How I Cut My Spending By 50%

The idea of drastically curbing my spending in October was already on my mind in August. I knew September was going to be expensive — I was traveling to Denmark and Sweden for a week, and I was throwing a bachelorette party for my best friend in Savannah, GA, as well as preparing for her early-October wedding (which meant buying plane tickets and securing hotel rooms, along with other miscellaneous expenses). I could already see my funds diminishing in front of my eyes, and I wasn’t okay with it. I had a goal for what I wanted to save by end of year, and this high-spending month was not helping. So I challenged myself to cut my average expenses in half for the month of October.

The first step was to figure out exactly how much I normally spend. I looked back at my expenditures from June through August using this money workbook (I had decided to exclude the crazy numbers of September since they weren’t typical) and learned that my average monthly flexible spending was $1,025. Most of this money went to food and drinks; by cutting it in half, my October flexible spending budget would be $512.50.

Disclaimer: These figures don’t include my fixed expenses — rent, bills, insurance, unlimited subway card, and a monthly donation of $10 to my alma mater.

With a budget in place, it was time to start saving.

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Week One (October 1-3):

The first step was looking at my monthly recurring payments and deciding which ones were worth keeping. First, there was my gym membership. I have ClassPass, and it has an option to put your membership on hold for $19. I decided to take advantage of that offer, and check out other gym options that would cost less than the $125 monthly membership. The next recurring fees were Netflix and Spotify Prime. I was in the middle of binge-watching all of Criminal Minds and decided I wasn’t ready to let that go, but I did cancel my Spotify Prime account for the month — saving $10 off the bat.

I was staying at my parents’ house for the week, since my best friend’s wedding was in my hometown. As a result, I saved a lot of money on food, but I also went out to see my high school friends, which meant buying drinks and dinner. I’m from North Carolina, which is cheaper than New York, so sticking to a budget was pretty easy.

Weekly spending total: $61.99. I was off to a strong start.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Week Two (October 4-10):

My best friend’s wedding was on October 4. I had already bought my bridesmaid’s dress, my wedding gift, and paid for the hotel room where we stayed the night before the big day. But there were still a few last-minute costs. I bought snacks that morning for the bride and bridesmaids, treated the bride and groom to an Uber to the afterparty, and bought a couple rounds of drinks.

I was supposed to fly back to NYC on October 5, but my flight was canceled. I rebooked a flight on October 6. The good news: I didn’t have to pay for breakfast thanks to the free vouchers Delta gave me to apologize for the cancellation. The bad news: I didn’t have time to go the grocery store before rushing to work. Instead, I did the worst thing: I ordered Seamless for lunch ($15.75). And dinner ($11.34). (I know, I know, but I was so tired.)

I promptly bought groceries for the rest of the week for about $30, so I could curb my food spending going forward. I was pretty tired after the wedding, so I cut back on after-work activities — but I did go to dinner with friends one night that week and saw Steve Jobs. I took a few cost-cutting measures, using $8 Regal Theater passes from Costco, and packing snacks instead of buying concessions.

Weekly spending total: $107.72.
Month-to-date total: $169.71. Two weeks down and I’m feeling pretty good.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Week Three (October 11-17):

Welcome to the halfway point, when I started to get really antsy. That Sunday, I participated in one of the best free weekend activities in the city — Open House New York. After a full day of activities, I went to a friend’s place to watch movies, and six of us shared a couple of pizzas. I spent only $5 on Sunday. So far, so good, but things were about to get rocky.

I decided to go old-school and use paper coupons (printed out from online) to save money on food, bringing a week’s worth of groceries to $23.26. I made all my lunches and dinners, but I ended up going out a lot. With the baseball playoffs on (go Royals!), Tuesday night I joined friends at a local bar to watch the game — and spent $9 on one beer. On Wednesday, I went to family dinner — it’s a tradition I have with six of my closest NYC friends, where we try a new restaurant every other week. This Wednesday, it was my friend Katie’s turn to pick the restaurant, and it was her birthday. So on top of the dinner, presents were also involved, totaling about $57.

The celebrating didn’t end there: She had a ’90s-themed birthday party on Friday, where we danced all night and ended up at IHOP. Truth: I can never resist late-night pancakes. We wrapped up the evening at 3 a.m., and no one wanted to take the train, so we decided to cab it home. To save money, we used the Gett app. It has a $10 flat fare anywhere in Manhattan south of 110th street, so my roommate and I split the cost and walked the few blocks from 110th street to our apartment.

I told myself I shouldn’t do anything that involved spending money for the rest of the weekend. My intentions were good: I woke up Saturday morning and headed to an independent bookstore that was giving away free breakfast (every few months or so they do it as a treat to the community), but I ended up buying a book — bookstores are my budget’s kryptonite.

Finally, the previews for Bridge of Spies were so good, my roommate and I decided to go on Saturday. We once again used $8 Regal passes, but this time we didn’t pack our own concessions. Yes, I write this with guilt, but I spent almost $20 on a movie theater pizza and drink.

Weekly spending total: $149.39 (the most to-date).
Month-to-date total: $319.18. At this point I was still feeling pretty confident, but I still had two weeks to go.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Week Four (October 18-24th):

After the shame of spending $20 on crappy movie-theater concessions, I decided to spend Sunday laying low. I kept things simple for lunch and dinners this week — grilled chicken, or cheese and crackers, and lots of side salads. A simple menu and coupons meant I could get a week’s worth of groceries for $16.74. We found a bar with a great happy hour where we could watch the Royals beat the Jays, so beers were only $4 (in NYC, that’s a great deal). I also went to a goodbye dinner for a friend leaving the city, but she knew about my story and picked a cheap place.

This week, I became very aware of a universal truth: Whenever you can’t spend money, you want to spend all the money. Naturally, I decided I wanted to revamp my bedroom. I dedicated the weekend to DIY projects, and researched the best and cheapest options for the upgrade. I decided to focus on two points — my bed and all the books in my life. I found a white bookshelf for $30.54 that I managed to build myself, and then I bribed a friend to help me move it into my room. I decided a new duvet and accent pillow would make a huge difference. I researched dozens of websites, and joined as many email memberships as possible to get discounts (hey, that is what email filters are for), and got both pieces for a total of $41.62.

The last thing I needed was frames for the art I had collected, which always seem to be the most expensive items. This would add in another $80, which is way more than I planned to spend, and would totally blow my budget. Instead, I asked around to see if any of my friends had some spare frames. Guess what? They did! I just had to buy spray paint to give a couple of these frames a revamp.

The home makeover reduced my remaining budget by $77.16, but I was pretty impressed with the results after only a few small changes.

Weekly spending total: $128.97.
Month-to-date: $448.15. The end was in sight.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Week Five (October 25-31):

I had one week to go and $64.43 left. Talk about a challenge. Desperate times call for desperate measures: I decided to make a big batch of crockpot chili (all ingredients cost about $9), which covered most of my meals. For the rest, I went with the tried-and-true classic: peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. I needed a couple things for my Halloween costume, which cost $25. I was pretty in love with my new room, so it was extra motivation (even beyond the challenge) to stay in.

The one exception was joining friends for a couple beers and another World Series game Wednesday night. This is when it hit me that Halloween was going to be tough — I had $9.97 left, with three days to go. On Thursday, I spent zero dollars, thank goodness. I attended an open-bar Halloween party on Friday night, which meant I could enjoy the holiday without spending a penny. But the saving grace might have been the friend who used my referral code on Gett. I received a $30 credit, which meant a free ride home from the party. My friends and I decided to keep things low-key on Saturday, and just watch movies and make brunch. I had to contribute only $7 for brunch ingredients, and there were enough leftovers for dinner.

Total Monthly Spending: $509.61.
To everyone's surprise, including at times myself, I ended the month with $2.89 to spare.

What about November?

The challenge wasn’t over yet, though. Was this budget maintainable? There were some things that I desperately wanted at this point but had put off buying. During the challenge, the temperature started to drop, and I needed to stock up on new tights for the season. Since black tights are my winter staple, I put together some really interesting outfits in the meantime. Not having such a rigid budget would have helped there.

But there were definitely habits from October that I need to carry over. I’m way too dependent on Seamless, and need to follow our Associate Food Editor Zoe’s steps by making more of my own meals. During the challenge, I researched everything that I spent money on. I even looked at restaurant menus days in advance to figure out what was the best deal. I found there's a much cheaper gym near me that would be more convenient than ClassPass. This extra research is something I need to make a habit.

Some expenses had to come back, though. Like Spotify. Considering I spend at least an hour a day underground on the subway, I activated my account as soon as I woke up on November 1. I was privy to way too many awkward subway conversations during the month of October. I’m all for saving money, but some sanity-saving measures are definitely worth the cost.

I added the extra $500 I amassed to my regular savings for the month, and added both to my savings account. I can't guarantee I'm going to stick to this budget every month (especially with the holidays coming up), but now that I know I can do it, I'm definitely going to try to stick to this budget more often.

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