The Accidental Environmentalist

One of the many financial shocks to millennials entering the housing market are the delightful hidden expenses known as utilities. Okay, maybe they aren’t exactly hidden, but when you live in New York and spend upwards of thousand dollars for a shoebox, it’s tough to see those first few utility bills. After the first couple bills the shock begins to wane, a similar experience to no longer being startled awake by ambulance sirens and gun shots. Just kidding, I never hear the ambulance sirens.

Some landlords are kind enough to include gas and hot water with rent but electricity is the true financial burden. The first time my roommate and I got a bill from Con-Ed (NYC’s delightful electric company) it read $1,000. Now, I didn’t know much about how electric meters worked, but a grand seemed a little steep. Luckily, the meter was broken and we didn’t owe even a tenth of the original bill, but the mild cardiac arrest I suffered had lasting effects.

For starters, I’m still a little scared to open our electric bill. The fact that the amount due fluctuates monthly really messes with my budgeting style. Even worse, the entire billing system is shrouded in mystery. Each month feels like a chess game, Broke Millennial vs. the geniuses at Con-Ed.

In order to out maneuver Con-Ed, I came up with some pretty sneaky tactics to lower our electric bill. I became something of an accidental environmentalist in the process.

** I realize how extreme some of my methods may seem, but I really, REALLY like saving money. My first year in New York I was also really, REALLY broke.**

My roommate and I moved into our apartment in July of 2011. If you’ve never experienced summer time in New York City, you’re lucky. It doesn’t have the blazing heat of Texas, but what we lack in temperature, we make up for in the stench of hot garbage and lack of central air conditioning.

Most apartments in New York do not come equipped with air conditioners so plenty of city dwellers stick portable ACs in their windows and pray the unit doesn’t fall out on an unsuspecting passer-by. The first summer, air conditioners represented one thing to me, wasted money. The cooling breeze offered me no relief. Instead, each blast of cold air represented the hours on my feet at Starbucks or changing dirty diapers while babysitting. I decided to forgo an AC and embrace the heat.

The fan in my room made the journey from college to the Big Apple. The best part about that old fan was the timer setting. Each night as I drifted off to sleep I set the timer for one hour. I would be lulled to sleep with the tickle of a cooling breeze which would promptly shut off during my slumber. Sure, some nights I’d wake up drenched in sweat, but that sweat represented all my saved dollars. It was worth it!

HPIM8439(I highly recommend investing in fans with a timer setting. And perhaps occasionally dusting them.)

I also got in the habit of freezing bottles of water and putting them next to me in bed. Don’t worry, I wasn’t buying bottled water! They supplied us with bottled water at work and I always brought my bottle home. See, accidental environmentalist.

HPIM8434(Mr. Bunny displays the effectiveness of the frozen water bottle plan.)

In addition to rejecting ACs and only using the fan a few hours a day, I became neurotic about unplugging anything that wasn’t in use. Lamps, toasters, microwaves, computers, hair dryers, if it had a plug (and wasn’t the fridge) it got yanked out of the socket after serving its purpose. Later I read that environmentalists have started pushing for people to conserve energy by doing the same thing, I guess I’ve just always been a trend starter.

In addition to obsessive unplugging, lights were turned off as soon as we left a room, even if we planned on coming back only a few minutes later. Not only did it save on the electricity bill but the practice extended the life of our light bulbs.

I’m proud to say that our electric bill has never been over $54. In the summertime it’s typically around $35 total, not each, because we use natural light all day, only turn on the lights after the sun sets and keep our fan usage to a minimum. To compare, friends of mine that each use an AC in their rooms during the summer see electricity bills of $100+. They’ll argue that the extra $70 is worth being in the cool air. I respect that, but just don’t agree. I’ll strut around in my bathing suit carrying my frozen water bottle to save seventy bucks.

HPIM8440(The anxiety inducing Con-Ed bill.)

As a side note, our water bill is covered by our landlord. Otherwise there would be a two song policy for showering. No epic rock anthems like Hotel California, we’re talking awful modern pop tunes like Party in the USA to make rush through the shower just to shut it down.

For daily bits of wit and financial advice follow the journey on Twitter @BrokeMillennial or subscribe for once-a-week email updates about new posts!

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Dealing with the B-word

Per special request a series of posts will deal with practical budgeting. I’m not claiming my way is the right way, or the best way, for you to deal with your money. I’m simply offering the #BrokeMillennial budgeting system.

Other children of the 90s might remember the glorious time when clogs were fashionable for everyone, not just Dutch milkmaids, and before crocs existed. In 1996 clogs were quite the trend at St. Michael’s Catholic school in Gastonia, North Carolina. Every time I would see all the trendy 8th graders (aka the oldest girls in school) wearing those comfortable clogs my saddle shoes would feel so restrictive. My second grade self became determined to own a pair of clogs.

saddle shoes(Yeah, I was rocking those before Cole Hann made them trendy. This version is available at Payless!)

My mother, an always practical woman, knew that I would outgrow those clogs or the fashion would end within minutes of buying them for me. Instead of giving into my incessant pleading she made a one-sided deal with me. I could have the clogs, if I bought them with my own money.  Luckily, I was still sitting pretty on some money from my Krispy Kreme donut sales and had recently started to branch out into the cat-sitting business.

Armed with $15, I headed to the local Payless and made the first big purchase of my life.  I loved my $13.85 navy clogs with cork bottoms and I wore them proudly, every day for two weeks. Then St. Michaels banned clogs because they somehow clashed with our school uniform. Regardless, it remains a pivotal financial and budgeting milestone for me.

Denim-Cloth-Clogs_1776712B(My $15 did actually buy a full pair.)

***
Few things seem to bother people more than dealing with a budget. Who enjoys them you ask? Let’s call them accountants, accountants and me.

If it weren’t for my intense aversion to non-financial math and the horror stories about tax season, accounting probably would have been my calling. More than once my first roommate would walk into the apartment and find me gleeful pounding away on a TI-83 calculator and furiously writing numbers in my money notebook. The number crunching always proved, yes, I was still quite poor. Even so, I enjoyed knowing just how much money I did, or more realistically didn’t, have to spend.

A plethora of systems exist to help people deal with their money. Previously, I’ve discussed the envelope system of budgeting and explained where I made budget cuts when I first moved to New York (spoiler alert: it was food). Today, I don’t particularly endorse either but they fit at the time.

My goal of budgeting is simple: spend less than I make. For the sake of this post, I claim to earn $2,300 a month after taxes (this is a fictional number).

For those readers who remember my financial origin story it should come as no surprise that my budget focuses on saving. Future posts will discuss the importance of saving at least a little bit every paycheck, putting money aside for retirement and dealing with student loans and other forms of debt.

Before you can start saving, or paying off debt, you have to be able to survive your day-to-day expenses. As a 23-year-old living in New York City with no dependents, my expenses will vary drastically from people with children, joint-incomes, still living at home and various other factors. Please keep that in mind when reading my outline.

There are two types of budgets I focus on, weekly and monthly. I’m not neurotic enough to crunch numbers daily, but I have an idea each week how much I’ll need. If I’m traveling, going out for a friend’s birthday, entertaining visitors or a myriad of other situations, I mentally prepare to scale back expenses the week prior or after.

My weekly budget mostly deals with how much I can afford to spend on food and entertainment. Each month I budget $300 for food, because it only costs about $50 each week for my groceries and I add extra for dinners or drinks with friends.

My set monthly expenses are:

  • Transportation (NYCpublic transit) – $112 monthly pass
  • Laundry – $21
  • Toiletries (shampoo, conditioner, soap, toilet paper, etc) – around $10
  • Utilities (heat and electricity) – ranges from $30-$55 because my roommate and I      don’t use AC in the summer and we only have lights on in rooms we’re using.
  • Hulu Plus – $7.99 (We cut cable and went with a Roku box instead.)
  • Phone bill – $70
  • Food – $300
  •  Rent – $950

For a grand total of $1455.99, more than 50% of my monthly earnings.

roku(I highly recommend cutting cable and switching to a Roku device to save a few bucks.)

Working under the assumption that I earn $2,300 a month I then have $844.01 each month to allocate towards other expenses and savings. Realistically, each month brings a new hidden expense that aren’t factored into the monthly budget. For example, needing items dry cleaned, buying birthday or holiday presents, taking trips to visit friends or entertaining guests.

For those of you interested in starting to budget your money I encourage you to take the first step by writing down all your monthly expenses and subtracting it from your monthly earned income (after taxes). Once you have an understanding just how much money you actually have after expenses it becomes easier to know where to allocate your funds be it savings, paying off debt or a shopping spree.

Stayed tuned for future posts about how this millennial deals with budgets. During the interim, follow the journey on Twitter @BrokeMillennial or subscribe for emails about new posts. Feel free to email feedback or topic requests to brokemillennials@gmail.com.

Keeping a Millennial Milestone Cheap (Moving, Part I)

If you were to walk in the front door of my apartment right now you’d probably turn to me in shock and scream, “You’ve been robbed!” To which I would smile and shake my head whilst trying to figure out how to explain my minimalist approach to decorating an apartment I’ve lived in for two years.

Mostly, lack of finances contribute to my apartment’s aesthetic. Moving to, and living in, New York City takes quite a toll on the bank account, so I’ve  selected to only have the bare essentials. However, an even stronger influence on my design choices are my mother’s moving philosophies.  That, or I  identified with Cindy Lou Who in my youth and secretly hoped my grownup apartment would look like the Grinch had ransacked my home on Christmas Eve.

how-the-grinch-stole-christmas-1966-cindy-loo-who(I truly rocked pigtails and onesies in my youth.)

Mama’s First Philosophy:  Until you’re ready to settle down, everything you own should be able to fit in the back of a car.

That piece of maternal advice came my way on the eve of my move to New York. I stood in my parent’s basement as I attempted to sort all my worldly possessions into two piles, “Take to New York” and “Leave behind.” In my mother’s defense, I only had the room of a Honda CR-V to get all my belongings to the Big Apple so the advice was probably more practical in nature than a lifelong motto. Regardless, it has stuck.

HPIM5968(I wish I could move with only two duffel bags.)

My mother’s philosophy aside, growing up as an expat contributed to my minimalist lifestyle. When you grow up prepared to move every few years you learn to cut out the extra weight (or your parents force you to get rid of your excessive stuffed animal collection because 15 is a little old to be so attached to teddy bears).

Mama’s Second Philosophy: Focus on decorating one room at a time and buy quality furniture that will last you a long time.

She’s right. I don’t have any witty words about it. Wait, I do. This sage advice has a powerful nemesis, Ikea.

My Philosophy: Don’t waste your money buying boxes and bubble wrap.

Do not, I repeat, DO NOT buy boxes or bubble wrap from a FedEx, UPS, Staples or Home Depot stores. If you’re packing up your own belongings then ask the proprietors at your local grocery or liquor for their leftover boxes. Typically, they are more than happy to hand them over.

If that doesn’t work out for you then cook a nice dinner for your friends that work in an office. After a bottle of wine, politely request they pilfer the the recycling piles at work for boxes and newspapers. If you’re staying in the area and just moving apartments/houses try asking all your buddies to loan you duffle bags or suitcases.

HPIM8430Moving incurs significant expenses so it’s important to try and pinch some pennies where you can, especially if you’re a millennial without a relocation benefits package.

For daily bits of wit and financial advice follow the journey on Twitter @BrokeMillennial. Go the main page and subscribe if you’d like to receive once-a-week email updates about new posts!

Finding the Glamour in Greyhound

Growing up as an expat provided me with the wonderful luxury of traveling the globe at a young age. By the time I could buy cigarettes and get drafted (yeah right), I had been to upwards of 20 countries. Then I repatriated to the United States in order to attend college.

top of mt fuji  (Climbed to the top of Mt. Fuji. I just really wanted the cool walking stick.)

Geisha
(Going native with my sister. Blue-eyed Geishas are extremely rare.)

IMG_0752

(Gutted my miles for a trip to Paris.)

These days my family lives within the continental United States so my Christmas and summer vacations to the Far East have stopped. More importantly, my traveling is now on my dime. As a self-proclaimed wanderlust it has become imperative that I find frugal ways to explore and visit loved ones (speaking of loved ones, read more about the expat experience on my Dad’s blog).

Adjusting Expectations:

Typically, I avoid the moniker “spoiled” because how could a girl whose parents invoked candy tax laws at Halloween and threatened that Santa’s elves could come and take presents back to the North Pole be spoiled?! But when it came to traveling, I would shudder at the thought of flying coach or sharing a hotel room with more than just my sister. These days I would gladly take the coach seat near the bathroom in exchange for my frequent form of travel, the bus.

My once thriving frequent flyer miles account has seen about as much action lately as Lindsay Lohan’s acting career. Instead, I have become a card-carrying member of the Greyhound Road Rewards program.

HPIM8390(Yeah, that’s a real thing. I’m only 6 rides away from a free ticket!)

Frugal Options:

For all my money-saving antics I cannot part ways with my desire to travel. Luckily, the United States is a great country to explore while I slowly build up a fund to support international escapades. So for those interested in more than a “Staycation” here are a few tips for keeping it cheap:

  • Join any sort of reward program your preferred form of transportation offers.
  • Instead of planes check out trains and automobiles. I’m partial to Greyhound but Mega Bus and Bolt Bus also provide cheaper options to planes and trains.
  • If you’re up-to-date in self-defense (or super trusting) check out Craigslist’s rideshare page in your area.
  • Ditch the hotel and rent an apartment or house-swap. Plenty of sites (AirBnBand or VRBO) exist to help facilitate rentals,shares or swaps instead of staying hotels. This is particularly helpful and inexpensive with a large group.
  • Pack your own snacks or pick up fixin’s for some PB&Js.
  • For really cheap options check out couchsurfing or hostels.
  • If you’re in a walkable city bring a sturdy pair of sneakers and pound the pavement to save the money you’d spend on mass transit or a rental car.
  • Check out Kayak/Priceline. Keep in mind, according to Kayak the lowest fares for domestic tickets occur 21 days prior to departure.
  • For the love of God don’t check a bag. Carry-on bags only!
  • If you’re willing to work, there are plenty of ways to fund international adventures. Explore teaching English as a foreign language, Au pair jobs or volunteer programs such as the Peace Corp or Americorps. For more details check out this blog post from Escape Normal.

Otherwise, see you on the Greyhound Bus. I’ll be the one sprawled over two seats pretending to sleep so I don’t have to sit next to you.

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