Monday, February 05, 2007

Decadence on a dime

(first published on Jan 30, 2007, in response to advice given by my fellow blogger, Emily, on ways to save money as a poor student)

Emily had some good advice recently for saving money--which is not only important while you are in college, but also immediately following your graduation. Your student loans aren't cushioning your bank account anymore, and you may actually have to think about paying them back. You may have the part-time job you held in college, but it likely pays the rent and not much more. Obviously, the best solution to an impoverished situation is getting a Real Job, but this process can take a while; the bigger and better the company, the more glacial the pace of their hiring process. In the meantime, that penchant for Pinot Noir is not going to pay for itself, darling!

But simply because your bank account is running low does not mean that you are out of luck or resources, or that you cannot live in the manner to which you have become accustomed. You simply have be more creative (especially if, like me, you cannot give up coffee as Emily suggests--in that case, see #5). Here is what I've learned from four years as a poor kid in an expensive city.

Tip #1: A night of art and wine - gratis

On the first Friday of every month--including this Friday, Feb. 2--the galleries at 450 Harrison Avenue, including the SoWa artist guild, open up to the public with a big party, aptly named First Friday. The independent artists in 450 Harrison open their bedroom-sized studios to show what they have been working on for the past month, and the larger commercial galleries below reveal carefully curated exhibits of artists they are supporting.

It's all free of charge, and as many galleries offer a cheap bottle of wine in the back room and a bowl of M&Ms for the noshy crowds, you can make a night of it by bouncing from gallery to gallery, sampling each artist's chosen varietal of Two Buck Chuck, chatting up the cute MassArt students, staring glaze-eyed at the works of thread, wire, and film, and window-shopping the beautiful jewelry and sculptures (which you will later purchase once you land the Real Job). The combination of starving artists and wealthy patrons will make you realize that it's not so bad to fall somewhere in the middle.

Tip #2: A wise man once said, "If you let your designer jeans go out into the world, and designer jeans return to you, it means that they are truly yours."

This may or may not be true, but what we're actually talking about is working with consignment stores. Everyone's gathered up unused clothing for charity, but now, you're the one that needs a little help--a lot more than you need that pair of too-small Sevens. So check in with the consignment stores in your area to see what kinds of clothing they are currently accepting (usually they are looking for the next season's styles, so think spring for February) and what brands they like and dislike (certain stores do not accept clothing from "mall stores" or clothing that is more than two years old). They'll take your unwanted clothes and sell them for you, and the money you make (usually 50 percent of the sale price) will either go directly to you or into an account with the store.

After you've dropped off your duds, you can check back periodically to see how much you've earned; then, you can turn around and spend that on something else in the store. The worst that can happen is that your item will not sell, and you will either be asked to come pick it up (and you can give it another go on eBay) or the store will donate it to charity for you--saving you an errand.

Tip #3: Getting into your Tree Pose for free

At 12 to 20 bucks a class (or more), pursuing your passion for dance or yoga is a bit beyond your budget. The good news is that several dance studios and yoga studios in town offer a work-exchange program in which you can perform services and receive free classes. Some studios ask their volunteers to help with maintenance, such as taking out trash and recycling, washing mats and blocks or even helping behind the front desk. This opportunity is usually offered to long-time students whom the studio trusts, but if you show a willingness to work and you are reliable, you may still land a gig as a volunteer employee. If you think about it, it's very yogic--you are serving your fellow man and receiving enlightenment (and a good stretch) in return.

So ask your preferred studio if they offer work exchange (not all of them advertise it to the public). If they don't have a current program, suggest that you might be a great test case (be sure to think of specific things you can do to help). Certain studios also offer first-time-free classes or special rates for beginners, so you may be able to extend your practice by sampling many studios in the city. That way, when you land a Real Job, you'll know whether you want to blow your paycheck on pursuing Vinyasa, Kripalu, capoeira or tap-dancing.

#4 Dinner and a movie for next to nothing

One of the things that you excise from your routine when you're low on dough is the $10 big-screen movie and $30 post-movie dinner with cocktails. And that sucks, because doing dinner and a movie is one of life's great pleasures. But this doesn't mean that you have to disappear from the world of pop culture and socializing.

First of all, you can still get free videos--that one's easy. Every local library has a stock of decent DVD's, and they're not all PBS specials. Most importantly, they represent a way to expend minimal effort for maximum gain. So pick up a free DVD, and on your way home, call your friends. Tell them you're showing a special double feature of Office Space and Gladiator to celebrate your lack of a corporate job, and you're making dinner. If they aren't polite enough to pick up on the hint, ask them each to bring something: cookies, popcorn, beer, whatever. Then, stop at the store and grab a refrigerated pizza crust (about $1 at Trader Joe's), some marinara sauce (about $2 anywhere), some cheese if you need it, and head home to poke through your refrigerator. Put anything you can find on top of the pizza crust (this is assuming that your refrigerator does contain food). I've made it gourmet with asparagus, lemons and pesto; I've gone South with black beans and corn; you can even yuppify it by sprinkling arugula and lemon juice on top. It's actually very hard to screw up a pizza, and it feeds the masses with little effort or expense. (If you do need an easy recipe with few ingredients, however, try this site for "Busy Cooks" at

When your friends arrive, slice up the $3 pizza, crack a free beer, pop a free cookie in your mouth and a free DVD in the machine, and kick back and enjoy. Congratulations--you've spent under $10 for dinner and a movie, for yourself and all of your friends. Take that, Loews.

Tip #5 Instant karma is going to get you ... a grande caramel macchiato.

Every unemployed actor knows this trick: if you're still holding down a part-time job as a barista or a bartender while you wait for your callback-slash-big break, maximize this opportunity to make friends and influence people. Sharing food is a great way to make friends and repay favors.

Case in point: A friend of mine has been working for a coffee shop for over six years, and while some may harass him over his lack of a Real Job, he now has the run of the place. And his shop happens to be in close proximity to a number of bars. People who work in bars need coffee at all hours of the day and night to stay awake; people who work in coffee shops need a strong drink at the end of the day to shake off a day spent serving caffeine-deprived suits with Real Jobs. My friend makes sure that his pals at the local watering hole get an extra shot of espresso when they order; they make sure that he gets a nice heady Guinness with a side of homemade Irish cream at the end of the night, just the way he likes it.

The underlying principle of all this advice is that there's no such thing as a free lunch, but there is more than one way to pay for a dinner. The experience of being poor is not about pinching pennies, but about finding whole new ways to give. Whether it's extra clothing, extra time, or extra kindness, if you mete those things out consciously and carefully, you will always get more than you bargained for. And understanding that is one skill that really will help you land a Real Job.


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