The $50 Week : The Compulsion to Save

A few months ago, my husband and I moved, settling in an apartment that was differently configured from our previous home we’d lived in since 2009, which meant losing some furniture and gaining the opportunity to redefine our style. It also meant I spent more time than I thought was humanly possible on Pinterest, trying to come up with the perfect art to hang above our sofa, the best shelving configuration for our closet, and the ideal bookshelf to put in our entryway.

Fortunately, I’m a procrastinator, especially when it comes to spending money. I hem and haw, reluctant to make a commitment. With our last boxes unpacked and the essential furniture bought (and kept to under $300, most of which was allocated to some much-needed kitchen cabinets), I settled into our new one-bedroom, opened up my laptop, logged in to Pinterest, and realized half of my grand ideas were completely unnecessary. Everything that needs to be in a closet fits without any extra shelving. We have plenty of art, some of which never made it to our old apartment, to put above the couch in a way that feels fresh but still true to our style. The bookshelf from our old kitchen is a perfect fit for the front door area.

Get Out of Your Headspace

All of this reminded me of an article that I’ve referenced here before, written by Jenna Wortham for the New York Times. In it, Wortham posits the theory that social networking has created a sensation in its users called “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out.”

“The upside is immeasurable. Viewing postings from my friends scattered around the country often makes me feel more connected to them, not less,” writes Wortham of websites like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and Instagram (this was all pre-Pinterest, another can of worms all together). But there is a flip side to that feeling.

“When we scroll through pictures and status updates, the worry that tugs at the corners of our minds is set off by the fear of regret,” Wortham adds, referring to the expertise of Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. “He says we become afraid that we’ve made the wrong decision about how to spend our time. Streaming social media have an immediacy that is very different from, say, a conversation over lunch recounting the events of the previous weekend. When you see that your friends are sharing a bottle of wine without you—and at that very moment—‘you can imagine how things could be different,’ Professor Ariely said.”

In the past, I’ve written for this column about how social media can be a money-saver as well as a money-suck, but the psychological implications of those ideas are far more deeply rooted than a simple bank account statement or, indeed, a monthly magazine article.

What Are You Really Missing?

But here’s the question I ask myself fairly frequently, and one I want to pose to you: What exactly are you missing out on? The problem with capturing and documenting every waking moment via words, photographs, and video—aided and abetted by approval in the forms of likes and comments and retweets—is that even the simple act of getting a coffee and croissant from an independent bakery is rendered as something to pine after for the person viewing such activity in their Facebook or Twitter feeds. But, in reality, it’s just carbs and caffeine.

And while I often use this space to talk about spending, there is an important offset to that action, which is saving. It’s a concept that seems anathema to news feeds and walls that continue to give and give, but it’s also one that adds worth to your actual life moments.

When I see a friend document their multi-course tasting meal at the newest restaurant that’s making all of the foodies within a 20-mile radius of SoHo salivate, naturally I want to be there. It’s a gut reaction. But then when I step back and allow the frenzy of foie gras and bacon and garnishes to wear off, I think about my current checking account and credit card balance and wonder if it’s something I would want to sink money into that weekend. Cue the hemming, hawing, and procrastination. I don’t go. And you know what? Small children haven’t died, and if I were to be hit by a bus tomorrow, I wouldn’t lie in the middle of Broadway thinking, “If only I had tasted those duck rillettes . . . .”

Sure, if I made $370K a year, maybe that would be an activity for me on par with my Sunday pierogi runs at Veselka with my husband (a $15 indulgence if ever there was one). And when I step back and think about it, I have bigger fish to fry (without artisanal oil or Himalayan pink salt).

What Can’t You Miss?

FOMO is anxiety inducing to be sure, but anxiety passes. Step away from the computer or phone and count to 10. Is the bespoke cocktail bar your friends are tweeting about where you want your spare scratch to go, or do you have a higher priority? Are you aching to pay off your student loans or build a savings account? Are you angling for a vacation this winter? Have you been longing to self-produce an album? The benefits from any of those investments will be felt long after anything that comes in a martini glass.

And then you’ve taken the first step toward saving. Whatever it is you’re working toward—and that may be something like trying a new restaurant or bar every week, in which case all the more power to you—write it down. Putting it in indelible ink on paper makes it that much more of a significant goal rather than a pipe dream or a folder in your Firefox bookmarks.

Climb the Mountain

From there, look at how much you make each month—not how much you anticipate to make each month. The biggest problem that I see my fellow freelancers face is spending money that they expect to make. Checks get delayed. Projects fall through. Spend what you have, not what you expect (or, heaven help you, hope) to make. If you end up taking home an extra $500 one month, count it as a bonus and use it wisely.

Divide and conquer your current assets. Set aside enough for your rent and bills and bare-minimum necessities (groceries, gas, MetroCards). Then see how much you can set aside and where you want to allocate it. It’s a very simple process, and one I’ve outlined many times before here. But it’s absolutely, 100 percent more difficult to follow through on this type of a plan than it is to hammer it out on a keyboard or read it in between subway stops. The thing with saving is that it doesn’t just require the ability to financially compartmentalize, it also demands the deep-seated desire to do so.

Tough love with yourself and overpreparation are the best tools to get to that next level from talk to action. Set up a separate savings account and transfer money there immediately upon receiving it. Out of sight, out of mind. And once you’ve taken care of the essentials, think of whatever leftover cash you have as guilt-free spending. If you’re on track to affording a summer program in Italy and paying off your undergraduate bills and keeping up with your rent and you still have $100 a month left over, don’t feel the shame that we enforce upon ourselves for buying a venti latte and blueberry muffin from time to time. That’s part of being human—and even if an impromptu visit to Starbucks doesn’t get you any closer toward your life goals, muffins happen. But consider it like your diet (not “a” diet, mind you): if you overextend at lunch, chances are you’re going to have a lighter dinner. Your financial life is something to keep healthy just as much as your own body.

Don’t Fear the Unknown

I once asked a singer friend who went from a 40-hour-a-week job into singing full time how he keeps up with his lifestyle while making less than he once made. He said bluntly: “If I don’t have it, I don’t spend it.”

It’s a statement to which I’ve always been a little incredulous: every now and then we all face a situation where we have to spend what we don’t have. Emergency dental work happens, an audition comes up and the only way to get a score at 2:00 a.m. on a Sunday is to fork out and download it online. You forget to pack your lunch from home or your friend gets engaged and champagne has to be bought.

But not everything has to happen like that. Your health is important and the dentist will have to be paid (although there are ways of not spending top dollar, as I detailed a few months ago). Eating is important, but needing to buy lunch isn’t an excuse for spending $20 on Seamless. But lots of people are awake, with scanners, at 2:00 a.m. on the weekend, or some time on the IMSLP can yield an alternative so that you can learn an aria on the fly. Engagements and birthdays and promotions and opening nights happen, but celebrating without a $50 bottle of bubbly won’t harm anyone. Your being there for a friend trumps whatever you bring with you.

Some call it austerity or some other word that calls to mind living without, but you’re not really living without. You’re living with different experiences, different items.

Ultimately, what I use to fill my apartment is less important to me than the memories I fill it with, including the simple knowledge that I live in a secure, quiet, building that feels like a true retreat from the chaos of the outside world, a retreat each night and on weekends. I stay in and read on weekends, but the experiences reading books like Anna Karenina and the collected letters of Mozart and Beethoven and back issues of the New Yorker are creatively electrifying and mentally nourishing. Cooking at home with my husband is far more entertaining and relaxing than fighting for a table downtown, and it means we’re putting a few extra Hamiltons into a fund for traveling this year, getting foods that we can’t dream of finding in New York.

It may not be the life of Riley, but it’s the life of Olivia. And not only is that much more preferable, but I don’t feel like I’ve missed a beat.

Olivia Giovetti

Olivia Giovetti has written and hosted for WQXR and its sister station, Q2 Music. In addition to Classical Singer, she also contributes frequently to Time Out New York, Gramophone, Playbill, and more.