Though I’m not perfect with money by any stretch of the imagination, there are three rules I’ve found that, if followed to the letter, will prevent you from being dirt, dirt poor at the end of every month. They will prevent you from standing, stomach growling, in front of a pantry that’s empty except for a carton of chicken-flavored Ramen noodles. And don’t get me wrong, I love Ramen noodles. I even have one of those bogus little cookbooks that teaches you 40 new and exciting ways to eat those packets of pure sodium and their little cardboard pasta squares. But we shouldn’t be relegated to that. We should manage our money well enough that we can prosper and eat all manner of meat and vegetable all through the calendar. And with these three cardinal rules, I think it’s doable.
1. Limit your spending when you go out at night.
Even if it means you have to take out a certain amount of cash in the sober light of day and give it to your future drunk self like a child, so be it. You need to make sure that there is an actual limit fixed on what you can spend as the night progresses. If not, you will make it from cocktails to dinner to club to afterparty and each time a bill comes around, suddenly you are the Monopoly man adjusting your top hat and fighting everyone to pay for it. It’s incredible the justifications we can make up and repeat to ourselves like mantras when we’re three sheets to the wind and looking to keep having a good time: “Oh, I’ve been so good this month, I really owe it to myself!” It’s as though to not spend money would be a crime against humanity, and you’re just doing your duty as a citizen by having an awesome time. This is all well and good, of course, until you burst into tears the next morning as you shakily look at your account balance. Those 12-dollar-a-piece cocktails? You drank six of them. That cross-town taxi? You paid for it. You probably even spent a week’s worth of grocery money at McDonald’s alone. Don’t do this anymore. Spare yourself the agony and the ecstasy, and just take out a reasonable amount before the whole thing gets started. Leave those evil squares of plastic in a drawer where they belong.
2. Wait until the end of the month for “fun” purchases.
So you walk into a store that you know perfectly well you can’t afford, browsing in just a detached enough way that the judgmental salesgirl won’t think you’re trying to steal something, when suddenly — you see it. It’s the perfect shirt. The one that will go with everything, the one you could wear to the office or out at night, the one that won’t give you the vague dimensions of a refrigerator when put on. You check the price, and realize that, even in your sartorial haze, this is not a legitimate price for a swath of cotton one wears on one’s chest. You probably shouldn’t buy it. But you’re there, and the salesgirl is breathing down your neck, and what if someone takes it, and it’s only one shirt, and you’ll make more money this month, and you’ll regret it if you don’t, and — no. No, no, no. At the end of the month, you’re gonna be like, “Woah, I could totally use $200. Where did that money go all of a sudden?” And you’re going to look at that shirt — that incredibly mediocre shirt — and you’re going to hate yourself. Better to wait until you know you’re living the high life the whole month, and aren’t going to have to choose between eating and having a roof, to make such a purchase.
3. Pack your lunches.
Sometimes I want to call my parents in tears and thank them, really thank them, for sending me out the door with a bag full of food for such a huge amount of my life. At the time, it seemed so simple — almost irrelevant. “What is this lame brown paper sack,” I used to think, “with the same stupid sandwich every day?” Oh, how naive I was. Now, the idea of having the foresight and the patience to make myself something yummy and relatively nutritious to take with me on my day’s adventures seems like the stuff of heroes. But if I think about it, the amount of money that would be saved if I had a thermos full of coffee and a bag full of lunch/snacks to take with me every day is enormous. For the months when I’ve actually gotten it together, ripped the Starbucks, Chipotle, and/or sandwich shop IVs out of my arms, and brought stuff from home — I felt like a Rockefeller at the end. Where did all this money magically come from? It felt like leprechauns had been coming into my room while I slept, leaving pots of gold for me to find in the morning. It seemed impossible that so much money could be saved from such a little gesture. But even the sparing of a coffee and a simple meal bought out every day, let’s low-ball it at 15 bucks, ends up being about a million dollars at the end of the month (give or take, depending on geographic location). If we can just manage to get this little expense out of the way, we could probably put a down payment on a house by the end of the year. I’m thoroughly convinced.