Remember cash? That green, waxy paper stuff that features one of several dead presidents or Ben Franklin?
Well, for upwards of four years, I didn't. Never carried it. Never used it. Couldn't tell you which guy went with which dollar amount. My preferred currency was plastic and like most of us slaves to the magnetic strip, I swiped with reckless abandon. Sure, I applied my version of mental checkbook balancing to each purchase, but come the end of the month my numbers never quite subtracted up.
I was in need of serious spending self-help -- a solution that would remind me of the value of the almighty dollar and stop me from swiping without thinking.
And so, I went to the halls of self-improvement (the third floor of the local Barnes and Noble) and sought out the advice of the fiercest financial contributor to any morning news program. A woman who would have made Mr. Potter
feel like a spendthrift. A woman who lives and breathes efficiency from the tips of her toes to the top of her haircut. The one and only Suze Orman
Suze is a goddess of savings. She knows how to squeeze a nickel out of a penny and then turn that nickel into a million dollars. I figured she'd have an intricate system to reform my recklessness, but after a bit of research I found that for a case like mine she recommends the simplest of her waste-curbing practices: the Cash-Only Diet
, aka the Suze Orman.
See, that's me, discussing my cash-only existence with none other than the Suze above! So, here's how it all went down ...
Doing the Suze means you develop a spending budget for each week, take that amount of cash out at its start, and spend only that until its finish. No debit cards, no credit cards, just cold, harsh cash.
What if there's a sale at Crate and Barrel on just the houseware you need? Suze says buy it next week if it's beyond your budget. What if it's two people's birthdays in one week and you have to go out on the town? Suze says pack a lunch and brew your coffee at home. What if you have a major date with a really great guy and simply must
get a new dress? Suze rolls her eyes at you and walks away. No pain, no gain, her books say.
The Suze was just what I needed. She basically says your budget should include expenses outside of your monthly bills and essentials (rent, phone bill, electric), and acceptable offroading includes only things like emergency doctor's visits. In other words, this was a budget for your lifestyle
money, not your life money.
I'm 26, and with my $1,100 rent, $200 college loans, additional life debt at $200 per month -- plus cable, electric, and 401(k) savings, my 40-something-K salary doesn't go very far. So, I gave myself a budget of $220 a week, withdrew my allowance and Krazy-glued all of my credit cards together. (Only kidding.)
My self-imposed requirements for what my cash would cover were as follows:
-- ALL food: groceries for cooking in, and all meals eaten out
-- Toiletries and accessories: Yes, that means toilet paper and cotton balls, as well as new lipstick or hair gel.
-- Entertainment: new books, movie tickets, concerts, etc. (Note: Concert tickets purchased one week for an upcoming event were tough because you have to buy those online. I couldn't count those against my weekly budget, but I kept a separate list.)
-- Clothes: also tricky. A new pair of sandals were a want, not a need, so did those count against the budget? Sadly, yes
I cannot take you through my first week of cash-only life (I cheated twice and overspent by 50 bones) nor can I describe my second (I cheated once and overspent by $100), but a nightly glance at Suze's obviously-tooth-whitened-smile on the book kept on my nightstand stood as a constant reminder that I really wanted my teeth whitened, and that
cost money I'd need to save.
I am now a proud two months into a fully-Suze spending style and, as such, have nestled into a weekly mental pattern that only gets less manic with time. These days, my weeks go something very much like this:
Monday, 9 a.m.:
Withdraw weekly budget out of ATM. Breathe sigh of relief and skip joyfully out of Bank of America vestibule with pocket full of sunshine.
Test early week willpower with bout of Bluefly
browsing. Note: If ever there is a mechanism by which you feed cash into the laptop to make online purchases, it's all over for me.
Monday, 5 p.m.:
Treat self to late-afternoon coffee after long day, because what's a $3.50 latte when I have a wallet full of cash?
Monday, 8 p.m.:
Post-gym grocery shopping for week's worth of breakfast, lunch and some dinner
. Feel accomplished, sensible, adult.
Challenge Day! I've grown accustomed to spending zero on Tuesdays as a way to reserve a surplus for later-in-the week social events. It's a small sacrifice that pays off incredibly well in mental and actual progress. That said, one recent Tuesday marked the start of the Barney's Warehouse Sale, and that was a disaster.
Incorporate one frivolous purchase to celebrate success of the week thus far. Options include: Tasti D-Lite, new magazine, sushi lunch, after-work cocktail. At this point cash remains plentiful, but the weekend looms. A Wednesday movie or casual dinner can fit into the plan, but not if there's a big weekend ahead. In other words, Wednesday is pivotal.
The beginning of the end. Come Thursday I tend to want desperately to buy stuff I don't need -- new clothes for the weekend, a random houseware I stumble across on my walk home, a GROUPON for Bikram yoga. I cannot explain it, but Thursday is my spending siren ...
Luckily my office hosts a Thursday happy hour complete with appetizers, so that helps with post-work food and beverage. We'll tend to move from happy hour to some bar-related social activity, meaning the day's budget includes a cocktail or two, but still within budget. I like to think of Thursday as the judge of my progress from week to week. If I have more that Thursday than the week prior, I'm a financial success. This happens 30 percent of the time ...
Oh, Friday ... It feels like the end, but it's absolutely not. By Friday I realize what life supplies (all things purchased at either CVS or Old Navy) I'll need to get me through the weekend, and if it's saline solution, hair gel or any other of the more expensive toiletries, it's trouble.
Friday lunch out of the office is hard to resist, but if a big Friday night is in the works, it must be avoided. By now the bills can usually be counted on one hand, and let's just say they're not Benjamins.
A rough Friday night out -- expensive dinner or too many drinks -- can make the weekend a wash, so I have to be incredibly careful. Saturday and Sunday are two full days away from the office, meaning much more time to spend.
It's either brunch, lunch or dinner, but definitely not more than one out of the house at this point in the week. A costly Saturday day or night outing can mean all meals must be eaten at home to make room for whatever concert, day-trip, or out-of-control karaoke session pops up. Come Saturday I am absolutely dying to swipe the debit card and be done with it. The wallet is full of small bills and change I have to keep because I'll probably need to use it. I am not above paying for a bacon-egg-and-cheese in quarters.
Sweet victory, technically -- but Sunday represents a full 24 hours to go. Spend foolishly throughout the week and Sunday is the most miserable day of all. Save smartly and you can celebrate with a leisurely brunch, mini shopping spree, evening matinee or, if you have far more willpower than me, all three.
And there you have it. Seven days. One chunk of cash. Endless lessons in need versus want. I am not ashamed to say that I once went without paper towels in the house because it came down to the wire, and new razors were more important. I've also come to order vodka sodas versus beers because of the alcohol-to-purchase ratio. In the end, it's about making choices and weighing needs.
Of course, according to Suze, it's also supposed to be about having money left over at the end of the week to contribute to the savings pot. And, dammit, Suze was right: Two months into my meager diet has netted me $800 in savings. And just think how long I could live off of that.
Jessie Rosen writes the blog 20-Nothings.com, an account of getting by from 2-0 to 3-0. Today is Thursday, so you will find weighing her financial progress -- then drinking off her angst at her office's free happy hour
More Good Stuff on the Web:
Which One of These Women is Plus-Sized?
Is There a Connection between Food and Sex?
I'm the Daughter of a Serial Killer
10 Things You Should Never Say To A Guy