Any financial advisor would start by saying that a balanced budget begins by charting needs versus wants. What they might not mention however, is the dirty little secret about wants: By their very nature, wants are always just a little more than whatever you’ve got. “No matter how much money you make,” cautioned personal finance author Stefanie O’Connell, “we all want more than we can afford.”
This is not necessarily a bad thing. It motivates middle-marketers to work hard and keep climbing, it expands their minds to do and see more and it forces shoppers to get creative. Luckily, there’s never been a better time to hack the good life. There are experts and services to satisfy just about everything your upwardly-mobile little heart desires-and your closet, apartment, wheels and retreats need never cost as much as they seem (nor feel as budget-friendly as they are). “There’s a way to hack every luxury,” O’Connell promised. Here’s how it’s done.
BREAK IT DOWN
It’s not sexy, but a boring old spreadsheet is still the best place to start. “Most people don’t take the time to chart income versus expenses. They don’t even know what they can afford,” O’Connell said. “First get real about numbers: What am I earning? What do I have to spend on necessities? Then, when I subtract, that’s my budget to spend on being fabulous?”
Think of the wallet in pie-chart form—the idea is to get the “fabulous slice” as fat as possible. The way to do that is to prioritize. “Imagine your dream life and put a price tag on every element. Choose the top two or three to insist on, but once you move down the list, consider substitutions.” Women may love a fancy cut and color every six weeks, but if perfect roots aren’t a must-have consider swapping a training school salon every 12 weeks and move the difference into the top-priority pile. Other penny-pinching plans could include visiting the local library for free lectures, concerts and events; volunteering five minutes of post-class cleanup for a freebie gym membership or scoring top-notch organic produce by showing up at the market right at the end of the day. With all those little somethings adding up, there’s extra budget for working in the must-haves.
TURN UP THE STYLE
There’s no way to live the high life without some style swagger, but it doesn’t take a celebrity-sized bank account to look paparazzi-ready. Nor does a fat wallet equal certain style. As Connecticut-based personal stylist Lucia Gulbransen said, “You don’t need a lot of money to look good—but you can spend a lot of money looking bad.”
The latter is all too easy. “Not knowing your body type, not understanding your fashion personality, not choosing colors that work for you—that all wastes your money.” Instead, save up and bring in a professional. Gulbransen’s three-hour, $350 “closet edit” will identify the pieces ready for retirement (unflattering shapes, bad hues, anything ripped or scraggly) and she arranges the rest into fashionable, personalized ensembles.
It’s also important to know which wardrobe gaps should be filled. “Sometimes a navy blazer for example, will go with this skirt and those pants you otherwise never wear…and now you can decide where to skimp and where to throw your dollars,” Gulbransen said. She advised including both knock-offs and designers, suggesting the big bills are reserved for statement pieces people notice—like shoes, watches and sunglasses. A pair of Ray-Bans or a designer purse upgrades a whole look, whereas a white button down is generic. “Get a few key pieces in there and people will assume the rest of your outfit is high-end too. A Prada handbag ups your whole game.”
Both the shopping and the way it’s done should be steeped in the latest trends. “When shopping online, cash back portals give you 5 or 10 percent back,” O’Connell said. But don’t stop there. “Along with cash back like Ebates, make sure you use promo codes and credit card reward points. If you stack your savings like this every time, it’ll make a huge difference.”
Remember too that time is money and outsourcing the shopping provides several perks. Valerie Halfon, a NYC-based personal shopper and founder of Shop with Val, caters to those without massive budgets and can update an entire closet for $1,000 using the pro skills that amateur shoppers might not have. “You need to know where and when to shop,” she said. “I cultivate partnerships with various boutiques and designers who offer exclusive discounts for my clients.”
Halfon scouts stores and private sample sales for a very VIP experience on even the most modest of budgets. She recently scored a floor-length Hervé Léger gown that retails for $1,800 for just $150. Outsource the whole finicky process and that dress (and the $1,500 savings) could be yours.
Since there’s no point in donning designer labels if you’re driving up in a junker, another way to hack the high life is by renting exotic rides—if only for an afternoon. Imagine Lifestyles, a fittingly-titled rental company with locations in New York and New Jersey, offers luxury car rentals, chauffeur services and even yacht charters.
The clientele isn’t limited strictly to the super rich either. “We do have a large list of celebrities and wealthy people,” explained co-owner Ryan Safady. “But we also have a list of regular people who’ve pulled their money together to do something special.” Safady pointed out it’s not about how much money someone has because “everyone’s renting for the same reason of looking good and appearing to have more than they actually do.”
For as low as $500, renters can score a day in a Mercedes or other luxury rides for any number of occasions. “Some people need an impressive car for a job interview, or for an outing with their boss, or even just to show off,” Safady said. “We can make anyone look like a millionaire in seconds.”
VAMP THE VACAY
Jetting out of town? A fast reality check: “You can’t get a six-star vacation on a two-star budget,” warned Scott Kertes, owner of Vacations by Design in Garden City. “But you can certainly intertwine a few six-star experiences.” The vacation designer suggested starting with a deep think. “Define for yourself what the high life is for you. Maybe it’s sleeping in a royal palace, or eating a seven-course meal or sailing on a yacht.” Be flexible on the things you don’t care about—like an all-inclusive open bar if you don’t drink—and splurge on what matters. For example, if a yacht ride is a must, take a regular cruise but indulge in a day-long yacht experience.
Kertes also had a few tips for small ways to enjoy traveling with ease. “Too often, people go three-quarters of the way there then say ‘no’ to the last few dollars. Say ‘yes!’” Yes to Global Entry will have you breezing through customs for a whole decade for $100. Yes to car service (sometimes just a few more bucks than the cab) will include a chauffeur to do the driving and help with bags. Yes on the cruises Kertes specializes in buys concierge service that includes priority boarding, baggage handling and restaurant reservations. “When 4,000 people are in a lineup to disembark—and for an extra few dollars you get to walk to the front of the line—that’s money well spent.”
MAKE ANY HOME A CASTLE
Living a life of luxury out in the world is all good, but it might make returning to a humble abode a bit gloomier. Before swanking up a space however, home stager Cheryl Eisen suggested decluttering. “When staging and designing homes, the number one problem is clutter,” said Eisen, founder and president of NYC’s Interior Marketing Group. All unnecessary knickknacks must go, “to the point of minimalism. Then you can thoughtfully rebuild the rooms with inventory you actually use.”
Items to keep include a select few investment pieces. “A nice sofa or beautiful chandelier commands the feeling of the room and are worth splurging on,” Eisen recommended. Ditto for wallpaper and light fixtures, as the knock-off versions will show. But other accessories—wall paint, rugs, coffee tables, mirrors—are just as good in budget form as they are in designer. Feel free to steal inspiration from even the fanciest of digs: oversized art, floor-to-ceiling drapes and faux fur throws will look as luxe at your house as they do at Beyoncé’s uber-chic abode.
Once the home, wardrobe and wheels are all high rolling, sit back and enjoy this even better thought: the ultimate status symbol of the good life is having the smarts to find it.