Ramen, avocado toast, and the electric bill

A millennial's guide to broke city living



Michael Hanlon

At the age of twenty-seven, I am squarely classified as a millennial gal. I have held five (maybe six, if you count short stints at the occasional neighborhood watering hole) jobs within the last five years. I’m still not entirely sure what the need for fabric softener is (is this a leftover “necessity” from our grandmother’s obsession with swaddling every piece of furniture in the house in plastic?), and the idea of one day owning a house, or any other sort of roots-providing, equity-building investment is, at this point, flat-out laughable.

If I’m to believe what I’ve been told by the media and past generations, the collective finger pointing toward our inability to “just get it together already” can be placed exclusively on our obsession with avocado toast and splurging on too many on-trend cashmere sweaters. The idea that broke people stay broke by indulging in small daily treats—like snagging a steaming cup of their favorite mocha-choka-crapola-whatever instead of saving their nickels and brewing their own off-brand watered down cuppa at home—may help you save some cash, but is it enough to make a difference in the grand scheme of things? You’re not going to suddenly be able to empty out your piggy bank and take a lavish trip to the Maldives, or even feasibly pay half of your rent that month, nickel and diming your way through your financial plan. To me, that sounds dreadfully akin to the temporary band-aid fix mentality of a fad diet, where one day you’re fully committed to getting your act and your waistline together, and the next, standing barefoot in the kitchen at three in the morning, eating a block of cheese with your bare hands and washing that failure down with a healthy gulp of shame. My point being, when the cards are stacked against you already, it has to be a total lifestyle change to actually make a difference to the point where you feel encouraged enough/see enough change to continue. Every bit of your financial plan, or for some of us, a lack thereof, has to be assessed.

I moved out on my own as soon as I could, between seventeen and eighteen years old. I waited tables while going to school and eventually withdrew from my very last semester at college because the need for me to work outweighed the hours I spent in the classroom (this, unfortunately, has not excused me from student loan debt, a burden many people bear in their budgeting). Eating ramen six days a week, you tend to learn a thing or two about planning your pennies ahead. I’ve joked for years that if I did not start working in the hospitality industry at fifteen years old, I would have never made it to blow out my sixteen candles. Those freebie cracker packets, sneaky bowls of the soup du jour, and sent-back overcooked hamburgers were a godsend for me when I was making less than $250 a week and debating whether buying new work shoes or paying my electric bill was more important. A rule I developed then and have since stuck with: only spend as much in a day as you made, less if possible. Day off? Guess who is the lucky duck chowing down on some hamburger helper from the cabinet tonight! That nice dinner out can wait and be a treat for a different day’s hard-earned reward. Life is meant to be lived—just in moderation.

Within even the last few years, a bona fide bevy of new tools has appeared to make city living not only more convenient but cheaper, if you’re smart about it. Make use of the borderline obnoxious number of apps accessible to the average consumer on the cheap or for free. With a little savvy digging, you can find apps to provide nearly every service imaginable from bulk groceries to misfit produce at a discount, thrifty furniture finds, and more to make your daily life not only easier to budget for, but lazier (and who doesn’t love a day where the only thing that gets any exercise is your thumb, no pants or gas mileage required?).

On that note, if you’re like me, transportation can occasionally be an issue. I do not drive and have in fact never possessed a license—trust me, no one would want me on the road anyway. Uber/Lyft, taxis, RTS bus routes, getting off your behind to walk, Pace bikes, etc.... We have more options than ever now as city slickers. I get asked all the time whether taking an Uber everywhere gets expensive. Sure, it can. But I’m also not paying for car maintenance, gas, parking tickets, storage, or a lease.

If nickel and diming is truly the way to go, it is worth being honest about your vices and how to feed them. Like to drink? Like to imbibe a lot? Run the numbers for how many nights a week you go out and how much you spend on average. Let’s say you go out for “one drink” (like that has ever happened in the history of mankind) with a friend. One rolls into two, two maybe turns into someone’s bright idea to do some shots, and next thing you know you’re calling a ten-dollar ride home after signing your $50-plus-tip bar tab. Do this even once a week, and we’re looking at a pretty decent chunk of your income flying down your gullet and straight out the window (not to mention the Gatorade and garbage plate to soak it all up). I realize this shoots me in the foot slightly as a bartender and that a good deal of the fun of drinking is the social aspect, but it is not the worst thing to occasionally call a charcuterie and wine night at home on your couch in the name of saving.

So maybe, when considering all of this, it actually is a matter of trimming back on the avocado toast, just not in the way we’ve been lectured on. Making a lifestyle habit out of mindfully marking your spending isn’t necessarily the nixing of the small indulgence here or there but rather a shift in mindset. It is possible, much to my chagrin to admit, that future thirty-something me and her menagerie of too many dogs will wish we had not had so many posh lattes. My piggy bank and I shall see.

 

Megan Peterson is a bar babe, Yorkie mom, and whiskey enthusiast living in the South Wedge.

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