Alternate title: How to use money wisely when you despise capitalism because your last meal was some dandelion greens you picked and some cold cuts you brought home from a wedding reception.
I loved Elizabeth’s ability to discuss serious topics with biting humor and compassion in her previous guest post so much that she wrote me another! This one had me nodding along in agreement and saying YES THAT out loud through the whole piece. This guest post offers finance managing advice based in self-compassion in a world that advocates budgeting exclusively based on self-denial.
CN: extensive discussion of money and poverty, brief discussion of global environmental problems and food.
So…..Money. How does reading that word make you feel? Weird? Sad? Angry? Curious? Or perhaps it doesn’t make you feel much of anything at all, and you’re wondering where I’m going with this intro. Or maybe you are filled with contentment and joy but that might just be the yakisoba noodles altering your ability to accurately assess reality right now. (It’s OK, I understand).
But money is, for better or worse, a rather important topic. Unless you have the great fortune to live in an area where you can grow all of your own food and harvest 100% of the resources you need from now until you die from the local ecosystem, you (or someone on your behalf) will need money to purchase some things that are necessary for life.
You’re also probably going to need some money to obtain goods and services that will help you be happy. After all, money might not directly buy you happiness, but it can absolutely help to secure the conditions that nourish happiness: shelter, food, access to clean water, heating and air conditioning if needed, chocolate coated graham crackers, etc. Ignoring money altogether is, at least in most cases, not a good strategy for a comfortable life.
And yet ignoring money is so tempting. As we’re all learning the hard way, capitalism can be pretty awful. It’s hard to think of money in a positive way when you work three jobs and STILL struggle to make rent. It’s hard not to resent the very concept of money when that kind teacher who helped you make it through the 3rd grade is now organizing a Gofundme to help pay for repairs on her ancient car so she can get to work. It’s hard to feel good about money when it drives business owners and politicians to continue to make TERRIBLE CHOICES about energy sourcing and pollution policy, even as researchers and scientists continue to screech at the top of their lungs PLEASE STOP DESTROYING THE SYSTEMS THAT KEEP US ALIVE ANOTHER YACHT WON’T DO YOU ANY GOOD IF THE AIR ISN’T BREATHABLE OH GOD…
Heh, not that I have strong feelings about this topic or anything =) Now where was I? Oh right! Money!
Yeah, money is hard.
So how can one even try to be strategic about money when capitalism is so terrible?
Rather than thinking about your money as a gross, necessary evil, try to think of it as a powerful form of energy. You have a responsibility to try to use it wisely, but also the freedom and right to use it in the pursuit of happiness.
For the rest of this post, I want to try to offer a kind of strategic spending primer in the form of some tips. I have tried to cater this towards those who have experience living below the poverty line, as well as those who have debt (AKA, most of us). The point I really want to emphasize is that being happy and taking care of yourself (which money management can help with) are good ways to fight the system.
1. Evaluate your relationship with money, and try to make peace with it.
Take a deep breath, it’s ok =D
I realize that this first tip sounds a little bit like a cross between a fortune cookie and an attempt at an inspiring Instagram post made by a company that’s trying to sell yoga mats, but taking even a few minutes to contemplate your own relationship with money every now and then can actually really help you.
Money is not inherently good or bad. What we think of as money is just a placeholder that we have assigned value to. We could burn all of our money and melt down our coins, but we would likely still struggle as a society because too many of us have accepted that it is acceptable to harm and kill innocent people/destroy our biosphere in the pursuit of currency alone.
Our attitudes about any given thing (whether we are consciously aware of these attitudes or not) affect how we interact with that thing. If we are constantly telling ourselves that we’ll always be poor, or that we don’t deserve wealth or nice things, or that comfort is sinful and bad, that’s not going to be super helpful when we’re job hunting/negotiating a salary/reselling goodwill finds/restocking an ETSY shop.
Of course, simply thinking happy money thoughts won’t really do a whole lot by itself, and that is where things can get a bit messy. We’ve all seen those memes/think-pieces where someone is lecturing the poor and working class about just having the right mindset. Because of course, your multi-thousand dollar medical bill will pay itself OVERNIGHT if you JUST HAVE THE RIGHT ATTITUDE JEEZ.
Having a healthy attitude about money won’t solve ALL of your problems, but it will certainly help. Think of it as the lip liner in the makeover of life- your eyeshadow might still fade and your foundation might cake a bit, but your lips will continue to look AWESOME and the overall combination will still work better than it would have otherwise.
2. Do take at least a minute to think about budgets if you have never done so…
Yeah, I know it’s not fun, but this wouldn’t really be much of a spending primer if I didn’t go over a few basics.
When it comes to budgets, the important thing is to find a system that works for you. You want to balance your needs and wants as best you can, with the resources that you have. There are many different approaches you can take; whether it’s the use of an app such as mint, or a google doc spreadsheet, or even just some pen scribbles on the back of a receipt.
You don’t want to agonize over every penny like some grouchy dragon guarding its hoard, but you do want to consider where your money is going and double check that you feel comfortable with your own spending habits. If this is difficult or uncomfortable for you, I recommend a little dose of self-care to go with it. Perhaps a cup of tea, or a nice hot shower, or a yummy treat to munch on while you work. Assessing your own finances gets easier over time, and can even be pleasurable under the right circumstances. But you do have to do it.
The general goal of spending money wisely is to either make more money than you spend over a given period of time (even if it’s just a little) or if you must accumulate debt for things such as schooling or medical problems, do so strategically.
If you need to take on debt:
Pay attention to interest rates and read the fine print.
Avoid private loans if you can.
Even if you never intend to pay off the debt, keeping track of which company is holding it can save you some trouble if anyone tries to jerk you around.
If you want to save money:
Make regular contributions to a savings account (whether it’s with a bank, or is a jar in your cupboard) can ease your stress if you have an emergency. Putting away a few dollars a week won’t lift anyone out of poverty, but it will help one build a little bit of wealth.
If you are a creative type and not sure how you’ll pay for retirement/ issues that may come with age, consider starting a retirement account (such as an IRA of some variety) with a bank or credit union that you trust if you haven’t already done so.
The advantage of these accounts is the compounding interest. In other words, your retirement funds will be slowly but steadily growing even while you’re hanging out in your pajamas and watching old cartoons. Even if you can’t make regular contributions, the interest will still help. If you don’t have the minimum amount needed to start such an account, consider something smaller (such as a certificate of deposit or a collection of savings bonds) that you can add to over time until you have enough for a retirement account.
If you have a day job with retirement benefits that you qualify for, try to take advantage of them even if you’re not planning on staying. Often times it is possible to take the account with you or roll it over. This is a relatively small step that can save you a LOT of trouble later.
3. Understand that spending money is itself pleasurable and mildly addictive. Take that into account when deciding whether or not to make a purchase.
There will be other free shipping sales, don’t panic….
How we spend (or don’t spend) our money is a huge part of our lives. Yet it can be difficult to talk about. Too often, advice that isn’t necessarily terrible (make a budget and keep a list when you go the grocery store to avoid impulse buys that you don’t actually want or need) gets twisted into blaming and shaming (HOW DARE YOU WANT THAT WEDGE OF GOUDA CHEESE WTF IS THE STORE BRAND OF PART SKIM MOZZARELLA NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU HUH??!!). Nonetheless, I think a little chat about the addictive nature of spending money is important before we proceed.
Because spending money IS mildly addictive. It feels good to spend money, and it feels especially good to shop the sale that craft store is having.
And that’s fine. Life should feel good! The important thing is that you’re not constantly using shopping as a coping mechanism for something else.
When you ARE using shopping as a coping mechanism, be honest about it with yourself and plan ahead so that you don’t accidentally spend all your rent money at that comic shop and stress yourself out further. Again, the point is not to deprive yourself of fun things and comfortable living- the point is to avoid stressful situations with money when possible.
4. When planning meals for days at work or class, think outside the box for maximum savings and food deliciousness.
“Go ahead, General Public- come at me with your silly complaints and bad attitudes! I HAVE PIZZA WAITING FOR ME IN THE BREAK ROOM AND NOTHING YOU CAN SAY WILL BREAK MY SPIRIT! I LAUGH AT YOUR PITIFUL ATTEMPT TO UNSETTLE ME WITH YOUR CHILDISH CONCERNS!!!!!”
If you are a student or part of the working class (or both) then you’ll probably find yourself needing to eat during a lunch break or in between shifts. Unless you live right next to your place of work or school, that probably means either bringing a meal or eating out.
Conventional wisdom says that it’s better to prep food and/or caffeinated beverages at home, as it usually saves a significant amount of money. But if you go this route, it’s important to actually prepare things that you want to eat.
Some well-intended frugality newbies prepare cheaper foods that they don’t actually care for, and then just wind up spending MORE money so they can eat foods that actually taste good to them. Spending an extra dollar to get the sandwich condiment you REALLY want will make those trips to the restaurant across the street less tempting.
Additionally, eating out for lunch or dinner is not always a bad investment. Having some cash set aside for this purpose is a nice way to treat yourself and increase your own quality of life, as well as guard against ‘hangriness’ in the event of a meal left at home.
Eating out is also a handy alternative to cooking at home if the latter is impractical (lack of safe cooking space, fatigue from chronic illness or disability, etc.) Just remember that most restaurant portions are a little bigger than what you need, so unless you are able to store the leftovers for another meal or snack (or you’re just really REALLY hungry from reorganizing the toy aisle 10 times after that one family decided that you were free childcare) you might actually want to buy the smaller and cheaper portion even if there is a little bit of a markup. There’s no sense in spending the extra money if you aren’t able to comfortably consume ALL of the delicious food =)
Additionally, I want to remind readers (or inform you in case you didn’t know) that most supermarkets have a rack somewhere with clearance items. ALWAYS CHECK THIS RACK. Most days it will be unusual flavors of ranch dressing and hair dye with damaged packaging, but you can occasionally get the chance to stock up on dry goods and pantry items for pennies. Most stores will also have discounted produce that needs to be eaten soon. These items are great if you just want a snack, or are planning on doing a lot of cooking that day (Vegetable stock, anyone?)
There are also some smaller food stores that will sell expired-but-still-safe foods such as pasta or dried beans at absurdly low prices. If you are comfortable with this, it can free up a lot of extra cash in the food budget. But if it makes you anxious, don’t bother- you know your own body, and not everyone has the same digestive system.
5. When you do go shopping, take care to focus on things that will really make you happy, as opposed to stuff that will just sit and take up space.
Sure, that dress is my size and on sale, but is it worth sacrificing the last millimeter of space in my closet?
A lot of financial advice involves a list of questions to ask yourself before you make a purchase:
Do I really need this?
Can I make it or borrow it instead?
Is this the optimal version of this item for me, or is there one somewhere else that better suits my needs? (etc.)
This can be a handy strategy for some, but personally, I find that the most effective cost-saving question to ask myself is do I have space for this?
The point is not to shame yourself for wanting the Nice Thing- The point is to stop and think if the Nice Thing will actually make you happier and not just add to the clutter. If you’re lower income, than your living space is probably a bit limited. That pretty jewelry box might be in your price range, but is there a good spot for it and will you use it? If it’s just going to get swallowed by everything else on your dresser, maybe keep your money. Alternatively, you can purchase it, and use its presence to justify a cleanup.
Taking care of what we have helps to immunize us against the constant capitalist siren song of WANT THE SHINY THING EVEN IF YOU DON’T NEED IT. Again (and I can’t stress this enough) the point is not to shame yourself for wanting comfort and The Nice Thing- the point is to double check that The Nice Thing is actually going to make you happy. Making a habit of this mental step will likely free up a bit of cash for other Nice Things, and provide some stress relief when you have a little extra left for bills and other expenses.
6. Remember that you deserve abundance and prosperity, despite whatever those silly think pieces say.
Yes, Todd, it’s great that your grandfather worked hard to start that multi-million dollar company and now you have a cushy job working there, but some of us aren’t allowed to spend our work days reading Rumi and eating Brie and you REALLY need to look at some real economic data…
Making a living in the U.S. today is ridiculously hard. It can be easy to feel discouraged if you have debt, or aren’t making the salary you would like. But you are a human being, not a machine or a piece of software.
You deserve nice things and leisure time. Shaming yourself for being human is not a necessary part of being responsible with money, and, in fact, it may do more harm than good.
7. Credit Cards are a little bit like fire extinguishers- they’re great to have and potentially life-saving, but if you’re using them all the time for non-emergencies then there might be a deeper problem and your apartment might be covered in weird white foam.
Here’s a trick with credit cards- just remember that everything about them is designed to encourage you to take on debt you can’t pay so that some jerk can buy another summer home. Proceed with this mindset and you’ll probably be fine.
This may be a surprise to you, but I actually have several credit cards and use them fairly regularly. Credit cards can help you build a credit history, which will probably be necessary down the road if you ever want to buy a house. They are also helpful in emergencies, and rewards credit cards can be genuinely useful if you use them strategically (more on that in a couple of paragraphs).
However, I have a strict policy with myself of not using them unless I can easily pay them off before the pay period ends (unless there is an emergency of course). I typically don’t carry them on me, because the temptation to spend becomes greater.
The danger of these cards is that they convince that you have money when you don’t. They capitalize on the addictive nature of spending and will put you in a hole pretty quickly if you’re not careful.
As I said in the intro, the credit card companies WANT you to overspend. That helps them. They have decades of research on consumer habits and will try to use them against you. So don’t let them.
If you get a flashy ad for a rewards card, READ THE FINE PRINT. What’s the interest rate? Any annual fees? Does the sign-up bonus have some kind of caveat, like a minimum amount you must spend in order to qualify for it? That hundred dollar rebate might look nice, but it’s not going to do you much good if you have to spend two thousand dollars in one month to qualify for it.
For example, I have an Amazon rewards card that I used for textbooks in school. The rewards points would rack up pretty quickly and I could use those for other textbooks, as well as dry goods and little treats for myself. This particular card is great for this purpose, but given that the starting interest rate is usually over 20% even with good credit, it’s not a great card for emergencies.
Additionally, such cards usually operate by sending data on your spending habits to the company itself. I’m rather shameless and don’t especially care if Jeff Bezos knows of my fondness for Diana Paxson novels and matte neon eyeshadows, but I can imagine that some people might be uncomfortable with this sort of thing and choose to avoid it altogether.
Credit cards are useful, but they have a tendency to alter your spending habits in ways that are favorable for large corporations and that’s why they are so aggressively advertised. Use them if you need them- just don’t treat them like cash.
8. Paying an extra dollar or two in order to save time might actually be a very good investment, especially if you have one or more jobs that involve explaining a return policy to a customer who has failed to notice that it is printed on the receipt.
Sure, the store bought pizza dough is marked up a bit from what the ingredients cost. But just how much energy are you going to have after carefully explaining to the third or fourth customer that leaving their two-year-old child unattended in the cutlery aisle for three hours is actually very dangerous and can you please just not?
Having touched on ways to spend less, I would like to remind the reader that your free time is important, especially if you are in school and/or working several jobs. Being thrifty can free up a little bit of cash, but it’s important that it doesn’t come at too much of a cost. You are not here just to pay bills and die.
The point of spending wisely is not to rack up the biggest possible balance in your bank account. The point of spending wisely is to ease some of the stress of being broke and free up more cash for things that make you happy.
Money and Happiness
Lately, there’s been some discussion about the saying, “money doesn’t buy happiness,” and how hurtful and ridiculous this concept is in the current economy where teachers are driving for Uber and Lyft to help make ends meet. However, I think there is just a tiny kernel of truth to this saying that can be comforting if we consider the implications.
After all, the very existence of billionaires suggests (to me anyway) that some people really are never happy with anything, no matter how much they have. Dodging ones’ taxes and severely cheating ones’ employees and colleagues are not the actions of secure, happy individuals.
We can avoid that fate for ourselves by thinking of money as a necessary and useful tool in life, not as the meaning of life itself.
If you take one thing away from this post, take this: you deserve comfort, and frugality should serve you, not the other way around. Solid advice that helps people spend less should not be a replacement for fair wages and labor practices. Strategic spending and planning should feel liberating, not confining. It’s not about depriving yourself- It’s about using what you have wisely so that you can get the most of what you really want.
About the guest blogger: Liz Winship is a Mezzo-Soprano/Writer/Chocolate enthusiast who is currently working on her Masters in vocal performance. She enjoys music, reading, videogames, cooking, and giggling at silly memes (especially when they involve cats). She lives primarily on the West Coast, but currently dwells in the South for schooling purposes.