Betting on Love, Leveling Up and Leaving Atlanta (Part VIII)

The last time I wrote, I was attempting to conjure March into the best month yet, hoping that Adam and I would be “a loving, positive, optimistic, hard-working two-monk team,” which was basically the opposite of what March turned into. We fought and argued frequently. Both of us felt a little panicked and stressed about our current situation and the future. We wound up spending more than we planned to and were in no way monk-like. But we didn’t lose control. We worked on things even though it was hard. We argued and made up, calmed each other’s fears, talked through our worries, and spent money on things that were good for our health—mentally and physically. March was rough in places, but we wrangled ourselves back together and fought for good things.

In March we spent more but we also got out and did more and it felt good. Our grocery expenses were $686.74, which was significantly over budget. Other big expenses included a month’s worth of yoga classes for me ($70), a membership to a weekend kickball league ($60), a used bicycle and new tires for Adam ($150), concert tickets for April ($70), and a few drinks and dinners out ($150). Our schedules usually conflict (he works retail hours, I work 9-to-5) but on one deliciously warm and sunshiny day in the middle of March, we both miraculously had the day off. Freezing temperatures snapped back within 48 hours, but in the interim Adam and I were able to spend the day together like we do in the middle of the summer: We woke up late, cooked up some brunch (~$5 worth of groceries for toast with jam, ham and onion omelettes, coffee), drove with the windows down, breezes flowing, chow chow panting away happily to the park for an hour or two (~$3 gas?), on to Videodrome to rent a few flicks ($12), a quick stop by the King of Pops cart for some popsicles ($5), then back home again to watch movies, catch up with each other, relax and unwind (priceless).

These extra expenses took us over budget but we still managed to put aside $500 for savings. Additionally I received a card in the mail from my uncle with a belated graduation gift inside: a check for $500. It was unexpected and much appreciated and I deposited it straight into our savings account the very next day. That brings our total savings to $4,500 now. That money could sustain us for about four months if we stretched it, if we really had to. We could also spend it on a summer traveling if we wanted. That security-freedom choice combo is a really great feeling. This is why I wish I was richer, because having money frees up options you wouldn’t have otherwise.

I’ve also decided to start paying attention to my retirement plan. Right now I have a 401(k) with around $1,000 in it and a Roth IRA with $1,600. I will keep squirreling away money into these accounts as I get older. I’ve been thinking about automatic payments or deductions from each paycheck so I don’t have to think about it.

Before writing this, I read back through all my monthly check-ins so far, which proved to be interesting. I feel like so much has changed! When I first began writing this column I was completely lost at sea. I thought I knew what I was doing but we spent all our money every month and I changed my mind three times a day about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life (cue drama) and I insisted that Adam and my friends take each half-baked idea seriously (“no, but what if…?!“) which was exhausting and pointless for both of us. I still occasionally get back on that crazy train but now I recognize it for the damaging mental state that it is and can put a stop to it in relatively short order.

Some things are still the same. I still feel a strong driving urge to do, go, see, etc. I know it’s good to put that fire-in-my-guts relentless struggle on the back burner once in a while for the sake of my (and Adam’s) health and well-being but giving it up completely and embracing inner peace and serenity would probably feel like death (she opines dramatically). When I get somewhere in my life that I feel good about—a challenging and interesting job, a cozy little home, the ability to travel and adventure often, doing something that matters—I will happily burrow in with great relish and contentment. I possess zero of those things right now. I unapologetically kill any occasional urges to give up and burrow in where I’m at. That said, I do realize that allowing myself to chill out and have fun and enjoy things here in Atlanta is good and healthy and makes me more successful and productive anyway.

In some of my check-ins I talked about attempting to start a business to bring in extra cash, and I guess I can file that under half-baked/incomplete ideas with the rest of them. I’m not going forward with it so I’m free to share the idea in case anyone wants to take it: It was to start a calligraphy business on the side! I even made a website, named the business Sweetgum Calligraphy, and worked up a few not-that-great samples of scripts. My enthusiasm for the project dropped off quickly as usual and I probably won’t pick it up again. I still think it’s a good idea, because established calligraphers seem to be able to charge good rates for work that’s quick to do. It requires a lot of skill (more than I have) to be good, but calligraphy is a skill you can acquire at a low cost. The job can be done from anywhere so long as you have a mailbox. Business might take a while to pick up, but as a side job it seems ideal, so someone should please use this idea, and may your profits multiply!

I mentioned in January that I wanted to cut out buying clothes for a month. It’s been two months now and neither of us has bought any new clothes, so we more than met this goal. This wasn’t a huge struggle for us, because I don’t like shopping that much and neither does Adam. I think working at the mall for a few years in college cured me of any affection for spending time in the place. I get pangs of desire when I open the daily emails from my favorite stores but I’m usually too lazy to get in the car and schlep through traffic just so I can spend money. Though, I do want to/need to go shopping soon.

My efforts to cut down on my former grocery expenses by meal planning and cooking a lot more at home have been my most successful to date. I went from spending $1,000 per month (insanity) down to ~$600 per month, which is still high for two people and a dog but I feel it’s reasonable for our needs and budget. If anyone wants to keep abreast of that process for whatever reason, I write weekly reviews and meal plans in this meal planning google group that a Billfold commenter started a few months ago, which I enjoy thoroughly even though I sort of doubt anyone else does.

These days Adam and I are still sending out applications and are waiting to hear back. I will be sending out a steady deluge of applications for English teaching jobs in other countries, as well as jobs I might be interested in here at home. I’m aiming for NYC or D.C. in regards to jobs in the U.S., but would only move to those cities with a job lined up ahead of time. My slowly forming plan at this point is to teach abroad for a year while Adam applies to master’s programs here and abroad. We will then move to wherever he’s been accepted, and life will continue from there. During his program or after he graduates I’ll start on my master’s. Adam is thinking about an MFA English/creative writing program, or writing workshop and I’m thinking about economics, international affairs, political science, or something along those lines. I support Adam’s dreams and he supports mine. I want us both to succeed.


Previously: See Amanda’s “Betting on Love” series here.

Amanda Tomas isn’t going to see her sister in Europe after all because of financial responsibility and contingency planning (cry cry cry).


39 Comments / Post A Comment

highjump (#39)

I know I don’t have the complete picture of your finances from these updates, but unless Adam has funds available for education you haven’t mentioned I really question the wisdom of an MFA program. Maybe he will be one of the lucky few who get a fellowship, but unless that comes through don’t spend $$$$ on a writing degree.

kellyography (#250)

@highjump Backed. I work in an MFA program at a private college (not writing, but still) and it’s so crazy expensive, and we have no money to give to anyone. The economy sucks for everybody, even schools, especially ones without funding endowments! All my students are basically like, “Yeah, I have a hundred thousand dollars in loans now and I am just planning on defaulting on everything.”

highjump (#39)

@kellyography Ugh, I’ve heard that too. This is not the most ethical path but if Adam really really (x100) feels he needs the time and space to write with the resources of academia at his disposal and there is no other way then he should consider applying to PhD programs with nested MA/MFAs. Creative writing and English PhD programs with funding are very very competitive, but they are out there. He could stay until he got the MA or keep on keeping on and get a PhD and be equipped to adjunct.

And not to be harsh, but if Adam (or anyone considering advanced humanities training) cannot find at least partial funding they should not go. The superstars who manage to get into Iowa full freight have a hard enough time finding jobs. Don’t try to compete with them with the additional burden of debt.

EM (#1,012)

@highjump Agreed with all of the above. An MFA might make you a better writer, but even being a really great creative writer is not lucrative (there are lots of authors who have been pretty frank about how little money you’ll make from a novel), and getting in to debt for something that won’t improve your ability to earn. Take creative writing classes, take workshops, work on your writing every day if you want to be a writer, but think really long and hard about an MFA. An awful lot of people regret that degree.

Amanda T (#1,842)

@highjump Hi guys, thanks for the advice. I knew throwing that in there would probably result in a little “no, what are u doing?!” piling-on but that’s ok. I don’t think either of us want to spend tens or hundreds of thousands on an MFA, so alternatives like writing workshops or good writing groups are something we will be looking at seriously. And obviously writing is not a path to riches (if I ever doubted this, reading this site would have set me straight asap haha) buuuut, that’s what he wants to do & what he loves doing. And I support that so long as he’s pulling his own weight (which he more than does currently).

sventurata (#27)

@highjump Any interest in technical writing or marketing? I know it’s not the pure creative flame of an MFA, but in my area at least, these are highly employable skills and can be very creative fields.

Otherwise, yes, PhD or bust. Even that’s a gamble nowadays (don’t ask how many unemployed arts/humanities PhDs I know…) but no one seems to have a better path to success apart from stacking multiple diplomas on top of each other.

I thought this month’s post was very insightful. You will have so many opportunities to see and do exciting things, don’t feel the need to cram them all in now, especially when finances are tight.

meatcute (#1,430)

@highjump I’ll just throw this out there: There are funded programs to be found. It often means moving to a part of the country you might otherwise never have considered, but they’re out there. My stipend while in my fully funded MFA was, if memory serves, about $1200 a month — plenty to live on with roommates, or if you have a partner with even a part-time job. I also was able to tap into some sweet fellowships and grant money for travel that would otherwise never have been possible.

Just do your research. I still have mixed feelings about the MFA in general, and even with the money, I’m not sure I’d do it over again. That said, I’m sure as hell glad I didn’t go into debt for it. Even if it was a mistake/superfluous/not truly that helpful, at least it was “free.” (Not counting opportunity costs of giving up a better paying job, etc.)

Jack1917 (#3,575)

@Amanda T But that’s the problem. He won’t be pulling his weight after an MFA. His “weight” will be alot heavier with all that debt.

Blondsak (#2,299)

This was my favorite update in this series by far. You are very frank about your situation, and seem practical in your aspirations and finally putting together a solid plan for the future.

I agree with commenters above about hesitating on going for an MFA, but (having been in many relationships with similarly-aligned artistic fellows) I understand your need to support Adam in his dream. That said, teaching abroad sounds like a fantastic way for you (Amanda) to scratch your wanderlust itch, and you (Adam) to find out if teaching is really something you want to do, since many MFA grads go on to teach, at least on the side.

Lastly, as I’ve said before, DC sounds like the perfect place for you and I hope you find your way to our lovely city some day.

Sloane (#675)

King of Pops has free pops today – no joke! Now I just need to get away from the office for a little while before they’re gone.

Amanda T (#1,842)

@Sloane WHAT!!!

Sloane (#675)

@Amanda T Yep! Till 630 today to celebrate their 3rd anniversary!

I am moving this summer also, not even as soon as you plan to, and we have similar spending habits and (I would imagine, based on your description of your jobs) income. We have a guaranteed income once we get there (moving for my spouses job), and a savings of about $6000 and I am still not confident that we won’t have to break into credit cards. Moving is expensive. Once you factor in the cost of moving your stuff, deposits, regular bills and any other unforseen expenses, I don’t think 4500 dollars would last you two months in a city like NY or DC, much less four. You might be able to get by several months on that if you are teaching abroad and they are covering more of your expenses, but then you’ll probably have more travel and travel and storage costs. I am not saying this to tell you to give up, but just to say that now is the time to seriously focus. Like rice and beans for dinner, start selling your stuff, lock in a definite plan focus, if you want to move in May.

Amanda T (#1,842)

@Punk-assBookJockey Oh totally, when I say stretching it if we really had to, my hypothetical scenario would include staying here in ATL or moving to some tiny beach town, sharing housing/subletting, etc etc. In NYC or DC, $4500 would be enough to get an apartment and get through the first month & that’s it, probably?

And yes this is crunch time now. I have been writing and subsequently checking off to-do lists in a whirlwind of furious/nervous activity.

sea ermine (#122)

@Amanda T Im not sure if thats enough to get an apartment, let alone the first month. I mean, let say the rent is $1000 ( which you will split 50/50). To get the apartment youll need the first nonths rent+security deposit (which is one months rent). Some places also want last months rent. So that could be $3000 gone right there. And this is assuming you find an apartment for that much (although you could save money by sharing a room in someone elses apartment). Plus you’ll need to rent a moving van, and you’ll probably want to get some cleaning supplies to clean up before you move in. I mean its possible but I wouldn’t count on finding a job in one month only.

Do you have friends or relatives in NYC? I would ask to borrow their addresses, a lot of places give priority to local candidates. If you have a way to get up for interviews (megabus?) it could help you have a job lined up before you arrive.

lalaland (#437)

@seaermine I was going to suggest this – a friend of mine used my local address in LA after a year of applying from out of state and landed a job with a very prestigious ad agency almost immediately. NB: I don’t think I could do this because you’d need balls of steel to say you lived in a city that you didn’t (he had to buy a ticket for the next day when he go the interview, I had to overnight his offer letter to him) but if you can do it, that helps A LOT.

And not to pile on, because you are putting yourself out there, but $4,500 is not a lot, especially in NYC/DC. In competitive rental markets like that, oftentimes you need verification of income, often at 2.5-3x rent, plus first month, deposit, and potentially last month’s rent. You’d most likely have to find roommates, and that’s harder to do as a couple as well.

RachelG8489 (#1,297)

@Amanda T I think your best bet might be to move into a sublet to start? It will be easier to find, no broker fee to worry about, usually less deposit because you’re dealing with a person, and gives you time to start a job and get to know the city before you tie yourself to a lease.

When I first moved to NYC, I moved into an open bedroom in a 4-bedroom apartment that I found on Criagslist. The roommates weren’t great, but the rent was pretty cheap and I stayed there for six months, at which point I signed a two-year lease because I know I’m happy with the neighborhood and have a better sense of what is and isn’t good in an NYC apartment. You guys would probably have to find a one-bedroom to sublet, but it’s totally doable.

ladydee (#2,825)

@Punk-assBookJockey Seconding the sublet idea. Although it’s a little less legit, finding a sublet off of Craigslist can help you avoid spendy application fees, first & last month’s rent, and will also give you a chance to get to your new city & scope it out for awhile before signing on a year lease somewhere.

I did a cross country move once for about $4500, but it was a few years ago in a different economy. I did temp work until I found a permanent job and I definitely had some financial struggles while I was getting on my own two feet. Despite the struggles, I’m glad I didn’t wait. I was ready to get out and start over! It was worth it.

sea ermine (#122)

@lalaland Yeah, I used my cousins address when I was moving to New York. It helped that I was living in Delaware at the time so I could just take a bus in for interviews.

@Amanda T Oh that’s great to hear– I am totally pulling for you guys and I think you can do it! Maybe next month give us an idea of what your checklists are like, what you’ve done/still need to do. I am so nervous about moving myself and we’re fortunate to have the military taking care of a lot of it for us. We moved on our own four years ago from Kansas City to Chicago and it was so much more challenging financially/emotionally than I ever imagined.

j-i-a (#746)


Amanda T (#1,842)

@j-i-a Noted!

highjump (#39)

@j-i-a Yesssssss. Otherwise you should probably just spend $250 on a really nice lamp, some great pens, and a few of luxury paper products we were discussing earlier. Just write! Right now!

j-i-a (#746)

@highjump Yo if I had $250 exclusively devoted to improving my writing I would buy, hmm, some acid, a family size pack of gummy bears and a ticket to an all-day regional synchronized-skating competition or something. See something that I couldn’t help but write about!

Amanda T (#1,842)

@j-i-a (can you actually get paid for writing in an MFA program or were you just kidding…?)

theotherginger (#1,304)

@j-i-a yeah. I am in a not that well funded phd humanities program, but not that intense on the teaching end. and so that is what makes it ok. because i can do the research i came for.

j-i-a (#746)

@Amanda T Yep there are at least a dozen programs that cover tuition and also pay you between $17,000-$28,000 per year to be there – and with a few notable exceptions like Columbia, the funded programs correlate highly with the “good” programs. There’s a lot of whiny debate that goes on about this stance in the “MFA community” (gross gross gross) (some people really dislike the idea of ranking MFA programs at all though) but when I applied last year I only applied to programs that I could treat like a low-paying job, because going into annnnny debt for an MFA is so dumb unless you’re rich and it wouldn’t really be debt.

Here is one organization’s chart of programs, ranked, and the top 12 are all fully funded for every student:

Amanda T (#1,842)

@j-i-a That’s awesome information, thank you!!

@Amanda T Not sure if this thread is still alive but …. just to get on the MFA advice-giving bandwagon, has any consideration been given to correspondence/online courses? I was weighing the pros and cons (mainly costs, both in terms of time and finances) and am now wrapping up a Certificate in Creative Writing through the University of Toronto. Anyway can enrol so it’s not exactly a prestigious program but I’ve gotten some use of it — mainly because I work best with deadlines and consequently it has been motivating for me. However, if you can afford it, the University of British Columbia has a very highly regarded MFA program, both on-site and distance. If I had the $$$, I would have tried to get into the distance program. The benefit for your situation is that if you decide to do the international thing, then he can still work on his MFA anywhere in the world, plus rack up some experiences that might be worth writing about. Not sure if there are similarly good distance MFA programs at American universities but I think UBC accepts international applicants.

sea ermine (#122)

If you have time, I’d go around to all the grocery stores in Atlanta andvdo a price comparison for all the foods you typically eat. I did this a couple months ago and noe my boyfriend and I spend $200 a month for food for 2. And we eat very healthy well rounded meald including lots of veggies, and our meats are typically organic/hormone free. I think its easier for us because we live in NYC and I think its a lot easier to be cheap here compared to other places (when I lived in Delaware I spent $200 a month just to feed myself and the foid was not as good) but if you lookaround you might be able to find some deals.

pterodactylish (#2,321)

@seaermine ummmmmm how. nyc is bonkers expensive.

sea ermine (#122)

@pterodactylish I get most of my food from Trader Joes, which is insanely cheap (a huge part of why my groceries cost so much in DE was that there was only one Trader Joes and it was an hour and 30 minutes away, so I only went twice in the four years I lived there).
The only things I don’t get from Trader Joes are produce (which I get at a little fruit stand across the street from my apartment) and bulk stuff like big bags of rice or flour or vinegar (basically things that are way too big to carry). I shop weekly and can usually carry home a weeks worth of food for two people for $50. $80 during the weeks when I have to restock bulk items (so every few months). I heard bulk stuff (like grains and flour) are cheaper at Whole Foods if you get the 360 brand stuff but I can’t deal with carrying all that on top of the Trader Joes stuff.

I should point out that while NYC has a lot of cheap and free alternatives that can turn it into a more affordable city they aren’t things everyone has access to. I take a 25 minute subway ride from Jackson Heights (where I live) to Chelsea just to go to Trader Joes (a number of studies have shown that there are much more affordable healthy food options in higher income areas). So this doesn’t work if you live farther away, or if you live in a part of NYC that isn’t accessible by subway, or if you aren’t able bodied enough to carry your groceries all the way home (even if you have a granny cart, most subway stations don’t have elevators so you have to carry everything you bought up and down the stairs).

This is true for most cheap things here. I find out about a lot of cheap and free events online (like or by websites that show what free events are happening in central part), which allows me to only spend $50 a week on going out and socializing and fun. I live near the Queens Target so I spend less on stuff (like cleaning products and clothes), and if I didn’t I have the time to go to a far away Target because I only work 1 job for only 40 hours a week. I save money on rent because I have the time to print out the list of rent stabilized apartments and go to them and follow people inside to get the property managers number and keep doing that until I find something in my budget. So there are tons of ways to make NYC cheap but they don’t work for people who really really need it, because those people usually work more than one job, live in areas with poor access to transportation, and don’t have time to hunt all these deals down. So they may work for you but maybe not, depending on your situation.

sea ermine (#122)

@seaermine The TL;DR version is: Trader Joes is awesome and has healthy cheap food. If you look you can find deals for everything. The internet has tips on cheap and free activities in the city. And your ability to access these things is highly dependent on how much free time you have and if you live within walking distance of a subway stop.

pterodactylish (#2,321)

@seaermine man, i love trader joes, but i spend all my money there! always! i think the thing is that the only economical way for me to grocery shop is to only shop for exactly what i will eat in the next 36 hours and no more. otherwise, i get it in my thick skull that if i just buy enough, i’ll never have to shop again. it’s a sad, sad realization.

Jack1917 (#3,575)

I liked everything I was reading and then I got to the last paragraph about you and your bf getting masters degrees. In fields that are going to leave you with alot of debt and weak job prospects (definitely for him, likely for you). All I could think of was the Price is Right sad trombone.

Say goodbye to what little you have saved up! Seriously, put alot more thought into whether getting those grad degrees are worth the lost income and debt.

EHF (#3,607)

Created a login and PW just to address the grad school issue. I finished a PhD in political science (defended this month!) and there are very, very few jobs to be had. This was also the case when I began my program 6 years ago, but the market has gotten worse and may not get much better. If you feel like taking advice from an internet stranger, I offer the following:
(0) MA programs are not funded, but PhD programs are.
(1) Everyone will tell you not to get a PhD, but you’ll probably do it anyways…I got this advice, and went to grad school despite it. Follow your dreams! But we political scientists care about having full information for decision making, and so should you.
(2) For political science, do not go to grad school unless you get into a top-15/top-20 program AND are funded. It is extremely hard to get a job after 7 years of poverty, hard work, and eating lentils if you do not come from a top-15/top-20. Not impossible. But out of my cohort of 12, only 2 have a tenure track job. This is financially and psychologically extremely difficult.
That being said, there are fantastic things you can do with a MA, MPP, and MPA, if you want to work in DC.
(3) As an academic (again, can’t speak to the MFA, just polisci), you have very little control over where you live–I lived in one of the most fantastic cities in the US for grad school, and now am in flyover country to work. This is the rule, not the exception.
(4) Please, please check out some great resources for grad school before you take the plunge (which you probably will do anyway). My personal favorite is The Chronicle of Higher Education online, particularly the forums.

Good luck, I really enjoy this series and am rooting for you both!

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