WTF is an “Essential”?
Budget yourself. A penny saved is a penny earned. Life is richest when you find financial freedom.
We all know the mantras. Different cultures say it in a thousand different ways, including ours. It’s simple – spend money on the essentials, save the rest, and you should be fine.
But what happens when the concept of “essential” is corrupted? What do you do when excess and essential overlap in shades of gray?
Cutting Through the Layers of Advice
While doing research on personal finance for people my age, I consistently see recycled versions of the same posts on well-known sites:
“10 Ways to Cut Costs Now!”
“Six Small Tips to Save Every Day!”
“Sell a Kidney to Pay Off Your Student Loans!”
(Well, not the last one, although I’m doing research into that, as well.)
At first, these tips all seem helpful. Host cocktail parties with your friends instead of paying $15 for a vodka soda elsewhere. Plan a staycation. But the more articles that I read, the clearer it became to me that these posts are establishing a false premise for my generation. There’s a fundamental disconnect between us and our parents on what you “need” versus what you can “throw away.”
I decided to ask my friends what they would refuse to give up, even after deciding to stick to a strict budget.
What Do Millennials Refuse to Give Up?
“I would always let myself buy coffee at least three times a week. And good face wash – I’m not giving that up.”
“My Spotify premium subscription. That is the definition of essential.”
“Dying my hair three times a year. It’s not an option.”
“Crest whitening strips.”
DO ANY OF THESE SOUND “ESSENTIAL” TO YOU? THE RIGHT ANSWER: HELL NO.
To be clear, my friends and I know that none of these are essential in the traditional sense. But there’s a new norm in our generation, and a new “essential” to go with it.
iPhones are “essential.” Dinner with friends? “Essential.” Workout classes, soy lattes, metro cards, and getting paid at least $15 an hour to babysit? “Essential.” How often do you see someone carrying an expensive iPhone and a mountain of student loans? Answer: all the freaking time.
My father came from a comfortable family that lived outside of Boston in an affluent neighborhood. His father paid for his tuition and then helped support him at medical school. However, my father also hitchhiked to school, worked three jobs in the summer, and never went on vacation. He didn’t even go out and get drunk with friends during his residency.
HIS LIFE, AND HIS EXPENSES, WERE BASED UPON WHAT WAS “ESSENTIAL.” I CANNOT SAY THE SAME FOR MYSELF.
Perhaps a return to the old-school version of the basic necessities is in order. In the midst of an epidemic of student loans, social insecurity, and a nagging uncertainty about my generation’s financial welfare, we are at odds with what we define as “essential.”
Another friend chirps into my group chat.
“Pedicures at my fave place! And I will always budget at least one cool trip a year.”
I should note, though, that all my above-mentioned friends earn between $20,000 and $55,000 a year, and they certainly have no room for unlimited spending. They are aware of their limitations, and they very often map out their respective budgets for the month, including their rent, utilities, and “essential” purchases. But is it time for a return to the retro definition, or are we still learning how to live within the new order?