Setting the Record Straight: Yaffa Fredrick on the NYT Column About Her Restaurant Spending

Ginia Bellafante’s most recent column in The New York Times examined a segment of 20-somethings in New York City who spend way too much money on food. Felix Salmon criticized the column as being written “with a miserable kids-these-days condescension.” I felt that the column’s biggest fault was that it criticized the spending habits of 20-somethings without providing readers with the full financial picture of how these young people actually lived. One of those young people, 23-year-old MTV production assistant Yaffa Fredrick, also happens to be one of our readers, and she got in touch with me to set the the record straight about her restaurant spending, and what the Times omitted about what she does with her money.

Mike Dang: What has the response been so far for you since that column came out?

Yaffa Fredrick: Honestly, a mix. My friends have been extremely supportive because they know me on a personal level; they know I spend money on food, but that I also save for the immediate and distant future. Those who don’t know me appear to be split—some think of me as a reckless 20-something, spending as if this is my last day on earth. And others feel I am young and should “carpe diem!”

 

Were you caught off guard by the column when it came out? It seemed to be framed in a way to make you appear like a character on HBO’s Girls.

Ms. Bellafante said she was examining young people’s expensive eating habits in the city, and the amount we would spend for high-quality food. She took some figures out of context. I told her my most expensive week was $250, and she wrote it as if every week were $250 (when it’s more like $125 to dine and $75 for groceries).

 

Oh, that’s sort of … misleading? I read pieces about how clueless, lost and irresponsible millennials are all the time, and they really strike a nerve. When the column didn’t describe your financial picture beyond, “Look at how much she spends at restaurants!” I felt wary about it.

I was a little embarrassed about the piece so I actually didn’t share it with anyone. Instead, I let people find it. I wish she had framed my finances in a better light because, overall, I think of myself as fairly financially responsible. I was raised by a single mom in New York, so I’m used to pinching pennies too.

 

Yeah, I mean, you were introduced in the column right before the discussion of our fixation on “exquisite food” and “the financial toll it takes on people who do not in any real sense have the income to afford it.” With that set-up, we really should have been provided more information about your financials. It turns out that you’re a pretty financially stable 23-year-old, right? And you can afford to dine out.

I graduated college in June 2011 with two loans (approximately $10,000) that I paid off during my first year in the city. I certainly ate out less and worked many more hours—as a paralegal, babysitter, tutor, and freelance writer. As of June 2012, my student loans are paid off. I also do not carry any credit card debt. I actually tend to spend more on debit because credit card debt is something I fear—almost as much as flu season in New York.

I have two savings accounts: 1) A personal savings account to cover immediate expenses like moving apartments and major electronic purchases, and 2) A 401(k) retirement fund which I put 7.5 percent of my income into from each of my paychecks. I save about $450-$500 a month—split between a personal savings account and a 401(k). I also have a smaller fund for travel since I grew up traveling 2-3 times a year, and like to maintain the wanderlust-led lifestyle.

I figure, if I can pay all my bills on time and in their entirety, save money in two accounts, and not go into debt, I’m doing quite all right. The Times has a way of taking a few skewed data points and establishing “trends” and I feel like this article is a prime example of that.

 

It sounds to me like you’re doing the right things! I’m wondering if she even asked you those questions that I had from my earlier post. Did she wonder if you had student loan or credit card debt? Did she ask you if you saved or about your savings accounts?

Nope, she didn’t ask about any expenses except my rent and utilities bill.

 

Okay, so now that I know what I know about you, can you tell me more about how you make sure you can afford to dine out? 

Sure. Basically, I grew up in a foodie family. My mom—as a single mom with not a lot of time to cook—would buy a lot of frozen food and take out. I got used to eating out 2-3 times a week, and since returning to New York, I operate on that principle: 2-3 meals a week. From there I budget up to $40 for an expensive meal—so approximately $120—though I rarely come close to that figure. In addition, I budget another $75 for food shopping at Whole Foods/Trader Joe’s.

All in all, my food budget per month is $780—higher than most, but I don’t buy lots of new clothes and I travel 2-3 times a year. In my 1.5 years in New York since graduation, I have only twice reached the $780 mark.

Now, where does the $780 come from? My babysitting and tutoring, which provides an additional $1,000 of income per month. My tutoring and babysitting gigs are quite lucrative ($50 an hour and $25 an hour respectively), and they form my foodie budget so that my salary can go directly into the aforementioned savings accounts. I actually don’t use any of my base MTV money for food, since I have my account set up to deposit money into my two savings accounts.

 

So you’re not using half your income on food (like this caption says). You’re funding it completely through side gigs.

Yes, and still having about $250 leftover from the side gigs to put towards travel or entertainment or my biggest weakness: hardcover books.

 

How did you learn to be so good with money?

Honestly, my mom. My parents split when I was six, and my mom really struggled to balance our finances and send me to private school and college (I went to Wellesley, which isn’t exactly cheap). She taught me to create Excel spreadsheets in high school when I got my first job, and always budget necessities and fun times. Now I live with two women who work in finance, and they basically reinforce everything my mother taught with an added knowledge on various retirement funds.

 

Note: Yaffa previously said Bellafante “distorted” her figures, but wanted to clarify that Bellafante took the numbers out of context (rather than did it to intentionally mislead), so that’s been changed in the conversation above.

I emailed Ginia Bellafante to let her know that Yaffa Fredrick felt embarrassed by the piece, and was disappointed that her finances weren’t put in a better light. Here’s how she responded:

It was not my intent to portray Yaffa as irresponsible, nor do I think she comes off that way. She is doing what all young people in her demographic do, spending the money she makes to have fun as a twentysomething in New York. The column points out that she supplements her MTV salary to pay for her passion. As Yaffa said to me about her own life: “It’s a very paycheck to paycheck existence.”

I have zero doubt that if I were 23 now, I’d spend lots and lots of money going to grass-fed butchers and eating out regularly at Marlow & Sons. I spent money on things that hardly in retrospect seem worthwhile. Then you get to a point in your late 20s or early 30s and you’d like to buy your first small apartment, perhaps, and you don’t have the downpayment. A 401K, though it’s great, doesn’t help and you think a lot about where that money went.

We’ve all been made to think today that food has a higher cultural purpose and that buying the best isn’t wasting money. But maybe, possibly, it is.

 

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38 Comments / Post A Comment

aetataureate (#1,310)

Man, we must define paycheck to paycheck differently if “I don’t even look at this money, it goes directly into savings” counts! Irresponsible journalism.

emmabee (#2,008)

@aetataureate also incredibly condescending. Can we please stop trying to fit all “twentysomethings” into a single cultural narrative? Also, why is it important to question the value of food but not the value of home ownership?

aetataureate (#1,310)

@emmabee The idea that a 23 year old should want to save up for a down payment on a Manhattan shoebox instead of putting that money in a retirement account or something is also hilarrible. IF YOU DON’T OWN OR WANT TO OWN A HOME, WHAT ARE YOU EVEN DOING HERE?

EvanDeSimone (#2,101)

This is great. The Times piece definitely seemed thin on details. I think this is another case of the Times trying to cater to its older core-demographic with another “those crazy kids” trend piece. I love that the Billfold has given us a follow up that  portrays Yaffa as a savvy young woman with a hobby to which she’s devoted rather than a wacky cartoon person who spends all her money on bourgie snacks with no regard for the future.

ArizonaTime (#2,694)

Great follow up, Mike!

OhMarie (#299)

@ArizonaTime Yes! Love it.

GCM (#2,999)

“Then you get to a point in your late 20s or early 30s and you’d like to buy your first small apartment, perhaps, and you don’t have the downpayment. A 401K, though it’s great, doesn’t help…”

Except that you can take money out of your 401k for a down payment on a primary residence. (I did it, so I know it works.)

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@GCM Right on. Also, not everyone wants to buy a home these days. What if she has to or wants to move? When are people going to learn that real estate isn’t the sure fire investment it was 20 years ago?

Markovaa (#1,509)

@GCM Mike has talked about Roth IRA’s at length in the Billfold!

It really sounds like Ginia Bellafante came into the interview with a story that she wanted to tell. But I really disagree that Yaffa is living from paycheck to paycheck. She is deciding how she wants to spend her money, in a few years, she may change her mind and decide that saving for a down payment is how she wants to spend her money. However, if she’s working as a PA, owning may not make sense for her. She may need to travel to work on shows that film outside of New York or decide to move to LA for more opportunities. There is no one life plan that works for everyone.

Arielle@twitter (#1,503)

@GCM Right! Her response is so condescending, yet she’s so wrong on the details. To leave out specifics about Yaffa’s saving habits, then make a point about what that money could do if saved, is so irresponsible. Don’t try to brush it under the table by saying, “oh, well she’s saving, but only in a 401(k). Not for a house! I was talking about a house!” What would be irresponsible is investing your house down payment in an S&P index fund, where you could lose it all.

emmabee (#2,008)

@Franny Right! Plus, she’s saving more than $5000 a year! That’s at least a couple of months of living expenses–definitely not living paycheck to paycheck. I’m really confused why they’re trying to money-shame someone who saves twice as much (!!) as the average American (as a percentage of income.)

If there’s one iron-clad rule out there when being interviewed for a newspaper article, it’s that if the reporter can find a way to twist your words to make you look like an absolute fool, the reporter will DEFINITELY twist your words to make you look like an absolute fool. I’ve been quoted by newspapers a few times, and every time they misquoted me and made it sound like I had a long strand of drool descending from the corner of my mouth.

E$ (#1,636)

It sounds as if the column Ginia Bellafante really wanted to write was about The Apartment That Got Away.

Lily Rowan (#70)

Also, $40 for a meal out isn’t “buying the best.” That’s just normal!

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@Lily Rowan I know! I was like, “wahhhh, I’ve spent almost double that on accident and it wasn’t even at a super fancy restaurant, kill me now…”

olivia (#1,618)

Wow, awesome follow-up. Way to show The NY Times and Ginia Bellafante what real journalism is.

Wow, awesome follow-up. Way to show The NY Times and Ginia Bellafante what real journalism is. upessencia

Madge (#1,677)

“She is doing what all young people in her demographic do, spending the money she makes to have fun as a twentysomething in New York.”

really, ALL young people do this? i remember being a twentysomething in new york and not having enough pasta to share with my roommates because i had to budget it out exactly across the entire week.

i would imagine there are far more twentysomethings in this boat, rather in the spending all their money on funtimes boat.

probs (#296)

Good job, Mike and Yaffa.

DickensianCat (#971)

Grrrr, thanks for this Mike. this Ginia Bellafante, though awesomely named, makes my blood boil. Her portrayal was completely irresponsible, and she knows it and still doesn’t particularly care. Way to gleefully stick your head in the sand for that byline! Congrats?

I can tell you right now, I’m 32 and still not half as financially responsible as Ms. Fredrick. Hell, the majority of my pricier meals out are footed with a credit card and then (mostly-ish)paid off later. To no longer rely on credit cards is a difficult goal that I’m not sure I’ll ever truly achieve, and the fact that Fredrick doesn’t even own one IN ADDITION to having a personal savings account, a 401k, a travel account (?!?!) and part time jobs to fund her spending? That’s pretty incredible. This article could have been a celebration of 20-somethings indulging in what they love while still fiscally having it together, and instead we were stuck with journalism at its laziest.

Also, home ownership aside, I’d love to have a looksie at Bellafante’s finances to see if they are equally as robust?

kellyography (#250)

Great follow up!

Megano! (#124)

So awesome you got the follow up!

And girl can spend as much money on food at she wants, far as I’m concerned. SHE IS ACTUALLY SAVING MONEY. So yeah, carpe eatem! (That probably doens’t make sense but let me have my terrible joke).

Markham (#1,862)

Good post.

Personally I think buying Real Estate in NYC is stupid unless you’re seriously high income so that the expensive place you buy doesn’t take a huge chunk of your income AND will appreciate significantly. Otherwise, you’re spending 40-50% of your income on something that you’ll sell to a similarly financially constrained person later, what’s the point?

It makes more sense financially to just leave the city and buy someplace where the numbers make more sense.

Mind you, if you can buy and actually spend less than rent, fine, but I know a lot of people in Brooklyn and other places that are spending less than they would if they bought, so…..

As a society we need to stop looking at home ownership as something to do shoot for just because, and instead teach people to run the numbers for their respective situation.

I can’t tell you how many people in Seattle (where I live) are sitting a coupled hundred K underwater after their rush to buy, now, yes, they can afford it – but – you’re 200-300k under water.

I almost bought in my neighborhood and then decided not to, found a place with relatively cheap rent (down the street) being rented out buy a guy who thinks that housing prices are going to go back up any day now.

As a result I didn’t end up buying a house that would lose $250k in value.

Serious.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@Markham Yeah, and this obsession with home ownership pretty much ignores people’s actual lives, like how people in their 20′s usually change jobs at least every 3 years, so that probably means they’re going to end up moving cities at least once, more likely than not. I fail to see why it’s such a great idea for someone in that situation to lock themselves into a mortgage. We’re kind of past the days of “get married at 25, plop out some kids immediately, and stay at the same job and in the same town for 30-40 years.”

EM (#1,012)

Yaffa, girl, you sound super smart and I want to eat some food with you.

Yaffa (#3,002)

@Michelle if you are in New York, I’d happily oblige.

ArizonaTime (#2,694)

@Yaffa @Michelle let’s set this up. (hope it’s cool I’m inviting myself)

RachelG8489 (#1,297)

@Yaffa I would totally be in on this once I find a new job (unemployment = cutting back on eating out, sadly). At my last job, I had a salary in the low-30s and was averaging $650 a month on food. And I was saving a little, contributing to a 403(b), etc. Meanwhile, I think I saw maybe 3 movies in all of 2012 that I paid for myself, and people thought it was crazy that I had never seen the movies they were talking about. Different priorities!

EM (#1,012)

@Yaffa Alas I am in Vancouver! Dining in spirit (by that I guess I mean eating leftovers at my desk while writing this).

Also props on your response to the article. It would be surreal to see your life distorted for the purpose of making a (pretty snide) point about Young People Today, and you seem like you are presenting your perspective very gracefully.

Megano (#739)

Mike, this is such a great article. Thanks so much for the follow-up, and huge kudos to Yaffa for 1) keeping her shit together after being so heinously mis-represented and 2) being so fiscally responsible. Any chance of a letter to the editor pointing out these errors?

lemonlyman (#3,003)

For whatever its worth, I recognized that name; Ginia Bellafante also wrote that annoying Game of Thrones review back in ’11, where she deliberately misrepresented women who read fantasy.

Yogi (#2,872)

@lemonlyman Ugh! I remember that review. As a women who really likes Game of Thrones (show and books) I was pretty peeved by her review.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

@lemonlyman Linkage! I love GOT and hate-reading!

Fantastic follow-up, Mike. I love that you included a response from Ginia.

“I spent money on things that hardly in retrospect seem worthwhile.” Like so many people of all ages who throw away money every month on underwater real estate?

High five, Billfold. Awesome followup work Mike.

Yaffa (#3,002)

Ms. Bellafante and I have corresponded since this piece went live, and she has been extremely gracious towards me. She has apologized for any hurt feelings and embarrassment,and worked with me on getting the facts and figures as close to accurate as possible. In short, it has been a learning experience for both of us. Thank you, fellow Billfold readers, for your support!

slocker@twitter (#2,922)

Ugh. These link-bait NYT trend pieces make me ragey, but at the same time I can never look away! Applause for getting it right.

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