find my container at various levels of completion throughout the day, possibly even several days. Ask my cousins. Or my boyfriend who witnesses me place opened cans of Mountain Dew back in the fridge regularly, or drink leftover cups of juice still out from the day before. I don’t like to waste drink either.
I ate grits, eggs, and a banana for breakfast every day for a whole week straight last month. A grain, a protein, a fruit. Nothing fancy. Takes about 10 minutes total to prepare from start to finish. An autopilot breakfast that’s wholesome. $2.50 for a dozen eggs at the supermarket. About the same for a 5-pack of bananas from Whole Foods. $2.99 for a container of grits that’ll last you quite some time. $10 got me a week and beyond’s worth of breakfast. You cannot knock the value.
Awhile back I discovered that the Duane Reade chain in NYC carries 6-pack paper towels and 12-pack toilet paper for $5 each. Five…dollars…each. And not some cheap $1 store brand or like Angel Soft masquerading itself to be better than it is. It’s SCOTT. The nearest Duane Reade is 1 block and 2 avenues down from my apartment. My nearest grocery store is around the corner. If you’re wondering whether I make the longer trek each month for the better price, I hope the answer is crystal clear. I could pay $6 for 4 rolls at my local grocer, or I could get some damn exercise. Bruh, last time I went there they had BOGO if you had the store card (which I sure as hell do). I paid $7.50 for 24 rolls of toilet paper. This shit might last me half a year.
A couple of months ago, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My friend cautioned me not to buy tickets online in advance, because then you couldn’t use your New Yorker discount. Cool. We got there and realized the line to buy tickets using our discount was practically as long as the line to get into the museum. Took at least another 25 minutes. So pretty much almost an hour in total wait to get into the museum on cheap tickets. But that wait meant I got to “donate” $10 for my ticket instead of the full price of $25. And my friend admitted, she simply donated $1. I wish we’d been in line together, because seeing her do it would have rubbed some thrifty courage on me to halve my donation further.
I’m not a “shopper” and it’s not something I do in my spare time for fun either. I only buy new clothes or footwear if I need a replacement, a specific item for a purpose, or if the targeted ads on my social media and website browsing show me a sparkling rare item that aligns with my soul (those algorithms have gotten REALLY good). Because of this, I rarely make impulsive purchases. If I’m going to buy something, I make sure I really want the thing. I’ve never been someone who will just go “Oh, I’ll just return it if it doesn’t look good.” It is not always economical to repackage an item, ship it back, and wait for a refund with shipping costs possibly deducted. Because of this, I rarely return anything and can’t remember the last time I’ve regretted making a purchase. Additionally, commit to always at least looking for a way to NOT pay full-price, whether it’s shopping at TJ Maxx/Marshalls, waiting for emails advertising 50% off the site, or doing a quick Retailmenot.com search for coupon codes. The Sale section of anywhere is your friend; I can’t believe I ever thought SALE was a dirty word. I legit used to cringe and check if anyone was watching when my mom would go straight for it.
I pay $20/month for a Blink membership; one of the cheapest gym memberships you can get in the city (it even lets you bring a guest!). Blink, because the bottom of the barrel gym is Planet Fitness and I at least have standards. I get my free weights and machines in a safe and clean environment and I craft my own workout regimen, without having to pay extra for plush towels to wipe the sweat off my face, Kiehl’s lotion in the bathrooms, or fancy classes.
There’s a lot of freedom in living below your means. I decline purchases that I feel aren’t worth it with ease. Self-restraint comes easily to me, with an ironclad will against monetary peer pressure. One day I looked up and was no longer waiting for my next paycheck. “Oh, we got paid today?” became a regular reaction for me. I barely glance at grocery receipts because I have my practices on autopilot to keep my spending in moderation. I splurge on cool shit I could only dream of as a child, like freaking Zelda backpacks, Mickey Mouse sweaters, and all those cool immersive art exhibits without checking if I can afford it (I can, because I made it so). Or real vacations, random excursions, experiences that are only around for a limited time. Buying popcorn and snacks at the movie theater is non-negotiable to me (buying snacks pretty much anywhere has become my bougie non-negotiable), to the point where I don’t even sneak the 16oz bottles of soda into the theaters anymore. I BUY MOVIE THEATER SODA NOW. Sometimes I add NACHOS and Buncha Crunch too, when I’m feeling particularly baller.
I’ve taken trips back to Boston just to enjoy all the shit I couldn’t when I lived there, and eat at all the places I could only wistfully gaze at back then. I reached my goal of being able to live on my own in Manhattan, contributing to retirement accounts, with an online savings account I never touch, and a Robinhood account I opened a year ago to play around with, though I’ve lost $900 in the stock market (thanks a lot, WallStreetBets).
I never borrow money from anyone because I feel like if I don’t have the money for something, I probably should not be buying it. Instead, I have credit cards to “borrow from myself” and I never let my credit card debt go higher than what I have in my checking account, meaning, I could pay it all off and wipe the slate clean if needed. And if I find the scales tipping and my spending so much that my credit card bill is growing at a faster rate that I can pay off (without dipping into any savings or losing my checking account cushion, then I start cutting back on my spending until I can “pay myself back” accordingly. Because finding the balance between living a satisfying life and retaining as much of my money as possible, to me, is worth the prevention methods of ever returning to those dark days. I’ve done too much work to go backwards. I had an ex who used to brag about how well he could survive off $40 until the next paycheck, after his expenses had ate up his entire check in a matter of days. I ain’t about that life.
Last week, I discovered an untransferred $75 sitting in my Venmo account that I forgot was in there.
That’s the life I’m ’bout.
So, how badly enough do you not want to be broke? Enough to REALLY suffer through it with a goal to overcome it? To sacrifice a lot of the things you enjoy for a lengthy period of time if it means financial freedom comes of it? To keep a little bit of your broke past with you by holding onto habits you used to roll your eyes at your mom for with your mission in mind? You’d be surprised at the things you become capable of when you’re really sick of something.
What’s your catalyst? Or what will it be?
(Eyes on the prize)