3 New York Women on What They Really Earn — and Spend

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Photo: Jamie Grill Photography/Corbis

Living and working in New York City, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the financial demands of the city. At 25, I know girls who live in sprawling Manhattan apartments partially subsidized by their parents, and girls who share one-bedroom apartments in the farther-flung corners of Brooklyn while working two jobs and an internship. But everyone, regardless of income, still goes out to the bar on Fridays to have a drink — and never talks about money.

It’s more taboo than sex, more personal than dating. It’s the kind of thing you don’t really broach over eggs Benedict at brunch: The land mines of inequality are everywhere. So to break down some of the myths around what people are really earning (and spending), I talked to three very different New York City women about their lives, their finances, and what the city has taught them about being independent.

Charlotte, 24, Soho
Occupation: PR Account Director
Salary: $40,000
Rent and living situation: $1,000/month. I live with two female roommates in a very small three-bedroom apartment.

Do you have any sources of income other than your job, any side projects?
Yes, I regularly babysit/nanny for about five different families (at least one evening per week) — this really helps to free up money for enjoying myself. I also try do content-writing projects as they come up, but it can be difficult to find the time.

Do you have debt? If so, what kind and how much?
I had a large student loan (from five years of study). I was hugely fortunate that my parents paid almost all of it off for me — I only have $1,000 left to pay off myself.

How often do you go out? Approximately how much do you spend each month on your “going out” budget — restaurants, bars, coffee shops, etc.?
I go out about two to three times a week. I would say about $750 per month goes to entertainment, clothing, coffee, lifestyle, and having fun in New York!

Do you like living in New York? Do you intend to live here for a long time? Why or why not?
I absolutely love living in New York — particularly being in my 20s. I think it is a city MADE for young adults, who still comparatively have little responsibility in life, apart from turning up to work each day and paying rent. I wouldn’t, however, want to own a pet or raise a family in New York — I find it hard enough looking after myself here! I come from Auckland, New Zealand, originally, and I intend to stay for one year. My visa is sadly limited to one year in the U.S., and if I had the opportunity to stay for a couple more years, I would — that’s easier said than done, however. I feel incredibly lucky to have had this time in New York, a city I have always dreamed of living in; it has really opened up my eyes to a number of things and taught me some excellent life lessons!

What is the hardest part about getting by financially in the city, in your opinion?
I think just the constant temptations around you — there are so many well-dressed people in New York who can sometimes make you feel you need instead of want particular material items. And I feel constantly surrounded by a lot of hardworking young people who are clearly doing well and can afford lovely things. Plus, everything just is more expensive in New York — and you get what you pay for. If you want a quality coffee, you have to pay $5 for it. If you want quality food, shop at Whole Foods, etc.

What is one thing you wish someone had taught you about money?
I have great parents who have always passed on a very traditional, safe approach when it comes to money (in comparison to say, investing it all in stocks) — so in that respect I have been lucky to grow up with a very good understanding of how to approach my personal finances.

That being said, if I could go back in time, I would stress to myself: (1) Start putting aside as much money as you can afford to in a “life fund” — that is, a savings fund for nothing urgent or in particular — as soon as you start earning money. No matter how little the contribution, slowly and surely, it will build up, and you will always know the right time to use it; (2) Spend money very cautiously and infrequently on material items — they almost are never worth it — spend money liberally on experiences, travel, friends, and family — it will always be a better lifelong investment!  

Kaye, 22, Various Futons Around New York City
Occupation: Junior Creative in Advertising
Salary: $50,000
Rent and living situation: I have my parents’ house in the suburbs two hours away, which costs $360 a month in train fare. But what you save in cost-of-living you lose in actual living, hence the various futons. My salary, loans, and habitual spending don’t leave much for an apartment. So technically, I’m homeless in the city.

I knew nothing about saving money. In college, I wanted independence before I needed independence and ended up wiping out my bank account on an apartment with roommates I ended up hating in the long run, when I could have stayed on campus. I graduated in May with $18 in my bank account and moved back in with my parents, which is a two-hour commute each way from work. Hey, people do that commute their whole lives. It's a doable thing, for some. But when you're a junior creative in your first job there is so much you're supposed to prove. It's hard to do that when you have to leave at 10 p.m. to get home while everyone else on the team is pulling all-nighters.

So I don't go home, unless it's a slow day and I get out on time. I have clothes in my filing cabinet; I have clothes in my backpack. I have various toothbrushes in various apartments. I have an H&M across the street for when I need to freshen up the clothes rotation and not feel like a slob. 

Do you have any sources of income other than your job, any side projects?
I babysit for one boss for extra money. And I cat-sit for another boss, but mainly for a place to stay.

Do you have debt? If so, what kind and how much?
Student debt. The kind that doesn’t have your parents’ names attached to it to back you up. It’s running me $200,000. Plus interest. Plus dignity.

How often do you go out? Approximately how much do you spend each month on your “going out” budget — restaurants, bars, coffee shops, etc.?
This is my last month, according to Mint.com (which I rarely read because it makes me anxious):

Dining/Bars: $146.95. Shopping: $175. Spin Class: $150. There is also an "Uncategorized" $377 that worries me. I don’t have a "going out" budget, which is probably a huge mistake.

Do you like living in New York? Do you intend to live here for a long time? Why or why not?
I love New York. Unless my dream agency offered me my dream job, working in any other city wouldn't fit my goals.

What is the hardest part about getting by financially in the city, in your opinion?
Being young and broke in the city with a lot to prove. The things we need (or think we need) to impress those around us AND make ourselves feel good is just too much. Yes, there are tons of free things to do in New York City, but they won’t necessarily help you network.

What is one thing you wish someone had taught you about money?
I wish someone taught me that small impulses don’t feel nearly as satisfying/comforting as investments.

Rebecca, 25, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
Occupation: Freelance Consultant in City Planning and Community Organizing (Currently managing grants for Hurricane Sandy rebuilding and teaching undergraduates about urbanism.)
Salary: Around $45,000
Rent and living situation: $680/month to rent in a three-bedroom apartment in a brownstone that costs $1,700. I live with two roomies, and am happy to say that we are all really good friends!
Do you have any sources of income other than your job, any side projects?
I freelance often! I have regular consulting clients for whom I build and manage databases, create materials for exhibitions and public viewing, and perform various facilitation duties during public meetings.

Do you have debt? If so, what kind and how much?
I have mostly student debt, around $200,000. Most of that is with decent loan rates through the federal student loan programs, but it's still a heavy number. It can be difficult to manage it without feeling crushed under its weight sometimes, but I've got to put the big-kid pants on and deal with it forever, so I make payments and work with my lenders to keep them affordable based on income.

How often do you go out? Approximately how much do you spend each month on your “going out” budget – restaurants, bars, coffee shops, etc.?
I go out pretty often: Usually, it's drinks with friends as an after-work unwinding, but I also probably go whole hog and get dinner/go out dancing after a couple of times a month. My budget for all going-out activities for the whole month is usually between $400 and $500.

Do you like living in New York? Do you intend to live here for a long time? Why or why not?
I love living in New York, and, while I tinker with the idea of living elsewhere for shorter periods of time, I can't really see myself living anywhere else in a serious way. I love the diversity of the city, and the way I can access a multitude of environments and experiences without ever needing to use a car really. Also, the food. I love that I can eat from all over the world in one city.

What is the hardest part about getting by financially in the city, in your opinion?
Making a budget (an honest one that fits your lifestyle and income) and sticking with it. It can be very easy to go way over budget on things, if you even have one. My greatest weakness is with food. I love all of the options that New York City gives me for restaurants, cafés, carts, etc., and then there are the multitudes on multitudes of markets to get specialty groceries and experiment in my own kitchen. I think that I probably spend most of my disposable income on food and eating experiences. I like cooking, I like sharing, and it can be very easy to go overboard on splurges for things like specialty cheeses, and spices.

But really it’s about understanding what your budget is, and really working to stay within that in a way that you feel fulfilled and not like you are struggling to survive here.

What is one thing you wish someone had taught you about money?
I wish I had known coming out of high school exactly how much $200,000 was, and what it would mean to need to pay it back. I understood the value of a dollar, sure. I had a job, and paid for my own car and gas and fun stuff, but when you are 18, work at a coffee shop, and have been told all of your life that you belong in college — well, it's very easy to sign up for that without really grasping the weight of that debt. I don't regret the experiences that college and grad school afforded me, but I certainly had no clue what kind of money I was borrowing. So don’t sign the loan document if you don't understand what the value means.