Is the devil you know better than the devil you don't? That was the question I asked myself after downloading a budgeting app to mercilessly track my spending habits. The cold, hard truth of my daily expenditures posed even more serious questions: Did I actually need this $3 latte, or could I soldier on without? Was it more fiscally responsible to flirt with guys for drinks than it was anti-feminist? And finally — how on Earth do I manage to spend more money on dry cleaning than acquiring my wardrobe in the first place?
Having made the decision to write full time, I knew I needed to streamline my budget. Hence the decision to download Mint, a budgeting app that lets you know — for free! — how much money you squander away per paycheck. Every expenditure is tracked from the moment you sign up and enter your bank account. In the past, I had tried to resist the measured life and the quantified existence: the counted steps, the REM cycles, the calories per snack. Where's the spontaneity in all that? I thought.
But I quickly learned that my life, while spontaneous, was also bleeding money. If T.S. Eliot measured his life in coffee spoons, I measure mine in glasses of sauvignon blanc, barely touched iced coffees, and taxi fare. I was living like P. Diddy for the first two weeks of the month (sans yacht and sans floor-length fur) and keeping company with Oliver Twist in the latter half. Mint was my own version of Dante's Inferno and, to quote Robert Lowell, "I myself am hell."
My spending was allocated into separate categories; travel, as expected, was my biggest expense. I'd been a traveling cheerleader, traversing the globe to celebrate my friends' weddings and steps towards adulthood, while cementing my own fiscal immaturity. Yet, unless I started actively losing friends (an unpleasant proposition), I would have to account for my travel habits by cutting back on day-to-day spending. As I'd successfully cut down on the second-most taxing category, I focused on the next biggest offender: transportation.
Accounting for nearly 25 percent of my income, my behavior (in a city known for its public transport) was the ultimate shame. I was loyal to my yellow cabs — those rides moonlighted as therapy as well as philosophical discourse with international perspectives. For a hot second, I considered disowning my friends on the Upper East Side. But instead, I resolved to cut down my $50 a week taxi habit to less than $20. These ballet flats were made for walking, I suppose — to the subway, to my apartment, to happy hour. This was to be the most immediately gratifying of all my endeavors. I discovered the joys of the power walk, convincing myself I could skip my Classpass workouts. I also downloaded Via, which — although less time-efficient — did streamline my finances. It also forced me to account for the actual amount of time it takes to arrive at any given location, saving me from sending the panicked, last-minute texts promising to be "only five minutes away." I was on time, I was responsible, I was accountable.
The final category, "miscellaneous," originally seemed both overwhelming and vague. That is, until I realized it largely accounted for late nights and early mornings at Soho's Finest Deli, my trusted bodega. This posed a moral as well as an emotional issue for me — my daily escapades at the bodega bolstered both my (extremely limited) foray into the Arabic language as well as the diversity of my romantic prospects. My pal from Yemen taught me a new Arabic word every day when ringing me up, while my friend Eddie, from Indonesia, tried (unsuccessfully) to set me up with every patron aged 18 to 80 — regardless of gender, enthusiasm, or level of intoxication.
But when I cut back at the bodega, I was alarmed to discover that I indulged more frequently in Seamless. I resolved to delete the delivery app from my phone, so nothing could be delivered to the apartment. I had to scavenge for myself. This version of hunting and gathering, I am happy to report, cut my food budget in half, and is especially effective if you live in a five-floor walkup.
After tracking my budget like a hunter stalks its prey for several weeks, I felt my consciousness slowly shift. I became more self-aware. Though I'd vowed to save numerous times over the years, my internal system of checks and balances was unreliable. The moment I felt I'd behaved responsibly for any extended period of time, I slipped back into careless habits.
But the app became a game for me. I challenged myself to go days without spending any money at all — stocking up on soup, refilling my MetroCard in advance. Rather than going out for drinks, I invited friends to my roof. Whatever distress this caused my landlord, it certainly gave me some peace of mind. I've successfully cut my expenses by more than $200 per week.
And this is what I've learned: Saving money is exhausting and spending it is lazy. Punctual, organized people plan for the worst. Delusional optimists like myself expect to escape unscathed. But now that I have this shameful app on my phone, I'm more conscientious, more careful. Which, I suppose, I should be. But who knows if I'll still have it in six months.