What it Means to Save: A Year in the Life

Logan may not have retirement savings, but I do. She has precisely $3 in an emergency fund, while I have many many times that. I have been conditioned to save for most of my life, while it appears as if Logan has been conditioned to spend. We embody different life stages—she is yin, and I am yang.

It’s important to have a voice like Logan around because the truth is, the majority of people out there are like Logan. There are a fair amount of young people like me out there who save their money and spend as responsibly as they can, but we are certainly outnumbered by people who blow the little money they make on meeting friends at the bar, or at concerts, or at hot new restaurants where the bill always arrives in the triple digits.

These are people who experience FOMO. These are the people who smile and pull out their credit cards to pay for their fun so they can project an image that they are “making it,” but then go home at the end of the night to slowly drown in their secret debt. For most people, this is their secret shame, but for Logan, it’s a public one. It’s something that we need to have an open dialogue about, and I am more than happy to help Logan and people like her work through their money issues. This is part of the reason this site exists. You don’t have to face your secret debt alone. We can talk about it.

But let’s talk about me for a second. You’ve been stressed out with plenty of Logan stories lately, and I wanted to take some time to tell you my story—to show you that being responsible doesn’t mean being boring. It doesn’t mean that you can’t live in the moment, or enjoy being young, or that you’ll look back at your life one day and regret that you didn’t do the all things that would have made you happy. When I think about the last 365 days of being “responsible” with my money, I don’t recall a boring year. I recall a life fully lived. 

I hoarded my paychecks in the winter, and dreamed about living without roommates. By the time it was spring, I saved enough money to move into my own studio in a quiet neighborhood next to the park. I sat around my apartment in my underwear because I could. I made messes and cleaned them up, and sometimes left them around my apartment because they were my messes and no one else’s. For the first time in several years, I lived without a television.

 

 

I went running in the park by the water, and when I didn’t feel like running, I walked, or sat on benches and read books, or sprawled out on the grass and stared up at the blue New York sky.

I put more money in my savings account, and even more in my retirement account, and stayed in to watch Netflix movies, bought furniture from Craigslist for my apartment, and moved that furniture around until I was satisfied.

 

 

I cat sat for all of my friends when they left town. And then I left town.

 

 

I found a $250 roundtrip ticket from New York to Madrid, and took a week off to go to Spain, where I went to museums, talked to young people protesting in Puerta del Sol square, drank wine in the afternoons, and had tapas in the evenings. I took a day trip to Segovia to see a castle, went on walks and stared up at the sky. It was the same blue sky I stared at in New York. I bought no souvenirs, and only came back with vivid memories.

 

 

I developed crushes that lasted for a day. I developed crushes that will last me for a lifetime.

I talked to young people protesting in Zuccotti Park about their student loan debt, about being unable to find a job, about what they do when it rains. I showed them photos of the young people protesting in Madrid.

 

 

I was shaken, and got hurt. I celebrated birthdays.

My best friend told me she had met the man of her dreams, and called me when she got engaged. I took some money out of my savings account to buy a new suit for her wedding in California. I asked her if I could be her “secret best man” and we laughed and thought it was perfect. When I met her husband-to-be, I realized that the best man she would ever meet was already marrying her. I hugged him and told him to take care of her.

 

 

I was humbled. I was thankful. I went to an LCD Soundsystem concert. I saw a free Broadway show. I did my own laundry, and cooked big meals I could eat for a whole week. I had no-spending weekends. I made a dent in my student loans. I made a turkey on Thanksgiving. I put up a fake tree in December.

I dreamed about quitting my job and launching a website. I became terrified when it became a possibility. I worried that no one would like me. I developed stress rashes. I wept. I was overjoyed. I believed in myself. I looked at my bank account balances and knew I would be okay for a while.

I went out to brunch a few times, but I preferred to host it instead.

 

 

I got a phone call from my mother telling me that something happened to my father at work. I heard my father tell me that his company was refusing to give him disability payments. I heard about the missed mortgage payment. I looked at my savings account and wrote a check. My mother thanked me—not for the check (well, maybe a little bit), but for becoming an adult who was kind and generous.

 

 

I got over my stage fright and told a true story in front of a live audience. I got applause. I got kind words.

I don’t remember the drinks I had, or the clothes I bought, the cab rides I took, or all those times I bought my lunch. I saved more than I ever imagined I could. It was a year of austerity. It was a year that I followed my head. But most of the time, I followed my heart.

 

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63 Comments / Post A Comment

This was really great and I may have cried a little bit. I fall somewhere between you and Logan on the spectrum, as I assume many people do, so it’s good to get stories from both ends. And I appreciate the candor from both of you–it can’t be easy to lay all this bare for strangers to judge. Kudos!

neener (#242)

1. how did you find a $250 ticket to madrid? please share tips on affordable travel!

2. and this was really lovely. you seem like a good friend and family member. i hope your dad is doing better now! my parents seem to be doing pretty well so far, but i hope that i am in a position to help them if they ever need it.

melis (#42)

@blahstudent It’s a little inbox-heavy, but I sign up for mailing lists from Virgin, BA, Lufthansa, etc and once or twice a year I’ll get updates about pretty intense sales. I flew round-trip from SFO to London for about $400 this spring. It can take a while, but it’s worth it.

neener (#242)

@melis thanks! am signing up for mailing lists right now.

Mike Dang (#2)

@blahstudent One of my friends who loves to travel tipped me off to it. It really was an amazing deal. I even called up the airline after I bought the tickets to make sure that the tickets were real. They were.

maebyfunke (#292)

Mike Dang, I think you are my favorite of all the writers on the many websites I read. You seem like such a great person, and this was such a great story to read.

Tatiana (#194)

I totally almost cried too. This was really beautiful, Michael Dang!

blargh (#398)

@Tatiana I more than cried…I made an actual, out-loud choke/sob sound that I tried (and failed) to muffle. This is a lovely piece of work, Mike Dang. Keep ‘em coming.

Katzen-party (#219)

I want to second the appreciation for your candor. Money is a really touchy subject and the way you guys are putting yourself out there–especially Logan, since she’s kind of the Goofus to Mike’s Gallant here–is really gutsy. Also, this particular piece is just great. It’s an especially good point that most people aren’t really going to remember the drinks, the cab rides, the clothes, etc., in the long run (or necessarily even the short run).

And I’m sobbing with jealousy over here on the west coast at the thought of a $250 plane ticket to Spain.

melis (#42)

MIKE

WHERE DID YOU GET THOSE LITTLE BLUE AND WHITE CUPS

WHAT IS ON THEM

IS IT LIDS OR LIKE WHIPPED CREAM

melis (#42)

holy god those little blue and white cups

Mike Dang (#2)

@melis So! The story behind that tea set is complicated! One of my coworkers got married in Russia, and received that Russian tea set as a wedding gift. Then he got divorced, met someone new, and his new wife did not want that tea set in their home. So he gave it to me! It might be one of the nicest things I own.

melis (#42)

@Mike Dang I cannot WAIT to materially benefit from the wave of divorces I assume are imminent as I get closer to my 30s. Let’s make an agreement, if your spouse someday divorces you in such a manner that just having that tea set in the house makes you feel like a dying supergiant has burrowed into your chest and is busy crystallizing into a hard, tight, ice-grey neutron star, you’ll give it to me, okay?

audrey (#399)

Please marry me. Mike Dang! Or at least please give me a breakdown of your spending/saving habits. Maybe vs. Logan. A side by side comparison of where the $ goes in a month. Also, a post perhaps on the awkwardness of being friends w/going out w/ friends who make significantly more or less than you, during that time in your mid-late 20s when incomes start diverging significantly (based on who decides to pursue the starving artist lifestyle, who sells out, etc.)? Finally, for serious, Mike Dang, are you single?

melis (#42)

Like let’s say you marry Audrey here. Hi, Audrey! At first things are great. You combine all of your bills, you have similar fiscal goals, your credit scores are near-anagrams of one another’s. Slowly, imperceptibly, she grows into someone you no longer recognizes. She ceases to cherish you. Love is strangled and twistedly reborn as contempt.

When she leaves, she tells you it was the tea set that did it. “How could I take you seriously as a man or a husband,” she sneers at your shuddering, crumpled form, “when all these years I knew you loved that tea set more than you ever loved me? Damn you and damn your tea set, Mike Dang. I wish you had died on our wedding day. That would have been better than – than this.

melis (#42)

(i’m just saying then you might want to give me your tea set)

Mike Dang (#2)

@audrey I think Megan Patterson was the first person to propose to me on this website. A fight to the death! (No, please don’t. Let’s all just love everyone and be cool about it.)

Megano! (#124)

@Mike Dang We can have a hug to the death?

bibliostitute (#285)

@melis I think my newest favorite part of the Billfold (and it’s all my the favorite part) is the chance to try and be internet friends with MELIS! Hi MELIS! I feel safe making this entree into maybe-one-day-internet-friendship here. Because, Mike Dang.

melis (#42)

@bibliostitute You can be friendly with me on any of the Awl verticals, citizen! Except for Splitsider; nobody comments there.

bibliostitute (#285)

@melis HELLS TO THE YES! I get overwhelmed by theAwl and theHairpin commentariat sometimes, because there’s so much, and I (being funemployed in the middle east) do not sit at a computer enough to play. Duly noted. Overture broached! Exclamation points abused!

cmcm (#267)

@audrey I second the call on having friends who make more money than you. Having lawyer/banker friends when you work for a charity blows and there if someone can give me advice on how to get out of unnecessarily expensive cocktail bars or all chipping in for someone’s over the top bachelorette weekend, it would be much appreciated.

cherrispryte (#19)

No-spend weekends! I do those! And, well, I do a lot of these things. And somehow only have 87 cents more than Logan does in savings. I kind of want you two to invade my life for a month and tell me what I’m doing wrong?
But that is a different story, and more importantly than that, this story was sweet and lovely.

deepomega (#22)

@cherrispryte Fuck me, you just accidentally invented a Bravo reality show.

Lenora Jane (#395)

@cherrispryte I agree with this on all counts.

Lenora Jane (#395)

@deepomega I would watch this show.

mariajoseh (#405)

@cherrispryte I’d love that show!

@cherrispryte Hey that would be a fun series (or terrifying, if you were under the microscope)–every month Mike Dang guides a new reader to financial fitness (or at least partway there). Or even just posting, like, people posting Mint aggregates every week in a Friday Finance Free-for-all (or possibly a less corny name, but I love alliteration).

cherrispryte (#19)

@backstagebethy terrifying fun is the best kind of fun! (or not really.)

cherrispryte (#19)

@cherrispryte Ah ha! What you are doing, idiot self, is making slightly more than half as much money as Mike Dang.

Mike Dang (#2)

@cherrispryte There was a time when I was living in New York and earning $29,500. I was still able to save a little bit. Anything is possible.

cherrispryte (#19)

@Mike Dang Are you a wizard, good sir?

Also, my previous comment was meant in a “this is what i get for picking a poorly-paying career track” sort of way, not a “oh, it’s easy for this dude, he makes decent money” sort of way.

mishaps (#65)

You are a mensch, Mike Dang.

sovereignann (#197)

This is brilliant. Thank you Mike Dang! Also, I pretty much love this website.
Sadly though, as I said in a comment on another post, I will have to be a Wal-Mart greeter or something of the like as my retirement funds are so low. Or, maybe my generation and others can bring back communes as a way to retire.

@sovereignann I want to live on a commune so bad! Even just turn my house into a psuedo-commune. We can garden and cook together and sit around the fire pit, but we can also all have jobs if we want. I don’t think I could, like, make soap or candles.

Megan (#404)

Loved this. I also think an “ask Mike Dang” section would be amazing. I have so many questions!

AnnieNilsson (#406)

This was so lovely! Thank you. Now, I know money is so personal, but since you have been so open with us about everything, I can’t help but want you to actually tell us how much you earned that year, and how much of it you managed to save. Not to pry, but genuinely because I think it would be helpful info. I bet there are people who are not saving who read this and think, “Yeah but I bet he was able to save cause he earned so much more than me.”
Personally my husband and I earn very little at the moment, and so despite living these past four years in an austerity mode much like what you describe, we only just about break even every year.
BUT! all our scrimping has been great in that it’s lead us to become very good at having a full life with very little $$. I’m confident that when we do finally start making better money, we’ll be able to keep it up and actually save a big amount each year.
All of that is just to encourage those who feel like they don’t make enough to actually save anything to take heart. Even if you can’t see the progress right away, adopting this mode can still be beneficial.

AnnieNilsson (#406)

@paperbuttons oh and also since you mentioned that “One of my favorite things in the world is knowing what people earn.” So now you have to tell us! :)

Mike Dang (#2)

@paperbuttons Oh, I’ve already been pretty open about how much I earned last year on this site. I was able to save an additional $8,000 last year, some of which went to my folks, because, you know, EMERGENCIES. That’s what the money is there for.

AnnieNilsson (#406)

@Mike Dang oh my bad! There it all is. Thanks again for your candor and general awesomeness.

This is where I’m going wrong. I’m not making any money! I made roughly what Mike saved last year. #FML

@sovereignann I want to live on a commune so bad! Even just turn my house into a psuedo-commune. We can garden and cook together and sit around the fire pit, but we can also all have jobs if we want. I don’t think I could, like, make soap or candles.

@backstagebethy I don’t know why this is here?

Sarah H. (#408)

Thank you. Seriously. Also, thank you in general for this site – it’s finally making me really, REALLY face my issues with money and saving and spending. I’m not quite at Logan level, but I do often find myself so frustrated because I KNOW I should have money, but why do I find myself breaking out in a cold sweat every time I look at my account balance? Also, virtually no savings.

Thanks to this site, I finally got off my ass (and stopped going “ugh but I don’t want to lose the moneeyyyy”) and opened a 401k through my work. I also opened another checking account with my bank, did a bunch of math, and am going to use one account for bills (and NOT TOUCH IT except to, you know, pay bills) and one for incidental money. It’s already made me think twice about purchases – being able to say “Okay, I only have $250 (or whatever) on this card for the next two weeks and that is it” is a LOT more effective than saying “I mean I have a decent amount of money buuuut I guess I have bills? Well, those aren’t due yet, and SHOES”

Maybe I can figure out this “being an adult” thing, after all.

Mike Dang (#2)

@Sarah H. This makes me happy.

Emma Peel (#317)

@Mike Dang You and Jolie Kerr should combine forces to create a whole army of Clean Readers who Make Their Beds and are Good With Money.

We’ll all be in shape in no time.

Mike Dang (#2)

@Emma Peel Oh, Jolie and I have already been communicating!

deepomega (#22)

To summarize: Everything is, to some extent, a luxury. Once you realize that, then saying “oh no but I really have to have an apartment in X neighborhood with Y rooms” is revealed as another tradeoff you are making instead of some baseline requirement.

alpacasloth (#108)

This is such a fantastic piece of writing. Thank you for talking about this stuff so openly! I feel like so much of writing by young-ish people making their way in the world is a celebration of how none of us have our shit together. And some of us do! And many of us are struggling to figure it out! You, sir, are an inspiration.

Sierra (#416)

Dang, Mike! This article made me happy, and sad, but mostly happy. It’s the first thing I’ve read of yours, but now I think I’ll go find other things you’ve written because you’re obviously very good at it.

Also, you have a brilliant name.

THANK you for this! I’m no miser, and I love the attitude of “I’m going to live in the present and make the most out of every day” and all that. However, I used to go out with my coworkers all the time, and even though we made the EXACT same salary, they were always out of money at the end of the month, whereas I had plenty left for savings. And the reason was very simple: they spent tons more on stupid shit that they didn’t remember a week later. Whereas I always ask myself, “Do I want this enough to make the instant gratification worth it?” If so, I’ll buy it and not feel bad. But I often decide, nah, not worth it. And I forget it in five minutes.

And my point here isn’t that one way is right and one is wrong. What I am trying to say (verbosely) is that the whole argument of “too bad if I’m financially unstable, because I’m LIVING MY LIFE!!!! WOOO!!!” is bullshit. (Sorry, Logan… I have your retirement savings post in mind as I write this.)
Saving money doesn’t make you a bore. It makes you able to take a 4-day trip to Korea on a whim with two friends, while two other friends stay home because they’re down to $9 even though they make $1000 a month more than you and you share the same house with the same rent and aaaagggggh what do they do with their money??? To me, being able to impulsively taking a trip abroad IS living life to the fullest, and I’ll always remember the many times I was able to do things like that. Whereas buying a latte, juice, pack of cigarettes, and unnecessary cab ride isn’t living life to the fullest, it’s wasting it.

themegnapkin (#444)

@OneTooManySpoons “Whereas I always ask myself, “Do I want this enough to make the instant gratification worth it?” If so, I’ll buy it and not feel bad. But I often decide, nah, not worth it. And I forget it in five minutes.”
I do the same thing, but I build in a reward – when I successfully decline to buy something I (momentarily) want, I take the money I would have spent and transfer it into an ING account called, imaginatively, “Money I Didn’t Spend.” That way, I get the fun of watching my savings grow (that’s fun, right? Even if it’s “I packed my lunch today so I didn’t spend $5,” it’s still fun), and also I know that if I decide I really want the [] sometime down the line, I have the money for it set aside. I’ve never changed my mind about something and used the money in my “Money I Didn’t Spend” account.

That was beautiful.

megancress (#428)

Ahh, no spend weekends. Luckily I adore spending time with my housemate so I have many of those.

For the last four weeks until this week I’ve been living off £30 a week (half what a person on jobseekers allowance gets), because my student loan was callously delayed by evil bureaucrats sitting in a back room in the north of England somewhere cackling and rubbing their hands together while I slowly lost hope. I am determined to learn the art of saving on a tight budget under your tutelage to guard against this happening again.

dizzy (#431)

Mike Dang, I love your work.

Emma (#355)

I’m really enjoying the conversational style of the posts on the Billfold, especially yours and Logan’s – I feel so much more engaged in thinking about my relationship with money. Other financial advice sites I’ve been to tend to either frighten me: “You’ll die in poverty!” or give me a false sense of optimism: “5 easy steps to financial freedom”. You guys rock.

Trilby (#191)

Hi Mike! I am thrifty too. No-spend weekends sound great. Sometimes I do one by accident. Here is something thrifty for you to try if you don’t already do it– eating down the food supply. By which I mean, sometimes I about about to go out for groceries, then I realize there is a lot of stuff on hand and I should “eat it down” before I get more. It is easy for a single person living alone to acquire more extra food that will go bad if not addressed. I also keep a post-it list of what fresh fruits and veggies are inside the fridge so I remember to eat them in a timely manner.

mouthalmighty (#165)

Oh how I love this site. Thanks for this!

Loved this. Especially this part: “I don’t remember the drinks I had, or the clothes I bought, the cab rides I took, or all those times I bought my lunch.”
Thanks for sharing.

nadineB (#2,145)

Saving is really a great thing as it helps during emergency purposes. :)

ThatJenn (#916)

Just read this for the first time. <3 you, Mike Dang. I want to be as awesome and brave as you when I grow up.

ThatJenn (#916)

@ThatJenn P.S. I am aware we are the same age. (Well, I think so, anyway.) I have always maintained that being grown up is actually pretty awesome when you do it right, and you do it the way I aspire to.

Bill (#4,974)

Live like no one else, so later you can live like no one else. -D.R.

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