How I Saved A Year’s Worth of Income in Three Years While Living In New York
And Still Avoided “Poverty Chic”
There’s a concept young NYC professionals trying to survive on non-finance salaries toss about: “poverty chic.” Poverty chic is when you share an apartment with five roommates, live in a ‘room’ with walls demarcated by thrift shop bed sheets, and still have to fork over $870 a month in rent. Poverty chic is when $870 is about half of your salary and you still have to buy a Metrocard ($116.50 at the time of writing, but that number goes up every time a New Yorker smiles), as well as do laundry, feed yourself, pay loans, and go out with friends.
We justify poverty chic because everyone around us is theoretically in the same boat, working dream jobs while making nightmare salaries. Being broke, we figure, is a romantic part of becoming successful and will one day lead to lavish weekends in The Hamptons, apartments with just one roommate (!), black cards, Celine bags, and Saks shopping sprees with Beyoncé.
I’m not a fan of poverty chic. It conflates chronic scarcity with temporary lack. It also belittles the experiences of people who actually are in need, aligning them with a temporary condition that will eventually, hopefully, maybe get better. I hate the idea of being young, broke, and fabulous, because real poverty is not cute, and no one should have to max out credit cards in order to survive.
As an immigrant, I’m conscious about working hard to prove myself and also to make money. I don’t live 10 hours away from my warm country just to be in debt in America. I want to be able to walk into a store and know I can afford things there: afford meaning I can pay for it with money I actually have, not my credit card.
I don’t live 10 hours away from my warm country just to be in debt in America. I want to be able to walk into a store and know I can afford things.
So I ditched the idea of being broke and fabulous. Instead I started reading books about what people who have money do with it, and how people who don’t earn much money make it work for them.
One of my finance gurus, Ramit Sethi, has a concept that I completely adore: Spend money on the things you love. Cut relentlessly on the things you don’t. The idea behind this is gold: enjoy your life without being broke.
Now, I’m not big on financial discipline. I don’t want to think about money. I do want to be able to spend $300 on a new phone just because my current one has a quirk I don’t like, or buy groceries or a Boda Skins jacket without doing damage to my bank account. I want to be able to financially help someone who’s having a hard time.
The way I save is simple: at the start of each year, I figure out how much I need to spend monthly. I allocate for bills, necessities, gifts and donations, going out occasionally, as well as things I personally enjoy like subscriptions to Kinfolk, The Economist, concerts, and wine — lots of wine. I add some more money for surprises, subtract that from my monthly income and then divide what’s left by two.
I then set up bi-monthly automatic transfers for that amount from my checking account to my savings account. My savings account automatically withdraws those funds each month, tells me when it’s taken them, and I nod in satisfaction before going back to my Riesling. That’s the core of my savings plan.
What has worked for me is making savings automatic so I never have to think about them. And then they start to grow. I get used to saving money twice a month without effort, and I get to watch those numbers get higher each month. Even starting small, e.g., $50 transfers, is helpful, and as I climb the career-ladder, I can stash more money away until I get used to the idea of saving everything I don’t plan on spending.
My system is now a little bit more complex because I have multiple savings accounts for different savings goals. I also have a Digit account because I love that it texts me in gifs (!), a Roth IRA with index funds, and of course a 401k. To my mind, if your job offers a 401k and you don’t use it, you deserve to be splitting tuna tins with your kittens for breakfast when you’re sixty.
By squirreling money away and not thinking about it, I’ve put aside a years worth of gross pay in about 3 years. A bulk of my savings is for future me to build the life I want on my terms. I eventually want to be able to do epic shit like own a business, work with nonprofits, build a house on two continents and buy a cabin in front of a lake. I might achieve those goals, I might not, but at no point while saving that money did I feel like I was going without and that, to me, is cooler than poverty chic.
Etinosa lives in New York and tweets @TheEtinosa
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