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Financial Passages

A road map of crises in a New Yorker's financial life -- and how your neighbors are dealing with them.

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Nancy, the struggling assistant.  

I always dreamed of being a writer in New York. I never dreamed of being a landlord in New York. Still, here we are, my wife and I, doing one so that we can do the other.

Sobered by a 40 percent rent increase, we scrambled to buy a townhouse -- three stories of red brick that, in real-estate parlance, needed TLC. To meet the mortgage, we turned the garden apartment into a rental. A year later, if we squint hard enough, the house seems close enough to the dream that we can graft it onto the dream itself. The street looks a little like Sesame Street (with dumpster pickups in the middle of the night). The rooms have stately marble hearths (all sealed, except the one we dropped three grand to open up). When I'm not stripping varnish from the banister, I imagine we've sort of made it: a home in the city that's big enough for, one day, a kid or two.

Never mind that we're carrying, as my father keeps pointing out, the biggest mortgage in the history of my family (without, I can safely say, the biggest income). Outside of New York, a yuppie-landlording venture like this would be considered lunacy -- one of the weird extremes people go to to live here, like sitting in a parking spot for two hours, or lining up at a street-corner cart for breakfast. But our biggest heckler is the future: Since we can just swing the mortgage with a tenant, the tax deduction, and our salaries, what happens if we need day care? We never thought we'd choose private school, but have we priced ourselves out of even the option? And the question that bubbles up at 1 a.m.: If one of us were out of work, could we still keep the dream house?

One night in bed, during what's become a ritual self-immolation, I heard myself mentioning that if things got really tight, we could just sell the place. It felt awkward hearing it, something like a betrayal. Then my wife laughed. She told me the dream house was the best thing we had going. The mortgage is stable; the asset is growing. It's the rest of our lives that aren't quite living up to the dream.

I felt better immediately. Because that feeling, such as it is, is familiar: I know barely anyone in New York, at any earning level, who considers life here to be affordable in the long run. It's not just that living the New York fantasy means slamming into expensive reality checks: the $12 mixed drink, the toddler ricocheting off the walls of the one-bedroom apartment, the Case of the Vanishing Bonus (followed by the Mystery of the Missing Job). Sometimes your lifestyle demands an upgrade before you can afford it: You fail to take Broadway by storm, then your rent explodes. Other times, you realize you've been living like a college kid on a salary that a bridge or tunnel away would get you a mansion. (Okay, a McMansion.)

The fact is, there's an element of smoke and mirrors -- or blind faith -- to any New York financial life. The middle class here follows a somewhat predictable series of financial passages -- crossroads where our needs and means diverge, and we have to decide what new tactic we'll embrace to go on living here. Rest easy: Whatever stage you're in, what you have is never enough -- although everything you'd ever want is still here in New York.

20s: Will I Always Have a Roommate?

Remember the feeling that what you had was all you'd ever have? For two weeks last summer, Nancy, 23, house-sat for an older friend and came away a little shaken. It's not like the place had Lalique crystal or a lap pool; all it took was a bedroom air-conditioner to start her worrying. "I don't have a window in my bedroom, much less an air-conditioner," she says. "The place just felt more grown-up. I like that feeling. I've never lived alone, and I hate having roommates. And I can't think of a time when I won't have them."

Nancy, to her credit, has a thrift-store wardrobe and a financial plan worthy of Jane Bryant Quinn. She makes $28,000 in publishing but saves enough to have already paid an extra $1,500 of her student-loan principal. She pays $490 for a four-person share in East Williamsburg (plus $160 a month in loans), has a healthy phobia of credit cards, and never spends more than $25 on dinner. Still, when she adds up those $10 cover charges at clubs like Northsix, and the $20 bar tabs that follow, she spends about $150 a week on eating (and drinking) out. That's $600 a month -- $110 more than her rent. But what can she do? She already brings her lunch to work. A night at the movies is a luxury. "I have one friend who won't go out to dinner at all," she says. "My theory is, if I can afford to have kids here, I'd stay. But I don't know if I'll ever make that much money."


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