What It's REALLY Like To Be A Serial Spender

Photographed by Amy Harrity.
Millennials and money — the dreaded “M” words. The media can’t make up its mind about how we choose to spend, save, or rack up debt. Are we more money-conscious than our parents’ generation, or do we plan on retiring on our overdraft fees?

Surprisingly, most 18-to-34-year-olds are “good financial planners,” according to investment outfit T. Rowe Price, with 67% using a budget to track expenses and many setting money aside for retirement. But that doesn’t stop overspending from becoming part of the cultural cost of being young in 2015, especially in super-pricey cities like New York. (Not that this is new: See, “My Misspent Youth,” New Yorker writer Meghan Daum’s 1999 take on the trend.) With ever-increasing tuition rates, a still-recovering job market, and the cost of living on the rise, swiping a credit card or depleting one's savings account in order to make ends meet has become the norm. And even seemingly minor expenses like mani-pedis, happy hour, and hitting up those Cyber Monday sales can add up.

It’s this toxic mindset of “minor” expenses — a dress here, a facial there — that’s led many to buy into the mentality of falling into debt. We spoke with seven young women about the true cost of their overspending habits.


Advertisement
1 of 7
Illustrated by Alex Marino.
When I moved to New York City at the age of 22, everything I wanted in life seemed only a credit-card swipe away. My unpaid internship at a hip-hop record label had placed me in the company of people twice my age and far beyond my income bracket. The peer pressure to fit in with coworkers despite our very different stages of life and finances was a constant quagmire of Faustian temptation. Pretty soon, I was selling my soul to the devil, i.e., the credit card companies.

The internship had its own advantages. There were upscale parties at the hippest lounges, court-side tickets to the Knicks, and backstage passes. In reality, though, my life was anything but glamorous. I was surviving off of $1 slices of pizza, microwaved food, and instant noodles while living on the couch of a family friend in Queens.

Fitting in at work events required an evening dress. Wisely, I chose a deeply discounted, simple, black Versace frock from the "damaged" section at Century 21. I patched together the ripped shoulder with shoddy stitches, but the dress made me feel like a million bucks. Still, wearing the same dress to events quickly grew old, and I found myself justifying more clearance purchases because they were “on sale.” The small buys quickly added up.

My closest friend at the time had a complicated relationship with money, which didn’t help matters. Her mantra was to "enjoy life in the moment" and worry about the debt later. Her attitude was infectious. When in the company of overspenders, overspend!

Pretty soon, I could justify any expense logically — or at least within my own logic. Enjoy youth, seize the day, YOLO, not FOMO. Not to mention the media was constantly selling the overspender lifestyle as whimsical and charming. It was the era when Sex and the City was huge, and whether you loved or hated the show, somehow the idea of being Carrie Bradshaw, immaculately dressed in New York City while living beyond your means, was an ideal.

Before I knew it, I was in over my head: splurging on nice meals and going on trips because my friends were dining at fancy restaurants and traveling, buying things I didn’t need, taking cabs instead of the train when I felt lazy. Life was good, but it was all at the price of high interest rates and debt I would eventually have to pay back. The few years of fun were followed by years of diligent hard work with plenty of FOMO and very little YOLO.

Years later, I only have one credit card, set aside for emergencies. It’s still hard to resist the peer pressure to keep up with the credit set (and the emotional satisfaction of retail therapy), but it’s now easier to draw the line. Live and learn. — Hanna, 27
2 of 7
Illustrated by Alex Marino.
Internet marketing has actually been the death of my budget. "Here's your in-store, 20%-off Bed, Bath, and Beyond Coupon." "It's time for Macy's One-Day Sale!" "Get free shipping with Amazon Prime." Or, one fatal word: Groupon.

My problem with overspending comes in the guise of saving. I recently tried Amazon Pantry and found myself buying more than I'd intended to in order to "fill the box," as Amazon suggested. I'd completed my order of all I'd meant to buy, but with 83% of my box still empty, what could I do but buy more? (Note: Amazon did not take into consideration using a smaller box.)

"One-Day Sales" are never truly one-day — not at Macy's, or at Sleepy's. If you wait until the following national holiday (or better yet, until you actually need a new box spring), there will be a sale. But how do you pass up the opportunity to own more things at a discounted price? You might not need it now, but you'll need it one day, right?

This mentality was perhaps ingrained in me by Great Depression-era grandparents and enhanced when I moved into an apartment with an extra closet ready to store extra things. And what if you don't need it ever? You should buy it anyway, as you'll find life so much simpler with it. Surely my problem with overspending is inextricably linked in a backward fashion with my frugality and planning for the future. It's also crammed in there with my addiction to stuff. I love the idea of living an uncluttered life in a tiny house no bigger than my cat's carrier, but in my reality, stuff equals memories and sentiment, and having more stuff means making important new memories. I know that's not true, just as I know that Sleepy's is bound to offer a discount on floor models come Labor Day. Still, I buy, buy, buy — fueling consumerism and keeping myself from saving any more this month than I did before my last pay raise.

New Year's Resolution: Ignore One-Day Sales. It's 2016; there's bound to be another one for the leap year. — Giacinta, 33
Advertisement
3 of 7
Illustrated by Alex Marino.
When I first moved to New York, I was an art director at a major magazine — but my salary was peanuts, and so hard to live on in the city. Being brand-new here, I wanted to experience all the city had to offer, so I found myself spending beyond my means to go out, shop, and eat well. It was part of the lifestyle at the magazine I worked for, and I didn’t want to say no. I really didn’t know what I was doing; I was in my early 20s, so I’m giving myself a pass, but I ended up in so much financial trouble that I shamefully had to ask for help from my parents. I wouldn’t have asked, but it felt like I couldn’t breathe — like I was below water. It was very hard to stay afloat. It was a really hard lesson to learn.

When I got promoted at a different company and got a raise, it was even harder to save; the temptation to spend was even higher. It wasn’t until I hit my late 20s / early 30s that I realized how truly important it was to keep a budget. I devised a spreadsheet in Google Docs to help me keep track of my expenses, and now I know where my money goes. I’ll still spend money, but I’ll look for better ways to save it — I love sites like Raise and EBates, which pay me back for shopping places I’d already shop, like Starbucks and Trader Joe's. I make sure my bills are paid on time, including my credit cards, which I am still paying off. I now get a thrill out of saving money. I’ve come to realize that I’m someone who will always like shopping, and will always like nice things — but now, I budget for it, instead of spending money I don’t have.

Unfortunately, I have a job in fashion that offers me a major discount, but only if I use my corporate credit card. I’m able to get Chanel, Céline, Gucci — all on huge markdowns. I know I’ll never be able to get stuff like that again, and it’s worth more than a Zara shopping spree. That’s been a major source of debt over the past year. I’m in the process of managing that budget as well, and I plan to never use it again when the day comes that I switch companies. — Jenny, 32
4 of 7
Illustrated by Alex Marino.
Overspending is the story of my life. In the past month, I've maybe spent around $8,000. I work in the advertising world, and I make a decent salary (over $100k), yet it's been incredibly hard to save here. Rent, food, shoes, vacations...it all adds up.

The worst part about my debt? A lot of it is spent on my boyfriend. Once, for his birthday, I got him a super-expensive gift, only to be dumped the following month. (We're back together now.) I spend most nights at his place, since he refuses to come to mine because I live so far uptown, meaning I basically live out of a bag seven nights a week — so I'm wasting the $2,000 I spend on rent each month, not to mention eating out all the time, since I'm not home making food. I've spent countless dollars on activities for us, like concerts, vacations, and events, only to have them canceled at the last minute due to his busy work schedule (he works in finance).

Most people probably wouldn't suspect this, knowing me (it's not something I really talk about), but it's becoming both an emotionally and financially stressful problem. I don't really know what to do about it, but I'm trying to work towards finding a way out. — Olivia, 29
5 of 7
Illustrated by Alex Marino.
I definitely have stories about overspending — and enormous credit-card debt to prove it.

My first job in NYC was at a literary agency, where I made $23,000. I babysat and tutored on the side, but my rent was $1,500 at the time, since I'd moved in with a cousin rather than trying to navigate an unfamiliar city alone. I racked up about $20k in credit card debt, which I eventually paid off.

But I'm still generally overspending constantly, and struggling not to accrue too much debt. It's tough paying expenses associated with caring for the dog I bought in my marriage (when I had a joint income), as well as attempting to pay off student loans while paying NYC rent (mine's reasonable at $1,000) on a middling publishing salary. I would say I have $1,300 of expenses (debt- and dog-related) on top of rent per month, on a $55k salary. It sucks. I have to get very creative in order not to overspend. — Anne, 31
6 of 7
Illustrated by Alex Marino.
One of my first jobs working in New York was as a contractor in advertising, and I totally underestimated how much I’d owe in taxes. Getting a check each week for around $2,000 was intoxicating — as were the Zaras, Madewells, and other shops on my walk home through Soho. I was 25 at the time, so I try to give myself a break, but I made so much money that year (more than I make now), and I don’t have a dime to show for it. Whenever I’d go out with friends, I’d treat them to dinner or drinks, feeling as though money was free-flowing for the first time in my life.

I ended up owing $8,000 in taxes, which wiped out my savings account. It was also the first year I ended up getting a credit card, which only added to the spending sprees. I realize now that I was really unhappy with a lot of things in my life — I was recovering from the death of my mother — and was using overspending as a way to cope. I want to say I’ve gotten better at it (my lower salary has forced me to), but I now work for a major fashion brand, where we get a huge discount — but only if you use your company credit card. That’s probably my only debt right now, but I’ve definitely spent beyond my means.

As I enter my 30s, I’m starting to realize how much more satisfying saving up for major purchases can be. Most of those Zara clothes are now falling apart at the seams, or totally outdated. The memories I have from traveling, or the feeling I get when I know I’m possibly saving up to buy a house? Way more worth it. — Meredith, 28
7 of 7
Illustrated by Alex Marino.
At my first reporting job out of school, I was paid a $23,000 annual salary, which was about $350 a week. It was my first time living away from my family, and since I couldn't afford plane tickets home to visit, I charged them. Every two weeks, I ran out of money and used my credit card to get me to my next paycheck. My car overheated; I charged that. I had a cavity and had to charge that. There was no extra money for life's emergencies, and certainly nothing to be social with.

I racked up about $7,000 in debt. I'm still paying it off. But I really don't know how I could have done it differently. College students acquire debt through student loans, and it's "justified" because the hope is that the education will pay off. I guess that’s how I look at it as well. I am finally in a place where I do not use my credit cards anymore. — Carly, 28
Advertisement