Everyone wants to save money, in theory, but did you know that saving money by buying less stuff and spending it on experiences can make you a happier person?
My experiment for this week was to keep a financial expenditures log in order to assess how I can better save money and be a financially responsible adult. Saving money can contribute to your overall health and sense of well-being, as the feeling of financial security can spark feelings of confidence and peace of mind. To be perfectly honest, this concept makes me feel sort of uncomfortable. Mostly because it makes me think of wealthy middle-aged white men dressed in boxers and long white socks, rolling around in piles of money while laughing at how the 99 Percent lives.
And, despite what you’ve been told all your life, money can buy happiness. Research shows that while dropping money on material goods (i.e., that new designer handbag or 90-inch flat screen TV) does not increase happiness, spending money on experiences (i.e., taking a vacation, attending a concert or play, going on a date night) does spark happiness. In fact, experiences can make you happier even before they happen. As you are likely well aware, even the anticipation leading up to a vacation or a date night can make us feel enormously happy.
After I quit my corporate job and traveled around the world with nothing but a backpack, I became keenly aware of how much experiences can contribute to happiness and how little material goods can do for my well-being. So, my overarching goal for this week’s experiment is to identify areas I can save on material goods so that I can splurge on meaningful experiences.
The first part of my experiment was to keep a written log of everything I spent money on each day. The second part was to have another person analyze my expenditure list and recommend areas where I could cut back on spending. I suppose this is exactly what financial planners and accountants are hired to do, but in the vein of saving money, I opted for the free service: hiring my financially savvy boyfriend.
A few caveats to my experiment. I did not include certain fixed expenses, such as rent, utilities, and transportation costs. Expensive rent is an inescapable and inevitable part of living in New York City. So is public transportation. 90% of the time, I get around on my own two pigeon-toed feet (seriously, have you seen my feet?) or on the subway.
My Expenditure Log
Day 1 – Tuesday
Like 99% of all weekday mornings, I eat breakfast at home. Obviously, the ingredients cost me money at some point, but they’ve already been purchased and I don’t know how to calculate the cost of a smoothie bowl. If I had to wager a guess, I would say it’s priceless. At lunch, I break out my home-prepared meal, another money-saving technique.
While scrolling my Instagram feed during lunch, I see the most adorable smoothie jar topped with bananas and cantaloupe cut out in flower and star shapes. Before I know it, I am adding mini cookie cutters to my shopping cart on Amazon.com.
Total cost: $5.95.
That evening, I head to an event after work, which runs from from 6:30-8:30 p.m. The event is run by mongrels, so there will be no food served during these prime dinner hours. I pick up what seems like a reasonable substitute for dinner: 3 KIND fruit & nut bars. My stomach starts to hurt after eating the second bar, but I have an irrational fear of experiencing food scarcity, so I force the third bar down my throat while riding the subway. My fellow passengers are looking at me in disgust as I sit with empty granola bar wrappers at my feet, remnants of nuts scattered throughout my hair.
Total cost: $6.75 + a piece of my dignity
Total cost for Day 1: $12.70
Day 2 – Wednesday
I eat breakfast at home and bring lunch to work, yet again. In the afternoon, I find myself parched, so I stop at the local fruit market near my office and pick up a kombucha. Yes, I know, kombucha is expensive, and I would be better off brewing my own at home, so thanks for the unsolicited advice.
Total cost: $4.29
After work, I stop at a nearby Middle Eastern grocery store and buy a bottle of tahini, an essential in my pantry, for a cheap $3.65. I also stop by CVS to pick up a roll of aluminum foil. We go through a lot of aluminum foil at our house. Mostly for food purposes. Sometimes for sex purposes. Just kidding. I’m not that weird.
Total cost: $3.65 + $5.98 = $9.63
Total cost for Day 2: $13.92
Day 3 – Thursday
It is a muggy day, and I can literally smell my sweat after I leave the hot mess that is Brooklyn Housing Court. To cool off, I head to Starbucks to get an iced tea. The lady behind the counter asks what size I want. Forgetting that this is America, land of the Supersize, I say “the large one” because I am very thirsty and very smelly. Seconds later, I am handed an enormous 31-ounce cup of iced tea that is so large I have trouble holding it in one hand. I also pick up a chocolate chip cookie the size of my head because, well, cookies are delicious.
Total cost: $6.29
I am headed to yet another event after work this evening (I am obviously important). As soon as I leave work, I remember that I need to use the bathroom but am too lazy to go back upstairs. I stop at a fancy cafe to use their bathroom facilities. I am not an animal, so I do not just ask if I can use their toilet. Instead, I order a drink–a decaf Americano–and then before the checkout clerk can ask if I want room for cream, I run to use the toilet.
Total cost: $3.27
Total cost for Day 3: $9.56
Day 4 – Friday
When I arrive at the office this morning, I am reminded that it is “Administrative Day”–a day devoted to taking care of administrative tasks that are ordinarily swept under the rug–because there is free breakfast in the conference room. I have literally just finished eating breakfast, but I am presented with an endless array of bagels, pastries, and donuts, and my brain screams, “FREE CARBS, TAKE THEM AND RUN!” I take half of a lemon raspberry muffin. And an entire chocolate croissant. Like any rational person, I shame eat my free pastries in my office with my door closed.
That evening, we have plans to go out to a jazz bar in Brooklyn with a friend. However, both Max and I are exhausted from work so we decide to stay in. When you are practically married and in your late 20s/30s, it is perfectly reasonable to cancel social outings because of Netflix. I am beginning to realize that being lazy, tired, and/or busy can help you save a lot of money! How’s that for happiness?
After pondering dinner plans for a good half hour, Max tells me that he has a surprise waiting in the garden. He has mowed the lawn and decorated the garden with string lights, candles, and best of all — an enormous New York-style Margherita pizza from a very delicious pizza joint. The crust is thin, the tomato sauce is slightly sweet, and the cheese is bubbly. My heart strings are plucked. Lest you think this sounds like a romantic evening, let me be clear: I go to bed that night with a food baby and the hiccups.
Total cost for Day 4: $0!!! Thank you, free food!
Day 5 – Saturday
Are you impressed with my minimal spending over the past four days? Good because the weekend is where things get hairy. And by hairy, I mean expensive. I do most of my grocery shopping on the weekend, and as you may have intuited, I buy, cook, and eat a lot of food.
But before I empty my wallet on food, we head to Ikea. My wardrobe rack collapsed a few days ago, and I have been storing my clothes on the couch like a heathen. On our long walk to Ikea, we stop at a hipster coffee shop to get Americanos and a banana bread loaf to split. Despite the scene, the guy behind the counter is the opposite of a hipster–he is funny and he’s trying hard to make us laugh. He pronounces banana as “bu-nuh-nuh-nuh.” I guess you had to be there to get it, but it was hilarious. I appreciate his effort and tip him.
Total cost: $11.91
We arrive at Ikea, and I am pleasantly surprised to learn that I can just ask for a replacement for the hook in my wardrobe that broke, and it will be free. But, this is Ikea, and we didn’t walk 45 minutes in the blazing sun to not buy a single thing.
We pick up a few kitchen items, a couple pieces of tupperware, and a few more lights and decorations for our garden. I honestly can’t even remember half of the items we bought, and it was just three days ago. Further confirmation that buying material goods doesn’t contribute to happiness! Yet, there I am, in the Ikea checkout line like the rest of these robots.
Total cost: $80.44
In the afternoon, I head to the Union Square farmer’s market, one of my favorite places to visit. I purchase some produce that I legitimately need, and then some items that can only be described as vanity purchases. Like violet-colored lettuce and purple potatoes. Do they taste like regular lettuce and potatoes? Yes. But are they prettier? Also, yes. After an hour of browsing, I realize that I am literally dripping with sweat and there is no more room left in my backpack to add more food. This backpack, by the way, is the same backpack I used to travel around the world. That’s right, half of my week’s groceries take up the same amount of space as half a year’s worth of clothes, shoes, toiletries, and electronics.
Total cost: $36.75
Because I am insane, I continue my grocery shopping at the nearby Whole Foods, still lugging around a 40 pound backpack that has caked my back in sweat. After waiting in a 30-minute line, the checkout clerk stares me down and asks me why I look like a sweaty nomadic backpacker. I pretend I don’t speak English and stare down at my feet.
Total cost: $33.92
That evening, I have a few friends over for dinner and drinks in our garden. We dine on endless hummus and pita, along with salads and grilled items ordered from an inexpensive Lebanese joint. Having an outdoor space is so rare in New York City that our friends will endure 45 minute subway commutes and surge Uber fares, as well as forgo fancy dinners and sexy nightlife options just to enjoy a beer and a burger in our garden. Okay, so we’re pretty great company too.
Total cost: $15.60
Total cost for Day 5: $178.62. I want to go back to Day 4, where all I did was eat free food.
Day 6 – Sunday
Are you still reading this? Do I still have to write this stuff down?
I have made a few rainbow hummus spreads, and I need vessels for these delicious dips. I head to my favorite local bakery that sells baguettes so good they rival the real deal in France. I pick up several loaves, coffees, and a chocolate croissant because, again, they’re delicious.
Total cost for carbs: $16.99
I remember that there is an awesome food and technology expo taking place in Manhattan today, which features interactive exhibits and installations that explore how technology is transforming food and our eating environment. It seems like an interesting Sunday activity, albeit a bit expensive. My love for food trumps my desire to save money so I purchase two tickets for me and Max.
Total cost: $81.12
At the expo itself, I entertain myself with plenty of samples of food and beverages. After trying the edible cup that tastes like a fruit roll up and a soul food-inspired cupcake, I sample what I can only describe as crack green juice. I have never been into juicing, and I refuse to buy $10 green juice. But this green juice is delicious, relatively inexpensive (28 8-ounce servings for $30), and doesn’t take up precious fridge real estate. It’s a green juice powder made with asparagus, broccoli, spinach, kale, and cabbage, yet it still manages to taste sweet. I momentarily fear that I have been duped, but I hand over my credit card and buy a cannister of crack green juice powder and feel great about my health.
Total cost: $30
Total cost for Day 6: $128.11
Day 7 – Monday
I eat breakfast at home and then go to court. For some reason, I have convinced myself to wear a full suit today, so I am sweatier than usual after leaving court. I head to my favorite coffee shop and pick up an iced coffee to cool myself off.
Total cost: $3
After work, I have the brilliant idea to bake when I get home. I head to the local fruit market and pick up a bar of dark chocolate, a package of Medjool dates, and a kombucha (not for baking). I notice that the price sticker on the ginger kombucha reads $2.49 instead of $4.29. What a great sale! After leaving the store, I realize that my deal of the day was most likely a pricing sticker mistake, but I have already opened the bottle and I decide to just enjoy my luck.
Total cost: $11.95 + a slight nag at my conscience
Total cost for Day 7: $14.95
Analysis of My Expenditure Log
Max reviewed my expenses for the week and had just one comment. “You spend 90% of your money on food or food-related stuff,” he observes. I told you he was clever.
Some of his suggestions for saving money were helpful, like you should buy most of your groceries from Trader Joe’s instead of Whole Foods and the gourmet fruit market, but some of his suggestions were useless and mildly offensive, like stop eating so much food. Thanks, man.
Aside from food, Max identifies one example of unnecessary spending this week: our Ikea purchases. We would have much rather spent that $80 on a nice dinner out together than on kitchenware. To be fair, the purchases for our garden do contribute to our experience and enjoyment of our garden, so perhaps those expenses are somewhat justified.
I felt mostly okay with my expenditures this week until I had a conversation with my friend who is planning a round-the-world trip for six months, similar to what I did in 2014-2015. It made me realize that I want to travel again, and every dollar I spend on purple potatoes and Ikea tupperware, the fewer dollars I’ll have saved up to do one of those trips again. So my heavily sought-after financial advice to you is: save money on things, but spend money on experiences that are meaningful to you. And try out keeping a financial diary so you can identify your own spending blindspots.
Next week I’ll be practicing mindfulness and attempting to use my mobile device less frequently. Stay tuned!