I grew up in a New York City suburb, and moved to the city for college. When I graduated a semester early, my parents, who had saved for my education their entire lives, said they’d spend the money they’d set aside for that semester’s tuition to fund my first few months in the real world.
Adults lived alone, so I opted for a studio ($1500/mo.). My parents paid my rent, but I assumed I’d take over the payments or at least start making monthly contributions—just as soon as I snagged a job. It was 2011, and the worst of the recession was over (right?). In the meantime, I paid monthly bills, which totaled $110. It was, yes, a pretty sweet deal.
I was 21. I had interned in the past—in fact, I had an internship at the time—and a few freelance leads. My cousin, who is incredibly successful, kept saying: “Everyone sucks in their twenties, you just have to keep churning out crap and some day it’ll happen.” But after hundreds of applications, there was still no job. I fell into a deep post-grad depression that I couldn’t shake. I took low-paying freelance gigs; I took a minimum-wage paying job at a bookstore. I personally was only worth $7.75/hr, and my apartment, the only thing of value in my life, had a lease that would sooner or later be up. I landed another temp job, but wasn’t enough: by January 2012, I was living at home in the New Jersey suburb I’d gown up in.
My year of studio living was an experiment in independence that floundered spectacularly. Certain lessons became apparent during these months, namely: It turns out there’s a big difference between playing house and living alone.
I took the trip to Ikea, found the cute flea market finds. I pledged my local public radio station. I got a New Yorker subscription. I dealt with landlords, locksmiths, Time Warner Cable. I felt I had a modicum of control over my house, and so to feel responsible, to feel adult, I threw the money I had at household problems. My real problems could wait.
Back home, in between applying for jobs, doing weekend customer service support, and commuting to an unpaid internship in a small publishing office ($88/wk for NJ Transit tickets), I audited a class at the university in my town ($125/semester). Though I was only making about $480/month, I was actually starting to save money, which I never had been able to in the city. As the money accrued, I realized this time in the verdant ‘burbs might be a gift, an opportunity to reassess what I wanted to do, and who I wanted to be.
Around March another temp opportunity fell into my lap—one that paid a staggering $15/hr (!). I jumped at the chance to do anything for money, at the sense of purpose, at the reason to leave my demeaning unpaid internship. Another department needed another temp; I snagged that too.
Since March, I’ve been working 40 hours a week in Manhattan. My full time temp pay (monthly, after taxes) is $2,022; my NJ Transit Monthly Pass is $414. One fringe benefit of my commute is that it does do wonders for the budget: no time to spend on a social life means no spending on dinners, drinks, or dates.
What I’ve come to realize is that for most people in their early twenties, an income around $30K is enough to live on—except in New York or San Francisco. And when I think of leaving my comfortable room to squander what I’ve saved since November to live in a 10’x11’ box in Bushwick for $850/mo. without guaranteed employment, I start to Freak Out.
Moving back home when you’re 22 isn’t the end of the world, but the idea of going back to a manic existence in New York is both quite appealing and deeply disturbing. To quote a very wise man: “New York’s the greatest if you get someone to pay the rent.”
I’ve given myself until December to bulk up my savings, figure things out, and regardless, I’m out by January. There comes a time when one must acknowledge the fine line between fiscal responsibility and arrested development. Struggle builds character, right? My temp job ends in August, and I don’t want to move to a new city until I have the guarantee of an actual salaried job. For now, Chicago is the front-runner, and New York a pipe dream runner-up.
There’s an uneasy cognitive dissonance in knowing that you’re making the responsible choice, when responsibility means regression. Living in a big house with free food is a relief for a while, but I’m still playing house, even in a different context.
If adulthood means knowing when to make sacrifices, and learning to manage expectations, ironically enough, it took returning to the home of my childhood to learn that lesson. While temping has defined my professional life, my temporary stay in the suburbs has finally given me the motivation to do something instead of sit around the city and expect things to happen because I am in a place that’s happening.
New York will always be around, but a city owes you nothing. You can strive for happiness anywhere as long as you earn enough to live the life you want. I’ve lost some important friendships. I’ve watched too much Law & Order and eaten too many cookies. I’ve spent more time in Penn Station in one year than any human being should in a lifetime. I’m still looking to get a job that gives me a greater sense of accomplishment, and the independence and freedom that comes with disposable income. I’m fortunate for the generosity and guidance of my parents. I’ll be more fortunate when I no longer have to rely on them.