Your 20s are all about finding your footing. Finding a job, finding a place to live, and finding a financial plan that’s compatible with both your wants and needs. For a while, it really felt like I’d successfully done that: I had a job in my chosen field, though part-time, and was bartending part-time to make more money. I was able to comfortably pay my rent, pay off my credit cards each month, save, and experience little to no restrictions when I went out (within reason).
I was living the early 20s life: going out, actually using my degree, and having the freedom to be spontaneous. Since the job in my chosen field needed me more, I realized that if I wanted to make a serious push to be with this media company full-time, I was going to need to treat it like a full-time job. This meant quitting my side bartending job.
The decision was honestly a lot harder to make than you might think. I was getting enough hours at my media job to survive, but bartending gave me the feeling of real security. With the money I made bartending, I didn’t need to ever worry about bills or purchases that I might have to second guess if I were on a tighter budget. While I was excited to take the leap in my career, I was still a freelancer and much of my work depended on when full-timers were on vacation. I did the math, factored in the quality of life that would undoubtedly improve once I had only one job to worry about, and took the plunge. I quit the bartending job. It was scary, but I decided now was the time.
I was so excited to start this new chapter and to focus wholly on advancing my career. I hadn’t worked only one job since I graduated college, and not having to juggle two was a huge relief. Suddenly, I was hustling in an entirely different way. It was all for the work I loved, as opposed to hustling to fit a bartending shift in wherever I could.
I didn’t lead a particularly gLaMoRoUs life, so I figured the taking a hit money-wise wouldn’t be a big issue. Sure, I would have to cut back on my spending, but that was doable. When I was a bartender, I made the most money out of my friends which made cutting down easier. If they could only go out during happy hour deals and limit their purchased drinks to $2 PBR tall boys, then so could I.
It turned out that the leap of faith was worth it. I have been working full-time hours at my job for all but two of the weeks (since I left bartending), despite still technically being a “freelancer.” I can already say definitively that I made the right choice. However, I’m still only making about 60% of what I was before, and I’m glued to my work schedule when it comes out each week. I try to snipe as many hours as I possibly can to make more money. I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to curb the spending I was used to before, and it’ hard to accept that I have a different income with which to budget.
I got my credit card balances down to zero before I left bartending, because I knew that I might need it as a crutch during the transition period. But, shortly after that I realized I needed to renew my car insurance so my zero credit card balance quickly went up very high. I started kicking myself for purchase I made in the past and bemoaned paying for unexpected expenses like parking/speeding tickets, car repairs, etc. I was terrified that my cushion for financial stupidity was gone.
I’m still terrified, and I fear that one day I’ll make a major financial mistake I won’t be able to recover from. One late bill, one late ticket, one more unexpected car repair, and I’ll have to dip into the savings account I’ve worked so hard to build. But, that terror is slowly easing as I find my way through my new happy-but-less-wealthy life.
Here are a few things I’ve learned so far about adjusting to a tighter budget:
1. Never skip grocery shopping. I know this seems like a no-brainer, but I can’t stress it enough. When you’re making good money, it’s very easy to just grab something on your way into work, but that bagel, sandwich, or salad you’re paying for every day will add up. To sea money, pack a lunch for work or make yourself a meal at home before you meet your friends at the bar. The more food you make yourself, the better off your wallet (and health) will be. Not having groceries in the fridge is the easiest way to rationalize buying lunch at your favorite salad place (for $12 nontheless).
2. Pay more attention to the costs around you. When you’re not used to worrying about money, it doesn’t matter which gas station you go to or how much that double Grey Goose and soda cost. Be frugal. Find the cheapest gas station close by, get a rewards card with your grocery store, find gas discounts, etc. Ask your server if anything is on special when you go out to eat (quick PSA — never save $$$ by under tipping waitstaff…if you don’t have money to tip, you don’t have the money to go out).
3. Reevaluate monthly expenses. Ditch that awesome-but-overpriced gym you belong to with the salt water pool and lavender steam room? There are plenty of great options at a lower price point that can give you what you need. Reevaluate your insurance and cable plans. Ask yourself if you’re paying for things you don’t use/need. Adjust where you can. Make sure you’re getting what you need and nothing more.
4. Continue to splurge on yourself, but make sure it’s occasional (and within reason). This doesn’t mean you should buy that $300 Michael Kors purse you’ve been eyeing for six months, it means you shouldn’t cut yourself off completely. For me, a go-to splurge is a nice bottle of wine after a long week, which is modest but still a treat. Instead of denying myself something that makes me happy, I just look for something in a lower price range (for good deals check out Wine.com). I stay happy and my wallet stays full.
These all may seem like small adjustments, but if you fully commit to them they can add up and drastically change your spending habits. The adjustments don’t have to feel like you’re sacrificing too much. It was absolutely worth it to give up immediate income to pursue a long-term career which I’m continuing to build a strong foundation within. Even though I’ve had to cut back on my spending, my quality of life has skyrocketed.
Keara is a freelance writer and producer based in Washington D.C. She formerly worked at The Washington Post and now writes and produces at WTOP News. She is on Twitter.