Brown-bagging It Since ’94

Kids in elementary school cafeterias all over the world are immediately divided into two groups: lunch buyers and lunch bringers. I was a lunch bringer and boy did I rock those homemade lunches. No Lunchables or processed snacks for this girl. It also took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that a reusable cold compress is for sports injuries and not specifically made to keep your lunch cold.
cold_compressEven when I eyeballed the kids with Lunchables and candy bars I knew my lunches were certainly made with love. My mom even would dye my food and milk on holidays: pink for Valentine’s Day and green for St. Patrick’s Day.

make-green-beer

(Years later I would find this reminiscent of my childhood lunches. Yay for being Irish.)

Buying school lunch was a treat in my house. At the start of each month the administration at my parochial school sent home the cafeteria menu. My sister and I would get to pick two days a month to buy lunch (hello pizza Friday).

Feb_Lunch_Menu000113(The real, current lunch menu from my elementary Catholic school. I see they’ve done away with pizza Fridays.)

It’s been 18 years since I first took lunch to school but the mentality still sticks. Except, now I am the one making my lunches and missing the days of green milk.

The Case for Packing Your Own Lunch (with math):

Healthy homemade lunches keep a waistline slim and a wallet fat. By my calculations, I spend approximately $50 a week on groceries for meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) equating to $200 a month.

If I bought a $7 lunch each workday that would cost $140 a month, nearly three-quarters of my overall grocery money. Granted, my monthly grocery bill would be slightly reduced if I consistently bought lunch during work.

Hypothetically let’s say buying lunch reduced my grocery bill by $10 a week. That’s still $160 per month on groceries. $160 + the $140 lunch bill = $300. That is $100 more a month than I spend buying groceries to make all my meals. On a larger scale, buying lunch could cost me $1,200 a year.

Brown-bagging it aside, there are few small tricks I use to help save money each month.

#BrokeMillennial’s (current) Money Saving Tips:

  • If you’re unwilling to drink water from the tap then invest in a Britta filter over bottled water. The Britta filter has a larger upfront fee but it’s cheaper in the long run.
  • Reuse ziploc bags (big ones and sandwich ones). Wash those sandwich baggies, dry them and save a couple bucks when you pack your lunch.
  • Make your own coffee/tea in the morning.
  • Buy machine washable clothing to avoid dry cleaning bills (or buy Febreze).
  • Like reading or renting DVDs? Get a library card.
  • Unplug electrical appliances that aren’t in use.
  • Never be above hand-me-downs (well maybe one day?)
  • Buy a slow cooker and make big meals for the week.
  • Cut cable.

When doing those just think, “it’s nice when my wallet looks like this at the end of the week.”

IMG_3117(Or with 20s, 50s or a crisp Benjamin)

For daily bits of wit and financial advice follow the journey on Twitter @BrokeMillennial.

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A Millennial’s Nightmare: Splitting the Check

For daily bits of wit and financial advice follow the journey on Twitter @BrokeMillennial.

Few social customs  frighten a millennial more than dealing with the end-of-meal check. Recently, I had a terrifying splitting-the-check experience at a birthday dinner for a friend. The restaurant was a typical over-priced Mexican joint in Manhattan. The kind of place that would reduce most abuelas to tears, because they charge $13 for a chicken and cheese quesadilla.

quesadilla(Delicious, cheap recipe here.)

After thoroughly researching the menu beforehand, I went to dinner prepared to order the cheapest meal on the menu. I factored my meal + $12 for tax and tip + an extra $5-7 for the birthday girl’s meal to = $40

By the time the check got to my end of the table, with only three of ten people left to pay, the balance showed a $240 deficit. After a glass of cold water roused me from my fainting spell, my brain went into overdrive. I only knew the birthday girl and didn’t feel comfortable demanding the rest of the party ante up or suggesting we split the bill evenly, which would have been about $10 over my prepared budget.

IMG_3122(Not the exact bill that almost gave me a stroke.)

Luckily, the birthday girl’s boyfriend handled the few cheapskates who tried to short the bill by twenty bucks apiece, but the transaction still took time off my life expectancy.

An urban myth exists amongst millennials that in about a decade we’ll be able to just split bills evenly, no matter how many glasses of wine the lush at the end of the table orders compared to us, and be content with the situation. But let’s face it, for now most broke millennials are willing to come to blows over a few dollars. We are in a phase of life where every dollar counts (aka we need to be able to buy drinks at the bar later).

IMG_0386(Those are $15 cocktails. Wish I was kidding.)

Unfortunately, my extensive research on this particular social anxiety yields no simple solution. Well, except “there’s an app for that.”

IMG_3129(I’m a millennial therefore contractually obligated to say that once a week. And don’t you dare pay money for that app!)

Financial experts offer all kinds of tips. Here is my break down of how their advice typically turns out:

Advice: Share it evenly.
Millennial reaction: At least one person takes advantage of the situation and orders drink upon drink and/or appetizers, entree and desert. One person didn’t get the splitting-the-check memo and orders the cheapest options. These two people will end up in a verbal altercation that would make the Real Housewives of New Jersey jealous.

3-Table-Flip(Oh, reality TV. Full slideshow at Wetpaint.com.)

Advice: Let each person do their own math.
Millennial reaction: At least one member of the dinner party will pay only for his or her meal and “forget” about tax and tip leaving the bill a short. Everyone else starts griping while throwing a few more dollars down. A collective mental game of Clue is played to pinpoint the scrooge who will subsequently never be invited to a meal again.

Advice: Appoint a person to determine everyone’s share.
Millennial reaction: Be warned – if you major(ed) in finance, accounting, business or math (God bless your soul) then you will be said person. At least one person (the stingiest) will demand to double-check the appointed bean-counter’s math and find it drastically inaccurate.

Advice: Decide on the form of payment.
Millennial reaction: No one will listen. Half the group will only have credit/debit cards and half will have come prepared with cash. Some of the cash might be only coins.

IMG_3116(I’m not ashamed, coins are acceptable currency.)

The allergy to cash is a common problem I’ve noticed in my generation. Excuses for only carrying plastic are bountiful. Some people are wary of stolen wallets. Some claim they spend more money if they carry cash. Other’s simply “forget” to ever have it.

Even in these days of technology it is important to carry some cash on your person, especially if you’re going out to a meal or for drinks.

Reason one: some restaurants are finicky about splitting a bill on multiple cards nor are they legally obligated to take more than one card.

Reason two: Bars, convenience stores and bodegas in New York City (and elsewhere) are notorious for the once-illegal practice of a credit card minimum.

Essentially, you ask for a $6 beer and put down a card only to have the bartender tell you there is a $10, $15 or in some cases $20 minimum. If you don’t have cash you are pigeonholed into spending the minimum amount. If you planned to buy at least XX dollars worth of drinks good for you. If you’re on a budget, then a credit card minimum can derail your evening’s financial plans.

Do yourself a favor, just carry some cash.
IMG_3120

Surviving on a 20-pound Bag of Rice Due to Budget Cuts

For daily bits of wit and financial advice follow the journey on Twitter @BrokeMillennial.

So here I was, in New York City at 22-years-old barely making enough money to keep a roof over my head and put food in my mouth. Luckily, I can be a pretty resourceful person, please remember the hoarding of hotel toiletries, and found ways to feed myself for little to no money.

Many of my formative years were spent in Asia which influenced a lot about me, including dietary habits. A bowl of Japanese sticky white rice is my soul food so I came to New York armed with a rice cooker, pillaged from my parent’s basement of course.

IMG_3112(Still my pride and joy.)

Fortunately, the local grocery store (Trade Fair) catered to the diverse neighborhood I found myself living in. For those who haven’t been in a New York City grocery store, it’s quite an experience. Aisles are barely wide enough to fit a small grocery cart and two standard size humans can barely fit side-by-side, it’s almost enough to make you run screaming for the suburbs. For those of us who dislike being touched, particularly by strangers, it’s a nightmare.

Packed subway(Subways are also a treat. Clearly he agrees.)
Photo credit to Jessie Jay

Bracing myself, I entered the store and after anxiously hunting, finally found my holy grail: a bag of rice. She was a beauty, all 20 pounds of her. The $12 price tag threw me for a loop because I had only budgeted for $30 of grocery spending money. The idea of spending nearly half my budget on just rice caused me to break out in the kind of cold sweat only a financial problem can induce. After several minutes of mentally debating the purchase, and majorly clogging up the aisle for all other standard sized humans, I threw the sack over my shoulder and headed for checkout.

Army(Trade Fair is still my Vietnam.)

It was an excellent purchase that I proceeded to survive off of for many months while my finances continued to take a beating.

IMG_3110(There she is.)

In addition to eating copious amounts of rice (don’t worry I usually added eggs or veggies) I also became something of a scavenger. As a babysitter, cupboards of children’s snacks were at my disposal, even if they were mostly the organic cardboard tasting kind of snacks that Manhattan parents are partial to.

In page life we were fed pizza on Thursdays during double-show tapings. There were usually leftovers and, after the first week, I wised up and started bringing zip-loc bags with me.

Cold Pizza(I wish I could say it looked more appetizing than this.)

The real haul came from my barista job. Not only I would get free beverages at work, but I could also take home “expired” food when I closed up shop. Needless to say, I enjoyed closing. Sure it was mostly scones, microwaveable breakfast wraps and the occasional bistro box, but free food just tastes so good. With all three of my jobs being of the moving-around variety I didn’t have to worry about packing on the pounds from cake-pops and pumpkin loafs.

Starbucks-NYC-Other-Food(Yes, I have sampled all the above products.)

My rice and scavenging days taught me a lot about how to budget money and gave me an appreciation for a meal with decent nutritional value.

The term budget causes some people undue stress. For me, it’s empowering. It’s important to understand how much money you earn after expenses and then figure out where to allocate your remaining funds.

For many millennials, standard expenses include rent, utilities, cell phone bill, transportation, food and student loans. In New York my expenses averaged out to$1,174 a month, before food. Even though food is obviously an important category it was where I could scrimp because I scavenged elsewhere.

Some financial experts recommend writing down every penny you spend throughout the day to keep track of your spending habits and learn where cuts can be made. It’s great advice but often disregarded after a day or so. Others recommend just understanding your financial parameters and living within them so you can begin to save and invest.

Money Journal 2

(Be sure to include the price of your new notebooks and pens.)

I’m partial to the latter, live within your means. If you earn $2,000 a month then don’t spend more than $2,000 a month, including all your expenses. Sounds simple, but if you aren’t paying attention to your finances all those dinners out, Starbucks coffees and drinks at the bar add up, fast.

Bonus: My favorite recent blog post about budgeting can be found here (Budgeting: the no budget approach) from Reach Financial Independence.

Why hiding your funds under a mattress makes you lose money (and not because it was stolen)

In June of 2011, three weeks after college graduation, I packed two bags and boarded a plane to New York City. I had landed a job working as a page for an iconic late night talk-show host. A fun, rewarding job but certainly not a well-paying.

Even though I came prepared to be broke…

IMG_3092(Yeah, I ferreted away hotel shampoos and soaps in preparation to be too broke to clean myself.)

…the cost of New York City living shocked me.

Everything I budgeted for seemed to be hundreds of dollars off. My measly paycheck of $200 a week (thanks taxes) didn’t even cover monthly rent. The time to “hustle” had arrived.

Like many millennials I turned to Craigslist. Those ads were terrifying. What did people want to do with my feet?! For the record, “Talent” rarely means credible acting gigs.

craigslist-new-york-city-classifieds-for-jobs-apartments-personals-for-sale-services-community-and-events_1250476179720After losing a lot of faith in humanity, I started applying to babysitting gigs (not on Craigslist) and also got a job working for the world’s largest coffee chain. Being able to make barista-level drinks sure looks good on a resume.

starbucks_getty--525x400(Green is a good color on me.)

Babysitting/nannying is the mainstay of struggling artists, students and financially-destitute New Yorkers. We endure spoiled kids, leering fathers and emotionally-distant mothers for the opportunity to walkaway with cash at the end of the night. Some families are great, but sadly many Manhattan parents should be forced to take parental aptitude tests before procreating. The Nanny Diaries are pathetically accurate.

ScarlettJohanssonsdenimshorts(Check out the Nanny Diaries trailer here for context. Oh, and nanny cams are a real thing.)

However, babysitting (and tips from Starbucks) resulted in quick cash-in-hand. Cash that went right into envelopes. Four envelopes to be precise.

IMG_3104Shortly after getting my influx of cash, I developed the “envelope system.” The envelopes represented different expenses in my life. The cash I earned was divided into:

  • 50% – Rent
  • 25% – Money for Anna (Anna was my roommate and the utilities were all in her name so I’d just pay her in cash when the bills came.)
  • 25% – Savings

IMG_3101(It’s always important to have money goals. I wanted to have saved $500 by May and set aside $50 each month in order to achieve my goal.)

The “fun times” envelope only got love on nights I received a tip from babysitting, or earned more than anticipated. That envelope usually was found wanting.

The methodology behind the envelope system is great, allocate money to the appropriate causes and then save some. The practice is really, really dumb.

For one, I usually had hundreds of dollars “hidden” in my room just begging to be stolen. Second, all that money in my room wasn’t doing anything for me. Money in the bank earns interest (also commonly referred to as compound interest). Money under the mattress just sits there.

money-under-mattress(Nope, not where I hid my money! I’m far too clever for that.)

When you’re ready to diversify your financial portfolio (or start one), IRAs, bonds or CDs (certificates of deposit — insert lame pun about music here) are excellent ways to invest money for long-term gain. IRAs and bonds will be addressed in the future. For now, I’ll break down putting your money in a CD.

Unlike the stock market, CDs are a low-risk way to save money. The interest rates are higher than those of a regular savings account and they are protected by the same insurance as other bank accounts. By choosing a bank backed by The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), you are guaranteed to get at least a portion of your assets back in case the bank goes under. Typically around $100,000. One reason it’s important not to have all your money in one place.

bank-run-wonderful-life(Points if you know the movie and reference.)

The first step of purchasing a CD is to have a designated amount of cash that you won’t need to access. This money should be separate from any sort of emergency cash fund, because once you put funds in a CD there are early withdrawal fees. CDs have various maturity dates: 6-months, one-year, five years, etc. Once the date hits then you can withdraw funds in full.

The second step is to investigate the best CD for you. Banks vary on the cost of early-withdrawal fees. They also vary on the rate of interest and annual percentage yield (or APY). APY is the rate of return you will earn each year and it accounts for compound interest, making it different from APR (annual percentage return) which does not account for compound interest.

Don’t strain your brain, let this fun, online calculator do the math for you.

If you’re a broke millennial like me, I understand wanting to put off investing until later. However, the earlier you start investing the bigger your return when you’re pushing retirement age. If you want to be a millionaire, now is the time to start.

millionaireusa                                     (All about the timely pop culture references)

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