3 months in L.A.: How I see money differently

Mo' money mo' problems

Before I moved to California, I had a lot of savings, very little debt, few financial responsibilities, and a restlessness for something more.

Now that I’ve been here for three and-a-half months (where does the time go?), my savings are dwindling, I’m thousands of dollars in debt, I’m paying most of my own bills, and that restlessness has morphed into general anxiety. I think I’m finally an Official American Adult.

Needless to say, the way I think about and deal with money has changed drastically in a few short months—which is a good thing, because I don’t take it for granted anymore. Still, money can be a challenge when you’re living in a new city. Part of the point of moving to a new city is actually experiencing the new city. Luckily, we’ve managed to do plenty of that with all the free and cheap things L.A. has to offer. But the several dozen or so amazing restaurants just down the street from our apartment? Not really in the budget to try out right now.

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece for Lady Clever about most people’s attitudes toward money and the false belief that more money means greater happiness. “As long as our basic needs are met and a few indulgences are granted,” I wrote, “We’re not getting any happier.” And yes, while we’d all welcome more cash always, it’s not going to fix depression, a lack of creative inspiration, relationships gone sour, or anything else that might be getting us down.

But my self-quote (ha) brings up an important point: indulgence. What exactly do I mean by indulgence? Well, when I still had a ton of my own money in the bank, I would indulge with the occasional shopping trip. Bad day at work? I’ll just head over to LOFT—I got a coupon in the mail, so I might as well use it to buy a cute new dress and feel better. Hell, good day at work? Today, I’m happy. I’ll celebrate with a new dress from LOFT.

…You see my point.

Now, what I consider indulgences are the basil plant sitting in our tiny 2×6 garden patch and the $6 car wash to keep my new, reliable car (that I still owe $10k for) free of the L.A. dust that’s always swirling around. Maybe if I’d always been of this mindset, I’d have saved even more money and wouldn’t be eyeing my savings account with a wary gaze.

And let’s not forget those student loans. I’m lucky that my undergrad schooling was paid for and relatively inexpensive to begin with, but what I’m spending for two years at USC for grad school (with additional living expenses, because I’m hardly earning enough part-time to pay half of rent) is, admittedly, obscene. To be honest, I frequently question whether I’ve made the right decision by going to this fancy school. Which is why it’s so important that I make the most of it and bust my ass so that when I graduate, I’m able to get a job—or several jobs—that will allow me to start paying back those loans… and hopefully afford to eat, too.

It’s an expensive life lesson, and one I’m grateful to learn early on. I recognize the privilege and opportunities I have by going to school, but I don’t have any delusions that the perfect, well-paying job will just land in my lap because of the prestigious name.

One of the biggest changes for me is how I think about material things. I never liked to think of myself as a material person. What person with substance does? But I was. Am still, I guess. To some extent, I probably always will be. I can’t help it—I love beautiful things. But I see them differently now. I got rid of more than a third of my wardrobe before moving out here, and looking in my closet now, I’d like to get rid of even more. Gone are the days when I shopped just for fun. I used to daydream about making our place Apartment Therapy-beautiful, but now all I care about is making it feel like home. And money? I could most definitely use more of it. But I no longer look at it as a gateway to happiness—just something to be monitored and dealt with. Money is what got me to L.A., along with some serious determination, patience, and planning. And for that, I’m grateful.

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  1. I think this is one of the those painful lessons all us 20-somethings have to go through.

    I frequently need to remind myself that living pay check to paycheck is okay and that I am not alone in this.

    I hope in 10 years I look back and thank my 23 year old self for getting smarter with money……

    • Cassie Paton says:

      I hope the same! Hopefully I’m not feeling regret by then, haha.

    • i’m sorry— i don’t agree. living paycheque to paycheque is not okay. i’m not alone in this, true but is it okay? heck, no.

      i think one of the bigger (well, biggest i think!) things i really need to learn is to say no. to indulging, to “little” rewards/celebrations and pick-me-ups. in fact, my goal of 2014 is to do nothing but SAVE.

      • I have to agree more with “sgrmse”……even it’s “normal” to live paycheck to paycheck, that doesn’t make it okay. In fact, it’s borderline idiotic….especially when you can buy a cheap reliable used car with cash and live without car payments, live in a cheap city, find a well paying job that doesn’t require extra education and more. You’re choosing to live in anxiety. If you haven’t read Dave Ramsey’s book “Total Money Makeover”, you should. It’s life changing and lifts the burden of money off your shoulders.

  2. Ah, shopping for fun…it’s mind blowing to me that I ever did that. Shopping bags full of clothes? What does that even mean?

    On the plus side, it is really nice to realize just how little you need stuff. I’ve been getting by on so little for the past couple of years that I’m totally used to it and have forgotten what it’s like to buy anything but necessities. Toby and I have a leeeetle more cash than usual this month, so we went out and bought a few luxuries we’ve been talking about for a long time but haven’t been able to justify purchasing (me: new yoga pants; Toby: a box series of books by the author who wrote Ender’s Game). On the drive home, I kept glancing over at the things we bought, and I felt like a damn queen.

    Anyway. Yes to all of this.

    • Cassie Paton says:

      That really is a freeing realization. I’ve lost all desire to shop for “things.” Now, I just love shopping for food. It does make the occasional indulgence that much sweeter. 🙂

  3. Being financially independent was 110% an eye-opener for me. I still don’t have my money managing strategies down pat but every month I’m trying something new. I need to get better at realizing just how much I already have and how little STUFF we, in general, actually need.

    • Cassie Paton says:

      I’d love to know what kind of money-managing strategies you’re trying out. (Blog about it!!) I don’t have any sort of system… I’m just restricting everything.

  4. You can’t go wrong with a basil plant, though. 😀 Being able to make food tastier is still a luxury!

    I still have the dreams of making my apartment AT-worthy, and I still spend money that I don’t have on making it that way. Wish I could break THAT habit lol

    • Cassie Paton says:

      Oh, it totally is a luxury. Food is SO MUCH BETTER with delicious herbs.

      And your apartment is just gorgeous. Keep doing what you do.

  5. I feel this a lot in my current situation. I am by no means financially independent – actually, my parents pay all my living costs and my tuition, which I COMPLETELY recognize is an amazing privilege. They look at it as an investment in my future: there’s no way I’d be able to attend this school without them, and this school will hopefully help me go onto great things. But in thinking about the future and the things I want to do that I will have to finance myself (year abroad, grad school), I’ve really had to consider what’s necessary. I totally admit to being a person who loves buying clothes and makeup and books, but having these tentative (expensive) ideas has made me re-evaluate my materialism. Since coming back to school over 2 months ago I’ve bought one dress, which for me is VERY reigned in.

    I’m also just thinking about everything I’ve accumulated, because I am hoping to move to a different continent for 12 months starting next September, and, yeah, can’t very well bring all my stuff on a plane with me. SO.

    • Cassie Paton says:

      That would be amazing. Nothing like a major life change to make you reevaluate everything. Start planning now! And blog about it! (I’m so into this subject right now.)

  6. I can’t stop staring at that penny floor!

    My building is attached to a mall, a very fancy mall. It’s so easy to get out of work and walk by a store and go and buy something. I have to remind myself that I want to be debt free and those pair of pants are not going to help.

    • Cassie Paton says:

      That’s the thing—when you have those temptations within sight every day, it’s sooo easy to give in to them. But yeah, pants solve few problems… except getting arrested for not wearing pants.

  7. This is exactly me right now and it’s killing me. I hate myself every time I spend money, even if it’s on something necessary like food. I don’t know how I’ll pay my rent and my health insurance and my cell phone bill each month, since I haven’t yet found a job in my new city. I cry constantly because I’m so stressed (in fact, I’m crying as I type this). I want to go home, but that’s not an option. I have to stick this out and find my way. And I have to figure out how to pay for school in January, too.

    • Cassie Paton says:

      Brianna, I’m so sorry you’re having a hard time. If I could hug you, I would! It sounds like you’re incredibly hard on yourself… I mean, you gotta eat. I really hope things work out for you soon. I think you’re feeling what a LOT of people are feeling, and it’s tragic money issues are so prevalent in this country. <3

  8. Know the feeling 🙁 I used to be employed in an industry that I hated but paid very well. I was living super lavishly in Boston and paying for a lot of frivolous shopping sprees, household extras, yoga classes, you name it. And then I switched into a new job in a very underpaid industry… and didn’t alter my mindset or spending habit. Within 5 months, I was 10k in debt. Still am. But slowly and surely I’m digging myself out. Good luck to you too! LA isn’t a cheap area to live in either 🙁

    • Cassie Paton says:

      Sounds like you’ve realized you need a change early on. 10K is a lot, yes, but also totally manageable if you work toward paying it off now. I can imagine that’d be very difficult coming from a job where you were so financially cushy, but I’m sure you’ll be able to change your habits. 🙂

  9. Money definitely plays a different role in different seasons of life! Now that finally, neither my husband nor I are in school–we’re finally at the point where we realize–oh, that’s where all our money went, tuition! I’m very grateful that we’re now in a season of low living expenses so that we’re able to save for the future and for our priorities! Those high expenses-low income seasons come to all of us and are good for learning these lessons!

  10. Since moving to LA, I definitely find myself thinking about material things a whole lot more, especially things like my clothes, my ugly apartment, and eating/drinking out! It’s so expensive to keep up but you feel stupid if you don’t do some of things you feel like everyone is doing. It’s ridiculous!

  11. I am late to the party here and just wanted to share my congrats to all of you who realize that life isn’t about material things. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn. I had the cushy job, too, and was able to pay for all my indulgences…or, rather, things that I had thought were necessities (such as that cute Talbots sweater I just had to have in my already-full closet). I have now amassed a house full of stuff, most of which I don’t use, haven’t read, haven’t listened to, haven’t worn, don’t appreciate, don’t have time to enjoy, etc., etc. All of this stuff is now just weighing me down, anchoring me to a home and city that I no longer enjoy living in. I don’t know how to turn around this situation, it just seems very overwhelming to me.

    I had thought I was embracing the “minimalist’s life” when I left my cushy job in 2008 to work in the non-profit field (first BOPA, then a job in higher ed). This career change allowed me to reduce my job stress, commute, and work hours but I didn’t reduce my spending. I gained more time for personal pursuits, which was my original intent for leaving the corporate world, but I didn’t change my values or deeply ingrained habits. Consequently, stuff keeps trickling into my house, and my bank account keeps dwindling down.

    Recently, I read EVERYTHING THAT REMAINS by Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus. I believe their book may help me to live more deliberately, to embrace a true minimalist’s life, and to learn to focus on the values that are really important to me. I thought I would mention this book here; it might be of help to others who are struggling with problems or issues similar to mine.


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