Thursday, February 07, 2008

New York Stories #11: Little Miss Moneybags.

Here's a New York Story from another blogger, Little Miss Moneybags. She struggled to make ends meet after coming here for an exciting but low-paying job, yet she's made great progress:

I moved to New York City from Tennessee on New Year's Day, 2004. I had graduated from college two weeks before, and had a stipend-only internship (which covered my rent) lined up for six months. I always wanted to live here, and thought this was the perfect opportunity. I never thought I'd stay longer than that, but it wasn't long before I realized I'd have a very hard time leaving.

I managed to extend the internship by a few months for half the stipend I'd been getting, and worked at Starbucks to pay the rest of my rent and other expenses. Financially, I was really poor—I scrounged change for bus fare and when I didn't have enough, I walked—even in the winter, even when it was four miles to work. My $860/month rent included one bedroom in a four-bedroom apartment plus utilities, and the apartment was shabby and the neighborhood questionable. For at least once meal a day, I ate leftover sandwiches from Starbucks that would have otherwise been thrown away. I didn't buy new clothes, or go to the movies, or spend money on anything other than food and shelter. I think my taxable income that year was about $16,000.

Oh, but I felt rich. I was interning at the United Nations and got to hear officials from all over the world speak. I made abiding friendships with the people I lived with and met working at Starbucks. I went to all sorts of free events in the city, from concerts and plays in the park to fireworks displays and open gallery days to just wandering around exploring the city. I read a lot of library books. My entire worldview was being challenged and I loved it.

At the end of 2004, about two weeks before I completely ran out of money and had to call my parents for plane fare home, I landed my first "real" job at a salary of $27,500. I thought I was RICH! I began putting money into a 401k and also started taking weekly belly dance lessons, something I'd always wanted to do. My salary has risen steadily since then as I've been promoted and switched careers (from radio to publishing) and I'm now making more than twice what I made that first year. I've moved up in apartments twice. Those dance classes turned into an invitation to perform professionally with a company, so it's an entirely self-sustaining hobby. And aside from a strictly money standpoint, I still feel rich. I still feel amazed at the variety of culture and possibilities in New York. I have made great friends and fantastic relationship. I've been able to do some travelling, and experience some of the finer things in life. While my salary isn't high by New York standards, it certainly allows me to have a full life. I still use the lessons I learned that first year about prioritizing expenses and finding cheap or free sources of entertainment.

Some specific things that got me where I am:

Debt: I don't have any. I was very lucky not to have any student loans when I graduated—this alone could have derailed everything that first year. But since then, even when I was eating yet another stale egg salad sandwich from Starbucks, I was careful not to acquire any debt. I didn't get a credit card until I was 24 and ever since have used it carefully for planned purchases. I pay it off in full every month. I will be taking out a loan for grad school in 2008, after much deliberation, and paying the entire balance off within one year of graduation using tuition reimbursement money from my job. Other than that, I absolutely under no circumstances will make payments on anything. If I can't afford it, I don't need it.

A budget: I'm one of those nerdy budget people. I have a written budget and I live by it. I'm not so strict as to be a stick in the mud when my friends want to go out to eat, but I do tell my money what to do before it comes in. I determine ahead of time what to do with a raise or a bonus, as well as my regular paycheck. Rather than being constricting, I find this very freeing—if I have $20 in the misc. category, I don't have to feel guilty at all for getting myself a manicure or (yet another) pashmina. I don't have to worry about whether I'll be able to cover my cell phone bill or electricity payment, because that $20 was earmarked for me to blow!

Savings: As soon as I was making enough money to do so, I began saving along two philosophies. One is a rainy day or emergency fund which took me about two years to build—six months of expenses tucked away, just in case. In case I lose my job, or get sick or hurt and can't work, or my apartment burns down, or whatever. It is such a relief to have that money there, just waiting. When I had a recent health scare and was told insurance might not cover the $300 test, I could say "That's fine. I can pay for it. I need to know the results, and I have the money." The other philosophy is what I call Sinking Funds—saving for those things that come up reliably but not regularly. Travel, renter's insurance, gifts, prescriptions—all these things and more can derail a budget if they're not accounted for. By putting just a little away each pay period, I'm able to visit family about four times a year and the only stress I experienced at Christmas was what to get for people—not how to pay for it.

It's true that my interest in personal finance and my nerdy approach to budgeting and saving won't work for everyone. Many people aren't lucky enough to find a hobby that pays for itself. But money should not be a hindrance to going after your dreams. Life is short, and you can't take your toys with you—better to scrape by and know that your life is what you make it than to insist on always being comfortable.

What I love about some of these stories, including this one, is the sense that people are really sinking their teeth into New York-- enjoying it with gusto the way you might savor a tasting menu of wonderfully delicious foods. That sense of truly experiencing and loving the city makes up for the sacrifices it can take to survive here, and as some of our story-tellers have proven, it doesn't have to cost a cent. Miss Moneybags has some serious discipline and ambition as well as an appreciation of fun. I'll be watching her blog to see what's next for her!

Other posts in this series:
New York Stories #1: Bronx Chica
New York Stories #2: Orange
New York Stories #3: Bama Babe
New York Stories #4: K
New York Stories #5: Frugal Female
New York Stories #6: SandyVoice
New York Stories #7: Escape Brooklyn
New York Stories #8: Comfortable Couple
New York Stories #9: Upper West Sider
New York Stories #10: Debt-Free in Harlem

Share your own New York Story by emailing it to me at openwallet1 -- at -- yahoo -- dot-- com.


****Veteran Military Wife at Life Lessons of a Military Wife**** said...

What a great post! Every young person should read it! If I knew then what I knew now...well, you know the rest...thanks for sharing the post!

Ms. M&P said...

That's really impressive. I lived on about $30K my first year out of college in DC. I had student loans, but even with those payments taken out, I would have had more than $16K. I racked up some serious credit card debt that year, unlike Moneybags. What a great post. I also like the idea of the sinking fund. I could definitely use one of those!

Anonymous said...

love the post - can seriously relate. i am currently living in nyc, making 26k a year on my first job. the key is budgeting and not trying to live like other people who make more. i pay my rent, utilities, student loans, eat and have money left over.

LawSchoolMom said...

I don't live in NY, but I enjoy reading these stories. However, I'm disheartened that there are no "Making it in Manhattan with Children" stories. Where are all those people?!

Sure, it's easy to forgo a lot of things when you are a single person or a DINK, but it's not so easy to trim expenses with kids. But I am sure MANY parents live in Manhattan, so why aren't they sharing their stories?

Anonymous said...

Great post! I'm amazed how many people knew how to take care of their money at such an early age.

My niece is turning 17 in a few months, and starting to apply to colleges. I hope she will have the sense of some of this blog's readers. To help her in that direction, I'm planning to get her a personal finance book as part of her birthday present. Suggestions?

Isaac'swife said...

I lvoe these posts - about people making it in the city.

It would be interesting to see a perspective of those with children and hear stories from other people in different cities in the USA.