How Spending My Way Through NYC Taught Me What I Value

How Spending My Way Through NYC Taught Me What I Value

*I’m on vacation! So today I’ve got an epic guest post from my friend A Purple Life. Like most people, I’m fascinated by how others spend money, but this is more than a list of outrageous spending–it’s about the too-relatable pressure to fit in–something I think we’ve all felt at some point. Enjoy! -Luxe*


All my life I’ve done what I thought I was supposed to do. “Get good grades, get into a good school, and get a good job.” You’ve heard that, too, right? Follow these steps in this order and you too can be happy!

So that’s what I did. I graduated Salutatorian of my high school and in an act of teenage rebellion, I got into the college that my guidance counselor point blank told me I shouldn’t bother applying to.

Then it was onto the next milestone to conquer: a good job.

I didn’t waste a second after college. Donned in my cap and gown, I rushed out of the graduation line and dove right into my parent’s rental car headed to New York City. My parents hugged me goodbye, and there I was, alone in a Craigslist apartment that had no wifi and an opera singer roommate who taught classes at 9am on Saturdays. I only discovered this after awakening bleary-eyed one morning to the sound of what I thought was a dying cat.

Adventures in Advertising

My first job was at an advertising agency downtown. My life was perfect on paper, except it wasn’t. Working at least 12 hour days became completely normal and I barely did anything but work, eat and sleep. It turns out that doing everything that people tell you to do doesn’t always make you happy.

The first thing that struck me about advertising is that when clients are involved we lived like kings–usually to impress them. We ate at fancy restaurants, took cabs and sipped on fancy overpriced cocktails. Our bosses flew around the world in first class and wore ridiculously expensive sunglasses and jewelry. This is what I learned showed success in this industry and in New York.

Dress for the Job You Want

My department was headed by the Senior Vice President, a meticulous woman who wore the $500 sunglasses and $1,000 shoes. I looked around and saw that other people on my team were trying to keep up with her displays of wealth, despite making a fraction what the SVP did. If you want to move up you have to dress for the job you want, right?

When my coworkers and I had time to eat lunch during the day the conversation was filled with talks of stuff:
Did you see that new Kate Spade bag?
When are you getting those Ray Bans?
Should I get the new iPhone?

The answer was always yes, Yes, and YES.

Being Sucked into the Consumerism Trap

Just like how I competed in high school, I started to compete with my coworkers. As we vied for promotions, it became a game of, “Who has more expensive stuff?” I maxed my 401K and saw the rest as spending money whose sole purpose was to make the rest of my life bearable.

One way to spend it was on over-the-top experiences. Have you ever wondered who buys first-class plane tickets? Well, my friends, ME. My mom worked for an airline so I flew a lot when I was younger. We would often get upgraded so when I saw extra money in my checking account I thought that first-class tickets would be something to spend it on. You might want to sit down for this next sentence.

I bought a $7,000 first-class ticket to the Maldives. It was originally $21,000, but still. $7,000 was close to all I had in my checking account at the time and I spent it on one purchase.

And that’s not all. I bought: three first-class tickets to circumnavigate the US for Thanksgiving and a business-class ticket to London for the weekend. FOR THE WEEKEND. I spent $500 in one week of eating out (It was Restaurant Week–what was I supposed to do?). Talk about throwing my money in a dumpster and lighting it on fire.

Dressing to Impress

And then there were the clothes. My boss at my first job pulled me aside one day and said I needed to dress better than everyone else, because “that’s what Client Service does.” I tried to point out the irony of the cargo pants he was wearing, but he said that I didn’t have to follow his advice, but if I wanted to get promoted then I had to.

Apparently this was the key to success, so my purchases exploded.

I signed up for a purse subscription, because like hell would I be caught dead carrying the same frayed purse every day. My closet was packed to the brim with clothes so I could dress to impress, including a $300 dress I’ve to this day still never worn.

Blowing Off Steam

Dealing with clients was stressful enough, after work I deserved to unwind with my friends. Of course, this always involved spending money.

“Meet us at this bar to drink $15 cocktails!”
“Let’s go see that new Broadway show!”
“Treat Yo’ Self!”

For a little background, “Treat Yo’ Self Day” from the awesome show Parks & Recreation is supposed to be just that: one day. But instead of sticking to this phrase’s original roots my friends used it to give them a reason to spend money, even when they knew they shouldn’t. It’s how I justified dropping hundreds of dollars on spa treatments that I didn’t even enjoy. I deserved a treat after all my hard work.

Not once did I stop to question what I was doing or why.

Still Not Enough

Well, not until my coworker got promoted. And then another. Eventually everyone else on my team, at my level, was promoted except for me. One of my colleagues was promoted despite constantly missing his deadlines and always wearing shorts and boat shoes. I’ve never missed a deadline–I think I would break out into hives if I did.

My boss suggested that I go speak to the SVP. Big mistake–she basically told me I wasn’t going to be promoted, that I didn’t deserve it and that it wasn’t a checklist (aka something I could argue with the facts I had brought with me). I was left behind despite doing everything they had asked for. I’d done everything I was supposed to, and I had nothing to show for it.

The Turning Point

On that day I fought my way on and off three different subway trains, and got home to my latest apartment at 10pm. Right when my musician neighbors started rehearsing. I opened my bedroom door and sighed. My room was 8×6’ with a window facing a brick wall and it was covered in stuff: a half-packed bag for my weekend mini-vacation to London, $40 heels I couldn’t walk more than a few feet in and a $50 purse that I didn’t use because while it was cute, the bamboo handles dug into my arm uncomfortably. All these things I would need to move somewhere if I wanted enough room to sleep.

That’s when I felt it.

The weight of all this stuff.

I didn’t have the energy to move any of it, but I did start thinking: Why was I doing this? Why did I buy all this stuff that I never used or appreciated? Why was I blindly following what others claimed would make me happy when they were so very wrong?

So, I changed it. I canceled my monthly purse subscription, I started making piles of all the shoes and clothes I’d never worn to donate. I finished packing my bag to London and told myself this was my last non-economy flight.

Making My Own Path

I had taken the first step towards cleaning up my life, but it didn’t sink in that what makes other people happy might not make me happy until I read Mr. Money Mustache. I read the step-by-step journey of how he saved and invested enough money to retire at 30, so he could do whatever he wanted.

By reading his blog, I found out that there’s something more valuable than stuff: time.

I was hooked.

Reading Mr. Money Mustache and other fantastic blogs opened a whole new world to me. I didn’t need to follow anyone else’s specific plan. I could make my own.

Spending Based on My Values

My boyfriend and I started looking for a new apartment–a nicer apartment with walls that weren’t paper thin and a room where my outstretched arms didn’t almost touch the walls. Would this cost more than I was paying before? Absolutely, but it was worth it to me.

Worth it. That was a phrase I’d never considered before.

In this new apartment my no longer sleep-deprived brain was able to take a harder look at my major expenses after rent: food and travel.

I asked myself: Did my spending properly reflect what I valued?

Analyzing My Spending

I love to eat and experience new places. So, I decided to keep these expenses, but see if I could make them more manageable without losing what I loved about them. I started learning to cook the restaurant dishes I adored. I tried to make one new recipe a week until I didn’t feel like I needed recipes anymore. In the last two years my cooking has improved so much that I haven’t really wanted to go out to eat. What I can make at home is often better. Achievement unlocked!

As for travel, I started booking flights to locations based on the flight deals. I also discovered travel hacking and read everything I could about it. I’m now able to save thousands a year while experiencing fancy flights that I would no longer be willing to pay for with cash. As a result, I got to keep my luxurious travel to faraway places and eat like a queen each night for a fraction of the cost.

I traded all the things that don’t bring me joy, like fancy dinners with lackluster service accompanied by unnecessary bar tabs and taxis home because that’s just what you do in New York City, so I could concentrate my dollars on what does: making home cooked meals with my partner, walking instead of putting my life in a crazy taxi driver’s hands, and having friends over for drinks instead of meeting them at a loud bar full of strangers.

Tackling the Elephant in the Room

After all this evaluation and change my spending decreased substantially, but there was still a bit of a thorn in my side:

My Manhattan rent.

It was eating 58% of my budget. After a peaceful and sleep-filled year in our new apartment, I was ready to challenge my main assumption: That I had to stay in Manhattan.

After a lot of discussion and spreadsheet analysis (we love spreadsheets) we discovered that if we moved from Manhattan to Seattle our salaries would stay the same or increase, our rent costs would almost halve, and we would receive double the apartment space for that price. Even including the moving cost, the fact that Washington has no income tax–state or city, both of which we paid in NYC–would mean over $8,000 in tax savings alone, so it would be worth it. So we pulled the trigger. I gave away even more of my stuff and we moved across the country.

Finding Fulfillment Through Trial and Error

In the end, it took trying everyone else’s path to get me where I am today: a place where I’ve tested every assumption I had about what I need to be happy. A place where I know exactly what I value most and only spend my money and time pursuing those goals. All I really need is time with the people I love and the ability to explore and eat my way through this wonderful world we live in. I had tried to find fulfillment through the fleeting joy buying stuff brings, when in reality, what I need to be happy doesn’t cost anything at all.

How about you? Have you ever gotten caught up in peer pressure? How did you find out what was important to you? 

Liked this post? Visit the A Purple Life blog.

Feature Image: Unsplash

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