The Art of Living Below Your Means, and Still Having Fun

A Series of Unfortunate Graduations

The sign of financial health is when you don’t have to think about your finances

In 2018, non-housing debt passed four trillion dollars in the US according to the Federal Reserve.

Despite being a notable number that’s easy to talk about, this presents an alarming picture of consumer debt in the years to come. Unfortunately, a lot of this debt isn’t even the fault of consumers. In 2004, credit card debt (a good thermometer of spending habits) represented .69 trillion dollars of consumer debt. In 2018, credit card debt climbed to .87 trillion dollars.

1 trillion = 1000 billion, so .87 trillion = 870 billion

More shockingly, student loan debt rocketed from .26 trillion dollars in 2004 to 1.46 trillion dollars in 2018. That’s over one trillion dollars taken over 14 years, or “3.5 full cycles of undergrads” (real 100% valid math, take my word for it).

The number of students projected to attend American colleges and universities in fall 2018 is 19.9 million, which is higher than the enrollment of 15.3 million students in fall 2000, but lower than the enrollment peak of 21.0 million in fall 2010. Total enrollment is expected to increase between fall 2018 and fall 2027 to 20.5 million. During the 2018–19 school year, colleges and universities are expected to award 1.0 million associate‘s degrees; 1.9 million bachelor’s degrees; 780,000 master’s degrees; and 182,000 doctor’s degrees (source). In 2015–16, postsecondary institutions awarded 939,000 certificates below the associate‘s degree level, 1.0 million associate‘s degrees, 1.9 million bachelor‘s degrees, 786,000 master‘s degrees, and 178,000 doctor‘s degrees.

As a recent grad with student loans myself, I feel this sting personally. Hopefully future generations will make more informed decisions about whether or not a four year university is worth the financial burden. Until then though, no use crying over spilled milk, right?!

spilled milk

What the hell am I supposed to do with this?

A lot of disgruntled new grads have realized that a degree in that subject they hopefully liked will only take them so far. Unfortunately, Sallie Mae always be comin’ and knockin’. There are multiple options to manage student loan debt (one of my personal favorites is the Personal Finance subreddit but I want to talk about one particular way that’s near and dear to my heart, budgeting.

Budgeting for Fun and Profit

For my first year or two out of school, budgeting sounded like a dirty word, or some kind of unachievable pipe dream (I can’t budget! I don’t have enough money for that!). But that phase is ironically where budgeting is the most effective. Budgeting your expenses is kinda like getting eight hours of sleep. We all know we need it, but like, c’mon what’s one more episode of Umbrella Academy gonna hurt?

A few years ago, my friend put me on the idea of YNAB and I was like nah, too hard. Then around September 2017, in a fit of rage seeing a credit card statement where I spent way more money than I thought I did, I decided to give YNAB a shot. About four months later, wowza. It’s a game changer. Here are two photos that will give you a good idea of my financial status since downloading YNAB.

spending chartA chart mapping my spending habits over the past few months

net worth chart
A chart mapping my net worth over the past few months

Two Graphs Walk into a Bar and Break It Down

I wanted to show both to paint a more realistic image of both my gains and losses since October. As you can see, my spending spiked a few months, but the other ones average out to about the same amount. This might seem depressing, but it’s actually really good news. I can pretty confidently say I’ll spend the same amount each month. This includes my static expenses like my rent, groceries and student loans, and gives me a good idea at the rate I buy frivolous s*** (I live in NYC, it’s really hard not to buy/partake in frivolous s*** here).

The second picture is much more rewarding, this is a picture of my net worth. For the uninitiated, net worth is:

Net worth is the value of all the non-financial and financial assets owned by an institutional unit or sector minus the value of all its outstanding liabilities.

In a less boring way to say that, net worth is your total value, including your debts. The red bar = bad, the blue bar = good. As we can see here, my debt is going down while my assets are increasing. How is this happening? Well, let me tell ya!

The best way to protect your assets is to put money into savings first. Another bad word, by savings here, all I mean is taking some small percentage of your income and putting it into a separate account than your checking. Hopefully you won’t need to tap into this often (you’ll need to find out your own burn rate against the money you bring in!). Slowly, sometimes over the periods of years, this one action will start to add up. Your debts will continue to go down as you pay them, and your assets will go up. This is a really good feeling. This small win is really important for new grads like myself, and can give us back a modicum of control.

What About Fun, Though?

The real point I wanted to draw here is that budgeting doesn’t mean that you have to give up the things you love. I mean, with all the minimalist joy resources out there today, you’ll find no shortage of ways to pare down on life and still have a dope time. But as a twenty-something who lives in New York City, here’s my take:

  • Seriously ask yourself: Do I need to do this thing? Do I need to go out this weekend? Am I doing this because I enjoy it or because I feel like I have to impress somebody else or save face?
  • Adjust your mindset: Fun is a malleable concept, and there are a ton of fun things you can do while you save. Maybe one of you weekend nights becomes Netflix and Chill instead of I’ll Foot the Bill
  • Pick up Reading: Not trying to sound like anyone’s dad here, but I started reading last year and it’s been a game changer, both financially and well-roundedness…ly?


We, the luckiest generation, who were thrust into higher education post Y2K have the “fortune” of having some crazy debts. Fortunately though, with some clever planning, we can use this to our advantage as well. Get out there and save! And after that, get out there and enjoy your life!

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