It’s no secret that newspaper reporters don’t make very much money. They’re some of the lowest paid professionals with four-year degrees that you’ll find in the workforce.
But, my job covering crime and breaking news for the local paper, means I come in contact with people who are much, much worse off than I am. One day, I’ll be whining and thinking I’m behind my peers when it comes to pay, when I meet a person twice my age who just lost their house or who can’t afford to bury their child that just died in a car accident. It puts your wealth into perspective.
I grew up in a middle-class family that lived in the second wealthiest zipcode in the Portland metro area. (Otherwise interpreted as the wealthiest zipcode in Clark County, Wash.) Many of my classmates were well off, others were middle class like myself and some of my friends were much poorer than I was.
My wealthier friends had ornate pools with slides and fountains in their backyards. They became international travelers before they became teenagers. Their houses were so big, it would actually take a couple of hours to find everyone during hide-and-seek.
As a kid, I got to experience a few layers of wealth. I’m not bashing my rich childhood friends. They were kind, hardworking, had summer jobs during high school. What I got to see what happens when a family has plenty of disposable income and when a family doesn’t really have any at all.
When I recall my favorite times with my friends, not a single one involves money or stuff. Walking outside being goofy with my best friend or camping overnight in the backyard — those were my favorite experiences. I think a lot of people would agree with that, whether they’re “rich” or “poor.”
I recently started thinking more and more about what this taught me about wealth and personal finance, and I came up with two principles for myself. They aren’t universal truths, but I think many people may identify with them:
People are more important than things.
Experiences are more memorable than excess.
I try to ascribe these principles to my personal finance decisions. With my meager salary, or with any salary, one could argue, I could be living paycheck to paycheck, worried I wouldn’t be able to cover an emergency expense. I could be stuck in my apartment with no money to go out and have fun.
But I’m not.
I can have and experience just about everything that I want to with some planning and budgeting that saves me money every single day. A few strategies have worked well for me, and helped me set aside money in savings.
Work out at home
This doesn’t work for everyone, especially those who value the social aspect of going to the gym or a fitness class. Although I really like classes, I also really like doing my own thing do. After canceling my membership to LA Fitness, I actually found that my fitness improved. I was doing the exercises I liked to do (barre, pilates and yoga) on my own time. I don’t have to get my gym bag ready in the morning or anything, which makes me feel less rushed and gives me more time to dedicate to exercising.
To make my home gym even more cost-effective, I asked for fitness items for Christmas. I got a yoga mat, a dumbbell set and a medicine ball.
In a couple of months, I might buy a membership to online barre3 classes, which costs $10 per month for a year of unlimited instruction that I can do at home. That’s a lot cheaper than my trips to LA Fitness.
Become a cook
Going out to eat and getting fast food costs a lot. It doesn’t seem like a very big purchase when you get it, but it can add up over time. I try to keep my eating out to a minimum, reserving it for nights out with my friends and boyfriend.
Sometimes, I like to calculate how much the meals I make at home cost per serving. The other night I made a tomatoey bean stew. The two cans of organic tomatoes were $3 total and the three cans of beans were $0.68 each. I added a little bit of olive oil, garlic and a few carrots, which I’ll estimate at costing $1. The stew provided about 5 health meals, costing $1.20 each, plus I added an organic side salad for about $0.35. That’s way less than a nasty Subway sandwich I could buy up the street.
I was vegetarian for about eight years, and I still eat a lot of vegetarian meals because I enjoy them. I’ve found that on average vegetarian meals, like the bean stew, are cheaper than meat-based meals.
Make a list before grocery shopping
The secret to being successful at making your own meals, is ensuring you have everything you need to put a meal together. When I have a little down time, I check out the Sunday ads to see what’s on sale and write my grocery list around the sales, and what needs to be restocked.
Peering into your cupboards to see what you ran out of over the last week or so gives you a good stock of what you have and what you use a lot. It also helps prevent you from having to make a second grocery trip later in the week because you forgot to buy something you’re out of.
I don’t buy beverages such as alcohol or juice, which shaves some money off my grocery bill. Drinks, aside from water, milk and hot tea, are not really a necessity for me.
Never impulse buy
My achilles heel is clothing. I’m a big sucker for beautiful colors in soft, flattering silhouettes. If I see a jacket I like in a store or online, I remind myself to stop and make sure I’m getting the best deal before I buy it.
If you shop for certain items a lot, you get a good idea of what a fair price is. Websites like The Find help me price compare. Taking the time to evaluate a purchase, also gives me some time to reconsider it. Maybe I don’t like the jacket that much, and now that I’ve thought more about it I realize that I wouldn’t wear it a lot.
Take advantage of discounts
When you think of discounts maybe you think about clipping coupons from the Sunday newspaper. Which, admittedly, I do every Monday during my lunch break.
There are a lot of discounts (big and small) that people often don’t know they can take advantage of, whether it’s through the workplace or through service providers.
Take AAA. I used my membership to get a discount on a hotel room when my boyfriend and I went to celebrate our anniversary in Seaside, Ore.
I’ve been a Kaiser Permanente patient for many, many years and I just learned about a year ago, that I can get discount tickets to watch the Portland Timbers, or go to the Oregon Zoo or visit the Japanese Garden or watch a ballet. I get even get a 5% discount on plane tickets to Hawaii (not much but I’ll take it!).
My car doesn’t break down often, and I rarely have to visit the doctor. But, I can regularly use the benefits of these memberships to get discounts on things that I would really enjoy.
Buy things that are valuable to you
There are several ways to measure the value of the things we buy, especially when it comes to nonessential purchases.
When I was in the seventh grade, my mom’s friend took me to Macy’s in Portland to go school clothing shopping. While we were looking around, she told me to consider the “price per wear” that I could get out of something. Do you see yourself getting a lot of use out of that jacket? Or is it a trendy piece you’ll wear just once, making the price per wear the full cost of the item. A few minutes after her speel, I found a pair of jeans for $2.50. They weren’t fancy jeans, but they were a cool color and they fit well. I wore those jeans through middle school and the first couple years of high school, effectively making the price per wear less than a penny.
You should spend more money on things you will use for a long time. You should never drop money on something that’s cheap that you’ll forget about. I’ve gotten better at following these rules as I’ve gotten older. That comes with understanding myself better (my style and likes and dislikes).
Borrow books and movies through the library
Although I love reading, there are very few books that I would read twice. The same goes for watching movies and television shows. So, I like to get a lot of my entertainment through the library or online. (I don’t have cable or a subscription to Hulu or Netflix.)
Through the library’s online Zinio account, I can basically get free digital subscription to all the health magazines I like: Yoga Journal, Shape, Women’s Health Magazine, Natural Health. They also offer free movies and TV shows through Hoopla and Freegal. Pretty nice perks for having a library card.
Take advantage of free activities and events
When I lived in Chicago, I used the Chicago Tribunes’ website to find free entertainment. So, even though I was a college student, I was able to take full advantage of the city. Just off the top of my head I can recall seeing Iron & Wine and the Head and the Heart play music in Millenium Park, watching a fashion show, listening to a symphony performance, visiting the Field Museum, the Chicago History Museum and the Shedd Aquarium, and watching 50/50 before it hit theaters. All f-r-e-e.
Even though I live in a smaller city now, I still take advantage of days when nearby parks are free and when Portland has interesting things going on.
Make your savings account work for you
Recently, I set up a new savings account that offers a higher APY (annual percent yield, meaning interest). Although I’m glad I made the transition, I’m sort of frustrated that I hadn’t thought of it years ago. I’ve been a member of my regular bank Chase since I was 16 and had my first job. It offers a pitiful 0.01% interest rate, and that’s for someone with a higher-tier amount in savings.
I began realizing the money I was saving wasn’t growing or doing anything for me even though I wasn’t touching it. So, I switched over to Barclay’s online banking to get 0.9% APY. There are other online banking options with high APYs. I chose that one because they had a reward program that rewards people who keep saving by giving them even higher interest. It’s worth it to look at your savings account and determine whether it’s helping you meet your goals.
Spend money on the people, places and experiences that matter to you
Money is great. It helps us get the most out of the life we want to live, if we just remember what is is we really want out of life. When I see something expensive that I like, I like doing a price comparison. What could I get or experience for the same price? When I was at Fred Meyer the other day, I saw a necklace I really liked that cost $179. Although I’ve never spent more than $30 on a necklace, I ogled that thing for a good five minutes (ooh…shiny). But, I stopped to think about how I could buy a plane ticket to Las Vegas with that money. Or, $179 could be a weekend beach trip with friends. It’s also $80 more than a zipline trip in the Columbia River Gorge. All things that I enjoy immensely.
That’s the ticket here: Being wise with your wealth, and finding the most joy with your discretionary purchases.