Saver vs. Spender: I Shadowed a Supersaver for a Week

Alden Wicker
saver and spender

The author, right, and her supersaver friend.

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% of my credit card limit every month.

RELATED: My Quest for a Perfect Credit Score

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 1: 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.

RELATED: Confessions of a Reformed Money Meddler

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 2: 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.

RELATED: 8 Ideas for a Big Night Out (Under $100)

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.

  • Ally

    Sounds like you have a drinking problem.

    • Kat

      No, she just lives in NYC and enjoys life. Most of the time she’s only having one drink a night. Also, you missed the point.

    • Bianca

      Yeah, I’m pretty sure she does have a drinking problem

      • Amanda

        It doesn’t sound like she has a problem at all. Having a “problem” would be not being able to turn down a beer for the sake of your finances.

    • Ashley

      Sounds likr you have a fun problem.

  • Mark Vashro

    I think you hit it on the nose with being somewhere in between. I am currently more leaning towards your style of spending but something that I am working on to counter that feeling of the diet life is to really take advantage of what things my job, friends, comunity offer for free or at discount. Like you were able to get into a club for free (im assuming because you knew someone). I spend time looking at what resources/connections I have and use that to my advantage. Thanks for the article.

  • Elaine

    I think it is possible to both be more frugal and enjoy life. The old adage, pay yourself first, really does work. Commit to paper or a spreadsheet how your money needs to be spent. After taking care of necessities and commitments, as well as putting away the amount of money you’ve committed to for savings, figure out how to budget your ‘fun money’. Maybe it doesn’t mean attending every party, but it also doesn’t mean staying alone in your apartment either. If going out with your friends and on dates is how you choose to live and spend your money, then just plan for it and do it without guilt!

  • Marthalynn

    I like to change my perspective from “I have to be frugal” to “I choose to be frugal”. It feels less like drudgery. Also, coming at it from an eco-conscious standpoint helps to make it feel less like I’m missing out and more like I’m making a difference. Buying less “stuff” really is the greener thing to do.

    • Nonya Bizness

      I like saving money.It’s fun. I look at is as a form of entertainment lol.

  • Krysh

    Would love to read about this week again, but from Karen’s point of view. $27 at Trader Joe’s for a week’s worth of food? Tell me your secret recipes!!!

    • susanjohnston

      I suspect at least part of it is the fact that Karen is vegetarian so she’s not buying any meat.

  • Guest

    This article sounds like it was written by an 18 year old. Pouting because you can’t go to one party when you went out each night before that week? Spending money on ‘blind friend date dinners’ when trying to budget? I’m 20-something and live and work in NYC, and I can’t relate at all to this. Maybe 10 years ago I could have, but not now. Also anyone who cannot survive a dinner (with a friend or partner) without drinking sounds lame.

  • Katie McManners

    Congrats on taking this challenge! I have a spending plan…but with any plan, I have room for flexibility. The key for me is MINDFUL spending. If I decide that something may be worth it, I decide where I need to cut back elsewhere to make up for it.

    • Nonya Bizness

      Yep, it’s called Priorities. When I say “I don’t have any money”, that really means “I don’t have any money for this, because it doesn’t mean enough to me to spend money on it, because I’m saving for a big ticket item.”

  • Nickynoll

    I loved this! Thanks for testing out the frugal life diet for us! I totally empathize with you and your normal spending habits. It’s hard to break habits like buying drinks or appetizers at dinner when you’ve been doing it since forever. I’m trying to find the sweet spot between enjoying my life and doing fun things and spending less and saving more. Thanks for the fun piece!

  • Sandra

    if you have to have a drink to have fun, I think you do have a problem–apparently the people are not interesting enough for you, or you are not interesting enough, sober. If you live in New York, there are lots of things to do that are not huge price tag–your rent not being one of them–so why not use your apartment for lower cost parties. Just be picky about guests.

    • Ally


  • Natalie

    You’ll save much more with a lifestyle change (going out every night for dinner and drinks?) than with choosing the cheapest beer on the menu.

  • mageeshelly

    Since when is it hard to cook fried chicken?

  • Alina

    One of the best articles on LearnVest in a while. What I want to know is, how on earth did Karen get a whole week’s worth of food at TJ’s? for $27?!? Would love to see her grocery list!

    • nkdeck07

      Vegetarianism will do a hell of a lot for you that way.

    • Nonya Bizness

      She only bought fruits n veggies :-)

      • kgal1298

        Which means she’s a healthy vegetarian. I know some who eat junky grain filled food all the time and often times pay more than what the meat eaters do.

  • Nellene

    You mentioned my favorite rule! When I eat out I only order something that I don’t make or is a pain to make. If I’m feeling we want to drink that night I will check ahead to see if they have a corking fee and bring my own wine. (it can’t be on their wine list is usually the rule) Otherwise one good dirty martini is all I need. I always skip dessert. Keep a stash of good chocolate at home and have one later. It will satisfy you and not give you added lbs! I agree that somewhere in the middle of these 2 girls is the perfect balance.

  • NC

    This whole article revolves around decisions about the least expensive alcohol route? There is more to NYC than just hanging out at bars. Come on!!

  • Miki

    WOWSA!! We may all live in America, yet what DIFFERENT lives we live. Her life seems to be all about making HERSELF feel and look good. Sad. And expensive.

  • B.

    Wow, so many haters in the comments section. I found this really interesting and relatable. I don’t go out a lot because it does seem to get expensive no matter what, but that’s probably because I tend to think more like Alden (finding reasons to spend) than Karen.

    I have a friend like Karen and I’ll be honest, sometimes going out with her is a drag and makes me feel guilty for spending too much money. Like Alden though, I think that’s my issue. I also think it’s never a bad idea to try living the other way for a while and see what you can learn from it.

    Good luck to you in improving your spending habits! :)

  • Taylor

    I would have to agree with a large portion of those commenting in the fact that so much of this article revolves around alcohol. I wanted to learn from the article, really I wanted to, but I am not a drinker. Therefore, apparently I’m saving a ton of money by simply being ‘interesting enough’ sans alcohol. Maybe I’m the weird one here, but do you need alcohol to have a good time? To those of you commenting that we “missed the point,” need we remind you of this statement on the second page of the article?: “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.” Sounds like you need to ditch the alcohol and learn how to handle life without it. Life is awesome without alcohol- try it sometime!

  • Lisa Raymond

    I can see a huge gap opening up in the ground before me…it’s caused by the utter lack of connection to the life shown here. I consider a party every night a vacation deal, not real life. When do you clean, do laundry, read a book, watch TV, have friends over to talk and catch up, have quiet couple time, balance your checking account, and all the other 100 things adults do? If I don’t have quiet me time at least once a week, I am not fit for public consumption.

    • CrankyFranky

      yeah – her ‘eat out every night’ lifestyle reminds me when I lived similarly – until I counted my spending – $400 a week on restaurants – oh !

      I stopped immediately – started cooking at home – once a week big pots of spicy lentil stew I loved (vary spices everytime) – freeze portions for dinners – total cost almost zip.

      Now decades later I’ve heaps saved – ready to retire – and remain bemused by unconscious consumers who say they can’t save yet have no idea where the money goes

      My simple steps – track your spending, spend less than you earn, and over time you will save plenty.

      • Nonya Bizness

        People think a Budget is bad, but I LOVE them. I used to not budget, spent on what I want,then had to take from somewhere else to pay essentials. Now I have more fun saving than I do spending. Ok, no one wants to hang out with someone who always says they have no money, BUT those people that don’t want to hang out with you also don’t have any money, and want to hang out with you to SPEND your money lol.

  • LJ

    This sounds like a college student with so much of her hard decisions seem to revolve around alcohol and going out. I’m in my 20s in NYC and I can’t relate at all.
    All the going out makes it sound like the author is not a typical NYer in that she’s not working long hours. If I’m eating out or grabbing take out during the week it’s bc I’ve worked late and am tired and I certainly won’t be focused on having an alcohol bc I have to wake up & do it again the next day.
    I think this article would’ve been more valuable if more if Karens perspective had been included like what she actually buys and an example of her vegetarian lunch or dinner.
    Also let me just say there are so many great free or low cost things to do in NYC and relatively low effort to find out about them. This woman is plain and simple not trying.

  • Bstar0306

    I totally feel like I am the saver in this article but not because I want to but because I have to. I only make minimum wage so I can’t afford to go out every night even if I wanted to. One thing I have found from this article and struggle with in life is it seems like we can’t do anything unless we spend tons of money at restaurants and bars and I really hate that life has come to that.

    • Goldberry

      It does seem that way sometimes, but there are lots of other things to do. People who go out to eat and drink a lot usually don’t have any hobbies. Hobbies can save you money in the end. Also, remember museums and other free events.

  • theoriginalvsangel

    I’m like Karen. I do my hw about what the best value is for my money. I’m in the market of making money and having my money work for me, so if I am just gonna invest in liabilities like food out, fun, and clothing then it isn’t worth it for me. Esp, if I can get a bargain somewhere else. I budget like crazy, but the I’ve been living on one for the past 15 years. I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have one. I don’t think she has a drinking problem as you all think she does, but she’s so invested in overspending that she doesn’t know how to save her money which is the whole point of this article.

  • yipperbear

    back to the drinking problem or not. if you think you’re boring and not having fun because you’re not drinling. you have a problem.

  • Bambi Weavil

    The ‘how do you spend $27 for a week’s worth of groceries at Trader Joe’s’ would make a great post :) Thanks!!

  • Nikki Eugor

    It would be great to get ideas from people in other cities and not just in NY. We all have different ideas and budgets and are all in different age ranges.

  • Tania

    I realize this article wasn’t about drinking but it did seem to focus quite a bit on cocktails with friends. I used to drink quite a bit more when I was younger and lived in a city where I wasn’t always driving. I don’t drink when out now except maybe one on a date when I’m not driving (I’m in a town now where it isn’t easy not drive). Not only does it save you money, it also makes it easier to lose weight and wake up less groggy the next morning.
    Instead of focusing on feeling deprived and guilty, decide what brings joy to your life and how often do you really need to have it. If you are a foodie and enjoy trying new dishes at the flea market or when dining out, make room for that in your budget. Plan to do it once a week, maybe no cocktails during the week so you can enjoy the flea and a cocktail guilt free on a Saturday? Carry a set amount of cash to spend at the flea maybe. Can you give up other things in order to enjoy the things you do value? I think the key is planning for it. Your friend is the perfect example, she got her fancy smartphone guilt free because she didn’t indulge in other areas or found cheaper alternatives that could still provide her what she needed. She also found a way to get the exact thing she wanted but at a lower price.

  • Amy

    I think it would be more pertinent for the author to spend some serious time figuring out why she needs alcohol to not become a “Very Boring Person Who Wants to Go Home Before Everyone Else.” It sounds like the author has emotional dependence on alcohol.

    Separate note, when I’m strapped for cash (or just plain don’t want to spend any money) or if a friend is strapped, we come up with ways to have “friend dates” for cheap where we can still get dressed up for the event: happy hour wine bars, gallery openings, groupon events, etc. If you’re really strapped for money and you have a TRUE friend, you shouldn’t need intricacies or alcohol to sustain the connection.