Monday, February 23, 2009

Single and the Spreadsheet

When I graduated from college seven years ago, the HBO series “Sex in the City” was in the middle of its six-season stronghold on American women. The show offered a sequined utopia of self-indulgence wherein its characters frolicked amid their drama in designer fashions, quipping “the meaning of life” with sentences just small enough to fit into their wristlets (save for Carrie Bradshaw – whose introspective monologues wove the show together and served as a theme from one adventure to the next). The show was entertaining to watch, and for many women (including myself) it served as a sort of support group for the single women slaying dragons on the dating scene – turning otherwise awful experiences into an anecdotal archive between friends who routinely shared their stories with each other over coffee and cosmos. It became acceptable to screw up your life, so long as you could summarize the lessons learned and live by the mantra, “when life gives you lemons, make martinis and be fabulous.”

I was quickly aware of the fact that while the show was very honest in its portrayal of women, dating and their emotions – it did not offer a realistic image of a single woman living on a budget, trying to simultaneously make ends meet and look good doing it. For one, the show’s main character, columnist Carrie Bradshaw, lived in a “rent-controlled” apartment. For all that I could tell when I lived in the city, rent-controlled apartments seemed to be an urban legend. I’d never seen one for myself, and even if I was aware of one existing, legend has it that they are very tough to get your hands on if you aren’t in the right type of network (i.e. friends or family of the current tenants). For two, my entry-level position in advertising provided the annual starting salary of about $25,000. These two facts were enough to keep me from being disillusioned by the reality of “the city” that set the stage for the characters I so desperately wanted to emulate in my early twenties.

And so it went, I was in New York City living as a single woman with a low-paying job, supported by the only man in my life at the time – my father. Over the course of the next five years, I realized that the city life (the reality version of it anyway) was not for me and I eventually moved back to the Syracuse area where my money went a lot further. I was grateful to my father for helping me out while I was in Manhattan, but I was ready to move into my mid-twenties as a financially independent woman.

Over the past few years I have steadily increased my income and I’ve made some progress with money despite the obvious setbacks of breaking an engagement and dealing with a recession. In an effort to get a better handle on my budget in these tough economic times, last night my father helped me to prepare a financial statement. It’s pretty depressing to divvy up your life over a list of line items in a spreadsheet – but important to realize how much of your money is spoken for before you can even think about spending $12 on a martini. In a way it makes a show like “Sex in the City” a nice break from the grind of real life – but it also makes a show like this into a potentially dangerous message for young women (and men), and not just the ones in the city.

We’re taught by shows like this that we can have it all. It doesn’t matter if you have someone to split expenses with, or a job that supports the lifestyle you want to live, or money in the bank for “just in case” scenarios. We should feel entitled to get the things we want (and that society says we should want) even if we can’t afford them because, darn it all, we deserve them. But the reality is, you can’t have it all – you can have what your “discretionary income” allows you to have. You can budget, save, and plan for the life that you want to have and hope for the best. It’s not Sex and the City; it’s Single and the Spreadsheet.

In Single and the Spreadsheet, life is a little bit different. There is no line item for expensive whims. “Break-up Fendis” and “I had to have them” Christian Louboutin shoes do not exist in the Single and the Spreadsheet world. Expensive whims in my world include things like organic arugula and kosher salt. My exotic vacations can be summed up by the line item for Netflix in my financial statement – where for $14.95 a month I can enjoy a bevy of foreign films like “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” allowing me to listen to a couple of hours of Spanish while reading subtitles to understand a complex love triangle unfolding on the beaches of Mexico (the experience is augmented by a six-pack of Corona, and throwing my flip-flopped feet onto the coffee table. Beach towel seat cover is optional).

In Single and the Spreadsheet, the line item for my vehicle as an asset and my triathlon bike as an asset are within $500 of each other (after this winter, the bike may trump the car for top value), and my calculated net worth could probably afford me Carrie Bradshaw’s left shoe.

The point is that being single is not as glamorous as the sets and screenwriting of shows like “Sex and the City” would have you believe. It’s not even appealing when my married friends say they’d like to live vicariously through me as I embark on the dating scene again. Let’s be honest: nobody likes the dating scene, they like the positive outcome that may be attributed to the dating scene in the long run. The dating scene is like grad school. You just do it so you can get an MBA and hopefully a better job afterward. You put up with it because it’s a means to an end. Like dating, it costs money, takes time, and feels like a lot of stalling to get on to the “real world.” Only sadists like the dating scene. More to the point are comments like “I can’t imagine being out there again.” A former friend said this to me years ago. With no man, no house, and no one to split up expenses with, it was as if I’d been exiled to some kind of “Survivor” challenge, and in a way, it sort of feels like that. The difference is that there isn’t a production crew waiting off the camera to clean up the mess for me. And there’s no real reward for “surviving” single life, other than bragging rights and an ironclad sense of pride.

As a single woman now in my thirties, I’m getting used to hearing of my coupled counterparts and their investments and adventures. New houses, new babies, family vacations, etc. At times I feel that living alone in an apartment at the age of 30 means that I’ve somehow gone backwards in my life, but my spreadsheet has apparently told me otherwise. Looking through all the figures with my father last night, there was something oddly calming in his reaction (he was surprised to find that I was better off than he had originally anticipated!). The bad news is that I have a lot of expenses that I’m responsible for all on my own with a limited budget, and it will be that way for the foreseeable future. The good news is that I’m succeeding. I might not be able to raise a glass of Dom Perignon to that, but I can always raise the corners of my mouth and remain optimistic as I’m getting through this in one piece (and if I may say so myself, I don’t think I look half bad doing it).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

An Open Letter to My Skinny Jeans

Dear Skinny Jeans,

Please stop taunting me. I tried to put you on, and it’s not working out. I’ve had a long, stressful summer and though my triathlon training has kept me in good shape and I was able to hang out with you on a somewhat regular basis, I’ve really enjoyed my time off after the marathon in September and I haven’t missed you that much.

I’ve been spending my evenings at home, eating Cheetos and drinking wine while watching re-runs of The Office and dabbling in the occasional bag of M&Ms. I’ve been giving in to any old whim – from peanut butter milkshakes for breakfast to night-caps of Port wine and Grand Marnier (yes, even after several glasses of chardonnay). And what’s it to you? Most of my year is devoted to being in shape and training for races where I spend a great deal of time in some combination of form-fitting neoprene, unforgiving bike shorts, and sports bras. As much as I love to reward myself by donning you with cute tank tops and high heels, I need a break from all of that when the training season ends.

And really, you should be happy about this. You’re such a prima donna. I don’t know why you insist on trying to hang around with me in the fall when I’m trying to decide the best course of action for removing my black toenails. You always complain when I pair you with the same boring pair of black heels, or worse, sneakers. But you can’t have it all, Skinny Jeans. If you want to stay in my life, we’ve got to keep the 20-mile runs and 7-hour bike rides coming – and that means my toenails will be taking one for the team, so you’ll have to get used to me adjusting my footwear accordingly.

And don’t start with me about the alcohol consumption. Yes, I know that drinking less wine would help keep the weight down in the off-season, but are you kidding me? Don’t you recall how many happy hours we had to skip or parties we had to cut short over the summer because we had to get home and hydrate and then go to sleep in order to get important workouts completed the next day? Seriously, you’re such a slave driver asking me to meet all these demands just so YOU can get out once in a while. It’s not all about you, you know.

I know you’ve seen me hanging around new, bigger jeans. It’s not like you hide your feelings. Do you really think you’re being subtle when I put them on and hear you mooing in the background? Get over yourself. The last time we tried to hang out together, you left me battered and bruised with imprints of seams seared into my flesh as if you had branded them there. And any attempt to sit down made me feel as if someone was performing the Heimlich maneuver on me.

At first I thought that maybe you were being difficult because you’d just come out of the dryer. You always fight me a little after laundry day, but then you come around and realize that I only wash you because I love you. We go back to our usual routine of looking fabulous and strutting around like divas. But these days you don’t even give me the range of motion to strut. It’s almost like you’re punishing me for taking some time off from training. And lately you’re just being downright rude – THAT is why you were sorted out from my other clothes and placed in the “tentative donation” pile. You keep this crappy attitude up, and the next place you’re headed is the black garbage bag of doom. Or better yet, maybe you’d like to cozy up to a used toaster oven as you wait for a neighborhood garage sale to seal your fate.

So here’s what I want to say to you, Skinny Jeans. We’ve come a long way. We rocked college together and then you made it through three years in New York City with me, and you’ve been holding your own now for significant periods of time in the past five years since I’ve moved back to Syracuse and gotten into the multi-sport lifestyle. I know that I’ve gained more weight than usual in the past two years, but I was going through a lot with a broken engagement, moving into a new apartment, starting a new job and cutting way back on training after my first-ever Ironman race. You need to relax and let me enjoy this time off before I start my training again in March.

No more complaining about my frozen pizza dinners. No more passive aggressive comments about watching a week’s worth of General Hospital on my DVR in one sitting. And absolutely no more trash-talking my fat jeans. They’ve been good to me, you know. Unlike you, they’re kind and gentle and embrace my sneakers and the present circumference of my hips. They’re even friends with my sweatpants (have some tact here, and just continue reading without taking any low blows).

Take care of yourself, Skinny Jeans, because we will cross paths again. I hope you can consider my feelings and try to take the high road the next time I’m in the off-season. I’ll remember who my real friends are when I’m back on top of my game.