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


10 Comments / Post A Comment

muush (#521)

Mike Dang! I didn’t know you sometimes edit Longreads. For some reason, this makes me very happy.

NoReally (#45)

Yes! Extra jobs. Eight hours at one job and four at another is not as painful as 12 at one. Variety! Retail is a great second gig, because you can do short hours, and get a discount.

Megano! (#124)

Um other important thing — why is the bf not looking into these side gigs. I’m not sure if he was programmer or not, but if he was, he should have no problem finding gigs BECAUSE HE WORKED AT MICROSOFT.

Side hustles FTW. I’ve stopped now after a few years of it, but it does wonders to boost the bank account (and hopefully, your resume).

I remember you, Mike, not only from Longreads, but Bundle, I think?

Mike Dang (#2)

@Esther Goh@twitter Yup! And sometimes the WG News + Arts, and Time Out. Side gigs, you guys!

cherrispryte (#19)

How does one find side gigs, though? I mean, aside from Craigslist? I work from 9-6 already, and kind of desperately need my weekends to stay weekends. Are there really retail gigs that’ll let you work, like, 7-10 or something?

Mike Dang (#2)

@cherrispryte Yes! I remember when I was in grad school, I looked into getting a retail gig to help pay for school, but eventually decided I wanted to just focus on my program. Barnes and Noble said they were willing to give me a 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. shift to help get their store open every day. The best side gigs though are ones that don’t require you to have shifts—you just work whenever you have spare time, which is why freelance writing is so nice.

cherrispryte (#19)

@Mike Dang I clearly need to upgrade my normal freelance writing to “freelance writing I GET PAID FOR” which is a leap I need to learn how to make, and most likely lack the skills/ability. Also discipline. Hmmmmm.

Megano (#739)

MC here — boyfriend works in video game design as a 3-D artist in Vancouver…. where 3 studios have closed in the past 2 months. There is zero work for him in his field, particularly since he just spent a year out with a shattered leg. He’s trying to do physical labour, but shattered leg.
I’m with Cherrispryte. I work full time, and have since I finished grad school in 2007. I was just hoping there was something I hadn’t thought of beyond another job, since as an architect freelancing carries a lot of legal liability I’m not super comfortable with. I did spend some time this weekend looking into side projects, and I’ll see what I can do!
Thanks for the advice, Mike Dang.

@Megano I think maybe budgeting for some of those unexpected expenses might help you out? Wiggle a preventative $50 for car repairs into your budget every month. Sock it away in an envelope or a separate savings account or whatever. Find a few places to cut $10 here and there to make room for this $50. Next time your car needs to be fixed, you’ll have a couple hundred bucks to use without dipping into your real savings. I do this for car maintenance/insurance, travel and gifts and it really helps me level my budget out. I may save a smaller amount monthly but it stays in savings instead of getting pulled out for unexpected costs every month. Seeing $2000 keep plugging along to $2050, then $2100, then $2200 feels way better than seeing $2000 grow to $3000 and then get knocked back down to $2050.

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