Disposable income--for the first time ever. What's normal?
September 10, 2012 7:47 AM   Subscribe

I never had disposable income, so I'm realizing I have a weird relationship with money and things.  Now that I'm making enough to feel rich (without actually being rich?), what stuff would make my life way better?  What do normal people spend money on?  I can get over this on my own, right?

As a kid, I always had food to eat and clean clothes to wear, but I'm realizing now that I had an abnormally small amount of money and things.  In college, I worked constantly, but had almost no disposable income -- spending $5 a week was a rare indulgence.  Then after graduating, I worked a full-time but very low-paid job (maybe $14k/year in New York City) and supported myself completely, budgeting everything literally down to the nickel (if I could save 90 cents, I could get a bagel for breakfast one day that week!).

I'm still in New York City, but now I'm making $50-60k/year (for the last few years, in a stable job with benefits, etc.).  Needless to say, I feel like a millionaire.  But I'm starting to realize that I'm . . . maybe a little weird, stuff- and money-wise.

- Last week I was running errands.  I was hot and thirsty and tired, and for the first time, I realized I could go into a coffee shop and buy an iced mocha.  For no reason.  I didn't have to wait until I got home in a few hours, or hope I spotted a water fountain somewhere.  I could just . . . go buy myself an iced mocha, just because I was a little uncomfortable.

- I also recently bought nice sunglasses.  I think they're the first sunglasses I've ever had.  It turns out that sunglasses are actually convenient -- all the people who wear them aren't doing it just to be fashionable! They're useful!

- This one was the big wake-up call.  For my vacation, I went to visit a friend.  While I was packing, I said something about how I hoped I didn't forget anything.  My friend was like "Whatever, who cares if you forget your toothbrush, we have drugstores here."  It took me embarrassingly long to figure out what she meant: If I forgot my toothbrush/shampoo/contact case, I could just go buy another one, even though I had a perfectly good one at home.  That mindset is SO FOREIGN to me.  I remember on trips when I was a kid, if I forgot my toothbrush I would have to brush with my finger, or if I forgot my bathing suit then I couldn't go swimming, or if I forgot my socks then I'd be wearing my sneakers without them.  I wasn't at all a forgetful kid (and I suspect that's why), but this blows my mind.  Somehow as an adult, I never put together "forgot toothbrush" + "toothbrushes are like $2" and realized "I can buy another toothbrush," because that conclusion would just not ever have happened in my family.  What else am I not putting together?!

To my coworkers and friends, I seem normal (I look professional, I buy girl scout cookies from their kids, I don't gasp at the thought of eating out), which has enabled me to fly under the radar.  That might actually have been unfortunate, since I haven't really realized how abnormal this is until now (I'm 25).

So what life upgrades am I just totally missing out on, like sunglasses, or drinks when you're hot?  I am a million times more comfortable with one-time upgrades (like a swiffer) than I am with recurring charges (like a cleaning service).

- My professional wardrobe is in good shape since I did a major upgrade when I got this serious job.  My non-professional wardrobe is more questionable and might have other blind spots like the sunglasses.
- I have a nice haircut and good everyday makeup.  I don't have any fancier beauty routines like mani/pedi, facials, massages, peels, etc. -- should I?
- I recently got Groupons for laser hair removal, and it's been life-changingly amazing, hands-down a fantastic investment.  I'm considering having other things done (nose job, breast lift, etc.) -- worth it?
- I don't drink, which I think gives me significantly more disposable income than most of my peers.
- I eat out occasionally (a few times a month?) but I do the vast majority of my own cooking.  I have decent knives and pans, but I'm not sure what else might be missing from my kitchen setup.
- I have a (rent-stabilized) apartment of my own, and I'd really love to make it amazing.  I plan to be here long-term, maybe 10 years.  I have no idea what quality of furniture/goods/amenities is normal.
- I already have a gym membership, a smartphone, and internet at home (slowest speed, no cable).  I don't have a TV and my desktop is from 2004 (but works fine).
- I take care of myself medically, including dental and vision.
- I have a few crafty hobbies, and buying quality materials has made a huge difference already.
- Single and planning to be that way for awhile, no kids and no desire for kids, no pets (wish I could, but not home enough).
- No credit cards (and not really interested in building my credit score).
- My time is fairly limited.  I spend most of it commuting, working, doing basic personal care, and sleeping.

I'm comfortable with the significant amounts I'm dedicating to savings and charity, so please no suggestions along those lines.  And I'm not looking to spend money just for the sake of spending it. I'm just trying to find out what things are normal for other people roughly in my situation . . . because I'm just learning now that what I grew up with is not normal.  I don't know what else to base "normal" on.

I'm also concerned about getting used to this higher standard of living.  Isn't it going to be really difficult to go back down if anything happens in the future?  Yes, I have a savings cushion (let's just say it's more than six months), but I'm worried about a potential longer-term change in standard of living, in case my industry collapses or I become disabled or something.  Then wouldn't I be twice as upset, for losing my job and for missing my iced mocha lifestyle?  How do people deal with living above the necessary when they know their ability to do so could change anytime?

Thanks again, mefi!
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (75 answers total) 93 users marked this as a favorite
Ha, this is called growing up, isn't it weird? That's basically what happened to me at your age. When I was in my early 20s, I looked for ATMs where I could take out $10s instead of $20s. In my mid-20s, I started taking cabs.

The number one thing that I think you should invest in is a decent mattress. People sleep on HORRIFIC BEDS, and they should not, if they can arrange it.

And I do think that you should get your credit score, just so you know where you're at. On this progression scale, you'll want it to be decent when you're 30. Not that you should go take out credit cards or anything! But if you find out you're a 550, since you're a responsible adult now, you should make paths to aim for a 700.

And the number two thing you should invest in is emergency savings. There's nothing more important, if I can speak from experience, than having $10,000 to $20,000 tucked away for when things suddenly go south.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:57 AM on September 10, 2012 [9 favorites]

The best money I have ever spent is on our cleaning service. This is especially true if your time is fairly limited. It frees up time to do other, more fun stuff.

Everything else is a matter of priority. In my house, we spend a lot of money on wood furniture that we hope will last a long time, and less money on upholstery that we know the kids might ruin. Our priority there is comfort. We spend a lot more money on "experiences" than we do "stuff" because stuff has to be stored and cleaned and whatever. So we'd rather take a trip to visit family or see something neat or eat at a special restaurant than buy the latest gadgets.

You will get used to a higher standard of living; my advice is to continue to have a budget, stick to that budget, and whenever you get a raise throw that money into retirement savings. That way you should never really be beyond your means - especially if you stay in your current living space for a long time. Use your disposable income to upgrade things over time. Continue to make mochas a sometimes thing that you revel in, instead of something you do every day. Then if it all goes away you can say "that was great, when I could buy a mocha; hopefully I get there again" without it being devastating.
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:57 AM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Regardless of what else you do, don't spend a bunch of money on plastic surgery in your twenties (unless you have some genuine medical abnormality). I thought about doing this - and I guarantee that you are better-looking than I am, because almost everyone is - when I was your age, and I am so glad that I didn't. The things I could have changed I've either grown to like (nose) or realized that I had WAY incorrect ideas of normal about (breasts). Now, if I could have magically been put into a different, perfect body that would have been awesome - but the incremental changes that are possible even via good cosmetic surgery? So not worth it.

The best things I've ever bought? High-quality knives and cutting board; high-quality stock-pot and chef's pan (get some Le Creuset). I got those things at your age, twelve years ago, and I still use them. Also, I got some hardwood folding/stacking bookcases (not the cheap kind - good-quality ones with a natural finish that showed the grain) and I've had those also for twelve years.

Also scarves - when I had a fancier job, I got some really nice cashmere shawls and high-grade wool scarves. Still have them, still wear them.
posted by Frowner at 7:59 AM on September 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

I think you might find this fpp on being poor and money management pretty interesting. Related Askme.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:00 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm considering having other things done (nose job, breast lift, etc.) -- worth it?

Unless you cry yourself to sleep because your nose or breasts are genuinely impeding on your happiness, I think that plastic surgery is a bit overboard. Plus, $50-60K isn't exactly elective plastic surgery money. Better to have a nest egg the size of the operation's cost, than to have a cuter nose and no emergency fund.

I have decent knives...

Get good knives. I grew up with "decent" knives and then I got a set of Wusthofs (not the super-fancy ones, but definitely better than whatever I was using before) and damn if the difficulty level of the kitchen not drop a few notches.

I have no idea what quality of furniture/goods/amenities is normal.

I grew up among Russian people, so I regularly saw $5000 red leather couches in $500/mo apartments. I also know Moneyed people who have been using the same ratty-ass furniture since 1975. This is totally your call. Go to furniture stores, figure out what you want, and don't break the bank paying for it. That's it.

Also, even if you're allowed to, don't make major construction changes to an apartment you're renting, rent-controlled or not. If you're that invested in your living space, you should use that money to save up for a downpayment on a condo or coop.

No credit cards (and not really interested in building my credit score).

May I ask why? NYC is one of those places where credit score doesn't matter as much as everywhere else, but it does matter. And if circumstances are such that you ever have to leave here, then it really matters.

Isn't it going to be really difficult to go back down if anything happens in the future?

Certainly! But not impossible. It sounds a little counterintuitive, but the more you value these little things you can do, they won't be any easier to give up, but they will also be, glaringly, in the "luxury" category and not the "necessity" category.
posted by griphus at 8:00 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you're in New York, you probably do a fair bit of walking. Get yourself a couple of REALLY NICE pairs of shoes. I used to wear crap from Payless and though my feet never really hurt, I never got the idea of, "Holy moly, these shoes make my feet feel AWESOME!"

I now buy Clarks and I make a trip to Nordstrom's about twice a year to buy "rich man's shoes" (even though I'm not rich), and it really improves your day to have shoes that feel good on your feet.
posted by xingcat at 8:01 AM on September 10, 2012 [15 favorites]

Second the rec for good knives and cookware. Going from lousy knives to even so-so knives is a wonderful thing for anyone who cooks regularly. And those items have the benefit of holding up really well over time.
posted by Levi Stahl at 8:01 AM on September 10, 2012

It's funny that you call a Swiffer a one-time upgrade, since the whole point of that product is to get you frequently buying replacement pads, instead of a mop that you buy once and use for years.

It's difficult to know what to recommend you should get, since none of us know what you have. In any case, it sounds more like you want to reset your perspective, rather than specific advice about stuff. That will come with time. In a year or two, you'll realize "I can make these problems go away by throwing money at them!"

One thing that stands out is talk about cosmetic surgery. I mean, some folks do that casually, I guess, but it's a big deal for most people, regardless of income. It's also expensive, sometimes painful, and (like any surgery) not devoid of risk. I wouldn't contemplate that unless I were really dissatisfied with my appearance.

Good furniture is either old or expensive or both. Other stuff that is good to have around your place are a decent set of tools and art.
posted by adamrice at 8:02 AM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Oh, and start tracking all your expenses now with something like Mint.
posted by griphus at 8:02 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

There's a fine line between living within your means, buying what you need/enjoy, and being fiscally responsible. I get what you're asking and feeling, though. It's part of growing up and being more independent and established.

Mani/Pedis are nice, but if you can keep up with yourself at home, you might fare well with that and make mani/pedi/facials a special treat here and there. Invest in some good tools and products so you can do it at home. Don't invest in plastic surgery at this point unless there's a medical need for it.

I wouldn't invest a whole lot into a rental apartment beyond paint, aside from furnishings/wall hangings/things that can go with you. You'd love to stay there 10 years, but who knows where you (or the landlord) will be in 1 year?

By all means, enjoy life. Make things nicer for yourself. Just don't put yourself into debt or throw money away in doing so. I spent a good deal of my late 20s digging myself out of the 'newfound financial independence' I found myself in in my early 20s. I look back and wish I didn't waste the money I did. It went to my head.
posted by jerseygirl at 8:04 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I spend good money on;
A Sonicare toothbrush with frequent brush head changes.

I think everybody fears that their good fortune may fade away. Enjoy it now but save for later is how I've chosen to look at my income.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 8:05 AM on September 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

Oh! Cabs! Holy shit cabs. When I was broke, cabs might as well have not existed. Now that I have a decent job and let's say I need to get from the Bowery to Brooklyn at 1 AM and it's either an hour of train riding with transfers for fifteen bucks for a cab, damn if I'm not just going to hop into a cab.
posted by griphus at 8:06 AM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Spend a little more on things now that will last longer. I'm failing to think of many examples, but shoes and bedsheets are the two that spring to mind. The problem with being poor is that you keep buying crap stuff over and over because you can't make the initial investment. Now that you have money, you should.
posted by desjardins at 8:08 AM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Good knives, le Cruset, high quality shoes. I don't like spending money on myself bu those things I have never regret buying.

Dental care. Seriously, if you aren't getting checkups twice yearly spend money on that. It will save you so much pain, time and money down the road.
posted by Requiax at 8:10 AM on September 10, 2012

When I became a grown up and suddenly realized I wasn't destitute I went through the same thing you are now. Here is why I did/wish I had done:

1. Mattress. It was mentioned above but holy christ, get a good mattress. if you have the money, that is where you should spend it. I did it and man alive. WORTH IT! Bonus points if you can afford a proper bedroom set (bed frame, dresser, night table). Having a wonderful, restful sanctuary for a bedroom makes life wonderful.

2. Emergency savings. Set up an automatic transfer of 100$ (or whatever you can afford) to squirrel money away in a savings account and then forget about it. Such is the life of an adult: you make more money and live more comfortably, but when the shit hits the fan it is WAY worse than it was when you were poor. There will be a time where everything goes tits up and you will be SO THANKFUL for it.

3. Fun money account. Set up an automatic transfer of 100$ (or whatever you can afford) every paycheque in to an account (separate from your emergency savings account) and then forget about it. Then, some day in the future, when something awesome comes along and oh MAN would you love to do that/have that, you'll have the money and not have to worry about it! No guilt. No lamenting your budget.

posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 8:15 AM on September 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

Things that have made my life immeasurably nicer when I have disposable income, and will last well enough that in leaner times I could still enjoy them:

Amazing shoes
Great pots and pans and knives
Comfortable and awesome underwear
Cashmere socks
Luxurious lip balm
High quality bed linen
Silky pajamas
Coats and jackets
Cashmere scarves and pashminas
Real leather bag
Sonicare toothbrush
MacBook pro
Microplane for kitchen
Well made pants
Real lambs wool house slippers
Learning - courses and workshops
Nice meals with loved ones
Generous gestures to the people I love
High quality basics (tees, jeans, thermal underwear)

Things I have splurged on just because I could at the time, but barely remember the pleasure derived from them:
Any beauty services
Upgrades in experience (traveling business class for example... Meh)
Great alcohol (not my thing)
Random gadgets
Random accessories
posted by shazzam! at 8:17 AM on September 10, 2012 [18 favorites]

Along the lines of personal care - don't waste money on expensive magic moisturizers, but if you have a specific skin issue like acne or redness, get to a dermatologist and get an Rx, because unlike drugstore/Sephora stuff, the prescription stuff works.
posted by slow graffiti at 8:18 AM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would take a look at your towels, sheets, and dish cloths. Are they crappy quality just because you got whatever was cheapest at the time? If so, invest in some sheets and towels that feel really good (they don't have to be super expensive) and in some dish cloths that aren't too cheap to properly absorb moisture. And then when these things get sort of ratty, replace them! Also, pillows and blankets and a good mattress: find stuff you really like. It is a way to pamper yourself a bit every day if you've got a good, comfy bed to come home to.

Also, think about what sort of food you buy. Are there brands or things you've been putting up with just because they're cheap? For example, do you really like cheese and crackers but have been eating the cheapest cheese, which tastes like nothing, and the cheapest crackers which all crumble in the box? Then go to the supermarket and look at the stuff that is slightly more expensive and probably better quality, and try something new. And, if you really hate something, it's okay to throw it out and look for another kind next time you go to the store. That last bit used to go against almost every fiber of my being, but I've discovered that it is actually better to toss things sometimes than let them clutter up the fridge forever.
posted by colfax at 8:24 AM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, and whatever you do, don't get sucked in to doing/buying expensive things because that's what "everyone else" does/owns. Part of being an adult, along with having more money and getting to spend it, is also choosing what would make the most difference in your life and focusing your efforts on that. "Everyone" may take cabs, but if you're fine with the bus then keep using the bus and save the money! "Everyone" may get manicures, but if you're fine with doing it yourself at home and you are okay at it then do it at home and save the money!

For example, I have a car. "Everyone" here has a car with AC and power windows and power locks, etc. Sure, that stuff would be nice, but I frankly don't care all that much so I have a bare bones standard transmission car with manual locks and manual windows and no AC. There are days when it sucks a little, but 99% of the time I'm totally happy with my car and the fact that I am spending way less than I would have if I had gotten all the bells and whistles rocks.

It is situations where you sincerely wish something was better/different and where you know there is a way to make it better and that you can afford it... that is where you should be looking. The rest is just a waste of time.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 8:25 AM on September 10, 2012 [11 favorites]

I'm just trying to find out what things are normal for other people roughly in my situation . . . because I'm just learning now that what I grew up with is not normal.

What you grew up with actually is very, very normal. Certainly for every generation that came before, and I would guess for the majority of people your age too, pop culture notwithstanding.

Good shoes, regular dental and medical checkups, music/art lessons (guitar, piano, sculpture, whatever it is that you want to learn), and mid-range electronics with the features you want instead of basic/cheap electronics that are on sale. I wish I had spent more on DSLRs and video cameras over the years.

And experiences. There is an incredible variety of landscape, population, entertainment within roadtrip distance of NYC. Spend some money exploring the Delaware Water Gap, rafting in the Lehigh Valley, hiking some of the 46 peaks in the Adirondacks, and walking on (frozen) water in the Finger Lakes. And that's just your backyard!
posted by headnsouth at 8:25 AM on September 10, 2012 [9 favorites]

Buy good shoes.

Avoid plastic surgery unless you really hate something about yourself so badly. I would however suggest that eyebrow shaping done professionally is worth it, heck even if you keep it up yourself.

Good sheets, mattress, blankets. Nothing nicer than climbing into a comfy bed with soft blankets and sheets.

Things to make your commute nicer. Be it stopping for a coffee on the way to work to a nice mp3 player or ereader.

Normal for furniture from what I've seen of the US seems to be ikea, if you are looking for good investment pieces of furniture though that is not where I would look. Possibly consider buying one off handmade items, if you like that sort of thing, a beautifully made dining table, sideboard or couch or whatever in a classic style will last you a lifetime.

A few nice simple pieces of good jewelry, jewelry is mostly a rip off but putting on a pair of real diamond studs or a nice golf bracelet can make you feel like a million dollars and really pull an outfit together.

Set up a savings account with an emergency fund in it (traditionally 3 to 6 months pay). Imagine that cool I can afford this feeling you got with the iced drink times a million if an an emergency hits and you have it covered.

Insurance. Get renters insurance and make sure to increase it as the value of what your own goes up.

And I'll say it again as it's important, Buy Good Shoes. Not expensive for the sake of expensive, but quality shoes that will last and look after your feet.
posted by wwax at 8:31 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm your age and at a relatively similar place in life.

1) Great mattress. A big mattress. They are the best. No, seriously. 700 bucks for perfection, every night.

2) I travel often (longish distance partner; relatives; other things), so I've invested in having complete extra sets of toiletries for his house and at my parents, and a complete mini set ready to go for everything else. This includes basic extra makeup, first aide (I hate being without cortisone cream, Dramamine, or allergy medications), and even slightly fancier things like tweezers. I am considering buying an extra iPhone charger and Mac charger to add to my bag because I'm sick of hoarding power over the weekends or being trapped in DC without my computer. You may not need an extra set, but is there anything about your routine that you really, really dislike or conversely, care a lot about? See if there's a way to fix it and make it something always available to you.

3) High quality jeans, oh my god, they are the best. The best. And leather boots that can be resoled. Invest in finding a good tailor and shoe repair place.

4) Leather bags. Decent leather bags. Mine are mainly hand-me-downs but they weren't terrifically expensive-- they're just nice enough to not crack after a year and have solid, metal zippers. Safe for rain and long train trips.

5) Decent antique furniture is often cheaper than you think, unless of course you hate the style, in which case you are stuck with cheap furniture you still hate. If you do like older styles or more traditional things, take some trips around to look at thrift stores, nicer antique shops, and auctions.

Mainly, it's okay to spend money to take care of yourself. I never go for pedicures but I've started considering getting a manicure every month or so just to break myself of a terrible nail biting habit. I get cheap haircuts because for my hair, it doesn't really matter-- I spend that money on other things that do matter to my everyday quality of life, like amazing jeans. It's okay to not take cabs or buy a car or expensive cameras if they don't matter to you. It's okay to try buying nice makeup and realize you don't actually care. But it's also okay (and important!) to learn what you do care about, even if it's something frivolous like great lipstick, and admit to yourself that spending money on things you enjoy isn't a waste. You could always try putting aside $20-50 bucks a week and having it be completely free money for any impulse buys or upgrades in your life. If you never touch it, congrats, your life makes you happy! If you end up getting a mocha every day, you've discovered a thing that makes you happier!
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:36 AM on September 10, 2012

I haven't really realized how abnormal this is until now (I'm 25)

This is pretty normal. Honestly, I think most people whose upbringing was not particularly lavish go through it if and when they stop being a starving student/intern/wage-slave/whatever and get a job with a non-trivial paycheck that exceeds their living expenses by a comfortable margin.

My advice? Honestly? Enjoy the fuck out of it. You will probably never feel richer in your life than you do right now. Every raise that you get for the rest of your working life, even though it might be bigger in absolute terms, will pale in significance compared to getting into the black the first time and having something left over. All those people clawing themselves to the top of the heap at the hedge funds, neglecting their families or whatever they're doing in order to make their bonus this year, are doing it for a fraction of the feeling of wealth and possibility that you have now. Keep that in mind.

Yeah, there are definitely issues with deriving too many of your pleasures from the acquisition of "stuff" and you have to be a little careful not to end up presiding over a Smaug-like horde of crap, but there's nothing wrong with buying a latte because you want it and because you can. Chances are, you'll probably be enjoying it more than most people who are just standing in line and buying one semi-unconsiously because it's part of their daily routine, and has become a regular expense right up there with the power bill.

And as for recommendations... I'd nth the idea of a cleaning service, if you can stomach the exploitative-ness of most cleaning services and their relationship with their employees. Getting a cleaning service gave me back a big chunk of my weekends and removed a lot of stress with my housemates. Every single time I've walked into my place after it's been cleaned I've thought to myself, "was that worth the cost of a nice dinner? Yes, yes it was." And that's really what you should be asking yourself with all of your discretionary spending: if it's truly discretionary (and you're not going into debt or making tradeoffs in other critical areas), it's a matter of balancing one discretionary possibility against another. Do what makes you happy.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:38 AM on September 10, 2012 [12 favorites]

Don't get too wrapped up in materialism. Your childhood provided you with a great gift; how to live frugally. You can enjoy spending money on yourself, but the smartest thing to do is to make your money work for you. If you are smart about saving, you can definitely retire a millionaire. (Then you'll have the time to really enjoy the money; traveling and hobbies.)

But I do understand the desire to improve your lifestyle now. Don't let the "must-haves" pressure you; if you are content with your tech/entertainment set up, for example, don't feel the pressure to upgrade everything just because everyone else is toting around an iPad. A lot of learning what is worth the extra money comes from trial and error, or serious research. I found the following to be worth the money: MacBook, expensive sheets, a stash of high quality pens, good shoes, pricey lingerie and hosiery, some cosmetics, eye brow threading, cleaning supplies, some foodstuffs, coffee brewing supplies. Things that I've found aren't worth the extra expense: all hair products, phone, most clothing, books (I buy my books used about 99% of the time), household organization supplies, laundry detergent, some cosmetics. some foodstuffs.

It takes some trial and error to be able to figure out what is important to you to splurge on and what you are OK just getting by with; it's different for everyone.
posted by peacrow at 8:48 AM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

What about a nice computer? You don't mention if you have one.

Seconding a pair of good shoes for walking.

Maybe save up a bit and go on a vacation?

I spend most of my disposable income on food/drink so may not be the best person to ask if you aren't really into those things.
posted by mlle valentine at 8:51 AM on September 10, 2012

And nth-ing the "get the best fucking knives you can afford" bit. They will change your life.
posted by peacrow at 8:52 AM on September 10, 2012

I went through this same transition during the dotcom bubble -- for me the moment of realization came at the grocery store, when I realized I didn't have to spend time comparing the prices on the various brands of spaghetti anymore, I could just go ahead and spend the extra ten cents.

My advice: Except for small luxuries such as your iced mocha, don't go out deliberately looking for things to spend money on just because you have it. Instead, change the way you select the things you already purchase: instead of looking for the least expensive version, look for the highest quality version of that thing you can find -- which, note, usually doesn't mean the most expensive version! (There is a large and lucrative market in selling overpriced junk to people who care mostly about demonstrating their wealth through their purchases.) The point is not to spend more money, the point is to base your decision on the quality of the thing itself rather than on its price tag, whether that price is high or low.

The best part is that often as not you will find that in the long run this will actually save money, because the thing will last longer and work better and won't need replacing or repairing as often. It's both often quoted and true that it is expensive to be poor.
posted by ook at 8:55 AM on September 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

Forgot this part: don't worry about what "normal" is. There is a wide range of normal. Your upbringing is not any less normal that of a spendthrift who grew up with too much money; it's just different. Buy what makes you happy to own, no more nor less. Definitely don't go getting plastic surgery or expensive beauty rituals just because you think you're "supposed" to because it's "normal". (NYC is kind of an atypical bubble for that sort of thing anyway...)
posted by ook at 8:59 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here are some things:

* Nice toilet paper
* Nice soap! Check out Molton Brown or Anthropologie for something fun along those lines. Since you live alone, it'll last for a really long time too. It's nice to have a fancy bar soap and a fancy liquid soap. Classes up my ugly bathroom (I live in NYC too). Living alone, I've had bar soaps last for a whole year since they have time to dry out between uses, and I got my current container of fancy liquid soap almost a year ago.
* As for toiletries in general, for me I've had much better results with a lot of the products from, for example, Kiehl's than with the stuff sold at drug stores. Spending over $40 on a tub of moisturizer seemed insane to me until I did that and I stopped feeling like my hands were going to crack and die in the winter.
* As someone who also likes cooking, at those rare times when I feel like I am particularly rolling in dough, I might be more inclined to buy some nice fresh seafood to cook.
* A good vacuum cleaner, unless you don't have rugs.
* Regarding your desktop from 2004 that works fine and no cable internet... I personally would upgrade that, but I like my internet to be fast. If you're not already aware of this, you can get a simple cable internet plan sans cable TV. Much, much cheaper than cable TV.
posted by wondermouse at 9:00 AM on September 10, 2012

I think as long as you don't permanently adjust your expectations upward, you can survive any downturn. For example, at one point I was making $30,000/year more than I do now and we didn't adjust our lifestyle so much as buying nice things we'd always wanted or better versions of stuff we already used. Like I bought a Macbook rather than the cheapest laptop I could afford (and as a nice knock-on effect, the Macbook has lasted much longer than those cheap laptops ever would). So I wouldn't move into, say, a more expensive place or buy an expensive car, but I'd clear some items off our "One day we really should buy..." list.

The other thing I'd use it for is "What would really make my life easier?"

For example:

I travel a lot and always get a first class upgrade when one is offered because it makes my life so much easier (luggage allowance, treated like people, first on and off the plane, don't feel like crap on the flipside).

I spent more on a reliable Japanese car than I would have for an American one because, in my experience, the Toyotas and Hondas are so much more reliable and require very little fiddling. (I have a 10 year old Toyota that has required only the standard maintenance and a new pair of tires when we ran over a screw, whereas I spent a significant chunk of the 80s and 90s standing on the side of the road beside various American cars that died).

I buy Mac computer hardware because I don't have to worry about futzing with them when they break and doing lots of little maintenance tasks.

I buy software that makes my life easier or makes me work more efficiently. Sure, I could just work with Google Docs, but using Evernote and Scrivener and an expanded Dropbox make me more productive and organized.

I got a Kindle because it means on long trips, I don't have to carry lots of heavy books and it makes my bag so much lighter. It also means I never run into the "Oh crap I finished my book, better flip through Skymall for the next six hours" problem. The first time I lifted my laptop bag and the only thing in it was my Macbook, the power cord, and a network cable (rather than that and the 3-4 books I'd have to bring for any sizable trip), it was totally worth the money.

Now, that doesn't mean you have to adjust your lifestyle (and I work in a notoriously unstable industry, so I won't). Even if I will spring for a Macbook, my apartment is still the best combination of cheap/nice I can find in a given area, my desk is still a $50 table I found at Ikea, and our shelves are still $10 wire contraptions, I may bring a Macbook and a Kindle on the trip, but I'll still book a hotel with free breakfast or run to the grocery store so I can have cheaper breakfast/snacks/sodas in the room. But there's no reasons you can't buy a few things to improve your life.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:01 AM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I make a decent living, not rich, but can afford most anything I want in reason. I rarely spend money but would rather have a few items that I keep impeccably clean. My house is decorated minimally but it's spotless. I highly recommend a good vacuum, and cordless, so you use it all the time. Think Dyson. Since I have zero clutter and little furniture, I had my wood floor sanded and varnished when I moved in. I also purchased an $800 Degue light fixture for the dining room--it's the focal point of the room. My point here is don't go overboard with purchases but stick with high quality and cleanliness. You will end up spending far less money in the end and will have a much more tasteful place IMO. And without so much clutter and furniture, it's very easy to keep things spotless, like in a magazine!
posted by waving at 9:09 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hav eyou seen the 5 stupidest habits you develop growing up poor? One of the things it talks about is the internal resistance to buying money-saving multipacks of things (3 for $10 instead of $4 each) because of the internal resistance to spending money right now ($10>$4). Boy do I relate to that.

I definitely find that my stuff falls into two categories: there are some things I love, that I spent serious money on, and real time deciding and comparing and shopping for, and I get a lot of joy out of using. higher-end shoes, the choice for solid instead of laminate countertops in my new kitchen, my great chef knife, my leather jacket. There are also things I really like but are kind of a constant flow: the basic knives I don't take great care of, the special-occasion shoes and quirky shirts I got at the consignment shop, the kitchen table and chairs set we got from Craigslist for the last apartment, and had to swap out for a different Craigslist table when we moved to the new place with a dining room, the umbrellas I break or leave places. My point being, don't feel like everything you own has to be high-end just because you start buying a few special things. The cost of shoes in my closet ranges from $3 to $200 and that's fine by me.

So, things that I'm happy to have the money to spend on?
- Not squabbling over the bill when I'm out with friends. No "but I only had a salad", no "but you had 2 beers and I only had one", just split the check and call it good.
- Try a new product (face, hair, soap, food, whatever) and I really don't like it? Throw it out!! I don't have to use it up and get my $10 worth - just get the stupid thing out of my life already! (yes, I still struggle with this one!)
- getting the optional insurance at work (dental, vision, long-term disability, etc).
posted by aimedwander at 9:18 AM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Don't worry and don't make any major changes. You have a gift. You can enjoy small things. You're getting more enjoyment out of that iced mocha than a millionaire drinking millionade.

Keep your expenses small and save as much as you can. Just enjoy the feeling of being able to splurge on the small things... all the while you'll be saving up a nice fund of emergency cash that will allow you to have a new mind-blowing experience: the freedom of knowing that any monetary disaster that comes your way, you've can cover it without breaking a sweat.

Seriously, just enjoy this. I'm a few years ahead of you on a very similar path. I still enjoy the iced mocha, but you'll never get more of a kick out of it than you do right now.
posted by the jam at 9:20 AM on September 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

Only had two pairs of jeans throughout 4 years of undergrad.. then I got a taste of disposable income a few years after getting that degree. I definitely know the feeling.

I still prioritized saving for the future, but for the first time I allowed myself to have some fun. Without guilt. I remember setting aside some money every month for reckless self-indulgence ($20-$50, whatever is reasonable for you). I invested in a snazzy gold watch, a quality umbrella, spent $30 on a palm reading, learned to enjoy pricey dessert, bought Marc Jacobs perfume that I felt made me smell like a million bucks, finally got my eyebrows done (!), saved some $$ for one trip at least once a year (New Orleans, Cambodia..), took courses in German, etc.

I didn't go over-the-top. I was still frugal and mindful of every cent. It's just that after all those years of penny-pinching, I gradually learned how to make my money work for me.

Have fun!
posted by twentyfoursummers at 9:24 AM on September 10, 2012

And I'm not looking to spend money just for the sake of spending it. I'm just trying to find out what things are normal for other people roughly in my situation . . . because I'm just learning now that what I grew up with is not normal. I don't know what else to base "normal" on.

I think you're worrying too much about what's "normal". "Normal" in America and other countries means overweight, inactive, lots of TV, credit card debt, etc etc etc. Normal is not something to aspire to! It's also difficult to define because so much depends on your age group, education, region, and upbringing.

I think you'd find more value in introspecting and trying things out to see what you feel is worth spending money on. What matters is what makes you happy, not what makes other people happy. For some people, regular manis/pedis are worth the cost. For others, they're not. Same goes for everything else on that list.

I would suggest trying out a bunch of the little things you mention and reflect carefully on whether they're worth it to you.
posted by randomnity at 9:24 AM on September 10, 2012

A short list of things that I am grateful I can spend money on now:

- organic produce, delivered to my house. Transformed my cooking and eating.
- cabs or car service, especially at night. I take the bus most places but have no qualms about taking cabs when I need to, and am grateful I can afford that.
- shoes. Expensive, well-made, stylish, comfortable shoes are totally worth the money.
- excellent restaurants.
- personal upkeep. I pay my hairdresser a lot of money for my cut and color. I also get regular manicures and waxing. Really good lipstick (MAC) since it's usually the only makeup I wear.
- kitchen stuff. Well covered up-thread, as well as in other AskMes over the years.
- high-end liquor. Not relevant to you since you don't drink. I joke that I spend the same on alcohol now as I did in my 20s, but now it's one cocktail for the same cost as an evening of beers back then. I drink less, but more expensively.

That's all in addition to the usual sound financial advice about maxing out retirement contributions and emergency funds and so on.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:29 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

My time is fairly limited.

This is the most important sentence in your post. As you get older, you'll make more money, and if you're serious about not having kids, you will always have lots more spendable income than your peers. But your days are going to stay the same length. Use your money to buy yourself time. Buying yourself a drink instead of wandering around town looking for a fountain is a good example. So is taking a cab instead of waiting for the train. So is a cleaning service -- yes, it's a recurring charge, but it removes a recurring debit of your time! Shop at the store that's close to you instead of the store that's cheaper. When you travel, buy a plane ticket that works well with your schedule instead of the one that costs $50 less but gives you a 4-hour night's sleep.
posted by escabeche at 9:31 AM on September 10, 2012 [15 favorites]

I'm just getting the first taste of this myself (amazing internship & low summer expenses), and that absolute rush you've described?

A computer. But not just 'a' computer, the computer. The one that has all the things you could want as far as performance goes. (Memail me if you want the build I just got)

But. Now that you've looked at that, and either gone "I don't use my computer for that much" or "This is a great idea", take a moment and look at this: Das Keyboard. I thought the general range of keyboards was "too small" to "It's a keyboard. What do you expect?". When I opened this up, it was as pure a sense of "This is absolutely amazing. How did I ever live without knowing that typing could be like this" I've ever seen.

Get one of those if you do much typing or other computer things.
Also, an IPS monitor also fits into the category of "I didn't know that there could be that much of a difference in X!" beautifully well.
posted by CrystalDave at 9:45 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

You say your wardrobe is set, but what about your hangers? You don't have to spend money on hangers, but free hangers are crappy, bad for your clothes, and get all tangled. For a little bit of money, though, you can actually go to a store and buy hangers that look nice, don't get tangled, and are better for your clothes. For a little bit more money, you can even buy extra, so you don't have to dig around for some old dry cleaner hanger every time you buy a sweater.

Hangers! From a store! It was a revelation for me.
posted by that's how you get ants at 9:52 AM on September 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

I'm not in New York. But I spent money on: buying a house, hardwood floors, mattress and pillows, knives and cookware, shoes, good-fitting bras, cleaning service, and my hobby (which is currently woodworking). Hobbies are much more enjoyable when you make the investment to get the right tools/setup. If you play an instrument (which you probably don't as those lessons are expensive), buy a nice one.

On furniture: I bought everything used and tried to build the rest myself. I got really nice, classic, real wood pieces off Craigslist for less than $100. I had an $8 Queen Anne style coffee table that I refinished and looks gorgeous. I'm not a big fan of spending a lot on furniture until you know what style you actually like (and until you're in your "permanent" home). I'm in my mid-twenties, and I'm giving myself another decade or so before buying real furniture (that's new, and stylish, and of good quality).

Oh, and I also spent a lot of money on buying some cats.
posted by ethidda at 10:10 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm thrifty like you are, but I am neutrotic about running out of stuff so I have a stockpile. I know that NYC is small on space, but instead of buying the smallest amount or size of something, buy the larger size.

I always have about 36 rolls of toilet paper in the house. I have a horror of running out, so this, to me, is non-negotiable.

Another thing I do is go to Costco, or H-Mart and invest in an entire Rib Roast or Tenderloin. This way I can cut individual steaks and have them in my freezer.

I thought spending more on makeup or shampoos would be one of those things that pays off. Not really. If you have make up and toiletries that you like and you can get them at Target or Wal-Mart, then that's all you need.

I too enjoy having beautiful wooden hangers for my clothing. They're very cheap at about $10 per box and BOY does it make your closets look nice.

Give some to charity, you can be picky about which one. Max out your 401(k) and/or Roth IRA (I sure wish I had done that when I was young.)

On a long flight, use some of your miles for a Business Class upgrade. Actually, if you do this, you'll never want to to travel coach again. But seriously, this is an awesome thing.

It sounds like you've got your shit together. Congratulations, now enjoy the fruits of your labor!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:12 AM on September 10, 2012

One huge thing I figured out late in life is give myself permission to get enough of things.

Get enough underwear that you have plenty extra, even if you have to skip your regular laundry day.

Get a few more pairs of scissors, so you can keep one in your desk and one in your knitting and one in the kitchen.

Get enough washrags and dish towels that every couple of days (or, heck, every day, if you feel like it) you can throw the dirty one in the hamper and get out a nice, clean, non-smelly one.

Get a second power cord for your laptop so you can leave one in the office and one at home and not have to lug one around everywhere.

I have two mops and two brooms and two dustpans, because I realized that often I felt like sweeping up, but put it up because I was upstairs and the broom was downstairs. (I realize you have an apartment, so probably just one floor, but similar principles may apply to work/home, home/gym, etc.)
posted by BrashTech at 10:26 AM on September 10, 2012 [9 favorites]

Lot's of people have suggested good knives and I agree. Good knives are nice but they will eventually get dull and be just as unpleasant to use as cheap ones, so also get a nice set of stuff to sharpen them. It shouldn't run much to get a good sharpening stones. If you make a habit of sharpening them regularly it will only take a few minutes per knife.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 10:31 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I thought of one more thing, on the general subject of trading money for time. You know what costs a lot of money and saves a lot of time? Living close to the places you want to be. Most people, out of financial necessity, spend a lot of time commuting to work, getting to the places their friends live, the shops they like, etc. I have some nice knives and pans and furniture, sure, but if you want to know what expense really makes my life better, it's living in a place with a coffeeshop, public library, and grocery store across the street, where I can bike to work in 5 minutes.

I don't know where you live in New York, but if you're spending 90 minutes on the subway every day, it might really be worth considering a move.
posted by escabeche at 10:32 AM on September 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

Do you like reading? Since you sound like someone who is on the move a lot, maybe an e-reader would give you some entertainment while in transit.

Be careful not to embrace materialism at this stage in your life. You've avoided a couple of potential traps in that you have little credit/debt and seem to understand that credit =/= free money. So be wary of trying to be happier through things. It's a trap, pure and simple.

Looking back, I've been by no means frugal, but I've spent my disposable money on experiences rather than things. Concerts, travel, having adventures with friends etc. I treasure those memories far more than just about any of my possessions. Money is a means to an end. It's meaningless if you don't use it to do what makes you happy.

Also, eventually you may want to own a home, or some kind of property. When you do, the more money you can put into equity in that property, the better. You want to stay in your place for 10 years? So much the better. If you start stashing away money now, in 10 years you'll have a really really nice down payment no matter where the housing market is at. The more equity you can put into your future home, the more money will stay in your pocket rather than going to your mortgage.

I agree with what's been said about household items that are worth investing in and buying time for money. Just some options for you to consider.
posted by dry white toast at 10:40 AM on September 10, 2012

Nice fluffy absorbent towels, like the ones from Restoration Hardware. They come in like every color, and periodically they go on sale so you don't have to freak out too much from seeing how much they cost. That, and high-thread-count sheets, will make you feel like a goddess.

Seconding nice knives and cookware. Read Cook's Illustrated for recommendations on the best brands to get.

Good quality bras that fit - go to Nordstrom and get fitted, and spend at least $60 on each. They make a huge difference in both your shape and your comfort.

Don't get the plastic surgery!
posted by matildaben at 11:38 AM on September 10, 2012

Good socks, good socks, good socks. I've torn up my knee and ankle so I've worn very good shoes for a long time, but my sister who travels a lot, is on her feet a bunch suggested spending the not-much extra for good socks. They are worth it in a huge way.
posted by ambient2 at 11:39 AM on September 10, 2012

This is only tangentially related to your question but it's something else you might not have thought of. You'll want to think about how to start making your money work for you. My sister-in-law was sort of in your position and one of the big things she struggled with was what do with all that extra money. She had six-months of living expenses saved up pretty quick then maxed out her retirement contributions and knew that she should be doing something with the extra money but had no idea where to start.

Figuring out your personal plan for managing your cash-flow (IE how much money stays in your checking.savings accounts, how the extra gets invested) and your long-term savings and investment plans now will pay ENORMOUS dividends (literally) later on.
posted by VTX at 12:06 PM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Any plastic surgery you get now is going to look exactly like old plastic surgery when you're 35.

However, find yourself the best dentist in town within your means - pay cash or partial cash if you have shitty insurance, which most dental insurance is - and get/keep those babies in perfect form. Seriously. Take care of your teeth. If you have issues going to the dentist, spend some money on a therapist to get you into the dentist. There's a bunch of stuff that can wait until later; your teeth cannot.

Biggest regret of my adult life.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:26 PM on September 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

You mention makeup, and beauty treatments so I am going to assume you are female - forgive me if my assumption is wrong !

Something that I don't think anyone else has mentioned is underwear. No matter what size you are, having a fitting and getting a good quality bra are worth every penny you will spend.

Clothes fit better, posture is generally improved, and because you know you look better, you should also feel better.

Due to circumstances I'd rather not go into, I was brought up to wear clothes untill they fell apart or fell off, underwear even more so-because I was the only one seeing it, this is a terrible way to keep yourself in a mental state of "poverty" that is counterproductive when your circumstances have changed.

Also (within reason, and you know your own budget) spending a little more on quality clothing will save you money in the long term. I don't know who said it but there is a saying along the lines of "buying cheap means you, pay twice."
posted by Faintdreams at 1:23 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might find these previous AskMeFi questions relevant:

What products are worth investing in?
Expensive things tht changed your life
When should I struggle against my frugal nature? (groceries)
I think there's probably more threads along these lines.

Part of increasing your income is deciding which things are worth higher price tags. Certainly you don't need to ramp up your living expenses just for the sake of it, but informed choices will help you buy better quality, longer-lasting products now that you can afford the initial outlay (something which is discussed in the link about the poor person's mindset above).
posted by asciident at 1:36 PM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Nthing cleaning service! As Kadin2048 mentioned above, those services are often pretty rough to their employees. I happen to know an AMAZING cleaning person who works in Brooklyn, at least (not sure about the other boroughs) who struck out on her own because the owner of her service was pretty rough. If you want her number, Memail me.
posted by nosila at 2:03 PM on September 10, 2012

Here's what you do:

1. Don't lose sight of the feeling that spending money unnecessarily is wasteful. Hang on to that feeling as long as you can, or you'll eventually discover that you've frittered away years' worth of money that at one time was enough for you to live on, and/or that you've committed to tons of financial burdens that aren't really sustainable.

2. Take this as a wonderful opportunity to figure out your monthly needs (budget-wise), then whatever's left, take a 10/10/80 approach -- that is, spend 10% on things you don't need, donate 10% to charity, and save 80%.

3. As you move through life, your savings will get you out of trouble here and there, and sometimes you'll discover something you need that can also be something you want if you add a little cash on top, and you'll have that cash to add -- which is important, because if you're going to spend money on something you need, if you can make it something you also want, you'll keep it longer and take better care of it, saving you money in the long run.
posted by davejay at 2:40 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Right now there's 53 responses, so all I'm going to say is: take it one thing at a time. All of these are suggestions, based on your question, not things that you actually want to do (because you don't know at this point). Some things are important to some people, and aren't for others.

I say this as someone not much older than yourself, who's been through (or still going through) the stage where I discover what's important and relevant to me.

So: one thing at a time, or you'll end up with a lot of things you find you didn't really need. Of course, you will buy or spend money on things you regret. What you want to aim for is limit the buyer remorse to manageable levels.
posted by Busoni at 3:05 PM on September 10, 2012

And one more thing: you made it this far. Do you really need to change your habits? Why?

I mean, I was the same way too as a kid: my mom always told me to spend money on food, not drinks (in reference to your iced coffee revelation). This is not a bad thing. Of course, if you're thirsty, and you buy an iced coffee, this is not a bad thing either. The point is neither are bad or abnormal things in and of themselves. The point I'm trying to make is that you're best served by making your own judgments, not trying to determine what's normal or abnormal.
posted by Busoni at 3:10 PM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Once I got to where I could afford it, I got LASIK, and it was, IMO, the best money I ever spent on myself or anything else. You seem to wear contacts (or at least carry some around, ha ha), so maybe that's something you'd like to get.

I believe there have been AskMeFi threads about LASIK before, but the important qualities of a surgeon IMO, is very extensive experience, and a willingness to say no to your money if you aren't a good candidate for the surgery. Got a Health Savings Account? Use that for this.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:37 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thrills like your iced coffee:
-laundry pickup and delivery (also a time saver)
-ordering breakfast to be delivered on a weekend
-calling a nice restaurant for takeout instead of the crappy thai or whatever you usually get. Even the fanciest restaurants can make you something to go and then when you eat it at home you feel like a queen
-cable (but I love tv more than the average person I think)
posted by rmless at 3:58 PM on September 10, 2012

Hire a house-keeping service for once a month/twice month/once a week, whatever works for you. Having your floors vacuumed and toilets scrubbed regularly, while not having to do it yourself, is fantastic.
posted by colin_l at 5:07 PM on September 10, 2012

Get and use a credit card and build a history. Trust me, it sucks to have no credit history even if you have money.
Amazon Prime for that 2 day shipping on tons of things.
Cable internet and better computer and Netflix. (2004, you'll probably end up saving power, space, and it'll run cooler).
Probably easy in NYC, good spices and tea.
Good headphones, speakers. It's nice to play music that fills the apartment and sounds great vs. crappy computer speakers turned up to max.
posted by zengargoyle at 8:00 PM on September 10, 2012

I think the single most important piece of advice in this thread is "give yourself permission to throw X away." Interpreted more broadly, it means: you don't know yet what is important to you, so forgive yourself when you make mistakes.

Like so many people, I also experienced this phenomenon of suddenly being able to buy things. Personally, I buy travel, fancy clothes, great wine, art, theater, and dear god yes cab rides. Especially in London, where they feel even more luxurious than in NYC but also even more worth it. I always pay off my credit card completely (I do love the cashless society, plus cash back), and I revel in a savings account that has 5 figures before the decimal point, because I am definitely scared of being broke or worse than broke. More scared than I was when I was actually broke, by a long shot.

The most important lesson I learned was that spending money on things my friends liked -- lots of pairs of shoes, designer purses, any make-up at all, fancy body products, and brunch all fall into this category -- didn't make me happy even though I love those friends (and their shoes! -- which seemed to be a reason to use them as models at the time). What did make me happy (and relieved) was donating those things to charity when possible and throwing them away when not. So, give yourself some space to experiment. Personally, I have yet to become a person for whom a cleaning service wouldn't make me feel more bad than good, even though I work 96 hours a week and honestly could use the help. And that's okay, I just have to suck it up and clean -- and then hire a guy to mow the lawn so I save some time in a way that doesn't make me feel guilty.

Don't use anyone except yourself as a standard for what is worth spending your money on.
posted by obliquicity at 8:12 PM on September 10, 2012

I love having a toaster. For years we use a toaster oven because it was both an oven and a toaster for the space of one. My dad tried it out one day, then gave us a cheap real toaster for Christmas. What a difference. Buy a toaster.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:31 PM on September 10, 2012

Can I just say I really admire you for your thriftiness? Buying toothbrushes willy nilly because you forget them and whatnot, well...I find your general non-wastefulness to be an excellent trait. I think we can all learn to be less wasteful, I definitely could be much better at it. I certainly do NOT think you are abnormal! We live in a culture of excess.

What I do when figuring out how to spend disposable income in a non-wasteful way...

What are things I need and use on a regular basis? Eg, those who have suggested a decent bed - ABSOLUTELY. You spend a third of your life in a bed, make it a good one. I got an Aeron chair because I sit at a desk all day for work. Quality of life improved 100% with a good night's sleep and no back problems or RSI.

But perhaps it's also about treating yourself to something once a week, for the sake of it. Something nice that's not necessarily useful. Once you get into that mode you'll soon come up with a neverending list of ways to treat yourself.
posted by mooza at 9:43 PM on September 10, 2012

Your health. Go to the dentist, go to the doctor, get a plan for check ups and monitor anything that runs in your family. Buy good, healthy food and any kitchen stuff you need to prepare it. Find a sport or active hobby that you like and will keep up and invest in the needed equipment. Take some classes or join a fun league if you don't know what you might like and be open to new things. Buy good shoes that fit, get your eyes checked, address any minor health issues that arise and generally take care of your physical well-being as you would take care of a car or a house. When you're 40 you're going to be very happy! Plus you will save money in the long run. Don't neglect your emotional health: spend some money on experiences like travel or classes, something that rounds out your life and keeps you focused and mentally active on non work stuff.

Invest in friendships, maybe host a regular gathering or attend some. Or join a club you've always been interested in. You're probably habitually dismissing things as costing money that would enrich your life. Carefully choosing a few interests to pursue can pay off enormously.
posted by fshgrl at 12:01 AM on September 11, 2012

I don't have any fancier beauty routines like mani/pedi, facials, massages, peels, etc. -- should I?

Just because I think you are explicitly inviting this kind of information, let me just tell you the following:

For a woman in NYC working at any level above barista, twice-monthly manicures and eyebrow waxing are the bare minimum for grooming. Luckily y'all are blessed by plentiful and incredibly cheap salons run by the nice spanish / korean / turkish / your-neighbourhood-may-vary ladies. When sandal season arrives, get a pedicure. You don't have to do it all the time but it's nice to clean up for summer if people are going to see your feet.

Get properly fitted for a bra (NOT at Victoria's Secret) and invest in good bras. Your wardrobe will thank you today because your rack will look awesome. In 15 years your boobs will thank you, and also possibly your back.

If you are the sole provider for your household, seriously consider long term disability insurance. At your age it's pretty cost effective. Also get renter's insurance, which is cheap, smart and not rally optional.

I think you need an allowance. Give yourself say $50 a week for manicures and lattes and the occasional pair of frilly knickers. Require that you spend it all each week. See how you feel in three months.

The point of small luxuries is that they are luxuries. When you can no longer afford them, you miss them but it isn't like your life becomes bereft because you have had to drop them.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:40 AM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks so much for all the suggestions so far!

Re: saving, I know its importance and I really do have that under control. I have over $75k -- some just cash (savings, emergency fund, checking/debit) and some invested (Roth IRA, 401k, CDs, etc.). That's why I'm not worried about my credit score: if I had to, I could theoretically pay cash for anything smaller than a car or house, which I won't get anyway since I'm in NYC. Because I learned all about compound interest and automatic transfers, I maxed out my Roth even while I was scrounging for bagel change. I'm good at not spending, that's kind of the point, but I'm realizing I might be heading towards Hetty Green status.

Just to be clear, I am not spending a dime of that saved money. This question is just about what to buy from future paychecks, not at the expense of current savings or healthy continued saving. Promise! I'm obviously pretty set on retiring early/wealthy.

I've read the "poor habits" article, post, and askme. I have some of those issues, but not others -- like, I'm militant about buying in bulk and stockpiling, and I always use coupons and sales wisely. I keep track of everything through Mint, or I wouldn't have survived the lean years.

@randomnity and others, if "normal" is a hangup, feel free to replace with "healthy." I'm not going for the debt- and mortgage-laden average, for sure. But I don't want to go too far in the other direction, either, and put off all my pleasure indefinitely (and then get flattened by a bus).

And thanks, everyone, for the suggestions. I already have some areas under control (bras, medical/dental/vision, knives, eyebrows), but many others would never have occurred to me. I'm going to research a lot of them more closely to figure out what good upgrades would be. Definitely adding to my list now: hangers, second phone charger (I carry mine everywhere), travel toiletries/makeup, occasional delivered brunch (omg genius), soap, linens, good socks (what even are good trouser socks?). Things that really scare me but I should look into anyway: mattress (mine's a hand-me-down from the '70s), cleaning service, maybe new computer or faster internet, maybe instrument, possibly furniture (mine's all Craigslist), throwing things out (??!?).

But first of all, I'm going to deal with shoes. I'm embarrassed that someone guessed correctly I'm wearing Payless flats right now (and Sketchers to commute). Any recommendations for replacement brands or places to start looking? I'm not going for Tory Burch or Kate Spade just because I could, but more comfort and durability would be nice.

Separately, on the dealing-with-it front, any advice for making 3x as much as my mom, and almost as much as my dad (despite his 30+ years of experience)? Both are Actual Adults who work much harder than me. I feel so guilty that I usually just go "they live in a rural area! difference in cost of living!!!!" and then stick my head under a pillow.

Thanks again. I'll get myself another mocha this week!
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:56 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

what even are good trouser socks?

These are more "wear with sweater and jeans" type socks, but I swear by smartwool socks (for example). You will gasp at the price, but they will last 4x longer than cheap socks, they're really comfortable, and they're a natural fabric. TOTALLY worth it.

Shoes - what style are you looking for? Keeping with the jeans-and-sweater look, you can pry these Merrell shoes from my cold, dead toes. Extremely comfortable and durable. They have plenty more office-appropriate shoes, too.

You need good boots if you're dealing with a NYC winter! I'll let others suggest brands - Wisconsin winter "style" is much different than NYC style. (For reference, I own these North Face boots.) Indulge in other wintry pleasures - there is no reason you should ever be cold! Silk layers FTW.
posted by desjardins at 8:38 AM on September 11, 2012

mattress (mine's a hand-me-down from the '70s)

GOOD GOD. If you sliced open your mattress and examined it under a microscope you would be DISGUSTED by the amount of dust mites, mold spores, and whatever else is thriving on 40 years worth of dead skin cells. Seriously, get rid of the thing yesterday, it's full of allergens and many people are very sensitive to that kind of thing, so it's bad if you have guests, especially overnight guests, even if it doesn't bother you. Modern foam/latex mattresses are so much more comfortable, better for your body, etc. You don't even need to go expensive - do your homework, check sales, most of all just get rid of the dust mite farm you're currently sleeping on.
posted by slow graffiti at 9:12 AM on September 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

First, really really really get a new Mattress. I actually used most of my first paycheck from my first "adult" job to get an amazing mattress and a real sheet set at Macy's that I still use to this day (upgrading from the cheapest ikea option)- and every time I get into bed I'm excited. It makes a difference.
Clarks or Aerosoles ($70-$120- but my Clark gladiator sandals have 2 NYC spring/summers on them and are still going strong) will give you good value for your money- you can walk NYC distances comfortably and still look good.

Don't feel guilty about making more than your parents- prepare for their old age. What I've done is start setting aside some money as the "elderly parents fund". Godwilling, I'll never have to dip into it, but seeing how much elder care/all the little things have added up for my grandparents, I want to be able to help provide for them in their old age (and I haven't told them I've got this extra bit set aside- it's not much right now, but its there). And if they don't need it, then that rolls over into extra savings for my old age.
posted by larthegreat at 9:17 AM on September 11, 2012

I think shoes are really too personal to ask for advice from strangers on the internet, but here's a suggestion for you: sometime in the next six months, spend $75-$150 for a pair of shoes that you really like. Of course you can get good shoes for less or more, but I think you'll be surprised by what happens when you trade up from Payless to something a bit nicer. You'll probably want to pick something that goes with a lot of your clothes, since it will feel like a lot of money the first time, and you'll feel better about it if you can wear them a lot.

(I like to order shoes from Zappos or the like, because you can try them on at home and wear them around your apartment or office for a day or two to see if you really like them. This is another thing you can do when you have a bit more disposable income/credit: put $750 worth of shoes on your credit card and then return all but one pair.)

And I totally sympathize on the mattress. I recently slept on an air mattress for two months because I gave away my 12-year-old mattress when I moved, and I could not work up the energy to go to a mattress store (some of them can be weird and high-pressure). The only reason I eventually caved is because it got colder and I was freezing on the air mattress. I ended up buying an Ikea mattress (the same model I had slept on in a friend's guest bedroom, so I felt good about it). It was not too expensive ($550 I think). But seriously, even a $150 mattress is going to feel better than what you're sleeping on now.
posted by mskyle at 11:23 AM on September 11, 2012

Didn't read all of the longish post, but think I got the idea from the first section. I recommend dry cleaning. What a luxurious pleasure that is not really that expensive in light of how expensive other pleasures might be. There is nothing like not ironing! Don't fool yourself. Your even the "non-iron" button downs need a touch up. So let the pros do the washing and ironing. Just make sure to return the metal hangers to be kind to the environment. Also, don't fool with the starch. Sure it looks more crisp at the beginning, but within minutes of wearing a starched (even lightly starched) shirt, it will look like it has not even been ironed (think of how a balled up piece of paper looks when it's unraveled).

Get ready for the comments like, "Wow, great shirt" about a shirt you have worn a hundred times before with no comments at all.

Have fun looking great!
posted by boots77 at 4:25 PM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Giving and/or throwing things away. As someone said above, getting rid of shampoos or fancy soaps or what-all that you end up not liking is incredibly liberating, but so is cleaning out your closet and getting rid of sweaters that you always feel awkward in or skirts that just never fit right. The former category goes in the trash (or gets passed on to friends if you have the kind of friends who would appreciate half a bottle of shampoo-- I do), and the latter category can be given away or donated to a thrift store. This may be less of an issue now, while you're still operating super frugally, but is a thing to keep in mind in an ongoing way.
posted by dizziest at 6:30 AM on September 13, 2012

I'm militant about buying in bulk...

Great! I asked a question about bulk shopping a while ago, and hopefully there will be some tips in there to round out your technique.
posted by griphus at 6:46 AM on September 13, 2012

When I was in your situation I kept living as I was for a few years, then quit my job and spent a year travelling around the world. No regrets!
posted by Dynex at 12:50 AM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

As you've guessed, living on less than you used to make is mentally rough. This makes it hard for most folks I've ever met to save money, as saving even 5% of your income is tough if you're used to spending it all.

Every time you get a raise, take half of the additional money you're making and put it into longterm savings and/or retirement savings. You'll never have to live on less, and after a few raises, that starts to become a very significant chunk of money every paycheck.

I started this at 25ish, and hoped to retire in 30 years. I'm about a third of the way there, and it's working well so far.
posted by talldean at 3:00 PM on September 15, 2012

Go to the motherfucking dentist.

Ditto the massage therapist/ chiro/ physio/ doctor/ foot guy/ dermatoliogist/ whoever about that thing (or pain, or whatever) that you've been ignoring for so long that it's just a part of life.

Also, having a washing machine and a half-decent apartment has made life infinitely better.
posted by windykites at 7:38 PM on December 3, 2012

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