I’m the first to admit that I’ve never been a particularly good dieter. I’ve always subscribed to working out excessively so that I could overindulge on burgers and fries, rather than cutting calories to give my aching body a break. Unsurprisingly, I’ve applied a similar approach to my financial wellbeing. When money’s gotten tight, I’ve found other ways to earn more money in order to support my lifestyle. This has worked fine for the past 8 years, but due to my decision to take an unpaid internship at a literary management company for the first six months that I lived in LA, my financial waistline was starting to catch up with my rash spending habits. After watching my savings deplete the last few months, I finally acknowledged that it was time to implement the dreaded budget.
In the beginning, like dieting, setting a budget seemed like it would be a fun adventure. That first day, I was on a savings-adrenaline high, imagining all of my untouched monies earning .001% interest in the bank. But then, after about two days, my mind started playing wicked tricks on me, and all that I could think about were the sacrifices that I was making. Things that I had never even thought about buying suddenly seemed like essentials that I couldn’t live without. It had only been 48 hours since I had crafted my financial diet before I cheated. Only, instead of hiding out in a pantry binging on potato chips, I found myself logged onto Pottery Barn’s website ordering kitchen canisters at 2:30 AM. Like I said, essentials. After that first lapse, it made cheating going forward much easier. Before long, boxes were being delivered to my apartment on a daily basis, and I realized that I was spending more money than I had been before implementing the budget. It was time for a reset.
Instead of cutting myself off from everything at once, I decided that in my new approach, I’d start with a few things and build from there. I scoured my credit card statements and tried to identify luxury items that I could do without. One high-cost item that seemed dispensable was cable television. With all of the new available platforms to watch TV, I figured that paying $80 for cable was superfluous. This notion likely holds true for people with patience, but unfortunately for me, I was about to discover that patience is the one virtue that I definitely do not possess.
I embarked on my cable-less journey by setting up my Apple TV and linking it up with my parents’ Netflix account (baby steps). Once I realized that Netflix only streamed shows’ prior seasons, I purchased a Hulu Plus account. Unfortunately, my internet speed did not meet the minimum streaming requirements, so I was forced to call ATT and increase my Mbps. This kept me satisfied for about a weekend, but then I discovered that several of my favorite series were missing from Hulu. Not one to initially give up, I borrowed my friend’s HBO GO login and used another friend’s cable credentials to access WATCH ABC and FOX NOW, but I still missed the thrill of live television. With college basketball playoffs quickly approaching, I decided to drive to Best Buy and bought my first set of rabbit ears since my dorm days. I started with the cheapest antenna that I could find, but it only granted me access to myTV. After watching hours of ALL IN THE FAMILY reruns, I returned to Best Buy to purchase the most advanced antenna that they sold. Even then, I could only get six channels to come in clearly, and that required me standing in the back corner of my living room and not moving. For the next few days, I tried to maintain a positive outlook while straining my eyes to read basketball scores, but it was the frustration of remembering login information for four different streaming accounts that eventually forced me to cave and call ATT. Before you knew it, not only did I have cable, but the salesman talked me into signing up for premium movie channels and DVR. In hindsight, trying to survive without cable was probably a strange choice for someone who moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in television writing and development, so I stand by that expense.
Still determined to make some budget cuts, I went back to the drawing board (my credit card statement) and noticed that I spend an exorbitant amount of money on food. I shared this with my family who suggested that I try to eat out less. My sister even offered some suggestions for cheap meal alternatives, which included pasta and eggs. I drove to my local Von’s reinvigorated, but I soon found myself pining for the foods that I could no longer afford. Like Holly Golightly gazing through the windows at Tiffany’s, there I stood, drooling at the seafood counter over Scottish salmon. At the very least, I hoped I could buy enough crabmeat to prepare my Kickin’ Crab Chowder. Unfortunately, the prices were far out of my range. I phoned home to complain about this injustice, but my mom informed me that seafood was not necessarily “roughing it” and that I should stick with my sister’s initial suggestions. Clearly, she didn’t understand the severity of the situation. Nonetheless, I hung up the phone and proceeded to gather the ingredients for my crummy omelet.
As I checked out at Von’s, I was puzzled when the cashier said that the total cost of my ingredients exceeded $30. This time, I called my sister to ask how exactly this was saving me any money. She also seemed confused, so she asked me to walk her through the list of ingredients. As I started naming them (butter, eggs, shredded Mexican Blend cheese, goat cheese, sundried tomatoes, peppers, basil,…), my sister interrupted and said that when she suggested making eggs, she actually meant, “making eggs,” not an omelet. It was a simple misunderstanding. I concluded that since I had already gathered the necessary ingredients, it made the most sense to pay for them and try my sister’s basic eggs recipe at a later date. After all, this was still saving money relative to the salmon and jumbo prawns that I initially had my eye on.
The most difficult challenge for me throughout this journey has been choosing what to buy when my bank account only allows for one item. A few years ago, I bought my dad the popular Eat This, Not That book to help him make healthier food choices when faced with two options (I’m aware of how hypocritical that gesture was since I’m a chronic junk food consumer). Unfortunately for me, there’s not a Buy This, Not That book, and in my deranged mind, there doesn’t always appear to be one right answer. I was faced with such a predicament back in September. Because I hadn’t secured a full-time job with benefits since moving to California, I was responsible for procuring my own health insurance. My fluctuating income had made me ineligible for Obama Care, so a large portion of my limited funds was going to health coverage that I wasn’t using (I still don’t have a doctor in LA). Around this same time, I had spotted a new leather recliner from Pottery Barn that I knew would fit perfectly in my apartment. Naturally, I toyed with the idea of giving up my insurance for a few months and putting that money towards a down payment on the recliner, but my friends advised against it. Apparently, it’s illegal to be uninsured. Who knew?! From my friends’ reactions, everyone but me! So instead of gambling with my health coverage, I did the second most logical thing…I got a part-time job at Pottery Barn on the weekends so that I could get the recliner for 40% off. This might seem like an extreme measure to others, but as we’ve learned, I’ll do what it takes to have my cake and eat it, too!
I know that it might appear that I’m no better at budgeting than when I first moved to LA, but that’s because I’m not. However, I am working on it! Just the other day, I wanted to buy a vintage croquet set, but I stopped myself when I realized that doing so would make it exceptionally difficult for me to pay my rent. In conclusion, my initial attempt at budgeting may have bombed, but like dieting, setting up the right financial plan is a marathon, not a sprint!