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How You Spend—And How You Don't—Reveals Something Larger About Your Financial Ego

Here's how to win the daily battle between instant gratification and long-term happiness

I traded a lot of my life recently: a salaried job with health benefits and 401(k) in New York City for a set of lower paying gigs in the much cheaper city of Philadelphia. The change necessitated a huge number of financial trade-offs, some of which were part of the conscious decision to move, and some of which were not. I quickly realized that without a steady salary, I would give up certain things even to afford my modest $775 rent: open bar tabs, expensive tickets, shopping sprees, too many Seamless orders. But I didn’t necessarily realize that in restructuring my daily finances, I would also reset my priorities with money entirely.

As long as we’re making enough money to survive, most of us probably don’t think that hard about our trade-offs, but, whether or not we realize it, “everyone of us makes money trade-offs nearly everyday,” says New York Times columnist Ron Lieber. “All too often these trade-offs are subconscious, which means we don’t discuss them openly and fail to question them relentlessly.” But we should—because even the smallest money decisions have larger implications. When I moved to pursue larger “life goals”—writing, a relationship—I cut everyday expenses in favor of larger experiences. I rarely eat out anymore, but I’ve made a point to travel. The $297 I pay in health insurance every month gives me the freedom to write, but it means I can’t spend $300 at random on new clothes anymore.

In order to consciously question the priorities we are setting with our spending, I talked to others about what money trade-offs they were making. In so many cases, we are trading easy gratification—an expensive lunch, new clothes, a house upgrade—for more long-term sources of happiness: early retirement, a move overseas, kids. It’s in these smaller details of our financial lives that our real priorities come to light.

Trade: Homemade lunch for Mad Men-style cocktails

Jared, 26, New York City, law clerk

I make all my meals at home (and bring my own coffee to work) in order to indulge in an overpriced cocktail once a week, specifically at lavish hotel bars. While $16 gimlets seem like a horrible use of my paycheck, I refuse to let my romantic Mad Men notions of Manhattan slip away. My once-a-week indulgence allows a brief moment of escapism from my muddy French press coffees and plastic-wrapped PB&Js.

Trade: Cutting out T.J. Maxx trips for IVF

Laura, 30, Hartford, Connecticut, stay-at-home parent

We spent thousands and thousands of dollars on IVF (in vitro fertilization) due to fertility issues, so I consciously wasn't spending on frivolous things. When it comes to holidays or my birthday, I always joke, ‘Just get me diapers!’ I’m not a big spender to begin with, so I can't really say I cut anything out, but I do think twice before purchasing a shirt I don't need from T.J. Maxx.

Trade: Living with my parents for a move to Europe

Haley, 26, upstate New York, crop consultant

I’m currently living with my parents in order to finance a move to Europe. Even though I’m not spending money on rent, I still almost never go out, and I limit my shopping to things I need for work, the move, or rock climbing; outdoor clothes and boots, climbing shoes, a new suitcase, and passport renewal. Sometimes it sucks to meet people out and only order a beer when everyone else is eating, but thinking about having the freedom to take time to explore once I move makes it easier to go without things I’m tempted to spend money on. By living with my parents and not overspending, I probably save $1200 per month (compared to when I lived in New York City).

Trade: Being the college cleaning person for free college tuition

Kim, 59, Kenosha, Wisconsin, former cleaning professional, current receptionist

I opted for a lower paying job with good benefits. Cleaning at a college was not my career of choice; however, doing so provided tuition remission for two children (worth around $300,000 in total), which I would never have been able to do had I not worked at the college. Doing without is not always a bad thing.

Trade: Packed lunch for my ice hockey hobby

Luke, 27, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, medical student

I'll be the first to admit that I pack a lunch daily and brew my morning coffees with maybe too much frequency. I only have so much money to spend on extras—sports, traveling, socializing—so when it comes time to pay the $400 fee for my ice hockey league each year, I take solace in the fact that the fees are offset by my packed lunches.

Trade: Small house in an affordable town for early retirement

Darrow, 56, Chattanooga, Tennessee, retired software engineer

In order to retire early, my wife and I bought a modest sized house in low-priced Tennessee to raise our son, and lived there for 17 years without upsizing. Aside from not inflating our lifestyle, this saved us $10,000 to $20,000 in transaction costs on buying/selling homes.

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