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Cornell University Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences Cornell University

College of Arts and Sciences, Liberal Arts at Cornell University


Kendra, Economics '02

“I’d love to work in non-profit/the arts/education/[insert stereotypically financially non-lucrative sector here], but I have to eat/pay my student loans/support thirteen generations of my family’s legacy.”

Every time I hear someone complain that they just simply can’t afford to live their dream, I want to stick my fingers in my ear and scream “la,la,la,la: I can’t hear you” like a small child.

Let’s get one thing straight.

As the American inventor and television personality Ken Hakuta, better known as "Dr. Fad" once famously said "Lack of money is no obstacle. Lack of an idea is an obstacle."

So if you know what you want to do, consider yourself lucky. Most people don’t. The question then, isn’t that you can’t afford it – but rather how can you afford to do it.

Eight years out of undergrad, I’ve lived in three different countries (if you count the US), five different cities. I’ve body surfed in Biarritz, climbed the largest sand dune in Western Europe (it has stairs), drank a questionable blue liquid out of a cup made from ice at the Quebec Ice Hotel, interned with the UN, worked on farms in Vermont, made tortillas in Nicaragua and seen the sun set over the princess islands in Istanbul. And I managed to do all of these things while accumulating very little consumer debt and never working in a financially lucrative field. I’m the only person I know whose income increased when she shifted from working in the private sector to working in the non-profit sector.

So when I hear someone who makes a great deal more money than I do, look at my escapades with envy (which has happened more than once), I don’t have much sympathy. (S)he chose her path – often motivated by a desire for money and security (which are not in and of themselves bad things) and I choose mine motivated by curiosity, and admittedly a certain recklessness.

Now before I go any further let me make something clear. In order to live my life I’ve done things that many of my friends would find impossible. I’ve been the ultimate boomerang kid and zig-zagged between foreign locales and my parents’ house more than most twenty-somethings. I own very little: I’ve never purchased a car; I don’t own a home…. I took very seriously the Ran Prieur essay How to Drop Out, and believed and still believe that "your expenses are your chains" and did my best to reduce my expenses to only the things that were either absolutely necessary or brought me greatest joy.

So when someone tells me that they can’t afford to work in non-profit, or to be an artist, mostly I laugh. Because they can. What they can’t do is work in non-profit and keep a West Village Manhattan apartment, go out to fancy restaurants, and wear five hundred dollar pairs of shoes. Real life isn’t Sex and the City or Gossip Girl. In real life, one often has to choose between passion and money, but what I’ve found is that people living a life filled with the former, often require less of the latter.

So you want to organize money around your life instead of organizing your life around money. How do you do that? Broadly speaking there are three components.

Develop an Image for Your Life If you’ve ever picked up a self-help book of any stripe - ranging from What Color Is Your Parachute to Viktor Fankl's Man's Search for Meaning, or looked at the strategic plan for any organization the thread that holds them together is a vision. Our dreams and visions are the compasses of our life. Yet unless we are careful we can find ourselves living – and spending money – to enact other people’s dreams. Take some quiet time and really question what you want your life to look and feel like recognizing the tradeoffs in achieving those dreams. If the thought of working 80 hours a week at any job leaves you shuddering, that should tell you a great deal about the path you should pursue. If you envision living somewhere with green spaces, that should tell you something about where you should live, as does the desire to leave your car behind. You wouldn’t buy a boat if you had a deadly fear of the ocean, yet many of us spend our money similarly on things that don’t bring us joy based on other people’s visions of who we should be. Once you know what you want your life to look like you not only have a direction in which to head, but it also makes the rest of your life so much simpler. Developing a mental image clears out the muck and helps us prioritize the things which matter.

Get Smart About Food Once upon a time most Americans cooked food at home and brought lunch to work. Now as this bundle infographic shows eating out has increasingly become the norm. I know plenty of recent college grads who always eat out despite the fact - not to sound clichéd- but the $5 (or more honestly closer to $10 a day) quickly add up. Lots of time those dining options aren’t even great. Learning to cook – healthy budget friendly recipes are readily available for free online at websites such as Eating Well, Food Network’s cooking site and the treat laden Smitten Kitchen, doesn’t just slash your budget but also makes it easier to avoid the post-graduation waist expansion that often accompanies landing a desk job. Learning how to cook, however, is just one half of the equation. Learning how to shop and prep, yes there’s a talent to it, is the other half. A variety of blogs such as The Diet Blog, Spark People even Lance Armstrong’s Live Strong Blog features heart healthy, budget friendly food shopping tips. While you can check out those sites for the details, the basics are: 1. Buy food staples in bulk. 2. Shop often for smaller amounts. 3. Buy what’s on sale/in season. 4. Cook what you purchase 5. Cook multiple meals and freeze the excess in single portioned ramekins.

Get a Solid Financial Education Foundation An article in this year's July New Yorker details the depth and breadth of American's financial illiteracy. As the article explains "Financial illiteracy isn’t new, but the consequences have become more severe, because people now have to take so much responsibility for their financial lives. Pensions have been replaced with 401(k)s; many workers have to buy their own health insurance; and so on....Unsurprisingly, the less people know, the more they run into trouble...A study of subprime borrowers in the Northeast found that, of the people who scored in the bottom quartile on a very basic test of calculation skills, a full twenty per cent had been foreclosed on, compared with just five per cent of those in the top quartile." Understanding your finances and broader economic conditions can empower you to make the best financial decisions to live life in the way you want. Vicki Robin's and Joe Dominguez's Your Money or Your Life, Suze Orman's The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke Ramit Sethi's blog I Will Teach You To Be Rich, and J.D. Roth’s Get Rich Slowly are all great resources to help you get a grasp on your financial life and move towards real financial independence.