For this Money Microstep Challenge series, we challenged Thrive staffers to test some financial Microsteps — small, science-backed actions you can start taking immediately to build habits that significantly improve your life — and write about their experiences. The result? Some very honest and encouraging reflections, like this one.
Like many other people, the coronavirus crisis has pushed me to re-evaluate many aspects of my life: the little things I took for granted, the parts of my daily routine I’d like to change, and the things I should (and shouldn’t be) spending my money on. Stressing about money is almost a rite of passage in New York City, where I live — and in the year that I’ve lived here since graduating from college, I’ve definitely experienced some of that stress.
Taking the time to slow down and engage in some honest self-reflection where my finances are concerned wasn’t something I’ve done before. But with physical distancing measures in place, and my daily spending altered in significant ways, I was inspired to take stock of the changes. If I could be more mindful about my purchases, I thought, I may be less stressed about money over the long haul. With this goal in mind, I practiced this Microstep for a few weeks:
After some honest appraisal over the past several weeks, here are the key insights I’ve come away with:
1. Saving money on food doesn’t have to feel like deprivation.
It only took a quick look at my checking account to realize just how drastically my food spending has changed over the last few months. In pre-COVID times, grabbing take-out for lunch or dinner, picking up a coffee mid-day, or getting delivery on GrubHub were weekly norms for me. Since I’ve been spending most of my time at home, however, I’ve cut down on ordering from local restaurants from several times a week to a few times a month — so I still get a taste of my favorite foods and to help support local businesses.
Reflecting on how this has resulted in extra funds in my bank account makes me eager to retool my food budget — even when this pandemic is over. I’m already thinking about alternatives to the default “let’s grab dinner or drinks!” suggestion when I want to spend time with friends. What’s more, I’ve learned that my previous routine of hitting the grocery store at least once a week was probably a bit unnecessary. Cutting down to fewer trips has been a great way to save time and money — and even spark some creativity in the kitchen as I get crafty with what remains in my pantry.
2. Pause-buying > impulse-buying.
In the many hours I’ve spent lounging on the couch lately, scrolling through social media, I’ve made more impulse purchases that I care to recount. Never before have I been so susceptible to the grip of targeted ads! This has led to a steady stream of deliveries: loungewear and fitness gear, makeup trends I previously didn’t think to try, adult coloring books, and more.
I’ll admit, not all of these purchases were frivolous or regrettable. I participated in a COVID charity running challenge, so the new workout leggings came in handy for training. And doing a little coloring after work helps relieve stress. But could I have made do with the sweatpants that were already sitting in my drawers? Probably. Should I have skipped the cosmetics splurge during a time when I’m not wearing much, if any, makeup? Definitely.
Reflecting on these purchases has helped me put my wants and needs into perspective, and categorize them as such. So I’ve pushed myself to pause before I order to ask questions like: What purpose will this item serve, and how long will it be able to serve that purpose? Will this purchase help me solve a problem or develop a healthier habit, or will it only lead me to want to continue to splurge — and potentially stress about finances — down the road?
3. Giving back doesn’t require a ton of money.
As a recent college grad, I’ll admit that charitable giving has taken a back seat to covering my basic living expenses and building up an emergency fund. But as I’ve been reflecting on where my money is going, I’ve realized that building a nest egg doesn’t mean I can’t find small yet impactful ways to give to causes I care about.
I decided to take some of the money I’m no longer spending on commuting expenses and donate it to my local community, through organizations like the Food Bank for New York City. Research has shown time and time again that giving to others is a win-win for giver and receiver in that both parties can experience increased self-esteem, well-being, and life satisfaction — and this has definitely been the case for me. As we are all experiencing additional stress and anxiety during these times, the knowledge that I’m doing something to help others is going a long way toward boosting my mental health.