Champagne taste on a craft beer budget: A frugal-ish young woman's experience buying a car in Dallas, Texas
I am very fortunate that my parents provided me with my first car (classic “hand-me-down from my dad who’s using this event as an excuse to buy a BMW” situation), a 2004 Acura TL, and then used my remaining college fund money to lease my next car, a 2017 Acura RDX.
In short, I’m lucky – very lucky – that I’ve made it all the way to age 25 without having to pay for a vehicle.
The downside of this? Having to reconcile how absurdly expensive it is to buy a car, pay for insurance (although I’ve been doing this since graduation, still a bit late compared to some of my high school friends whose parents laid down the law earlier), and keep up with maintenance.
This post is not intended to be an exhaustive, best practices guide to car buying – but rather to show an honest look at buying a car as a solo female and the experiences and choices I encountered. I answer questions that I had at the beginning of the process (even the “obvious” ones!) in the hopes that someone else who doesn’t know where to start can have a little guidance.
That said, let’s get going!
My lease on the RDX comes up in February – and while I love the car and would like to keep it, the residual value (essentially, what the bank determines your car is worth when the lease ends) is around $23,000. What does that mean? Effectively, that my parents generously leased me a car that I can’t comfortably afford.
How much car can you afford?
According to this article from Money Under 30, the rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t spend more than 35% of your annual income on a car. They call this the “one-size-fits-all” rule, but it made me realize – non-judgmentally – that most of us drive around in cars that we can’t technically afford “comfortably.”
To contextualize this, the article makes the example that someone driving a $52,500 should make at least $150,000 a year.
They also noted there’s a “frugal” rule of thumb – which made me chuckle, because I think a lot of Americans would consider 35% a conservative amount. This rule says only 10-15% of your annual income should go toward a car.
This more frugal standard means that someone making $80,000 would pay no more than $10,000 or $12,000 for their car.
The moral of the story here, for me, was that a combination of societal pressure to keep up and the auto industry’s advertising makes us feel like we can and should spend a lot more than what makes sense for us.
I don’t want to be driving around in my 401(k), but I also can admit that I like nice things.
Rather than settling on a budget at first, I backed into the overall price by determining how much I wanted to spend per month (or rather, the maximum I was willing to spend).
I knew that I didn’t want to spend more than $300 per month on a car payment. Anything more than that felt irrational and uncomfortable for me.
I used this handy calculator on BankRate.com that allows you to plug in different principle loan amounts, loan terms, and rates to see what your estimated monthly payment would be.
And before we go any further, I should mention… Ali, my business partner at Matriarch Financial, advised me to get pre-approved for a loan with the Southwest Credit Union before going into any negotiations so I wasn’t “at the mercy of the dealership’s financing.”
What does that mean?
When you buy a car, you take out an auto loan. The interest rates on these loans vary depending on the lender, the length of the loan, and your credit score. I didn’t know this before undergoing this process, but the dealership’s financing will make you an offer so you’re buying it from them and their bank is financing it (I noticed they seemed to hover around 4-5%, which felt really high to me).
When you go to the bank or credit union of your choice, you can normally secure a lower rate. Once I had some loan amounts in mind, I applied for pre-approval on my credit union’s website and received the following within a couple days:
2.74% for 48 months
2.99% for 60 months
Now I had some numbers to work with in the BankRate calculator!
After some trial and error, this is what I settled on:
An estimated monthly payment of $287 felt great to me – which meant I’d borrow $16,000 and pay it back over five years (60 months), paying about $1,246 in interest overall with a 2.99% rate.
Of course, I also looked at what it would cost to do the 48-month/2.74% option, but it ended up being considerably more costly every month and only a little cheaper in overall interest: a monthly payment of $352 (vs. $287) and $911 in interest (vs. $1,246).
I decided to pay $335 more in interest over five years in order to only have to pay $287 per month.
If I had taken the 4.99% rate offered at the dealership, I’d have paid $302 per month and $2,112 in interest over the 60 months.
This is why Ali was so adamant that I secure loan pre-approval before beginning the process – it saves you money on a month-to-month basis and allows you to pay a lot less in interest over time.
In Ali's words, if you do nothing else, do this.
The total purchase price of the car
After considering the range of 10-35% of my annual income, I decided my budget for this car would be $20,000 (but that I’d try to negotiate down as much as possible).
This meant – if I took out a $16,000 loan – that I’d have to put a maximum of $4,000 down to make up the difference.
How to decide how much to put down
Because my only prior experience with buying something ungodly expensive was my failed attempt at buying a condo, I figured the more money down = the better.
After speaking with Ali and my dad, I learned that that’s not the case with a depreciating asset (in other words, something that loses value over time, like a car, rather than something that ostensibly gains value over time, like a house).
Consider this scenario:
You put $15,000 on a $30,000 car, or half of its value. On the way home from the dealership, you get in an accident. You’re unharmed, but your car is totaled. You’ve just sunken $15,000 into this asset that’s now worth only a fraction of what you paid. (This is where GAP insurance and regular insurance come in, but still, you’re driving around in $15,000 cash!)
Hopefully this nightmarish circumstance is something none of us any experience, but I think it illustrates the point – the more you put in upfront, the more you’re risking.
In the end, my down payment was a simple function of:
(How much I wanted my monthly payment to be) determined (the loan’s amount)
(The value of the car) minus (the loan amount) = (down payment)
Or, using real numbers:
(I wanted to pay $287 per month) which means (borrow $16,000 at 2.99% for 60 months)
(The car costs $20,000) minus (the loan of $16,000) = $4,000 is the resulting down payment
Choosing the car, going to dealerships, and negotiating with grown men
This was the least-scientific yet somehow most daunting part of the process.
Everyone knows the stereotypical “young woman walks into car dealership and gets swindled into something she can’t afford” motif.
I was determined to set the tone very early in the conversation that I was an educated buyer and wasn’t interested in being persuaded into leasing the 2020 model of something I can’t afford.
My first stop: Acura
I wanted to give Acura a chance to make me a better deal, so I went in and spoke with an associate and said the following (a script I crafted with my father very carefully on the phone in the parking lot beforehand like the strong, independent woman I am):
“I’m shopping around today to explore my options and see the best deal I can get. My lease on a 2017 RDX ends in February.”
Immediately, they went for the hard sell on the 2020 lease. She practically launched me into the driver’s seat of the floor model.
And let me tell you, that new car smell is lusty and intoxicating – but I stood firm. Before long, the sales manager was sitting at the table with us. I said:
“I’m looking to pay no more than $300 per month and put no more than $4,000 down, so unless I can lease a 2020 RDX for less, I’m not interested, and I’d like to hear the options for buying my 2017.”
It was like I’ve seen in the movies – his talk about how you can’t lease a 2020 for under $400 quickly changed.
“Well, if I take $5,000 off, I can get it down to $360.”
I politely (but firmly) declined and asked (again) to see the options for a lease buyout.
Finally – and oddly enough, they still continued to lace in talks of a lease as if that were somehow still on the table – he showed me the numbers on my 2017. It was what I had feared: $500 in lease rollover fee, $250 tax and title fee, and about $23,000 in the car’s remaining value. I asked if there were any wiggle room on that price and he told me that the bank set that value, not the dealership.
So, I told them I’d be considering other options and to call me if they can do a 2020 lease for less than $300 per month – and I left.
I knew leaving that day that I’d almost certainly be turning in my car. I noticed on Cars.com that there were other 2017 RDXs for sale in my area, fully loaded, for less than $23,000, so I always had the option to buy another from someone else.
If you’re considering buying out your lease, be sure to take this step and double-check that you’re actually getting a good deal on the car.
My second stop: Audi Dallas
I know what you’re thinking: Your budget is $20,000 – why are you going to Audi?
Because I like nice things, remember?! Truthfully, we drove a Q5 in Colorado and I fell in lust.
In all seriousness, I’ve always liked the Audi A3 – it’s small, cute, and sporty, and I liked the idea of downsizing a bit. Plus, I can’t afford much more than that with $20,000 at Audi, so. Here we are.
After poking around on Cars.com, I was happy to see that 2017 Certified Pre-Owned A3s with super low mileage were listed around $19,000 and $20,000.
Walking into Audi was a little bit of a different experience. You know those places you go where – immediately upon entering – you’re like, shit, these people are rich.
It was your classic “fancy car dealership” feel, but I was immediately snagged at the door by a really friendly older salesman named John Paul. He was funny and we had a good dynamic, so I felt more at ease about being in a dealership where there was actually very little in my price range. I gave him an almost identical speech that I had given at Acura.
I told him what I was looking for, and he immediately pulled up all their used A3 inventory on his monitor and showed me. He barely mentioned leasing, which I appreciated after the hard sell at Acura.
He noted (probably a sales tactic) that the Certified Pre-Owned vehicles tend to go quickly because Audi doesn’t “do” very many of them.
He asked if I wanted to drive the A3, and I told him that’d be great – but that I wanted to drive one that would be used and the relevant trim package (Premium, the hilariously named base trim), rather than some fully loaded 2020 model that would blow my socks off and set unrealistic expectations.
He pulled a 2019 around (apparently the 2017 that was available was in the shop getting serviced and detailed to be ready for sale) and he guided me on the test drive. Highway first, bumpy road second.
You could tell this guy was a seasoned salesman – he was casually telling me about the car, but there wasn’t anything desperate or “sales-y” about it. The perfect storm.
After we got back, he printed out all their inventory and laid it all in front of me.
“So let’s talk about your budget,” he said. I was secretly relieved he broached the topic so I didn’t have to. Something about telling a man that routinely sells $80,000 cars to doctors and lawyers made me feel sheepish and embarrassed about even acknowledging that money is a factor in this decision, but luckily, he was friendly and funny and I felt comfortable being firm with my low $20,000 limit.
(Isn't that messed up? I can be so confident in what I want and how much I'm willing to spend on this GIANT decision and then still feel awkward and uncomfortable standing my ground.)
There must be something about my aura that says, “I’m cheap as f***,” because he didn’t seem surprised in the least.
He showed me a red 2017 with an MSRP of $35,100 that was for sale for $19,952. This one hadn’t been online, so it was news to me.
It was… pretty adorable. But I didn’t want to show my hand (or excitement), so I stayed calm and asked if that price was negotiable. He claimed they do “no-haggle pricing” on the pre-owned vehicles, so what you see is what you pay.
I asked for the CarFax so I could learn a little more about the history of the car.
He told me he’d call me when the car was ready to be driven after it was done being serviced, so I’m still waiting on that call.
My last stop: Audi Plano
There are five Audi dealerships in DFW, and I saw a black A3 for around $19,900 at their Plano location. A few minutes after I had submitted an interest form on their site the night prior, a salesman called me and asked if I wanted to come see it.
I was surprised at his eagerness, and, as I learned later, slightly misread it.
I figured he was eager to sell it because of quotas and the like, so I told him I’d come by after going to Audi Dallas (attempting to create a little competition, you know?).
Similar experience here, except it got to the test drive a lot faster because I had already given the salesman the low-down the night before re: my lease and search.
I really liked the car, and asked the same question. “Is this the lowest price you’re willing to accept for this car?” He gave me the same line about no-haggle pricing.
“All right. Well, I’ll think about it.” I said. “There’s a very similar car at Audi Dallas for the same price and I was hoping to make my decision based on price.”
He asked if there was anything else they could do to earn my business, and I asked if there was anything else that was negotiable. He mentioned extending the warranty further or adding some type of discounted maintenance package.
I agreed and asked him to look into that and then get back to me with their final offer.
As I drove away, I decided I wanted the black one.
I waited all afternoon for them to call. I felt like I had just gone on a great first date, and then was waiting around for the boy to contact me. And also similar to old desperate dating habits, I began cyber-stalking when I felt ghosted, curious for answers.
I noticed the car had been taken down from the inventory on AudiUSA.com. Damn it, I thought, they sold it to someone else.
It’s possible John Paul was right – the pre-owned ones do go fast. In retrospect, I think he offered to let me come see it that night because they’re gone as quickly as they’re available.
The next steps
While waiting to hear back from the dealerships, I did two things:
To nobody’s surprise, the A3 cost more to insure.
I buy my car insurance in 6-month increments to save money on the premiums, and when I had last purchased it, it was $663 for 6 months (approx. $110.50/mo.). This is irritating considering I've never gotten in an accident, had a DUI, filed a claim, etc. — but alas, here we are.
The quote for the A3 was closer to $800 for 6 months, so I started to toy with some of my coverage. In the end, what I ended up changing were my Collision and Comprehensive deductibles: they both used to be $500 and I upped them to $1,000, meaning if I get in an accident, I’ll have to pay the first $1,000 out of pocket before insurance kicks in.
That got it down to closer to $760, and I figured I was OK with $100 more for 6 months of coverage (although was a little irritated that I'd be paying MORE for LESS coverage). Because the insurance can vary widely on your car based on the type, I think it's probably a good idea to get a quote before buying anything so you can at least expect what you're getting into.
Budgeting for the new vehicle
As this is the first time I’ll have a car payment, I adjusted my 2020 budget accordingly.
I broke out “Car” into several categories beyond just “Transportation” which used to be my catch-all, and figured the following (again, this is all happening prior to actually buying anything):
Car payment: $300 (to be safe)
Car insurance: $770/6 = allot $130/mo. to be paid in full every six months
Gas: $75 (the only budget that actually went down, since the car gets better mileage)
This means that – all in all – owning a $20,000 car is going to cost me $505 per month, not including routine maintenance. (And let’s not forget, maintenance on German cars isn’t cheap – so I’m going to conservatively allot $30/mo. for it assuming I’ll have to get about $200 in maintenance every six months).
Grand total? $535 per month. Woof.
Main takeaway: cars are expensive AF
The more I learn about car ownership and feel the full sting in my monthly statements, the more I’m convinced they’re a total racket. A $20,000 car shouldn’t cost $500 (or more) on a monthly basis when all things are considered – and it makes me wonder how the f*** people driving $90,000 cars are doing it.
And sure, I know I could get a used $10,000 or $15,000 car made by a brand like Toyota or Honda that would lower the insurance premiums, but at the end of the day, I'm trying to strike a balance — $300 all-in per month (hypothetical scenario with an even cheaper option) vs. $500 all-in per month (for something I really love) is an OK breakdown, in my book... for now. TBD if I still feel this way in a year (or 5) from now. The follow-up to this article might be called, "Why I'm buying a $6,000 Honda Accord in cash and never looking back." I have no idea.
But because I love to twist the knife, $500 per month is $6,000 per year. $6,000 per year! To move around the same 5-mile radius! Unbelievable.
Praying Audi doesn’t ghost me permanently and swooping when I find the right deal (i.e., anything under $19,500).
If there’s anything to be learned from the actual purchasing process itself, I will post another article detailing – but for now, hopefully this is helpful (or – at the very least – entertaining).
Happy 2020 budgeting!
Recently I came across the second edition of a book in which the author freely admitted he was pressured into creating said second edition by his publisher and only relented so he could roast cryptocurrency and robo-advisors, two things that weren't around when the first edition was published in 2009.
His transparency and no-nonsense attitude immediately hooked me.
And while I think I'm maybe slightly more open-minded due to my budding experience and aware that we probably shouldn't take super hard-line stances on things as fickle as finance, this dude's premise (automating your finances) is an optimizer's dream.
You can check out the book, I Will Teach You to be Rich, here.
But if you're not into reading personal finance books in your free time (what's wrong with you?!), I'll distill the most meaningful, unique theory I implemented:
Spend time on the front-end deciding where your money should go every month, then automate all of it to work in the background of your life without you ever having to lift a finger again.
It takes all the emotion, decision-making and effort out of your long-term play. Automation makes some people uncomfortable because it means surrendering control to machines, but remember—the more decisions you leave up to yourself over time, the higher likelihood of error or oversights.
My description below reflects that of someone without any debt, so keep in mind the percentages and priorities will look different depending on your situation. In web development on my team at work, we call this a "happy path" scenario—how the most basic, optimal situation would be treated.
Clearly, you may have debt, irregular pay, and other circumstances that make this "happy path" description a little tougher to implement. There's more at the bottom for you...
How I set mine up
First piece of the equation: Take-home pay
First thing's first—determine your monthly take-home pay. If you're paid bimonthly, go to your most recent paystub (assuming it's a normal one) and look at the number after all the taxes are taken out.
E.g., if you make $50,000, you may be tempted to merely divide by 12 months to get a monthly take-home pay amount of $4,166. In reality (after taxes) you'll probably only see about $3,600, depending on where you live. Starting with an accurate cash intake is very important, because it determines what your percentages look like.
So there you are, on pay day, sitting pretty with a few thousand in your checking account you didn't have yesterday.
Unfortunately, this is where most people f*** it up.
They think, Time to spend!
Wrong. So very wrong. This is why automation is so key—it removes that temptation entirely, because you're going to set up a series of auto-transfers that send that money exactly where it needs to go.
Your investment accounts (401k, Roth IRA, other brokerage accounts) are up to bat first. The percentages are up to you.
I contribute 12% to 401(k), 11% to Roth IRA, and 9% to a regular brokerage account. Why?
I do this for diversification purposes. Yes, I COULD max out the 401(k) and intend to someday, but I want the mix of 401(k) and Roth IRA for retirement as well as a regular account to use for a home or child someday (something that isn't tied up for retirement).
So, for example, if I get paid on the 5th and 20th, 12% is taken out of the paycheck and sent directly to my 401(k), where it's matched by my company up to a certain percentage. 11% is transferred out automatically to a Roth IRA a few days later. Another 9% is transferred out a week later to the regular brokerage account.
And just like that, 32% of my take-home pay is invested twice per month.
High-yield savings accounts
Now you've got a little less than you started with (or maybe a lot less, depending on how high your income is and how aggressive you can afford to be in your investments). Now it's time to sock some away for regular savings—maybe an upcoming vacation, Christmas gifts later in the year, a flat tire, etc.
Once your emergency fund (3-6 mos. of your expenses) is full, this savings account is a little more flexible. I transfer 7% of each paycheck (automatically, in keeping with this theme) to the Capital One 360 Savings account that gets a 2% return.
This transfer happens a few days after the paycheck hits.
And there you go—automatic investing and saving, all happening in the background without me having to work up the discipline or motivation to do it after every paycheck.
So what about the money that's left?
Three words, fam: Credit card autopayments.
The money that remains in the checking account (if you're subscribing to the method and you're debt free, you'll probably have about 60-80% of the take-home pay left) is what gets used for—you guessed it—spending.
In this way, you pay Future You first. Retirement You, 5 Years From Now You, and 6 Months From Now You are totally taken care of. Whatever's left is gravy, baby.
I put all my spending on credit cards, with the exception of the 23% of my take-home pay that goes toward rent. So I set up automatic credit card payments on the due dates (mine are the 3rd, 8th, and 21st) to simply withdraw the money from checking and pay the bill on time. No memory necessary.
Because I already had a budget set up that worked for me, I knew I could keep my spending around 60% and invest or save the rest.
As the machine hums in the background...
Of course, I keep an eye on everything. I get emails when transfers are about to happen and I use Personal Capital to see all my accounts in one place, so it's not like I never check—but with a few hours of work and planning upfront, you can reduce your active involvement in your finances to effectively zero (that is, until you get a raise and pump up those contributions!).
If you're interested in individual consulting or help, there's a pretty exciting business venture in the works. It's going to look a little different than ole' katiegatti.com.
The "Personalized Finance" Contact tab in the menu is still open for inquiries, so if you'd like a little help with these decisions and planning, submit a contact form and we'll be in touch. Otherwise... happy automating.
I loved my first car. It was a 2004 Acura TL, handed down to me from my automotive-obsessed father. He used my 16th birthday as an excuse to buy a (used) BMW and pawn off his Acura on his ecstatic teenage daughter. Mary, the frugal overlord of House Gatti, was onboard with the plan, making it even more attractive.
*I'll note here that there is inherent privilege in this anecdote that I was given a car when I began driving, so whether that was your experience or not, I'm acknowledging how fortunate and—honestly—rare it is.*
The car had over 100,000 miles and was about 8 years old when it was given to me, so it was well past its prime—but it was a car, and a pretty cool one. It had some door dings, the leather seats were ripped up, and there were coffee stains on the floor mats in the backseat from my dad's rowdy ride-group pals.
More memorable, though, than being given the keys to the TL, was the day I was handed the keys to my 2017 Acura RDX. It felt like a dream come true. (In the years leading up to turning 16, all I wanted was a white RDX, but it was firmly out of budget and, therefore, out reach.)
In the time I owned the TL, it was hit while parked on the road—taking on about $3,000 in body repair work. Because the car wasn't even worth $3,000 at the time of the accident and we had JUST taken collision insurance off, we didn't fix it. I drove around with a bashed rear end for almost a year.
To be honest, if it had gotten hit again, suffered a smoothie spill, or smelled like an old yoga mat, I wouldn't have cared. The car's purpose was to take me from point A to point B. I didn't care much about its condition. I think it got maybe one proper car wash after the accident.
Everything changed when the RDX came into the picture.
It promptly earned a garage spot, exiling my mom's practical Subaru to the driveway when I'd visit home. Free street parking? No. No way. Pricey covered parking (or, at least, a proper lot) was the only place for my baby.
There was even an incident my college friends love to remind me of in which I took them out for tacos about a week after I got my car, and I made all of them wash their hands after eating before getting back into the car so as not to grease up the handles and interior. (I've since abandoned this demand.)
So while I love my RDX, it carries a whole different set of stressors than my didn't-care-much-TL.
Why? Because that TL was worth about $2,000. The RDX is probably worth around $30,000, nearly 15x the value of my old car.
I get it washed monthly, so that's a 30-minute task at $20/pop. It requires the more expensive Premium gas—you can bet your butt I was putting regular in the TL. I still don't like parking it on the street and, when it incurred its first door ding in a Target parking lot, I was distraught. My insurance went from $600/year to $1,500/year, because now there's more to insure.
It's never just the UPFRONT higher cost. Every cost you incur down the metaphoric road is higher, too.
I hope you can see where I'm going with this: The more you own, the more owns you.
There's an odd liberation to owning low-value stuff. To driving a shitty car. Sure, everyone, pile in with your dirty shoes! Workout friends with sweaty clothes on? Welcome! Let's all eat a four-course meal in my sedan.
Again, I am happy and grateful for my car—it's my favorite possession. But it definitely stresses me out more than my old one did.
But if you own, say, a $50,000 BMW, you're probably going to think twice about parking it in a tight spot. You're probably going to buy the nicest gas. You'll probably pay to get it washed and buy the highest-premium insurance and take it to the dealer for the most expensive maintenance.
Imagine getting in an accident with a new $50,000 car and how much worse that would feel than a used one worth $15,000.
But it's not just cars and other things of that scale—consider a designer handbag. I've told this story before, but when I got my job offer, I drove straight to Louis Vuitton and purchased a $1,300 Neverfull I'd been lusting after for as long as I can remember.
This bag, oddly, represented the pinnacle of wealth and success to my 22-year-old self. Chic, beautiful, rich women carried them (and young women my age with chic, beautiful, rich parents ). I had to have one!
Now, I have a $1,300 wall ornament.
(I used it a lot when I first got it, but it turns out tote bags are not all that practical or comfortable for every day life.)
When I took a $700 Louis Vuitton crossbody bag to a Cowboys game, it was one inch (ONE INCH!) too big to be taken into the stadium. The security man informed me I'd have to walk it all the way back to my car before entering.
So there I was, walking the half mile back to the parking lot as the game started and Amari Cooper caught a touchdown pass—losing my $10 beer buzz—to drop off my fancy purse.
I passed women facing the same decision at security, taking their wallets and phones out of their $20 Mossimo purses and throwing them in the garbage, continuing merrily into the stadium.
It was a moment where I really asked myself--
What's the point of owning something so fancy and expensive that, even when it majorly inconveniences you, it's too prohibitively valuable to simply discard and move on?
It's hard for me to identify with the young woman who gleefully spent $1,300 on a Louis Vuitton. I could never see myself doing that now—maybe it's due to *actually* working for that much money (not just receiving an abstract offer on a piece of paper), but the value of $1,300 feels so much more acute.
As a particularly masochistic exercise, let's see what would've happened if I would've invested that $1,300 in a low-fee index fund instead and waited 30 years:
$1,300 becomes $13,000. Instead, I'll have a weathered handbag and a fond memory. Not bad, but not a choice I'd make again.
The rare positive example...
In fact, I've fallen victim to this trap so many times as a self-identified reformed materialist that I can only think of one category in which I've seen the opposite prove true: shoes.
I never spend more than $100 on a pair of shoes (except for my running shoes and cycling "cleats," but those fall more into the category of sports gear, IMO). Usually, my price point hovers closer to $50. I'm pretty rough on my shoes, so I tend to break them quickly.
In Mexico, I was walking down the beach in a pair of 3-year-old rubbery Jack Rogers—I think I paid $40 for them. One of the straps finally surrendered to my constant whap-whap-whapping of the flipflop, and popped right out of the shoe. I literally went, "Oh, well!" And took off the other one. Trash. Another mojito.
My black suede pumps that I got on sale at Dillard's in high school were stolen from a night club in Atlanta when I left them on the ground to stand on a table (true story! Wholesome!) and I just went back to the hotel barefoot, bummed that I couldn't stay out on account of my shoeless-ness. The shoes were basically worthless, so I can't imagine the thief did anything but throw them away disappointed.
The point is: My shoes serve me. They make my life easier. When they stop fulfilling that purpose, disappear, break, or no longer serve me, they go in the garbage without a second thought.
I don't think I'd feel that way if they were $300 Tory Burch sandals or $800 Louboutin pumps.
Without question, there are definitely times you get more for your money.
And a lot of the time, it's a balancing act—if you buy stuff that's TOO cheap it'll just need to be constantly replaced and cause more of an inconvenience as you spend money and time fixing or replacing it.
But it's almost like that rule for what to bring in checked luggage: Don't buy anything that you'd be too devastated to lose.
There's middle ground between a broken-down Chevy Impala and a new fully loaded Range Rover. There's middle ground between a canvas tote bag and a Louis Vuitton one.
You can still be satisfied with your purchases without buying on the Kardashian end of the spectrum, and I'd argue you'll be happier in the long-run when you detach from the notion that the more expensive = the better.
I've even seen this in my SKINCARE recently: I used to spend a lot of money on heavily branded products from Sephora, disappointed time after time. When I finally realized that the scented, beautifully packaged "jojoba-infused" moisturizer was just a $50, highly complex version of an $8 product you can buy at Whole Foods in its pure form, I shit you not—my skin improved markedly.
Investing in things of true value vs. perceived, wordly, showy value makes things easier, more convenient, and less stressful.
Consumerism tells us that nicer things will make us happier, but remember who profits from you believing you need to splurge on the fancy car—the car company, the insurance company, upscale car washes... the list goes on. The person at the bottom of that beneficiary list, is you.
On the journey to financial independence, there are two crucial halves of the same, inevitable equation: the income side and the expenses side.
Unfortunately, most of us can’t just decide to inflate the income side of the equation at a moment’s notice (although there are definitely strategies you can implement quickly to make more money). The good news? Most times, you are the gatekeeper and sole authority over the “expenses” side.
If you’re just trying to spend more responsibly and you’re not in a dire financial situation, you can slowly and leisurely change your habits so they stick. There’s no need to go from cold brew to cold turkey immediately—that’s not very sustainable, after all, and increases your chances of backslide if you aren’t completely bought in to the value of frugality yet.
(I am confident, however, that once you see the effects in your bank account over a few months, you’ll be sold.)
And as we’ve discussed before, so much of money—and our personal spending habits associated with it—is emotional. It’s intertwined so closely with our sense of self and the lifestyle choices that make us “us,” that making changes that don’t feel right can be downright threatening to our identities.
What kind of young professional am I if I’m not constantly toting around the iconic white cup from Starbucks? How will others perceive me if I choose to forgo buying every new pair of trendy shoes Adidas releases on a suspiciously rapid cadence, and instead wear the same pair of old Nike Roshes for three years?
As someone who works in brand marketing, I want to turn the fun-house mirror around: Brands intentionally position themselves in such a way that feel intrinsic to your lifestyle so you feel you have no choice but to purchase, parade and push their products.
There’s no better way to guarantee a repeat customer than to create a brand that feels like it melts into part of his or her personality.
In this way, “things” become a means to make statements about who you are, versus serving some sort of rational, utilitarian function. Why else would people (ahem—definitely not me) own 12 pairs of imperceptibly varied black lululemon leggings?
That said… there is a way out.
And, as I’ve mentioned before, finding your way out of the consumerism hamster wheel enables you to actually enjoy the few-and-far-between indulgences you allow yourself, rather than come to expect them.
It starts, unsurprisingly, with awareness—awareness of your weak spots. Mine, as hinted above, is lululemon. Personal finance and discipline seem to dissipate in the rare retail air of a lululemon store.
Slap a purple markdown sticker on something my size and—9 times out of 10—I’ll be in a semi-hallucinatory state in the dressing room, picturing myself gallivanting in and out of the studio or walking the dog in said gear, blasting a subliminal message to all of Dallas that I, Katie Gatti, am fit and chic.
How to hone in on your own trouble spots? Take the Marie Kondo method and simply identify what you own way too much of.
Maybe it’s makeup (does it make you feel more attractive?). Maybe it’s shoes (do they make you feel cooler?). Maybe it’s restaurant food and drinks (do they make you feel more plugged-in, socially?). The parenthetical theme, of course, is that the brand or purchase category is providing some external satisfaction that transcends the obvious or explicit.
In my example, the subtext was “fit and chic.”
Psychological preaching aside, the point is this: you don’t have to cut everything out immediately. It can be a slow transition, made easier by a more reasonable middle-ground solution or stepping stone.
I’m going to address certain transitions that worked well for me in two major discretionary categories:
While I’ve already beaten the lululemon horse (stationary bike?) dead, retail in general is something sneaky that used to somehow crop up (usually in the form of crop tops, ironically) on each credit card statement.
Usually, I wouldn’t even remember what I bought when I saw the $150 or $200 line item on the statement.
But these purchases were the direct result of a hobby that used to take up a lot of my free time—walking around malls like Highland Park Village or Northpark.
Simply put, you’re going to be far less tempted to buy something if you never come into physical contact with it.
Even if you love walking around the mall for fun, you’re probably exposing yourself to storefront after storefront of needless temptation. I promise, walking around outside is heaps more fun.
Big retail brands have made a concerted effort and investment in turning shopping into an experience in itself. Why? Because getting you in the store is step #1.
Obviously, sometimes you do actually need to buy something. While the ultra-frugal approach is to buy used or not at all, here’s my middle-ground solution:
Be intentional about what you need to buy and only go to a store armed with that intention—not to aimlessly wander around and look.
Now that I’ve gotten better at actually hating spending money, I’m able to go window-shop with friends on rainy Saturdays and feel little to no temptation. But at first… it was really hard.
Ultra-frugal: Only buy used
Transitional frugality: Only go to stores when you have a specific item in mind, and once you’re there, allow yourself to enjoy the experience
Food, drinks, and coffee
Without a doubt, the category that I’ve cut out most noticeably is food. I used to hit $400 or $500 in restaurant food monthly—with EASE.
I’ll still pat myself on the back that, relatively speaking, this isn’t THAT bad. My friend-who-will-not-be-named told me recently he spent $1,800 on restaurant food last month. He eats out or orders takeout every day.
Obviously, I was HORRIFIED. Is my bitchy judgment showing?
It shouldn’t be, considering I’m the girl who used to pay $3.70 for cold brew every morning without batting an eye.
Allow me to paint a picture:
You buy your Starbucks (or other boutique coffee shop) cup every morning. A few days a week, you grab lunch from Chipotle, Chick-Fil-a or another local spot. You get apps and drinks via happy hour shenanigans two nights per week with friends, and you almost exclusively eat at an over-priced brunch spot on Saturdays and/or Sundays—lest we not forget the Friday and Saturday evening drinks at the bar and the inevitable late-night pizza or tacos!
When you list everything like that, it sounds like… a lot. But when you’re living it, with these purchase decisions sometimes 12-18 hours apart, it feels completely normal.
That’s the type of lifestyle that was skyrocketing me to $700 monthly restaurant budget overages. The crazy thing is, I just felt like I was keeping up with the people around me.
If you’re cringing at how much you identify with the spending habits above, don’t panic—I’m not going to tell you to strike that spending category dead and switch over to 24/7 rice and beans.
After all, money is meant to be enjoyed—and believe me, it’s possible to enjoy your money and food without spending yourself into an anxious, calorically dense hole.
Here’s what worked for me:
I weaned myself off the $3.70 cold brews by switching to $2.44 drip coffees (I know, baby steps) and then, a few weeks later, realizing I could just drink apartment coffee for free.
If you live in a house or an apartment without a coffee machine in the lobby, another great intermediary, baby step is buying fancy coffee (like the Starbucks cold brew or iced coffee in the jug) from the grocery store before switching over to the cheapest alternative—making it yourself.
By choosing a grocery store brand or a product that still excites you, you’re more likely to stick with the plan instead of bagging the whole thing and blacking out three cars deep in the Starbucks drive-through.
This gives you a chance to break the coffee shop habit long enough to experiment with making coffee yourself at home without undergoing the grumpy caffeine lows that typically accompany giving up fancy coffee.
The takeout trap is slightly harder to escape, since it’s equally about convenience (or so it seems).
Stopping at a restaurant or ordering takeout delivery is ridiculously overpriced (and actually fairly time-consuming, if you’re driving around town on a daily basis to do so), but some people hate cooking so much that they’re willing to spend the time and money to avoid the inconvenience of making their own food (again, I say, a little ironic).
The middle-ground alternative? Buying pre-made food from a grocery store’s deli section.
Most grocery store chains have parts of the store where you can get sandwiches and stuff prepackaged. Rotisserie chicken, mashed potatoes and salad by the pound, even robust sushi offerings—it’s all at your local Kroger or Tom Thumb for 1/3 the price of the restaurants down the street.
Keep in mind this is the “Wean yourself off restaurant food habit” plan, not the sustainable plan—but it’s a lot easier to go from East Hampton Sandwich Co.’s $15 lunch to a $6 Whole Foods sandwich than it is to go from that same boujee sandwich shop to buying canned food at CostCo.
The first step is making the grocery store a weekly routine, rather than hitting up Uber Eats every night.
Again, it’s merely a stepping stone toward better habits because you have the means to take it in baby steps.
(But, tough love moment: if you’re in massive debt and eating out every day, what the actual f*** are you doing? Money is meant to be enjoyed, but that assumes you HAVE the money in the first place—spending money you don’t have is the fastest way to put yourself in a really bad position, and that’s not enjoyable for anyone.)
Ultra-frugal: Shop from stores like CostCo and Sam’s Club, purchasing things in bulk and getting your average meal cost down to around $2
Transitional frugality: Buy pre-prepared or easy-to-assemble meals from the grocery store, averaging about $5-6 per meal
Cue my spiel on meal prep services: I think they’re kind of a rip-off, especially the ones where you still have to do all the cooking yourself. You’re literally saving one step—looking up the recipe and going to the grocery store, and you’re paying a fat premium for it.
Maybe better than restaurant food with tips and such, but still, you’re averaging about $10/meal which is astronomical and, by the way, more expensive than dining-out choices like Chipotle and Chick-Fil-A.
(Y’all remember when the Chipotle burrito bowl was the financial yard stick against which everything was measured? “That costs 2.5 burrito bowls.” I miss college.)
To figure out how much you’re averaging per meal, simply take your weekly food spending (whether that be grocery or restaurant—in most cases, a combination of both) and divide by 21: 3 meals per day for 7 days a week (assuming, of course, that your weekly food budget actually covers all 21 meals).
And for the non-discretionary…
I’ve written in the past about turning expensive hobbies into side hustles, but I want to do a post soon about seemingly non-negotiable costs: rent, utilities, etc. and how to trim the fat off your “needs” budget.
I’ve also posted several times about working credit card rewards in your favor to achieve free travel—whether that be the Sapphire Preferred, the American Express Platinum, or actual how-tos on redeeming 50,000 points for over $1,100 in value.
While all of these tips and tricks in the financial independence community are valuable, I still maintain that habitual frugality is the means by which we’ll eventually reach our goals. Happy cost-cutting!
I know, I know—being in possession of a credit card with a $550 annual fee is distinctly off-brand for Katie Gatti. I expend a lot of mental (and sometimes physical) energy plotting how to avoid paying fees for things, so to voluntarily pay one is, I admit, surprising.
But the Platinum card packs a big punch. The most alluring benefits include (and, here, I have to laugh—they’re benefits, but in some ways, you’re just paying for them upfront with the fee):
If you don’t travel, this won’t be helpful. Like, at all. But if you DO travel or want to start traveling frequently, read on…
After considering all the purported value, I decided to take the plunge—mostly because they sent me a direct mail offer for a 100,000-point bonus and pre-approval.
100,000 points is really no longer a thing in the travel rewards world due to people abusing credit card churn (get card, use points, close card), so I figured 100,000 would be worth it even if I decide I’m not getting $550 in value otherwise.
The standard points offer on this card, if approved, is 60,000. Still pretty solid.
One other thing to note—it’s a charge card, not a credit card, which means you really can’t carry a balance. This also means you have no preset spending limit. Depending on your financial situation, you could spend on this card indefinitely—but you have to pay it off every month.
Theoretically, this would mean it doesn’t affect your credit score, either, but a more seasoned Platinum cardholder told me they’ll make you an offer within your first year of membership to switch it to a credit card in exchange for 15,000 points.
I’m allowing myself to be the Platinum Card guinea pig here and not beat myself up if I don’t end up getting my money’s worth. All in the name of internet journalism, right?
The annual fee hits on your first statement closing, and man, it is painful. To make myself feel better, I started recording all the value I was getting from the card. I’m going to total it at the end of the year and see if it surpasses $550 substantially enough to warrant getting it again.
Here are my initial thoughts:
Spend threshold and points
I’m a little irritated because I hit the $5,000 spend threshold a month ago and the points JUST posted today, but I was told it takes 6-8 weeks. Just annoying to rush to spend $5k (on rent, car insurance, and other things I was going to buy anyway) and then not get the points immediately—the Chase Ultimate Rewards points show up right away, so that was my expectation with Platinum.
Travel portal/booking travel with points
The travel portal seems all right, but I think I’m more partial to Chase’s so far—Chase’s looks exactly like Booking.com so it’s super familiar. AmEx seems to have created their own and I’m not sure their points are as valuable, but TBD.
I'm interested to see the redemption ability and how it compares, especially because the Chase Sapphire Reserve card offers similar benefits to the Platinum (for more on my experience with the Chase Sapphire Preferred, click here). For context, I believe the Chase Sapphire Reserve annual fee is $450, so slightly less.
The airline incidentals credit
The airline credit is supposed to be for incidental fees (inflight wifi, food, bag fees, etc.), but if you buy a gift card, it codes sometimes as an incidental so you can redeem it for flights. I already used the airline credit (as expected) by buying a $200 gift card and then redeeming it the next day for our Hawaii flights.
The trick is (and again, you have to keep current on these hacks because they do change) to declare Southwest or Delta as your airline, then purchase a gift card from either carrier the next day. The only time I’ve seen people not get the credit on Southwest, it’s because they listed Southwest as their carrier and then, minutes later, purchased the gift card. You’ll want to wait a day to be safe.
*Note on the Southwest incidental—I spent $223 on a fare difference for two flights I changed, and AmEx reimbursed me for part of it. This makes me think flight changes are considered incidental purchases, even though you’re just purchasing airfare.
We were hungry when we landed in Oakland before taking off for Maui, and usually, we’d buy airport food—always expensive. Instead, as soon as I landed, I got a notification from the AmEx app welcoming me to the Oakland airport and telling me where the lounge was.
We went in (you have to show your card and a boarding pass) and got to use the cappuccino bar and had bagels with salmon. Much better than your standard Dunkin Donuts breakfast. If we had more time we would’ve sat down and ordered drinks, but we had 10 minutes so we sped through it.
We didn’t think we were going to clear the standby list on the way back to Dallas, so we anticipated being stuck in Oakland until the 8 p.m. departure to Albuquerque (don’t ask—it’s a good unpublished connection to Dallas), and I was low-key very excited to sit down for a real, free dinner at the lounge. Luckily, though, we made it on the flight home.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory—I have no problem using $15 in Uber Cash every month, especially if we have a trip (which we usually do). Once you add your card to the app, every month it loads $15 more into your Uber Cash balance. This is use it or lose it, so it doesn’t roll over or accumulate.
Hotels and car rentals
I’ve kinda flubbed this one so far. I haven’t stayed in a hotel (just an Airbnb) since getting it, so I’m not sure how the upgrades work (or how often). You have to book directly with the hotel to technically get an upgrade, so it doesn’t sound like you can use the travel portal to do so (however, I read on an AmEx Reddit that sometimes if you show the card they’ll do the upgrade at the front desk).
I'll have to do a little more research on how to maximize the benefit here (get the 5x points on the hotel while also ensuring an upgrade), but I'll do a post about my experience whether it's good or bad.
We got a rental car in Hawaii, but I waited until the day of arrival to reserve it so the “National Emerald Executive Club” status I hold because of the card didn’t do much for me (they were out of cars). I hadn’t set up the Hertz or Avis Preferred statuses yet. I’ll note here that I saw the lot of cars they give to Emerald Executives, and they looked pretty nice.
Because we travel a lot and almost always get a hotel and rental car, this benefit really sounded like it could improve our experiences a lot OR make them cheaper (maybe both).
Weird stuff I wasn’t expecting
Look, I have pretty good credit, but I’m by no means “Platinum card” wealthy. I’m surprised I got approved for this card since it’s known for being targeted to rich people. I feel like it’s probably easier than they make it seem to get approved, they just want to make sure you can afford a fee. Like all other credit cards, they’ll ask your annual income.
In the same vein, it’s been hilarious to me how many people make comments about it. Whether it’s people I’m eating with at a restaurant (rarely) when I put the card on the table or the waitress who comes over to take it away, people will literally say, “Ohhh, Platinum! You have this?” as though it’s hard to get. Based on my experience… I don’t think so.
The card is also solid metal and pretty thick, so it feels cool and substantial. It does that “tap” thing at checkout where you just wave it over the reader and it works, which is nice if you’re scared to swipe or use the chip for security reasons.
If these benefits sound enticing or applicable to you and you’re already interested, I would so appreciate if you'd use my referral link to apply—just as a small kickback if I’ve provided you any value on katiegatti.com. On a similar note, thank you for reading and taking an interest in my content. I'd love to hear any and all feedback you have.
And if you want to hear more before taking the plunge, I totally understand—I’ll keep posting about my AmEx experience (AmExperience?) as time goes on.
In an effort to follow up Alexa Campbell's wonderful post about how to perform the ultimate at-home blowout, I want to (again) raise the topic of (a) having great beauty products and, consequently, feeling beautiful while also (b) being fiscally responsible and not over-paying.
Even when I used to shell out hundreds of dollars on complete skincare regimens, I felt dissatisfied with what I saw in the mirror. I was convinced that if I threw more money at my skin, it would improve. Maybe regular facials! I reasoned, thinking the answer was more expensive treatments, toners, and... you know the drill.
But spending $50 on a face wash is no longer ~on-brand~ for Katie Gatti, the Money, Honey millennial finance blogger.
I've found a happy little routine that my skin really loves.
As some background, I have post-Accutane skin. There's some scarring as well as redness, so while I get the occasional breakout or blemish, I can't use anything too harsh because my face reacts and my skin gets angry.
The other thing I should note about my skin is that it's extremely, extremely oily. Much less so post-Accutane, but I'm definitely a little greasy...
Which is why this routine came out of left field for me, because it's completely and entirely oil-based.
First, at-home dermaplaning
One of the most game-changing elements of my new routine is at-home dermaplaning. Dermaplaning is this expensive spa treatment where they take this super sharp razor and essentially scrape it over your face to remove all the dead skin cells. Like exfoliating, but on steroids. (It's not painful, but it sounds extreme.)
It also removes all the peach fuzz from your face, and the lack of hair can also improve the appearance of clarity on the skin's surface. Here's a video I love of Jaclyn Hill explaining how she "shaves" her face. I do exactly what she describes in the video.
I use (don't laugh) something called the Tinkle Razor—it's a single stainless steel blade attached to a fun, pastel-colored handle. They come in packs of three and are extremely cheap--here's a pack of 12 for $6.
Before you use it, make sure you wash your face thoroughly so you have a totally clean surface and you don't expose your freshly shaved skin to any bacteria.
I switch between two different cleansers and I'm obsessed with both. Ever since I started this new oil-cleansing routine, I've stopped wearing makeup during the week.
Because of how gentle and natural it is, my skin tone doesn't get as red. I notice that, by the end of the day, my skin still looks balanced—it doesn't look greasy anymore like it used to.
I've heard it's because putting oil on your skin tricks your OWN oil glands into calming down, but who knows if that's true. All I know is... it works for me.
I use the Burt's Bees Cleansing Oil, made of Argan Oil. It costs between $11-$15, depending on where you purchase. You slather it on your dry face with dry hands—it feels a little... wrong? We're not used to putting oil on our face. Most beauty products are promoted proudly as oil-free, after all. It feels a little naughty.
Then, you add water and massage it in, rinsing it off and patting dry. It's a little shocking the first time, because you expect some residue or oiliness to be left behind—but your skin is completely clean and satisfyingly dry.
I know some people have broken out from using coconut oil on their faces—this might be because coconut oil is a little thicker and the molecules are larger (i.e., coconut oil is solid at room temperature). The oil products in this post are liquid at room temperature and have a much thinner consistency.
My other favorite cleanser is the Acure Argan Oil and Mint Cleanser. It's a cream consistency, and I discovered it in the shower at Class Studios one day. I loved how it made my skin feel, but it's a little more drying than the Burt's Bees product.
It's literally $8 on Amazon and is a nice starter oil-infused product if you're too freaked out by washing your face with straight-up oil.
Ironically, after my Cycle45 audition I left my bottle... in the shower at Class Studios. Full circle, huh? I hope it's still there tomorrow, but if not, I know I'll repurchase it.
But... if you're freaked out by oil cleansing...
Then man, you're really going to HATE the moisturizer I'm about to throw at you.
Jojoba oil. Yes, straight jojoba oil. (The product pictured in the main photo for this post.)
Please trust me. This sh*t is skin-changing. I've been using a few drops of pure jojoba oil as my moisturizer for a little over a month now and I'm shocked by how hydrated and clean my skin has been. I haven't gotten any blemishes or dry patches, something I struggled with when I used more traditional skincare products.
I've even got Thomas using it on his beard. He thinks it smells like honey-baked ham.
This is the kind I use: it's $10 for a giant bottle that'll last awhile if you only use a little bit each time.
And my friends, that's all there is to it.
I do my at-home dermaplaning routine once a week, and I wash and moisturizer twice per day.
It feels really satisfying because you know you're applying all-natural, semi-single ingredient products, vs. things that rely on branding and marketing to ratchet up the price and over-promise.
Since I don't really wear much makeup anymore, but when I do, I use coconut oil straight out of the jar to remove the makeup first.
And as far as makeup goes...
I don't wear makeup during the week because it's too much hassle with being in and out of workout classes, but on the weekends I wear all Glossier products. Their stuff isn't expressly cheap, but it's not overpriced (in my opinion) based on how long it lasts. You can snag their skin tint, cloud paint, and highlighter for around $50 total. The cloud paint and highlighter last forever.
Let me know if you want a separate post about how I save a little money on Glossier.
Now go cover yourself in oil!
My initial gut instinct when beginning this post says a lot about the backbone of my financial well-being: instinctually, I went to pull up my Mint summary from the last few months.
Mint serves as my financial accountability footprint. No expense is safe from its records—it forces me to deal with every fiscal choice I make, line item by line item.
It also serves as a fantastic tool for looking back to see how far I’ve come and enables me to present an accurate picture of my last several months.
There were two pivotal changes I made: one was a philosophical change, and the other was the tactical result of that psychological shift. (Is that cryptic enough for you?)
First, my entire attitude around money changed. I’d argue this is the single-most impactful shift—more so than budgeting, investing, or earning more. None of those secondary habits will matter or stick around unless your attitude has fundamentally shifted.
The impetus for this shift was a ChooseFI podcast interview with a woman known in the FIRE community as Mrs. Frugalwoods. It sounds suuuuper cheesy, and her story is pretty extreme, but—philosophically—her theories are really sound.
Why? Because they drive straight to the impact money has on your happiness and wellbeing—the LIFE beyond the spreadsheets and bank statements.
She explained how she and her husband made plenty of money (so much so that they could afford to buy a house in Boston) but felt consistently tethered to the consumerism hamster wheel. As they made more, they spent more—their lifestyles continued to creep further and further into the aspirational as their paychecks allowed for it.
But working endlessly to fund a lifestyle they weren’t even sure they wanted began to feel a little counterintuitive. Things that used to feel luxurious started to feel like the norm. They required more, bigger, and better to satisfy the reward centers in their brains, which—you guessed it—required more, bigger, and better money.
I had always saved before listening to this podcast, but in an obligatory, reluctant way. I saved because I knew deep down I was supposed to be saving, but I did so begrudgingly. I resented the process.
They say you’re the culmination of the five people you hang out with most. So, if your friends don’t talk about money (saving, investing, budgeting, planning), it stands to reason that it’s likely not going to be top of mind for you, either.
I never considered my lifestyle or spending habits to be frivolous before. They felt almost stereotypically normal—I’d buy lunch out once or twice a week, grab Starbucks every morning, go out for dinners and brunches all weekend—I was simply saying “yes” whenever people asked, and not really thinking twice about it. I was mirroring the behavior around me.
After all, I saw the amount coming in with every paycheck. That amount dwarfed whatever I’d spend on a nice, no-reason sushi dinner on a Tuesday night. It didn’t feel problematic—it felt normal.
My morning coffee habit didn’t feel problematic, either. My $2.44 grande Pike Place roast was merely a non-negotiable part of my routine: something I deserved because I worked hard. Same goes for my $3.70 cold brew from the boutique coffee shop next to the Henderson Corepower when my morning started on that side of town.
It was delicious and I liked it, but again—it was something I felt I deserved because I had woken up at 6 a.m. to work out and was about to work for eight more hours.
This, my friends, is the trap.
These seemingly harmless, normal expenditures were costing me more than I was willing to admit, and I’m only able to see it now that I can look back on my monthly budgets six months ago and see just how much I was really wasting.
But here’s the kicker: it wasn’t just costing me $600/month in restaurant food. It cost me the ability to enjoy and appreciate little things, because my life was jam-packed with incredible little things—and I hardly noticed.
To illustrate, here are a few of my actual Mint categories from June of 2018:
The guardrails are there: $400 on restaurants and bars, $250 on transportation, and $250 on groceries. Clearly, I had an intention of staying within budget (otherwise, why set budgets?).
But somehow, some way, I managed to exceed each one by nearly $200.
It’s because I hadn’t truly “bought in” yet.
I realized how much more genuine enjoyment I could be deriving from some of these things if they were “treats” I indulged in infrequently, vs. treated as components of my daily, normal routine that I "deserved."
Talk about an effective way to make your money go further—you’ll enjoy that $3.70 cold brew way more if it’s something you do as a reward, rather than a given. And you’ll be saving along the way.
(I know I've talked about beauty maintenance in the same way before—cutting out manicures and pedicures from my routine has saved me about $100/mo. and had little to no measurable impact on my happiness. Now I just spend 15 minutes every few weeks hunched over my big toes on my bathroom floor painting them some varied shade of pink and call it a day.)
It was after this little awakening (again, I attribute it to the Frugalwoods interview linked above) that I began to set serious goals for myself and pay attention to just how cheaply I could live, if I earnestly tried.
One example that sticks out most to me: over Christmas, I gave Ellie a flight home so we could fly back to Cincinnati together. As a gesture of gratitude, she gave me a $15 gift card to the aforementioned coffee shop.
One Saturday morning, Thomas and I wanted to buy food for breakfast and the afternoon, so we went to Trader Joe’s. We got cinnamon rolls, wine, cheese, a baguette, and meats (super well-rounded diet, clearly). The total was around $14.
On the way home, we stopped to get coffees with the gift card (a treat, at this point). I got a coffee, Thomas got a tea, and I got him a breakfast taco. The total? $14.
These seemingly “equal” purchases by dollar amount couldn’t have been more different. In one case, we got food and alcohol for the entire day (and the next), and in the other, we effectively got 20 oz. of hot liquid and some scrambled egg in a tortilla.
There’s no way around it—your money doesn’t go nearly as far when you’re eating out. (AND Trader Joe's is a godsend.)
By then, I was sold on frugality as a better way. I was especially happy when I saw my bank account balances climbing far more quickly than they used to, and I knew I had to set a serious goal for myself: $50,000 in net worth by the time I turn 25 (about 11 months away, at the time).
I could do the math—I knew in order to meet the goal, I’d have to trim my budgets down even more if I was going to expend each one fully every month.
I adjusted the ones I had control over as follows:
Rent + Utilities = Stayed the same at $1,015/mo.
Restaurants & Bars = Dropped from $400/mo. to $350/mo.
Transportation = Dropped from $250/mo. to $225/mo.
Groceries = Stayed the same at $250/mo.
Travel = Stayed the same at $200/mo. (prioritization here—travel matters more to me)
Personal Care/Shopping = Dropped from $200/mo. to $150/mo.
Hobbies = Stayed the same at $140/mo.
Overall, I went from allowing myself $2,515 of spending per month to $2,330 of spending per month. I was genuinely apprehensive about whether or not I’d be able to live within my new parameters, because up until December of last year, my spending overview looked like this, where red is over-budget and green is under:
I was consistently going over-budget every. Single. Month.
But, to my astonishment, I’m well-within my new budget. My budgets are all set to “rollover” (so if I go over, that balance carries forward to the next month, and if I’m under, that surplus carries over), so you’ll notice where I’ve been consistently under-budget, too. Consider February’s spending:
I am—by far—much prouder of this overview than those above.
Now, when I look at my overall picture (primary income, side hustle incomes, interest, and spending), I'm saving well over $1,000/mo. of my take-home pay—that doesn't include the 401(k) contribution. I'd compare this to an earlier figure, but I honestly don't know how much I was saving before. Probably closer to $300 or $400.
The crazy thing is, my life doesn't really feel any different—except a little simpler, now that my routine isn't punctuated by when I can swing through the Starbucks drive-through or get my gel manicure in.
It's hard to think about how I used to spend, because I know if I had taken the reigns sooner I could've blown past my goals by now.
But it's never too late to start. It's also never too early to get a grip on the way you're spending. Even though it may not be considered "normal," it's incredibly beneficial to be able to account for where every dollar is going.
I look at it this way: I work 40 hours per week at my day job and 6-8 hours per week at my side job to bring home the bacon (admittedly, that's not even that much work compared to my Millennial friends in fields like investment banking).
Why in the hell would I squander it away on stuff that I don't truly care about? I've found such an enhanced sense of enjoyment in my rarer restaurant meals. The occasional café coffee. The Whole Foods green juice.
And perhaps most importantly, now that I've got a lot of padding in my budgets, I'm able to guiltlessly take trips to places like Maui and buy ODESZA tickets on a whim because I know I'm $700 under-budget for the month and have afforded myself that wiggle room.
Nothing supplements your feelings of independence and control like having complete autonomy over your financial situation. Money is power, money is freedom, and money is a one-way ticket out of a bad situation (or to Maui).
Even if you're hundreds (in some cases, thousands) of dollars a month over-budget right now like I regularly used to be, I encourage you to internalize this: it doesn't have to be a source of stress or anxiety. It can be a source of peace and freedom. You're in control, if you want to be.
It won't happen overnight, but it'll happen faster than you think. How do I know? I'm on track to hit my $50,000 goal next month—seven months ahead of a saving and investing schedule that felt impossibly fast when I set it up. I don't say that to brag, but to illustrate how little changes can catapult you into a happier, more secure state of fiscal existence.
Don't hesitate to reach out!
I'd love to help. If you want a little personalized attention or someone to talk to about getting things in order, shoot me an email or a DM.
Welcome back, #FrugalFriendshipClub. While we’ve been alternating between topics like building long-term wealth via real estate ownership and how to hack the travel rewards game so you can travel frequently and cheaply, this week’s post is going to introduce a theme that you’ll see here a little more from now on:
To put it bluntly and crudely: How to be hot without spending a fortune.
Just kidding—we’ll be a little more refined and just say it’s the intersection of frugality and looking your best.
There’s an overwhelming and seemingly inescapable truth beginning to surface in the beauty industry and its meme-inspired offshoots: in order to be beautiful, you must be rich (or, at the very least, spend as though you are).
While I don’t intend this post or any future posts to explicitly endorse vanity, I’m aware that most human beings like to look good. And sometimes, when a brand promises you that for the low, low price of $45 + tip you'll be beautiful, you're probably going to concede.
But if there’s collective acceptance of the expectation that you have to be willing to spend money hand over fist to look good, we’ll end up sacrificing some semblance of financial stability in the long-run (and that, my friends, will cause wrinkles).
Unquestionably, money and leisure-time make it far easier to keep up with a grooming regimen—but there are a LOT of inexpensive alternatives.
So I invited Alexa Campbell, an Alabama friend all-too-familiar with the superficial pressure of a college campus in the South where female beauty expectations are inexplicably sky-high, to walk us through her perfected “at-home blowout” technique.
I’ve got two more related posts in the chamber: oil cleansing and moisturizing for under $20 and at-home microdermabrasion-adjacent treatments for $10 or less. (I promise it's not just letting Sam Cat lick your face, but that works too.)
To be honest, I hardly ever blow-dry my hair because I never felt like I got a great result—but I learned a LOT from this article, even just in editing it.
Alexa, take it away!
No one can deny that the feeling of a fresh salon blow-out is one of the best. Like many of the other 20-something girls I know, I would love the opportunity to indulge myself with a salon blow-out every week.
However, my current grad school budget and schedule don’t allow for this, so after deciding 2019 would be the year of true “self-care” for me, I set out to master the perfect at-home blow-out on a budget and create the same—if not better—experience for myself in my averagely lit apartment bathroom.
Originally, I got frustrated with this process. I was trying to get it done super-fast and using whatever hair products I had under my sink to make it work. After taking the time to watch some videos, read some articles about training my hair and investing in (sometimes saving for) the right products that would last, I got the results I wanted.
After countless hours of YouTube tutorials and working with the products and tools that I had (because budget) and reading lots and lots and lots of Sephora, Ulta and Amazon reviews before biting the bullet and buying a few new things, I finally figured it out.
Before I explain further, I’ll add the obligatory disclaimer that everyone’s hair is extremely different. I personally have dark brown, very thick hair that has slight color damage from going too blonde too quick (balayage is #addicting) and my split ends seem never-ending.
After examining all this, I decided to take 3 inches off my hair just before the new year and my now shorter layers are way healthier and easier to blowout than before. I’ve also decided to take a year-long break from color treatments (not ideal for everyone—yes, I hear you blondes!).
KG note: I took a six-month highlights hiatus in an effort to push my frugality and self-esteem to the fringes, and I think my hair lady wanted to shave me bald for doing so. Four inches of regrowth requires a LOT of extra bleach and she charged me accordingly.
All that to say: I think it’s worth it to give your hair some sort of evaluation before attempting to make yourself salon-pretty at home. Along with using the right shampoo and conditioner for your hair, I recommend alternating between a high-end option and a drugstore one. I switch between Dove and Biolage to make my pricier shampoo last longer—this will set your hair up for success.
Basically, getting your hair healthy will make any blowout, curl or style you do at home look better and last longer—and switching between expensive and affordable products will make both products last, prolonging the results.
Now for the fun stuff…
The key ingredients for any good at home blow-dry are some good clips for sectioning (I love these super inexpensive ones), a heat protectant spray, a round brush and a blow dryer. Round brushes are different for every kind of hair so definitely look at sizes and bristle type for your hair.
My other favorite products are this heat protectant by DryBar called Hot Toddy and this Hot Tools blow dryer. I use the concentrator attachment on my blow dryer because I have found that the concentrated air flow, I get a smoother, more salon-like finish. This blow-dryer is pricier than some, but $49.99 has gotten me through most of college and now after still works like a charm. Good investment piece.
On my wet hair, I use It’s a 10 spray, a holy grail product since I was literally 13. I always stock up when Ulta runs a sale because it’s way too pricey for my liking but I don’t know what I would do without it.
I start blow drying my hair after it is 75-90% air dry. My natural hair dries super wavy and frizzy, so I have to admit the first couple times I tried to blow dry it, I started with sopping wet hair to avoid even dealing with it. I realized that putting the super-hot air from the blow dryer right on freshly washed hair was only damaging it further and probably the reason I was getting sweaty and gross right out of the shower. (Don’t lie, it has definitely happened to you.)
The way I blow dry my hair is a bit different than how it’s done at most salons. I focus my attention on the front pieces that frame my face first and create my part. If I don’t blow-out these pieces first, I tend to get super frizzy waves that dry close to my scalp and are hard to flatten without a straightener.
I pull the round brush down and hold my blow dryer above the brush moving downward on the hairs over the front of my face while the rest of my hair is clipped back. I noticed that pointing the blow dryer in the direction the hair grows helps with fly-aways or frizziness. Always curl the round brush a few times without the blow-dryer directly on the hair, to let them cool off and hold that bouncy finish on the ends.
Then, I clip up those dried front pieces into a pouf (probably because of my New Jersey roots), and round brush 1-inch sections of my hair beginning with the bottom layer and working my way up. Each time I allow the round brush to go through a piece a couple times as it cools to hold the bottom volume.
At the very end, I put my blow-dryer on the cool setting and just run my fingers through my hair to make sure each piece has cooled off. I’ll add some hair oil or shine cream, probably a sample from a Sephora order or beauty subscription box to finish off the look. Overall, air-drying (yes, air-drying—the first 30 to 45 minutes) and blow-drying takes me about an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes.
The really important stuff...
I know you’re probably thinking, how am I supposed to leave enough time to shower, let my hair air dry AND then blow dry it before I need to be somewhere?! This is all part of the experience, ladiesssss!
Figure out when it works for you! I work out early before class and work most mornings so I leave myself that extra 30-45 minutes post-shower in the morning for my air-dry time—it’s surprisingly relaxing. I catch up on Real Housewives, jade roll my face, make a yummy breakfast and even finish homework sometimes (oops) to let the time pass.
This helps me enjoy the entire process a lot more.
KG Note: I know for some this might mean rearranging a routine, but even if it means waking up about half an hour earlier, you may be able to buy more time by showering first thing in the morning and doing everything else as you air-dry. If you get ready in gyms a lot and are rushed (guilty), try to move your hair-washing/drying to nighttime.
Also keep in mind this is NOT a daily thing. If you do it well, it might be a twice-weekly commitment.
Lately I’ve made it a game for myself to see if I can get my blow-out done faster every time. I have friends that do their blowouts at night because that works with their schedule. Some weeks I spend part of my Sunday afternoon on a blowout. I do think it is worth carving out that extra time because I make that blow-out laaaaasst.
If I blow out my hair on a Monday morning, it’s likely I can go through the week and not do it again until Friday morning. Just wear your hair in a low pony to bed in a scrunchie or something trendier (if you’re just as into these cool new hairties as I am) like Teleties.
I do the same during workouts and place it in a low, messy bun. This has worked wonders for me. My hair stays smooth and straight in a low pony and I rarely have to do a blow-dry refresh the next morning. When I do, I use a $1 water spray bottle to re-wet my hair and do a quick blow-dry on those extra frizzy pieces.
I also sleep on a silk pillowcase and that definitely helps with morning fly-aways and tangles. (And please don’t stop reading because you think I’m boujee and spent that money—I won it in an Instagram giveaway and while I am obsessed, I will buy a set on Amazon in the future because there are plenty of cheaper options out there.)
Since figuring out ways to let my hair last all week through workouts, life and late study nights, dry texturizing spray has become the literal love of my life. I use a bunch of different texturizing sprays on my hair because I’m still in the trial and testing phase.
So far, I love this $28 one from Moroccan Oil but also love this $6 one from Not Your Mother’s. Also, this one by IGK smells UNREAL and lasts for a super long time in the travel-size (only $14 and I’ve been using it over a month and still have product).
Since I’m only washing and doing my hair two or three times a week, my hair products last me a while and (in my opinion) are worth the slightly-higher-than-drugstore price because of how long they last.
If I had to rank the importance of the purchases overall, I’d say spend money on the blow dryer ($49.99) and a combination of tools and products (under $100) that can last you up to three months at a time. It makes so much more sense than a weekly (or even bi-weekly, if your hair needs it) blowout that’ll set you back $40 + tip at the salon.
KG Note: The same goes for knowing how to curl your own hair. When you get to the point where you feel like you’re the one who can do your hair best, you’ll be way less tempted to go shell out that Dry Bar money. It just takes practice.
Be patient and create the experience for yourself. Getting ready and feeling good about the way you look isn’t impossible on a tight budget. Happy drying!
At the risk of showing my cards at the outset of this post, the two most crucial components of traveling are strategic budget prioritization and travel rewards hacking.
I included a third powerful travel hack for getting extremely cheap international airfare ("$400 to Melbourne in the summer" cheap) in my Money, Honey newsletter. Be part of the #FrugalFriendshipClub and subscribe if you're interested!
This sounds simultaneously underwhelming and obvious, but these two things can—many times--make the difference between a young person bleeding their bank account dry to travel once or twice a year, OR traveling frequently with relative financial ease. Sounds great, right?
If you follow these steps, your next trip will happen within three months or less.
A lot of young people say they can’t afford to travel, but then (and I mean this with NO judgment, please trust that) they eat out for lunch during the week and go to bars every Friday and Saturday night.
It’s not that they can’t afford to—they’re just prioritizing their expenses inefficiently.
The second category I see and hear about most often are those with substantial loan debt. Whether it’s credit card or student loan debt, these people are being responsible in the sense that they’re prioritizing paying their loans over (or, perhaps, feel their loans somehow disqualify them from) traveling.
The only type of person that I’ll go out on a limb and say this article doesn’t apply to (or shouldn’t, for the time being) are those with immense credit card debt. If you know credit cards pose a self-control issue for you, I’m going to ask that you opt out of the second half.
However, the first part—the prioritization—applies to everyone.
Prioritization of spending (again) sounds incredibly obvious. OBVIOUSLY, you should spend your money on the things you care about. Duh. (And if you're tempted to scroll past this part, I ask you: why did you click on this article in the first place? If you're not saving enough to travel right now, give this part a chance. It's half the math equation.)
The choice between a $12 açai bowl for breakfast on a rough Monday morning and going to Seattle for a long weekend doesn’t feel like a direct comparison—that’s not a “one or the other” cost/benefit analysis, in most of our minds. Nobody buys breakfast being like, "UGH, I'm sacrificing a weekend trip for this smoothie."
But if a trip to Seattle is $500 for the weekend (it is) and you’re spending $150 per week on restaurant food (not a hard task, since that’s only $20 per day), that trip to Seattle could be paid for in a little more than three weeks of forgoing your Chipotle burrito bowl and bringing your lunch to work.
I would challenge you, if you don’t budget, to look at your credit or debit card statements for last month and add up how many charges went into the “Restaurants & Dining” or “Alcohol & Bars” categories. I guarantee 9 out of 10 of you will be utterly blown away by how much you spend without realizing it. I know I was before my #FinancialAwakening.
(For the record, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with restaurants and bars—it’s just a virtually painless way to get hundreds of dollars more per month out of your budget, since it’s entirely discretionary.)
In other words, it’s a lot easier to stop spending $200 at the bar every month than it is to stop paying $200 on your student loans.
If you’ve made it this far and you’re like, KG, that sounds literally horrible and I don’t want to deprive myself, bear with me. You have two options.
If you want to squeeze more experiential value out of your money without actually earning more, that money has to come from somewhere. Sacrifices may be involved, but it doesn’t have to feel like deprivation. I get it: But KG, I want to live like an Instagram model both ON the private jet and off! In which case, your options are:
I don't make the rules! I just write this blog!
I used to spend between $500 and $600 a month on restaurants and bars without batting an eye. I didn’t even feel like I was spending that much.
I was doing what (I thought) were totally normal and not-at-all-unreasonable things for a young person who was making good money. Eating a lunch or two out during the week. Starbucks every morning. Dinner out on Friday and Saturday night. Brunch on Sunday.
Not surprisingly, each $5 or $15 or sometimes $30 charge quickly accumulated, and before I knew it, I had sunk $500 into my Restaurants & Bars budget with little or nothing to show for it save for a few Instagram Stories of my food that nobody cared about.
But last month, I spent $140 total on restaurants and bars. I only eat at restaurants on the weekends now (it's a treat!), I don't go to Starbucks, and I tend to pick cheaper meals out than I used to when I DO eat out, like grabbing $6 Chick-Fil-A on a Friday evening instead of an $18-$25 restaurant experience.
Here’s the crazy part: I didn’t feel at all deprived. If anything, my life felt simpler. There was no decision fatigue clouding my judgment. I didn’t feel like I missed out on anything. I still ate food I loved—it was just food from Trader Joe’s.
Instead, I went to Mexico last month and spent that saved $350 on my nonstop American flights. $350 on flights to Mexico vs. $350 on food. Prioritization. Your decision.
I think you probably get the point, so that brings me to my second point: travel rewards hacking.
The travel rewards hacking game is helpful for and applicable to everyone, but especially those with student loans—because it doesn’t involve saving money (maybe you don’t even have an income to save in the first place yet).
If you haven’t read my post yet on the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, open it in another tab and do so after this.
Essentially, you can stack the acquisition bonuses from different travel credit cards to pay for part or all of your travel.
A lot of these cards have very low annual fees, relatively speaking (Sapphire Preferred is $0 the first year and $95 after that). If you’re a travel hacking newbie, I’d recommend getting the Sapphire Preferred card, then three months later getting the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Card ($69 annual fee).
Why three months? Three months is the time you’ll need to hit the spend threshold on the Sapphire card—you have to spend $4,000 within the first three statement closings to earn 50,000 points, valued at between $685 and $1,000 depending on how you hack it, and there are tricks involved with maximizing your return on points (I definitely lucked out in my point redemption for Cancun).
The Southwest card only requires you to spend $1,000 in three months to get 40,000 points, so if you think you can work toward both thresholds simultaneously ($5,000 in three months), go for it.
Apply for the Sapphire Card here to start working toward your 50,000 point bonus (I've linked my referral code in the hope that you've found value in this article and are willing to give me a small kickback for writing it—hey, transparency, right?).
Use the card to pay your rent for two months and call it a day!
[It's worth noting that these are considered premium credit cards and therefore favor applicants with already established credit, so if you have bad credit or no credit, it's unlikely your application will be accepted—in that case, I'd suggest reading my starter post about credit cards and begin building credit now.]
The Southwest card is the best airline card (not that I’m biased) because Southwest points are so valuable. For example, my roundtrip to Hawaii cost about 6,000 points when it was on sale, and the point bonus on the card right now is 40,000. It buoys between 40,000 and 60,000, so sign up when it’s at least 50,000 (that's what I'd do if I were you).
So you can use the Southwest points for the flights, the Chase points for the hotels, and bada-bing, bada-boom—you’re traveling for free. It sounds easy, because it is. (We'll get into annual fees and credit cards more broadly in a future post.)
And for those ambitious jetsetters out there like, but KG, I want to travel ~abroad~, do what my friend Abby does—use your Southwest points to fly to the major U.S. international airport hubs (JFK, LAX, DFW) and book an extremely cheap international flight from that airport instead.
You’re going to pay WAYYY less for a flight to Thailand out of LAX than out of, say, Nashville (in this hypothetical, you live in Nashville—yeehaw), but you can fly Nashville to L.A. on Southwest for a few thousand points.
Observe Nashville to Bangkok on American:
Yikes. Nearly $2,000. Now, let's look at LAX to Bangkok on the same dates:
$1,000 less. So how are you getting to L.A.? On Southwest, for 6,000 of your 40,000 points (look at the yellow Wanna Get Away column):
And for those of you who are scared of credit cards… your credit score is based on several factors, including length of credit, credit utilization, payment history, and recently opened accounts, among other things.
So while your “recently opened accounts” score may go down slightly by opening two new cards in six months, your credit utilization score will go up because you’re now utilizing a smaller amount of your credit line. Consider this hypothetical:
You have one card with a $10,000 credit line. You typically spend $3,000 per month. You’re utilizing about 30% of that total credit line.
Now let’s say you open a Sapphire card with a $12,000 limit and a Southwest card with a $10,000 limit.
Your total credit line now is $32,000, which means if you continue to utilize $3,000 a month (i.e., your spending stays the same), your new utilization is about 10%, compared to your former 30% utilization. (The lower, the better.)
Sometimes I think we get so overwhelmed and intimidated by personal finance and money management in general that we just throw our hands up and stop paying attention--that doesn't have to be you.
Tips like these are the ones I feel most passionately about sharing because they are so. damn. easy. and fairly obvious, and yet... it feels like most people my age aren't aware of these strategies and perks or don't believe they're impactful enough to commit to them.
Your best bet is combining them. Reprioritize your spending so you can reallocate $800 of bullshit money over the course of a few months, then use Southwest points to get yourself to a major hub (if you don't already live there) and book a cheap international roundtrip ticket with those savings.
Again—it's all about prioritization of spending and hacking the travel rewards game to work for you. Do both effectively, and you could be out there in no time.
Let me know if you end up moving forward with re-budgeting or signing up for the cards. Combining the two strategies is absolutely your most potent option.
Thanks for reading!
Welcome back to my channel! Just kidding. Welcome back to Money, Honey, your one-stop shop for fiscal guilt trips and inspiration alike.
This will be the third (and final, I believe) Millennial Housing Diary, and in my opinion, I’ve saved the two most interesting for last.
If you submitted a housing diary, I want to say—thank you so much for trusting me with those intimate financial details. I appreciate your willingness to share, and I’m conflicted with feelings of pride and envy surrounding your ability to buy a home.
Today’s diary looks at two people who have two big things in common: they bought their homes as single persons without help from their parents and with student loan debt.
I think these are the two most inspirational—and one of the entrants gave some other financial heads-ups, too (I think that ended up being my favorite part about this series).
A single 25-year-old male living in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Income: $145,000 pre-tax (2016)
Down payment: 20%, or $60,000 (it took me two years to save)
Cost of home: $300,000
Type of home: 3-bedroom ranch-style home
Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Mortgage: Yes, 30-year fixed
Taxes: $3,400/year (property tax is super low! Best thing about Oklahoma)
Insurance: $1,750/annually (no escrow account – paying with credit card also!)
Total monthly payment: $1,160/month
Student debt? Yes, $29,000 (Paid off ~1 year of graduating, with credit cards for all the points!)
What he said…
“I closed on my house back in January 2017—one of my friends actually owned it right before me. I was over there all the time, so I already knew it was the perfect house for me. I’d been casually looking at houses and found nothing I liked, but once she mentioned that she was thinking about selling it, I told her I would buy it immediately. I feel like this is very different than most people’s first-time house buying experience.
As a side note, this was right after Donald Trump got elected and interest rates were already starting to increase, so I immediately starting shopping for rates. I wanted to get a 30-year mortgage, and with interest rates so relatively low, it was a good way to keep my monthly payments low and take advantage of the tax breaks from the interest expenses.
The main thing I wanted to avoid was the dreaded PMI. My only advice to any millennial buying a house, would be to always pay 20% down. If I would have put $50,000 down instead of $60,000, I would have ended up paying almost $7,000 in PMI over 5 years, assuming I didn’t make any additional principal payments. It seemed like a waste of money to me. The only way I think it may be worth it is if you can guarantee your house will appreciate in value more than what you are putting towards PMI.
I felt really strongly about 30-year compared to 15-year when choosing my mortgage term. I can’t deny that there are intangibles to paying off your house early. However, even if you have the means to cover your monthly payments for a 15-year, I think that it is always best if you go with a 30-year term. Here’s the math:
My mortgage rate was 4.125%. When shopping for rates, I was able to secure a 15-year mortgage with a 3.65% interest rate. I think my monthly mortgage payment for a 15-year loan was ~$600/month more than my 30-year. That is $600 per month I could put towards an S&P 500 Index that returns on average 10% per year, instead of my fixed mortgage rate.
Bottom line is, mortgages are cheap! It’s all about how you maximize your return on your money, and you can also have immediate liquidity if you needed the cash.”
A single 25-year-old female living in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Income: $75,000 (pre-tax)
Down payment: $10,000—I think it took me about a year to save up (no help from parents)
Townhouse in a Minneapolis suburb; 1,600 sq. ft.
Interest rate: I can't quite remember, I think 4.5%
Total monthly payment: $1,200
*Note from KG: This friend of mine is 35 now, so this entry is from 10 years ago. Her hustle is indescribable. She works full-time, teaches yoga almost every day, and has an 11-year-old daughter.
What she said...
"I had minimal student loans and paid them off by 30. [Meaning she bought the townhome with 5 years of payments left.]
I knew I was going to buy because I wanted stability for my daughter. So a friend recommended a mortgage lender to me, who ended up being great. We went through all my finances and the pre-approval process, which made me feel comfortable that I could actually afford it.
Then he connected me with a realtor that was easy to work with, patient, listened to what I wanted, etc."
I love that these two entrants both had student loans and got no outside help, especially because only one of them was making a fairly ludicrous salary.
The second entrant makes it especially obvious just how within-reach home ownership really might be for some of us, if we're willing and/or able to just put 5% down. Conversely, the first entrant makes really good points about doing the math surrounding some of these scenarios.
In his example, he makes the point that your money really may be better off in an S&P 500 index fund than paying off an aggressive 15-year mortgage term. Moreover, he makes the solid point that a PMI really only makes sense if you have reason to believe (risky) that your home will appreciate quickly and significantly enough to offset that expense.
I'm still learning how to apply that type of math to my own decision-making in all areas of my life; fleshing out different scenarios (some of which are based on assumptions) to make better, more sound decisions.
Did you notice the first entrant mentioned paying for all this stuff on a credit card to get points? He's a savvy one, and we'll be checking back in with him in the near future—he has 13 credit cards across which he distributes his regular spending for #MAXIMUM #RETURNS.
(If nothing else, I hope that case study will show you why credit cards are not [read: don't have to be] scary and irresponsible.)
Lastly—and perhaps the most important takeaway—is that, within reason, there's really no singular right way. Every entrant had a different approach. Some started with a lender and went through pre-approval, then started looking. Others started on Zillow. Still others bought from friends or family.
Some put 20% down. Some didn't even put 10%. All feel that their way worked for them. (Although... there are definitely a lot of WRONG ways; see housing market crash 2008).
A lender will almost always approve you for way more than you should actually be spending. If you're thinking about buying, explain your plan to a few trusted adults (like, 50 years of age or more) in your life and see if they spot any watch-outs or call-outs. Research your market.
Our last entrant pointed out that she bought a home because she wanted stability for her new daughter. Sometimes, buying a home extends beyond financial reason and the benefits far surpass your ROI.
I hope you enjoyed this series. If you'd like more housing diaries, let me know—I have several I never ended up posting. If not, we'll be moving onto credit card strategy and more philosophical discussions around frugality.
The young woman's money guide for all the things you're too embarrassed to ask your friends. Build the life you thought you were too broke to afford through managing your spending habits, travel hacking, and simple, smart investing.
Full-time Brand marketer at Southwest Airlines, part-time Yoga Sculpt teacher, occasional Waffle House Model and reformed materialist.
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