Two weeks ago, I had gum surgery which, in addition to being incredibly uncomfortable and putting me on a forced liquid and ice cream diet for two weeks (which actually wasn't the worst thing...), was also expensive. Even with insurance, the price tag was by far the most I'd ever spent on any single purchase, but it was important to me that I pay for it without putting any of it on my credit card or receiving help from family.
I knew that saving for it wasn't going to be fun or easy, so I turned it into a game: For several months leading up to the surgery, I put away as much cash as possible by challenging myself to only spend $100 every two weeks, outside of fixed costs. Normally, the categories I'll spend the most "spending cash" on are, in order: food, social outings, travel (including putting aside money for future trips), and, finally, clothes/home goods or random, unforeseen costs. Not including fixed costs like rent, utilities, long-term savings accounts (like my house fund and Roth IRA), and my gym membership, I'll usually spend between $400 and $500 every two weeks—so cutting down spending to $100 was difficult, but also totally possible. Each day, I kept track of how much I'd spent and how much I'd saved (i.e., things I would have purchased if I hadn't been consciously trying to save). Below is an example of what I spent on during a two-week spurt—and how I saved:
A quick disclaimer: I'm sharing my costs and budget to be completely transparent, since I believe that having open, honest conversations about money is the best way to learn how to manage it, but money is about as personal as you can get, and budgets differ dramatically from person to person! Maybe you live in a less expensive city and balk at regularly spending $500 in two weeks, or maybe you have a family that requires far more than $100 in two weeks. This isn't meant to be a cut-and-dry guide, but it's my experience and I'm posting it here in the hopes that it inspires you to save—whatever that means for you!
The evening before, I'd returned from a trip to Portland so I started the week with very little in my fridge, not to mention zero meal planning. Since I didn't want to spend money on breakfast or lunch out, I scrounged in my pantry and found some peanut butter and English muffins, which I ate with some home-brewed coffee (resisted the urge to go out for a latte!). I also grabbed a pack of soba with some miso mix, which felt like a step above cup-of-noodles (albeit a very small one) to avoid buying lunch, and carpooled with my boyfriend to work—zero gas! To stock up for the week, we grabbed the following items at the grocery store and made Shakshuka with quinoa and eggs for dinner (I made the list ahead of time and basically had to enter the store with blinders on):
1 head garlic
1 bag dried black beans
2 huge containers spinach
3 zucchini (if affordable, another veggie if not)
Two 28-ounce cans of diced or crushed tomatoes
5 sweet potatoes
One dozen eggs
Money spent: Groceries came to $44 total, which I split down the middle with my boyfriend, so I spent $22; Total: $22
Money saved: Lunch out ($15); latte ($4), 3 avocados ($8), bell peppers (skipped for the shakshuka $4), dry beans rather than canned ($4); Total: $35
The biggest challenge in not spending money is doing anything social, which is why I became Queen of the Free Social Events for a few months, starting this week with a book signing at Skylight Books. And even though I'm all about supporting local book stores, I saved on the featured book, From Here To Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, by downloading it from the library after the event. For dinner, I had leftover Shakshuka with beans and sautéed zucchinis and spinach over farro. I almost made it the entire day without spending a cent until I listened to a Pod Save America about how vital it is to donate to Puerto Rico, which made my own experiment and costs feel very unimportant compared to their struggles. I realized I could pitch in while staying on track.
Money spent: $15 Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Fund; Total: $15
Money saved: Saved on the book; Total: $25
Today started off on the right foot—I went to a work-out class at my gym then had a banana and peanut butter, and brought leftovers for lunch. But then I had a major wrench thrown into my plan—my oil light went on and, since I was already a few months past the recommended date, I decided to get it changed that day. But, instead of just going to the dealership, I called around for quotes. What my dealership would have done for $50, I found down the street from our office for $12 cheaper. I could have saved a little bit more, but opted for the convenience, and still felt good about saving a few bucks!
Money spent: $38 oil change; Total: $38
Money saved: Found better quote for oil change (difference of $12); Total: $12
Today was one of those days where I barely slowed down from the moment I left my house at 5 a.m., till I got home at midnight. After a full day of meetings, I attended an after-work event with Emily followed by a concert (I'd bought tickets weeks before, so I didn't count the cost towards this week). To pack enough food to keep me going all day, I brought nearly an entire roasted vegetable and ricotta quiche in a cooler with an ice pack and turned my car into a kitchen-on-wheels. It wasn't glamorous, but I made it through the entire day without having to spend on food!
Money spent: Zero!
Money saved: $15 on dinner, $8 on concert beer; Total $23
TGIF! Except that not being able to buy dinner put a serious damper on things. At dinner with my boyfriend and a friend of ours, I bought some potstickers to tide me over, then ate leftovers at home. It was a pretty sad dinner, but helped to be with friends who fully supported my experiment—and I felt proud about saving money as soon as I got home.
Money spent: $6 on potsticker snack; Total: $6
Money saved: $25 on a full dinner (based on how much my boyfriend ended up spending), $8 on beer; Total: $32
At the beginning of the experiment, I told my friends that I was trying to save money and the universal response was, "Great, me too!" No one was the least bit judgemental, and it actually opened up the door to more free, outdoor hangouts. On Saturday, I joined friends rock climbing in Topanga Canyon. They offered to pick up sandwiches, but I brought my own lunch (more quiche!). After climbing, I met friends at a bar in Santa Monica and ordered soda water with lime (free!), then headed home instead of joining them for dinner out. On our way home, my boyfriend and I were completely wiped-out, so we picked up poke bowls as a Saturday extravagance.
Money spent: $8 on poke; Total: $8
Money saved: Bay Cities sandwich ($13), beer ($8), dinner out with friends ($25); Total: $46
This morning, I headed to the farmers' market and picked up vegetables and groceries for the week—enough to make that night's dinner, as well as a huge batch of vegetarian Thai coconut soup later in the week. At home, I defrosted salmon from my freezer and grilled the vegetables, which we ate over pita with homemade tzatziki. Here's what I purchased:
Greek yogurt (plain, chocolate, and fig)
2 bell peppers
Money spent: $22 at the farmers' market; Total: $22
Money saved: Honestly, I wanted to buy everything at the farmers' market but resisted! If I tally everything I picked up before setting back down, in the name of my budget, I saved about $30. We were also supposed to get lunch with friends ($15) who changed plans-last minute. Total: $45
I brought my leftovers from dinner the night before, but Emily and Geoffrey took me out for a surprise team lunch, so I was able to bring home my lunch and eat it for dinner after a quick class at my gym.
Money spent: Zip!
Money saved: Wasn't planning on purchasing anything today, so I didn't save anything.
I was always planning on having friends over for drinks this evening, but when I realized they'd all come straight from work and hadn't eaten anything, we briefly debated ordering in food, before I rounded up some of my farmers' market vegetables to make this Thai coconut soup, served over rice. Didn't cost anything extra since I was able to find most of the ingredients at home, and I fed six people: win-win!
Money spent: Zilch-o!
Money saved: Thai takeout ($18); Total: $18
The best part about making a ton of soup was having a ton of leftovers! Brought some to work for lunch today, then joined my boyfriend and his mom for dinner—her treat (thank you, Leah!).
Money spent: Nada!
Money saved: My share of dinner would have been about $30. Total: $30
Brought leftovers for lunch, and had enough at home—between bread my boyfriend's mom had bought for us and some random odds 'n' ends—that I was able to eat dinner without buying anything in addition. A friend texted me to ask if I wanted to join her to get our nails done, which I would have if I hadn't been consciously trying to save money—instead I met her at her apartment with polish and we did our own nails (she was happy to save some money, too!).
Money spent: Nothing!
Money saved: $35 on a mani-pedi plus $7 tip; Total: $42
Without going into any details, today was really difficult (hello, Friday the 13th!). My first instinct was to go out to dinner and drinks with friends to #treatmyself, but instead, after a friend's birthday party, I headed home and made quesadillas and margaritas with my boyfriend while Facetiming one of my best friends.
Money spent: $6 on tortillas and mozzarella for quesadillas, already had all the makings for a marg (of course).
Money saved: Would have likely spent $45 had I gone out for dinner and drinks; Total: $45
Brunch is something of a Saturday must-do in L.A., but we skipped it in favor of roasting the last of our vegetables at home and folding them into scrambled eggs with basil and leftover mozzarella, served alongside toast with a really good plum jam we'd purchased weeks before in Seattle. For dinner, we sautéed spinach with cooked black beans, which we served over rice—far from glamorous, but cheap!
Money spent: Zero
Money saved: Around $50, had I gone to brunch & dinner (with drinks).; Total: $50
After heading to the farmers' market and grabbing some of the same ingredients as the weekend before (they were so good!), we baked scones for breakfast then invited some friends over to help us eat them, and spent the rest of the day walking around the neighborhood and hanging out, before making dinner from our farmers' market bounty!
Money spent: $12 at the farmers' market; Total: $12
Money saved: Nada!
Total spent: $129 (the least I've spent is $75, with an average of $100)
Total saved: $403 (the most I've saved is $700, with an average of $500)
The most helpful part of this exercise was writing down all the things I would have spent money on, then didn't. It made me so much more aware of how little purchases here and there add up to a substantial amount of money! The times I was most likely to spend over $30 in one sitting was when I was out with friends—the excitement of being out combined with the fact that everyone else is buying dinner/drinks makes for an expensive outing. While I love spending time with friends, I learned to take advantage of other opportunities—a hike, doing nails at home—that aren't just "dinner and drinks."
Things also add up! A few avocados here, plus a latte there may be cheap on their own, but even items as little as $4 end up costing! Added up, I would have spent $44 on the little things (items under $10) over the two weeks. It isn't a ton, but it's definitely worth taking note of—$44 can buy you three books, a nice dinner out, or a gym membership! I also realized I spent the majority of my money in the first week. By the end of Week 1, I'd already spent $111 while I spent only $18 during Week 2! It taught me that the little splurges I made during the first week—$15 here, $8 there, twice as much at the farmers' market—really added up. By seeing them on paper, I was able to learn which areas I could spend even less in.
I'd love to hear: Have you ever considering doing a spending or saving challenge? What are your tips for saving up for a huge cost? Tell me in the comments, below!