Welcome to “Scrimp City“—an anonymous, week-in-the-life chronicle that provides a real-world look at women who are trying to save money—across a range of pay scales and industries. Each installment dives into one woman’s progress toward one overarching savings goal, and breaks down where she saves and splurges while navigating a career, planning for the future, and still making sure there’s something leftover for snacks.
In this edition of Scrimp City, we meet a research technician who is in the process of applying to graduate school and used to living a frugal lifestyle—until those Cyber Monday deals came about. In this week’s challenge, she tries coming back financially from a holiday splurge that cut into her gifting budget. Here’s how she managed to get past the guilt of it all.
Meet Our Saver:
Job title: Research Technician
Location: Long Beach, CA
Monthly salary (after taxes): $2,700
Monthly rent: $800
Housing arrangements: I live with my parents and we split rent. I pay for a little bit more than half the rent.
Estimated total monthly fixed expenses: $1,320
Total debt: $7,500
My relationship to money is …
“Filled with anxiety. I feel like I’m constantly calculating in my head how much I have in my bank account. “
How to sum up me + money:
I try to be very pragmatic with money just because my parents have never been really good at saving. Ever since I can remember, they’ve always lived paycheck to paycheck, and I don’t want to live that way. I try to have a cushion that will get me by for maybe like four months if I don’t have a job.
My current spending habits:
I have enough money to pay for my debts, my rent, and everything that I have to pay for. I’m within my budget, but I’m just frugal because I’m afraid that things might change.
How I got here…
How I’ve handled my finances in the past:
I’ve never had any major debt. I’ve had school loans, but those have been paid off. And I’ve had credit card debt, but it wasn’t that much. It was maybe like at most, $2,000.
When I was in college, I got through it thanks to scholarships and grants. They would give me X amount and it would have to last a whole semester and I would just make it work. Fall semester was easy because it was from September to December. And then in January I got my grant money dispersed again. Spring semester was always the hardest because that money is supposed to last from January up until August.
Once it came to summer time, I had absolutely no money. It was really hard for me to have fun over the summer. I would see friends going to Europe, or doing other fun things, and I couldn’t because I didn’t have money and I couldn’t really rely on my parents for that because they also didn’t have any money. I think that’s why I am the way I am: frugal to the nth degree.
Why I’m trying to save…
My money goals:
I’m planning to go to grad school and for the programs that I’m trying to get into, they give you a stipend, but the stipend is a lot less than my current salary. That’s why I’m saving money! I want to grad school, have that stipend, and still have this other money I can rely on. I want to have $10,000 saved by the time I enter grad school and I would say I’m pretty close to meeting that mark.
The only thing I would have to work on is make sure I don’t dip into those savings. That’s the goal: Save + don’t touch it.
My budgeting tools (so far):
I used to use Mint, but it was a lot of work, categorizing some of your expenditures. Now instead I put aside money from each paycheck towards savings. Let’s say in a month I make $2,600. I will then make sure that I put away $200 so I only have left over is $2,400 to spend on gas, rent, groceries, lunch, and going out.
How I’m challenging myself this week:
I wasn’t supposed to spend money on Black Friday and Cyber Monday… But I did. I had made budget of $500 for Christmas gifts, and I spent $200 on myself. This week, I’m trying to make up for it by not eating out or buying lunch, and taking advantage of the free food that is offered at vendor showcases at the university.
How much I *usually* spend: $300
My *new* weekly budget: $250
Day One, Monday:
Cyber Monday got me. I spent $200 online shopping. I felt guilty about this: I was supposed to shop for Christmas gifts for my family, but most of the items I bought were for me. To be fair, I bought a lot of clothes and they all fit. I’m not returning anything. I also haven’t bought clothes since the beginning of summer so it didn’t feel that bad.
I also had to cover costs for the grad program applications (like $24 to have my transcripts delivered). I also spent $8 on cheese at Trader Joe’s. Do I normally buy whole blocks of cheese for myself? Nope. But I felt I really needed it to get through those grad school applications.
Day Two, Tuesday:
I spent $8 on lunch at the local farmer’s market. I know I could have bought something cheaper at the university hospital cafeteria but… that food is usually bland. I tried balancing things out by buying a $3 gallon of milk so I can have cereal the rest of the week.
Day Three, Wednesday:
Pumping gas is a necessity in California. Public transit…exists…but it’s not great. And my commute would double in time if I did anything but drive. I put $35 worth of gas in my car but I’m a bit upset about it. Gas usually lasts me at least a week and a half, but I must have gone through it much quicker. It only lasted a week! Oh, and I’m not a coffee drinker. At all. But today was especially hard to get through so you know what? Treat yourself. A little. And by little I mean a $2.14 cup of coffee. (I’m trying to be frugal, remember?).
Day Four, Thursday:
I told myself I wouldn’t spent a dime today and eat the healthy fruit snack I brought from home. But you know what? I gave in. I’m guilty. $3 on snacks. That is all.
Day Five, Friday:
I was in a car accident earlier this year and while I (thankfully) didn’t sustain any major damage, I’ve been going to physical therapy for a few months. My copay is $20 and while Iguess I could have skipped it, going helped me relieve some stress. I feel like my body is improving. When lunchtime came around I spent $7.50 on a lousy meal at the cafeteria. Cue the guilty feelings. I already know the food sucks. Why do I keep buying it?
Day Six, Saturday:
I spent the day in San Diego, a few hours away from Long Beach and I didn’t pack a lunch. Like, who does that when you’re out with friends? I thought I could get by with a few hours’ of downtime and…no snacks. But, nope. By lunchtime I was starving. The closest place was a fast food joint. $12 on an unhealthy meal. Oh well.
Day Seven, Sunday:
Given that I’m a pretty frugal person by nature, it stings anytime I have to actually spend money. Since I live with my parents, I try my best to pay for groceries and other household items. I don’t want them worrying about those bills. But even then, I can’t say I don’t get sticker shock when the final bills comes around. I spent $110 on groceries for the three of us. I felt like I spent too much money. Like I could have been more frugal and found some ways to save us all some cash. I also covered the $8 bill for my sister’s pharmaceutical meds. It felt like I started the week blowing through my budget and coming full circle on Sunday again.
How much I saved by end of week:
Total Spent: $441.64 + Total savings: -191.64
Even though I spent all this money I wasn’t supposed to, I think it’ll be fine. If anything I earned it, I deserved it. I needed to treat myself I’ll find a way to make it up.
These past three months have been really, really hard. The whole process of applying to graduate school is really stressful. I knew it would be work, but it was so overwhelming at times to do while holding down a full-time job and taking care of family. Sure, there were things to check off (like taking my GRE), but simply the process of applying to grad school is really mentally demanding. And, for me, it’s very emotional. I started experiencing imposter syndrome. And from there, it just turns into this weird downward spiral.
All of this is to say that I haven’t been loving myself the way I should be loved these past few months. I haven’t been taking care of myself mentally and physically the way I know I should be. So, that’s that. I had all these plans to craft the perfect holiday budget to everyone else something for Christmas. I wasn’t thinking of myself. Maybe I was easy bait when those Cyber Monday emails popped up in my inbox. I gave in. It’d been months since I bought myself new clothes.
And you know what? Just kind of doing something nice for myself even though I didn’t plan it that felt nice. At the end of the day it’s gonna be fine. I’ve been reflecting and thinking about how I’ve been doing a good job saving money all year. So, one week of blowing it? It’s not really not gonna put a big damper on things. Now that I’ve submitted my applications and I’m done with everything, I feel like me spending $300 more than I was supposed to doesn’t matter, at the end of the day.
—As told to Theresa Avila