Finish Rich

November 17, 2002
Rethinking Personal Finance

Living simply can be simply fabulous

It pays to go from the plush life to living within your means

By M.P. Dunleavey

Nov. 17 ó I donít know what your life was supposed to be like, but mine was supposed to be modestly fabulous. I would maintain a modest-but-hip wardrobe (Banana Republic with occasional forays to Henri Bendel sales), live in a modest-but-ample Manhattan loft and eat at chic Manhattan restaurants, while dashing off once a year to someplace remote yet trendy. You know. Nothing fancy.

For several years I actually tried to live this life, only to find that I was getting deeper and deeper into debt. Giving up the lifestyle to which Iíd become accustomed didnít seem like an option. But neither did getting a job as an investment banker. Which left me two choices: I could continue to live my dream lifestyle, even though it was turning my finances into, how do you say in English ó garden fertilizer? Or, I could figure out how to live a life I could afford. A far more ordinary life.

HORDES OF PEOPLE WHO REEK OF MONEY

When you think youíre entitled to a certain standard of living, ďordinaryĒ life seems beneath you. Itís mundane and tedious and involves things like cooking dinner, doing dishes and staying home to watch the ďSix Feet UnderĒ tape your uncle made for you ... because, in point of fact, after doing the math, you canít afford your once-hectic nightlife.

To rub salt in my ego, there is the pressure of New York ó bright lights, big city, fat wallets ó all around me. Living well is just a given for many people who live here.

I canít tell how many of them are just pretending, as I once did, that they can afford to eat out seven days out of seven, take cabs hither and yon, and wear whatever ďSex and the CityĒ dictates. Nobody talks about money.

Itís just assumed that you have more than enough of it. To indicate otherwise is gauche, embarrassing and somehow sets you apart. Youíre supposed to be keeping up with the Joneses, even if you have no idea who those Joneses are. Just keep your eye on what everyone else is doing (and spending) and do likewise.

THE FLEECING OF SAN FRANCISCO

Boy can you get in a lot of financial hot water that way ó and donít tell me itís just because I live in Manhattan. I have seen the devil, and he publishes a magazine called InStyle, which I now say Hail Marys to avoid. The one time I did read it (at the hair salon), I ran frenzied into the street and tried to hitch a ride to the nearest Gianfranco Ferre boutique so I, too, could wear what Reese Witherspoon is wearing.

Fortunately I had a chance to live in San Francisco for three years. San Francisco is the worldís other most expensive city, but people there spend all their money on wetsuits and mountain bikes and computer equipment they have Fedexed from NASA. Since I donít do things outdoors, and since folks there donít care about fancy restaurants or cute clothes (itís the fleece capital of the universe) ó you can imagine how much more sane and sober I became about money.

Either that or I just grew up.

I was thinking about that the other night as I cooked dinner in my sweats. When I moved back to Manhattan, blighted place of my birth, I decided not to live downtown in a tiny overpriced apartment ó which is what most people do in order to maintain a certain kind of lifestyle. I chose instead to live in a big, cheap apartment in a cheap, slightly gritty neighborhood, inconveniently situated far from anything even remotely hip or trendy. I did that deliberately, and I donít regret it, no matter how much my friends tease me that Iím living somewhere near the Arctic Circle.

OH, THE PRICE OF CACHET

Maybe Iím over the whole lifestyle concept. I find itís a lot easier to live the way I want to live, and can afford to live, when Iím not trying to support a lifestyle that I canít even afford the down payment on.

Lifestyles are expensive, but they come with a lot of cachet ó which is really what we think weíre buying. Even the sporty, mountain-biking lifestyle of Northern California confers a certain stature. When you give up your capital-L lifestyle, wherever you live, you lose something: a feeling that youíre special, that you sparkle, that you live a life others envy.

Which is pretty icky and shallow.

None of this was as conscious or deliberate as Iím making it sound. Itís just that since I moved back home, it suddenly seemed silly to waste a whole chunk of my income to keep up appearances only to impress other people. Whatís with spending $45 for just my share of dinner, when I could cook the same meal ó and Iím a damn good cook ó for half that. Including wine. I mean, really: Whatís in a dish of pasta? Three bucks?

OK, Iím not as austere as I sound. Iím terribly vulnerable around places like Kenneth Cole and Restoration Hardware. But Iím human.

MY EPIPHANY ABOUT WHAT MATTERS

I was talking to David Bach the other day, the author of ďSmart Women Finish Rich.Ē He just moved to New York himself last year, but he can afford to live in a cooler neighborhood than mine because heís a best-selling author and Iím not. And I donít have the slightest problem with that, because Iím not at all jealous. Not. At. All.

Point is, you can take the girl out of the trendy neighborhood, but it takes a while to beat the trendy neighborhood out of the girl. And Bach started talking about that, about how his personal finance seminars increasingly revolve around values, not money. ďIíve found that you have to talk about values first, stuff second,Ē he said.

Iíd always believed that shifting your values could change your financial outlook, but I didnít realize it was happening to me.

In the last six months, Iíve been able to put together a down payment to buy my first house. Thatís what I value. I get a pang when I see that other women, in the throes of debt and denial, can buy the latest fashion. But then I look at the picture of my house, which I keep taped next to my desk to keep me motivated through the agonies of financing and title insurance, and I realize thatís what matters.

That, and that itís time to cook dinner.

The views expressed herein are solely those of David Bach and FinishRich Media, LLC., and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Edelman Financial Group or any of its affiliates. Neither theinformation herein nor any opinion expressed herein constitutes or is intended to constitute investment advice or an offer to sell or solicit any person to purchase any security. FinishRich is a trademarked brand used by David Bach and FinishRich Media LLC. and none of David Bach, FinishRich Media LLC. [or The Edelman Financial Group or any of their affiliates] guarantee any financial results or a positive outcome to your personal situation.