Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Hell Week on the Cheap

Every once in a while, that week from hell comes along. Finals week. The week you get dumped. The week the auditors come. The week your hard drive gets wiped in a freakish computer accident that you had nothing to do with and you have to work in an abandoned cube with a mouse that doesn’t roll and can only access e-mail through an antiquated Web interface that won’t let you delete messages so that you have to scroll through pages and pages of spam to find the Absolutely Vital document you need for the last-minute all-staff meeting.

When you’re under stress, it’s tempting to spend more money. Sometimes that’s fine. But if past stress-induced spending sprees have resulted in gut-wrenching guilt, or if you’re on a tight budget you can’t afford to blow, use the following tips to minimize the damage and get through Hell Week on the cheap.

The two areas of the budget where it's most tempting to splurge during Hell Week are food and entertainment. The food keeps you going; the entertainment takes your mind off the hell during the moments when you’re not actively going through it.

Food and Other Consumables

1. Keep emergency food on hand in your bag or in your office at all times. This food preserves your sanity when you can’t stop for lunch and cuts down on fast-food runs. Your emergency food should be nonperishable, of course. Protein is good. It should be something you like, but not so well that you’re constantly tempted to eat it—for this reason among others, things like candy bars aren’t the best idea. I carry a bag of almonds in my purse, and keep some beef jerky and chocolate in my desk drawer. Other good options for emergency food include trail mix, dried fruit, protein or granola bars, and the fixings for an easy lunch, like Ramen or a can of soup.

2. Develop back-up breakfast and lunch options for mornings when you’re running late. Tuna plus a Tupperware full of lettuce and dressing is my default lunch when I can’t think of anything else. If I’m really pressed for time, I just throw the can of tuna, jar of mayo, and Tupperware in my bag—I can mix it together later. You can also freeze extra portions of your dinner or even freeze emergency sandwiches so that you always have something to grab. If you get hit with an unexpected Hell Week, making a bunch of peanut butter sandwiches or a really easy casserole on Monday night can do wonders for your wallet later on.

If you’re slightly less cheap than me, your backup might be a fast-food dollar menu, but don’t pretend you can eat just one double cheeseburger for lunch if that’s going to leave you ravenous by three. And please don’t skip meals when you’re already stressed. If you do this, you will be that much more unpleasant for those who have to interact with you.

3. The cheap luxury. You’re going to need a little something extra to get you through till Friday. What’s it gonna be? Unlimited tea? Internet free time from three to four every day? One single, expensive chocolate truffle when you finish killing yourself for that deadline? Maybe even a daily Starbucks run if you must, but don’t you dare make it an hourly run or keep going to Starbucks after Hell Week is over.


1. Get your media free or cheap. Make a playlist of angsty songs on YouTube or drown your sorrows in brain rot freely and legally available on the Web (MTV.com offers almost the full run of My Super Sweet Sixteen and PBS.com has lots of depressing episodes of Frontline). If you have Netflix but need more movies, there are thousands available through Watch Instantly. Spend an evening reading Entertainment Weekly or fashion magazines at the library (it’s quiet, too, which may help calm your nerves). If you like to read actual books, check out a big bunch of them or spend the night at Borders, but don’t buy anything. Books are bad impulse buys.

2. Control the damage. If you know you’re going to self-medicate with alcohol, smoking, shopping, etc., plan ahead to make it as cheap as possible. Need a drink? Buy some Two Buck Chuck, visit the liquor store, or at least find a bar with a good special. If you go out, leave early—you need your sleep, and those neon shots that show up later in the evening are always a bad idea.

Must buy clothes or shoes? Can you at least limit yourself to thrift shops, Target, or Payless instead of going straight for a boutique or department store? Take out a small amount of cash and leave your credit card at home or at the office so you won’t be tempted to spend more.

3. Stay home. Going out tempts you to spend money, and if your crisis is work or school-related rather than emotional, it will just tire you out and make it harder to be productive. Talk on the phone or have your friends come over instead of going out with them—tell them real friends make house calls when you’re having a bad week.

4. Let yourself crash when hell week is over. Wallow in the pain. Eat junk food. Watch endless reruns of crappy TV shows. Satisfy every lazy, whiny, complaining, indulgent impulse.

If you want to give yourself a material reward, keep it in proportion to your budget and the magnitude of the Hell. As for me, I’m looking forward to several hours of Sex and the City and a big bowl of ice cream this Friday.

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