This afternoon, a friend texted me asking if I wanted to see a movie tonight. “I don’t think so,” I wrote back. “Not worth the euros.” Then I emailed her a list of the free events going on around Paris this weekend that we could do together instead.
For the last several months I’ve been voluntarily unemployed and eating stinky cheese and writing until dawn in the City of Light. I don’t have a sugar daddy or wealthy parents to foot the bill; as with all the other great adventures in my life, like studying abroad and moving across the country, I made it happen on my own.
Not to say my parents had nothing to do with it. In fact, everything I know about money, I learned from my parents.
My family was neither poor nor rich, but my parents taught me to value what I had, make it last, and only spend money on what I really love. My mom, a public school teacher, never told me we couldn’t afford something, but any time we were out shopping, even for groceries, instead of asking me if I wanted anything she’d ask, “Is there anything you can’t live without?” My father, a wildlife biologist, would put water in the shampoo bottle to make it last, and used Arizona lake water to dilute our sunscreen when we took fishing trips. We most often ate dinner in, as a family, everyone pitching in to help create or clean up the meal, and dinners out were appreciated as special occasions.
To earn allowance my brothers and I were assigned household chores, and I remember saving my dollars to buy things like scented nail polish from Charlotte Russe or the newest Paula Abdul cassette. When my single mother began taking night classes to earn her master’s degree, allowances silently became fewer and further between. Rather than pushing for what I was “owed,” I instead learned to pick my battles and continued to help keep the household, and when something important came up, I struck. I knew when I had done enough dishes and vacuuming to warrant a magazine with Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover, or a ticket to the 1997 Bush concert in Phoenix.
In college I had student loans to live on but worked steadily at the local television station to pay for extra things I needed, like car insurance or textbooks. When there was something special to save up for, I’d pick up an extra job to make it happen. I waitressed for a year to save up for a summer studying art history in Italy. I took on a second position at the television station to pay for video editing classes at a local community college because they weren’t available at the university. During my last semester in college, I worked four part-time jobs to save up to move to New York City after graduation.
In New York, I landed a job in a field I loved, working for a video editing company. My extra classes had paid off. But this was dues-paying work, and when I began I made the same hourly wage there as at my highest-paying college job: $8 per hour. Sometimes on the weekends I subsisted on bagels, coffee, Goldfish crackers and the highly-fulfilling feeling of living in the center of the universe.
After a few years working my way up the ladder, I’d increased my salary and was earning enough to buy things that previously seemed impossible: a $30 dress at H&M or a $12 jalepeño margarita at the Standard Hotel. But with more pay came more work—namely, countless nights and weekends. I indulged on material possessions because I felt I’d earned them: if I couldn’t have a social life, at least I could look good at work. But after seven years, the work became overwhelming and my passion for it dissolved into Sunday night dread sessions. I was desperate to get away from the office and live an air-breathing, world-seeing life.
I began formulating a secret plan to pull the most cliched stunt imaginable: I would save up all my money, quit my job, and move to Paris to be a writer (cue fireworks and swelling string orchestras).
In my mind it seemed perfectly logical: I didn’t have a boyfriend, a lease or a car. Three of my closest friends had recently moved away from New York. I’d visited Paris for two months the year before (another major saving endeavor) and after it my return to regular life had hit me like a bad hangover. I not only wanted to return… I wanted to live in Paris. I wanted to know my way around its winding streets and become fluent in a language I didn’t understand. I didn’t know whether I’d ever be able to find a job there or even whether I wanted to; I wanted to give myself an uninterrupted opportunity to write. But one thing I did know was that I could live there for at least a few months, even a year, if I saved for long enough beforehand—after all, I’d sent myself to Italy in college, and saved for my move to New York. My lifelong pattern of spending months saving my money gave me the confidence to hatch this wild plan in a way that didn’t seem crazy at all.
For a year and a half I saved every penny. I stopped shopping and eating out. I lived like a minimalist monk and slowly gave away or sold most of my material possessions (that makes me sound kind of suicidal, but it felt really good to get rid of all my junk). I set up a monthly automatic transfer to my savings account of a few hundred dollars and at the end of each month, if I could transfer more, I would. I flat-out refused when my landlord tried to jack up my rent. I put on blinders to the world of consumption and resisted even stopping into stores “just to look.” And, ironically, I dove even further into work, pulling late shifts and weekends on projects I hated but would give me overtime money I could put directly into savings. One late Saturday night at work, staring blearily at my office computer at 3:58am, I closed my eyes and envisioned myself in Paris, imagined euros in my hand instead of dollars and saw myself sitting in front of a half-finished novel at 4am. If I could push on, it would be worth it.
When I bought my plane ticket two months before my departure, sitting at my office desk, my heart pounded with nervousness, excitement, and hope—I felt myself hurtling toward my unknown future. I clicked “Buy Ticket.” I waited for the confirmation page to load. It took forever. Then my credit card was suspended because it was such an abnormal purchase for my spender’s profile. But after a few phone calls the matter was resolved, and before I knew it, I had a ticket to Paris.
By January I’d quit my job, packed two suitcases and a box, left the rest of my possessions to the customers of New York’s Salvation Army, and set off for Paris. I had no idea how long my money would last me, or what I would do when the money ran out, but I knew I had to give myself the chance to do something good with my youth and my savings account.
My drastic non-spending habits followed me across the ocean. Through a friend I was lucky to have found an incredibly cheap room to rent just north of Montmartre, living with a Buddhist studying Shiatsu massage. Food was cheaper in Paris (well, cheese and wine and bread were cheaper), but for the first two frigid months of the year, that was all I spent money on: food, rent, and coffee in the cafés I would write at while looking out at the rain. The same single credit card I’ve had since college, which has never gone above $1500, was in my wallet for emergencies, but having limited my spending for so long already, I never used it. In the month of February I spent a grand total of $1,000 in one of the most expensive cities in the world. It was just me, my notebook, and Paris.
But I wasn’t doing anything. I was so stringent with my money that I wasn’t taking advantage of the city at all. I was doing what I did best: working (now with no pay). Each day I would get up, wander the city with my camera for a couple of hours in the cold, sit and write at a café or visit a free gallery. Then I would go home, have dinner with my roomie and write fiction from midnight until, yes, 4am. One night over Skype my best friend said gently to me, “What’s the point of having gone all the way over there if all you’re going to do is work? You could do that anywhere. You should be enjoying Paris.”
So I loosened my grip (slightly) on my purse strings and allowed myself the occasional night out with friends, a day at the museum, or–gasp!–carpaccio for lunch at a nice restaurant. To help myself in this endeavor, I started a blog about low-priced things to do in Paris, which forced me to seek out free and cheap thrills about town. It made being a cheapskate something fun to focus on, a daily challenge.
At the biannual sales this summer (which are infamous in Paris as shops around the city slash their prices in fever rounds), I gave myself permission to buy something. It would be nice to treat myself, and I had started to get some freelance writing work. I even went out of my way to browse in shops I could never normally afford. But a funny thing happened: during six weeks of 70% off at thousands of stores and boutiques in Paris, surrounded by wonderful things I could actually buy… I didn’t want anything. I was happy. I had good friends, cheap wine, and the most beautiful city in the world outside my doorstep.
I realized I had very deeply adopted my mother’s advice to only buy what I “can’t live without.” I didn’t need another pair of shoes, and a new dress was just one more thing to pack when I would someday leave. But I couldn’t live without Paris. And every penny spent was one moment sooner I’d have to leave it.
I guess I’ve been doing it for so long that, to me, it’s easy to conserve money. I don’t “need” much. I don’t think of money in an emotional way; though I definitely understand retail therapy, every time that I’d turned to shopping in my previous life as a gainfully employed money spender, the satisfaction of buying had dried up by the time I got home. Now, if I have a bad day, I don’t take it out on my wallet–I complain to anyone who will listen (I am a former New Yorker, after all). To me, money is the means to an end. It paves the path to my next travel adventure, or a nice dinner with a friend in town. I don’t spend what I don’t have, and I work hard to make sure that there will be more when I need it. And I know what my priorities are: experiences, memories and a good journal in which to write about them.
When I do find something I want to buy, like a train ticket to visit a friend in Nice or a souvenir for a loved one back home or a necklace to celebrate finishing my first novel, I don’t fret over it or feel guilty. I just remember the weight of responsibility that my mom gave me when I wanted to spend my dishwashing allowance: “Buy whatever you want. When the money’s gone, it’s gone.” For now, I still have money in my pockets. And while I have that, I still have Paris.
Jenna Warnecke is a Paris cheapskate.