Recently, I simulated the lives of millions of Americans who earn minimum or nearly minimum wage and lived on an $8.15-an-hour salary for 30 days in New York City.
My experience was worlds away from the millions of Americans who live with limited income day in and day out — after all, I did have a safety net of savings and my challenge had a 30-day “timer” on it — but it gave me a small glimpse of what it’s like to make ends meet with limited income in an expensive city.
One of the biggest, most surprising takeaways had nothing to do with dollars, cents, or budgets: There is a lot of pressure to spend in social scenarios … and it’s hard to say no.
It seems painfully obvious now, but before living on $8.15 an hour — which allowed me $150 of discretionary spending money for the month after meeting living expenses like rent — I simply didn’t notice (or chose to ignore) how friends and family can influence your spending habits.
Sure, I was aware of how incredibly easy it is to spend money in a city, but what became more and more evident was how much pressure there is to spend. It’s not even the money itself that’s the problem. It’s the social stigma of opting out.
As I learned first-hand, it’s straight-up awkward to show up at a restaurant or bar and sip on a glass of water while everyone else is ordering beer and appetizers (that’s why I had never just ordered a free glass of water until last month). It was more awkward explaining why I wasn’t participating: “I can’t afford it.”
It turns out that I’m not the only one who has felt awkward or embarrassed in this situation. As Veronica Dagher of The Wall Street Journal reported, “Many people would rather struggle to pay off a large credit-card bill than utter the phrase ‘I can’t afford it.'”
During the month-long challenge, for the most part, I chose to utter the phrase, “I can’t afford it” (or I politely declined social gatherings), but not without realising how easily outside pressures can get you to spend money that you don’t have — unintentionally, your friends and family can wreck your budget. Case in point: My best friend’s birthday party ate up over half of my $150 monthly budget and left me with a mere $34 of spending money for the remaining 2 1/2 weeks of the 30-day challenge.
Looking forward, I’ll keep in mind that, one, it is OK to say no to certain social gatherings. Two, it’s equally OK to say yes, socialise without spending any money, and focus on the company around you rather than the consumables.
That being said, my month taught me it’s much easier said than done.