By Nina Semczuk
October 8, 2019

Travel almost clobbered my savings this summer.

Taking a cue from Shonda Rhimes’s bestselling book Year of Yes, I dubbed 2019 my own year of yes, but with one specific theme: travel. I vowed to say yes to any travel opportunity that came my way.

In January, I went to Philadelphia — very exotic, I know — and in February, I spent a hot and sunny 10 days scootering around Thailand. Weekends were earmarked for visiting friends and family in Boston, St. Louis, Phoenix, Atlantic City, Lake Placid, and other assorted U.S. cities.

A jaunt to France in June to see the Women’s World Cup was supposed to be the end of international travel for the year. I realized I had blasted through all my credit card points, and my financial goal of saving 30% of my income (aggressive, and probably unrealistic living in New York City on my salary) wasn’t happening, with so much of my money funneled toward plane tickets, Airbnbs, and lots of pastries.

Then in August, a friend invited asked me to join them in Germany the first week of September. A look at my credit card statement and bank account made the trip seem unattainable, and plus, I had already visited Germany once before. With no more saved travel money, I said no.

But my friend, who knew about my pledge for the year, invoked my year of yes and asked me if I was sure I couldn’t make it work.

So I thought about my priorities — and gave myself a daily allowance.

Determined to live up to my self-made pledge — while still keeping a healthy emergency fund — I sat down to run the numbers. To make it through the rest of the month without dipping into savings, I figured out the maximum amount I could spend. Then, to create my daily budget, I divided that number by the remaining number of days in the month. The total was $30 a day, for about three weeks.

Illustration by Janice Chang

Sticking to a daily budget was tougher than I thought.

Every day, the $30 number followed me around like a financial Patronus. Potential purchases would deplete my imaginary pile of money, so I started making more frugal choices.

For instance, a macadamia milk matcha (hi, my name is Nina, and I’m a millennial) would set me back nearly $6.50, but if I went to Dunkin Donuts for a regular cup of joe instead, it would cost me nothing for the day because I had loaded the app with $50 a few months ago when I was on a caffeine spree.

With the daily limit acting as a noose around my wallet, the little leaks I hadn’t noticed, like a mid-day cookie habit during the post-lunch slump, or a couple of drinks with dinners out, were suddenly stopped. Now the choice was between buying groceries for a few days, or two glasses of rosé.

Thirty dollars a day might seem like a lot, but living in New York City it’s actually harder than it seems — the joke is that you can’t walk outside without $20 disappearing from your wallet. That amount also included bills (like my cell phone and utilities) and transportation costs, so it wasn’t as much as it seemed.

I started to find hidden savings, lurking in my own wallet.

What I didn’t expect was that my cleaning and organizing skills would improve with the self-imposed restriction.

Now, when it came time to tidy, I had a mission. After months of telling myself I’d sort through drawers and pockets to gather my gift cards, coffee punch cards and coupons, suddenly — fueled by the fear of weeks of no fun — I found the time.

Not only did I discover that money stash on the Dunkin app, but I found a $20 Starbucks card, $50 Cracker Barrel gift card, and enough punches between three cards to get a free latte at a local coffee shop, Cafe Grumpy. I also remembered the LevelUp app (it’s like Venmo for restaurants) I had downloaded a while back; I had unclaimed discounts, like $5 off lunch places like The Little Beet and Cava. I had been sitting on free money for months and didn’t know it.

An allowance forced me to cook even more often.

Even though I already cooked quite often at home, this deeper look at my expenses made me investigate further.

I became reacquainted with the depths of my pantry stash; the beans, pasta, and frozen food taking up valuable real estate in my shared apartment became meals for the days I wanted to use my allowance for things like a yoga class or to refill my subway pass. And, I found myself bargaining internally, reasoning if I brought lunch and skipped any post-work drinks, I could afford brunch with the friend I rarely see.

Competing with myself to stick to the numbers turned out to be a surprisingly satisfying challenge.

While sticking to a time-tied budget isn’t revolutionary — after all, like many kids, I had a weekly allowance growing up — the finite daily amount system worked wonders for me. Each day seemed like a fresh start (although, of course, there were some days I started out with less than $30 because of overspending the day before), and that glowing tally that hovered around me morphed from a worrying obstacle to a happy goal. The restriction was for a purpose: I had a trip to go on.

In the end, I stuck to my goal and finished the month with my finances on track. And I realized that a daily amount keeps me much closer to hitting my target budget; the big monthly pot of money I used to imagine made it too easy to overspend, with the idea I’d make it up by spending less later in the month (which rarely happened). By sticking to a day at a time, I was free from the worry that future me would be out of cash at the end of the month.

And arriving in Berlin, free from a financial black cloud back home, made every strudel even sweeter.

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