Money

I saved $100,000 on a salary of just $30,000 a year—here are my top 5 money-saving tips

The author in New Orleans
The author in New Orleans

Between 2004 and 2012, I lived in New York City, made around $30,000 a year, and saved over $100,000.

It was enough money that, when the time came, I could hand over the piggy bank as a down payment on my first apartment.

I was able to save so much while making so little because I did my best to minimize bad choices, like trying to keep up with the New York Joneses, and maximize good fortune, like an inheritance from my grandmother. Both mattered a great deal. So did seemingly incidental things, like settling down with someone thrifty.

Here are the five most important savings tips I learned in those eight years.

If you're going to partner up, do it wisely

Love advice seems like a strange start to a story about saving, I know. And yet, nothing will deplete you faster, emotionally and materially, than getting stuck with the wrong person, or dating when you actually want to be single. Besides, love and money are usually entangled from the start, one way or another.

Ben, who I met in college, was a big-hearted, thoughtful guy who was right for me, and I sensed from the start that part of what made us compatible was that we both prioritized the same things, like security.

That meant we didn't take impulsive trips to Vegas, or even to Florida; we kept impulse buys of all sorts to a minimum. He didn't ask for expensive gifts from me, and I never expected jewelry or flowers. We found affordable ways to say "I love you." He once found me a perfect book of poetry at The Strand that probably cost $5 but meant more than 15 bouquets.

Try not to kiss frogs. Kissing frogs is expensive.
Try not to kiss frogs. Kissing frogs is expensive.

Once we moved to New York, we split a bedroom in someone else's apartment, cooked in bulk, and shopped at food coops, secondhand stores and other places we knew we could get good deals. Sometimes we took frugality too far: My mom was grossed out by our dresser, which had been abandoned in a field off the New Jersey Turnpike, and flat-out repulsed by the broken futon we slept on as a bed, which we had found on Second Avenue.

But for the most part, we managed to keep things simple without feeling deprived (and, thank God, without getting bedbugs). We took romantic walks together and treated ourselves to at least one dinner out a week. On special occasions, we threw caution to the wind and got tickets to Broadway shows like "Avenue Q" or reservations at bucket-list restaurants like Babbo.

Surround yourself with like-minded people

The fact that Ben had little interest in clubbing or brunches meant I was able to save, even when I worked a series of frustrating entry-level jobs that paid me under $30,000 a year. But the fact that my friends felt the same way helped too. We didn't shop for fun; instead, we hung out at each other's apartments, in parks, in free museums, in art galleries and at coffee shops. We played board games and watched DVDs.

Fancy fun at home
Fancy fun at home

We skipped the traditional Manhattan nightlife stuff — fancy cocktails and overpriced beer, as well as the associated late-night splurges on diner food and taxis — in favor of cheap evening events like readings, improv shows and The Moth story slams. Often, we could call it a night having spent under 10 bucks each. I still felt like I was experiencing New York City and having a social life, but I wasn't going broke.

Put your money to work

I opened a savings account immediately upon starting my first job out of college and, though I changed positions several times in those first few years and never earned much, my mentality stayed the same: Money was mainly for future use, not present pleasure.

Once I had enough for about six months of living expenses, I opened up a high-yield online savings account that gave me four percent interest and started moving reserves over there. And once that amount had grown substantially, I took a good chunk and moved it into a high-yield, multi-year CD.

Locking my money away, even though it meant I'd get it back and then some in the long run, made me nervous: What if I needed funds and couldn't get them? What if I had an emergency that exceeded the capabilities of my six-month cushion? I decided to risk it.

I was lucky: Even when I did get unexpected doctor bills, and when I was let go and had to live off of $400 a week in unemployment checks, my six-month fund supported me, just as it was designed to do. And, as the CDs matured, I rolled principal and profits into more CDs. Though I didn't know it, I was doing a kind of CD laddering, and it worked.

Avoid lifestyle inflation

For our first few years in the city, Ben was a student and I was an entry-level worker, and we arranged ourselves accordingly: doing a lot of cooking and not a lot of partying or traveling, squished into small spaces, most notably a studio so tiny you could almost touch the bed from the kitchen table. We lived in that 250-square-foot room for nearly three years.

Gradually, our prospects improved. I got jobs that paid better and put me on an actual career trajectory, and he graduated from law school and started working at a firm.

Even then, though, we kept our low-key habits. That was in part so that Ben could throw everything possible at his student loans. We spent under or about $2,000 a month on rent, total. We cooked in bulk every Sunday and brought lunch to work. We walked or took trains rather than hailing cabs.

We were more generous with our friends and families and when giving to charities, and that was satisfying. We bought slightly nicer clothes. Generally, though, our mentality remained the same: We treated his debt not like it was a mosquito bite, a small irritant, but like a plague of mosquitoes, something that had to be vanquished as soon as possible at all costs.

Put windfalls to work, too

I was helped virtually every step of the way by good luck: At least until 2008, the economy was strong and interest rates were high; I had found a partner who felt the same way I did about saving for the future and with whom I could split costs; and, though I dealt with setbacks like layoffs, bad bosses and worse landlords, I wasn't rocked by any real tragedies.

Grandma on a beach
Grandma on a beach

I also had my grandmother. From living simply and investing wisely, she and my grandfather, though both born to poor, immigrant parents, had amassed a small fortune.

My grandfather died while I was in college, and my grandmother didn't need everything she was left with, so she decided to give much of her estate away during her life instead of after her death. Over several years, I received a significant chunk of money from her — and though I was tempted to do something exciting and dramatic with it, instead I followed her example: I invested it and watched it help my total grow.

By 2012, Ben had paid off his loans, I had gotten a steady job with a better salary, and we wanted to have a child. We were also tired of moving when forced to by landlords or circumstance. We were ready to buy an apartment. Thanks to a combination of good choices and even better luck, we could.