Welcome to Taking Stock, a space where we can take a deep breath and try to figure out what the COVID-19 economy really means for our finances. Every month, personal finance expert Paco de Leon will answer your most difficult, emotionally charged questions about money. This year has forced many of us to reprioritise our finances, and there’s no clear road map for getting through the pandemic yet — but Taking Stock is here to help us figure it out together.
Do you have a question or dilemma you’d like to see answered as part of Taking Stock? Submit it here or send us an email at email@example.com.
Deb, 38 — Schenectady, New York
The most Deb ever paid in rent was $700 (£522) per month when her income was $850 (£634) per month. She paid this for about four and a half years. "It was horrible," she says. "I was broke all the time, I was always borrowing money. By the second week I'd literally maybe have $20 (£14) to my name til the next month. It was a huge financial strain and I had no life whatsoever. Missed out on everything. My mental health deteriorated; I didn't get out of bed, I was isolated. It was bad."
"I currently make $800 (£597) on disability for PTSD. I'm renting a room in this disgusting house," she says. "I mean I do have my own room with heat, hot water, internet included and it is $425 (£317) a month. It doesn't leave me with much money. I'm so sick of living with people, but I don't make enough to live alone. I'm a clean person, so living in filth or with slobs is killing me. Feeling helpless and not being able to move forward really sucks!"
There was a time when she had free housing and only needed to pay for food. "But I had no privacy, my roommate was disgusting and would leave doors open so raccoons or skunks would come into the house," Deb says. "I found maggots in the trash can. There was no heat, I would just lock myself in my room and use a portable heater. But hey — it was free. The place was absolutely disgusting and freezing and definitely not safe."
Her goal is to find a studio apartment or small bedroom, but the most she would pay would be $550 (£410) with utilities included. "I'm looking and doing research trying to see if there's help out there. But so far, no one's helping," she says.
Tamara, 30 — New York, New York
The most Tamara ever paid for rent was $775 () per month on an income of $2,200 () per month after taxes. "When I was 25, I left a highly abusive relationship," says Tamara. "I had a job I loved in a low-paying field where I made $40,000 (). I had no health insurance or savings, and a credit score in the 400s. I hardly had enough to survive, but I built up the courage to leave and never looked back."
"I ended up renting a tiny room on 184th Street — I worked in SoHo — as it was all I could afford. After paying for my rent, MetroCard, and student loan bill, I was pretty much broke. I ate dollar pizza every day for lunch, and sometimes for dinner as well. I had to let go of most luxuries and was constantly worried about money — but I don’t have any regrets," she says.
"A funny memory of mine is that at one point I was so broke, I couldn’t afford both rent and food. I caved and asked my parents for a small loan of $30 (£22) to get me to payday the following week," says Tamara. "My parents instead sent me a list of 'soup kitchens near you.' It’s so hard to make it in New York when you work in a creative field and do not get any financial support – it worked out fine for me in the end, but I think this is an important thing to remember about privilege, and something that is commonly forgotten."
"I’m in a much better situation now, four years later," Tamara continues. "I’m happily engaged to someone wonderful, we live in a 1-bedroom apartment that's $2,000 (£1,492) a month paying $1,000 (£746) each. I’m now earning $100,000 (£74,615) a year, and spend 12% of my income on rent."
Anita, 33 — Fairfax, Virginia
"I spent 44% of my income on rent for two years," says Anita. "My job was location restricted – I had to live within the borders of a fairly expensive area."
"It required some really deliberate planning and caused late-night worrying. Groceries, purchases, and subscriptions were meticulously planned out," she says. "My friends and I were all on tight budgets, so we did a lot of at-home hanging out and low-cost adventures when we did want to do something together. But when I found out I had to move for my next job, then I really had to tighten down on things, and there were definitely some iffy months in there."'
Eventually, she was able to buy a home instead of continuing to rent. "I moved much farther out from the city, and my commute is now an hour each way, but I have a place!" she says. "Like many others, I made the difficult decision to move farther away for an affordable home. Thanks to the continuous urban sprawl, new companies moving in — looking at you, Amazon — and constant population growth in the wider D.C. area, I was financially pushed out."
"The barrier to entry in owning a home really negates any bonus on the income savings, though," she admits. "I spend 34% of my income on housing right now, but that initial down payment, moving costs, and home ownership nickel-and-diming to death still makes things tighter than I'd like in these first few months of homeowning."
"I landed a great realtor to get me into a home that works for me and my pets, but I don't know what I would have done if that wasn't the case," Anita says. "There are so few protections in our area for renters, and while Virginia law protects us from the worst of the landlords, I still had to deal with absentee landlords, unsafe property conditions, and drastically rising rent costs with no real recourse."
"Oh, and if you want to see some really bad housing options, look at Pittsburgh," she says. "The universities out there specifically warn you away from certain rental companies, but when it's the only thing you can afford, you take the black mould and icy walls to homelessness. That was 40% of my income, and so not worth the cost to my sanity."
Nora, 26 — Brisbane, Australia
Nora has been spending about 46% of her income on rent for the past year. "It's likely to go up to 50% in the next month when my husband and I split up," she says.
"It's nearly impossible to afford some weeks, but we're at the bottom of the range for rent in our area. There isn't much else cheaper that isn't derelict. I'm the sole income earner for the family. My husband is an alcoholic that has run out of any government assistance. We have a six year old. Our rent doesn't include any utilities, and if I get an unexpected bill or larger bill than usual, I have to pull from savings."
"I have less than $2K (£1.47K) left in savings, and that's enough to cover a month of rent but not much else if something were to happen to my job," Nora continues. "I'm in an entry-level role and don't earn all that much, so after rent I only have $800-ish (£597) to cover food, bills, travel. Towards the end of a pay cycle, I eat less and all my son is getting for Christmas at this stage is some new clothes. All his socks have holes in them, and his only jumper is too small to fit over his head."
Hayden, 38 — Alexandria, Virginia
Currently, almost all of Hayden's income goes toward her housing. "I'm underemployed for a while and do self-employment gigs," she says. "I'm currently working as an Amazon flex driver. I try to make two-hour blocks two times per day, which averages $70 to $100 (£52 to £74) total, minus running costs. Then I'm super exhausted. Gas costs me, on average, $90 (£67) per week. My rent share is $960 (£716). Since I have no savings or back-up plan, I'm always anxious about whether my car is running well to do the job."
"Everything goes to rent," Hayden says. "I use SNAP for food. I don't spend on anything because obviously I'm on survival mode. My credit card helps pay for laundry and shampoo purchases."
Clara, 29 — Los Angeles, California
Clara currently spends 39% of her income on rent, paying $3,281 (£2,448) for a one-bed luxury apartment. "It feels ridiculous," she says. "I'm breaking even financially and believed I was paying for safety and proximity to the office, but our in-office date was pushed back and someone was recently shot on the rooftop of my building. Almost all of my monthly income goes towards living expenses and other bills. My apartment is beautiful, but I need my life back."
The least she ever spent on rent was 13% of her income, when she lived in Minneapolis. "It was incredible — most of my income went to student loans, rent, and other living expenses, but I still felt like I had a progressive savings plan," Clara says.
"It's emotionally but also financially difficult being a single woman, and it's insanity that I make over six figures and still don't feel financial freedom in one of the most populated cities in America," she says. "As a new resident of L.A., I knew that I wanted to live somewhere near my office — when I believed I would have to commute — and somewhere I would feel safe for my first year. In Minneapolis, I spent years living in apartments with balconies, in-unit washing machines, underground garages, and other fantastic amenities for a significantly lower percentage of income," she adds.
"I knew it would be a stretch in a notoriously expensive city to get anything close to that quality of life, but the reality of the lack of quality and safety for what you pay for in L.A. is astounding," she continues.
When deciding on her current place, Clara chose to spend a little more on rent for a drastically better quality of living. "Do I want to pay $2,900 (£2136) for a one-bedroom, one-bath with street parking, an unreliable shared laundry room, no secure packaging system, and no gym — or do I want to pay $3,100+ (£2,311) for a building with a large gym, two pools, hot tub, multiple community spaces, brand new appliances, in-unit laundry and a concierge desk for safety? As a single woman, it seemed worth it to choose the second option," she says. "But it's disrupting my long-term retirement plans, and isn't sustainable."
Pia, 24 — New York, New York
"I share an apartment with a roommate," says Pia. "We split $2,846 (£2,121) evenly, so $1,423 (£1,060) each." This is roughly 47% of her current income.
"There's some financial strain when balanced with other monthly expenses. I probably should forgo some things — but I choose to get my nails done, for example, because it makes me happy."
Her current rent is the most she can ever envision spending. "It's hard to plan for a future living in NYC," she says. "Unless I leave a career that I do enjoy for one that simply pays me more, I'm not sure if I can see myself staying here. It kind of hurts to think about, because I've lived here my entire life, and I always saw myself building my own life here. But I've been re-evaluating that a lot."
Erin, 30 — San Francisco, California
"I'm currently spending nearly 42% of my monthly paycheque on rent," says Erin. "I've been on the lease for a year, and next year rent will increase to 45% of my monthly paycheque. I live in a rent-controlled apartment."
"At this point in my career, [rent] isn't a financial strain, but it does mean that I'm hardly saving any money," she says. "I try to always have three months' worth of rent in my checking just in case I lose my job or have unexpected expenses, but I'm unable to save for a house or kids — both of which are things I want, especially kids."
"I tell myself it's worth living in an expensive city for the life I have now, because tomorrow isn't promised — but I also don't really have a plan for paying for the expenses associated with having kids," she says. "I come from a privileged, middle-class background so I'm lucky to have a family safety net, but that doesn't necessarily mean a ton of financial help."
"For four years, I lived in a place that was only 16% of my monthly income, and while the house wasn't that great or well-kept, I was able to save an incredible amount of money," Erin says. "It gave me the freedom to travel, buy things for my family, and eventually save up enough to quit my job and change my career to the one I currently have."
"For people living in San Francisco, it's definitely not uncommon to be spending almost 50% of your paycheque on rent no matter what your living situation is," she says. "Everyone has roommates, no matter how old you are or what your relationship status is. Our city has a housing crisis that has been caused by gentrification, a lack of affordable housing, and an insane housing market that has pushed so many people out. I feel lucky to be able to live here. It won't last long — soon I'll get pushed out too."
*Names have been changed to protect identity