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The last several months, I spent many moments staring — sometimes baffled, sometimes ashamed, mostly annoyed — at my credit card statement. At $8,000, it stared right back. Hard.
It was the highest it has ever been in my life and trimming it was proving to be a Sisyphean task. I was making sizable monthly payments, but my balance still hovered around the same amount. That can’t be right, I would think each month. It didn’t seem like I was spending that much money. I said no to the last brunch I was invited to and suggested a coffee date; I always packed my lunch; I waited for the subway for 45 minutes at 2 a.m. instead of taking a cab because I have an unlimited monthly pass, for fuck’s sake.
Then late in October, I came upon an article by a writer who was getting ready to do No Spend November, a concept I had never heard of before but was trending pretty hard on the Internet. As the name suggests, it entails four weeks of spending only when absolutely necessary: rent, utilities, groceries, transportation. While people have different definitions of “necessities” — some iterations of the regimen, for example, would have had me walk 40 minutes to work instead going via subway — the point is to challenge your spending habits with the bare minimum.
Fine, I’ll do it, I said aloud to no one. My stagnant debt could use a metaphorical laxative.
So throughout November, I did things that tested my willpower (and perhaps perceived notions of social grace). I met up with friends for drinks and ordered tap water. I made my breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day. I went to coffee shops and used the free wifi to work, skipping the line and just sitting right down (I did kind of feel bad about that one). When I went home for Thanksgiving weekend, I suggested my friends and I cook instead of eating out.
What I did was by no means heroic. It’s what millions of people choose to do or are forced to do out of necessity — every month, for years, or maybe forever. And in trying it myself, I didn’t expect anything much besides a smaller credit card bill and a better grasp of which coffee shops have a high tolerance for loiterers. But when you take it upon yourself to remove money from every equation (relationships, career, social life), you put yourself under a high-powered microscope that shines right through the bullshit spending you’ve tried to justify.
What did that microscope find? That my problem was not about the things I was buying — I wasn’t purchasing designer clothes with prices to rival my rent, or a nice car. Rather, it was about equating spending with power, however small the purchase.
Money brought power not by conferring prestige (I didn’t own anything fancy) or by granting access (I never aimed to join a new social set); rather, spending had become my way of expressing freedom from constraint — specifically, the limitations of budgeting. If I was able to live in Manhattan and go on vacations several times a month (or even just splurge on brunch) I was in the power position. I felt liberated, unconstrained, and therefore in control.
Never mind that my balance was ballooning; the ability to swipe my credit card and forget about it was itself empowering. Plus, I was buying experiences, like meals with friends at trendy restaurants or a getaway to reward myself for working obscene hours. Science told me that if I spent money on experiences instead of things, I could be happier. This became another way to justify my purchases: Happiness was another kind of powerful freedom money afforded.
This behavior was a departure from that of my parents. We immigrated to the US from Eastern Europe in the early ‘90s, and their spending was much more restrained. Chalk it up to living in a Communist regime where nothing, not even food, was guaranteed. In my frugal household, every month was like No Spend November: My parents preferred to read or get together with friends at home to discuss politics behind the Iron Curtain, and they squirreled away money to invest it and ultimately pay off their new house. They saved and stayed within their bounds.
But my admiration for that lifestyle turned into defiance. After graduation, I moved to New York and started off working an unpaid internship while juggling a gig at Starbucks. I was an outlier in my social circles, in which parents often paid rent in full; once a friend drunkenly divulged to me she had a trust fund. These people didn’t need Mint.com. That ease about money became something I wanted as well; once I started earning, spending it became a way to reassure myself that I too could have it easy. The choice to eat lunch out, or go on another vacation — spending was the ultimate independence, the perfect rebellion to my parents’ conservative frugality. In a twisted way, I also wanted to make them proud. Look at me! I don’t have to be so careful and calculated!
Of course, I did have to. Without a safety net, trust funds, or a large income (I was doing well, but not enough to be living like Diddy), I couldn’t truly live so freely. As much as spending gave me a power high, my freedom was actually shrinking, due to a mounting debt that kept me handcuffed to payments.
No Spend November finally illuminated that irony. Contrary whatever delusional thinking I picked up over the years, the quantity of my purchases wasn’t powerful if I was racking up debt. And once I started watching my spending, not having the “buying power” actually made everything easier; there was no pressure to spring for something because I could, or because it would be a salve to help me relax or feel better. I started to feel more in control, knowing the only decisions I made about money were very intentional.
Sure, the month wasn’t perfect. I bought a donut to eat my feelings post-election and took an Uber from the airport to my parents’ house. But I used to think that scrimping on those things and sticking to a budget meant less freedom. How fun and carefree is it to go for brunch, then an ice cream, then a happy hour without even thinking?!
But when I knew that the only decisions I made about money were very intentional, that’s when I started to feel more in control. A budget wasn’t a death sentence if it was helping me find creative ways to have fun and feel like I had the power over my spending instead of the other way around — and that’s the real freedom.