I can still remember the Friday afternoon when I tried to pull $800 out of the ATM on the street below our apartment and the message flashed at me: insufficient funds. My stomach fell, and my throat tightened. I couldn’t pay our nanny what we owed her for the week.
This happened near Christmas 2008. Our son was nearly 8 months old. Earlier that year, I’d made the transition back to work more smoothly than I had anticipated. Thinking about the end of maternity leave was worse than its actual end. That’s partly because I loved my job at Style.com and partly because I adored our nanny, a Tibetan immigrant and mother of two, who I quickly came to think of as the real grown-up in our family.
My husband and I pooled our funds and paid her for that week. And a paycheck came the next Friday, so I didn’t have to worry about the next $800 outlay. But I was going to have to seriously rethink my expenditures. Seriously! I couldn’t afford a $40,000-a-year employee without making radical, lifestyle-altering changes. It was just dumb luck that we’d made it to eight months without a money crisis.
First, I started buying groceries with my credit card, not my debit card. That was easy enough, but it didn’t make much of a difference. I started getting insufficient fund notices from E-ZPass, too. It was time to ship our car up to my parents’ place in Connecticut. That would eliminate the $375 a month I was paying to park it in a lot on Delancey Street. When the Snowtober of 2011 downed a tree limb in their driveway and pierced the sunroof, totaling it, that was another savings of $125 a month, which is what I was paying for car insurance.
The cost cutting started to add up, but it came nowhere near the $3,200 a month that was outgoing. During the worst of it, I lugged a huge bag of unwanted clothes to the Buffalo Exchange in Williamsburg only to have the hipster behind the counter reject almost all of it. I’d brought summery things and it was the dead of winter. How stupid! But even more bleak was the time I made my husband combine the change jars and take them to Coinstar. We were about 1 percent shy of the 1 percent and we were broke.
All this to say, my fashion purchases came to a grinding, screeching halt. The Maria Cornejo preorders I did each season? Over. The $1,000-ish I had spent at Barneys New York Co-op and my favorite little Nolita store, Lyell (RIP), at the end of my maternity leave? What. Had. I. Been. Thinking? I barely bought a thing for myself in the first four years of our son’s life. I survived on Uniqlo, J.Crew, gift certificates, and Theoutnet.com. I also got very familiar with the East Village Buffalo Exchange. I’d use the cash I earned there for smoothies, which were little luxuries at the time.
That doesn’t sound so awful. It certainly wasn’t when you consider the sacrifices made by less well-advantaged moms in New York City, and across the country. Except for the fact, of course, that as the executive editor of Style.com, one of the prerequisites of the job was looking fashionable.
It’s not like I had a wardrobe allowance before the baby, and I wasn’t an influencer receiving bags of free stuff. I was a low-key editor from my earliest days at W and Women’s Wear Daily, preferring jeans and blazers over dresses, and mostly wearing navy and black. But the nanny budget made me feel shabby, especially during Fashion Week, when the unspoken dress code is in-season only and other women in my sphere show up in new outfits that easily tally up in the high four figures. Daily. My son’s arrival parallels the rise of street style photography, and the last time I can recall being photographed by The Sartorialist was when I was seven months pregnant.
We said goodbye to our first nanny when our son was 4 and he was headed off to full-day preschool. I cried and cried, but a part-time babysitter meant major savings for us: a chance to pay down the debt I’d racked up at Whole Foods (what a fantastic feeling that was when I finally did it) and the freedom to make discretionary fashion purchases again. Years later, though, I very rarely spend money the way I used to pre-kid. Now, I deliberate like crazy over items that once would’ve been whims. And my sweet spot is somewhere below $500. I live for a good deal on TheRealReal, and I wear a lot of cool T-shirts.
It is deeply unchic to admit financial constraints in this business, I know. And I’m not sure I won’t regret outing myself this way. But here are two things I don’t feel bad about: being debt-free and my baby. He’s 10 now and developing a fixation on Supreme. We don’t always say no, but we don’t always say yes, either. He’s a lucky kid; the hope is he learns the value of a little austerity.