The Money Diaries: The 25-year old restaurant worker on his way up

Ramit Sethi

Today is another post in the Money Diaries series, which is based off New York Magazine’s Sex Diaries. We’ve collected stories from real people about their spending habits over seven days, anonymized them, and posted them here.


Today’s post is by a 25-year old married man who works at a restaurant but is looking for bigger and better opportunities elsewhere.


10:45 a.m: Work called, wondering where I am. Turns out I was scheduled for 10:30 and not 12 noon as I thought. I apologized and explained I must’ve misread the schedule and will be there ASAP.
10:46 a.m: Left for work and spent the drive wondering what the manager was going to do. Getting fired crossed my mind. My reserves have been used up maintaining my bills while training for this job and pulling only minimum wage. How was I going to cover rent a month from now?
11:15 a.m: Got to work 45 minutes late. The Manager gives me a written warning that says “future violations will result in termination” and makes me sign it. Wow.
2:45 p.m: My shift is over and I only made $40. My pockets feel painfully light.
4:11 p.m: I arrive home, check my email and see a bank alert that my account was overdrawn by $3.44. I can’t believe I forgot that automated credit card payment.
6:11 p.m: Mailed rent check to landlord. I always hate sending out so much money to one person at a time. I now have about $260 and I need $1350 to cover my budget for the coming month. I’ve got a job interview lined up for Tuesday; hopefully I can finally start making closer to what time is worth.
8:45 p.m: Had a short phone conversation with a friend about banks and their expensive overdraft charges. I recommended ING Direct’s Electric Orange checking account which earns interest on your balance and doesn’t have overdraft charges, although I was secretly hoping to earn the $25 referral credit…


4:10 p.m: Long day at work so far. Had an opportunity to leave or take one last table before I go. It’s kind of a waste of time to have only one table at a time, but I decided to take it anyway. Also asked my manager to schedule my next two weeks with as many shifts as possible. No school, so I need to make the most of my free time.
5:45pm: Driving home. That last table worked out favorably and I made $25 on it. Leaving work with $91 in my pocket. Not great, but not horrible. I notice the check oil light is flickering on my dash telling me I need to feed it some more lubricant. I can’t afford to spend the $400+ on the repair right now so I spend about $9 every two weeks on some cheap oil until I can. The power steering fluid is leaking as well, but that’s only $3 every other month. A pain, but still a minor expense.
7:45 p.m: Carpooled to a going-away party for a friend of mine. Saved money on gas, but bought a 6-pack of beer so I don’t seem like a mooch.


7:20 p.m: Today was excellently spent relaxing and recovering from a hectic week. Fortunately, the only financial decision today was regarding dinner. Decision: Go to Chipotle and share a salad with the better half ($14 for two salads), or go to Publix to purchase the ingredients and make our own. We considered the possibility of sharing one salad and only spending $7…
7:43 p.m: At Publix, our total comes to $12.84 for lean ground beef, a tomato, an avocado, cilantro, a lemon, an onion, garlic and sour cream. This will make enough to feed us three dinners.


9:00 a.m: Left for the Rapids Water Park with my wife, her 12-year-old sister and her 14-year-old cousin. Their tickets were covered by their parents with a little extra money for food. Our tickets were free with “2 for 1” coupons which I had from earlier this year. Total cost: $5 for parking and $5 to rent a locker, plus a few bucks for the gas to get there.
7:20 p.m: We used the rest of yesterday’s dinner to feed the four of us. Well worth it.


7:30 a.m: Getting up for a big job interview. The position is in my field and would be a huge jump in income for me. Additionally, it was referred through my university and allows me to earn an additional credit toward my degree each semester. Two birds with one stone!
12:30 p.m: Long interview day. Met with three separate individuals and did a programming test to see if I’m the real deal. My contact said his boss was very impressed with me, which he said is very hard to do. I personally feel that I nailed it, but I can only wait now.
1:40 p.m: On the drive home, I hear this very distinct knocking coming from my car. I pull over to inspect the hood and see that my engine has lost all of it’s oil and is bone dry. My engine has never run out of oil that quickly and normally my oil pressure light would turn on. I waited 30 minutes on the side of the road in the blistering 90 degree weather for the engine to cool. All I could think about was how much this will cost to fix.
1:43 p.m: While I’m standing over the car, I get a phone call from the company I just interviewed with. I’m being extended an offer for the position! I’ll need to go through the formalities, but I can start as soon as HR does a background check. Great. Now I just need to figure out how I can get there.
4:00 p.m: After a 30 mph crawl back to the apartment, I’m more than ready to call it a day. I’ll deal with the car tomorrow. I enjoy a reheated slice of pizza that was left over from lunch and unwind.


9:30 a.m: I’m pretty sure I wasn’t scheduled to work until noon, but I still called just to be sure. Even though I had the job offer, I didn’t want to count my chickens.
10:45 a.m: Reading notices that two of my bills are a month overdue. The first time I’ve ever been behind on my bills because of a lack of funds. Decided it would be best to pay them with my American Express for now. It will keep the accounts current and I’ll pay a little extra on it in the long run.
3:30 p.m: Uneventful day at work. It was slow, so cuts got made early. I made $38 since I got on at noon.
6:00 p.m: Wife helped me organize my clutter and discussed what to do with all of it. We’re going to stop by the management office tomorrow morning to see if we can have a yard sale next weekend. Get rid of unnecessary stuff AND make a few bucks? Why not.
8:00 p.m: We made ramen for dinner. Added some lettuce and a little tuna for some substance. We left the provided seasoning out and used some of our own. Didn’t turn out half bad!


10:00 a.m: After a lazy morning, my wife and I got up to get started organizing the rest of the stuff we moved into the apartment.
10:40 a.m: Management had no problems with us having a yard sale. We go around and post the news in the other buildings in the complex asking if others want to join in and sell their items.
1:10 p.m: We went to the AT&T store to change our cell phone plan but we were misled, as they no longer deal with AT&T. Wasted gas.
4:00 p.m: Back home, we go through about half of our apartment and have a tall stack of things to sell as a result.
7:00 p.m: A friend comes over and helps me change the rollers on our patio door. The parts cost $12.00 and we saved on the handyman cost.

In sum: Despite a large amount of life changes all happening at the same time, my wife and I focused our expenses and wrung out every last drop of cash we had at our disposal to make it through this last month.

* * *

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  1. Erica Douglass

    No comments? Guess everyone is out shopping. 😉

    A couple thoughts:
    – Patio door: Shouldn’t the landlord do this for free? You live in an apartment; take advantage of the perks.
    – You didn’t mention your wife’s job (or lack of job) in the post, but I’d be curious to see how your financial interactions with her play out. Couples’ finances are always interesting to me.
    – It would be interesting to see a longer-term perspective. What do you plan to change when you get the new job? Why are you working at a restaurant instead of in your industry?

    Overall, it sounds like you are managing your money far better than most of the folks featured in these diaries.


  2. Denise Fisher

    But what happened with the car?

    From what’s posted, it sounds like you’re living fairly frugally … especially in the area of food and entertainment. Good job.

    Like Erica, I also wondered why you were paying for repairs at an apartment, unless it was something that was damaged by improper use or similar type of negligence by you or your wife. If it was due to normal wear and tear, take your receipt to the apartment manager and see if you can get reimbursed. They should be glad to compensate you for the parts, especially when they got your labor for free.

    Excellent team work by you and your wife to clear your clutter and try to sell your unwanted stuff. This problem only becomes worse as you get older, so creating habits to keep it manageable is very worthwhile.

    I’d be worried about the car situation though. Ruining the engine to save the expense of the repairs is not a wise strategy. BTW, the check engine light is not an appropriate indicator for adding oil to your car. That would be like using cardiac arrest as an indicator that you need to schedule a doctor’s appointment for a checkup. I think it would be worth your while to find a way to pay for your car repairs, even if you have to borrow the money or use a credit card. Even if the repairs are expensive, it’s still got to be cheaper than having to replace your car because you ran it into the ground. Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish.

    You might want to think about setting up a system for paying your bills and scheduling regular car maintenance (especially oil changes). If you can get the content of your apartment under control, I have a feeling that the two of you can put a system together that will put you on top of your financial obligations. Believe me, it’s much easier to keep up with recurring expenses when you have a plan, rather than to just deal with your expenses as they come up.

    Congratulations on getting a new job. Hopefully that will provide the boost you need for your auto expenses and other bills.

  3. Trevor

    Awesome story.

    You sound like you manage money well.

  4. ageekymom

    I wish you well. I can’t imagine trying to start out at this time. We’ve been married 24 years and it’s depressing to see our investments dwindle. Our house value has decreased to almost where we bought it 19 years ago. There is no market here to move, as much as we’d like to. We are thankful that we paid off our mortgage last March, we have no loans, and we have no credit cards. Our biggest expense is our health insurance.
    Now we’ll just have to work longer. sigh

  5. A. Dawn

    Awesome! Kinda reminds me what my days were like when I was living in NYC and going to school + work.
    A Dawn Journal

  6. John K

    This time’s episode of the money diaries was a little more inspiring than the others. All the best with the new job!

  7. F

    I agree that you’re managing your situation reasonably well. Good luck with the new job!

  8. Stop Getting Cheated

    It sounds like this young man is being as resourceful as he can. Congratulations on getting the job he hoped for. He comes across as unselfish, responsible, and willing to do what it takes to makes ends meet under tough circumstances. I wish him much success in his new job.

  9. Strick

    Awesome. Some day this fellow will be making six-figures and thinking about how good he has it while his peers making the same amount will be always needing more to just get by…

  10. Monevator

    He’s clearly doing very well, especially given he’s only 25-years old. But I do think he could cut costs further. In particular, cut out eating out. Even $7 for a salad isn’t a bargain compared to buying the ingredients and learning how to make a dressing. (Although I guess perhaps he’s had enough of kitchen work after a hard day at work).

    Don’t want to sound too down – he’s doing well. 8/10 for effort. 🙂

  11. RT Wolf

    Wow, generally positive comments. I’m curious, did he get the job? how’s he liking it? It’s like leaving a story half told, when getting to the best part. At some point I started rooting for him and wanted him to get that job so I’d like to know.

    Just a thought: you can pick up “service manuals” for your car, prolly from a third party (can’t remember the name of the main one). I dunno how bad your current problem is, but using that manual and a bit of dedication, you can keep your car in pretty good shape without having to go to a mechanic. Alternatively, you may have a friend who might be willing to trade favours and is mechanically inclined.

    Good luck!

  12. 25-Year Old Restaurant Worker

    This post actually occurred back in the middle of August. Was really excited to see my submission being posted!! As of the end of November, everything is MUCH better along. To answer some questions:

    – Patio Door: This wasn’t mentioned, but my landlord agreed to take care of some extra things around to house in exchange for some small handyman work. This was a one small upfront expense in return for air duct cleaning and prof. carpet cleaning. I also fixed a window for $2 so it would close (some wire I substituted as a nut/bolt assembly).
    – Wife’s Job: At the time, my wife was 6 months pregnant and is a recent grad with a degree in finance. I’d like to take credit for a lot of our financial choices, but she really helpful here, too! She’s Norwegian and we are planning on having our child there. American government is really shafting us with support and her government is willing to cover everything and then some! She’s spending the year after birth caring for our son, Isaac, who is currently very healthy and happy!
    – My Job: As mentioned, I got hired as a programmer. I’m currently finishing my computer engineering degree and it’s touch to find a job in my field which allows me to flexible with school from semester to semester. This company partnered with the school to hire students which allows the flexibility and because of my previous experience (I worked in my field before going for my degree, hence 25 and just graduating) I’m making significantly more than a regular student employee. My wife and I could survive with just my part-time income, but including her child support from the government, we’re doing very well for ourselves. The company has extended an offer for when I finish school in August 2009. Not sure if I’ll take it just yet…I have broad horizons.
    – The Car: It’s pretty much dead. The engine knocks like crazy and I’ve been sitting on it patiently waiting for it to sell. ($750, 91′ Toyota Celica if anyone’s interested!) It runs, but I know it’s a matter of time before it goes. I live right next to campus so I’ve been using my bike to ride to/from class. (Excellent workout, no gas expense! Rainy days suck!) We’ve been using the wife’s car for emergencies, but it’s a 2-dr Ford Focus and won’t do for a family. We’re going get rid of my car and use it and some money for a replacement. I wasn’t interested in repairing the car because I initially only paid $1000 for it and has lasted longer than I expected. I was ready to get rid of it…it’s just a shame it has a lower value now.
    – Yard Sale: We actually did have the sale. Was a partial success considering half our signs were torn down and someone up the road from us was also having a sale so not everyone made it all the way to us. We made $450! We used it to furnish our apartment and repair some other things to our satisfaction.

    Overall, I still have trouble with managing food expenses but that’s mostly because I was so familiar with bachelor’s life. (Read: can’t cook.) It’s getting better. The job isn’t horrible and the company is taking really great care of me. Despite leaving the country and school and everything else, they’ve allowed me to telecommute from outside the country and provided a laptop to work on and continues to pay better than I could’ve hoped for. I don’t care for programming due to its monotonous repetition in from of a computer and prefer to be more active and creative with my time. I have great ideas for doing something I love and don’t care so much about the money, as long as my family and I are comfortable. I see this as an investment and I think boss recognizes the type of person I am and says there are great opportunities for me to flex my creative muscles if I’m interested in moving around the company.

    I’m considering doing a followup money-diary entry as a 25-year Old New Dad/Student/Programmer. Thanks for the kind comments. If I can offer any advice, despite the bad situation our economy might seem to be in, don’t close doors you haven’t yet looked through.

    ageekymom: Married 24 years, I’m assuming your kids already moved out, or are about to move on. With no financial baggage, maybe you can consider the renter’s market in your area for your home and use that money to live somewhere a little more comfortable? Somewhere where health insurance is a little cheaper, possibly? Like Norway? 😉

  13. RT Wolf

    Thanks for posting. That’s great to hear! I’m serious. I’m feeling great happiness that your life is working out for you. 😀

    I reckon you’re not considering college funds and retirement funds, etc, too. Have fun!

  14. Michael

    This is my favorite diary so far.

  15. Dylan

    To the restaurant worker: I thought you used really innovative ways to effectively cut back on personal spending. If applicable to you (I didn’t see if you had a cell phone or not) I might be able to add a little insight into saving on cell bills given that I work in a company called Validas that helps consumers do exactly that. To save through Validas, customers upload their online cell bill through the Validas website,, where the bill is analyzed to determine how much money the person could be saving on their cell plan. Up to this point everything is free. If one chooses, for a nominal fee of $5, Validas provides a highly detailed and personalized cell bill adjustment report that is emailed to the wireless provider in industry specific format so the specified cash saving changes can be made to the customer’s wireless plan. If Validas can save someone more than $5 on their bill (apparently the average customer saves $491 annually through Validas), this obviously provides a cost effective remedy for reducing cellular expenses.

    I used Validas to reduce my three-line Verizon cell bill by over 19 bucks per month. These savings added up to more than 230 dollars per year for me which was almost like getting a free month of my plan annually. I was so impressed by this experience with Validas that I got a job there when the opportunity arose. It’s a great company that is rapidly becoming considered a top advocate for the wireless customer. Check out a profile of Validas on The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch at the Any cell subscriber who wants to cut costs should check out this service.

    In terms of other tips for cutting costs with a wireless bill, there are a couple of intuitive ways that work pretty well. I’ve found that if you don’t have a texting plan specifically, texting charges tend to add up. I never considered myself a big texter and so didn’t initially get a texting plan so I paid like five or ten cents per sent and received text. When I saw the bills, however, I was texting a lot more than I had previously thought. By getting a $5 per month texting plan, I really cut down on my texting costs. Another rather intuitive but significant strategy I use for reducing my bill is using my free nights and weekends portion of the plan as much as I can. If I need to make a call and it can wait until after 9pm, I wait. This way I have more daytime minutes avaliable for the calls that can’t wait and so less of a chance that I’ll exceed my monthly minutes.

    Good luck to everyone reading on keeping your bills down, I hope your new job turned out well, and happy holidays!


  16. John

    I’m glad we see someone who’s actually sensible and not like this:

    Good job taking responsibility for yourself and working hard to get ahead.

  17. rkt

    This is the best money diary so far – thanks for following up in the comments and giving us an update!

    I’m a little confused about leaving your current job to pursue other endeavorswhile using the government funding to subside on. The company that lets you telecommute overseas sounds like a hidden gem. No way you can scale down your work for them which would allow you to keep getting paid and have some time to pursue other endeavors?

    Even the government teat may dry up with the financial crisis.

  18. Dave

    I think this is the first Money Diary to receive positive comments. Well played sir.

  19. April

    Very impressive! It is nice to read a money diary written by someone who wants to improve their situation, and is actively working to do so.

    Some of the other Money Diaries got a bit annoying when the person would claim to want to improve their finances, then blow all the money on going out to bars. I like reading a diary written by someone with a good head on his shoulders.

  20. Andrew

    Saved 1200 bucks last month on a 33K a year salary! Thanks for the tips.

  21. Moneymonk

    Something about being married makes you straighten up

  22. Sara

    Yours was the best money diary entry yet! Your diligence and discipline is inspiring. Congratulations to both you & your wife on your son Isaac, and also on your degrees 🙂

  23. Cecilia

    “American government is really shafting us with support”

    Hmmm…how exactly is the American gov’t shafting you with support? Just curious.

  24. Jane

    John: Fuck you. I do save money, I worked my ass off to get the job I have, I’m not in debt, and I’m tired of getting raked over the coals for my honest post.

  25. 25-Year-Old Restaurant Worker

    I have to admit, the positive response is really encouraging. I’m really proud of how far I’ve come and the decisions I’ve made (despite that some have not been the right ones).

    While everything sounds rosy, I doubt I’m the ideal role model either. I accumulated a significant amount of debt in years past from bumps I’ve had in the road and a significant amount of time spent in school. (Approximately $20k in student loans and another $15k in credit card debt.) These are things which I’m not so proud to mention, but they were decisions that I do not regret. They’ve made me much more careful with how I spend my money right now when it’s most important. Since the new job, I’ve been able to apply larger payments toward my CCs (largest APR first, of course) and reduce the amount of money I accept in student loans for my final two semesters.

    RT Wolf: Retirement and College funds are definitely something I want to work toward, but aren’t a part of my budget currently. My wife and I maintain a 3 month cash buffer in a savings/emergency account. Once I graduate, I can work more hours and this extra income will be divided between paying off debt more quickly, a better/longer term savings solution (thinking Roth or foreign markets), and hopefully a little toward personal desires. Work to live…not live to work, you know?

    We also want to look into health insurance for our new family, but looking at the prices, it is simply not realistic on our income. We primarily only want something for the big incidents (emergency room visits, accidents). The cheapest we can find are PPOs starting at $150-200/mo which have a $2mil lifetime cap/person and $10k deductibles. Useless and horrible ROI, in my opinion. If we can’t find something better, we’re just going to start a separate account for health incidentals and invest into that. Better there than some uber-corp’s coffers. I just hope I’m not dreaming with what I’m looking for.

    Dylan: Ive done a LOT to make sure our plan was cost effective. We setup a T-Mobile family plan. We pay $85/mo for 600 shared minutes between the two of us. We call each other for free and have 400 texts on each line. (Texts are a great way to reduce the minutes used! Quick messages which take less than 30 seconds are better as texts.) We have free nights and weekends and calls within my carrier are also free. Despite being sure I did the best job on this, I still submitted my bill to them. They only recommendation they had was not using carrier based 411.. (which I admonish my wife for accidentally using!) 800-GOOG-411 for anyone who doesn’t already know about this. It’s better and free, if you just need a number or directions.

    rkt: I don’t plan on leaving my programming job anytime soon. I currently only work for them part-time which allows for my school schedule and some semblance of a life. I know what I have but at the same time, I understand my potential is not going to be fully realized through a regular 9 to 5, desk-jockey position. After school, I will continue to provide my best until I better opportunities come along or I feel I’m becoming stagnant there. Job hunting is too stressful to push myself into that situation more than I absolutely need to.

    Cecilia: The “government shafting us” could be misinterpreted as though I felt they owed me something. Without going into details, it was questionable whether my wife and son would have their medical costs covered through pregnancy and birth. I knew that we didn’t have enough money to afford any major costs from complications if they popped up. And even if everything went fine, it was costing us $150 per obstetrician appointment (who happened to be a horrible doctor, anyway), he kept throwing tests at us which we felt were unnecessary and expensive, and constantly overbooked his office which made visits unbearable. The hospitals wanted ridiculous amounts of paperwork and insurance forms filled out. The whole process was frightening. It put us in a better position mentally and financially if we had Isaac in Norway and decided that would be the best option for our family. I kind of look at it as though our countries are corporations. America, Inc didn’t do as good of a job to meet my family’s needs and so we went with the competition.

    I realize not everyone has an opportunity to be provided with a great health care system, but things here in Norway were much smoother overall. And don’t get me wrong I love America and the principles it stands for and it has some great things that you don’t find anywhere else…but health care is not one of those things.

    If anyone has some suggestions regarding health care options, I’m all ears.

  26. RT Wolf

    Thanks for replying personally. Health insurance reminded me: now that you’re about to have a child, have you considered life insurance? I understand Term life insurance is your best bet for providing for your family if the unforeseen happens. I realize it’s not in the budget currently, and this might be something to keep in mind in the future. Cheers and good luck!

    I agree with you about the health care bit, I’m really glad for the level of health care I receive here in Canada.

  27. Cecilia

    Thank you for explaining the comment. I agree that health care is scary in the US. It is supposedly the leading cause of bankruptcy. On the other hand, the idea of blaming the country for the failures of the industry bothers me. The true fault is the industry (“insurance” companies that don’t insure a thing) and their control over the US gov’t.

    On the other hand, there are plenty of people banging down the US’s doors trying to get in to get the quality of health care available here. And free coverage for certain classes of people…unfortunately, most people don’t fall into those classes.

    We don’t do everything right, that’s for sure…I’d sure appreciate the 6-months maternity leave given in Canada…and other countries that have 1-3 years of maternity leave…in the US, you’re lucky to get 3-months…but that doesn’t mean that we do everything wrong, either, or that the gov’t is out to damage you for your choice to populate the planet.

  28. David

    Pathetic product placement of ING Direct in Day One passage.

    Coincidence they are one of Ramit’s sponsors?

  29. Ramit Sethi

    Heh, David, that isn’t any intentional product placement. A lot of my readers use ING Direct because (1) it is good and (2) I write about them because they are good.

  30. zoe

    I have HSBC Direct. I was wondering…is ING really better?

    On Jane–geez, people are really so judgmental and harsh on her. Pretty unfair, I think.

  31. 25-Year-Old Restaurant Worker

    As a customer of ING for over 7 years, I push them any opportunity I can. If not for the better than average interest, or for the decent customer service, then maybe for the $0 overdraft fee (replaced with a line of credit they change you interest on) or possibly for the same ease of access you are given with most other banks. All for the small inconvenience of maybe not living near a brick and mortar branch and waiting a few business days to get money transfer from account to account. Worth it.

    Zoe: Never used or were aware of HSBC. I can say that ING has performed better (for me) than WaMu, First Union (before the buyout by Wachovia), Wachovia, Bank Atlantic, Bank of America, and SunTrust. I maintain my WaMu account simply to transfer money back and forth.