Confession. I have no desire to live an uber-frugal life.
Bulk freezer meals and DIY projects play no part in my desired future.
I don’t care if that means I can’t retire by age 40, I’d much rather work the rest of my life doing what I do now than resign myself to ramen noodles and staycations for the next 50 years.
You see, I live in New York City. And I absolutely love it. From overpriced cocktails to obscenely expensive apartments, living the big city lifestyle has always been a priority.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think a love of anything is a good enough excuse to live beyond your means. I may want to live like Carrie Bradshaw, but there’s no way I’m going to let myself go broke doing it. I am a personal finance writer after all.
That said, my end game isn’t to spend as little money as possible. It’s to afford a lifestyle I love – even if that means a little extra indulgence.
Whether your idea of indulgence is living in New York City, enjoying artisanal cocktails, or something else entirely, don’t let the DIYers, the early retirement crowd or anyone else shame you out of it. Because true frugality isn’t about living as cheaply as possible, it’s about maximizing value, and the only way to do that is build a lifestyle around your priorities – not someone else’s.
If your priorities look more like Carrie Bradshaw’s than George Costanza’s, no judgment.
Mine do too.
The good news is there’s a way to enjoy the finer things and be mindful of your financial future. Here’s how.
What Do You Want?
It seems like the most obvious question, but when I ask people what they want their life to look like 5 years from now, they struggle to answer.
It’s relatively easy to set goals for the next week, month or year, but when it comes to longer timelines, think 5 years plus, goal setting becomes more challenging. Probably because we’re rarely, if ever, asked to consider our longer-term goals. When we do, it forces us to think about the bigger picture, our values and priorities, as opposed to practical improvements upon our current circumstances.
If my ideal 5 years from now is living in Brownstone in SoHo while jet setting around the world every other month to work and vacation, I’m going to need to set very different goals in the next 12 months than if my objective were to buy a house in the suburbs and have two children.
The value of thinking about what you want longer term can help you define your priorities and use them as a compass when setting goals in the present.
It can also help you define the trade offs that will help you afford your ideal. In the case of my downtown Brownstone dream, not having to consider the formidable expenses of owning a car or having children frees up ample resources, namely time, money and energy, to afford the Carrie Bradshaw lifestyle I dream about.
What Can You Afford?
As much as forgoing car ownership, a wedding and even children might save me, I’ll admit, there’s still a major gap between my means and the costs of my dream lifestyle.
Just how much of a gap? Well, that requires getting down and dirty with the numbers. If you’re serious about making your dream life a reality, you too need to get real about the numbers that will make it happen.
Start with that 5 year vision of what you want. Now put a price tag on it. How much does every aspect of that dream cost? For example, the rent on the brownstone, the weekly Sunday brunches, the daily happy hour, the walk-in closet wardrobe.
It can be daunting to put numbers on your dream life, if only for the sheer overwhelm of the totals, but it’s the best thing you can do to bring yourself one step closer to living that ideal.
Once you’ve got some price tags on your dream, divide it by 5 or however many years you want to give yourself to achieve it. Now divide by 12. That’ll give you a tangible metric for how much you need monthly to afford that lifestyle.
With that number in mind, take a look at your monthly income today. I’m guessing it’s not quite in alignment with the cost of the dream life you just calculated. No worries, you have 5 years to figure it out.
For starters, you can look for ways to boost your earning potential. Whether it’s asking for a raise, cultivating additional income streams or a combination of both, getting aggressive with your income is one of the best ways to afford your dream lifestyle.
You can also take a look at your current spending. If there are any big ticket purchases in your dream life, like a house or a trip around the world, you’re probably going to need to start saving for those things NOW. Where can you make trade offs in your current spending to start saving for those big picture ideals?
Finally, you’ll probably have to prioritize. I know no one likes to cut back, but if you’re going to live your dream life without going broke, you’re going to have to be honest about the reality of your means. So take the elements of that dream life and their associated costs and rank them in order of importance to you.
That’s not to say you’ll have to kiss your secondary priorities goodbye, it just means identifying which elements of your dream life are most important and saving up for those things first, before moving onto the those that are lower down your list of priorities.
What Do You Need?
As you’re spending time dreaming about your future self and all the indulgence you’re planning to afford, it’s also critical to make sure you’re considering your needs today.
And I don’t just mean needs in terms of food and housing basics. I mean needs in terms of your financial outlook – paying down debts, building up savings and prioritizing investment contributions.
Affording a lifestyle you love doesn’t happen by pushing your financial needs to the backburner, it happens by putting them at the top of your priority list. Making them as non-negotiable as your rent or insurance premiums.
Just as you put a price tag on all the elements of your dream life and broke it down into a digestible monthly cost, do the same for your financial life. If you have any debts, calculate what you can contribute in addition to your minimum monthly payment to get that balance down to zero. If you’re building savings, how much do you need to contribute monthly to fully fund 6 months worth of living expenses in emergency savings? If you’re investing, how much would you need to contribute each month to max our your 401k and/or ROTH IRA contributions by the end of the year?
I know it’s not as sexy as dreaming about your dream home or future vacation plans, but it’s the foundation upon which you build to afford those more exciting things without putting your future self at financial risk.
After all, who wants to take a fabulous trip around the world only to come back thousands of dollars in debt and stressed out for the next 5-10 years. That’s a trade off I’m certainly not willing to make.
Hacking the Rest
Between your current costs, your financial needs and your someday goals, there’s A LOT to squeeze into your financial plan. Making more helps, as does prioritizing your list of dream items and costs, but what about the rest?
Should your kiss your dreams of weekly mani/pedi pampering goodbye?
You could, or you could figure out how to hack the costs. Just because something is considered a luxury, doesn’t mean it can’t be done affordably.
From scoring high end fashions for half the price at local thrift stores, to getting haircuts and color for free as a hair model at local training salons, there’s almost always an alternative for scoring your lifestyle luxuries on the cheap.
So take a look at all those elements of your dream life again and research three to five ways to hack the costs of each. You’d be surprised what a simple google search will reveal. You may even find savings strategies that let you start incorporating those luxuries into your lifestyle today.
Here are just a few of my strategies for big living on a small budget to help kickstart your brainstorm:
Hit the farmer’s market in the last hour of the day when farmers are more likely to discount their remaining supply of high quality, local produce.
Opt for lunch instead of dinner when scheduling your meal splurges to cash in on midday discounts. Oh, and don’t forget happy hour!
Barter for high-end fitness classes by offering to help with pre-class set up, post-class cleanup or front desk sign in.
Plan your world travels around people you know so you have a free place to crash when you arrive (and an insider’s guide to the destination you’re visiting). If you’re feeling a little adventurous, you could always try couchsurfing.
Check Groupon and other local deal sites for steep discounts on all kinds of indulgences from sunset sails to massage treatments.
Are the ideas flowing yet?
The more creative you get in your approaches, the more of your lifestyle luxury you’ll find you can afford.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, financial planning isn’t about sacrificing everything today for the sake of tomorrow (as it so often seems). It’s also not about running up a massive credit card bill for a pair of Louboutin’s at the expense of your future either. It’s about making financial decisions with equal consideration for both.
So set aside the time to sit down and define what your priorities are today and tomorrow. If they include a few total unnecessary, Carrie Bradshaw-like indulgences no shame, as long as you learn to afford them!
Bio: Stefanie O’Connell is a millennial money expert, author and creator of the free Cash Confidence Challenge, helping women take ownership of their finances to afford a lifestyle they love!
What is your dream life? What are you doing so that you can live your dream life and not go broke?