It is two in the morning and I stumble exhausted up the darkened stairwell and into the rent-free room my best friend has so graciously provided me. I take the tuppence in tip money I earned at the bar that night ($35 for 7 straight hours of work) and turn over the wooden piggy that has acted as my savings account since I arrived back in the States and gone off the grid. As I stuff the few straggling dollars I made into the bottom I realize something: my piggy bank is full. How on earth could this have happened?
The girl I once knew with fifty pairs of heels and two closets stuffed with designer clothes couldn’t hold onto a penny if it was glued to her hand. I ran up debt faster than I could even wear the clothes I was buying, and the thought of denying myself a night at the bar was unheard of. I had deserved it, after all. I worked hard at a job I hated and somehow these things were justified to me, even though I couldn’t actually afford them.
Now, two years and twelve countries later, I have finally, somehow, learned how to save. Granted, a piggy bank full of fives and tens from the bar isn’t buying me any first class tickets. But it has been two months since I started and I am officially $1300 on my way to South America. It may not seem like much to you, but staring at a crumpled pile of ragged bills I toss my work clothes carelessly to the floor and hop on the bed in my underwear to count the money once more. Just to be sure.
On average at the bar in a week I barely make $200. I have had the odd great weekend but if I were to put a number on it I’d say my income was averaging somewhere around $1000 a month. That is well below the American poverty line. Granted I now have no bills except a $300 student loan payment and $50 a month in utilities, but let’s be realistic here. I am making less than a quarter of what I used to make and saving infinitely more. Something has changed in me, and it clearly doesn’t take a big paycheck to fill up a little piggy.
I know there are a lot of people out there that, like me, cannot seem to save money no matter what they do. As I lay in bed last night my insomnia got the best of me flipping through everything that had happened to take me from the stiletto-loving, designer-wearing girl I once was, to the holes-in-half-my-clothes, I-haven’t-showered-since-Saturday girl that stares back at me today.
Suddenly I realized the moment it happened. I arrived in Wanaka, New Zealand with five dollars to my name and a job cleaning toilets and making beds at the YHA. For three months I had no choice but to stay in, do whatever free things I could, and eat peanut butter toast for three meals a day. The previous eight months of my traveling I had money to spend and I didn’t think twice as to where it was going. If I wanted to drink, I did. If I wanted to go SCUBA diving, I did that too. Looking back, I could have made that $14,000 last two years if I knew what I knew now. Don’t get me wrong, those experiences were worth every penny.
But it wasn’t until I lived on absolutely nothing that I realized how little you really need. And once I finally got a second job and was working sixty hours a week you’d be crazy if you thought I was going to throw it down a bottle of bourbon. Every dollar I saved was a step closer to the freedom to leave again. And the next destination, the next ticket, was worth more to me than a night at the bar or a new skirt ever could be.
My entire life I have only ever been able to learn lessons the hard way, and once again it took abject poverty to learn how not to throw my money away on trivial things. The beauty is that now, after years of my parents teaching me how to live beyond my means, and how to incur massive amounts of debt before the age of twenty, I have actually, truly learned the value of a dollar.
These days I wear the clothes I have until they fall apart, and buy them only when I need them. I eat on the cheap, I drink $4 bottles of wine, and there is nothing that can ever come between me and my precious piggy bank. I don’t have a phone bill, I use google voice for free, (who knew a person could actually survive without a cell phone??) I ride my bike everywhere, when I need a haircut I hand my roommate a pair of scissors, and my standard drink order at the bar is, “What’s your cheapest beer, please?”
I wish there could be a how-to in this post; a way to impart this knowledge other than to say, ‘just do it!’ And there certainly are tips to be told about balancing spending on things you want with quiet nights denying yourself those luxuries. But here is the trick with that: I turned saving into the thing I want the most. And until you can do that, it will always be a struggle to walk away from that perfect pair of shoes or a night of $10 cocktails. But if you ever get tempted, just think how much cheaper the drinks will be once you get to South America…