Welcome to Money Diaries, where we are tackling the ever-present taboo that is money. We’re asking real people how they spend their hard-earned money during a seven-day period — and we’re tracking every last dollar.
Today: a law clerk/attorney working in financial regulation who makes $63,000 per year and spends some of it on a corned beef Reuben sandwich.
Editor’s Note: This diary was written in October/November 2021.
Occupation: Law Clerk/Attorney
Industry: Financial Regulation
Location: Queens, NY
Net Worth: ~$42,106 ($71,256 in checking, ~$61,000 in 401(k) and government pension funds, $7,500 in my used Toyota, minus debt. Over the years, I’ve opened bank accounts every time I got offered a few hundred dollars for signing up. I’ve consolidated them recently into one relatively HYCA (I shopped around HARD to find this!), so my savings would accrue interest as much as possible. This is going to drop soon — I’ll use $56K of savings to pay off my larger, higher-interest fed loan in December, so I can deduct the small amount of interest it’s accrued in the 2021 tax year, but still be able to wipe it out before it enters repayment in January 2022. This will leave me with a smaller monthly payment on the remaining $41K or so, which is also at a much lower interest rate, and I will still have ~$15K in liquid savings, which for me represents about a five-month emergency fund.)
Debt: $97,650 (two federal loans.)
Paycheck Amount (2x/month): $1,673.91
Rent: $1,463 for a 400-square-foot studio. I’ve lived alone since graduating from college.
Loan Payments: Deferred; will be $83/month minimum on an IBR, starting in late January 2022.
Cell Phone: $132 for my smartphone and my mom’s.
Car Insurance: $112
Electricity: ~$62 (average across 12 months.)
Internet: Was $55, but $0 since September; work reimburses this as I’m currently remote.
Mom’s AAA: $7 starting in December 2021.
Apple Music (Student): $4.99
Apple Storage: $0.99
Backblaze Data Backup: $4
Amazon Prime: $112/year
Was there an expectation for you to attend higher education? Did you participate in any form of higher education? If yes, how did you pay for it?
Yes, absolutely. My parents both finished their graduate degrees when I was in pre-K/elementary. My dad is a retired engineer, and my mom is a retired nurse, but also holds an MA from her previous career. I used to come to nursing school with her at night. The other students in her class joked that I’d been to enough school by the time I was 8 that I should probably get an RN with them! But witnessing their hard work instilled in me the importance of higher ed. My folks didn’t push me academically — they had a lot of struggles — but I set high expectations for myself, earned straight As in AP classes, and got lucky when it came to standardized tests, all of which pushed me through college and law school. As for financing that school: My parents skipped a lot of things (vacations, new clothes, takeout/restaurants, cars) to put every penny into my college fund, which covered almost all of undergrad at a private NYC college. I took a $25K loan to finish my last semester when their savings ran out, but paid that off within two years of graduation by living in a cheap apartment and working tons of OT at my first job. Law school, which I started at a cheap public school on full ride and finished this spring at a higher-ranked private, was 3/4 loans, scholarships, savings, and those good ol’ stimmies, and 1/4 money a grandparent left me.
Growing up, what kind of conversations did you have about money? Did your parent/guardian(s) educate you about finances?
Very little — only to save aggressively, not be ashamed to make short-term sacrifices, and never spend more than you make. Both my parents grew up in large, poor families and were the only ones to go to college, so they were painfully familiar with constant emergencies and the shame of being in debt. They also took me with them to the bank and showed me how accounts balance, but that’s about it. I don’t know how they divided finances; in classic Boomer fashion, both always paid cash for their houses and cars, thanks to crazy high savings rates in the 1970s-’90s. I was the first among us to get a credit card, when I was 23. They were extremely conservative savers, never invested in anything wilder than index funds, and thought any kind of debt was a deal with the devil. Ironically, I ended up loving securities law and financial regulation during law school, learned as much as I could about it, and now my job is all about the most technical details of the financial system!
What was your first job, and why did you get it?
My university’s law library was being rebuilt, and they hired me to help move, sort, and toss old books in their basement stacks for $7.50 an hour.
Did you worry about money growing up?
Constantly, especially after my parents split up in my early teens and my mom lost her job. From an early age, I remember my folks only talked about money in front of me in order to complain about things being too expensive, or about not having enough of it — unpleasant stuff. The bitterness of their fights kept me from wanting to ask for anything. They divorced during the recession, after my mom discovered my dad never told her about a considerable sum of money he’d inherited years before. She kind of shut down after that process, so after a few too many utilities got shut off, she handed over her checkbook and debit card to me, and as a teen I became the one to negotiate all the bills and pay the taxes on time. These are the kinds of mistakes I never want to make in my own relationships, ever, and I consistently practice communicating with my partner about finances in a calm, transparent way.
Do you worry about money now?
Yes. This salary is a 15% pay cut from my last full-time job, and with inflation it’s unsustainable. I realize I’m essentially starting over, being fresh out of school again and in public service to boot, but I’m already looking for an after-hours side hustle to cushion me until I can transition to something higher-paying. Every personal milestone I want to accomplish in my 30s — a home, marriage, and a baby — is going to require cash that I just can’t save at this rate. Plus, I need to catch up on my retirement contributions, which slowed during grad school.
At what age did you become financially responsible for yourself, and do you have a financial safety net?
When I graduated from college at 21. I started work in NYC a few weeks after finishing college and immediately rented a basement room near my new job on my own, no guarantor or anything. Also, to support myself and send money home to my folks, who were forced into early retirement during the recession and have struggled since, I worked 30 hours/week in undergrad and 40 hours/week in law school — normally the latter isn’t allowed, but I went to a top-20 law school that also offered a four-year program to get around that ban. For a safety net, I could probably rely on my partner or long-term friends (briefly) if I burned through my emergency fund, but I would never want to; my parents are barely in a position to support themselves, and live in rural areas far away, so they’re not really on the table here.
Do you or have you ever received passive or inherited income? If yes, please explain.
Yes. When my grandma passed, she left me $70K. I used it for 1/4 of law school, a few new appliances for my parents, and a used car for my mom (which she later ended up giving me as a graduation gift) after hers died.
11:30 a.m. — Wake up at my partner L.’s apartment in Brooklyn and struggle into the kitchen to make an espresso. I’m meeting my college friend D. in Manhattan for brunch today! Since starting this new job, I’ve had a decent work-life balance for the first time in years, and I’ve been using it to catch up with friends I’ve barely been awake for in ages. I’m out the door in a black cotton 3.1 Phillip Lim dress and black Nikes. I take the subway into Midtown. Note: All my friends and I are vaccinated, and masked wherever we’re asked. $2.75
4:30 p.m. — D. and I take a leisurely walk downtown to a cute Lower East Side diner we’ve been meaning to try for ages. We pick through the incredibly lengthy menu and, on the waiter’s advice, settle on coffee for both of us, pork-stuffed savory pancakes for her, and a chorizo-chili-egg platter for me. This place is bizarre, and we love it. We split the bill ($23.75 for my share, including tip). $23.75
5:30 p.m. — Apparently, this is a day of friendship and gluttony! D. and I walk across the Williamsburg Bridge and meet up with L., who takes us out to a lovely gelato place near the bridge. The cones are delicious, though the staff is very short-tempered — I ask if I can have the kid-size cone (I’m pretty stuffed from brunch), and the woman snaps that it’s only for under-12s. Oh well. We get stracciatella, Nutella, and peanut butter cones and gossip together. L. pays. D. wishes L. could be cloned so she could have a man/gelato daddy like him.
7 p.m. — We see D. to the train and turn back to L.’s place to figure out Saturday night entertainment. He wants to go “out, but not out-out.” We settle on a walk through the park and pick up poke bowls for a diversion into the world of health food. We split this one ($15). $15
9:30 p.m. — Back from people-watching and walking, L. and I settle in to watch the new season of Succession. As diehard fans of seasons 1 and 2, we get a few episodes in, but it feels so hard to watch. We realize we haven’t seen it since before the pandemic, and something about watching people being so awful to each other, even on Prestige TV, doesn’t feel good these days. Instead, we crack a couple beers and wind down by talking about how the past couple years changed us. It feels good.
Daily Total: $41.50
10:30 a.m. — Wake up, stretch, and caffeinate. I always thought I’d grow into being more of a morning person as an adult, but that day has not yet come. I tidy up around L.’s place (empty dishwasher, fold blankets, and fluff couch cushions, etc.) while the coffee brews, then settle in on the couch to read the news and look at recipes for Sunday supper.
12:30 p.m. — L. comes in from his room! He’s even more sleepy than I am in the mornings. We discuss meal prep for the week and what to cook tonight, settling on roast lemon chicken, biscuits, and salad with a homemade dressing. He has an amazing kitchen, so I tend to cook with him when I’m there on the weekends, and eat leftovers during the week. We rummage through the cabinets to check his supplies and make a grocery list.
1:15 p.m. — L.’s tired, so I throw on Adidas leggings, Nikes, a T-shirt, and a Bean jacket to run down to the store for groceries. I pick up a whole chicken, lemons, rosemary, thyme, flour, milk, a couple pumpkin beers, salad greens, peppers, and chips and dip, because I constantly get hungry while cooking. I hate this grocery store, though; it’s overpriced, and everyone there is in a bad mood whenever I go. I mask up and try to be friendly to everyone I interact with, despite their low efforts. ($32.40, but L. Venmos me for half). $16.20
5:30 p.m. — Chicken is spatchcocked and roasting away! L. is a more experienced chef than I am, and handled the meat while I prepped greens and ingredients. I’m more of a baker, so I power through the biscuits while listening to My Brother, My Brother and Me. Food is done and plated by 7. I missed cooking during the hustle of my school years, and the rhythm of it calms me on a Sunday night.
8:30 p.m. — Ugggh, now the dishes! L. divides up the leftovers into Tupperware boxes, while I load the dishwasher and do the hand-washing. The roasting pan is sticky and I’m lazy, so I leave it to soak overnight — my solution to all household problems. Slide into my favorite pink flannel PJs and do a little reading to prepare for a work meeting tomorrow. Lights out around 1:30 a.m.
Daily Total: $16.20
8:15 a.m. — Rise, make coffee, shower. My office is remote for the foreseeable future, but I’m going back to my place before the workday starts. I spend most of the weekdays there, and weekends with L. As much as we’d like to move in together, we both have good deals on our apartments, and there’s nothing available lately that would be a significant improvement over our current places without costing a fortune. I put on a black silk J.Crew dress with a Peter Pan collar (gotta look nice for those video calls!), black tights, and Nikes. Trains are super cooperative this morning, and I’m logged on from my sofa by 9 sharp. $2.75
12 p.m. — Break for lunch. I’m not super hungry during the day, so I have a little fruit I’ve been ignoring in my fridge, then go for a walk around my neighborhood to enjoy the sunlight while I call my mom. Back online around 12:30.
5:30 p.m. — Done for the day! It’s so weird to end the workday and not have to immediately turn to class. Instead, I put on nylon shorts and a tank for a two-mile loop around the neighborhood. I’ve been running in road races for as long as I can remember, and I miss them so much.
6:30 p.m. — Showered and settled on the couch with leftovers and my current book, Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity. I feel like a complete outsider to the New York financial world, and every day it feels like I learn one thing about how the industry works and find 15 more that I don’t know.
11:30 p.m. — I make a cup of Sleepytime tea and try to get into bedtime mode with my attempt at skin care: a random moisturizer my mom got me at Dollar Tree last Christmas, a swipe of a Sugar lip balm sample, and brushing my hair while staring blankly out the window. Two hours later, I’m out.
Daily Total: $2.75
8:45 a.m. — Glower at my alarm. No. Yes. Fine. I make coffee and wash some dishes in the sink while it brews. No meetings today, so I pair an old My Chemical Romance tour T-shirt with cotton pajama pants, and get cozy with the Internal Revenue Code. My ensemble is not what the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution in, but it’ll do.
12:30 p.m. — Come up for air and my lunchtime walk. My insurance cards just arrived, and next week I’ll be covered for the first time in two years! While walking, I search for in-network providers and make appointments, with a feeling bordering on excitement. I have a banana and a pumpkin yogurt with pumpkin granola.
5:15 p.m. — Log off and put sneakers on. I stretch and move myself through another two miles as the sun sets. I love this neighborhood, and it always feels so cozy and alive after work, especially during the pandemic. People working from home spill into the local bars and pick their kids up from after-school programs. A few I see regularly on this path wave to me.
6:30 p.m. — After a quick shower and leftovers, I investigate a $50 off coupon FreshDirect sent me in the mail. It actually looks like a wicked good deal, so I load up a cart with smoked salmon, salad greens, chips and salsa, Impossible patties and beef short ribs, a few nice cheeses, wine, OJ, corn, several kinds of peppers, frozen vegetables, mayo, spices, grapes, berries, polenta, and oatmeal. There are a lot of recipes I’ve wanted to try, involving meats that would be unaffordable if I bought them in a city grocer. Slap that promo code in there and feel satisfied ($58.32 with tip). $58.32
10:04 p.m. — With my newfound free time, I’ve also realized how much sprucing up my apartment needs. I get Amazon gift cards with my credit card points every month, which I usually save or use for a small treat at the end of each month. This time, I use my Bezos Bucks on a pair of microfiber dusting gloves, replacement batteries for a couple of my old watches, and Command hooks for some framed photos I’ve been meaning to hang since before the bar exam ($19.41, paid with gift card).
11:30 p.m. — Sleepytime cuppa, moisturizer, lip balm, and reading my book for two more hours until the sleep fairy finally comes.
Daily Total: $58.32
8:41 a.m. — Noooooooo. This isn’t even that early for a normal person. I stumble over to Mr. Coffee and begin our daily tête-à-tête. Then stretch, do a few yoga poses, and log on. Today I have a couple meetings, so I opt for brushed hair, a camel-colored Lord & Taylor cashmere sweater with a rolled collar, a double strand of glass pearls, and, what the heck, a black Theory pencil skirt.
11:30 a.m. — Meetings went pretty well! I have some new assignments and research projects to tackle. I’m in the purgatory between graduating with my JD and waiting for bar results to come out, which I’ve heard will be in December. And even beyond that, there’s still so much I have to do to become admitted as an attorney. Once I get there, the work I’ll be allowed to do independently will broaden quite a bit, to put it lightly, and that prospect keeps me going. But every time I think about opening that letter from the bar examiners, my whole body clenches. I tell myself I can’t change the past — I just have to keep moving forward. I quell my nervous mind with a Nature Valley bar and a walk.
5:30 p.m. — Done with the day’s writing! Now time for, you guessed it, another two-mile run. On the way back, I pick up a stack of library books that have come in for me at my local branch, and unpack my new Amazon goods, which arrived early. Shower and finish off the leftovers from Sunday, then a few Trader Joe’s Pumpkin O’s with a glass of milk for dessert. I never used to have the energy to run when I got home from work, but it feels like with no commute, I can do it regularly, even with my same crummy sleep schedule. I’ll take the W’s where I can find them.
9 p.m. — I check in on a couple of childhood friends over FaceTime. We talk about being in lockdown, coping with residual burnout from grad school, who in our families has been wilding out lately, and our holiday plans. We haven’t talked in a few months, and an hour passes like mere minutes.
11:15 p.m. — I get a second wind of energy, so I fix the watch batteries and dust with my new gloves for a few minutes. Tonight’s skin care is washed down with a large cup of full-alcohol ZZZquil. I’m out in 30 minutes, a personal best.
Daily Total: $0
8:30 a.m. — The usual: lose argument with snooze button, coffee, stretches. A couple meetings this morning, but I’m not feeling zippy enough to manage getting into two separate items of clothing, so I put on a black-and-gray striped wool BCBG dress with a flared skirt and turtleneck.
10:41 a.m. — Oh, my GOD. Sandwiched between a Target ad and my grocery order delivery estimate is an email from the New York Bar saying my results are ready. It’s early. Do they tell people who failed first? I can’t log in on my phone. Both of my laptops decide now is the time to update. My skin is cold, but all I can feel is sweat.
10:55 a.m. — The bar exam site is crashing. I should have expected this. I text an old classmate, and she’s having the same problem. I tell her it’s lucky she didn’t call, because my throat is so tight I wouldn’t be able to get a word out.
11:24 a.m. — A second email arrives, with a PDF of my results attached. I HAVE PASSED. I’m not a crier, but my eyes fog over so quickly, I run to my neighbor (whom I know), ring her door, and ask her to read the email because my hands are shaking so much I couldn’t read it. We jump up and down and hug. I keep trying to take deep breaths and get a grip, but I have to let the tears flow first. I’m going to be the first attorney in my whole family, the first of anyone I know. I decide to take lunch a few minutes early so I can text and call my parents and friends and thank them for all the emotional support through this.
1 p.m. — Okay. I had my mini dance party and need to turn back to work for a few more hours. I make rotini with my favorite pesto for a late lunch and eat it on my favorite plate once my adrenaline subsides. I’m glowing all afternoon, like I just won the World Cup and found out my crush liked me back and it’s Christmas, all at once.
7:30 p.m. — After a two-miler and receiving my FreshDirect order, I freshen up, clean a little, pack, grab some clothes, and take the train to L.’s place. On days like these, I’m so thankful I get to share things like this at the end of the day with him (even though I did send a borderline incomprehensible string of exclamation points after the email arrived). We jump around (good news means good cardio in my book), dance, and finally settle down enough to talk about our days using our words. $2.75
11:45 p.m. — Skin care, hair brushing, and pour out a cup of ZZZquil from the bottle I keep at L.’s before sinking into a deep, inky sleep.
Daily Total: $2.75
8:45 a.m. — It’s Friday! My usual battle with the snooze button. Make a quick espresso and have some grapes as I log on and answer emails. I’ve had enough PJs this week, so I get comfy in black tights and a loose golden-brown velvet dress, cinched with a vintage brown leather belt.
10:45 a.m. — Weekly check-in with my boss. I share the bar results with him (in a much calmer voice than anything I could have mustered 24 hours ago), and we’re both relieved. My job was contingent on me passing the bar, so to have this done is a huge relief. We have a good talk, and I’m reminded of how much I really like this job and the work I do (though I can’t discuss it much). It has some drawbacks, but there’s always just enough of a challenge to keep me stimulated on a day-to-day basis.
12:30 p.m. — L. and I put in our lunch order. Since we WFH together on Fridays, we’ve started a ritual of trying a new lunch place in the neighborhood every week. Today he gets an eggplant parm sandwich with provolone, arugula, and prosciutto, and I get my fave, a corned beef Reuben. I put on a pair of dark brown Frye cowboy boots (like all of my wardrobe, carefully thrifted), as it’s my turn to pick it up this week. I phone my dad on the way back to catch up for a few minutes. We split the bill on this one ($30.53 total; $16.50 for mine). $16.50
6:30 p.m. — We’re done with work! We finish off the second half of our sandwiches, filled out with some salad L. whipped up. Tonight calls for a nice dessert, so we take the train into eastern Brooklyn, where our favorite (and believe me, there’s a ranking) Austrian bakery is open late on Fridays. L. has a thick square of apple kuchen and treats me to a slice of Viennese torte, because I’ve been making a bad joke for four years about how I had to have a torte after studying torts for so long. ($4.50, he pays; $5.50 for the train roundtrip). $5.50
10 p.m. — We get home and decide tonight is as good as any to take out the flutes and open a nice bottle of Champagne we’d been saving. It is crisp, sharp, then turns to an almost buttery taste. Each glass seems to be a little different. I can feel myself soften and relax somewhat. I have what feels like a staggering amount of work ahead of me — so much to learn, so many mistakes to make — and I know my responsibilities will only grow and get more demanding from here. I’m nervous and uncertain about what’s to come, but at least I feel ready to start.
Daily Total: $22
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