It’s happening again. I’m busily getting my life in order—writing post-dated rent checks and filing my taxes (before Feb 1!) and generally preparing my life at home to cruise on autopilot while I go travel—someone will eye me narrowly, a half-slit of suspicion, and ask, “So, how do you get to travel so much?”
Which is actually a question within a question—an implicit way of asking, “Where the hell do you get the money?” Which, given that I work as a waitress, is also to ask, “Who’s giving you the money to travel?”
They initially don’t believe me when I answer, “I save a lot.” Which is to say, “I budget like crazy.” Which is to say, “No one’s giving me money; every penny I have I earn.”
I’ve found myself breaking it down, taking it further, explaining my budgeting technique and demonstrating iPhone apps as Exhibit A in the No, I’m Not Secretly Rich defense trial. Which isn’t so much an effort to prove myself to other people (okay, maybe it’s a little that), but really to answer the question for myself. Because honestly, I don’t know how I afford it all either.
Through this recent round of explaining, I’ve begun to see more clearly that I’m a bit peculiar when it comes to money. I’m not sure where that comes from either. My family was pretty poor when I was growing up, and money was always a stressful issue, so it might grow out of that. Or it might just be who I am.
Either way, I’ve always been a budgeter. I’ve always kept meticulous track of my finances, my expenditures and income. I’ve never paid a bill late. I can always tell you exactly how much I have in my checking account. This is not normal. There weren’t any other 19-year-old punk kids who drew charts in their organizers with savings schedules and projected income based on the averaged income from the previous months. (Where there any other punk kids with organizers to begin with?)
So it’s not a new development, not solely a product of having a goal, something I love, to work towards and save for. Nor is this meticulous budgeting necessarily a product of not having anything but my own ability to work to fall back on. My background is purely working-class; there’s no trust funds, no investments or money market accounts, no heirlooms, no looming inheritances, nothing to pass along the generations but a propensity towards denial and socialism. My parents have done everything they can for me, given me everything they could give me, so it’s not like I’ve never had help. But I work for everything I have. Here’s how I do it.
Exhibit A: Realistic Budgeting
I live comfortably on $2,000 a month. This includes everything from necessities like rent and health insurance to indulgences like lattes and dinners out. It’s really important for me to work in modest indulgences, and to hold myself to them, to not try to “work harder, push more, save more.” Because it’s important for me to not feel like I’m constantly scrimping and saving for some future goal (and thus living in the future), but also allowing myself to enjoy today (and thus live in the present).
I long ago figured out how much I need to live comfortably and happily, to not feel like I’m depriving myself—a budgetary form of crash dieting. The number has slowly crept up the older I’ve gotten, because adult life is expensive; but my income has also crept up. Which brings us to…
Exhibit B: Knowing How Much I Earn
This sounds pretty basic, but when you work in a cash-based industry, it’s really easy to lose track—to wind up with a drawer full of twenties and no real idea how much you’re actually earning. A lot of people I’ve worked with over the years have no clue how much they make, and no idea where the hell the money all goes.
I currently take home between $2,500 and $3,000 a month. Which means I’m earning $500-1,000 more than my expenses. There’s a fuck of a lot you can do with that kind of money. Such as travel. And get tattooed.
Exhibit C: Treating Saving Like a Bill
I deposit money into my savings account on the 15th of every month. I treat it like another bill, instead of a if-I-have-money-leftover kind of thing. It’s pretty simple, and that’s all I have to say about it.
Exhibit D: Keeping Track of Everything I Spend
And I mean everything. I like to think of this more as “thorough” than “neurotic” (you say “potato”…). iPhone apps have made this infinitely easier, but I used to do it by hand, in my organizers, with crooked-line charts and bleeding ink.
Exhibit E: Maintaining a “Prudent Reserve”
In addition, or underneath, all my regular saving for travel, there’s a baseline I never dip beneath. I maintain a $2,000 “prudent reserve” for total emergencies—my car explodes, I break my leg and can’t work, etc. So even when I’m coming back from a trip, I’m never completely at zero. If disaster strikes, I’ll have enough to live on for at least a month.
The end result of all this is that I know where all my money is going, and exactly how much is coming in. There’s no murky intransparencies. I don’t have to stress out; I can be comfortable in the fact that there’ll be enough.
I realize this sounds like a lot—when I’m done explaining it all to someone, their eyes have invariable glazed over and they no longer doubt me when I say that I don’t have secret trust fund. They’ll shake their heads and say something to the effect of, “I could never…”
And I realize that this all sounds terribly tedious and like a lot of time and work. But for me, the energy I put into budgeting is far less than the emotional energy of worrying that there won’t be enough, that I won’t be okay. Budgeting for me allows for a kind of freedom—and not just the freedom to travel and do what I love. But that’s nice too.