In 2012 I Learned What I Can and Can’t Afford

by Sarah Todd

We asked our contributors to take a look back at their year in $$$. Sarah Todd learned a very important lesson.

“Want to go to Iceland?” my friend texted me on Halloween night. She was in California. I was at a bar in Massachusetts dressed as one-fourth of French KISS, wearing a beret and a striped t-shirt and white face paint with cat makeup. I didn’t know the difference between the KISS band members, so I’d volunteered to be the boring one. My whiskers were melting.

“YES TELL ME MORE,” I wrote back.

All night, we traded excited texts about flights and hot springs and northern lights. But the truth was that I didn’t know if I could afford to go to Iceland. Technically speaking, I didn’t even know if I had money to spare for another Stella. For most of 2012, the year I decided to get real about money, I have been very confused about what I can and can’t afford.

Before this year, I didn’t have a lot of dollars — grad school and living in New York will do that to you — so I just didn’t sweat my financial future. Now I have a pretty stable job and a few freelance gigs on the side. I have student loans but no credit card debt. I’m not raking in the big bucks, but I make enough to cover living expenses and put away some money each month for retirement and savings, and even throw extra cash at my student loans.

With the long-term goals of building up savings and whacking down student loan debt, part of me feels like I can’t afford to spend money on things that aren’t necessities (things like trips to Iceland, just for example). But I also frequently feel like getting YOLO shaved into my head and buying a pair of Frye boots and an alpaca farm.

It is a conundrum.

Nonetheless, I’ve figured out this much: I definitely can’t afford to spend money on stuff that doesn’t matter to me. For example, I don’t have the funds to eat out very often. But that is fine! This year I decided to cook almost exclusively at home. Most of my mainstay dishes use pretty cheap ingredients: scrambled eggs and roasted chickpeas, kale chips, baked potatoes, stir-frys, salads heavily doused in olive oil and salt, pasta with cannellini beans and spinach and canned tomatoes. I joined a community garden in late spring, and for months I had more basil and string beans and bok choy than I knew what to do with. I haven’t missed going to restaurants at all; if my friends are going out to eat, I just meet up with them for a drink before or after.

I also kept my clothes shopping down in 2012. This year, I bought a long-sleeved shift from H&M and a dress from Marshall’s to wear to a wedding. Two pairs of black tights. Two t-shirts and a sundress from a thrift store. I thought not shopping much this year might make me feel frumpy, but it didn’t — I actually didn’t even notice how little I was buying. Six new items in my wardrobe felt like plenty.

Because I decided that I couldn’t afford to pick up a burrito at lunch or spring for a new messenger bag, I could afford to do things that were really important to me this year. I bought a ticket to my friends’ wedding in Texas this March. We went to a family farm in Beeville and drank lemonade at picnic tables in the front yard. We took a hay ride out to a grove of weeping willows and watched our friends say I do surrounded by daisy chains. Afterward, the guests huddled around a bonfire and laughed with the bride as she shouted that the hip-hop songs the DJ was playing weren’t dirty enough. Before I flew home, I spent a day and a half slamming through Austin in a tornado of fried avocado tacos and bluegrass and kayaks and bridge bats.

I could afford to say yes when a friend asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding next June. I decided that I had enough money to fly out to Oregon to visit friends from graduate school. I could buy tickets to outdoor concerts this summer and hear James Taylor and the Silk Road Ensemble and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I took myself to Montreal. All of these things cost money that I could have directed in more responsible directions. But I’m really glad I didn’t.

Deciding what I can afford was trickier in other scenarios. For the first six months of the year, I thought I could afford to buy books from authors and small presses and indie bookstores that I wanted to support. I bought Leigh Stein’s The Fallback Plan and Dodie Bellamy’s The Buddhist and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I bought books by Meghan Daum and Julia Wertz and Junot Diaz.

But as the year went on and I started running out my weekly budget way in advance, I realized that I couldn’t buy books from all the authors that I wished I could. I started going to the library more often, the existence of which fills me with Oscar-winner levels of amazement and gratitude. (What did I ever do to deserve a free book?) I borrowed books from friends and felt a surge of guilt when someone I followed on Tumblr posted about the importance of paying for art you believe in.

Problems like this came up for me all the time this year. I want my dollars to support the people and things and causes I care about. But I can’t afford to spend money on all of them, and the way that I choose between them is haphazard at best. Why do I donate to NPR but not to other podcasts I listen to? Why do I give money to Planned Parenthood one month but not the next? Why could I buy Fiona Apple’s new CD but stick to listening to the Alabama Shakes on Spotify? I don’t have a solid, ethically reliable measuring stick to help me make these choices — at least, not yet.

Sometimes figuring out what I can afford is less about logic and more about arbitrary whims. There were days this year when I’d resist renting Bachelorette on iTunes and splurge on fancy conditioner an hour later. And sometimes I couldn’t actually afford the things I thought I could. A cheap day trip to New York ended up costing me a lot of dough when I got off the train one stop before my transfer station and realized I’d left my phone on board to boot. I spent $110 extra dollars getting home and $45 more when Metro North shipped my phone back to me. (Hats off to the fine people at Metro North Lost & Found, however! They’re like the Department of Mysteries in their labyrinthian secrecy, but they have an 80% return rate on high-value items.)

These days, I’m realizing that what I can and can’t afford is about more than the numbers in my bank account. It’s about priorities: Whether my dollars will make more of a difference for one person or organization or cause than another, whether doing one thing will prevent me from doing something else, and whether that will be worth the sacrifice. But also, figuring out affordability is kind of like solving the hardest Nancy Drew mystery of all time. I will probably never completely crack the case.

The day after Halloween, my friend and I figured out how much the trip to Iceland would cost including transportation and food and lodging and day trips. When we tallied up the total, it came to about $1,700. I looked at my bank account and my budget, and I told my friend, sadly, that it was too much. I was worried that not going meant missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience, or that my friend would be disappointed. Still, I knew that I had to say no. I threw out another option — I might be able to afford to go someplace cheaper.

My friend understood right away; looking at the numbers, she said she couldn’t really afford to go to Iceland either. Together we made a list of all the places we wanted to go. Then we started comparing flight prices and reading up on articles about budget travel for each of our top destinations. Eventually we found flights and a daily travel budget that would be cheap enough, and we giddily clicked “purchase tickets.”

On New Year’s Eve, I’ll be in Ireland, ringing in 2013. I can afford it.

Sarah Todd blogs about feminism and popular culture over at Girls Like Giants.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.