Week 1: An Eye Opening Experience


The evening of January 1st, I made my first comprehensive budget and I’ve been updating and refining it all week. I stayed up late several evenings this week, face illuminated by the pale blue glow of my laptop screen, typing expenses into a Google spreadsheet in the dark and muttering angrily under my breath. I’m in deep you guys.

One week in and this has already been an eye-opening experience. Creating and sticking to a budget has been very helpful in providing me with a bird’s eye view from whence my money comes and all of the wonderful and sometimes silly places to which it goes. Here is a lesson that I apparently must continue to re-learn forever: avoidance doesn’t work, it mostly just makes the thing avoided scarier.  Having avoided taking control of my finances for so long, I find myself on a steep learning curve. Here’s what I’ve gleaned so far:

  1. The good news is that the parts of my life where I expected to find frivolous spending - eating out and my unfortunate predisposition for nice beer - really weren’t all that bad. I can do better, but it wasn’t terrible.

  2. Unfortunately, so much of everything else is in fact a mess. I pay monthly subscriptions for things I don’t use. The big ticket items in my life - where I live, renting a studio space for work, all the various insurances, travel, etc. - are all very expensive. For example, Melody and I live in the very lovely and very central Cherrywood neighborhood in a nice little house with a big backyard. Consequently, we pay through the nose each month on rent.  The last four months I’ve also rented a photo studio on Sixth Street with my good friend Lawrence, which is another several hundred dollars. And just about every month I spend whatever money is left on a plane ticket to somewhere fun or some piece of camera gear (e.g., buying a $1000 drone because I had exactly $1000 and really, really wanted one.)

I re-read Benjamin Franklin’s essay The Art of Wealth this week. It is thoroughly puritanical in ideology, but nonetheless packed with nuggets of wisdom. It opens with a scene where a wise old man offers counsel to a group of townspeople complaining that their taxes are too high:

“If those laid on by the government were the only ones we had to pay, we might more easily discharge them; but we have many others… We are taxed twice as much by our idleness, three times as much by our pride, and four times as much by our folly, and from these taxes the commissioners cannot ease or deliver us by allowing an abatement.”

Throwin’ shade like it’s 1759. And the gems abound, like this one, “Sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labor wears, while the used key is always bright.” And, “If you would be wealthy, think of saving as well as of getting: the Indies have not made Spain rich, because her outgoes are greater than her incomes.” And, “beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship.”

Like Spain, I fear my outgoes always end up being about the same as my income. Which, if I recall correctly, didn’t turn out so great for Spain. So, next up I intend to ruminate on Ben’s wisdom regarding the many merits of industry, frugality, and prudence. Industry, in that I could work more billable hours each month and maybe even someday overcome my distaste for self promotion and my primordial fear of advertising my services. The rent is simply too damn high not to.

Sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labor wears, while the used key is always bright.

- Benjamin Franklin

With regards to prudence and frugality, I may just have to give up some of this stuff that I love. Our landlord is putting our house on the market next month and we will have to move in the coming months when it sells. Until then, we negotiated a substantial decrease on our monthly rent and, I suppose, now have an opportunity to find a place with lower rent.  Meanwhile I have three weeks left to plug up the rest of the holes in the hull.

Introducing: the 12 Experiments

When I first met my friend Sarah Natsumi Moore back in 2016, she was in the middle of a yearlong project called the 12 Experiments.  Each month she chose a new experiment and spent the month trying it on for size; when we met I think she was in the middle of “A Month of Waking Up at 5 am” and it wasn’t going so well. I admired the project and Sarah’s gumption for turning her life into a series of experiments and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Show me the money

Show me the money

With the new year rolling around and the usual million and one things I want to do but never seem to get around to, I decided to do my own 12 experiments. That very same week, Sarah posted on facebook that she was rebooting the experiments for 2019, only this time, she was inviting friends and strangers alike to join in. I am not one to ask questions of aligning stars such as these, and I threw my name in the hat. Fast forward a few weeks, today is January 1st and I am starting my first experiment, A Month of Money a.k.a. Ballin on a Budget: 2019 Edition.

I’ve spent many years carefully honing and refining a tried-and-true approach toward personal finance. Thomas’ 7 Step Program For Financial Success is as follows:

Step 1. Imagine that your bank statement is a take-out box way in the back of the fridge. You don’t know what’s in there but it’s probably gross.  See how long you can pretend it doesn’t exist.

Step 2. Toward the end of each month, check to see if you have enough money to cover next month’s rent. If not, panic.

Step 3. Try not to spend any money, ever, on anything.  

Step 4. Splurge! You’ve earned it.

Step 5. Berate yourself for splurging.

Step 6.  Bi-annually, call your bank and threaten to close your accounts unless your recent overdraft fees are waived.

Step 7.  Endlessly brainstorm schemes to make more money.  Consider selling your plasma.

For this experiment, I’m going to make the bold decision to table my 7 steps for the month of January and try out some new strategies.  I think first I’ll dust off that old Mint.com account and come up with a budget (woof), and then wrap my head around saving up a 6-month emergency fund (yeesh).   And just when I think I can’t have any more fun, I’m going to attempt to stick to that budget and see how much money I can save. Stay tuned!