What I learned from a super saver

Tales from a thrifty adventure

When I meet up with my friend Karen to discuss the logistics of hanging out together for a week, she pulls out her Samsung Galaxy to look at her calendar. "Look at my new phone!" she says, excitedly. I'm surprised. This seems unlike her.

Karen, you might remember, is the supersaver I profiled a few months back. She maxes out her 401(k), refuses to pay retail for clothing and doesn't use credit cards. Ever. And here she is trying to figure out how to use her fancy pants Google Calendar.

Then she tells me her mom got it at Costco. On sale. In Delaware, which spared her sales tax. Ah, now it makes sense.

I, on the other hand, am a spender. My mantra is, "It's on sale for a reason." I shop at "Whole Paycheck." And my credit score, I found out last week, is in the "average" range because I'm using more than 30 percent of my credit card limit every month.

So when LearnVest suggested I hang out with Karen for a week and see if her supersaver ways would rub off on me, I was game. It helps that she lives two floors down from me in the same building. And I could use her guidance. This whole self-employment thing isn't making me as much money as my former steady paycheck. Who would have thought?

Day one: Sunday

On our first day together, Karen and I head out to Trader Joe's to get groceries for the week. I'm lucky, because Karen likes to eat healthy, and I'm eager to see how someone who owns a juicer saves money on fresh food.

We pass by one of the ubiquitous NYC fruit stands, and Karen tells me she stops at there at the beginning of the week to get $7 worth of fruit, which will last her all week in the office. In fact, she brings all her food for a whole week of lunches to work on Monday and packs it in the fridge.

In Trader Joe's, Karen starts in the produce section, where she snags three bags of carrots for her juicer. "This is a really good price for organic carrots. I know what everything costs everywhere. I have a really good memory," she says. She points out that the plums are 59 cents each here, while outside at the cart they're five for a dollar.

I'm starting to get the picture here; I couldn't tell you how much a plum cost if it walked up and spoke to me.

While we wait in line, I grill her on how she spends money on alcohol. I'm going to the bar that night, and I can't bring her with me because she's got other plans. She tends to go for Manhattans as the best value. "Even though they're expensive, they take a while to drink," she instructs. "And don't go thirsty, because you'll chug. Then you'll be broke and drunk."

Karen's total at the register comes out to $27.07 for a week's worth of food. Mine is $42.42. "Damn, girl! How'd you do that?" she says. "Smoked salmon," I lament.

But that night at the bar, I skip the tasty-looking frozen drink and rosé sangria for a $7, 17-ounce cider instead. I'm appreciating Karen's advice, since I drink it much more slowly than I would have, and I'm getting more alcohol and less sugar. Mission accomplished.

Day two: Monday

I have a dinner planned that night with a friend, so I send Sensei Supersaver Karen the menu of the restaurant my friend picked out, a casual Japanese place. We consult via Gchat. "Well, I probably wouldn't eat there in general because there's almost no nonmeat options," she says. She's a vegetarian, which also tends to save her money, though she does it for moral reasons. "In general, though, I would pick one of the lower-priced entrees with probably no sides/drinks/apps. Eating out only makes sense for me when I pick something novel that I can't really make myself, so I tend to pick the weirdest thing on the menu."

Using her advice, it comes down to the fried chicken. "Fried chicken is so good, and hard to do yourself, so I approve," she says.

At the restaurant that night, I cheat by ordering beer, which Karen wouldn't do. But it's the cheapest beer on the menu at $5. The total bill, with two dinners, two beers and a very generous tip, comes out to $45, and I have leftovers. I'm feeling pretty good about this so far.

When I get home, my boyfriend calls. He wants to do a romantic date night on Wednesday, and proposes sushi. This would be my third dinner out in a row, when Karen hardly ever goes out to dinner … and I'm wondering when I'm going to eat all the food I bought with her on Monday.

Day three: Tuesday

I have so much food, it's easy for me to eat what I have in the fridge for breakfast and lunch. For my second dinner of the week, I don't ask Karen's advice, but show up cold to the restaurant for my blind friend date with a girl who is new to the city. Looking at the menu, entrees run from $17 to $26, but all of them look like something I could make at home if I tried. The $14 mussel starter, however, seems like an inspired bargain. I tell the waiter I'm sticking with water, and my dining companion follows suit, getting a starter like me as well. Now I feel guilty.

I can't tell if the dinner is awkward because we're not a good friend match, or because we're not drinking, but I spend a lot of time looking longingly at the coupes of champagne at the table next to us. I spy a scoop of ice cream on the dessert menu for $3 from Blue Marble, my favorite. We both go for it.

While dinner was awkward, I feel pretty good about the $34 bill, which we split. And I'm full. I'm just wondering if I want to do this no-alcohol thing again tomorrow night with my boyfriend. The answer is a resounding no.

I'm beginning to see the big difference between Karen and me: I see reasons to spend, where she sees reasons not to spend.

Day four: Wednesday

I show up the next day to Karen's apartment so we can walk to work together. I tell her about my dinner the night before. "If you really want alcohol, you should get alcohol," she says. "But any meal I can get out of by throwing a $20 on the table is a success." I beam. Sensei Supersaver is pleased!

Karen doesn't have a gym membership, so I'm skipping yoga and spinning — both are pay-per-class — and trying it her way: long walks to work. It saves her $2.50 each way, or $112 a month for an unlimited subway card. It's a 1.5-mile walk, and by the time we get there, my legs have a light burning sensation. No wonder — Karen power walks like a machine.

I want to get my manicure and pedicure refreshed, and I ask Karen's opinion. She says she doesn't do her nails, because she bites her nails. So do I … which is why I get my nails done. Otherwise, I rip them to shreds. I compromise by painting my toes and digging out a package of nail stickers.

Wednesday night is date night. I take a Citi Bike to my boyfriend's apartment, because I have a yearly membership and it will save me $2.50. Of course I arrive late and sweaty, and have to flop on the couch to recover and dry out my hair and armpits before we go to dinner. Romantic, right?

At the sushi place, I order a passionfruit marg and he gets a wasabi-flavored marg. At $10 each, I make an executive decision that it's worth it. Then we scour the menu for cheap but interesting rolls. We try sea urchin and octopus — can't make that at home. Despite choosing carefully and turning down a second drink, we leave dinner just a little bit hungry, our wallets each $40 lighter (#frugalfail).

Day five: Thursday

The next night, Karen and I walk downtown to see her friend play a gig in the East Village. When we get there (after walking 1.3 miles), I check in on Foursquare and get a deal for a free $3 beer, which tastes about as good as you would expect. I decide not to order another drink, which turns me into a Very Boring Person Who Wants to Go Home Before Everyone Else. My nail sticker fails to prevent me from ripping my pinkie nail off down to the cuticle. But with the tip for the waitress and the band, my total expenditure for the night — and whole day — is $6.

Day six: Friday

I'm pumped for the weekend, and head to a pool party promptly at 4pm to get started. For my third drink, I ask the bartender what he thinks the best value cocktail is. When he looks at me funny, I explain the situation, and he suggests a gin martini. Perfect. Even better: He says it's on him. Now that's how you save money, honey. The bill still comes to $34. Damn! That's more than Karen would spend.

My friends invite me out to another party. I really want to go, but it has a $25 cover and I know that the high-priced beers will continue. So, I tempt my boyfriend home with promises of Trader Joe's dumplings. I console myself that the venue of the party isn't that great and I'm sure it's not fun at all. Really, so not fun.

Day seven: Saturday

When I meet up with Karen, we've both eaten a big breakfast in our respective apartments. It's a great way to save money when going to a flea market that features food.

When we get there, I spend $25 on a vintage sweater that I think is excellent value, and $3 on organic ginger beer. Karen spends nothing, and we leave after an hour, me looking longingly over my shoulder at the excellent food stalls we didn't try. This — frankly — sucks.

I'm feeling mixed about this whole week. On the one hand, you can't argue with any of Karen's logic. She just wants the very best value for her money, and is willing to do the work to figure out where that value is. But for someone like me, who is an enthusiastic consumer of life — which usually includes food, cocktails, parties, etc. — it's starting to seem like a little bit of a drag. I think the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle of the two of us. After all, Karen is saving up even though she has no goal for the money, and I'm not saving at all. OK, fine, her way is better. I just wish it didn't feel like such a life diet.

We both adjourn to our apartments for disco naps, then I pull out a bottle of limoncello from the back of my fridge, plus some ginger ale my roommate doesn't want, and we pregame at a friend's apartment nearby. Karen and I insist on taking the subway to the club, but my friend says she'll pay for a cab, just so she doesn't have to walk in heels. Eh, why not?

When we arrive, I've ensured our names are on the list so we scoot behind the rope and avoid the $25 entry. I drag Karen up into the DJ booth with me, high-five my friend who's on the decks, pull a pair of free beers out of the ice bucket, and start dancing.

And that, my friends, is how I like to save money.

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