The Other Side of Budgeting

Lately I’ve been working hard to spend my income responsibly. My boyfriend and I just moved in together, and since he isn’t working and is living off his savings (apparently he saved almost a third of his wages for five years, which can come in handy when you leave Microsoft then break your leg and spend a year and a half recovering then start looking for work when your industry is closing down in your city of choice), so I’ve cut my expenses as well, and have been working towards paying off my credit card so that I’m not rubbing his nose in my paycheck gaining ways, and for future planning (that will hopefully involve some major life things that tend to be quite expensive).

I’ve cut down on most of the fun things I spend money on: clothes, makeup, household-y things and evenings out with friends. But is seems like every month some big cost comes along and eats up all my money like a mean Pac-Man. January: Got laid off (I did get hired again in Feb, so it was just one month). February: Paid to take (fail!) a professional registration exam. March: course to increase future earning potential. April: Moving. May: Car repairs (already!). I feel like I work and work, but I’m not getting anywhere. Is there any way around this? I’m glad I’m not continuing to put more money on my credit cards (current debt is just under $3k), but I am tired of so much work with so little to show for it. How do you deal with this? Is there some hidden inspiration I am missing? I’ve been trying to save for five months, and have got nowhere. — M.C.

I get a ton of reader mail every day, so I apologize to you if you haven’t heard back from me, but I wanted to take a little bit of time today to address another common thread I’ve been seeing in some of these emails, which is basically: “I’m putting in a good solid effort to be good with my money, but I don’t really seem to be getting anywhere when it comes to saving.”

One of ways to solve this problem is to look at the other side of budgeting. We’ve looked at the first side: Figuring out how much you’re spending, and then spending responsibly. But we can’t actually spend any money if we’re not earning anything, and that’s the other side of budgeting: earning money. When you’re budgeting, you look at the money you’re taking home every day, and then you look at your expenses. If your expenses are more than what you’re taking home, you need to find ways to cut back. When you’ve cut back, but still don’t seem to be getting anywhere, the answer to that is to find ways to earn more money. 

When I was a young, fresh-faced college graduate, I was super idealistic, and believed that as long as I was doing the thing that made me happy, it didn’t matter if I was earning a lot of money. My first job out of school was as a cub reporter in Washington D.C. for a talk radio news service. It paid the equivalent of $20,000 a year with no benefits. I shared a two bedroom apartment with three other guys, and I learned a lot. I interviewed people on the steps of the Supreme Court. I even had my own tiny booth in the White House where I was allowed to work and file stories.

I quickly learned that working 14-hour days, and earning basically nothing was actually not exactly making me happy. I couldn’t afford to do anything. I shared a bedroom with another person like I did in college. I quit my job, moved back to Los Angeles, and sold my soul covering red carpet events for a trade publication. When I tired of this, I moved to New York to attend graduate school with the dream of leaving Hollywood behind to be a foreign correspondent in some far off corner of the world.

It was there that I got some real talk from Deborah Amos, the Middle East correspondent for NPR News. She told me that I was probably paying a lot of money to be in grad school (she was correct). She told me that I would not be able to make it in some tiny corner of the world if I was burdened with debt. She told me that after I graduated from school, my priority would be to figure out a way to make a decent amount of money, pay off my debts, and once I was free of it, I could pick up and go wherever I wanted without worrying about making ends meet. The thing I learned from Deborah Amos was that money mattered—I could do the thing I loved, but it still mattered that I was earning good money. After I graduated, I made more of an effort to make sure I was earning as much as I could.

This is how I got into the habit of picking up side gigs. Anytime I got a full-time job, I made sure that I was allowed to freelance for other places. To start this website, I did have to save money, but I’ve also held onto my other side gigs so that I can continue to make sure my bills get paid, and get some money into savings (I moonlight as the managing editor of Longreads, and I’m often offered freelance writing gigs from editors I’ve worked with in the past). Logan is freelancing on the side too—she’s worked as a florist before, so she’s looking into doing some work through a few contacts she has in the city (this is why it’s so important to network).

Figure out how you can make use of some of your skills to make some extra cash. Look on Craigslist for one-off gigs that might be right for you (I once paid a kid $50 to juggle knives over me). Look: Someone in New York is looking to pay you for a recording of you talking in your sleep! Ask your friends if they know of anyone who is looking for a freelance writer/babysitter/dog waker—whatever it is you’re able to do.

And, of course, if you have a good job, and feel like you can negotiate a raise, go for it. Start figuring out a way to get somewhere.


Photo: Flickr/NinaZed


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