How To Stay On A Budget When You Really, Really Don’t Want To

As I write this, I’m sitting on my bed in a charming Airbnb at the edge of the Mission district in San Francisco. I’ve been in the city (and in this particular part of the country) for a grand total of 30-ish hours, and given that my general knowledge of San Francisco to this point had come largely from the movie Milk and the HBO show Silicon Valley, I can say that the area holds up to what I had pictured. I visited a serene, sprawling tech campus, complete with adorable robots that toot around between the buildings, delivering people healthy snacks. I’ve walked some unbelievably steep streets lined with Victorian townhouses, and ducked into a ramen shop so good it boasted a 30-minute wait for two on a Monday night. San Francisco (and the surrounding Bay Area) feel even on their surfaces to be the land of contradictions I expected them to, and it’s made for a dynamic middle point to our West Coast tour with Mint.

Last week, we were in Los Angeles for a few days, and had what I must admit (with all love still to my East Coast TFD crews), has been my favorite tour stop so far. That must partially be credited to the fact that we were outside in a gorgeous, string-lighted garden in the middle of effing January, but it was also because we took an even deeper dive into our audience’s stories, and got to meet the TFD community in an even more profound way than we had been. One woman even got on the mic and shared that she had written an article for TFD about spending herself into debt while trying to be a fashion blogger. To see that story come to life and be told to the entire crowd felt truly electric, and reminded us how rare and thrilling it is to have a community in which we can talk about money without shame or guilt. And Mint has been the perfect partner for this, as they are just as steadfast in the mission of making money something understandable, accessible, and totally open.

But something else Mint is steadfast about has been hard for me to manage while on the road, if I’m being perfectly honest: managing your budget, and living well within it. I initially downloaded Mint because I had never had a budget before (at age 25, #yikes), and it was the first thing that ever really got me to confront my money in a way that didn’t feel scary. And for the most part, I’m pretty good at managing it day-to-day. Although I may curate a bit of a highlight reel on Instagram, as we all do, even on a close inspection you’ll notice that my biggest hobbies are pretty low-cost: I cook at home most nights, I entertain a lot at home or go to friends’ houses, I’m not a huge shopper, and though I adore the restaurant and nice bar experiences, I’m not someone who feels compelled to experience them on a frequent basis. During times of travel, though — especially for work, when the stress and fatigue are constant — money management is usually the first thing on the chopping block.

To be clear, I think that to some extent, letting your budget loosen when you’re traveling is not a bad thing. The evidence is clear that experience-spending is much more valuable for most people than spending on objects, and there are few experiences that have as high an ROI than fully enjoying a new city or country you’re visiting. But between not being able to cook at home, wanting to see a bit of everything, and letting your mind click into “vacation mode” for everything from taking frequent cabs to getting an extra drink with dinner, it’s so easy for things to completely unravel. I’ve looked at my spending a few times over the trip, and it was no surprise, even if the numbers stung. I went a little crazy in Los Angeles, justifying restaurant after restaurant with friends whom I normally don’t get to see — even though I had a fully-functional and rather nice kitchen at my disposal the entire time.

I find myself constantly forgetting that what feels normal to me when I’m traveling, and allowing myself to slip into a routine of excess. But I’ve found that through a combination of using the right tools (like Mint), and reminding myself actively what actually brings me value, I’ve managed to get much better already here in San Francisco. First, I force myself to look at my accounts literally every day, because it makes purchases feel so much more immediate and tangible. Especially when you’re not using cash, the act of swiping a card can feel incredibly distant and meaningless, and it’s so important to remind yourself in those moments of getting swept away that this money is still very, very real. And more importantly, I force myself to actually stop before making a purchase and ask (sometimes out loud, even though that looks objectively a little insane), “Do I really want this?” I find that even taking the slight pause is enough to stop the inertia of making a purchase that doesn’t have much meaning to me, but which feels exciting in the moment.

Last night, for example, I had some leftovers in the Airbnb fridge that didn’t feel thrilling, but which felt very much enough for my needs (lounging in my pajamas, scrolling through Twitter, and getting to bed early for a big day). Lauren had no leftovers so she was getting some Thai food, which felt so tempting. And I considered it, but after really asking myself, it wasn’t worth the 20 or so bucks it would have cost. I just wanted a taste when she got hers, and I found that it was more than enough to supplement my leftovers and make me feel like I got to enjoy the newness without having to spend a bunch of money on it. And whether I’m about to duck into a shop, stop at a bar, or pay for that second coffee because I love the design on the cup, every time I’ve asked myself this question in an honest way about a purchase while traveling, I’ve found that I answer it honestly. (The real question is whether or not I get too caught up to ask in the first place.)

We partnered with Mint on this tour not just because we love them as a product, but because we identify so deeply with what they stand for. Budgeting doesn’t have to be something separate from who you are as a person, something all about numbers and abstracts, about restriction more than anything else. Mint is a human, tangible budget app (you can even add pictures to your goals to make them feel that much more real), that has always reminded me that budgeting is about focusing your energy on the things you truly love, and cutting out the rest so that you can enjoy them that much more vividly. Because if you really think about it, so much of what you’re really looking for — and so much of what makes you deeply happy — doesn’t need to be spent on at all.

Image via Unsplash

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