The Financial Survival Guide
Let’s imagine for a moment you really need a jet ski. (Of course, no one “needs” a jet ski unless they are a butthole, but bear with me.) You have an okay job that pays the bills, but your savings are anemic, and if you missed a paycheck it would be a moderate-to-serious problem. You know this—and yet? You still want the jet ski. You think the jet ski will make you happy. And here’s the thing: It probably will! Jet skis are objectively horrible... unless you’re riding one. Owning a jet ski will bring you indisputable joy when you’re loudly riding around on it, ruining everyone else’s weekend.
But of course, you don’t want a jet ski. You want one or all of the following: a larger home; the newest iPhone or smartwatch; a Fendi bag; dinner at Canard; a 3.4-ounce bottle of Penhaligon’s Sartorial Beard Oil; a wireless printer; a Roomba; a 23andMe DNA test; noise-cancelling headphones; a smart backpack; a 2014 Mazda CX-5; a Mosaic CT-1 commuter bike; or a Swagtron electric scooter. (I know, because I want all of these things... and guys, I don’t even have a beard!)
Are we worthy of having all these things? FUCK YES. In fact, we’re more than worthy—but here’s the thing: We’re just as worthy without them. And not remembering that can cause lots of financial problems.
I grew up bathing in capitalism. Every day I was informed—sometimes subtly, other times not so much—that my worth as a person depended on having a good job, earning a hefty paycheck, and obtaining STUFF. (Sound familiar?) That’s why my go-to attitude has been to search for STUFF that will presumably make me happy and then buy the shit out of it—to hell with my savings account! Unfortunately, hell is exactly where my savings account ended up, and now that I have very expensive kids and “Old Man Retirement” is shaking his cane at me in the not-so-distant distance, all of my expendable jet ski cash is now being spent on family-size boxes of Cheerios and 401(k) plans.
Needless to say, my self-worth tanked.
I felt like a goddamn failure. I was a bad money manager, a bad parent, a bad consumer of American and foreign goods, and therefore a bad person. BAD.
I was dragged kicking and screaming into doing something about my abysmal money situation, and let me tell you, I didn’t like it one little bit. But the first thing I did was take my bank statement apart and put all my monthly expenses into categories (groceries, transportation, entertainment, utilities, rent, restaurants, etc.) to determine where all my money was going. And then I broke each of those categories into two more categories: What I actually need, and what I simply want. Do I really need HBO Go when all I really like is Insecure? (Nope, cancelled it.) Do I really need to eat out for lunch every day? (My stomach says yes, my mind says no.) Do I need to buy scented garbage bags instead of the far less expensive Kroger brand? (Scented trash bags? What the fuck was I thinking?!?)
This deep dive into my expenses was illuminating, and also exposed a few bullshit monthly charges from my bank and some long-forgotten subscriptions to services I never use. But by breaking these expense categories into “needs vs. wants,” I was able to make significant cuts to a lot of stuff that, in the end, wasn’t much of an inconvenience—and in some cases, made my life measurably better. For example:
• In case you didn’t know, it can cost around $17 a day (!!) to park downtown! And since the uber-wealthy Goodman family controls the majority of the city’s parking lots, I get particular glee from biking or taking public transportation to work. Because every time I do, I imagine I’m slapping a bite of goose liver pâté out of the mouths of those fat-cat robber barons!
• Speaking of cars, I was getting sick of my busted whip and dreamed of buying a newer, sexier one—until I fixed most of what was busted. Now I love it again! (Special thanks to YouTube videos, which can teach dummies like me how to fix literally anything.)
• Speaking of goose liver pâté, groceries are expensive! But by applying the “need vs. want” formula to my grocery list, I’ve trimmed my monthly food expenses by 30 percent. (The trick is to forgo extravagant items and buy the cheaper version of a product when name brands don’t matter, such as garbage bags. That said, the Kroger version of Cheetos is crunchy poison, a waste of money, and an affront to humanity.)
Note: When determining that you do indeed “need” an item, it’s a good idea to honestly ask yourself why you need it. If you say, “Because goose liver pâté tastes good inside my mouth”—that’s more of a “want.” If you say, “Because this medicine will stop me from dying,” that’s a legit need. Another legit need: “I’ve thought about it for a good, long while, and this item will definitely bring me lots of long-term happiness.” As long as it doesn’t tank your budget, go for it! (I’m not a monster, after all.)
I did a lot of other cost-cutting stuff, too—but when I was finally forced to lock down my budget and go full-HAM austerity to stop my financial free fall, that’s when I realized something pretty important: For the majority of my life, I’ve been duped. I’d let capitalism dictate the terms of my happiness and self-worth. Capitalism wants me to think I need things—especially things I don’t need at all. My house and TV are big enough, my car and clothes look fine, my kitchen table holds up my plates and my couch holds up my body. As Sinéad O’Connor once wrote, “I do not want what I haven’t got.”
Although, if you want to give me a jet ski, I won’t say no.