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.