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).

1 comment:

Crafty Chick said...

I was introduced to the world of the Budget Spreadsheet in August. And it has not only been humbling but a Saving grace. I know what is going in and out from now thru December. Yeah, that Sex in the City lifestyle is a fun pipe dream. But now when I think about going out the expense of it all is a huge deterrent I can't rationalize a 12 dollar martini when I can get a bottle of Skyy for 16 bucks.

I don't know how many baby showers, weddings, etc you have attended in the realm of late 20's early 30's singledom. But I can surely relate to the statements about "not wanting to be out there in the dating world" And I appreciate your honesty in how much dating doth sucketh. HARD.