I’d Totally Save Money If It Didn’t Feel Impossible

I make $35,000 a year. I know I should save. I want to save. But each month there’s nothing left. The problem isn’t that I don’t try (my planner is full of meticulous calculations), or that I’m super extravagant (though I can be), or that I don’t like working (life is work and I’m a hustler). I think the problem is the sneak expenses.

Here’s where my money goes each month:

Post-tax biweekly salary after deductions: $1,061

Rent: $800
Phone: $75
Student loans: $300 (yes, IBR and consolidated)
Gym: $90 (I know, but please let me have this, it’s in on the ground floor of my office building and it keeps me sane.)
Credit card: $150
Transportation: $100

That leaves, by my calculations, a little over $400 to get me through four weeks in New York City. Add in my miscellaneous freelance income (which comes in big beautiful coin-waterfalls or stingy little puffs of money-scented air), and I’d estimate that leaves about $200 a week to live and eat on. And save.

Enter the sneak expenses. Like buying a plane ticket home to see my family for Christmas ($650). Buying a bike/lock/helmet/light ($350). Needing a new winter coat ($200). Oh shit, my fucking iPhone’s broken ($200). Medical bills for tests related to chronic headaches ($50-$1000). Going on vacation with my boyfriend, our first together in over two years ($600). Crap, I overdrafted because I’m a moron ($30). Five Old Navy sleeveless button-downs to wear under blazers, for work ($75). My mom’s in town and I feel obligated to treat her because I’m the one person in my family right now with a full-time job ($200).

And there goes any extra cash, and then some.

Once basic needs are fulfilled, the line between need and want gets muddled. Most of my so-called sneak expenses would probably fall into the want category. But they feel like needs to me. the prospect of saving $20 here and there seems futile when every time I do some staggering Frankenstein of an expense enters stage-left.

Of course, these are excuses. I like to blame New York. I’m sure if you dropped me in a reasonably priced city with the same income, I’d find a way to continue to have this problem. I’m ashamed that I’m not more careful, but I also don’t really see an alternative until I start making more money. When I was in grad school, I got a funding package that was just high enough to live off of as long as I worked part-time as an admin assistant for my program and taught classes. I didn’t save a penny during those years. I simply got by. I make more now, but the feeling at the end of month is similar. I’m still getting by.

 

Julie Buntin lives in New York.

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73 Comments / Post A Comment

I feel this so much. I make around the same amount of money and I could, conceivably, theoretically, presumably save between 500-800 dollars a month. And yet….

planforamiracle (#4,034)

@i’llnamemypuppyavonbarks me too. But I make a little less and spend $200 more on my apartment. BUT I’m Canadian.

muush (#521)

$90/month for the gym? That seems pricey to me.. I’m pretty sure you should be able to find a gym membership near you for less than half the cost per year!

terrific (#1,532)

@muush not in NYC, no way

muush (#521)

@terrific I realise that now. But a lot of health insurance plans will reimburse you partially for a gym membership. So that’s something she can look into.

wendyleigh (#3,537)

@terrific You can! If you live and/or work in Midtown, you can join Mid-City Gym. It’s no frills, but gets the job done. I paid the whole year up-front for like $400.

pinches (#3,520)

@muush You can consider the NYC Parks and Rec! An annual membership is $150 or $12.50 per month!! And that’s for the membership with pool access. I’ve only been to the Flushing pool and gym facilities, which are top notch; not sure about Manhattan/Brooklyn locations. Think there’s one midtown east with an indoor track. Also, it’s the perfect time to join because since school has started, there are much fewer kids at the pool. Anyhoo, you can’t beat the price at Parks and Rec, but the only issues are convenience and location I guess…

urwelt (#4,799)

@terrific Planet Fitness is $10 a month and has a bunch of locations in New York.

sea ermine (#122)

@pinches There is one near Lincoln Center that’s nice! I’ve heard positive things about the other Manhattan one’s and I’m trying out one of the one’s in Queens next week.

I make the same in a MUCH cheaper city and now I feel bad about the many more wants I splurge on. I do save a little, actually, enough to get my employer match for my 403b (5%), and I have an emergency fund that fluctuates between $500-$1000 based on whether I decide to throw a chunk at my substantial CC debt. But yeah, mostly I’m just getting by.

pissy elliott (#844)

Man, I don’t blame you in the slightest. We make seemingly the exact same amount and I can’t save for shit. In fact, you do a lot better than me, because I have no loans but still can’t make it work. It’s hard out there.

OllyOlly (#669)

This doesn’t reek of irresponsible behavior to me, but the fact that your set expenses are too high for your salary. And there doesn’t seem to be a way to get around your set expenses, unless a magical higher paying job appears, or you move. But $800 doesn’t even seem like outrageous rent to me.

UGH :(

cjm (#3,397)

@OllyOlly This is exactly it, and this is how living in a cheaper city would help. I had about the same salary and managed to save about $1,000 a year. But, my rent was $450 and work paid for my bus pass.

The key is to 1) get a raise (ask! lean in!) or 2) get some perks from work like free transit, free food, free gym.

Also, the other key is when you get “bonus money” like a tax refund, freelance check, gift from someone, sell something, etc. use that to save. Even if that is only $1000 a year, it would be great.

planforamiracle (#4,034)

@OllyOlly This is the same situation so many of my friends and I are in. Set expenses are basically immovable. I know I pay a big premium for the privilege of living alone and having a cat, which I sacrifice other things for, like restaurant meals. (and I am toying with the idea of cancelling my internet at home.. !!!)
For me it’s a catch-22 between a magical higher-paying job, and moving, since if I moved to another city it’s not likely I could work in my field (arts admin). But it’s also not likely I’ll get a raise, unless my org gets a magical corporate sponsor. I’ll be happy if my % salary increase matches my % rent increase this year… >:(

sea ermine (#122)

@cjm Also, if she is on a biweekly check that means there are 2 months where she’ll get three paychecks. The months are longer so she may want to take out $50-$100 extra for groceries and general expenses but otherwise that can go straight into savings. So that’s 2k a year right there.

Email HR and see if they do transit benefits, or ask if they can signup. There is a pre tax benefit program that employers can sign up for that will save her a few dollars. Also, a lot of cell phone companies do monthly no contract plans. At Verizon, for a smartphone it’s $60 a month for 2gig data, T-Mobile is about the same, and someone below mentioned some smaller companies that are even cheaper. Also just looking into cheaper versions of random expenses, like cheaper grocery stores (trader joes and (some of) the greenmarkets are great for this), cheap bars/bars with happy hour deals, free events, cheap concerts, free museum nights, everything on theskint.com. Even when her mom visited, I’ve been to some very nice parent approved restaurants where it was more like $30 a person, so $60 for the two of them instead of $200 (I recommend Da Adriana, it’s mom friendly). Lots of weird little things.

The rest is only improved by looking for a better job, or a job with better benefits (especially one that covers her healthcare expenses!!) and that’s probably the hardest part.

pissy elliott (#844)

Also for NYC, $90 a month is not particularly outlandish for a gym.

muush (#521)

@pissy elliott In Philly the going rate is about $500/year…less if your company has a gym. Another reason to be glad I don’t live in New York!

sea ermine (#122)

@pissy elliott I mentioned this below but seriously take a look at the NYC Parks Department website. The recreation centers have nice gyms with weight rooms and pools and basketball courts and the annual membership is $150 with pool and $100 without. If you’re under a certain age (I think 25) the annual membership is only $25.

pissy elliott (#844)

@seaermine The Parks gyms are a very good deal, but they’re not necessarily conveniently located (the nearest one to my house is about a 30 minute bus ride, the nearest one to my office is in another borough). As someone who struggles to get exercise, I know that convenience is the main thing that will actually get my butt there.

Catface (#1,106)

@pissy elliott Yes, and the key is that it’s on the ground floor of her office building. The Parks rec centers may be significantly cheaper, but if they require a significant time outlay to get there and back, that’s no bargain vs. $90 per month (plus more opportunities for just-passing-by expenditures along the lines of ice cream or coffee as she walks from the subway to the rec center — oh wait no that’s me). I belong to the building in my gym and consider it a major perk of the job. And! less time spent going to and from the gym = more time to be hustling.

OP, you are a doll for treating your mom on such a non-gangster salary.

(Edit: oh, ha ha, it looks like we were composing our most recent posts at the same time. We are in violent agreement, the gym expense is reasonable.)

sea ermine (#122)

@pissy elliott Oh, it’s definitely not a once size fits all solution. I don’t have a private gym in my neighborhood or near my office so the Parks gyms work well for me, and since there are so many of them I thought at least some people reading might get some use from them (I know a lot of people that don’t even know they exist, despite having lived in NYC for years).

There are also cheap private gyms she (or you) can look into that may be closer to her home or office. Blink Fitness was recommended to me by a friend, it’s like $20 a month or something and has 17 locations (and is expanding). Here is another list of affordable gyms (some aren’t actually affordable, but others are $20-30 a month. Yelp is also great for finding cheap gyms (and cheap anything), the link takes you to a list of affordable fitness centers.

And of course, sometimes the best thing to do is to pay $90 a month for a gym in your building. But other people might get some use out of a cheaper gym, and maybe she can find other expenses that can be swapped for a cheaper option that will may that $90 a month more easier to pay.

Lily Rowan (#70)

No. $35K is not a lot of money. I mean, set up an auto-transfer of $25/month if it would make you feel better, but you are not doing anything wrong.

@Lily Rowan Exactly. To live in NYC– and the expenses here are not outlandish by any stretch of the imagination, I mean, even that rent is on the cheap side– and earn $35K is difficult because there isn’t much to shave off. Or there isn’t much to shave off and have anything resembling a decent quality of life.

For the record, I make about the same amount living in New York, pay $1,000 in rent (incl. all utilities, internet, etc.), and my yoga membership is $130. It’s a helluva lot cheaper than a therapist, or drinking (which I do, but usually not on yoga nights.) My auto transfer to savings is $15 a month. It’s something.

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@angry little raincloud I do not live in NYC, but I make about 2,000 less annually and my rent is comparable with utilities. (I am in a major city)

I pay 160 a month for a gym membership for both myself and my boyfriend at a boxing gym and sometimes that is the only thing that allows me to remain sane. It is the best money I spend each month. No apologies for paying to workout somewhere I like. I will defend that financial decision to the death.

(paying for the boyfriend is necessary because I only workout when other people will go with me, and he makes about 26,000/yr before taxes as a grad student)

Oh hey, this is my life exactly. Except that gym money goes to utilities instead (because I can’t find a gym that’s closer than 30 minutes away from me) and I /am/ able to save 15% of my income thanks to a generous matching plan from my employer. But not for long, since that fund gets tapped out if I have surprise bills.

francesfrances (#1,522)

ME TOO, LIFE IS THE WORST.

sea ermine (#122)

I’m in a fairly similar financial situation and one thing that helps me save money is to find cheaper versions of the things I like to do and stick with them.

To replace the gym, I recommend NYC Parks Department Recreation Centers.If you’re 25 and under (maybe 24?) it’s a $25 annual membership that lets you use any and all of the recreation centers (including the pools) in any borough. If you’re over the age limit it’s $100 a year without the pools, $150 with the pools (they have 6 month memberships as well if you want to test it out). I’m sure you can find a recreation center near your office or your home and it will cut down on a big expense for you.

Also, I don’t know what kind of things you do for fun but NYC has a lot of free stuff. I’d look at theskint.com or nycgo to see what things are happening each week, and take a look at when the free museum nights are.

For bars, there are a ton of bars with good happy hours. I never pay more than $5 a drink pre tip (and some places are cheaper, HiFi has beer wine and well drinks for $3 every day until 8pm). Look around on yelp and see what you can find. The key is to pick the bar/museum/free concert/cheap restaurant and then text your friends and invite them to go with you, rather than suggesting you all go out and then getting dragged into somewhere more expensive than you can afford.

Also, if you can cut that gym membership you can set that $90 aside each month to save for unexpected expenses. It wont remove them all but it will help.

sea ermine (#122)

@seaermine OH and for food try trader joes (except produce, never the produce), that saved me a lot of money. Also look at your local greenmarket (or the greenmarket near your work). The prices of the greenmarkets in different neighborhoods vary wildy (like, I can buy all of my groceries including fish and meat for 2 people for $30-40 in my neighborhood, but the one near my office has $7 tomatoes and is insane) but it’s worth a look. If the one near your house/work is too expensive go to the one in union square, they have all the vendors there. Walk around and compare prices and figure out which one’s have cheap produce.

sea ermine (#122)

@seaermine I posted upthread with some private gyms that are lower priced. Obviously, I think the fact that this gym is right in her building might make the $90 worthwhile but others may get some use out of these tips, and maybe if she finds other expenses she can swap for cheaper or free options it may make it easier for her to afford her $90 gym membership : )

pinches (#3,520)

@seaermine omg I just posted the same parks and rec comment before scrolling down and seeing your comment.

Ellie (#62)

I can’t believe people are paying so much attention to a $90 gym bill! That’s really not that much money and it’s in her office building! I have free gym with work which is a HUGE reason I sought out jobs at universities, but if I didn’t, I’d think $90 was good if it were convenient and I was happy with it.

sea ermine (#122)

@Ellie I think it’s because it’s the only thing we can help with. The truth is her expenses are fairly low and the only real thing that will help is finding a way to raise her salary and to build a nest egg for all those unexpected expenses (if she’s paid biweekly there should be 2 three paycheck months that she can use for this).

But it’s pretty hard to give someone genuinely useful instructions/advice for raising their salary so we pick out the things that seem the most expensive (gym bill, phone bill, dinner with mom) and give tips to cut them down, because we want to help

pinches (#3,520)

@seaermine @Ellie I was mentioning the gym thing because I am a big fan of the NYC Parks & Rec and sharing my gym (not-so) secret!

SterlingCooper05 (#2,529)

I’m close to 10 years removed from the same spot and income…just getting out of school, living and transportation costs, family obligations, etc. I remember feeling overwhelmed with wanting EVERYTHING! Saving was not an option because I wanted to eat out, have a gym membershiop, car payment, cable, and vacations. Budgeting was an unknown and I didn’t realize the power of saving or investing $100 a month. Now I’m trying to catch up…

I don’t have any good savings suggestions – I also live in an expensive city (DC) and when I made that amount, I was pretty much in the same boat. Autotransferring a small amount each pay period is probably a good thing to do, less for the actual savings and more to build good habits (side note: switch to a credit union! You’ll actually get more than .000001% interest on your tiny savings!). Hopefully, you’ll move on to bigger and better things, avoid the accompanying lifestyle inflation (that’s the really hard part), and your savings will increase accordingly.

I’m going to go against the crowd though and say keep the spendy gym membership if it helps. Going to the gym is hard enough for most people; if using the one in your building keeps you going and it’s good for you, I think it’s worth it!

Good luck!

EA_Mann (#5,000)

Julie – I feel for you. 35k is not a lot to live off of in NYC and you’re brave for even trying.

It seems right now you decide to splurge occasionally and do things like take your mom out to dinner to the tune of $200, then when it comes time to save you have nothing. Doing it opposite might work better: save a small amount of money automatically into a Roth weekly, then when you go to take your mom out to dinner, you see a low balance and choose to find, say, a $70 dinner instead of $200. You want to save first and make the tough decisions regarding spending, not the other way around.

Beaks (#3,488)

@EA_Mann I second the vote to budget your savings first. Roths can be tricky if you’re working with a small balance (aren’t bank fees just the best?), but a savings account that’s relatively or even entirely separate from your other accounts (so it’s harder to take money out) might do the trick.

I’d actually also recommend keeping a second, short term savings (or default checking balance- e.g. the no more money out of the account dollar amount is, say, $500 rather than $0) as a slush fund to deal with things like plane tickets and other non-recurring expenses (like renter’s insurance, etc.).

@fo (#839)

“I’m sure if you dropped me in a reasonably priced city with the same income”

You’d almost certainly have higher transportation costs, and everything else would be basically the same.

Now, not to pick nits, BUT:

Your monthly expenses times 12, subtracted from your bi-weekly takehome times 26, then divided by 52 comes out to $180.88 per week–**80%** more than you think you have, before any freelance income.

So, in conclusion, something-something. And re-check your math. And track your spending *in detail* for at least a month or two, because I think that you have some $$ leakage you’re missing.

Beaks (#3,488)

@@fo I know when I was making that kind of money (but living in a much, much cheaper city), it wasn’t the latte factor expenses that got me, but the non-recurring expenses, especially the >$100 ones. Plane tickets, car repairs, bi-annual insurance premiums (thankfully not doctor’s bills, since I was saving into an HSA and my employer also contributed).

I wound up just adding each expense into my budget as it came up (oh, right, renter’s insurance- divide by 12, okay, $12/mo budget on that, oh, looks like I spent $200 last year on car repairs, better add a line for that), and it took me about two years before I had a really complete budget that actually caught all of those expenses.

Looking back, I think I would take a simpler approach- try to get an annual feel for the non-recurring stuff (and add 15% to the number I estimated to get a more realistic number), call that the monthly “slush fund” budget which can’t be used for regular expenses, then set a monthly budget for savings, and spend whatever was left over however I needed/ wanted to that month. Tracking everything in detail just takes so much time and energy- if you can get to a point where you’re saving what you need to save it just doesn’t really seem worth it.

@fo (#839)

@Beaks You’re totally right, on the big picture and savings as a long term plan thing.

BUT, she thinks she has *over* 40% (bc of freelance $$) less weekly ‘spending money’ than she in fact has–she doesn’t have “$400″ for 4 weeks, she has $700. Which isn’t ‘latte money’ leakage, but a fundamental misunderstanding of her cashflow situation. Which is why I suggested a month (or 2) of actually keeping track–not so long that it’s an enormous burden, but long enough to get a feel for the ebb and flow of ‘latte money’ + a sampling of the bigger stuff.

Basically, she’s spending $175/week while thinking she only has $100/week to spend, which is a sign of a problem, no matter how you slice it.

deedee (#4,436)

I was in a very similar situation to you when I lived in NYC, but I made 30K/year. But I also didn’t have loans or credit card debt, so maybe we even out that way.

The only way I was able to save money then was by living in a 120 sq foot sh*thole BedStuy-adjacent studio in Brooklyn. I paid $500/month in rent. I had several dozen mice as roommates (seriously, I killed one/week. Luckily, those crappy wood mouse traps cost 50 cents). The people living in the unit next to me were hoarders and the stink that came out of my apartment was unbelievable. But there were definitely money saving benefits to living in a low-income neighborhood: 1) The groceries were way cheaper (and were of much lower quality); 2) It was dangerous to walk outside after dark. And when you have no life once the sun goes down, you inadvertently save a lot of money by never seeing friends or spending money on drinks or dinners out. I was basically in a 1-year-long depression during that time, even though I managed to save a good amount of money, relatively speaking. You really have to get into the upper 40s in your salary before you can start *possibly* living like a human being in NYC (and by that, I mean living in a studio apartment converted to a 3-bed and no kitchen). I had colleagues who made the same amount of money as me, but they also got money from their parents/families, so they lived in Manhattan.

I left NYC.

planforamiracle (#4,034)

@deedee This sounds like it worked for you, temporarily, but it definitely doesn’t sound like a long-term solution. I know we say “money can’t buy happiness” but it sounds like in this case, saving money resulted in sadness. It just comes down to priorities, I guess.
If I had to live the hermit life you described, in a scary shithole apartment, for a short temporary time knowing I was on my way to a human-sized apartment in a place that didn’t make me fear for my safety, I could handle it. But doing it indefinitely, I would find soul-destroying.

sea ermine (#122)

@deedee I get that worked for you but that sounds really depressing and probably wouldn’t work in the long term for most people. I live in NYC and most people I know pay $750 for a nice room in a decent to nice neighborhood (mostly in parts of Brooklyn, Washington Heights, Inwood, and parts of Queens). I do know some people who pay less but still live in nicer places than what you’re describing (they just have long commutes). I think it would be worth it to pay an extra $250 a month in rent, if you can afford it, to not live in a tiny mouse infested apartment.

If you made 30k a year that should work out to (assuming you are single/no kids) $893 every other week. Basing on my own expenses you can pay $750 for rent, $200 for utilites/internet/phone, $200 for food (from trader joes and vegetable stands and the farmers market) and then you still have $636 a month leftover. I completely understand if your savings goals were high and also I don’t know what your other expenses are (mine are food, loans, bills, rent and that’s it), or if you wanted to have more than $636 a month after expenses but I think for most people they’d rather pay $750-800 for their apartment and then set aside $200 for fun and be fine saving ~$400 a month for savings and unexpected expenses if it meant they didn’t have to live in a terrible place.

deedee (#4,436)

@seaermine @planforamiracle I think something got lost in translation…I am definitely NOT endorsing what I did. It did not “work” for me. It only worked in that I was able to save money, but I had to sacrifice everything else for it, and it wasn’t worth it. NO ONE should do it. I just don’t think it’s possible to live a sane life + save money on a small salary in NYC. Something’s gotta give.

sea ermine (#122)

@deedee Oh I see. I guess some of my confusion comes from the fact that I think it’s possible to have a sane life + save money on 30k, mostly because I know a lot of people make $30-35k who like their lives and are doing fine. But I think it depends on how much you want to save, which is obviously, very personal. I know just as many people who make that salary and hate it, and I know people who make much more than that and still struggle.

In the sample I gave for someone making 30k and paying $800 in rent that sample person would have saved over 6k a year, without making any sacrifices (well, they would have roommate which to some is a sacrifice but it would be in a nice apartment/safe neighborhood) which to me seems really good. But for other people that’s not worth it and a tiny amount. Everyone’s different : )

planforamiracle (#4,034)

@deedee Haha. Thanks for clarifying!!! I agree, something’s gotta give. I’ve never lived in New York but I live in Toronto (which I guess is still less expensive than Vancouver) and it’s seriously ridiculous. I could rant for days about landlords charging (and getting) exorbitant rents for total shitholes, employers who hire lots of young people because they don’t feel they have to pay them as much relative to the amount of work they do, blah blah blah.

Big cities man. Something’s gotta give, in general, in society. viva la revoluçion!

mpw (#5,001)

It does look like your expenses are pretty minimal, but one place where you might be able to save is your phone bill. Prepaid plans are much cheaper! I have friends who use Virgin and MetroPCS and are happy with them, but for NYC, I think that Page Plus is the way to go because it’s the only prepaid company that uses Verizon’s network. I switched to PP from Verizon, and my smartphone bill went from $100/month to $30 for the exact same service! If Verizon didn’t suck so much, I’d almost feel bad about how little I’m paying.

Does your company offer TransitChek? It’s a program where you pay for your metro cards with pretax dollars, making it an easy way to shave a little off your transportation expenses.

Fig. 1 (#632)

@mpw +1 for prepaid. It’s a bit more hassle, but $40-$60/mo in savings adds up. I have a landline, however so YMMV. (Landline $22/mo, but I can’t have 2 hr long-distance convos on my cell, and it’s cheaper for us to split cost of landline and have 2 prepaid phones than 2 deluxe cell plans.)

sea ermine (#122)

@mpw Verizon also has a prepaid plan! It’s 60k for a smartphone (the phone costs $100 but then you can keep it, you can also buy a different one used and bring it in) and 2gig data a month. Without data and without a smartphone it’s $30 a month. I think T-Mobile has it to.

Socksberg (#4,928)

Would you be able/willing to get a second job that isn’t freelance work? Maybe pick up a few shifts waitressing or bartending nights/weekends so you could have another slightly more reliable source of income, and then designate a certain amount or percentage of that income to savings every week or month? I don’t know if that is doable in your situation or whether you’d be interested, but it could be a partial solution.

TheDilettantista (#1,255)

Oh hey this sounds like me and my life! Except I live in a much cheaper area! And I managed to save some emergency-fund money (I have a simple IRA with a match that I contribute to out of paycheck but that’s not to be touched money), but my sneaky expenses are emergency expenses (car died! need to register new car! all out of contacts and need an eye exam and more contacts!) that are now eating away at my emergency savings. And also I have managed to get credit card debt again! So now I need to take care of those two things. Life is expensive. I have like, $45 in my (non-emergency) bank account until I get paid on the 15th, and I need to get my mother a birthday present and my friends a wedding present (birthday is on the 19th, wedding is on the 20th), so poof, there go any possible savings for the rest of the month!

Fig. 1 (#632)

@TheDilettantista One of the banks up in Canada has a sneaky savings plan where it rounds your purchases up and squirrels the tiny amounts away in savings. I don’t have it but I hear it adds up!

TheDilettantista (#1,255)

@Fig. 1 I have that here and it goes straight into the emergency savings account and it does indeed add up over time–I am not quite as dire as I seemed above, I just had to take a big chunck out of my emergency savings these past few months (for legit emergencies), and with the holidays just around the corner I know that my ability to replenish what I had to draw won’t be the best for awhile.

Fig. 1 (#632)

@TheDilettantista Ugh, I know. Taking money out of savings, even for legitimate reasons, is The Worst.

Spending the money before I put it in savings is not a problem, however.

TheDilettantista (#1,255)

DEFINITELY KEEP THE GYM MEMBERSHIP THOUGH. It is the one thing that also keeps me sane, and it is the one thing I kept when I was super low-employed and making zero money. It made me feel human and happy and gave me a sense of normalcy.

amelioration (#5,002)

I make roughly $27K in NYC…and it’s TOUGH. I’m trying to save for a trip to Europe- I’m putting away all my overtime pay and 10% of my weekly check. But it’s really hard. It definitely is the sneak expenses- “Oh, it’s fall, and I don’t have any shoes but boat shoes!” etc.

EmilyAnomaly (#4,238)

Kudos for the OP for being so candid about her financial situation. I was at a similar point a few years ago: after rent, utilities, student loans, and CC payments I had $300 left for food and whatever would come up like Rx copays or car repairs (I didn’t live in NYC though). Despite any fancy calculations that may be possible, it is so taxing and draining to have so little left each month and to always feel wanting for something. Making $400 stretch for four weeks in NYC seems daunting (though by my math, wouldn’t she have closer to $600 left?) Still not a lot of money. I hope things get better for the OP soon.

franklina (#3,924)

Yeah, the math doesn’t work out – I calculate $607/mo. before freelance too… So, an extra $200 right there?

Regardless, I highly, highly recommend tracking expenditures so you can tell exactly where $ goes and how it fluctuates from month to month. Once you have several months, and especially a year, logged it becomes easier to plan and predict expenses and find areas to save. That info can help you save by comparison to your own patterns, not someone else’s life.

@fo (#839)

@franklina “I calculate $607/mo.”

The difference is bi-weekly paychecks rather than twice monthly. She could have the extra $50/week you calculate, and then twice a year have $1000 to put straight into CC paydown or emergency fund.

NB: not that I’ve ever had that sort of financial discipline. Other sorts, yeah, but not that. So it’s not intended as critical.

franklina (#3,924)

@@fo Gotcha. Yes, just saw your comments above and totally agree / you said it better than I did. There’s a leak somewhere and hopefully the process of examining personal finances enough to write this up and maybe peek at the comments will help the author find those extra funds, for savings or for just better, more gratifying spending.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

It’s a very difficult time now. The stress must be terrible.

What are your plans for changing the situation? Over the long term, it’s unsustainable. So what are the options for increasing your income to enable you to lift your living conditions?

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

This is a question about living in New York City. I noticed in the original post that the writer spent $200 on dinner with her mum. In the past, I’ve read references to $20 hamburgers and so on in New York.

Are these normal prices? Where I live, $200 is a lot to spend on dinner. However, I hesitate to leap to judgement because it might be a normal night out in New York. Could someone who lives there please tell me if these food prices are standard for the city? Thanks.

sea ermine (#122)

@WayDownSouth $200 is not standard. I mean, you can definitely spend $200 (or much more) if you wanted to but I don’t know anyone who spends that kind of money on dinner our unless it’s a fancy birthday present they’ve been saving up for for years. I usually spend $30 a person on a nice fancy dinner and under $20 for regular stuff. For example, last night I went to a nice Italian restaurant in an expensive neighborhood and spent about $25 (which included an entree, and a glass of wine).

The thing about NYC is that there is such a wide variety of restaurants and restaurant prices, it’s easy to get distracted by the award winning super expensive places that fancy rich people go to even though there are tons of nice delicious affordable restaurants right around the corner. Especially if you like food and want to see what it’s like to go to that restaurant that you’ve heard so much about but can’t really afford (this is worse if your friends are rich and go to these places regularly). I think also the fact that NYC is expensive and has a lot of expensive things in it makes people think that that’s the only thing out there, and so they start going to nice places than they would anywhere else, and spending more than they would anywhere else because they think they are supposed to.

I also think there is a decent number of people on the billfold who have high salaries, so they feel comfortable spending $20 on a burger because they want to, even though you can get an equally delicious burger for much less here.

I’m guessing her mom was in town and she wanted to do something nice so she went all out, but I’ve taken my parents to dinner at nice places for much less in Manhattan. I’m also guessing that if she’s struggling with money but doesn’t want her parents to know, she may have taken them to somewhere more expensive to show that she’s doing fine (I say that because I’ve totally done that before, although the bill was more like $100).

sea ermine (#122)

@seaermine I guess the TL;DR version is that NYC has all the same restaurants and restaurant prices as anywhere else, plus some cheaper stuff (because of all the street food). However because there are a lot of rich people here, and because Manhattan is a place that expensive stores and restaurants like to open new establishments at, there are also a ton of wildly expensive places, that can be anywhere from $100 a person on up (higher if you include drinks). Because those kinds of places don’t exist elsewhere, and because they are often fancy and exciting, it’s very easy to forget there are millions of much more affordable restaurants (even fancy one’s) that you can go to instead. This is harder if you really like food, or going out, or if you have rich friends who think $200 is pocket change.

La Cieca (#5,005)

Saving is extremely hard when you are young and starting out. It may turn out that you can’t save right away, so you can start by saying to yourself that while it’s not the best of situations, people do get by without savings, temporarily. Sometimes people who are very prudent about saving lose a job or get hit by some big unexpected expenses and they have to use savings to pay that off, and after that they are without savings, just like you are.

It’s good you’re paying down your debt. I would say that if you do find some extra money (i.e., if you can figure out where you’re overspending and then stop it) you are going to want to pay down the debt faster as a first priority over savings. Of course, assuming you do “find” this money, there’s nothing to stop you from doing both.

Now, there’s a phenomenon that it looks like you’re subject to, and it hits most people who don’t have a sort of inborn second sense about how money works. However much money you have, you spend. You don’t really notice where all the little bits and pieces are going, but eventually you look at the checking balance and you go, “oh well that’s it for this month.”

What might help is not a very original idea, but maybe the psychology is somewhat novel. If the money isn’t there, then you might very well not spend it. That is to say, if mysteriously $50 a paycheck went missing, somehow you would find a way to get from month to month, and likely you wouldn’t notice any significant lifestyle change. Maybe once a month you’d get an invitation to go out for drinks or to dinner and you’d say “no” where now you are saying “yes.” Or maybe you’d look at the $200 winter coat and say, “Let me see if I can get through one more winter with the old puffy parka.” Or maybe you’d say, “Folks, I would love to see you for Christmas, but we’re talking something more than a week’s salary here; how about we skip this Yule and aim for next?”

Or, I have to tell you, the missing 50 bucks would probably not even impact you in so obvious a way. We all spend money sort of mindlessly on little things, so long as we have money, and when we don’t have that money, we don’t miss the mindless little things.

So what I’m saying is, if you really want to try to save, you can set up an automatic transfer from checking to savings the day your salary is direct deposited. That way you never see the “missing” $50 and you adapt to getting by on $1,011.

If you’ll forgive me, that $200 for dinner with your mom sounds like defensiveness, a way of proving you’re doing just fine. Don’t do that any more. There are plenty of perfectly nice places, even in New York, where you can get dinner for two for $100 or less.

EA_Mann (#5,000)

@La Cieca “Now, there’s a phenomenon that it looks like you’re subject to, and it hits most people who don’t have a sort of inborn second sense about how money works. However much money you have, you spend. You don’t really notice where all the little bits and pieces are going, but eventually you look at the checking balance and you go, “oh well that’s it for this month.”

This is the best way I’ve heard this described.

The people that don’t pay themselves first and say “I’ll be able to save someday…” sound to me like the people I knew in high school who said they were ‘taking a year off’ before going to college. Not one of them ever went.

Saving8 (#5,008)

I see a lot of missing information here- $800 for rent? Are you sharing a studio? Even then? What about utilities? Health care premium?
Besides that I would say-get a cheap phone, get a temp/part time job in free time, or live with family

Pinot (#5,009)

@Saving8 $800 for rent is (very likely) sharing a two+bedroom apartment in a “less desirable” area of the city, with roommates.From reading the above, living with family for her isn’t an option, as she is the only one with a full-time job; her family doesn’t live close enough for her to commute to her job, since she treated her mom when she visited, and needed to buy a plane ticket to go home for Christmas.

EA_Mann (#5,000)

Another thing to look at is taxes. At this salary you are likely not owing much in federal taxes at the end of the year, and you might owe nothing.

However, it’s possible that you have witholdings pulled out each week. This happened to me early in my career. Come tax day I got all excited about my refund. $2000 – yay! Then I realized I was just giving the government an interest free loan. Lowering my witholdings to what I actually owed put $40 more a week in my pocket. I’ll always take consistent $$ over hoping for a big check on tax day. If this applies to you, it could give you a little more breathing room.

pinches (#3,520)

@EA_Mann Word. I actually owed a lot of taxes last year and paid it right away. I didn’t mind missing out on the refund excitement because of that interest free loan thing. My only fear was owing TOO much taxes and getting fined for under-withholding (or so I hear???).

jquick (#3,730)

If you are counting pennies, then you should use a pre-pay phone, instead of thinking you deserve a fancy iPhone.

kayraus (#3,305)

The math here is just not working.
I make $35,000 and have strikingly similar obligations. Here’s how it shakes down.

I have 10% of my salary withheld for my 401(k) with a match, so I only take home $2,000 a month. There’s no income tax here, so perhaps you could withhold 5%. There are savings to be had!

Rent: 800
Student Loans: 250
Yoga: 100
Phone: 50 (family plan!)
Intenet: 40
Transportation: Work provides bus pass

That leaves $760 for food (which is usually $300, shopping for high quality stuff) and $460 for other expenses/fun. That’s less than $200 a week, and I save extra from that amount by using automatic deposits to savings, $100 to an investment account and $75 to savings every month. I dip into savings semi-frequently to cover bigger purchases, but I still save more than I spend. Then, because I have budgeted for 2 paychecks a month, 3 paycheck months are the times for extra fun and savings – this August I bought a bike and threw an extra $250 toward my loans.

Paying myself first feels awesome. Totally unglamorous, but I love it.

Steven Blaser (#5,014)

Hey Julie – My name is Steven Blaser and I am by no means a financial planner or expert. I am a senior at Duke University but I have an organization (Duke/Durham Saves) that often works with low-income families and provides them with tips on savings and building wealth – these families are much worse off than you are. I saw your post and know it is something similar we have seen with a lot of graduates so I wrote a blog post trying to give you some advice I have learned over the years to deal with it. I also created an Excel spreadsheet – while I cannot upload it, I took a screenshot and am always happy to send over the actual functional aspects of it at anytime. Check out the post: http://wp.me/p3SG3i-au and let me know if it helps you. If anyone else has questions, I am always happy to listen and answer as I do this all the time for the people we work with. We are trying to start a weekly chat about finances and I think you may even be a good person to talk to about it if you are interested. Hope this helps you and everyone else that left a comment.

Best,
Steven Blaser

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