The $50 Week : Investing in Yourself

Hopefully, by the time that this column is read, Hurricane Sandy will be ancient history. Alas, I doubt that is in any way plausible for the families who lost loved ones and homes during what has been deemed the most devastating storm to strike New York and New Jersey and wrecking havoc across many more territories along the way. I had another column planned for this month, the first in a new year—but as I’ve spent the last few days glued to my windows, Twitter feeds, and Facebook updates, I’ve come to re-examine my relationship with money.

Natural disaster or not, there is a point up to which you can throw money at problems. My husband and I were lucky in that we were able to withdraw a few hundred dollars in cash, sink some more of our checking accounts into loading up on nonperishable foods, batteries, a case of bottled water, and a hand-turned recharger for our mobile phones. As it turns out, our best investment was an apartment on high ground in Astoria, and we were spared the brunt of Sandy’s fury.

However, many of our friends and colleagues were not so lucky. The vibrant downtown performing arts scene in New York took a hit with performance spaces like HERE Arts Center and Galapagos Art Space and intrepid new-music label New Amsterdam Records losing equipment and office spaces in devastating flooding that took over the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. We were horrified to discover that the friend of a friend was among the casualties when a tree crushed him and a young woman while they walked their dog during the peak of the storm’s gale forces. While writing this, I discovered to my shock that a $20 cab ride cost our friends, forced to evacuate their uninhabitable apartment in Battery Park City and relocate to Brooklyn for a spell, $55.

All of which leads me to ask the question: At what point does money become superfluous?

Oftentimes in this column, I yammer on about what you shouldn’t spend money on and where you should cut, scrimp, and save. What I’m about to write isn’t to say that a lot of those tips still aren’t valuable ones. But as I went running today—the first crisp, sunny respite in over a week of grey skies, drizzles (if not outright storms), and stifling humidity—with Strauss, Wagner, Dvořák, and Saint-Saëns coursing through my ear canal—I started to wonder what I really needed. What among my possessions would I be willing to lose if our apartment was lost to some circumstances beyond my control?

Turns out, I’m happy to part with a lot. With that in mind, and with a new year upon us, here (in no particular order) is where your hard-earned money should go.
 
Your Health

This should seem a no-brainer, but how many times have you sidelined the co-pay for a routine checkup or the uninsured cost of a prescription for something less consequential like a cable bill? Not that you shouldn’t pay your bills in full and on time, but if you’re sacrificing your well-being in any form in order to keep something like Netflix Instant or Hulu Plus, that choice should be reexamined immediately.

In an article written last April for TheBillfold.com, author Emily Gould gave five rules that she should have followed—but didn’t—when she received a book advance for $200,000 in 2008. Some of those rules made sense; living alone in New York City with uncertain future job prospects is a fool’s errand, and unless you’re truly passionate, yoga teacher training is perhaps the low-cost, but still costly, equivalent to giving up on a career in the arts and applying to law school. But Gould gives me pause when she says one should never pay for their own health insurance or pay for therapy.

Yes, health insurance is prohibitively expensive. And yes, there are ways of getting by without it, especially if you live in a major urban environment where options abound. But if you benefit from therapy and find a therapist that makes your life that much easier to live, there really is no price to be put on that. As important as your loved ones are in your life (and I’ll get to that in a bit, I promise), a professional is going to offer you much more than a Pinkberry-fueled venting session.

Your physical fitness falls under health, too. The day after Sandy blew through New York (or, as of this writing, “yesterday”), after 48 hours of cabin fever, I nearly sprinted toward my local yoga studio for one of the first classes on offer after its forced temporary closure. I think at least 30, if not more, students were crammed into the tiny space overlooking a busy thoroughfare in Astoria, and for the first time ever I saw the studio’s owner turn away students due to high capacity, promising to add an extra class that day to accommodate the high demand. The class didn’t cost much, the equivalent of a Venti Pumpkin Spice Latte. But I would have easily paid triple for a feeling of normalcy, restoration, and community after a depressing couple of days. And speaking of community . . .
 
Your Friends and Loved Ones

Sometimes we spend money without thinking (hello, faux-fur vest that has been sitting in my closet unused since I purchased it in a fit of near-blackout madness at an outlet mall last year). Other times, we spend money without having to think. In the last few hours, my PayPal account has been working overtime with donations sent to local businesses that are hurting in the post-Sandy cleanup. It’s not a lot of money (I’m a freelancer after all). It’s also not a budget expense I would have planned on. But it’s also a no-brainer.

There are obviously situations that no one wants to be in with friends and family: being asked for a loan by that cousin who still has high school library fees and graduated during the Clinton administration or lunching with a friend who continuously “forgets” her wallet. That’s different, and October’s column on financial etiquette can help you out of a lot of those sticky wickets.

But, on the other hand, your friendships and other important relationships are—or at least should be—built on a sense of unspoken reciprocity. If you’re flush with cash and your friend has been hurting for work, there’s usually no question that one of you is going to foot the bill for a couple of movie tickets and burgers. And while you don’t have to keep a ledger, such small indulgences often come back at one point or another. Judging solely by the empiric evidence found in my Facebook feed over the last couple of days, a lot of solids were done for others with the offers of room, running water, electricity, and hot meals. Sure, none of these small miracles carried huge price tags, but often it doesn’t take a lot of money to take care of the people important to you.

Though, sometimes the inverse is true, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. When my husband and I first moved back to New York after 18 months in Los Angeles, I was the one with a job while he was hunting in one of the less auspicious periods of the recession—and in the name of sucking the marrow out of life, a lot of those dinners and concert tickets in 2009 fell on my credit card statements. Fast forward to 2012 when I was looking to shift career gears and my husband was (and, thankfully, still is) gainfully employed with a full-time salary plus benefits.

“It’s not because we’re married,” he said of offering to foot things like grocery bills and the occasional Seamless order while I quit my job to explore other options. “It’s because I want to help you.” What he’s paying for aren’t material goods, they’re shared moments like enjoying the fact that we have mobile phone service or the sweet smell and soul-satisfying taste of a homemade Sunday roast. Which brings me to . . .
 
Your Experiences

In another article for the Billfold (running just a month after Emily Gould’s piece), writer Logan Sachon asked Heidi N. Moore, the New York bureau chief and Wall Street correspondent for Marketplace, how she “does” money. Her response has led me to all but building an Our Lady of Heidi N. Moore shrine in my closet for how on-target, wise, and rich her response is. Amid staunchly practical advice (“You leave the house in New York and you’re out $20 . . . 20 bucks a day—that’s $7,300 a year. You could go to Europe for that. So you have to pay attention.”) is her relationship to buying things.

“And most everything you buy is a depreciating asset. As soon as you take it home, it loses value. I’ve gone to The Strand with stacks of books and gotten nothing for them. Clothes are useless. You can try to resell them, but really you just end up giving them to charity,” she says, before adding, “The only thing that I think is a really good use of money is experiences—travel or a really great dinner with friends.”

This isn’t an excuse to max out your credit card on Orbitz or to spend the next month solely dining in restaurants and footing the bill for your three closest pals. But it is a good idea as to where your disposable income is best served. Sure, we all need to be clothed, we all need at least a modicum of personal hygiene and grooming supplies, and an air conditioner in the middle of the summer can be a godsend. As a dyed-in-the-wool bibliophile, I also cling to memories of reading Geoff Dyer, Tolstoy, and Alex Ross for the first time.

In a V for Vendetta-ish dystopian society, I would be the Stephen Fry character who keeps a secret underground annex full of books at great personal risk. But, heartbroken as I would be to see my bookshelves carried away by flame or floodwater, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I can still remember staying up late engrossed in a section of War and Peace, and I have several Dyer turns-of-phrase memorized (though I still can’t remember my debit card’s PIN). And, if given the choice between a shopping spree at Macy’s or a flight to Vienna, I’m not going to have to think terribly hard. Own your possessions; don’t let your possessions own you.

While most of what you buy is a depreciating asset, sinking money into experiences that leave you with vivid memories is an asset that appreciates over time. Which means you may want also to invest in the occasional gingko or ginseng boost—but, then, that goes back to the topic of your health.

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.