The title of this post is a little misleading, since this is less a top ten list of ways to cut down on costs and ramp up saving (there are tons of those out there), and more of a question about how much of that is good to do and how much is too much. Can I save up for a round-the-world trip while still enjoying my life here in Chicago, or do I need to radically alter my lifestyle?
I’ve been planning to go on a round-the-world trip for several years now, and I’ve been putting money aside that whole time, but the amount has varied over the years. I’ve never had a special account for it; I just designate my savings account as the place I save for the trip. It’s a little scary how very basic my financial situation is (no stocks or bonds, a 401(k) with like a grand in it), and that 30 Rock episode a few seasons ago, in which Liz’s nearly identical financial situation is roundly mocked, hit a little close to home. Part of that lack of funds is because I worked in publishing for a couple years, and as anyone who ever copy edited can tell you, you lose money doing that in the first few years. So it wasn’t until recently that I was able to put aside a set amount each month, which really ramped up the saving.
I’ve worked the math a few times, and so long as my employment situation stays steady and major disasters are kept at bay (knock on wood), I should be able to make my goal of $30,000 next August, and then I’ll be off. I’m proud of my ability to save more than I made at my first office job, but on the other hand, I don’t have any dependents, I live in a pretty affordable part of town, and I’ve been supposedly saving for years. Couldn’t I have saved more, faster? Where did it all go?
The answer is: it all went into my life. I’ve been spending my money on enjoying my time here in Chicago, and that has slowed down the saving noticeably. I’ve gone back and forth on whether this is the right way to do it, and usually I think it is. Several years ago, at the end of college, my then-boyfriend and I were considering taking this trip together, and we argued over how to go about it. I wanted to hoard all our pennies as quickly as possible, so we could be on the road right away. He wanted to explore the city we’d be moving to and have enough money to enjoy it fully. He didn’t want to have to miss hanging out with friends because they were going to a bar and we’d only budgeted two beers each that month. What’s the point in saving for fun if it means not having any in the meantime?
Now I think he was mostly right. I should have been saving more aggressively in the last couple years, when my salary got to a comfortable, reliable point, but otherwise I don’t have regrets about the way I’ve been going about it. I like being able to go out with friends and occasionally buy a round, or pick up the check on a dinner with a friend who’s a little cash poor at the moment. I think this kind of relative openness with money is healthy for friendships, much better than everyone counting out their share to the decimal and holding grudges against those who deviate. (Of course, it’s a different story when people between jobs or in a different economic stratum are in the mix, in which case common sense and compassion should reign.)
I also think a general kind of karma is involved. When I was a broke 18-year-old in Berlin, two Australians bought me a drink in a cafe and we spent the afternoon chatting about our travels. I offered to pay my share, but they were several years older, on a break from good-paying jobs, and they cheerfully waved my money aside. All they required was that I pass the favor on later in my travels, when I was in a position to do the same for someone else. A simple pay it forward concept, sure, but that doesn’t make it less important, and why shouldn’t it apply in our daily lives as well as our more exotic travels? Not that I walk around peeling twenties off a giant roll I keep in my pocket, and it’s not that I’m doing any better financially than most of my friends and acquaintances, but it is a conscious choice about how to spend what I have at my disposal.
After all, generosity doesn’t save nearly so well as money, so sometimes you have to spend a little of both and trust that it’ll balance in the end.