The Importance of a ‘Don’t Be Boring’ Budget

Photo credit: Pablo BM, CC BY 2.0.

A little over two years ago, I acquired what I considered to be a “good job by comparison:” working client/customer service at an emerging internet company. I use the “by comparison” qualifier because my previous jobs up until that point included a stint as a dishwasher at Denny’s, a busboy at a college town Irish bar, a packer and shipper at a pornographic DVD warehouse, a customer support rep at a pseudo-scam daily website and several other equally illustrious positions.

This job wasn’t quite so bad as any of that. The workload was relatively light, I was on salary for the first time in my life making $35,000 to start, there were plenty of opportunities for bonuses, it came with health benefits, vacation days, a 401(k), and I even liked the people I worked with. For the first time in my life, I was able to wake up for work and not dread what was coming. Things were actually going pretty great.

Eventually the rose-tinted glasses began to fade. My primary job involved working with our customers rather than with our clients, which wouldn’t have been so bad except for the fact that we were a 100 percent client-friendly company. If a customer came to us saying that they had received an item that was misrepresented or simply broken, we threw our hands up and claimed that we were simply a technology provider. If a client reported problems with a customer, we suddenly gained the ability to moderate transactions.

There were other problems such as bad management, a brutal commute, the need to work weekends, and a general lack of interest in implementing real improvements, but ultimately, I came to realize that the biggest problem was me. I had reached a point in my life where I realized that the career path I was on was just not going to satisfy me. It was time to make a change.

Specifically, I decided it was time to pursue a freelance writing career.

When I ran this idea by my family and friends to make sure I wasn’t entirely out of my mind, nobody was really surprised. I’ve been writing in one way or another my entire life and had spent the last few years writing on the side for extra spending money. What bothered them was the suddenness of it all. They accurately realized that I had real plans, financially speaking. My dad — a lifetime hard-working blue-collar man — kept reminding me that it didn’t make sense to leave a job without having something else lined up.

He wasn’t wrong, but I saw my situation another way. After breaking down the numbers, I figured that my savings could carry me through about three months of basic expenses. That would buy me just enough time to contribute more work to the outlets I was already working for and hunt for new work on a full-time basis. If worst came to worst, I could always find another customer service job or even return to my old position (I made sure to leave on excellent terms). I calmed down any worrying parties close to me by informing them of all this and assuring them I had nothing to lose.

But that wasn’t exactly the truth. The truth was that I had no intention of going back to that job—or any other like it—in the near future. I had to make this work somehow, which meant finding the tightest budget possible. Like a passenger on a falling aircraft, I examined my spending habits as a gainfully employed individual and jettisoned absolutely everything that could go. So long, weekends eating out. See ya, gym membership. Goodbye, unlimited data phone plan. Adios, daily smoothies and iced coffees. Nice to know you, midnight showings at Nitehawk complemented by karaoke bar trips. Anything that wasn’t essential to my basic survival had to go.

At first, this arrangement worked out just fine. It allowed me to stay within my three-month security blanket and start pursuing the fabled notion of receiving monetary compensation for something that I enjoyed doing. Before too long, I was able to start making enough money to cover my basic expenses and not have to live off of my savings. Mission accomplished, right?

I certainly thought so, but it wasn’t long before I noticed some holes forming in my foolproof budget plan. See, I had chosen to specialize in freelance entertainment writing, which meant that I primarily wrote about the ways that people amuse themselves. At the same time, I had cut out every single thing in my budget that dealt with entertaining myself.

To put it another way, one of the primary reasons I decided to pursue a new career path was because I wanted to be able to answer the question “What do you do?” with something more substantial than a mumbling mention of my day job. The problem was that I never found myself in a position where that question even came up because I had removed many social elements out of my life.

My initial budget helped me to survive, but it also made me incredibly boring.

You know what the funny thing is? I knew this was going to happen. I knew that the consequence of removing these elements of my life was going to be a hefty new dose of boredom to deal with, and I was okay with that. I was doing something fiscally irresponsible, and my penance for that decision was to remove the things in my life that gave me pleasure.

What I didn’t anticipate was the way that this decision would affect my professional life as well as my personal life. Removed from the inspiration that comes when you actually get out in the world and experience new things with other people, I found it much more difficult to constantly generate creative ideas. Networking also took a hit, as it turns out that people who network solely with business on their mind don’t really get far in establishing meaningful connections. Worst of all, I was beginning to suffer from burnout. I was working as hard as I could just to stay afloat, and I started to lose sight of the little things that really make you keep working harder each day.

My “moment of clarity” came when an old work friend messaged me regarding a spare ticket to a Knicks game. The original ticket holder wasn’t willing to part with it for free, but would sell it for the greatly reduced price of $50. He asked if I was interested.

Immediately, I replied with a sorry and a hasty excuse about how busy I was at the moment. That wasn’t entirely accurate, but it did sound better than “I’m afraid that I’ve currently only budgeted $20 a week in spending money due to some unforeseen lost clients.” I wasn’t willing to share that truth with my friend, but they did share a simple truth with me that I desperately needed to hear at that time.

“Sorry to hear that,” he replied back. “It’s a shame we don’t get to see you any more since you left.”

I don’t believe that he wrote it with anger or even disappointment; it was a simple statement of fact. The reason it cut so deeply, however, was that it made me realize that I had passed up several other opportunities to meet up with him and others in the past out of budgetary concerns. In that moment, I realized that I had allowed my budget to justify my own fears of failure. It was a fingertip grip when what I needed was the strength to find a way to pull myself up and away from a precarious situation.

So I changed my answer. I told my friend I’d be happy to meet them, and I told myself that I would find a way to make the extra money somehow if need be. I paid the money, I went to the game, and I had fun for the first time in a long time, even as a part of my brain became a calculator keeping tabs on every expense I incurred during the evening. The numbers did a dance in my head as I fell asleep that night.

You know what happened the next morning? Nothing. I had indulged myself, and the world kept turning just as it did when I had passed up similar opportunities to go out in the past. Only this time, instead of waking up with a vague sense of regret, I had a newfound source of motivation. I woke up and started working, fueled by both the need to make some extra money and my recent reminder that I had something more to work for than just getting by.

Due to this increased sense of determination, I was successful in making up the additional money that I had spent that evening through a combination of “content mill” assignments and a couple of lucky breaks. At first, I still felt guilty about the Knicks game; I told myself that I would have extra money in my account had I managed to do this additional work without spending $50 on the tickets. Then I realized that I probably would have never found the reason to push myself harder had I not spent the money first.

From that point on, I created room in my expenses for a “Don’t Be Boring” budget. This new column was there to accommodate the $5 I spent on that book I’ve been wanting to read, the $20 art class, even the occasional $75 I spent going out with friends and letting things get a little out of hand. I was able to stick to my budgeted amount by making a few minor sacrifices in other areas (such as tighter meal planning). If I exceeded my budgeted amount, I raised the number I told myself I needed to earn that month and worked towards it.

That “Don’t Be Boring” column was really a way for me to keep tabs on the investments I made in myself. I quickly discovered that I was much better at my work when I found the time and money to do things with my life that made me a more interesting person. I wasn’t exactly traveling the world on a dollar a day, but these minor experiences still gave me an answer to the question “So, what have you been up to lately?” They allowed me to expand my creative mindset and become a more rounded person—and a more interesting person.

Professional benefits aside, I know now that my true mistake was believing that I somehow deserved to suffer over my decision to leave my previous job. Making sure you can get by is one thing, but nobody benefits from making themselves miserable over the fear that spending money will start them down a path from which there is no recovery.

Of course, I still carry that fear. I still worry that one day, everything will come crashing down, financially speaking, and a part of me knows that at that time I will likely start counting up all the little expenses that I could have technically done without in order to blame myself for the disaster.

But now that I have my “Don’t Be Boring” budget, I understand that this constant fear can co-exist with a sense of fun, rather than be at odds with it. A little worry about going too far keeps my spending in check. A commitment to investing in myself keeps my worry from being an insurmountable obstacle that stops me from living my life.

Matthew Byrd is a freelance writer at war with the notorious blank page gang. You can find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.

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