Money Diaries

A Week In Philadelphia, PA, On A $54,000 Salary

Photo: Getty Images.
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.
At what age do you think you'll be able to retire? Do you wonder how the hell some people manage to retire so early when it feels like you’ll have to be working forever? How do you feel about retiring early and never working again? We want to hear your thoughts here for an upcoming Refinery29 story.

Today: an architectural designer who makes $54,000 per year and spends some of her money this week on macarons.
Advertisement
Occupation: Architectural Designer
Industry: Architecture
Age: 26
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Salary: $54,000
Net Worth: $9,000 (Retirement: $3,524, Savings: $18,620, Checking: $322 minus debt)
Debt: $13,459 (student loans)
Paycheck Amount (2x/month): $1,450
Pronouns: She/her

Monthly Expenses
Rent: $750 ($650 + $100 flat fee for utilities) for a room in a house with three housemates. My rent is honestly too low for how nice the house/neighborhood/location is, but that's because my room is in the basement. I still have a window! And I honestly love it because I have my own bathroom, the privacy of being two floors away from everyone else's bedrooms, and a very short laundry haul.
Loans: $500-$700 pre-COVID (voluntarily above the minimum)
Cell Phone: $55, paid to my mother monthly to cover my half of a family plan
Spotify: $10.71
Adobe Creative Cloud: $21
Netflix: $8.99
Maximum Fun Podcast Network: $5
NYT: $4
Acorns: $1
Noom: $200/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?
I think my parents would have supported me if college was not my path. Neither of them went to college or had any aspirations to do so. But, as it turns out, I've always been a huge nerd. I loved school and did very well at it. Towards the end of middle school, my mom started instilling in me that college was absolutely an option for me and that by doing well at school, it could be more affordable/attainable. My mother's salary was lower than the tuition for any school I applied to, and I had no significant savings, so it very well might have been impossible for me to afford it without major loans. Thankfully, I was accepted at a college that basically covers tuition and rent if your household income is below a threshold (through grants, not loans). I was incredibly lucky. I was the first in my family to go to college. I basically lived in a wealthy bubble for four years, which had some cognitive dissonance for me because both my parents went through hard job losses/financial struggles during that time. After college, I pursued a Master of Architecture, which is a professional degree needed to be an architect (similar to a JD or MD). I took out a loan for my first year of graduate school (~$58,000) in 2016 because my first-year financial assistance was minimal. This was a HUGE stressor for me. I had never handled that level of money, let alone debt. I felt guilty because I had been given the chance to go to an amazing university on a full-ride and instead of doing the sensible thing like finding a job after, I chose to obtain another degree that is notoriously expensive, especially compared to architecture starting salaries. For the other 2.5 years of my graduate education, I worked very hard to not go into any more debt. Tuition and rent were covered through a combination of merit fellowships, teaching assistantships, and taking an RA position in an undergrad dorm (free rent!). Once I became an RA and didn't have rent costs anymore, I basically dumped my assistantship stipends into the loan ($1,200-$1,500 a month). I also have some amazing cousins who took an interest in helping my mom and me financially from time to time. Overall, they probably contributed ~$15,000 towards paying down my loan over a few years. Once I graduated and had to pay rent again, I lowered my monthly student loan payments to $500-$700/month so I could also build my savings, which were basically non-existent.
Advertisement
Growing up, what kind of conversations did you have about money? Did your parent/guardian(s) educate you about finances?
I grew up in a low-income, single-parent household. My dad was in my life socially but not financially, and he struggled at the end of his life with poverty and substance abuse. My mom made ends meet for the two of us. She was very open with me about her financial stress. Sometimes I wish she had been a little less open because I grew up with a lot of anxiety about money as a kid and very little agency to do anything about it. We got by, but I was constantly worried we were one crisis away from losing everything. She taught me the basics (saving is good, credit card debt is bad), but I have learned about things like student loans, investing, budgeting, etc on my own since then.
What was your first job and why did you get it?
My true first job was babysitting, which I did all through middle and high school. I got it because my mother also babysat as a side gig to her main job and it was a logical way to introduce me to the idea of having a job/making and saving money. In high school, I also worked as a file clerk at an auto dealership and at Old Navy. Flip flop days were the worst.
Did you worry about money growing up?
See aforementioned childhood money anxiety lol. Yes, definitely, and it wasn't until I was an adult and got serious about my own financial education that I felt like I had agency over my situation.
Advertisement
Do you worry about money now?
Compared to the first 25 years of my life, I worry much less now. After being in school for seven years, $54,000 feels like I'm rolling in money. But I do think about it almost constantly — I budget, plan, check my accounts, and check my debt regularly. I worry that my mother doesn't have enough or that I should be making more to help support her when the time comes. Also, my partner is currently in law school and, after graduating, is going to be in an obscenely high debt/obscenely high income situation. So I also think a lot about what that will mean for us as we move in together, combine finances, etc.
At what age did you become financially responsible for yourself and do you have a financial safety net?
I basically stopped asking my mother for money unless I truly needed it after I went away to school at 17, but I was also in the massive financial safety net of my wealthy university. I'd say starting graduate school and taking on student loan debt felt like the first truly independent move for me, but I was also able to stay on my mother's health insurance until I turned 26. If I really fell on hard times, I could go home, but it would not be preferable and I would be a burden on my mom's finances.
Do you or have you ever received passive or inherited income? If yes, please explain.
Yes, I have some wonderful cousins who took an interest in helping me and my mom financially through my schooling. In college, they would occasionally help me out with spending money or travel costs for summer programs. In graduate school, their contributions equaled about $15,000 of my loan. I also inherited $8,000 from my grandmother when she passed in 2009, some of which I used for braces. I received about $1,500 from my relatives when my father, who had no life insurance, passed in 2019.
Advertisement

Day One

7:15 a.m. — Wake up time! I live in a basement room that doesn't get a lot of light in the morning, so I use smart lights that fade on and simulate sunlight. I stumble to the bathroom to clean up for the day.
7:30 a.m. — I turn on the rest of my lights and sit down at my desk to study. I'm currently slogging my way through the six exams required to become a licensed architect. I passed three exams last fall and I'm taking my fourth exam at the end of March. I typically study one or two hours a day and try to get that in before work when I can pull myself out of bed early enough. Before 9, I close my study binder and head upstairs to make oatmeal, cut up some strawberries, and boil water for tea. I say hello to my housemate and his cat (the queen of the household) before heading up to my "office." One of our other housemates has been at home with her family since the pandemic started, which means there's a spare room where I can set up my desktop computer so I'm not a basement gremlin 24/7.
9 a.m. — I get on Teams for our morning team call. While my coworkers are chatting, I input the last of the info I needed for my tax returns and get those e-filed. I'm a little anal about filing my tax returns super early, but it feels good to get it out of the way. I file for free through OLT since my income falls below their threshold, which is great. I dive back into my multiple ongoing projects for work!
Advertisement
10:30 a.m. — I remember that I never paid my online bill for my last therapy appointment — whoops. I log into the telehealth portal and take care of that. I also email my therapist and ask to push our next appointment out a week. I'm anticipating this week will be quite busy already and I'm feeling pretty solid right now. $70
12 p.m. — I warm up some awesome sweet potato chili that I made last night (thanks NYT Cooking!!) and then listen in on a lunchtime talk on bike racks while eating and drafting an email to my boss. After lunch, I go out for a short run and shower. Why did I only wait an hour after eating chili to go for a run?? No idea, but I don't recommend it. After, I settle in for an afternoon of work and meetings.
6:20 p.m. — Around Christmas, I tried to order all of my Christmas gifts from non-Amazon sources, which was mostly fine, but it did lead to a package of books for my family being lost with USPS FOR TWO MONTHS and, like Odysseus weary and sea-worn returning home, it finally arrived yesterday!! After work, I package up belated presents for my mom and walk to FedEx to ship them. For the record, I am still all for supporting USPS, but the Philadelphia Distribution Center has given me trust issues and I want to make sure this package gets to my mom promptly. After I get home, I make some Annie's mac and cheese, study for a while longer, and make a Valentine's Day card for Sunday! I head to bed around 11:30. $15.42
Advertisement
Daily Total: $85.42

Day Two

7 a.m. — Wake up, wash my face, and moisturize. I definitely have a disappointing skincare routine compared to a lot of people. I feel like I've never had the money to afford good quality skincare products. Now that I could possibly invest in them, it's still hard to make the mental leap and tell myself that it's an okay purchase to make. This is a frequent problem I have. I curl back up in bed and review some of my study flashcards. I also definitely fall asleep for 15 more minutes.
8:15 a.m. — It's snowy and cold today so I make some challah french toast for breakfast. While I eat, I add a new post to the joint Instagram I have with my boyfriend, C. We recently became avid birdwatchers and we made an account to share photos of some of the amazing birds we see! We really enjoy making the posts and adding facts about the birds, and hopefully, it's pleasurable for our ~100 followers (mostly friends and family).
8:45 a.m. — Today I am comparing tile and flooring samples with a coworker for some apartments we're working on, which means it's a very rare day in which I actually have to go into the office! I put on real clothes and some makeup (possibly for the first time this year??). Normally on cold mornings, I'd take the bus in, but I make the 30-minute walking trek instead as per COVID.
12 p.m. — It's so weird being back in the office! After a morning of testing cabinet and flooring combinations with a coworker, we break for lunch. I warm up more chili and hide in one of the private phone call rooms where I can close the door and feel comfortable taking off my masks. Today was payday (yay!) and it's my non-rent paycheck, so I pay off my monthly credit card bill and send my half of our family phone plan to my mom. I also move a big chunk into my savings account and a much smaller chunk to my IRA.
Advertisement
6 p.m. — Classic day as a young architect: prepare a bunch of things for a meeting that your boss delays indefinitely and eventually just moves to tomorrow. Oh well! At least I got to hang out with another co-worker all day. On the walk home, I pick up my farm share box from my neighbor's porch. I get bi-monthly produce boxes from Philly Foodworks, which is an awesome organization that has been pulling its weight hard in the pandemic. I unpack my box of fruits, veggies, and tofu at home and warm up leftover mac and cheese for dinner. The Foodworks charge hits my account pretty soon after that. $40.29
6:30 p.m. — I hop on a Zoom call with three of my friends from Boston. We have had a weekly call during the pandemic to catch up and watch trashy TV. Right now we're watching Are You the One, which is an absolute mess. These calls have been really wonderful for me; I moved to Philly shortly before the pandemic to be closer to my partner, but moving away from friends and then also being in quarantine has felt extra isolating. I'm lucky to have great roommates, coworkers, and my partner though! After, I make some herbal tea, study for another hour or so, and then play on the Switch for a while. C. bought me SoS Friends of Mineral Town as an early Valentine's Day present (I played so many Harvest Moon games growing up!) and it's been so fun to get into it again.
Advertisement
Daily Total: $40.29

Day Three

7 a.m. — You know the morning drill by now. Wake up, wash up, early-morning studying. I make tea and chop up an apple for my oatmeal. While all the water boils, I wipe down the counters and table in the kitchen. My roommates are pretty considerate and clean, but with everyone working from home for a year, the kitchen is definitely in need of a deep clean. I make a mental note to discuss either doing that together or bringing in a cleaner (something we did monthly pre-COVID).
9 a.m. — I log on to my office's morning call. This morning is a lot of administrative talk. I spend the rest of the morning picking up edits on a drawing set we're working on for an apartment tower project. It's pretty independent work so I can listen to music and crank it out. I've been listening to a lot of Rising Appalachia this week, such talented women!!
12:15 p.m. — I break for lunch, go for another run (this time BEFORE eating), take a shower, and warm up some chili. While on my run, Edible Arrangements delivers a box to my house! My mom sent it to C. and me for Valentine's Day and it has chocolate-covered strawberries and brownies (my favorites!!). So sweet of her. I put the box in the fridge and send her a thank you text. I feel bad that I didn't send her anything for Valentine's Day, but all my delayed Christmas presents are being delivered to her today so that kind of counts, right?
Advertisement
7:30 p.m. — After a hectic day with another in-person meeting in the evening, it's time for the best part of my week!! C. picks me up outside the office, we grab takeout ramen ($16.06 for my half), and we head back to my apartment. C. and I live separately, but it was much easier to get between our apartments in the pre-COVID days of public transportation and warm biking weather. Now we tend to spend the week apart at our own places and concentrate our time together over the weekend. It's good for both of our productivity (C. is in law school and is swamped with work), but I miss him a lot throughout the week. We catch up over ramen and I give him a very USPS-delayed Christmas gift (Obama's new book!). After, I show him my farm on Harvest Moon, we fall asleep. $16.06
Daily Total: $16.06

Day Four

8:30 a.m. — Slooow wakeup with C. But we have big plans today!! We make some oatmeal and fried eggs and head out for the day.
10:30 a.m. — We like to celebrate Valentine's Day (and any holidays really) by trying out new fancy recipes together so we head to Whole Foods with a list of ingredients. I really hate the Whole Foods in my neighborhood and try to avoid it at all costs, especially in the pandemic. But when you need a bunch of specialty ingredients and want to pick up wine as well, it's the best nearby option. We double-mask up with KN95s and brave the Saturday morning chaos. One hour and many nerves later, we load up $80 of groceries and $50 of wine and beer into the car ($40 and $25 for my half). Highlights include some local beer-washed goat cheese, chocolate macarons, Beyond Meat burgers, and one large baguette. $65
Advertisement
12 p.m. — We arrive at an arboretum in North Philly for a really fun event! There's an amazing organization in Philadelphia called Philly Goat Project, which is a non-profit that offers its fourteen goats for animal therapy, sustainable grazing, and special needs/youth education. We bought tickets for their Valentine's Day Happy Hour fundraiser a couple of weeks ago ($60 total). We spend two hours hanging out with the goats (masked and outdoors), drinking beers that we brought, and learning about the organization from the volunteers who work there. C. buys a beanie and a raffle ticket, and we win some abstract "goat art" created by one of the goats. At the end, we get to take a couple of goats on a "romantic goat walk" around the arboretum. It's so fun and wholesome (even in the freezing cold) and we definitely plan on supporting them again in the future.
3:30 p.m. — Back home and thoroughly cold, we make tea and put together a picnic lunch from some of our Whole Foods haul (cheese, crackers, strawberries, etc) and eat it sitting in bed and watching Taskmaster. If you haven't seen Taskmaster, it's all on YouTube and it's hysterical. Also another book that I had been waiting on from USPS arrived!! This is the first time since Thanksgiving that I am no longer waiting on packages from the USPS. Amazing.
7 p.m. — We had a late lunch and aren't quite ready for dinner yet, so we watch the first 90 minutes of the seventh Harry Potter movie ($4.23). We were both big HP fans growing up and realized we'd never watched it together, so we've been watching one or two movies a weekend for a month now. It's a huge disappointment that J.K. Rowling turned out to be a super problematic person, but the movies really hold up and bring back all sorts of memories of reading the books and going to midnight releases as a kid. $4.23
Advertisement
8:30 p.m. — We take a break to make dinner. Tonight we're trying a recipe for edamame ravioli out of a cookbook that my roommate gave me for my birthday. It's all Philly-area chefs and recipes from their restaurants, which is super cool. The edamame ravioli is from a restaurant called Buddakan, which is super popular. It takes a while to make (lots of filling wonton wrappers), but in the end, it's SO GOOD. We eat it in the kitchen, offer some ravioli to my roommate, and finish off the bottle of wine that we opened for the ravioli sauce. Afterward, we finish the HP movie and head to bed around 12:30.
Daily Total: $69.23

Day Five

9 a.m. — I wake up, wash up, and then promptly get back in bed with C. and wish him a happy Valentine's Day. We cuddle, scroll Instagram, and show each other memes and pictures of birds for a while. This is actually the first weekend in a long time that we aren't birdwatching, which typically means waking up much earlier.
10:30 a.m. — We make some eggs and challah toast. C. has some law school work to do today, so we sit at the kitchen table and I study, catch up on emails, and drink tea while he works. I also give my mom a call to thank her for the Edible Arrangement and tell her about the goats.
1:30 p.m. — We take a break from work and go for a walk. We grab chai lattes from my favorite nearby coffee shop ($4.25) and make a big loop around the neighborhood. We stop at the outdoor window for the hardware/home goods store. We head home, warm up some leftover ravioli for lunch, and continue with working/studying/laundry/etc. $4.25
Advertisement
5 p.m. — We finish with productivity for the day and play a game of Wingspan, our favorite board game. It actually fueled our interest in birdwatching in the first place. We've played over 100 times in the pandemic and C. keeps a spreadsheet of our scores. Yes, we are that nerdy. Tonight C. wins, but just barely!! We also exchange Valentine's Day gifts, which are mostly bird-themed this year.
6 p.m. — We start our evening cooking adventures. Our (eclectic) menu consists of French onion soup, DanDan noodles (with a recipe from DanDan in Philly!), and lava cake (a V-Day tradition). It takes us about three hours to make it all, but cooking together is one of our favorite activities and it's a ton of fun. The food all comes out pretty great and we have enough leftovers to share with my roommate and last us for lunch all week.
9:30 p.m. — We make some tea and watch the last Harry Potter movie! We get to bed around 1 a.m. This was a super nice Valentine's Day weekend. $4.23
Daily Total: $8.48

Day Six

8:30 a.m. — C. and I roll out of bed just in time to get dressed, make oatmeal, and boil tea for our respective 9 a.m. calls. Definitely no chance of studying this morning. C. decides to stay for the day and work next to my desk, which is always really nice.
9 a.m. — I spend the morning typing up notes from all our meetings last week and coming up with a gameplan with my coworker on how to tackle our tasks this week. The pace on our project is really picking up, but it felt like we got some crucial decisions over with last week which is encouraging.
Advertisement
12 p.m. — After a flurry of morning coordination emails, I take a lunch break and go for a run. It's mid-thirties today, which is a pleasant change after running in ~20-degree weather last week. After, I warm up the very last of my sweet potato chili (which, by this point, I am very sick of), chat with my roommate a bit, and get back to my desk. I start feeling pretty nauseous around 3...might have let that chili live for too long.
6 p.m. — I log off for the day and C. and I warm up leftover DanDan noodles and steam some bok choy. We watch another episode of Taskmaster with dinner. After, I prepare for an 8 p.m. college admissions interview call. For the past few years, I've volunteered as an alumna to interview prospective applicants who are applying to my undergrad alma mater. I really enjoy it — the kids are always so talented, enthusiastic, and excited about what they may do in college. I don't think my reviews of the students affect the admissions process very much, but I try to advocate for particularly inspiring students that I interview. The student I speak with tonight is really sweet. I can't imagine trying to plan for your future in the middle of a pandemic, so I'm very impressed by their attitude.
8:30 p.m. — After I finish the interview, I play some more Nintendo Switch while C. finishes up his emails for the day. Around 10, we warm up hot chocolate and the brownies my mom sent and read a chapter of The Subtle Knife out loud together before going to bed around 11.
Advertisement
Daily Total: $0

Day Seven

7:15 a.m. — I manage to pull myself out of bed even though I'd rather just continue cuddling with C. I wash up and spend an hour studying building codes at my desk while C. keeps sleeping. It's actually quite nice and cozy. After I finish a chapter, I crawl back in bed for a few more minutes.
8:45 a.m. — We get up for real this time and throw together some oatmeal and tea. I head upstairs for my morning call and dive into work again. I'm trying to figure out what medicine cabinet we need to use and where it needs to be placed in all of our apartment units. Sometimes architecture is about designing inspiring buildings, sometimes it's about the mounting height of a medicine cabinet.
12 p.m. — I break for lunch and warm up the leftover French onion soup for C. and me. We eat and then pack up his stuff and his half of all the food we made this weekend. We say goodbye and he heads back to his place for the week. I'll likely see him again on Friday. It was extra nice having him here until Tuesday and I know I'll be a little lonely the rest of the afternoon. I hop on a client meeting call to take meeting minutes. The rest of the afternoon is spent editing those and coordinating a couple of tasks with my coworkers. I take a break at some point to look up the price of flights in August and dream about when we can go on faraway vacations again.
Advertisement
6:30 p.m. — I go out for a walk around the neighborhood and have a long phone call with my best friend. It's way colder than I expected, so I cut my walk short and fold laundry until our call finishes up. My aunt gave me AirPods for Christmas and I've never had good Bluetooth headphones before, so I still get a lot of novelty out of completing tasks while on long phone calls. It's the simple things sometimes.
8 p.m. — I warm up the last of my DanDan noodles and hard boil a couple of eggs to go on top. The rest of the night is spent studying a little longer, writing up a review of the student I interviewed yesterday, and chatting with my roommate in the kitchen while finishing off some Halo Top ice cream. I finish the night with more Harvest Moon and then fall asleep.
Daily Total: $0
Money Diaries are meant to reflect an individual's experience and do not necessarily reflect Refinery29's point of view. Refinery29 in no way encourages illegal activity or harmful behavior.

The first step to getting your financial life in order is tracking what you spend — to try on your own, check out our guide to managing your money every day. For more money diaries, click here.

Do you have a Money Diary you'd like to share? Submit it with us here.

Have questions about how to submit or our publishing process? Read our Money Diaries FAQ doc here or email us here.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series

Advertisement