This post was originally published on March 2, 2015.
I’ve heard in Debtors Anonymous they talk about terminal vagueness—you spend money but have no real idea how much, on what or how often. You don’t balance your account, you don’t have any kind of budget and you hope each month (or week or day) you don’t dive into the red.
I haven’t gone to DA—I don’t have time. Or maybe that’s bullshit. But right now, it’s hard enough to show up for AA and my exercise and my writing and to return my parents’ calls. Still, I know I qualify.
Our consumerist culture encourages us to spend beyond our means. At least the banks do, the loan sharks, the car dealerships, the real estate agents, Best Buy and Target, and all major retailers. The idea of paying for anything substantial in cash is sort of a joke. Who can do that? Well, they used to, in the old days.
I’m lucky enough to have an 87-year-old grandma who lived through the Depression and doesn’t mince words. She’s an Armenian American, born on Los Angeles soil, who has humble roots. She gradually came into money after her husband built up a lucrative business (he started as a trash man), but she never got too extravagant—she finds spending more than a couple hundred bucks on a bag completely ludicrous.
She tells me if I can’t afford something in cash, then I shouldn’t buy it. If I don’t have all my monthly expenses covered, plus all my debts cleared, plus monthly contributions to a savings account for those unplanned emergencies, I have no business buying myself an Ice Blended at the Coffee Bean.
“That’s not living within your means. You have to sacrifice,” she’ll say. “You have to save for a rainy day.”
I’m equally blessed to have a 75-year-old sponsor, another LA native, with the same perspective, who gently reminds me what it means to spend within my means, and never ceases to redirect me when I’m spending like an entitled asshole.
Part of my problem is impulse buying. I do what I used to do with alcohol—restrain myself for a few weeks, determined not to spend outside the lines, and then one day I cave. Maybe I simply bought a $12.99 top at Crossroads thrift store, which in and of itself isn’t a complete catastrophe, but, as with any other addiction, it sets the ball rolling—I feel guilty for getting off track and get an attack of the “fuck its.”
Fuck it! I’ve already blown it, let me just go buy a $30 Spanish fringe scarf to wrap around my sweatpants in my dance class. Ah, fuck it! I need that $60 bottle of Aveda Intensive Reconstructive Conditioner to keep my hair on my scalp and from looking like a giant tumbleweed (it’s golden and curly and can suffer from major frizz), so I’m going to buy it online. Screw it! I need to buy two translations of the Tao te Ching at Skylight Books, along with Buddha’s Brain, because meditating will solve my spending problem.
What started as a $12.99 top—and maybe I even needed that faded pink long-sleeve tee, given a lot of my wardrobe has holes—turned into a $150 splurge within a few days.
I’ve never made tons of money. As a former pastry chef and current writer, I’m not going to be rolling in dough any time soon. Even if I sold the memoir I’m working on, I highly doubt I’d get a sizable advance that might dig me out of my shitty credit. And yes, my credit is really fucking shitty. Five years ago, my car got repo’d and I still owe AT&T $600 from when I screwed them over after transferring to a cheapo T-Mobile prepaid plan.
So with all these debts on the table, and with a monthly income that barely covers my rent, my phone, my health insurance, and my gas and food, I’ve got nothing left over—actually, I’m in the red. If I really want to chip away at those debts, which I do, I can’t get the pedicure, splurge on a Thai massage, even though the massage, at $40 an hour, is a steal. I also can’t eat out at the hipster diner in my neighborhood, where a reasonable dinner with tax and tip and a soda will run me a good $20.
Of course, I can’t be a complete psycho. If I don’t have some money to play with, I’ll kill myself—or drink—so I’ve finally gotten some wise advice that I should set aside a specific amount each month for fun, be it ever so small. Maybe, right now, it’s $25. That might seem like a lot, or maybe a little, but it’s enough to buy myself one of those sacred dance classes that, honestly, pull me out of depression better than any activity, including an AA meeting.
The best part about truly trying to spend within your means is you learn what matters to you. Clothes and shoes and nails and bags don’t matter to me. They used to, in my 20s, when I had higher-paying jobs and needed to entice men while drinking myself to oblivion on the dance floor at some shit club on Hollywood. But now? Hell, I’m 36, and I’ve got bigger problems. The hair conditioner is very necessary—if I don’t use the good stuff, the strands break at the ends, and I need it to be Janis Joplin length for my upcoming belly dancing career. Still, there are racks at beauty supply stores around town with 70 percent-off sales, which means every two months I can buy a high-quality conditioner for about $10. Hell, it’s better than spending $60 on Aveda, which, by the way, never goes on sale.
And I have to bite the bullet and cook at home. Eating out isn’t part of my food budget—and neither is getting an over-priced coffee at those local roaster places around Los Angeles. These guys charge, like, $5 for eight ounces of super-acidic coffee that’s completely overrated. Instead, I wait for Peet’s to go on sale for $7.99 a bag at Vons and get a whole two weeks’ worth of coffee for the price of two of those stupid “pour-overs.”
I’m very lucky that my 87-year-old grandma saves up her Lancome samples and unloads them on me each Christmas—I literally live off those for a whole year, buying no makeup in between. Makeup is another useless expenditure and, at 36, I’ve discovered that less is definitely more. While I need a coat of concealer under my eyes and a coat of mascara on my lashes to make me look less dead, going overboard adds at least 10 years to my face.
This kind of discipline has given me a strange sense of empowerment. No, Honda, I don’t need to lease your Civic for $0 down and zero-percent APR for the first year. No, Aveda, I don’t need your $120 holiday gift set. No, Fred ’62, it’s not a great deal for me to spend $15 on a half-pound burger, when I can make a better burger at home for $3.
I’m most tempted to get a pedicure, whining that I really don’t want to clean up my toenails myself and saw off the callouses on my feet. “Tough shit,” I tell myself, and then dig out whatever dirt is stuck beneath the nails. “You’re poor, bitch. Deal with it.”