What does 20% of a paycheck look like? The answer, of course, depends on the person earning the money. For some, a 20% cut would mean having to hail fewer taxis that month; for others, it's the difference between being able to take a hot shower in the morning or not. When I learned from truth that smokers earn 20% less than nonsmokers (and that's not even including the separate cost of cigarettes), it made me wonder where I'd fall on the spectrum above. I've always worked hard for the money I've earned (like my mom, who has rocked 35 years of perfect attendance at the same workplace), but despite how thankful I am and how hard I've worked, I acknowledge I'm privileged just to have a paycheck to experimentally cut. So armed with that understanding, last payday I calculated what 20% of my paycheck would be (h/t sixth-grade math class) and transferred that amount to my savings account, leaving me to figure out what (if anything) I could do afterward.
Here’s what I learned during those two weeks:
1. No matter how you cut it, 20% is a significant amount
Do numbers scare you too?
After paying my usual bills, would I even be able to do the challenge anymore? I honestly didn't know, so before attempting anything else, I immediately scrambled to take care of my obligations.
After all the usual student loan payments, utility bills, rent checks, and subway passes were deducted, I discovered I wasn't quite in the red (yet) — but the number staring back at me on the screen definitely wasn't the one I was used to seeing.*
Normally, I'd allow myself some extra spending money to go out with friends after a long week or treat myself to a nice dinner...but I quickly realized I wouldn't be able to do any of that.
I took a deep breath. Found my center. It was time, I realized, to start budgeting like the adult I pretended to be.
*"And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you." —Nietzsche
2. A happier wallet = a boring-er life
So long, luxury expenses
OK, I'll admit, I'm guilty of doing things to unwind after work that aren't exactly free: I like going to the movies, I don't mind paying monthly for media streaming plans, and on Wednesdays, I'll sometimes embrace my inner (and outer) nerd and go to the local comics shop to pick up some new issues. I wouldn't call myself "frivolous" though — I wait until my shirts have more missing buttons than functioning ones to go shopping, and I never rush out to buy the newest gadget.
But I'm no financial expert either. Even just picking up six or seven comics per month can cost around 30 bucks, so I had to skip my favorite weekly tradition altogether. Instead, I just went home Saga-less and sad. At least I was staying within budget and being responsible though?
From there, other things quickly dominoed: $15 movie tickets? Nope — would just have to avoid spoilers until next month. Monday-morning coffee stop? Adieu to you, necessary morning energy. And that beautiful new 4K video game? Well, I was banking on my roommate picking it up first anyway. I was beginning to realize how bleak my evenings were about to become.
3. Helping others is more difficult
Money: the great unifier
The immediate effects of a sliced paycheck on me were obvious, but I was surprised to notice other little things pop up I didn't think I'd have to budget for...such as birthday presents. My roomie's birthday was coming up, and while technically buying him a gift would be an unnecessary expense, I would have felt like a total jerk if I didn't get him anything (plus, I wanted to!).
My post-bills extra spending money wasn't just for personal, selfish things; it went to things I wanted to give friends and family to show I cared. Whether that took the shape of holiday presents, supporting someone's Kickstarter project, donating to charity, or paying the bill after a date (OK, admittedly, that last situation never arose during this challenge...), the 20% cut gave me far less freedom to choose what nice things I wanted to do or buy for others — and more than anything for myself, that sucked the most to have to give up.
4. The squad waits for no man
Self-diagnosed sufferer of FOMO
Still, friends are gonna do what they wanna do, and for some, no amount of convincing could make them stray from their plans. Throughout the challenge, I got a lot of texts/snaps asking what I was doing or trying to convince me to go out, which was funny because typically I'm the one who obnoxiously reaches out to everyone.
Overall, I learned it's best just to avoid answering or getting involved altogether. One excuse just leads to more back-and-forth and additional reasons to feel bad about not being able to go out, so if you just let it pass, no one will care later (except, maybe, you, if you're prone to bouts of FOMO).
Sitting at home instead of being out with friends, I did the most logical thing I thought to do: binge-watch TV. But binge-watching TV is only fun when you want to binge-watch TV. When you're at the end of your rope, it just becomes another chore, and I found myself scouring social media instead, watching what my friends were doing and feeling bummed I couldn't be with them.
In hindsight, there were plenty of other things I could have done, such as pick up a book I hadn't gotten around to yet, practice some mindfulness, clean the apartment, or go to bed early — but I fixated on what I couldn't do instead of what I could, which was ultimately my downfall.
5. The couch can be a lonely place
BRB, adding "cat whisperer" to my LinkedIn
Why even try tbh.
With my squad still doing its thing without me, I was left with no other choice but to attempt some sort of interspecies communication with my roommate's cats if I hoped to retain any of my former social skills — but from the start, I could tell it'd be a very one-sided endeavor. Grey seemed distracted the whole time while Maya so rudely snoozed off in the middle of my story. Clearly small talk was not their forte, but for some reason they had no problem cuddling up and using me as their pillow.
OK, so I didn't exactly put up a fight...but still, I was starting to miss my (human) friends.
6. Pasta la vista, takeout
Where I must finally confront my most shameful (and costly) luxury
Because I work with people internationally, I typically leave the office anywhere between 7 and 10 p.m., so the last thing I wanna do when I finally get home is find a recipe, buy ingredients, sauté X, [another cooking verb] Y, etc. I know it sounds petty (because it is), but I'd much rather just pick something up from a restaurant on my way home or place an order on one of three food-ordering apps and time it to arrive at my door at the same time I do. (I know, judge all you want — I already judge myself.) It's quicker, easier, and absolutely 100% tastier than if I were to cook. The only problem? It's a costly habit. So I dusted off some bowls, cracked open the spine of an old cookbook, and told myself I'd make the most incredible meal of my life from scratch.
OK, fine: None of that last part is true.
For lunches, instead of lazily buying a sandwich, I lazily just bought bread and lunchmeat and threw it together. No directions. No new skills. Easy enough. But previously, I had enjoyed the break in the day that going out to lunch allowed. Now, if co-workers asked what I was doing, I had to politely decline. While they went out, I was stuck in the office with a boring salami-on-rye.
And then it was dinnertime. No more time for half measures, I told myself — only full measuring cups.
In an effort to undo the wastefulness of 16-dollar-on-average food deliveries, I first revisited my cheapest and most reliable friend: ramen. It had been a while since we last saw each other, but we picked right back up from where we left off. Almost immediately, I was overcome by the familiar, seemingly unquenchable thirst I'd always experienced after slurping down a sodium-heavy bowl; nothing had changed, and nothing would ever change, between us. I never thought I'd ever rekindle this clichéd relationship, but there I was.
Unfortunately, I have a type, so the only moving on I did was to other types of pasta. Bow tie with tomato sauce. Fettuccine with alfredo. You get it. I couldn't help but to reminsice over Antonio and his pizzeria, the killer mozzarella sticks from the diner down the street (because who can actually cook mozzarella sticks at home without the cheese leaking out??), and the authentic bánh mì and bubble tea a few blocks down... I didn't truly appreciate these delicacies until they were gone.
At the end of the day, I would put on a movie I'd already seen a million times, slurp the salty broth of my ramen, and overload my Snapchat Story with pics of the cats. Who had I become?!
7. Wasting money sucks, period
This challenge forced me to confront all the ways I spend my extra cash, some of which, admittedly, are obviously downright wasteful (go ahead, judge away at my $16 food deliveries — I deserve it). If you're blessed enough to have a bit of extra spending money, sometimes it feels good to buy someone a gift or treat yourself to a nice dinner or be able to put some money toward your Hawaii fund — if you work hard, you deserve to play hard sometimes too — but if you're a smoker, you could be earning 20% less than your nonsmoking peers. That extra 20% could help pay off a loan or knock out a bill or, heck, go toward a night out with the squad. And now that I'd learned what nice once-in-a-while things I'd have to sacrifice, I didn't want to have to lose 'em again.
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