The Goods devotes a lot of time to thinking about what it means to spend money: what we choose to buy, what it says about who we are as individuals and as a society, and why it all matters. That’s the focus of our essay series The Best Money I Ever Spent, where people write about the purchases they’ve made, big and small, that affect their lives.
To close out 2020, our staff wanted to take a swing at the notion of spending and value from a different angle, examining the items, experiences, and services that we may well have bought in another timeline, but certainly not in this one. Whether it was a gym pass or a year of preschool, a cheeseburger or a plane ticket to a friend’s funeral, the things we couldn’t buy this year marked how radically different our lives became compared to what we might have imagined — and raised the question of how they’ll be on the other side.
—Alanna Okun, deputy editor for The Goods
$20 on a burger
In the Before Times, a not-insignificant chunk of my budget went toward dining out at restaurants. I obsessively tracked new openings, followed every update to Eater’s heat maps, and kept a running list of spots I wanted to try.
Although I was constantly chasing the new and novel, there was one place I returned to regularly over the years: Rose’s, a neighborhood bar down the street from my apartment in Brooklyn. They had an amazing burger, arguably one of the best I’d had in New York, though I always felt it was just a tad too expensive — $19, plus an extra buck if you wanted Gruyere, which of course you did.
Rose’s became a constant in my life, there for all occasions. I went with my husband dozens of times and frequently brought various groups of friends. I spent delightful evenings in the backyard garden or sitting in one of the booths or playing trivia on Monday nights. It was a perfect neighborhood bar: always there to welcome you with open arms, to serve you something delicious and greasy to cure whatever ailed you.
Every time we went, we’d still grumble about how the burger was too expensive — $20! — but we’d order it anyway and never regretted it. Sometimes I’d go in a group and everyone at the table would order the burger. But we were paying for so much more than just the excellent food; I loved the comfort and familiarity of returning to a place that had always been welcoming, a place where I had made so many fun memories.
This year, of course, the restaurant industry has been hit hard by the pandemic, and dining indoors with groups of friends has become a thing of the past. Like many other restaurants, Rose’s was forced to shut down permanently. I’m still mourning the loss. I know that if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I would have logged a dozen more visits this year. I wish I still had the chance to spend $20 on a burger there now.
—Nisha Chittal, director of audience
$262.78 on an airline ticket
Steve, my lovely friend, died in March. It happened just as the coronavirus pandemic was transitioning from, “Oh, maybe it will hit us” to “Oh, it’s too late.” We were the same age — 30 — and it hadn’t even been a year since Steve was diagnosed with the cancer that killed him.
Steve was a former roommate. I lived with him, his wife (then his fiancée), and a cast of four or so other roommates in a house in Arlington, Virginia. Before we lived together we were strangers, but when we met, we were at the same phase of life: just graduated college, just moved to the Washington, DC, area for the first time, ready to start on whatever it was we were supposed to become. Steve loved to cook; so did I. We spent weekdays talking about the ambitious things we’d cook over the weekend. Nothing makes a house feel like a home more than having someone to cook with.
After two years in the house, Steve and his wife, Kim, moved back to Michigan. I was going to fly to Michigan for Steve’s funeral; Kim was so happy all the former roommates were going to be there. We hadn’t seen one another for years.
I paid for a ticket. And then I continued to read and report the news. I knew I couldn’t go. I felt horrible telling everyone else. I felt terrible implying, by my absence, that maybe other people shouldn’t go either. But when I told them, they understood. I had been reporting on the virus for weeks, but it was just dawning on them too: Whatever horrible things happen in life, the pandemic was going to make them more horrible.
So I canceled the flight; now I have $262.78 in unspent flight credits on Spirit, America’s least accommodating airline. I don’t know what to do with it.
—Brian Resnick, science reporter
$250 in solo movie tickets
2020 was going to be a banner year for my favorite activity: seeing movies in the theater by myself. I miss it so much, being all alone to cry or laugh in the darkness while still enjoying the social pressure that keeps me from looking at my phone. Also, the really gargantuan quantities of diet soda.
How much money did I save? Well, none, obviously. I spent it on garbage like an HBO Max subscription that doesn’t work on my Roku. But in 2019, I spent $245.50 through Fandango, the movie-ticket-buying site. It’s an imprecise figure in terms of my actual moviegoing habits — I don’t buy all my tickets through the app, for one thing, and occasionally (occasionally!) I allow friends to accompany me, buying their tickets or letting them get mine. But it’s a figure.
And looking at my credit card bill, I see three charges just in February — a notably crappy month for movies — totaling $52, all for movies I saw solo (Birds of Prey, Downhill, and The Photograph; judge me on your own time).
While I might not have kept up that clip, I feel like there’s, at minimum, another $250 that never saw its time in the spotlight. I’m thinking of leaving the cash in a little envelope outside my local theater, the one whose welcome song and dance still includes the warning to “turn off all pagers and cellphones.” I miss them and I worry about them, and I cannot wait to get back inside and see stuff blow up, feeling the safest I have in a long time.
—Meredith Haggerty, deputy editor for The Goods
At least $4,500 on child care
My two daughters have been at home full-time since the middle of March. There were some Zoom classes in the spring — even for the 2-year-old — until the school year ended. But there was so much uncertainty about what was safe and what the protocols would look like that we didn’t even try to send them anywhere for the summer. Even though my husband and I had to juggle parenting and working, it was one less thing to coordinate. And since none of us were going anywhere, it felt safer to let them hang out with their grandparents (outside) once warmer weather arrived.
Then, as the new school year approached, we had a decision to make. My older daughter was supposed to start kindergarten. My younger daughter was supposed to go back to her toddler program at the preschool.
The thought of sending our newly minted 5-year-old into a virtual learning environment at a new school broke our hearts. Our 2-year-old would be fine just playing all day at home. They have plenty of time to make up the learning. So we pulled both girls out entirely. I have spent the last four months joking about how the 5-year-old is taking a gap year (she’ll now go to kindergarten when she’s 6).
Keeping the girls home has meant paying zero tuition or child care expenses for most of 2020. If we’d gone down one of the other paths we considered, we would have spent at least $4,500 — and as much as $15,000. In many ways, saving the money has been a relief since my husband’s work dried up in June. And we feel much safer having our own parents help with child care. Just like everyone else, we are making it work as best we can.
It’s wonderful to witness and be present for so much of the girls’ day. But all four of us have frequently been low-key miserable. I feel guilty about how they’re not socializing with other kids, about telling them I’m busy working when they want me to join in whatever it is they’re up to.
I admire my husband’s patience with them — and that makes me feel even guiltier when I yell because I can’t take the mess or the whining or whatever any longer, or when I just want to be by myself and look at my phone. It’s simultaneously amazing and stressful to have them around all the time.
I think we made the right choice. Someday we’ll miss the better parts of this experience and feel lucky we got to spend so much time with them when they were little. I’m still looking forward to spending some money on child care again in 2021.
—Jen Trolio, senior culture editor
$3,750 on fitness classes
Last year, according to the fitness class apps I use, I took somewhere in the realm of 250 boutique fitness classes. That’s roughly five days a week, every week, in HIIT and boxing and spin and core, all of it sweaty and aggressive and also shamefully expensive.
With all sincerity, this is not a weird flex. Before the pandemic, I once tried to tally the cost of all those $20 and $30 classes and ceased when I found that it made my stomach ache. So I’ve asked myself why I do what I do, even if I’m somewhat ashamed of it, and here’s where I’ve landed: childhood baggage.
I grew up in a home — immigrant, Tiger Mom-ish — where summer vacations, displays of athleticism, video games, and boys were considered distractions from academic pursuits. So I partook in none. In gym class, I struggled to run a mile, to do 50 crunches, to jump rope, to evade a dodgeball. I could read several grades above my level but couldn’t climb a foot of rope.
It wasn’t until I went to college, with no one telling me that only my brain held worth, that I discovered the gym. I liked weightlifting and boxing most of all and found myself pushing to lift more, hit harder, and go longer. I like knowing I can now do everything I once couldn’t. And I am addicted to the dizzy high of endorphins.
I would have spent upward of $3,500 chasing that feeling this year. When studios closed, my connection to my own strength felt severed at first. I ran outside, then did burpees inside, then shuffled along to Billy Blanks’s delightful quarantine workouts, and finally I laid around for a couple of months, weepy and lost.
Now it’s a struggle. But after work, I try to pull on my sneakers and slip out the door into the cold air and do whatever feels right, whatever is possible. A run or a walk, or a hike alone into the woods to marvel at the ferns and the old trees, or a now-hilariously difficult series of HIIT exercises on an elementary school turf. I don’t always want to do it. But just as I did in class, I am pushing myself — to adapt.
—Lavanya Ramanathan, senior features editor of The Highlight
$500 on a “real New Yorker” party
According to this one episode of Sex and the City, you’re only allowed to call yourself a New Yorker after you’ve lived here for 10 years. I reached that milestone on August 27, 2020, a day I’d been looking forward to for at least a year beforehand.
My friends and I who moved to the city for college in 2010 had ambiently discussed how we might mark the occasion: Maybe we’d invite everyone to a private room at a restaurant and pool our money for an unlimited open bar, which felt unspeakably glamorous to a bunch of 28-year-olds. Maybe we’d go the ironic route and buy “I Heart NY” T-shirts and get drunk at the Times Square Hard Rock Cafe. More likely, we would have had a regular party at a dive bar or something, screaming the lyrics to “New York, New York” at midnight.
I actually spent August 27 scrolling through my photo roll and painstakingly crafting a treacly Instagram post about what living in the city has meant to me over the past decade. And at the risk of sounding completely insufferable, I’ve never felt more like a New Yorker than during the pandemic, which was ironically when everybody in the world started talking about how New York is over.
But honestly, I don’t think anyone who’s ever lived here actually believes that. Even if everybody else in New York suddenly decided to leave, it would still be the only place in the world where you can throw a party after making it a full decade — and everybody understands why.
—Rebecca Jennings, reporter for The Goods
An incalculable fortune on takeout
I have an uncomfortable relationship with money. I used to cry if I had to spend the $10 my dad gave me with the express purpose of spending it. I become standoffish and grumpy when it’s time to pay the rent. I’ll never say no to a free T-shirt because if I did, I would own no T-shirts. When I’m asked in Animal Crossing to spend my millions of virtual money saved up on something, I demur; what if I need that fake video game money for something important one day? (I won’t. I know I won’t.)
But 2020 was, well, 2020. For once in my life, I spent money on things I wanted, and I didn’t absolutely hate myself afterward.
I also spent money on things I didn’t want to spend money on, and in another timeline, I would have been shocked by this. I never was much of a cook — or an eater, for reasons best saved for my therapist — and so my grocery trips used to be limited, my shelves empty. This year, I gave up my former habit of buying bodega sandwiches for dinner or getting takeout or, more often than not, eating spoonfuls of peanut butter and calling it a night. I went to the supermarket and bought food. I bought ingredients. I bought condiments and spices and dressings. I bought things to experiment and play with. I became someone who cooked, even if not amazingly or with much variety.
I think about the money I spent on brunches and lazy late-night meals in that other version of 2020, the one we didn’t get. I wince at it, knowing what I know now: that I am fully capable of feeding myself and not resenting every minute of it. I enjoy lifting my heavy grocery bag home once a week, putting my food away, playing Jenga with our tiny fridge. I may miss the money I must spend to have this experience, but I am also grateful for the money I didn’t spend on those much more ephemeral meals, the overpriced and impulsive and obligatory ones I had because I knew I’d have nothing else otherwise.
—Allegra Frank, associate culture editor
$70 on a roller derby uniform
After four years of skating around in uniforms that, regardless of body shape and size, somehow made each of us look like a sack of sad potatoes, my roller derby league decided it was time for new, flattering uniforms. But I wasn’t sure if I was going to get one because I didn’t really want to play anymore.
I was looking forward to the 2020 season. I had resolved to work harder in practice and have more fun in games. My teammate Loraine Acid was a big part of this. She was a great athlete and a generous teammate who loved the sport and wanted to help everyone get better at it, and I wanted to be more like her.
But then Acid died, and I was angry and sad. My usual outlet for those feelings became the source of them. We had a tournament in April, and I was dreading it. If derby wasn’t fun anymore, maybe it was time to stop.
When the pandemic hit, the choice was made for me. At first I welcomed the distance from roller derby. Now I just miss everything. I miss my skates, the exercise, the sport, the bruises, but especially my teammates and friends. I have no idea what our league will look like whenever this thing ends — people have moved away, others have lost interest, and who knows if we’ll get our practice space back — but I do know that I will be wearing my brand new uniform when it does … even though I actually do look like a sack of sad potatoes now.
This year has been an awful reminder that we don’t know how much time we have with the people we love, doing the things we enjoy. In roller derby, sometimes you get hit so hard that you don’t think you’ll ever get up again. But you do, and we will.
—Sara Morrison, reporter for Recode