The Unbrave Girl’s Guide to Going from Spendy to Shoestring in Three (not-so-easy) Steps

February 17, 2010

This past weekend I took what will most likely be my last luxury trip in a long time. Two friends and I went to nearby city of Naruto on Shikoku island for an overnight stay and onsen hot tub soak at one of the many resort hotels there. Because Naruto’s only a couple hours away from Kobe, it has become a popular place for the locals to get some peace and beachside respite from the hustle and bustle of Kansai.

While the resort we stayed in was quite nice, I wouldn’t say it was lavish. Well, maybe a little lavish. There were two onsen baths including one that overlooked the ocean on the top floor and another that had freshly grown local limes bobbing lazily in the water. The all-you-can-eat buffet featured fresh sushi and sashimi, endless pots of steamed crab legs, a tempura bar, a make-your-own-udon station, five different kinds of rice and more dessert than I could eat (and that is saying something). The waiter hovered anxiously over our table to whisk away dirtied plates (there were a lot) and volunteer to take our picture (there weren’t many of those… after all, picture-taking requires one to actually halt one’s inhalation of tempura fried shrimp).

In addition to our overstuffing and onsen-ing at the resort, we spent the next day taking in the sights of Naruto: all two of them. The first was the powerful whirlpools of the Naruto Strait.

The second was the amazing Otsuka Art Museum, which houses 1,000 of Western art’s most famous masterpieces reproduced on ceramic tiles. The five-story building is packed from bottom to top with reproductions of Botticelli, da Vinci, Monet, Degas, Picasso and Gaugin. And, as if that wasn’t enough, they had their very own in-house Sistene Chapel!

Overall, for my one-night mini-indulgent beachside break and art fix, I probably spent about two hundred and fifty dollars, which seemed like a pretty good deal to me. After all, there was an all-you-can-eat tempura bar and the Sistene Chapel involved! Sheez, for the tempura bar alone I was willing to shell out the big bucks.

Over my past three years in Japan, I’ve gotten pretty used to a certain, ummm, shall we say, “way of life.” It’s not uncommon for me to drop a couple hundred dollars on a weekend trip… heck, it’s not uncommon for me to drop a couple hundred dollars on my way to work! Don’t get me wrong; I’m no high roller, but I do enjoy nice things (and by “nice things” I mean “all-you-can-eat tempura bar”).

I don’t buy designer handbags (mostly because I don’t see the point of spending a thousand dollars on a purse I’ll most likely be using as my pillow on the last train home). I don’t buy designer shoes (mostly because I’m a quantity girl versus a quality girl… why buy one pair of ridiculously expensive shoes when you could buy twenty pairs of ridiculously plastic shoes?). I don’t even buy designer tissues (well, I have been known to splurge on Kleenex brand now and again). But I do like to go out and eat nice food and take nice trips and stay in nice hotels… you know, the ones that won’t give me body lice.

I also really, really, really hate to be perceived as cheap… which is strange because I am cheap… really, really, really cheap. My favorite store in Japan is the 100 yen shop, where you can get almost anything your little heart desires (and a few things you’re pretty sure no one’s heart desires; for example, the tuna mayonnaise Dorito’s I picked up this week). You can buy dishes, cleaning supplies, food, erasers in the shape of food… anything!  Why, just today, I spotted a few things I was pretty sure I couldn’t live without. For example, there’s was a “Portable Mini Toilet,” which is basically a special waterproof envelope you can use to, ummm, “deliver a package” (if you know what I mean) during those times you’re too busy to visit the toilet in person. Of course, the portable toilet envelope is only one of the many wonderful goods available at your local 100 yen shop. I’d go into more detail, but I’d really hate to spoil your shopping delight when you stumble upon that fetching leopard print, lace unitard in the “delicates” section. (Oops, I spoiled the surprise, now didn’t I?! Well, not to spoil it any more, but I do believe it came in your size!).

Seeing as I am so cheap, it’s odd that I hate for other people to think that I’m cheap. While my shoes may cost less than a carton of milk and be made out of nuclear waste, I’d hate for other people to catch on to my bargain-hunting ways (although my secret might be out… after all, my shoes have started to make the sidewalk smolder… and, well, there’s the whole-admitting-to-being-a-total-cheapo-on-my-blog thing). So when I’m out with friends, I make sure to pick up more than my fair share of the tab… and, should I have imbibed enough margaritas, more than my fair share of the tab for those people sitting at the table across the way. I cringe when people start throwing around words like “budget” and “over-priced” and “Wow, that margarita costs nine dollars!” Instead, I prefer words like “splurge” and “five-star hotel” and “I deserve this one-hundred-dollar piece of beef.”

So, while I may be a 100-yen-girl at heart, this hasn’t stopped me from living the lifestyle of a hotel chain heiress… well, a hotel chain heiress who happens to wear radioactive shoes. But, seeing as I’ll be footloose and employment-free in one short week, my lifestyle is in for a big change (that is, unless I discover that I actually am a hotel chain heiress… Dad, is there something you’ve forgotten to tell me? Is our real last name Club Med, by any chance?).

I have one year of traveling through Asia ahead of me with no foreseeable employment opportunities and lots of foreseeable spending opportunities. Plus, seeing as I just hatched this plan back in, ummm, January, I don’t exactly have the amount of savings one should probably have for such a venture. To be honest, I’m not really sure what that amount of savings should be (because finding this out would mean I’d have to start typing the word “budget” into Google and that just gives me the heebie-jeebies thinking about it!), but I’m pretty sure whatever that amount should be, I don’t have it.

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been grappling with my big pending lifestyle change from spendthrift to stingy. I can’t say I’m too thrilled about it. After all, I’ve gotten used to staying in hotels where the amenities include things like clean sheets and hot showers and not, say, scabies. It will definitely be a big challenge for me. Like all challenges, it’s important to not attempt this thing whole hog. Instead I’ve developed a training program complete with manageable steps. So, here, I’d like to share with you the steps I’ve been taking towards my new lifestyle change. I would not say the training is complete, but I have noticed a slight difference. I mean, I haven’t had a nine-dollar margarita in at least three days now!

Step 1: Adjust Your Vocabulary

The problem with going cheap is that it sounds so, well, cheap. That’s why it’s important to embrace your inner thesaurus (or, if you don’t have one of those, you can always embrace your online thesaurus). When I began explaining my plans to my friends to spend a year traveling through Asia, I was reluctant to say words like “cheap” or “hostel.” Just saying those words started to make my skin crawl with all sorts of potential future creepy crawly inhabitants.

Instead, I started using words like “abstemious” or “cost-depreciated accommodation”… Okay, okay, so I didn’t actually use any of those words (as I didn’t even know those words existed until a little tour through the aforementioned online thesaurus), but I could be heard saying things like “low cost” and “economical.” Heck, I think I even said the word “budget” a few times and didn’t even cringe (at least not noticeably).

Using new, fancy words for old, boring words can even be fun… and, I dare say, add a bit of romance and mystery to your new bargain basement lifestyle. For example, instead of saying something old and boring like, “Oh, I better eat at home tonight to save cash,” how about saying something fancy like, “Hmmm, I believe I shall do a bit of self-catering this evening.” Not only does that sound better, but most people won’t even know what you’re talking about! People may even think that “self-catering” involves an actual catering service of some sort (and, therefore, you will be able to perpetuate the myth of your hotel-heiress lifestyle without even leading it!). So with just a few simple word changes you can go from being a tight-fisted tightwad to a fiscally fabulous frugalista!

Step 2: Look the Part

For my next year’s venture, I am planning on keeping my luggage to a minimum… and by minimum I’m not even talking about the maximum checked-in luggage limit for most airlines. Nope, I’m talking maximum carry-on limit: as in one carry-on sized bag for the entire trip. Going from my fully stocked closet and plethora of plastic shoes to two-changes-of-clothes and a pair of flip-flops is a big adjustment. That’s why I’ve been spending the last two months adjusting.

You see, I’m one of those insane people who loves to pack. Whereas other girls might dream of walk-in closets with floor-to-ceiling shoe racks, I dream of luggage! Before every trip I obsess about which suitcase or backpack or duffle I’m going to bring (and entertain thoughts of buying the new perfect suitcase or backpack or duffle as I have yet to find that perfect piece of luggage that will make my trip better and, therefore, my life complete). I then spend at least two weeks before a trip packing and repacking my suitcase, rolling and re-rolling my travel clothes and swapping one pair of flip flops for another. Some might call me obsessed, I prefer “luggage-fixated.”

So back in January I started packing. I packed away all the clothes I wanted to keep and sent them off to the States. I packed the clothes I was planning on taking on my trip into my trip bag. Then, I took everything else to the local charity shop. At the end of this whole process, I was left with two pairs of pants and one pair of jeans. Most days I wear the jeans, but if I’m feeling fancy or actually have to go to work, I’ll break out the pants. Needless to say, people have started to notice. My students began asking me if I was a hobo in my home country. I heard the neighborhood children started selling cookies to raise money to buy me a new pair of pants.

So while I may not feel like your average budget backpacker, I definitely look like one. Actually I’ve progressed from looking like a budget backpacker to looking unemployed and homeless. I’m probably also starting to smell unemployed and homeless. In one short week I will be unemployed and homeless, so, heck, my transformation is almost complete!

Step 3: Question Yourself

If you’re like me, you don’t really put a lot of thought process into your purchases. You definitely don’t question yourself about these purchases. After all, why wouldn’t you need another pair of shiny, sequined, vinyl platform flip-flops? I mean they have sequins on them! Who are you to question a purchase like that?!

But in order to save money, you need to actually stop spending money. (I know, I know, this equation makes no sense, right? But it’s true! I’ve done all kinds of research on it and even a little math and I’ve discovered that there is a direct correlation between not spending money and saving money. Funny that.) Even those 100 yen purchases need to be curtailed. (So put down that leopard print, lace unitard, my friend.) In order to help me cut back on my spending, I’ve come up with a handy dandy list of questions to ask myself before I march my shiny, new (leopard print!) purchase over to the cashier’s desk. Here goes:

1. Why am I tempted to buy this? Is it because I truly need it or because it’s cute/leopard print/sequined/so cheap I can’t possibly pass it up?

2. Do I already own something like this already? If I do own something like this already, is the new item better than the item I actually own or does the new item just have more sequins on it?

3. Will this new item actually fit into that one measly little bag I’m taking on my trip or will I have to wrestle with my bag for thirty minutes to make it fit? And if it doesn’t fit, would I want to bother with sending it to the States so that I discover it a year from now and think, “What the heck did I buy this for? Leopard print? I don’t look good in leopard print!”

My new purchase-interrogation method has been working quite well for me. It’s already cut back on a number of unnecessary purchases. Yesterday, I was fawning all over the nice, new, super soft hoodies at Uniqlo when I remembered that I have a perfectly nice (if not new or super soft) hoodie at home. So I put down the hoodie and headed home.

Well, I did stop by the electronics store before heading home where I picked up a new hoodie… for my iPod. See, my iPod has never had a hoodie before, and it truly needed one. I mean, it was positively indecent the way my iPod was so naked all the time! And, well, the iPod hoodie was so cute and matched the new stripey, scuba suit I bought for my laptop. So while I’ll be looking cheap on my year-long adventure, my iPod and laptop won’t be. If only I could have found something in a nice leopard print for my digital camera…

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