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Living With Less


The Sky Chef
By September 11, James Lockhart, 40, was a month into a job as a sky chef at JFK making $8 an hour -- about $350 a week. "Simple meals, not big institutional cooking for thousands, which I've also done," he says. "For Air India you'd have, let's say, curried goat, curry chicken. Spicy food. But for Air Canada, chicken breast, maybe tater tots, a western omelette." After a week of no passengers, the layoffs began: "They made this big announcement. Automatically, I knew I'm gone."

Lockhart had just gotten his life on course. Since January, he'd been studying pastry-making at New York Restaurant School. Public assistance had been providing $215 of his $300 rent and $140 in cash toward the $68-a-month tuition and train fare; $120 in food stamps helped with the rest. He sent money to support his 10-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter. After he landed a job, the assistance ended, and, feeling flush, he even signed up for a $40-a-month cell-phone plan.

Now he is applying for public assistance again (his job tenure was too brief to qualify for unemployment) and cutting back on his expenses: "No movies. I rent videos from the library. Not many people know they have them." He moved out of the one-bedroom in Jamaica he'd shared with his girlfriend and into a friend's place in Bushwick.

Today, as he does every other day, he is taking the train to the Twin Towers job center in Jamaica to check out the "food and lodgings" postings. He misses being in the kitchen. "I find it calming," he says. "For me it's an accomplishment. Like in school when we had class projects, carrot cake with vanilla frosting, cherry pie, I'd pass it out and they'd say, 'Oh, it looks beautiful.' I thought about baking my kids something for the holidays. But my daughter, she's weight-conscious, she says, 'That's too fattening.' I'm trying to just get one check before Christmas so I can get them a little something. And explain that it will get better."

The Art Director
Susan had it all figured out. A single woman in her mid-forties, she'd socked away as much as 15 percent of her annual salary as a magazine art director -- which reached $100,000 a year at its peak -- since she was 30. Her savings, combined with a modest six-figure inheritance from her parents, would enable her to retire at 50 on $60,000 a year. But that was before the magazine she worked for folded in October and she lost her job.

"The way I feel right now," she says, "is freelance for 2002 and see how things go. I also plan on taking a close look at what my investments and expenses are." Susan bought her Upper West Side apartment for $190,000 a few years ago and pays a $625-a-month mortgage. She is taking drastic steps, from a baby-boomer point of view. "I'm going to have to give up my personal trainer," she says, "and cut way back on my shrink." Her personal trainer charged her $80 a session, her shrink $100. "I'm going to get rid of the trainer for sure. The therapist I've lived with the last 22 years. I don't know if I could get rid of her."

Most dramatically, she no longer eats out. "I'm eating at home, and I can't cook," she says. "I'd go out to dinner four nights a week and expense most of them." And she wasn't dining at Soup Burg, either. Her watering holes included Bolo and DB Bistro Moderne, Daniel Boulud's restaurant on 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, home of the $27 foie gras hamburger, where dinner for three can easily cost $350. Now Susan relies on the kindness of a friend who's an editor at a food magazine. "He asks me out to dinner a lot to taste things with him," she says.

And while she admits to being a bit scared about the future, the scaled-back lifestyle also has its charm. "I feel the possibility of it being much better," she says. "I won't have to work my butt off. I don't need to dress to impress anyone. I'll be able to take advantage of galleries and concerts. I'm really looking forward to that, and catching up with friends. And I won't have to get on that damned subway every morning."

The Graduate
Christiana was ready to start her life as a bona fide adult. It was December of last year, and the 22-year-old had just graduated from New York University. Whereas most college grads coming to the city have to cope first with the near-impossible task of finding an affordable apartment, Christiana had one of the sweetest deals in town: For the past two years, she had been paying $500 a month for a sunny corner room in a 3,000-square-foot SoHo loft owned by a family that was hardly ever home. And having attended college here, she had many friends nearby, and a boyfriend of three years. All she needed now was work, preferably something in fashion, with an income around $30,000.

"But there was nothing," she recalls. "I'd send my résumé out all over the place and then wait and wait." After a few fruitless months, she was in need of cash and took a gig serving cocktails at BondSt, making a solid $300 a night, but not exactly feeling like she had "a real career." Then, in July, she was hired by a small public-relations firm, with a salary of $42,000. "I was like, 'Okay, finally I have a job,' " she says. "The people were great, and they worked in fashion. I saw myself working there for a while."

Then came September 11. The firm lost projects and was forced to let Christiana go. On top of that, the family she lived with informed her that their daughter was moving back home and that she would have to move out by October. Then her boyfriend, an actor, landed a role in a movie and moved to Los Angeles.

With no income and no apartment, Christiana felt as if all her roots had been severed, so she made up her mind to go with her boyfriend, figuring she might as well be struggling in a (slightly) cheaper city. But then a job came her way: She's assisting Kathleen Turner. It may not be fashion, but it's certainly glamorous, pays well, and gives Christiana a sense that her life as a working adult is moving in a forward direction. She's saving on rent by living with her parents in New Jersey, a bit of a drag for a twentysomething, but she plans on getting her own apartment soon. And while she used to spend $500 to $700 a week on "going out," she's cut her costs by half. "I pictured myself making a hundred grand and living in a TriBeCa loft by the time I was 25," she says. "Now I know that's not the case. Still, for the most part I just feel very, very lucky."

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