Tuesday, November 18, 2008

City Kitchen Chronicles: Of Risk and Celebration

City Kitchen Chronicles is a bi-weekly column about living frugally in Manhattan. It's penned by the lovely Jaime.

Last winter I was at the very beginning of my quest to get my finances seriously under control. This mostly manifested as me constantly feeling broke.

One of the worst ways that constant sense of brokenness (different from actual plain cash-strappedness in that it’s all you can think about) infected my life and psyche was in spending time with friends. It was around this time that I started turning down invitations to restaurants, hanging out at bars with a water in my hand, meeting my friends at the theatre before a play rather than for dinner beforehand. Sure, I was saving money, but I was also miserable.

It was my first year living on my own – before, with roommates, I had a built-in social life, even if it was just watching the 1am reruns of “Will & Grace.” But now, unless I made plans, it was just me and my cats. And plans cost money.

No movies. No restaurants. No bars. No ice skating.

And miserable Jaime.

I made it through the winter, and once the weather warmed up it was much easier. A stroll around the farmers market or an afternoon reading in the park was a perfect way to catch up with a friend and enjoy the city, without spending a dime. It also helped, hugely, that, even though I didn’t really have more money, I got in control of it, on a dept-demolishing plan, with some semblance of a budget. If every day wasn’t an epic struggle to not spend, but rather just another day on my long-term plan, life just felt less awful.

(And with that organization, I was able to scrape together pennies for, say, fireworks night at the Coney Island Cyclones, one of the city’s minor league baseball games. And if I really had my stuff together, I could afford a cup of Dippin’ Dots. The ice cream of the future!)

I got to thinking about last winters antisocial miseryfest this weekend when my friend J. and I braved a totally whacked-out subway system to visit our friends A. and B. in Queens. A. and B. recently got engaged, and J’s idea was to celebrate with an epic game of Risk.

(The backstory, aside from us being total nerds, is that J., A. and I have been friends since college. J. and I love B., but it’s hard to get him to go out and socialize. This summer we went to their apartment for Risk, and it was a great way to get to see him. This is also where the one-letter pseudonyms get confusing, huh.)

Anyway, J’s brilliant idea: Risk and celebration.

So A. cooked a winter vegetable stew in her slow cooker, and I brought some nice chocolate bars for dessert. We played Risk, and ate, and played some more, and after I lost I played Risk on J’s iPhone while the world domination finished up. (iPhone Risk is not so great, in case you were wondering.)

And there it was, a fantastic day with friends and a delicious meal, all for the cost of a few chocolate bars and some patience with the subway. Last time we got together for Risk, A. made chili and I brought a version of this. A fantastic deal.

It got me thinking about this winter, and my still-stringent finances. I’ve got to have a plan in place, whether it’s budgeting for social spending, or making sure I can see my friends and have fun without going broke. Or broker.

There’s hanging out at friends’ apartments, cooking dinner and playing Mario Kart. There are museums that have suggested donations, which, as a former employee of one such institution, I happily take advantage of. There are discount-ticket services like Goldstar, that can turn up a $7 ticket to a $25 event, but that’s still money, and sometimes money I just don’t have.

So what else is there to do that’s free and fun?

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Michelle said...

Go find a neighborhood utterly alien to your own, and explore. Look at the buildings, watch the people. I had this feeling on a wander through Battery Park City, that I was in some kind of new quiet wealthy place not at all in Manhattan. I discovered odd monuments and Japanese gardens. Fun!

mamacita said...

Usually I hate it when some smug loser writes in with a suggestion like, "Volunteer at a soup kitchen!" But here I am, being that loser. Soup kitchens, in particular, would 1) give you a way to bond with friends (for free), 2) keep you warm, and 3) make you feel less poor. Just something to think about.

You could polish your cooking skills at the Food Bank's Cook Shop series or work on your money skills at the United Way's MoneyUp program. There are more ideas here.

Juice said...

I too have friends over for Scrabble night. And just about any holiday can prompt a potluck. I also have enjoyed hosting or attending "stitch and bitch" nights in the past. In the next few weeks I'll be hosting a cozy night in for friends to address Christmas cards. Book clubs are also an inexpensive way to socialize if you use the library.

Anonymous said...

Potluck dinners are good. Board games, group video games (Wii is great), video nights, see what free/cheap stuff your local university has to offer - free workshops, lectures, movies, etc.

Dyan said...

A lot of improv/sketch theatres will offer free shows- sometimes they'll just be student shows, but occasionally there'll be a free night (usually a weeknight) or they may want to get rears in the seats if there are "VIPs" coming to a show.