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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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.

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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Bonnie: Why I Hate Cats And Love Saving Money

After my lesson in start up costs, I decided the next business venture shouldn’t require seed money from my father. Unfortunately, there are limited options for a seven year old striking out into the business world. After a few failed attempts at friendship bracelets and paint-by-numbers sales I had a break through in the pet sitting business.

Our next-door neighbors had a cat named Bonnie. Bonnie embodied evil. She would lurk behind the couch near the door. When I stepped over the threshold she’d propel herself towards me hissing and swiping the air with her claws. For five dollars a day I braved the possibility of death by satanic cat and diligently cleaned her kitty litter and put out fresh food and water each morning and evening.

mean cat(What I saw)

CatSwipe(What was probably happening)

Needless to say, I still am not a fan of cats and would much rather rough house with a German Shepard.

puppies3                      (Yes, I deliberately juxtaposed an adorable puppy photo with the evil cats.)

The money from taking care of Bonnie went right into my childhood savings fund, a candy tin hidden in my closet. Perhaps the threat of my money being taken created the need to hide it (years later I was devastated to learn about taxes). I filled up that tin can with dreams of buying my first car, a red Mitsubishi Eclipse.

eclipse

(No, this did not end up being my first car.)

The dreams of buying a car at 16 died when my family moved overseas and getting a driver’s license was impractical and improbable for a young gaijin. Instead, the pet sitting empire expanded.

Those early years of pet-sitting taught me how to earn my own money and more importantly to save it. With no living costs, except entertainment, I could bank most of my earnings and routinely would save up for large purchases or just save “for the future.”

A decade after my tussles with Bonnie, on the eve of my departure to college*, my father gave me a book called The Rules of Money by Richard Templar. Rule 27 read, “Start Saving Young (or Teach Your Kids This One If It’s Too Late For You).”

Mr. Templar suggested coming up with a “figure” to save from each paycheck. He wrote that he personally put aside 50 percent. Not to be outdone by the man, I put aside 50 percent of all my paychecks in college in order to create a “nest egg” for my post-college adventures. I dreamed of a going to Australia for a year or back-packing through Europe for a few months.

In reality, neither of those happened, but I did end up needing a savings cushion. My first “real world” job brought me to New York City, the United States’ most expensive city to live in. A land that requires 50% of my current paychecks to pay rent. But my first “real job” paid about $200 bucks a week. An amount that didn’t even cover a month’s worth of rent. More on that to come.

Saving your money from a young age is one of the greatest financial lessons to learn. I don’t, however, recommend saving it in a candy tin, even if you are eight. As my father says, “Compound interest can be your best friend or your worst enemy.” More to come on that too.

* Ironically enough, my college mascot was “The Bonnies.” Political correctness forced the University to change from the original mascot, the Brown Indians.

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