How I Spent $979 In 4 Months While Working For No Pay

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Foamy cappuccinos, charcoal moleskins, newspaper-lined coffee tables, and soft lighting (that makes even a 20-page analysis of La Grand Illusion look beautiful) were the staple of my weeknights and weekends while studying in Boston. Quietly glorious brownstones sat across from my dorm room on Bay State Road, the luxurious furniture inside the windows giving me unsolicited interior design advice.

The beauty of Boston all took a back seat in my mind (or so I thought) when the school year went into full swing. While studying in the honors college, I also took on work as a student journalist for my school’s award-winning newspaper and used my free time for writing at a non-profit newspaper. My days were filled with heaps of words. At some point, when I started feeling like a “true writer,” I wanted to transform my workplace and wardrobe to fit the crisp-yet-pretty “writer’s aesthetic.”

Here are some instagram posts that I believed perfectly connotated how a successful writer looked.

Trifecta. What's your favorite color? Comment below. #coffeenclothes #☕️👕 @albaleader

A photo posted by Coffee 'N Clothes® (@coffeenclothes) on

I’m fallin. Free fallin.

Sunday snuggles. #coffeenclothes #☕️👕 @fashionista804

A photo posted by Coffee 'N Clothes® (@coffeenclothes) on

Like really? That’s what you wear while typing up on your MacBook? I wear a large grey t-shirt that says “FOMO” on it, $5 from Primark.

Drink more coffee in 2016. #coffeenclothes #☕️👕 @yerdiansha

A photo posted by Coffee 'N Clothes® (@coffeenclothes) on

Like yes, I’m sure you have been very productive today with your polaroids of what looks like the inside of your house.

You’d think I wouldn’t consider this as the standard of a workplace. Because who would be that naive? Right?

It was easy to get disillusioned, living amongst Boston chic and scrolling through Instagrams like these. Surely anyone in the profession knows it is a lot of hand cramps and uncomfortable eight-hour-long stretches at a desk, not views of the NYC skyline and one-liners on your pristine Macbook Air.

Honestly, it wasn’t until I stumbled upon a TFD post (“The Money We Waste Making Productivity Look Pretty“) that the realization hit me: the “writer’s aesthetic” sounds inspiring, in theory, but it’s embarassing looking back at how much I spent to fit that image. Neya Abdi notes that aspirational, beautiful office supplies (which she coined #OfficeSpo) are a gateway to overspending:

“An Instagram pic of a brand new planner, perfectly poised pen, and a coffee mug, from the first day at a new job, has become a mark of success. But at the end of the day, our to-do lists aren’t worth the cardstock they’re written on if we can’t manage to complete even one of our tasks.”

Neya’s words basically easily described half of my Snapchat activity during my semester of indulging in the “writer’s aesthetic.” (Remember when I said I was still learning how to manage money? Yup, I am. But I got better about splurging on #OfficeSpo during the second semester, and I’m improving exponentially this summer.)

After reading Neya’s article, I looked back and saw the money trap I had fallen into during my first year of being taken seriously as a writer: with a little help from Amazon prime and the cluster of beautiful, expensive coffee shops in my neighborhood, I racked up close to $1,000 in Bullshit Writer’s Aesthetic Escapades from September to December. Hopefully you can cry (I mean…laugh) along with me at how useless these purchases were:

$440 — Kate Spade Bag.

This has been discontinued, but was originally marketed as the Royal Cherise Large Black Leather Bag. I bought this — despite the fact that I owned a perfectly fine North Face Backpack — and lugged it to coffee shops and class. The bag may have been nice to look at, but walking around Boston would have been easier if I had a nice, comfy, durable backpack. I wouldn’t have been late to class nearly so frequently!

$4.50 — Blick “painter’s pen.”

I bought a black painter’s pen (whatever that means) to write pretty quotes on pieces of paper that I hung up around my desk for inspiration.

$23 — Leather-bound notebook from Paper Source.

At home there’s a Paper Source about 25 minutes away from me in Princeton, that I go to frequently but usually just browse. In Boston, there’s one about 15 minutes walking from my dorm, and ideally near SweetGreen. So, yeah.

$17 — Coffee from Thinking Cup.

So, my first time here, I went with my best guy friend to do work. Ahem. We didn’t do any work, because I was too busy freaking out about latte art and table designs. I’ve managed to cut down on my visits since then, but I definitely wasted money by going here to “take a stay-cation.”

$4.20 — Round-trip subway ride to Thinking Cup.

I took the subway (or “T,” as the locals say) to get to Thinking Cup…because a 10-minute walk is not something aesthetically-plseaing writers do, apparently.

$5 — Hot Chocolate.

Ever wondered how much a “famous” (read: small) hot chocolate costs in Copley Square? This much! Just ask me how disappointed I was when the cup I got it in wasn’t cute! (Answer: more than I’d like to admit).

$11.95 — Planner.

A half-justified purchase, because iCal freaked me out, but I needed a way to stay organized. However…I ended up not using the planner because my gorgeous-yet-inefficient black leather bag (above) had no room to carry anything besides my books for class.

$5 — To-do List from Amazon.

I bought a to-do list on Amazon Prime just so I could craft a 15-point list for ~visual inspiration~, take a picture of it for my Instagram, and add the caption: “And people saying being a journalist is easy.” The To-Do List now sits on my desk, untouched. Now, I use Momentum. It’s free!

$5.25 — Flour.

This cafe had been on my must-try list for a long time, and (as a self-proclaimed cookie and cold brew queen) I don’t regret this purchase. It was amazing. But I’m including it in my list of confessions because TFD is all about transparency.

$13 — Round-trip cab to Flour and back, because we were too lazy to take the T.
I completely forgot about this expense until I looked back at my bank account. I am still so embarrassed! It would’ve been about a $4.50 ride on the T, but my roommate and I didn’t want to figure out the transfers, so we did this instead. Horrible.

$12.00 — Moleskin from Barnes & Noble.

Because my planner wasn’t “working out,” I got a charcoal moleskin (there was a 20% discount offer, so I swiped my card without thinking twice). With my moleskin, I’d use four pages a day just drafting and re-drafint my to-do list with updates. Thank goodness for Momentum…it’s so much easier to update something online.

$450 — Starbucks.

This was the scariest number to calculate, by far. Iced green teas and vanilla cold brews add up, even though a $2.50 purchase every morning seems harmless. I got a Starbucks drink of some kind almost everyday, if not twice a day, to accompany me while I slogged through homework or wrote an article. If I needed to leave my dorm, I’d go to Starbucks to focus (and purchase something, out of café-squatter’s guilt). While I deserved coffee on some days, a lot of my Starbucks purchases were simply attempts to feel professional and get myself “in the mood” to write.

I paid for a little more than half of this amount from my “dining points” (points allocated for use in shops around campus as part of my dining plan. Each student has $650 dining points to begin with). Since this dining money was so easy to spend (and difficult to monitor), I was very liberal with it. I ran out of dining points early and had to reload money from my pocket. It’s my personal finance goal to never again spend this much money at Starbucks in such a short period of time. We’ll see how it goes.

Grand Total: $979.90

A lot of these purchases made me happy at the time. I needed coffee just to get through my long days of going to class, doing homework, writing, and working multiple unpaid jobs. I had a lot of personal issues during a specific stretch, and spending the day in a dreamy cafe truly did help improve my state of mind. But most of the purchases were superficial: I had confused a vapid, consumerist Instagram image with professional goals.

It is so easy to get lost in “looking the part.” But the chalkboard you bought to put a “quote of the day” on hasn’t been touched in two months; you always lose pens, so stop buying the super-expensive ones. Beautiful pens don’t equal beautiful words. You don’t need to sip a foamy latte to think of the perfect lede. You don’t need a leather-bound notebook to keep yourself on track. Give yourself more credit: you fell in love with being a writer not because of how it looks on your Instagram, but how it feels when you write the last sentence of a piece that you truly care about sharing with the world. Now, at the end of my work day, I am at peace with the idea that the Bullshit Writer’s Aesthetic is something none of us unpaid-but-dedicated journalists can afford.

Image via Unsplash

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  • disqus_XIxHJslPUz

    When I cliked I thought it was about saving… Spending only $979 in four months sounded pretty amazing and incredible as I thought this would include rent, bills and food – not “how I spent $979 on useless stuff on top of everything else”.

    • Agreed, interesting article, but I was expecting something totally different based on the title.

    • Anon

      Wait – isn’t this the girl who wrote that piece about being the “frugal friend”?

    • Maya

      Agreed. This title is really misleading and while I appreciate the confessional aspect of this piece, I don’t think it’s surprising to realize that very few IG bloggers pay for the things featured in their pretty pictures- they get a lot of that stuff for free, which is why this aspirational lifestyle is not actually a real thing. This is actually a topic TFD has written about thoughtfully and well before, so something in this vein is a little disappointing.

      • Rebecca Foresman

        Hi Amani and Maya – thanks for your comments. I’m sorry to hear the title misled you (definitely not our intention!). We’ll take your comments into consideration as we title our pieces 🙂

  • Anon

    I think I have the opposite reaction to these instagram accounts. I see these images and don’t think “successful writer”; I think “spoiled rich kid invested in the social cache that comes from people thinking she’s a writer.” But I’m an academic, which means I also get up every single day to go write, and our cultural myth really revolves around the image of spending three years in your sweatpants in a library writing a dissertation. People would just laugh at you for posting this sort of thing.

    • Rebecca Foresman

      Interesting, Anon! If you’d ever like to write more about your personal and financial experiences with powering through a dissertation, send me a line! http://thefinancialdiet.com/submissions/

  • Christian Gonzales

    $450 on Starbucks in four months is exactly why i don’t buy into the “Buy Your Coffee and Ignore the Latte Factor” philosophy that I see floating around on some finance blogs. $450 is a LOT of money that could be a student loan payment for a month, which to me is more satisfying than coffees for 4 months.

  • Yen

    I really appreciate this article. You spent alot of money on what you admit are useless and superficial things. I always sense a creep of materialism or carelessness with my spending which goes from buying bacon and egg breakfast rolls to jerk chicken at lunch and mochas which I really do not need. Seeing that $450 Starbucks bill is a killer. Here’s to making coffee at home, having porridge for breakfast and preparing lunch

    • Rebecca Foresman

      Thanks, Yen!

  • The title of this article is confusing and doesn’t accurately represent the content. However, I do appreciate the content. We should be spending less on money to look good on Instagram. It’s not just productivity. We spend money buying expensive clothes, food and shoes because they are Instagrammable. Most of the time, it ends up being a waste of money.

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