How I Got My Bikini Brain

My budget is not like my diet, and for me, that’s a good thing.

Photo credit: WalkingGeek, CC BY 2.0.

Two summers ago, I did something unthinkable. I bought a bikini. To wear on my body. As the survivor of a nasty teenage eating disorder and years of lingering insecurity, the two-piece bathing suit was a frontier I never thought I’d cross. As it turned out, the summer of my first bikini revealed an interesting inverse relationship between how I view my body and my finances.

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I’ve noticed that in a lot of personal finance articles, writers are quick to reach for metaphors around diet and exercise. Here’s the Tenth Commandment of Chelsea Fagan’s The Financial Diet, for example: “Just like eating a slice of cake doesn’t ruin a diet, spending too much one weekend doesn’t ruin a financial diet.”

Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You To Be Richalso links saving money and losing weight: “So when you’re deciding what to change about your personal finances, eating habits, exercise plan, or whatever… try making the smallest change today. Something you won’t even notice. And follow your own plan for gradually increasing it.”

It makes sense that these metaphors are so ubiquitous. Our dietary habits and our finances are both systems of inputs and outputs that are very much tied up in emotion, social pressure, and one’s relationship to privilege and power. They are at once huge sources of aspiration and huge sources of shame. But for me, these metaphors, particularly when they draw positive or even neutral parallels between budgeting and dieting, send a prickly shower of ick down my spine.

By the time I arrived at my bikini victory, I didn’t want my disordered history with food associated with the way I handle money.

I didn’t set out to buy a bikini that day, not really. My old bathing suit — a simple black one piece in a long line of nearly identical black one pieces — had become all thin and pilled in the butt and I wanted to replace it before the next beach or hot tub opportunity arose. I surprised myself when I selected a few bikini tops and bottoms to try on. Their bold geometric patterns seemed more fun than my usual choice, and I liked the high-waisted vintage cuts that were coming back into style.

Even more surprising: when I fastened the first bikini top and turned to face the mirror, I didn’t recoil at my reflection. This is not to say I thought I looked hot or cute or otherwise excellent. I hadn’t recently undergone some major physical transformation or self-image revolution. The bikini victory was not so much one of body positivity as of body neutrality. “That’s me. That’s what I look like. That’s ok,” I thought. Putting on a bikini and not hating it was the result of a long, slow recovery march.

As a teenager, I accounted for every calorie, in and out. The goal was to decrease the in and increase the out. A 95-calorie apple to get me through a run that burned 340 calories. A tiny cup of oatmeal and a nonfat yogurt in the morning, Diet Coke for lunch. Frantic push-ups and sit-ups in my room after dinner. I made a relatively quick “recovery” — gaining back the weight, getting out of danger — under medical supervision in the year after the behaviors took hold in earnest, but the mental patterns of counting and obsessing stuck around for much longer.

In college, I estimated my caloric intake at the plentiful dining hall buffets and felt monstrous. I favored a certain soft serve, bread pudding, and peanut butter combination that made me practically tremble with shame afterwards. I ran through cycles of overeating and under-eating, and while I haven’t gone through a period of serious self-starvation in over a decade, for a long time I thought about food constantly. Making peace with my body has been an incremental and ongoing process of relinquishing numbers and learning to trust that my stomach, brain, and nervous system to give me all the information I need about my own hunger and satiety.

A few months after I bought the bikini, I came home one afternoon to find an adjustment letter from the IRS in my mailbox. According to their records, I owed nearly two thousand dollars from earnings not disclosed on my 2012 tax return. Sweating in the thick Virginia heat, I stared at the letter with terrifying incomprehension. I had just graduated from grad school and planned to move to New York City the next week. I needed every dollar of my savings to make the transition possible; there was no room for an unfathomable tax bill. I (embarrassingly) called my dad to see if he could explain what might have happened.

As it turned out, I had failed to include a 1099 for an UTMA account in my name. My parents had dutifully sent me all the paperwork for the college savings account and I’d just… never opened it. Most embarrassingly of all, I had thrown out the 1099 I now needed to prove that the extra funds the bank reported to the IRS were not taxable earnings. Cleaning out my room the week before, I’d tossed all the old paperwork I’d been carrying from apartment to apartment.

Blessedly, though, I hadn’t yet got around to taking the bags of paper to the recycling center on campus. Buried between yellowing receipts and school papers, I found the tax form in question.

I was ultimately able to prove that I didn’t owe two grand to the IRS, but the whole debacle shone a spotlight on my staggering financial irresponsibility. At 24, I felt extremely lucky that generous scholarships and stipends had spared me from student debt, but that didn’t mean I was good with money. Not only did I not understand my tax return, I moved money recklessly between my savings and checking account, never paying too much attention to the balance of either until it neared zero. Vintage dress purchases and unplanned weekend trips were sometimes followed by guilt, but mostly I just figured it’d all work out.

After the IRS scare, it became increasingly clear that my erratic spending patterns weren’t going to fly on a nonprofit salary in one of the most expensive cities in the country. So began my period of reckoning. For the first time, I tallied up my monthly expenses and made a loose budget. I read up on credit scores and IRAs. It took quite a bit of tinkering to come up with a system that works for me, and I’ll no doubt continue to adjust the system as my financial situation changes.

For now, I have a series of spreadsheets — one for tracking every payment and purchase I make over the course of a month, another for the freelance money I earn apart from my day job, and a third for tracking my IRA contributions. I also use a budgeting app to set general guidelines for each month’s spending. I know the app makes the spreadsheets redundant, but for now I’m keeping both systems because it gives me an odd sense of comfort to enter every little thing in my Google sheets. There’s something obsessive about it, but I like that.

The same precise attention to inputs and outputs that was so destructive to me as a teenager is actually quite useful when applied to my finances. When I was 16, control meant wasting away. Now it means fattening up my retirement accounts. To arrive at a place where food is pleasurable and nourishing, where a cute two piece swimsuit is no big deal — to arrive at peak bikini brain, that is — I had to learn to eat intuitively, focusing on what my body wanted and needed. My financial intuition, as it turns out, is not so strong, so I turned my financial management over to the part of my brain that keeps tabs. With an app for everything, I research new budget and investment apps with interest and avoid fitness trackers like the plague.

My budget is not like my diet, and for me, that’s a good thing.

The first time I actually wore the bikini was on an excursion to Coney Island. It was a gorgeous day, warm and bright but not too humid. As I slathered sunscreen on my paper-white midriff and shoulders, I marveled at the volume and variety of human bodies on display across the beach. Then I headed for the ocean in my new bikini. And I felt fine, just fine.

This article is part of our ‘Summer Series’ collection. Read more stories here.

Molly Jean Bennett is a writer and hobbyist crafter based in New York City. By day, she works as the assistant to an oral historian.

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