I first learned the word
miser in elementary school when my older brother played the role of a “town miser” in his middle school play.
I must have liked the term (or my brother’s character), because I latched onto it and became the Town of Davidson’s first 3rd grade miser.
Little did I know, this stinginess that I developed at a young age, under the guidance of my dad and his timeless money lessons, would become incredibly valuable over a decade later when I moved from small town Davidson to New York City to start my career.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, the cost of living in New York City for a single person is about $3,600 a month.
And that’s an optimistic estimate, considering the data accounts for the New York metro area, which encompasses more than just New York City — particularly if you’re a single person living in Manhattan, you may need to budget more for rent and food.
That’s me: A single, Manhattan resident.
While I earn a salary now, my first five months in Manhattan were spent on the intern grind, stretching a $12-an-hour paycheck.
That means, if I worked the maximum I could — 40-hour weeks — my salary would be $1,920 a month, and that’s before taxes. On average, I brought home about $1,700 a month from my internship, plus another $350 I made teaching tennis on the side.
At the time, I was fairly oblivious to the egregious cost of living estimates — which, in hindsight, was probably a very good thing. All I knew was that expenses would be tight, and I’d have to find a way to make it work.
Making it work boiled down to a simple formula: Spend less money than I make.
Sure, I was already a very conscious spender, thanks to my miserly childhood days, but I needed more of an airtight plan to guarantee that more was going into the bank account than coming out. That’s where “The Spreadsheet” comes in.
My strategy was nothing complex or revolutionary — it was a basic Microsoft Excel document that detailed and broke down my income and my expenses by category, down to the cent. At the end of each day, I simply opened my spreadsheet and recorded everything that I bought.
Every other week, I added in any income I gained, and did a quick tally of my expenses to ensure I was on track to stay within my monthly budget. At the end of each month, I would fill in my total income, tally up all of my expenses, and calculate my net savings for the month and overall year.
What started as a simple way to stay afloat in Manhattan became incredibly valuable — and surprisingly liberating — for a few reasons:
1. I quickly realised how easily expenses can add up by writing them down. This awareness helps you check yourself when spending, and you become more purposeful with every purchase.
2. It challenged me to lower my costs each day, week, and month. Recording expenses almost becomes a game, and you start to see how many days in a row you can spend $0, or under $5. You also start to dread having to record unnecessary or silly expenditures you made at the end of the day.
3. It gave me a sense of freedom when it came to spending. It took me a while to fully grasp this concept. For a while, I regarded nearly every expense as unnecessary or a “want” — I spent on nothing, which didn’t allow me to do, experience, or live, which is half the reason you move to New York City in your 20s. With a detailed breakdown of my income and expenses in The Spreadsheet, I could see exactly how much money I did have to spend, and then I could determine what expenses were most important to me. I became more and more comfortable with spending on “good things,” which for me, mostly meant buying quality instead of volume purchases and paying for memorable experiences.
Much of the reason I was able to stay under budget every month and still enjoy New York City’s dining and night life scene is because of the conscious spending habits I had developed from those miserly elementary school days. I was spending money, but I wasn’t doing it aimlessly. Each expenditure had a specific purpose — it was either a basic necessity (food or the water bill), or a “want purchase” that I had thoroughly thought through and could buy without guilt.
Today, I’m making more than $12 an hour, yet The Spreadsheet lives on — a new salary didn’t seem reason enough to abandon trusty habits.