When I first approached my parents to ask if they wanted to set my budget for a week, they were excited. Too excited.
"I noticed you didn’t include a category for your TV subscriptions,” Dad said gleefully. I have subscriptions for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and HBO. It’s admittedly a lot, but I share most of them with my sister and my boyfriend. Still, Dad’s never made it a secret that he thinks my TV budget for that is excessive. Netflix and Hulu, he can accept. But HBO? To my practical father, that’s Marie Antoinette levels of spending.
“HBO is a set cost,” I told him. “I’ve already paid for my rent, internet, monthly subway card and TV. You only get to control my budget for a week.”
“Fine,” he grumbled.
My parents still live in the suburbs of Ohio, where I grew up before moving to New York City. Obviously, the difference in cost of living between the two is vast. Whenever my parents come to visit me, they’re routinely scandalized by the cost of everything from gasoline to cocktails. We’ve stopped talking about how much I spend on rent because it stresses them out. So I thought it would be a fun experiment to make them decide how much I should spend. I turned over all my weekly expenses to them, promising to follow their guidelines to the letter.
"HBO? To my practical father, that’s Marie Antoinette levels of spending"
I knew they’d be strict. My dad is a tightfist. He’s the kind of guy who never orders a soda at dinner, who never replaces clothing items unless he absolutely has to, who will wait months and months for a library book instead of just dropping $15 on his own copy. I expected him to put most of my budget in savings.
My mom, I anticipated to be more lenient. She’s got more of a “Treat Yo Self” attitude to life than my dad. With her moderating influence, I figured she’d make sure I had plenty of money budgeted for drinks out with friends, maybe even a shopping trip.
How wrong I was.
I told my parents they had $400 to allot, and with Cleo’s help, I estimated how much I usually spent on things like taxis, and take-out. I tried to give an honest and detailed account of exactly where my money went. I gave them a list of budget categories, without revealing the real amounts I spent.
When I saw the budget my parents had given me, I was shocked. If you ask my parents, there are three essential budget categories: groceries, laundry, and savings. Everything else is just noise.
They gave me a gigantic $250 allotment for groceries. I never spend that much on groceries in just a week. At first, I thought my parents had vastly overestimated how much groceries cost in New York. But then I noticed they had added an asterix: You can use this money for take-out, but only once. Whoa. This was a blow, because to be honest, I barely cook. I make some mean scrambled eggs, and a few times a week I’ll pull together some pasta and frozen veggies. But I get take-out four to five times a week. I guess when you never allow yourself to rely on your favorite Chinese place, you do spend more on groceries.
The surprise? They allotted me $40 for laundry. It was a gigantic overestimation. I was absolutely glutted in laundry money. I had enough money to wash and dry seven loads and still have money leftover to dry clean some dresses that had been sitting in a pile on the floor of my closet for months. A devious part of me wanted to take the extra money and apply it some extra Chinese take-out, but I knew I couldn’t. I had to honor the rules of The Great Experiment (as I was calling it.) Follow my parents rules, or get grounded.
That meant I had only $60 for every fun category drinks, taxis, restaurants, take-out, entertainment and shopping. The Fun Budget. My mom justified simply, “None of these are absolutely necessary for your survival.” Arguably true, but come on! They gave me nothing for clothing. I had tickets for a Carly Rae Jepsen concert on the final day of The Great Experiment, and I had visions of finding a cute sequinned dress to dance in. Goodbye, dream sparkle dress. I’d have to scrounge through my closet to find something instead.
But it was only a week. Surely I could stretch the money that far, right?
Until I dropped $20 for a ticket to Midsommar the very first day. Whoops. In my defence, I love arthouse horror and I felt a strong inner need to watch Florence Pugh scream in a flower crown. When my friends and I went out for drinks after to discuss the movie, I dropped another $20 on beers. And just like that, I was down to $20 for everything extra that wasn’t groceries or a thousand loads of laundry.
I woke up the next day vowing to do better. I bought fresh veggies, lentils and rice, even splurging on a quart of fancy strawberry ice cream. I made a delicious homemade meal, which I ate on the couch while watching Big Little Lies with my pre-paid HBO. Take that, Dad.
Once I got in the groove, following their budget wasn’t too difficult. Sure, it was sad to walk by my favorite Indian take-out place knowing I was forbidden from entering. And I spent an hour browsing online for sparkly concert dresses I couldn’t buy in an exercise of mild self-torture. But it wasn’t all bad. I used my plentiful laundry budget to wash my comforter and duvet cover. I used my grocery budget to try a new recipe for a chickpea salad. I enjoyed free pastimes like riding my bike or staring at my cat. I had room to spare in my Fun Budget.
But any wiggle room I thought I had vanished on day four of The Great Experiment. I woke up, checked the date on my phone, and with a dawning horror I realized: I had to buy my mom a birthday gift. That’s shopping. There goes the last twenty Fun Dollars.
"I enjoyed free pastimes like riding my bike or staring at my cat"
That was it. I had three days left, and I could only buy groceries and do more laundry. No after work drinks, no movies, no shopping.
At least my parents were having fun. They kept texting me to ask if I’d caved and gotten take-out yet. When I tweeted about the concert, my mom left a comment. “Are these tix in your budget? 😉.” I swear she learned to use Twitter just to mock me.
Out of pure stubbornness, I persevered. I couldn’t let them win. I would make responsible choices with my money if it killed me.
Of course, it didn’t. I made it to the end of a week on my parents’ budget and to the Carly Rae Jepsen concert. I had no money left over for drinks or a new outfit. And sure, I’ve snuck a flask into concerts before. But it felt too disrespectful. Not for Carly Rae. I danced my way through the concert totally sober, and skipped the merchandise table on my way out.
So I survived a week on my parents’ budget. I didn’t even spend it all. The amount of money I’d reserved for groceries and laundry was just too high. I knew what my parents would tell me to do with the extra money: put it in savings. And that’s exactly what I did.
But on my way home, I remembered that I’d never used my take-out freebie. I got delicious, greasy Pad Thai to go, as my parents and Carly Rae Jepsen intended.
Illustration by Sacha Beeley 👌