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The Money Diaries: The 23 year-old non-profit employee living in Washington DC

Today is the first post in the Money Diaries series, which is based off New York Magazine’s Sex Diaries. Along with the help of Jeff Kuo, we’ve collected stories from real people about their spending habits over seven days, anonymized them, and posted them here.

Today’s post is from a 23-year old woman who works at a non-profit.

* * *



7:35am – Search through mostly empty kitchen for something to take with me to work for lunch. Finally found a can of ravioli that my sister had left when she visited. I remind myself to make a grocery shopping list for the 5th time.
8:35am – Riding the bus to work through Georgetown and I just can’t believe people have enough money to buy so much stuff. It half makes me half jealous half nauseous. In my head I start adding up all of the money I have been wasting on metro/bus since my bike got stolen. I really need to just suck it up and spend the money on a new bike.
9:30am – Check my account balance… $75.00. But at least I get paid on Friday. Last week my boss approved the 10% raise I asked for so maybe I can finally start saving some money.
2:00pm – Looking at my credit card balance: $ 600. I try to pay it off at the end of each month but this month I had to pay for medical school applications. I’ve already paid over $700 just in application fees. I really hate having a balance on my credit card…makes me feel claustrophobic. I guess that’s where my pay raise needs to go.
7:30pm – Meet up with a friend for dinner and end up spending $25 on dinner when I know I can’t afford it. It’s amazing how easily something like that can throw your budget right out the window.
9:00pm – Look on Craigslist for a while and realize that an affordable and clean apartment in DC is just not going to happen. In order to save more, I HAVE to pay less rent. I just hope that doesn’t mean having to deal with roaches…


7:35am – I promised my boyfriend I’d make him dinner tonight as a reward for 5 days off cigarettes. I need to have enough money to at least buy the ingredients.
8:50am– Get off the bus and realize that I left my breakfast and lunch back in my seat. Great. I buy a bagel.
9:15am– $18.18 in my checking account! I don’t know why I’m so surprised. I took $20 out of the ATM and put dinner on my card last night. 18.18 for the next two days is not so bad but I’m so sick of living paycheck to paycheck. I’ve read that some people make all their purchases in cash so they spend less. Should I think about doing that?
11:28am– Obsessing over my student loans a bit. I have 18,000.00 still to pay and I’m applying to medical school for next year. How am I ever going to get out of debt? I only make the minimum payment each month.
7:00pm – Visited a potential house that I may be renting with three friends beginning mid-September. The rent is affordable for DC. I can’t tell if I should compromise so I can save more and have more money to do fun things (like take a snowboarding trip this winter) or if I should look for a more comfortable place.


9:00am – I just got off the phone with my dad and he wants to buy me the new bike I’ve been needing. Ever since I graduated from college last year I just haven’t been interested in taking my parents money. I want to be and feel financially independent…but man is it enticing.
1:00pm – Found out today that I could have been walking to my capoeira (martial arts) class after work the same amount of time that I was taking the metro. I had a discussion with a friend about how to ask for a raise. Is it harder for women to ask male bosses vs female bosses for raises?
8:00pm – Went to Whole Foods to pick up a few things. When I got to the checkout my wallet was missing! Yikes. Had anxious thoughts about someone spending up to my limit on my credit card and draining my account. Luckily I had just left it at my office.


7:00am– Woke up feeling wonderful. Today is payday. I’m heading back home for the weekend for my sister’s wedding shower and I’m looking forward to seeing my family and free food. I still need to buy her a gift. I should have budgeted for a gift weeks ago, and now I feel like I can’t spend any money with the stupid $600 sitting on my credit card.
9:00am – Dropped a pair of shoes off at the cobbler to get the heels replaced. Now that I’m trying to save more its kind of fun to figure out how to make things last longer. For $20 I basically get my shoes back as good as new.
6:30pm – At the airport waiting to fly home. I buy a tiny glass of wine for $5 but it’s worth it since my flight gets delayed 40 minutes. At least I have a nice little buzz while I wait.


9:30am – Get my hair cut. I don’t spend much on beauty products or clothes but its worth $50 for a good hair cut. My stylist makes me feel like a million bucks.
12:00am – At home in Cleveland for my sisters wedding shower and bachelorette party. Although I’m happy for my sister I just can’t believe how much money my parents are spending on this wedding. They don’t manage their finances well and it drives me crazy. I want to tell them to be more responsible but it is a very strange dynamic to finally realize that your parents don’t have much personal finance skills.
7:00pm – Bachelorette party at a wine bar and then a pub. It’s amazing how much social pressure there is to pretend you have tons of money. Obviously we don’t let my sister pay but everyone just has to act like they can afford whatever it is. When girl asked for her own bill and bought her own drink, I noticed people judging her.

12:00pm – Head back to the airport in my sister’s car and I have to fill up the gas tank. I haven’t bought gas in over a year because I don’t have a car in DC. I think I’ll stick to my bike for a while. I have to admit though, sometimes I just miss driving.
5:00pm: Have a fight in the car with my sister about money. She’s still in college and has been pretty irresponsible with her money… I think it’s mostly because my parents don’t manage their money well and have not set good examples for her.
10:00pm: Finally home from the airport. My boyfriend picks me up. He drives me around so much without asking for anything. I really should start contributing to his gas payments.


9:00am: I’ve realized that I spend more money when I am feeling tired and moody.
7:00pm: Going to grocery shop for the week and keep track of how much I spend on food. This is my first try so I know that I will not be at the $40 goal I’m shooting for. End up $68.00. I feel a sense of accomplishment that I have actually started doing something I’ve been wanting to do for a while even if I didn’t do as well as I would have liked.
10:00pm: Pay my bills before bed. It makes it easier to sleep.
11:00pm: Sleep. Glad to be able to pay my rent, eat and have enough left over to have a little fun. Sweet money dreams.

In sum: Spent the week obsessing about student loans, grocery bills, and the social pressure to spend. I might have also convinced myself never to get a car. I might actually be a personal finance nerd after all.

* * *

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  1. avatar

    Wow, I really sympathize with the writer of this, right down to the “I should give my boyfriend gas money” sentiment. I agree with not getting a car. I agree with splurging on hair – I got mine dyed Saturday and it was expensive, but totally worth it! The Whole Foods shopping stands out as it is NOT being the place to go if you’re on a budget, but I do the same thing because Whole Foods is literally a block away from where I live so I image the writer has some good reason for this. I agree with the social pressure to spend. I live in Boston and it feels like everyone makes a ton of money and has fabulous stuff. Whoever wrote this, thank you!

  2. avatar
    Holly Hoffman

    Man, where do you get $50 haircuts?? I never walk out with less than $125. But it’s my one splurge & I only do it every 10 weeks or so.

    The thing that sparked me the most in this was “…it is a very strange dynamic to finally realize that your parents don’t have much personal finance skills.” I can totally relate to that. My mom declared bankruptcy when I was in my junior year of college. My dad has never had his own checking acct. Nobody educated me about the student loans I was taking out, and nobody gave me a credit card to help me start building credit history.

    I didn’t realize how little my parents knew until I took the initiative to educate myself, finally at the age of 26 when NO ONE would give me a credit card because my (very brief) history was negative. I realized all the rich kids I went to college with, their parents weren’t babying them by giving them a credit card & paying it off for them – they were helping them build a good credit history before sending them off into the world.

  3. avatar
    Jay S

    I live in the NYC area, have a great job and still feel smothered by school loans and credit card debt. It seems like everyone gets to live this wonderful lifestyle while I struggle paycheck to paycheck. Seems like everyone is going out for dinner and drinks every night and then get to go home to their nice apartment downtown while I wonder how many years it will take to be debt free. My checking is always near 0 as well…I sympathize!

  4. avatar

    I definitely sympathize with the writer especially since I’m in the DC Metro area and living check to check as well. I do think she’s just a tad bit delusional. She’s fighting with her sis and talking about her parents and their bad relationship with money. Funny enough, the apple don’t fall too far from the tree. I think and hope the diary helped her to realize where she can improve.

  5. avatar

    i just cant believe what i have read: there are ppl like that in us? really? i live in frigin poland and i spend MORE that 25$ on dinner every day. this does not even cover lunch sometimes. im trying to fit into 100USD/a day and consider myself average… hahaa!!! made my day! maybe this is politically incorrect, but i just dont care. and, please, complain about gas prices 🙂 and rent 🙂 and prices in general 🙂

  6. avatar
    not a cheerleader

    You seem to have two issues here
    a) spending money you should be saving
    b) not making enough to save since you need to subsist.

    I advise cutting back even more, such as getting rid of the martial arts class and maybe trying other exercise options that are free. Also look for a second job, perhaps. Then you can afford a $5 glass of wine when a few days before, you only had $18 in your bank acct.

    There is a lot of entitlement, poor money management, and the social pressure to spend like you’re a millionaire going around. The trick is to be honest to yourself and to them. Is their judgment all so hurtful when you really shouldn’t be spending that money? What kind of people are they to judge, anyhow, sleepless due to their own credit card bills and loans.. living beyond their means.

    Obviously, if I read this blog, I’m not saying you should live like a monk and not indulge yourself occasionally. It’d drive you insane, for one. What I am saying is that you seem to have a lot of financial stress, some of induced by observed society pressure, and a finance laden week. Be honest and true to yourself, be honest to your friends. Life may be less fun that way but you’ll be able to sleep at night.

  7. avatar
    Smarter Wealth Ryan

    Wow, this is a really different post. Truthfully I skim read it but I really like the idea of the money diaries.

  8. avatar

    Interesting to get a glimpse into someone’s money habits. Especially since I work at a non-profit as well.

    I know everyone has their splurges but after reading about how tight money is for this person my eyes glazed over after reading the words ‘Whole Foods’ and ’50 dollar haircut’. Not a grocery store one should frequent who has money woes. Also, 50 dollars is a pricey haircut for someone who is worried about buying groceries. C’mon now.

    I’m not sure what the income ceilings are but I also wonder if she could have qualified for fee-waivers for med school. Also, if the student loans are federals ones and you aren’t under it already, I would check out the ‘graduated payment’ plan. Payments are lower now and gradually increase since you will be making more money in the future. That might free up some money for you now. You also qualify for the student loan interest deduction if your MAGI is less than $65,000.

    Occasionaly I deal with similar conflicts over student loan payments, friends having more discretionary income, etc. I think that’s ‘normal’. It does sound like she’s trying, and at 23 she’s got time to figure it out. A budget is a good next step, so she can see where her money is going. Good luck!

  9. avatar

    Working for an NPO she probably averages 40-55 hrs/wk. That leaves plenty of time to pick up a second job waiting tables a couple of nights per week. In DC she should easily clear $100/night waiting. Not only will she have more money in her pocket (which hopefully goes to paying down cc debt), she’ll have less free time to spend it.

  10. avatar
    Pratik Stephen

    This sooo reminds me of my sister!

    She’s a student in Germany, so she gets “pocket money” from which she needs to pay rent, fees, and manage all her wining, dining and traveling across Europe.

    And she’s always “paycheck to paycheck”…

    Her main issue is she loves buying little gifts for people, and for herself… and enjoys the little “wines”, “coffees” and international calls a bit more than she can afford.
    But her rationalization is that that is what money is meant for… to spend on such stuff.

    After more than a few financial emergencies, she’s finally learning lately…(I hope!)
    : )

    Good idea for a series this…!

  11. avatar
    Sam of Fix My Personal Finance

    I suggest that she finds other sources of income to supplement her daily expense so that she could save more money. With her present condition, I do agree that she wont be able to save money at all however frugal she is.

    Fix My Personal Finance

  12. avatar

    I think she should read Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover to get started on how she thinks about her money. Her behavior needs to be modified if she wants to get on top of her finances, and not get nickeled and dimed by all the extraneous expenditures.

  13. avatar

    I don’t know, I moved recently to Washington DC for my first year in graduate school, for humanities! I study and work and still manage to put away at least $500 a month. That’s after rent, insurance, food, car repair, car gas, metro costs, and so on. I sympathize since she’s probably in a more expensive part of town and application fees are ridiculous, but that’s why you should have savings and an emergency fund. But if she’s going to be a doctor then maybe it’s not so big of a problem.

  14. avatar

    I can sympathize with being in a tough financial situation, as most of us can, but I found it quite ironic that she mentioned several times how poor her parents and sister is with money and yet… she has the same problems. Really has little room to worry about others.

    I also noticed that quite often she left things behind, forgot something, forgot to do something… she needs to clear her head and stop worrying about things, make lists, and organize her life. A little personal organization will go a long way.

    Spending $25 on dinner when you don’t have groceries in your cabinet for the rest of the week is not a good start…

  15. avatar

    i agree with others, i really like the concept of this series.

  16. avatar
    Writer's Coin

    The interesting part of this post is the lack of restraint. She mentions it over and over again and it’s safe to assume this happens to her consistently and yet she still can’t help herself. This is when you realize that money attitudes and issues have a very serious mental side to them. If you can’t change your psychology towards money then you better have incredible self discipline if you want to make some changes. Otherwise you’re toast.

  17. avatar

    I’ve sooo been there and it’s such a relief to see that there are people who encounter the same kinds of pressures to appear like you have money that you do.

    It’s ironic that the reader consistently berates others for poor money management, but has made some decisions that could have been more cost effective. Understandable choices though. I’m 22 and working hard to keep a checkings balance above $100 while going to school full time. It’s a challenge for sure, but I would say planning and being creative is key. REALLY think about your weaknesses and implement little ways of fending against them.

  18. avatar

    I love the idea of the Money Diaries. Keep going! I would be happy to contribute too, especially after I move to china. It would be interesting to see how different things are there in comparison to the Money Diaries of North America.

    I completely understand the idea of entitlement, wanting to appear rich and otherwise spending just to spend. I have been caught in that, and I still find myself getting caught in it from time to time. But we all know where that leads anyways.

    I have noticed that my lack of spending and my lack of excess weight correlates nicely (an observation that has already been noted), and I have some ideas on how to cut back.

    I love to eat out and I know this is something I will continue to do despite the fact that I know it costs more than eating in. I suggest ordering things with the idea of eating only half of what you have been served. This way, a $25 lunch turns into two $12.50 lunches, and you don’t have to worry about taking the lunch to work in the morning. Just keep it in the fridge at work.

    Also, I find that shopping for groceries at Chinese or other “ethnic” grocery stores (particularly Asian ones) provides a greater selection of interesting food choices while keeping prices low. For example, a pomelo (delicious ancestor of a grapefruit) is something like $2-$3 at a Chinese grocer, and the same fruit is $6-$8 at Whole Foods. Personally, I find that organic and health food stores will charge premiums for “exotic” products that you can easily find for a third the cost in any “ethnic” grocery store.

  19. avatar

    I just happen to be a 23 year old female working at a nonprofit in DC. So I can sympathize. I have twice as much debt as her but I’ve made it so far (with some struggles). A suggestion: Don’t live in DC proper! The tax rates in VA and MD are around 5% versus the 9% for DC. And not to mention, the suburbs have much cheaper rent. The commute from the suburbs into the city is a lot better than most cities too…I live in Arlington and it takes me 20 min max to get downtown.

  20. avatar

    Been there, done that. Working a 2nd job isn’t realistic in this situation for more than a few months — you work twice as hard with half the resources at an NPO. Burn out rates are sky high. This kiddo needs a roommate to share living expenses with STAT. It’s the only choice that’ll give her some real savings to work with.

    Accepting parental help or using credit isn’t shameful in this situation — it’s smart. It’s all in how you manage it until the compensation picture improves. And it will.

  21. avatar

    Tell me are you having lot of money since you are Spending like anything? You should save . People may take the advantage of yours sometimes.

    Everybody liked Credit & Hates Debit.


  22. avatar

    I live in the DC metro area as well and I agree with Kam. Moving to the Suburbs might be a good idea for you. I personally live in Bethesda, MD but rent is still cheaper than it would be if I lived in the city…
    I work fulltime and go to school fulltime and it sucks big time but life in the DC area is so expensive, I can’t take any more student loans to cover my living expenses. Which is something to consider when going to med school.
    Try to choose a school in an area that is more affordable so as to keep your student loans low.
    An ex-collegue got accepted on a full ride to a law school in NYC but he didn’t take it because it would cost him around $68,000 a year in living expenses just go to there…so he opted for a school with a partial scholarship but in a less expensive area…

  23. avatar

    Love the idea of this series.

    Don’t like that several commenters seem to be judgmental. She is doing this exactly because she is trying to start learning how to manage money better.

    I have had several of the same feelings. Realizing your parents don’t have much financial sense is a strange dynamic. It’s very hard to successfully suggest to any family member, especially parents, how they could be more responsible in any area.

  24. avatar
    Your BuDi

    Well, I don’t know what to say. Her is an letter I wrote to someone asking me for advice.

    Hey BuDi (buddy):

    Let’s just be frank. The economy is messed up. REALLY MESSED UP!!!! Of the 5 biggest financial companies in America in the last century plus, 3 have been drastically changed. One filed for bankruptcy, one was sold and the other was taken over by the government. I don’t know about you but this is a very serious problem. Have you checked the news lately? Many companies are laying off and outsourcing work overseas to workers that will work for as little as $5 a day.

    What can you do about it? Simple, invest in your self and your business. It might sound simple and like a no-brainer but when it comes to finances and people’s livelihoods people rarely lean on themselves to get them out of it. If you were in a fight with someone, wouldn’t you rely on yourself to get you out of it? If you had to get something urgently done, would you not depend on yourself to get it done? If you mom, dad, child, brother need help, I am positive you would do whatever it took to help them out.

    So in these extremely difficult times in the US financial arena, why not count on yourself to help yourself get out of it, trust yourself to get it done, and do whatever it takes to help yourself out. INVEST IN YOURSELF!! Financial experts are saying your bank deposits might not be totally safe. Instead of counting on an unstable economy, unstable job, unstable banking system, INVEST IN YOURSELF.

    What are you good at doing? Have you been putting off starting a business? Do it. There is no better time to start a business. In these slow times for the economy, build the foundation of the business, and build your base of customers. Everything works in cycles. When the economy comes back to the good side of things and everyone is spending money, you don’t want to be left out in the cold. Everyone is tired of the corporate conglomerates that are ruling the country and failing its supporters.

    Everyone is looking for an alternative. Now, is the perfect time for you to get out there and live your dreams, fulfill your destiny, be who you want to be. Start your business now, while things are slow and you are able to get in the game. The corporate conglomerates have messed up and slowed done enough to let YOU in the game. Get in the game, start your business, invest in yourself NOW and watch the benefits of your labor begin to come in and make you financially stable, free, and independent.

    Together BuDi (buddy), we can help each other succeed. I look forward to helping each other reach our goals. If you need a BuDi (buddy) for your business, we’ll be your BuDi (buddy). Your BuDi (buddy) in business.


  25. avatar

    I love the idea of the Money Diaries!

    Being 24 and just starting out in the “big kid world” with a boatload of student loans, I can really relate to this story. Hang in there, hun!

  26. avatar
    Chris H.

    This is definately a neat idea. Living in the DC metro area as well I agree with moving to the ‘burbs, but Arlington and Bethesda are still expensive. If you really want to save some money move to P.G. Laurel and move in with people. As my cheap uncle says: “Sometimes you need to eat crow before the steak is served.” – Live cheap and rough now to save for a little further up the line.

  27. avatar

    I agree with Chris H. However, if she works in DC, riding the metro from Laurel would take her over an hour per day to get out of work. Aside from that, I’m actually at UMD and used to live in greenbelt. the building was great but the problem is I was a young female in an area that is typically a high crime area so I wasn’t always comfortable with being out in the dark by myself..which is something she would have to do unless she buys a the quality of life also comes into play here.

  28. avatar

    She should definitely get a second job – waiting tables, whatever. Last fall I worked full time at a non-profit in DC, then 20+ hours at a restaurant Friday night through Sunday.

    It sucked yes, but when you need money it’s amazing how you can force yourself to tough it out. Heck, some weekends I would make more money waiting tables than at my full time job. I wouldn’t recommend doing it for long – I could only handle it for 3 months – but it is a great way to save a ton of extra money (or pay off debt), and also realize just how lucky you are that you don’t have to make a career out of waiting tables.

  29. avatar
    Aspiring Entrepreneur

    Hi, may I invite you to visit my blog also. It’s a personal blog on my journey towards financial freedom as I share my views and experiences on investments, entrepreneurship, personal finance and self-improvement.

  30. avatar
    Manda B

    I agree with Emilie. If you’re serious about your nonprofit job, you need to conserve your energy in your off-hours so that you are able to perform well at work. If you’re working 18 hours a day, something is bound to give. And you Don’t want that thing to be sleeping through your alarm at your real job with the real supervisor and the real chance for advancement.

    Of course, different people have different thresholds for work and stress, but it is much more costly to your health and career to work yourself sick or crazy. Burnout is very real, and your agency needs you. Focus on cutting expenditures and maximizing the income you do have.

  31. avatar
    of.jennism » Blog Archive » The internets taught me this week #1

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