Lessons from 26, Part One

Life lessons from 26, part one:

1. No more manicures.

Getting a manicure is one of those girly, fun, everyone-does-it things. In the past year, I got two: one with my best friend and one with my mother and sisters, for her wedding and Mother's Day, respectively. But I've realized that while I love the idea of a manicure, I don't actually like it; for me, the return on investment is zero. If I'm going to save up for something beauty-related, it needs to have more longevity to feel worth the expense, such as a hairstyle or a beloved product. Also, shellac screws up my nails, and I prefer to change polish frequently, so even if I get the regular manicure, it's chipped by the end of the week or I'm already sick of the color. So while many of my friends seriously love getting a manicure, and I feel like I should--I just don't. (Have I sworn off manicures forever? No. Maybe for my wedding someday. But on the whole, I'll put my money elsewhere.)

P.S. Doing what you actually like to do, instead of what you think you should like or do, is one of Gretchen Rubin's 10 personal commandments. Really interesting once you apply it to your life!

2. Don't spend money on lunch.

I've mastered the cheap, easy lunch at home. "It's just lunch," others tell me. Okay. If I spend just $8 for lunch (sandwich or salad and a drink, and that's on the lower end) every day, then I'll have shelled out at least $2000 for the year (see here for another detailed breakdown of cumulative lunch costs). I decided I'd much rather spend my money on pretty much everything else: happy hour, good cheese, J Crew sales, books, student loans, gas to visit people, etc. Of course, lunch dates with friends and coworkers are important once in a while, but on the whole, I try to avoid spending money on lunch.

There are two parts to this secret ability. First, think about what food items you don't mind eating several times a week. For example, I love eggs: they are delicious, can be transformed into a variety of dishes and are quite cheap. They also go with a ton of other ingredients, so when I go to the store, I pick up bread, fruit, cheese, avocados and spinach. That means I can make: over-easy eggs on pesto toast with spinach and a sprinkle of mozzarella, scrambled eggs with avocados and spinach, avocado toast, hard-boiled eggs with cheddar cheese slices and fruit, etc. (And these are just my personal preferences; Pinterest provides a boatload of quick egg-based dishes.) Any combination of eggs or snack plates works just fine for me, and it's very quick and portable. Everyone has a different "easy" meal--just think about what items are grab and go or quick to make. Since I know eggs are my jam (...with toast), I always have them on hand, and therefore I never run into the problem of "there's nothing in the refrigerator." Maybe it isn't what I want that day, necessarily, but it's healthy and quick and there.

Second, plan to make a larger quantity of whatever recipes you're cooking, so that you have leftovers. This seems like a "duh" idea, but it's so easy to just cook what you need at the moment because it's faster, rather than make a little extra. In a given week, I aim to cook 2-3 meals that allow for larger quantities. I can make a giant pot of whole wheat pasta with sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, zucchini and spinach. I can put short ribs in the good 'ole Crock Pot. I can grill 4-6 chicken breasts, pair with a whole fistful of asparagus and make a batch of couscous. Whatever I make, I think, "How can I get leftovers out of this?" and then act accordingly. Throughout that week, then, I can heat up any of these leftovers, or I can throw parts of leftovers on spinach and call it a new salad, or I can mix-and-match.

By doing these two things, you too can quickly throw together a lunch at home, or to bring to the office, without sacrificing taste and your wallet. (Disclaimer: I have no dietary restrictions or major preferences, so making meal choices like this is not a major challenge. I've simply perfected my own personal process!)

3. Sometimes I enjoy not owning a cat.

Okay, anyone who knows me will read that and think, WHAT. BLASPHEMY. I am a cat-lover to the Nth degree, and I come from a family of cat lovers. I've had at least six cats in my 27 years, some of which still live with my family. I see a baby kitty photo, and I die, Rachel Zoe-style. I truly just can't help it. Post-college, I had two cats that I loved dearly: Theo and Iris. Theo was, and still is, the strangest cat I've ever known; he is messy and afraid of everything and does weird things like mew pitifully for attention while trying to climb on the table to lick a stick of butter. Iris is a gorgeous Siamese with a bitch, please attitude and really prefers to just lounge around anywhere doing her own thing.

Both Iris and Theo were adopted by my parents and grandparents when I left the city (for various reasons, not because I'm a bad cat-mom), which means that it's been two years since I've technically owned a cat. I certainly wish I had a little fluffy buddy to cuddle with every day, but at the same time... it's kind of nice to have zero pet responsibility. I don't have to clean up extra messes; I don't have to budget for vet and food expenses; I can leave for the weekend on a whim without planning accordingly. I figure someday I'll have pets again AND children (hopefully), so I might as well enjoy this tiny bit of freedom for a little while longer.

4. Meet your neighbors.

Meeting neighbors in your twenties is kind of a strange thing. College is structured to force that sort of interaction via dorms, but after that, it really requires more initiative and bravery with higher costs and risks. Like the older gentleman who lived next door to my best friend and I in Chicago and never. stopped. talking. if you ran into him. Such a nice man, but he would steal two hours of your time without hesitation so we would literally text each other warnings in advance if he was on the neighborhood prowl for conversation. Other risks include, you know, creepsters and burglars and such.

Yet, the rewards can be massive. Two of my best friends, and many acquaintances, met the loves of their life this way. My current apartment building has a pool, which allowed me to meet at least 20 people from the building. Now I have 3-5 neighbor friends, and I can't express how nice and lucky it feels to know I can stop by their apartments or call them to go running, make dinner, borrow some rice or sugar, grab a drink, etc. Having a network of people directly accessible feels safe and old-school and friendly. The bottom line: pay attention to your neighbors, not only for favors, but for your safety and peace of mind.

5. Feeling like an outsider doesn't last forever.

I felt like an outsider for pretty much the entire past year, which will happen when you move to a new city and start a new job (in a new industry) and need to make new friends. And when you're a newbie, you often feel . . . well, dumb or silly or confused about quite a lot of things on many different levels. It's easy to feel totally overwhelmed and like you don't belong anywhere, and so my mantra became: this is only temporary. Flash-forward one year, and I can see how far I've come, but the experience of being entirely new to a place and community reminded me that everyone is an outsider at the beginning. There's no way around that fact, and a full, satisfying life requires newness and change. Whether newness involves a person, place or set of responsibilities, it will take time to hit a groove and find some comfort. Embrace the fact that the only way out is through.