No More Using the ‘B’ Word, or, Changing the Language Around My Spending Plan

For the past two years, I’ve kept a budget.

And by budget, I mean a breakdown of all my monthly expenses, their estimated costs, and lists of every single purchase I’ve made. These lists include information such as date of purchase, whether it was paid for via credit or debit, and whether or not it was in the budget. I also keep a tally of how much money I put each month toward student loans, savings, retirement plans, groceries, and gas, and recently have started listing every single grocery item I buy. If you asked me what I bought on July 11, 2018, how much it cost, and how I paid for it, I could tell you (shitty toll for when I accidentally missed my exit and the highway turned into a toll road, $8.30, credit card)

However, I’ve recently been thinking that the word “budget” just feels too… restrictive. Not restrictive enough to make me stop spending money sometimes (some consumer goods transcend issues of semantics, apparently), but restrictive enough to make me feel like I’ve done something wrong if I spend money outside of my planned monthly bills. 

Some personal finance gurus would say that I have, in fact, done something wrong. Every dollar should be accounted for, and each one of these “little green men” should be put to work. The work could be in a savings account gaining 1.80% interest (thanks for lowering the rate again, Ally) or being used to decrease my student loan debt. The reality is I have hobbies, and I like to spend money on them. I can be interested in personal finance AND make art, damn it!

In the words of Walt Whitman, I am large! I contain multitudes!!!

Does this count as a hobby? Image from pexels.com.

If I want to spend $20 on some new paints and brushes, I shouldn’t have to beat myself up for it. After all, if I don’t cultivate my hobbies now, what the hell am I going to do when I hit my FIRE goal? An article in the Wall Street Journal from earlier this year describes how not having a solid out-of-work life can affect workers when they retire: “Without the purpose of fulfilling work, retirees can feel adrift and become depressed. Without the camaraderie of their co-workers, retirees risk becoming socially isolated. Without the intellectual stimulation that work can provide, retirement can accelerate cognitive decline,” (Although I have to point out this article is from the Wall Street Journal, who probably has a vested interest in squeezing every last drop out of worker bees as possible…).

I think there’s a point between being financial savvy and completely losing your sense of self. 

And if keeping my sense of self requires supplies so I can make art, then I am damn well going to spend that $20. Besides, I’m investing in hours of entertainment and pleasure. 

And I’m not throwing myself completely out the window financially, either. I have my savings accounted for in this spending plan. My trifecta–$500 to my IRA, $500 to savings, and $550 to student loans–is automatically taken out at the beginning of every month. These amounts, combined with the $1351 I spend on rent for my 400 sq ft studio, account for 66.5% of my take-home pay. And that $500 in savings doesn’t include the $100/month I’ve planned to cover any travel expenses; I bookmark this money to go into a special account every month, so when I want to take a trip, I don’t have to feel guilty about using it.

(Although I just bought an $1850 ticket to Germany to visit my partner over Christmas, and having the money in a separate fund didn’t make me feel less anxious about it. Now that the initial band-aid has been ripped off, though, it’s not so bad.) 

All in all, I’m not doing that bad. My spending plan is comprehensive enough that it covers all my bills, including the ones that vary from month-to-month. And I have a tendency to grossly overestimate those, too. For example, it currently costs about $35 to fill up my 2007 Yaris here in CA. I have budgeted $70/month, or two tanks, for gas. However, since I walk to work, I use very little gas. Most of my driving involves going to the gym, a park to hike, or to Oakland to visit my best friend; as such, I very rarely meet that $70. 

However, if I lowered it to the true average–$35–but spent more than that, I would feel as though I had committed some horrible crime against myself. I would be something that I find inexcusable–an irresponsible person

I may be irresponsible in some aspects of my life, but finance is not one of them.

(At least not now, anyway, since I’ve learned how to handle money.) 

And some expenses that would have been labeled as “Out of Budget” on my previous spending plan are actually expenses that (a) I can afford and (b) genuinely make my life, and the lives of others, better. For example, I recently got accepted as a volunteer at a large animal nonprofit in my area. And by large, I mean there’s a volunteer force of over 1000 people. These volunteers all need training (and t-shirts) in order to volunteer with this organization. As such, volunteers are requested to pay $40 when they undergo training. I very happily paid this $40 (plus an extra $10 donation), because I want to help with this organization and I’ll have my time occupied doing something I enjoy for three hours a week for at least the next six months. And if I want to continue my tenure, I can do so without being re-trained. For me, this $40 is an investment that will greatly enrich my life (not to mention allow me to finally love on some animals without violating the terms of my lease). 

This may not have been budgeted, but it does not break my budget. 

So, in sum, I’m changing my budget-based vocabulary to one that frames my money situation as a spending plan

This is how I plan to spend the majority of my money. And as long as I utilize my money in accordance with my spending plan, then I can do whatever the hell I want to with the rest. And what does that look like?
Some months it might all go into savings or student loans. Some months, like this month, it will go toward car registration and a dang haircut. And some months I might spend an extra $20 on fucking paint, because my sanity and joy is worth it. And that’s totally OK.

Ignoring Common Money-Saving Tips, or Things I’m Not Willing to Compromise On

A big part of the FI movement is streamlining your expenses and finding ways to increase your savings rate by either (a) increasing your income or (b) drastically reducing the amount of money you spend*. You should locate all the fat in your budget and trim it, leaving only the absolute essentials and squirreling away the rest into your FIRE fund. Common tips for doing this include things like cancelling monthly subscriptions, splitting rent costs, moving, getting side hustles, etc. Could I be incorporating some of those things into my life? Yes. Am I willing to consider some of those things? Honestly, no. 

Fancy gym memberships should be the first to go. BUT I JUST CAN’T QUIT YOU. Image from pexels.com.

Here are three things I’m not willing to compromise in order to achieve FI faster: 

Living without Roommates

Right now, I live alone, and I intend to keep it that way. I do have a serious romantic/life partner, but he is currently out of the country living his dreams, etc., which means he is not available to live with me and, erego, split my rent in half. Eventually, two will become one again, and rent will be easier to pay. As it is, I am living on my own.

I am not willing to compromise on that.

Here’s the thing: I have IBS. And what that means is that I use the bathroom a lot. Sometimes I have to use the bathroom very suddenly. And if someone strolls into the bathroom to take a nice long shower and get ready for their big night out, it can create a very uncomfortable situation for me. And while I (apparently) don’t mind explaining my embarrassing situations to strangers on the internet, I’m not looking to go into roommate interviews and having to reveal all the secrets of my bowels just to have people choose another roommate anyway because my bodily functions gross them out. 

Maybe if there was a situation in which I could have my own bathroom, I would consider getting a roommate. However, I also hate people and love quiet and cleanliness, so as far as keeping stress levels low, it’s not ideal. And while I live in a HCOL area, my current apartment is subsidized by my employer, which means I am essentially saving nearly the same amount as what I would save if I had a roommate, give or take a hundred bucks a month.

To me, the extra hundo is worth the peace of mind.

Once my lease runs out, and if I don’t get a renewal, I might be singing a different tune. But I have until June to worry about that. 

My Gym Membership

My gym membership is approximately $100/month, which I know may seem like an astronomically frivolous expense to a lot of people. However, it’s a specialty gym–a climbing gym. Climbing is one of my favorite hobbies, and other than hiking (which is difficult to fit in after a full eight to nine hour day at work), is pretty much the only real ‘active’ activity that I do to stay in shape. Gym memberships are often listed as one of the first things that should be axed when slimming down your budget (and, indeed, if I lost my job, would be something I would consider taking off), and it’s usually accompanied with such reasoning as (a) you can work out anywhere, (b) running is free, (c) there’s probably a park or somewhere with pull-up bars that you can just hop on and get in shape, and (d) you’re not really going that much anyway.

While those are all valid points, they don’t translate well to climbing. The only way to truly get better at climbing is to climb. There are definitely a lot of add-on and cross-training activities that can be accomplished–hang-boarding, pull-ups, etc.–but to be active in the sport, one needs to either have enough free time to go outdoors several times a week or keep their muscles moving indoors on plastic rocks. 

Additionally, I don’t really love basic workouts. I get bored. I have to watch a movie on the elliptical, because if I don’t, I just keep counting down every second until I can stop. And if I haven’t had fun climbing first, I’m not motivated to just go into the gym and hop on the treadmill or do my pull-ups. Climbing provides me with a mental puzzle to solve in order to successfully complete the exercise. And because I’m vain and want to solve all these puzzles**, I’ll try really hard to do it. 

What it boils down to is this:

  1. Climbing is fun
  2. I will not work out unless it is fun
  3. Erego, if I do not have the opportunity to do some climbing, I will probably not be very motivated to work out

One way to view the gym membership is as an investment–I’m making an investment in my current and future health, which will hopefully pay off by reducing the chance of any major medical issues that can be prevented by keeping myself in shape.***

Moving to a LCOL Area

Another way which is touted as a route to FIRE is moving to a LCOL area. However, this is not possible with all jobs–and my job in particular. I work in an education-adjacent not-for-profit sector, and jobs that pay as well as my current one are few and far between. If I moved to a low cost of living area, I would possibly be able to accomplish the same savings rate by percentage, but I would have far less money to save. My partner’s job is also relatively location-dependent–he’s studying language and cultural/refugee issues, and if he would like to actively pursue employment related to those fields, we’ll probably end up back in NY or DC (although he says he doesn’t mind going back to teaching, but once again, teachers make very different salaries in different places). If we moved before July 2021, I’d also lose my 10% retirement from my employer (it’s not even a match–they just give me 10% once I meet two years, back-dated to my first pay period. They just give it to me!!!!) and I’d have to pay back the $4,000 in moving money they reimbursed me. So, a move would currently cost us about $19,000 before we even shipped a single chair. 

I also have big expenses that I don’t want to compromise on–for example, my student loans. Once my grace period ends in January , I will have to start paying around $500/month to pay these off (although I’m making estimated monthly payments now). If I move to a LCOL area and make less money, I could change my repayment plan to be income-based, but I don’t want to spend 20 years paying off what could be paid off in nine. Additionally, while my debt amount feels high to me, it’s not high enough to grant me the freedom-after-twenty-years-of-payment perks that income-based repayment plans (IBRP) offer, nor am I confident that Public Service Loan Forgiveness will exist in ten years (nor do I want to limit myself to only working at nonprofits for a decade in the hope that one day the government will forgive my loans). 

Additionally, moving to a LCOL area generally involves some sort of compromise in regards to public transit and walkability. Right now, I can walk to work, to the grocery store, to a movie theater and mall (not that I go to the mall that often, but whatever), several bars and restaurants, etc. This means I use my car much less. Even though gas in California is currently over $4.00/gallon, I only spent $35 on it last month. I drive to the gym and to go hiking. That’s about it. And that’s something I would have to compromise if I moved. 

For now, staying put is worth it.  The benefits described above–the solace that comes with living alone, the health benefits (physical and mental!) gained from my gym membership, and the salary and perks of my current job–outweigh the potential benefits by compromising on these three issues. While I believe its important to plan for my future, I know that it shouldn’t come at a sacrifice to my current mental health.

How about you? Are there certain measures that may make you reach your FIRE number quicker, but would seriously compromise your quality of life? Feel free to share in the comments.

*A combination of both is usually advocated, but one is usually easier to accomplish than the other.

**And there’s definitely some self-esteem issues combined with wanting to smash the patriarchy and gender norms in here, etc. etc. etc. I AM SMART AND STRONG AND I CAN DO IT, SO GET OUT OF MY WAAAYYY!!!!
***Please note that this is a very able-bodied viewpoint. Not everyone has the ability to work-out, sign up for a gym, etc., and not going to the gym is a totally valid lifestyle, etc. etc. etc. For a much better/more eloquent exploration of the intersection between FIRE, personal finance, perceived health issues, and fat-shaming/fat-phobia, please view this excellent post on Owning the Stars titled ‘The FIRE Movement’s Fatphobia Problem.