HUFFPOST PERSONAL

What It's REALLY Like to Live On $25 An Hour In New York City

Escapism wasn’t healthy, and it certainly wasn’t helping my budget.
Escapism wasn’t healthy, and it certainly wasn’t helping my budget.

When I moved to New York City from California in 2010 I very quickly got over the whole “talking about money” taboo. One of the first questions I ask new people is, “How much is your rent?,” usually followed by, “How much is your student loan debt?”

So it’s no surprise that when Refinery29’s “Money Diaries” series debuted a few years ago, I devoured the articles — especially the ones by women who made tens of thousands of more dollars than I did. I lived a world away (in Bushwick with two roommates on a $29,000 salary), and it was fascinating to read about my fellow New Yorkers’ finances. I could only dream of earning close to six figures a year, living in my own apartment and not having to stress about the mounting cost of frozen chicken breasts.

And, at 21, I was interning at a publishing house for school credit (which meant I paying more than $1,000 to work for free).

But the escapism wasn’t healthy, and it certainly wasn’t helping my budget. If anything, it fueled my “treat yourself” mentality and desire to spend recklessly so I could keep up with other, wealthier women. I was living in the same city, working the same amount of hours and doing just as much labor — if they could have it, why couldn’t I? Why shouldn’t I also burn money on clothes and dinners in an attempt to build my social status?

What I failed to accept was the fact that I was making $26,000 less than the median household income in one of the top ten cities with the highest income inequality.

Eventually, I stopped reading the column.

A lot happened between then and now: I got laid off from my first job, worked at a restaurant, went freelance, learned how to save, got off my mom’s health insurance, landed a new full-time gig and started looking for a new one. I connected more with people who were independent and responsible, and those who weren’t faded out of my circle.

All those feelings I thought I had put to bed were reignited by this Sunday’s diary, “A Week In New York City On $25/Hour And $1k Monthly Allowance.” If you haven’t read it, the diary is by an anonymous marketing intern who eats a ton of avocados, takes various classes at a luxury gym and feels very “#blessed” that she gets financial support from multiple family members.

I had a lot of questions about her. First off, who makes $25/hour as an intern, double the New York state minimum wage? How does her family afford to give her $3,200 in cash every month — an “allowance” on top of their immense contribution of paying for her rent? How can someone who works out at Equinox, which costs $210 per month, be unable to “carry [her] purse, weekend bag, and work briefcase on a 20-minute walk,” and instead have to pay $5 for a Lyft? What 21-year-old lives in the West Village and has a weekend “Hamptons trip”?

Yes, the article was read and shared thousands of times, and yes, I’m writing a response to it right now, which was probably Refinery29’s goal. But what’s the point of offering up some privileged, anonymous student for clicks? How does that help any young woman learn to budget and survive in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S.? What is the point of “Money Diaries,” at all, except to rejoice in the ever-expanding wealth disparity and gentrification that is shaping the future of cities in the country?

At 26, I live on a budget similar to the Refinery29 diarist’s intern salary — about $22.50/hour (after taxes) as a freelance associate producer, which is almost $900 a week. The majority of my money goes to rent, groceries, student loan payments and (regrettably) late-night Seamless dinners, but I live comfortably. I recognize that I am both upwardly mobile and privileged. I also receive some help from my family — I’m still on my parents’ phone plan, and my grandparents pay for my monthly Metrocard. (The fact that even these minor privileges are often necessary to make living and working in New York tenable is its own issue.)

But I wanted to share my own financial reality to show how many 20-something women in NYC are actually earning and spending their money ― and it’s not on weekend trips to Hamptons.

Here are some things you have to think about when your parents aren’t providing you with more than $3,000 a month in financial support:

Where you can afford to live and who with: For the past four years, I’ve lived with my partner and a roommate in 2-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn while working in uptown Manhattan. Though it wasn’t always ideal, the total monthly rent was $1,800, and I was able to save almost $8,000 to put toward my future — a new place, my student loan debt and travel. I’m in the process of moving to a 1-bedroom in Queens with my partner (even farther away from work, but our own place!), and my half of the rent will cost $860 per month.

Student loans: With my personal loans and Parent PLUS Loans, I graduated from college with approximately $136,000 in student debt. I’m currently on a 20-year, income-contingent plan to pay it all back, but that means the more money I make, the more I have to pay to my debt. Currently, my monthly student loan payments are $224.33.

Other debt: Month to month, I carry anywhere from $500 to $1,000 in credit card debt, which isn’t major. I pay off about $300 a month. Since I’ve built up great credit by paying back my student loans, I mostly use my credit card for “big” things I can pay off slowly — plane tickets, furniture, etc.

Side hustles: Many of the NYC women I know who work full-time jobs also have a side hustle. Most of us don’t always have a nice little pocket of “fun money” to spend on things like clothes, beauty and entertainment, and that’s why we work side gigs. Personally, I feel like it’s the perfect way to treat yourself guilt-free. (And it also makes me feel better about spending $9.99 for Spotify Premium and $10.99 for Netflix each month.) I write and edit occasional freelance articles ($50/hour) and sell clothes on Poshmark (about $30/month).

Health insurance: I was able to stay on my parents’ insurance until I was 26, as were a lot of my friends. Thankfully at my freelance gig, I’m offered third-party contract insurance, but it’s around $150 a month (bottom of the barrel) with an extremely high deductible — $6,000. I could have paid more for a better plan, but I wanted to ease into the added costs instead of drastically changing my budget all at once.

Health and wellness: I am far from being in shape (and it’s definitely why I’m biased here), but to me, spending more than $200 a month for a gym membership is absurd. I don’t really understand the appeal of luxury gyms like Equinox, but I also don’t have a regular exercise routine. When I do work out, it’s usually comprised of going for a run in the park, doing an at-home workout with a free app like Sworkit and taking free yoga classes at donation-based studios.   

Retirement savings: My friend who is really financially savvy taught me how to open a Roth IRA after I got laid off from my first job and lost my 401(k). I contribute about $500/month.

Freebies: I’m always trying to pinch pennies so I can save for my future. I’m definitely guilty of signing up for free trials and then immediately canceling the subscriptions, and I don’t like spending money on things I can get for free (e.g., dropping dollars at Home Depot for moving boxes when I get them at the liquor store). Those things don’t seem like a lot of money, but they can contribute a lot to my retirement savings in the long run.

So, what’s it really like to live in New York City on $22.50 an hour? I make financial sacrifices, and there are debts I can’t ignore. I have to save up or use credit cards for big-ticket items and trips I want to take. If there was an unexpected emergency expense, I would have to dip into my savings that I’ve been building up since graduation. Like most 20-somethings, I live with the looming fear of an unexpected expense wreaking havoc with my monthly budget.

While women like the “Money Diaries” author are not scarce in New York City, portraying her as getting by on $747.50 a week (a livable wage) with a $1,100 monthly “allowance” is highly misleading. And being candid about our financial realities is beneficial to everyone.

Being open about my finances with my own friends (and now you all!) has helped me increase my earnings, negotiate for what I’m worth and know when I’m not getting paid what I should be. So when it comes to money conversations, it’s nice to be #blessed, but it’s even better to #keepitreal. 

CONVERSATIONS