In 2015, I saved $10,000, quit my job, started a freelance business, and wrote a book. Now, at the start of 2016, my husband and I are selling our two-bedroom New York apartment, downsizing to a small condo, and will be spending half the year in the Dominican Republic where we just finished building a house.
Suffice to say, it was a busy year.
But I’m not here to tell you how to quit your job and move to the Caribbean. I know some people don’t like it 88 degrees in the shade. But I have a hunch that a lot of people would like to have an extra $10,000. Am I right? (That was a trick question. I know I’m right.)
Well, here’s how I did it. And you can, too — it’s not as hard as you might think.
First, my overarching goal was to be able to work from anywhere. (My husband was already a freelancer.) The house we were building in the D.R. started as a vacation home, but soon enough we realized we wanted it to be home home, for at least half the year. That meant I would have to give up my career in publishing, which had been 15 years in the making, and required me to live full-time in New York. In order to do that, I would need a cushion in my bank account, so that once I left my salary and health insurance behind, I would have time to get my freelance business up and running. I was fairly sure I’d get inquiries and start booking clients right away since I had such great industry contacts, but given how long it takes to actually edit a manuscript, return it with notes, and receive compensation — plus time for the unexpected curve balls life tends to throw at you — I knew it would be a while before I could expect to pay bills on my freelance income. I figured having three months’ worth of expenses saved would keep me solvent in the interim.
(Note: In service to explaining the savings plan, I am perhaps underselling how completely terrifying all of this was. It was terrifying. But it’s all in the rearview mirror now.)
Anyway, three months’ expenses for me equaled roughly $10,000. That’s my half of our mortgage and other bills, insurance, groceries, and what I like to call the $20 “walking out your door tax” that New York City imposes on its residents. I swear I can’t leave my apartment without spending 20 bucks.
I had given myself a year to save the money to quit my job, and I took that $10,000 amount, divided it by 365 days, and came out with $27.40. That’s how much I would have to save every day to get where I wanted to be. I figured breaking it down into a daily savings amount would (a) make it a little less painful and (b) keep me focused on doing the work each day to achieve my goal.
Hey, guess what? I was right again!
Now, to some people, saving nearly $30 a day might sound impossible. It might actually be, depending on your income and expenses. But no matter what your savings goal is, you can divide it by a length of time that does put that goal in easy reach. It’s just a matter of making a plan and sticking to it.
For me, $27.40 represented any number of things I decided I could live without, in order to make my dream of freelance life under a palm tree come true.
An unnecessary cab ride, when I could just take the subway;
A hardcover book;
Two glasses of wine (at NYC prices).
The weekly total was $191.80, which represented, say, an outfit at Banana Republic, a massage and mani-pedi, or dinner for two with wine and dessert (again, we’re talking New York City prices here).
When I looked at it that way, I realized how easy it was to give up things I’d been conditioned to want or “need” when something much more valuable was at stake. You know, like happiness and creative fulfillment. And did I mention I’ll be spending winters in the Caribbean?
For anyone who might be rolling their eyes at the “My husband and I built a house in the Dominican Republic” part of this story, all I can say is, we’re in our mid-30s with no kids and good jobs. I mean, we’re not sitting around cutting up black truffles and snorting them with a side of Dom Pérignon; we did sacrifice to make our dream come true. For starters, we banned all holiday and birthday gifts for one another, put the kibosh on all new clothes and shoes (for me) and electronics (for him), started lugging our suitcases to the airport via subway ($5.00) instead of taxi ($65), and said no to pretty much every invitation from friends that would have cost us money we could otherwise put toward our house. No theater tickets, no Sox or Yankees box seats, no extravagant nights on the town.
To keep myself honest and motivated, I made a chart. I love charts! Mine had a little square for every day of the week, 52 weeks in the year. The total saved to-date was printed at the end of each week, so $191.80, $383.60, and then $575.40. Every single morning for an entire year, I got up, made my coffee, fired up the banking app on my phone, transferred $27.40 from my checking to my savings account, and colored in a square on my chart with red marker. (I also love red markers.)
As the days and weeks went by, and the red squares started to outnumber the white, the reality of what I was doing began to sink in. I was quitting my job — a whole career, and a way of life that I’d been cultivating since I graduated from college and moved to New York in 2000. I was building a house in a foreign country. I was prepping to start my own business. And I was getting ready to sell a home that I loved to move to a much smaller apartment in a new neighborhood that I wasn’t even sure if I liked.
So yes, looking at those red squares creeping across the expanse of my chart was also a little panic inducing. But you know what helps ameliorate anxiety?
$10,000, that’s what.
Not to mention, the things I was going to buy with that $10,000: Freedom from corporate life. Year-round access to sunshine and palm trees. More time with my husband. More creative energy. More naps.
But again, everyone’s priorities are different. It doesn’t have to be such a grand goal for you, or such a large amount. Maybe it’s finally time to ditch the roommates and move out on your own, but a single-payer rent check is beyond your current means. If living alone is going to cost you, say, $500 more per month than you’re currently paying, then a year’s worth of increased expense is $6,000 — or $16.43 per day. You could start saving the day you re-up your final lease with the roomies, and be ready to sign on your own place the day it expires.
You see where I’m going with this?
Thanks to my yearlong savings jag, this year is starting with the publication of my book (which I wrote in the last six months; a direct result of spending less time in bullshit meetings and not commuting an hour-and-a-half every day), and then two months on a tropical island during the dead of NYC winter. From the side of my pool, I’ll be editing a couple of other people’s novels, ghostwriting a memoir, and generally living life on my terms.
And honestly, it wasn’t that hard.
During the last year, I learned a valuable lesson about not necessarily having to live to my means. I’d been striving for 15 years since graduating college and moving to New York, to make money — and more of it — to pay off my debts and then accumulate new ones. The higher my paycheck got every year, the more I spent. I could finally afford this handbag or that massage, but ultimately, all of those small-ish purchases conspired to keep me living paycheck to paycheck for over a decade. When, instead, I paid a little attention every day to saving money — and therefore to the things I didn’t need to spend it on — I realized how much I could easily live without.
I even started a new chart after my year of saving was complete. What can I say? Those little red squares really grew on me — and this year, all those extra glasses of wine I’m not buying in New York are going to help me look good in and afford my new island wardrobe.