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A Week In Chicago, IL, On A $120,000 Salary

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Today: an Associate Director who makes $120,000 per year and spends some of her money this week on a snow shovel.
Editor's note: This diary was written in November 2021.
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Occupation: Associate Director
Industry: Advertising
Age: 26
Location: Chicago, IL
Salary: $120,000
Net Worth: ~$108,000 ($10,000 emergency fund in a high-yield savings account, $43,000 in a down payment fund in a high-yield savings account, $12,000 in a Roth IRA, $43,000 in a 401(k).)
Debt: $0
Paycheck Amount (2x/month): $2,908
Pronouns: She/her

Monthly Expenses
Rent: $1,145 for a small one-bedroom apartment (roughly 400 sq. feet), where I live alone
Monthly Loan Payments: $0
Electric: $45
Gas: $70
WiFi: $89
Cell Phone: $112
Car Insurance: $79.99
Gym Membership: $32.99
Peloton Membership: $39.99
Spotify: $4 (I share a family plan with friends.)
Hulu/Disney+ Combo: $15 (I cover these, my sister covers HBO, and our parents cover Netflix.)
Cloud Storage: $2.99
Art Institute Membership: $105 annually
Donations: $550 (Split between Chicago Community Jail Support, Greater Chicago Food Depository, World Vision, Planned Parenthood, and church tithe.)
Savings: $2,200
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?
Absolutely. My sister and I both went to high schools that boasted extensive AP offerings (I think I took nine), high SAT scores, and overall college readiness. It was a lot of pressure, but I understand that my parents saw it as our surest path to success. Because higher education was such a value for our family, our parents were committed to helping us with the expenses. My sister and I opted to attend school in-state to avoid going into debt (our parents, understandably, would not have been able to cover out-of-state or private school tuition), and both worked part-time during college to help out. My own views on whether higher education really matters have evolved as my personal circles have expanded and diversified, but I do hope that I end up in a financial position where I'll be able to help my future children with tuition costs, should they choose to go that route.
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Growing up, what kind of conversations did you have about money? Did your parent/guardian(s) educate you about finances?
We didn't have conversations about money, primarily because my parents didn't have the knowledge to share. I started learning about money in my late teens, when my sister got married (her husband studied finance).
What was your first job and why did you get it?
I worked as a barista starting at age 15. I no longer wanted to have to ask my parents for "fun money," and knew I needed to save up some cash for college textbooks and unplanned expenses.
Did you worry about money growing up?
Money was tight when I was younger — we never wondered whether or not there would be food on the table, but we lived very conservatively. My grandparents funded extracurriculars like music lessons, which they believed to be important but knew my parents couldn't afford. Things became much more secure in my early teens as my parents' careers developed, but we kept our frugal ways — making meals stretch, shopping at discount or thrift stores, etc.
Do you worry about money now?
Every day. It probably sounds ridiculous given my salary, but I still operate with such a "scarcity mindset," probably a hangover from early childhood when things were really tight. I have a Google Sheet where I track every single purchase as a separate line item, and tend to have anxiety/guilt every time I make a purchase.
At what age did you become financially responsible for yourself and do you have a financial safety net?
At age 21, when I graduated college. I don't have people in my life who would or could lend me money, but I know that I have friends and family who I could move in with if I lost my job or became really ill.
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Do you or have you ever received passive or inherited income? If yes, please explain.
No.

Day One

7:30 a.m. — I normally eat breakfast first thing in the morning, but I have a doctor's appointment today and suspect they may want to do bloodwork, so I just pour a glass of water, throw on some Glossier Stretch concealer and mascara (the extent of my makeup routine), and get started on work. We're heading into the busiest season of the year at my agency, so I'm anticipating working 10-12 hour days this week, and I'd like to frontload if possible.
10:20 a.m. — Why is it so hard to find a good doctor? After two years of living in Chicago, I've found someone who's decent, but I still don't love her. I'm generally healthy, but do have chronic headaches as well as high-functioning anxiety, and talk to her about both. She does my routine examination and pap smear, writes me a few prescriptions, and orders bloodwork. I ask whether I can get my COVID booster shot while I'm there, but they only have Moderna doses available and I'm in Club Pfizer. Better luck next time. No co-pay today because annual check-ups are fully covered by my insurance.
11:30 a.m. — Finally done with the appointment and lab work. I'm on the verge of hanger and consider stopping somewhere for a breakfast sandwich, but I feel like I have an expensive week ahead, so I head straight home and reheat the turkey chili I made last night. I top it with sour cream, tortilla chips, and tabasco and get back down to business.
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5:30 p.m. — I'm having dinner with friends tonight and I'm in charge of dessert. I went apple picking with another friend group last weekend, so this feels like the perfect opportunity to make an apple crisp. After I've prepped almost everything, I realize I'm out of cinnamon and butter, arguably the two most important ingredients after apples. I walk to the corner store and grab a bottle of cinnamon ($1.29), a two-pack of Irish butter ($3.99), and a Topo Chico ($0.99). After assembling the crisp and sticking it in the oven, I fit in another hour of work before walking over to their apartment. $6.27
9 p.m. — After getting home, I do one final round of email and Slack, wash my face with CeraVe (I've tried all the fancy cleansers and this is still my favorite), and slather on some moisturizer from The Ordinary. I finish the book I'm reading, The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya, which is absolutely weird and totally wonderful. I head to bed around 10.
Daily Total: $6.27

Day Two

7 a.m. — I'm up early to take my car to the mechanic. My heating/cooling system needs a repair, plus I want to make sure my tires and brakes are in okay condition for the coming winter. I grew up in California, so I'm always a little nervous about driving in ice and snow. I normally like to walk home when it will take less than an hour, but I've got so much on my plate at work this week that I opt to just get back as quickly as possible. I take a bus for one leg ($2.50) then walk the shorter leg home. While I'm walking, I log on to Amazon and order a snow shovel and windshield scraper ($34.02). $36.52
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9:45 a.m. — My partner, K., comes over to do some work from my couch before heading to his studio. He brings us each a vanilla oat milk latte, which he paid for. Drinking this might send me into a spiral since I've already had two cups of coffee this morning, but I risk it anyway. What a thrill.
1 p.m. — I have back-to-back meetings today, but manage to mute my sound and video for a few minutes to throw together a snack plate for lunch. I load it up with pickles, olives, artichoke hearts, baby carrots, feta cheese, pistachios, a sliced apple, and a few rice cakes with peanut butter.
5:30 p.m. — I have plans to meet a friend at the gym to swim laps, but I remember that my car is in the shop and realize I don't have time to walk there and back. Oops. We reschedule for next week. I munch on snap peas and help a coworker with a last-minute client ask.
6:30 p.m. — Since I'm car-less, K. picks me up after he's done with work. We head to his place with the intention of watching a movie, but I end up having more work to do once we get there.
10 p.m. — Partially due to busy work schedules and partially because we tend to get wrapped up enjoying each other's company, K. and I are in the habit of eating dinner pretty late. We make salmon, crispy rice, and broccoli for dinner, with a gochujang glaze on top. After eating, I wash my face and am in bed by 11.
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Daily Total: $36.52

Day Three

7:15 a.m. — I'm working from K.'s house today. I get up first and hop on his Peloton for a twenty-minute ride, then take a quick shower. I plug my laptop into his monitor and get started around 8.
10 a.m. — Another day of endless meetings. Because K. is a wonderful human, and also because he's freelance and has a more flexible schedule than I do, he makes potatoes and eggs while I'm working. Thirty minutes later, he also brings me a piece of brown sugar bacon. I have chosen the right life partner.
2 p.m. — Once again, I find a way to strategically mute myself and make a late lunch. Today, it's a peanut butter and honey sandwich, followed by baby carrots dipped in chimichurri. I also pour a glass of water, because that's important, I guess.
4:30 p.m. — I mute myself again and pour some Reese's Puffs cereal into a coffee mug, which I eat dry. One of my meetings ends 15 minutes early; I spend the free time researching Airbnbs for a trip my friends and I are taking to Mexico in a few months.
8 p.m. — I'm planning on going into the office tomorrow and want to be able to pick out an actual outfit, so we make the trek back to my apartment for the night. I make soup using odds and ends from my fridge: tofu, buckwheat noodles, kimchi, bok choy, and soft-boiled eggs. For dessert, we share a pomegranate while watching the first episode of The Vow on HBO. I've seen it before, but K. hasn't and it's so well-done that I'm more than willing to watch it again.
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Daily Total: $0

Day Four

7 a.m. — Rise and shine! Just kidding, it's raining and pretty much pitch black in Chicago. K. drives me to the train stop en route to his job, saving me a very wet 20-minute walk, and I swipe my Ventra card to get the rest of the way into the city. $2.50
8:30 a.m. — One of the perks of coming into the office is the free coffee and snacks. I concoct a makeshift iced oat milk latte and grab half a bagel from the freezer, which I top with peanut butter. I spend the first hour of the day catching up with coworkers I haven't seen in ages.
12:30 p.m. — Between meetings, I dig through the fridge and eat a Sargento's cheese & cracker snack pack, three tangerines, and a pack of fruit snacks. An hour later, it's a bag of Snyder's honey mustard pretzel bits plus an unflavored La Croix. I cannot and will not be stopped!
5:30 p.m. — I've accomplished almost nothing today with all the office chit-chat, but it was still a nice change of pace. Normally I'd stay late to avoid the distractions of both coworkers and home life, but I have to leave to pick up my car at the mechanic's before they close. I take the train ($2.50), then a bus ($2.50) to get there. My total for parts and labor should be $585.02, but my mechanic is exceptionally kind and gives a “friends and family discount” to basically everyone who walks in the door, so he charges me $500 even. When I know I'm going to have a big expense like this, I typically budget it out of what I planned to save that month, so that I never have to dip into my high-yield savings account. $505
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7 p.m. — Chili for dinner again. I swear I normally have a more diverse diet than this, but cooking for one person is hard. When I make a full recipe (this one was from NYT Cooking), I usually end up having to eat it for five or six meals. I start a load of laundry in the basement of my apartment building ($0.75 to wash + $0.75 to dry) and sit back down to knock out a presentation I'm giving next week. $1.50
10 p.m. — I have to re-run the dryer because my towels are still damp ($0.75). Sigh. I spend thirty minutes browsing Redfin condos with in-unit laundry and all sorts of other dreamy things. I know I could afford to rent a nicer apartment than I currently live in, but I'm trying to save aggressively in my twenties and remind myself that this is something I can live without for now. $0.75
10:45 p.m. — I fold and put away the laundry, do my three-minute skincare routine, and scroll TikTok for a few minutes (okay, forty-five minutes) before falling asleep.
Daily Total: $509.75

Day Five

7:15 a.m. — Up and at ‘em. I brew a pot of coffee, fry two eggs with pesto to eat on toast, and open my computer. Almost immediately, I discover an error I have to solve and start to have pretty severe physical symptoms of anxiety.
11:30 a.m. — I'm still feeling frazzled, and consider taking a brain break to walk to CVS and pick up the prescriptions my doctor ordered on Monday. It's a mile and a half away, so it would take me about an hour to walk there and back. I float the idea to one of my work BFFs, who reminds me that we have a client meeting in ten minutes — thank god I didn't just get up and go. I stress eat a handful of chocolate chips from the freezer and pop open a seltzer.
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12:30 p.m. — After the meeting, I have yet another bowl of chili.
3 p.m. — Fire drills keep coming at work, so it looks like I won't be getting a brain break today. I text K. to send some good vibes my way and scroll the LinkedIn jobs tab for twenty minutes to remind myself that this won't be my life forever.
5:30 p.m. — There's more to be done, but there's always more to be done, so I shut my laptop and head to CVS to finally pick up those prescriptions. The four Rxs total $202.34, but with insurance, my co-pay is only $53.02. I use my HSA to pay.
6:15 p.m. — After clocking roughly 55 hours this week, I'm convinced that the only thing that will make me feel better is buying a Christmas tree. We got our first snow of the year today, so it feels fitting! I head to the home improvement store and pick out a seven-foot live fir tree ($58.60). I also grab a tree stand ($12.95) and two strings of white lights ($2.95 each). $77.45
7 p.m. — Okay, so, getting a Christmas tree didn't turn my life around in the way I had anticipated, but my tiny apartment smells like a winter wonderland and that's enough for me. I realize the lights I bought aren't LED and don't want to have to stress about a fire hazard, so I leave the tree naked for now. It doesn't feel worth the hassle to return $6 worth of lights, so I list them on my neighborhood's Buy Nothing Facebook group.
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7:30 p.m. — My stomach is rumbling, and I can't even make eye contact with the remaining chili in my fridge. I pan-fry some Trader Joe's chicken potstickers and make a salad with cucumbers, tofu, mirin, sesame oil, and soy sauce. I do a tiny bit more work, then turn on Bojack Horseman (which I've seen before, so I don't have to pay much attention to it) and take my first dose of one of the prescriptions. The package says it may cause drowsiness, which is the understatement of the year — I fall asleep on the couch at 8:45 and move to my bed around 9:30. I don't bother washing my face, because I like to live life on the edge.
Daily Total: $77.45

Day Six

6:45 a.m. — Being up this early on a Saturday isn't ideal, but then again, I fell asleep so early that I technically got ten hours of sleep. I feel infinitely better than yesterday, but a little emotionally hungover, so I let myself lay in bed for a few hours. I also text some friends to make plans for next week — I feel like I've been spending a lot of time alone or with K.
8:30 a.m. — I muster the energy to take a twenty-minute Peloton class, do the dishes, wash my hair, and pack for a work trip I'm leaving for on Monday. I grab an Americano from my neighborhood coffee shop ($3 + tip), then it's back to the couch for an episode of Squid Game, with a quick intermission to FaceTime my nieces. $4
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12 p.m. — K. comes over and we head to a diner. After an hour-long wait, it's time to dine. They're out of my all-time favorite masa pancakes, so we decide to split a brisket potato hash, brisket taco (we like brisket, okay?), and a hash brown. Their hash brown is to die for; it comes as a cube that's crispy all the way around, and is served with sour cream and green onions. They also have a great tequila and mezcal program, but neither of us gets a cocktail today. We split the meal. $28.01
2:30 p.m. — We hop on the train to head downtown. K. doesn't have his Ventra card with him and the train is twice as expensive when you use Apple Pay, so I swipe my card for both of us. $5
2:30 p.m. — Today feels like the first real day of winter in Chicago, so we're very glad to duck into the warmth of the Art Institute. I have a yearly membership ($105, paid every March), so neither of us has to pay admission. We see the Onchi Kōrishō and Barbara Kruger special exhibits, then wander around the photography gallery for a bit. I love having a membership for a lot of reasons, but especially because I never feel guilty if I only stay in the museum for an hour or two. If we were to have paid $25 each to get in, I probably would have made us look at every single piece of art.
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4:30 p.m. — Train back to my neighborhood; I swipe for both of us again. $5
5:30 p.m. — K. drives us back to his place while I chat with my parents on the phone. We stop at a corner store because we anticipate wanting something sweet to eat after dinner. K. chooses an apple pie, and I opt for non-dairy ice cream: Coconut Seven Layer Bar and Milk & Cookies, both Ben & Jerry's. K. also gets hot dog buns and fancy bacon from the deli counter; he pays.
10:30 p.m. — After a few hours of talking about life, a couple of drinks (Topo Chico + Grey Goose), and many rounds of Super Smash Bros. (in which I am demolished every time), we make BLTs for dinner, then eat our respective desserts while watching another episode of The Vow. I wash my face, take my prescription, and fall asleep by midnight.
Daily Total: $42.01

Day Seven

7:30 a.m. — My curse of waking up early on weekends rears its head again. I pull the covers over my head and try to doze back off.
8:15 a.m. — It works, sort of. I put in my AirPods and watch a few YouTube videos on my phone in bed. I keep up religiously with all of the ex-Bon Appetit stars. After a few videos, I move to the couch, where I eat a bowl of stale Reese's Puffs with almond milk. My mid-month paycheck hit last night, so I move $2,000 to my high-yield savings account and book my flight back to Chicago after Christmas ($247.40). I travel quite a bit, and often buy my departing and returning flights at separate times so that I can fit them into my normal monthly transportation budget rather than dipping into savings. $247.40
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12 p.m. — K. is up. We listen to a tech podcast, eat hot dogs for lunch, and he drives me home before heading off to do his own thing.
2:30 p.m. — I make my way to the gym, which I pay for monthly. Before leaving, I walk across the street to Target to buy trash bags ($3.29) and a pack of press-on nails for my work trip ($6.99). I started using them a few months ago and they've become my new obsession — they're so much cheaper than a manicure, pretty long-lasting, and make me look like I have my shit together. Seeing the makeup at the store reminds me that I'm running low on concealer, but I decide to hold out to see if Glossier runs a sale. $10.28
4 p.m. — Next, I go to the grocery store. A more composed person would probably head home to shower in between, but I don't have that kind of time or energy. Plus it's cold out, and once I get home I'm certainly not leaving again. I head to Aldi, where I buy chicken breast, Italian sausage, lentils, goat cheese, jarred pesto, pita crackers, naan bread, kale, cucumbers, asparagus, avocados, baby carrots, blueberries, honeycrisp apples, fruit snacks, and store-brand sparkling water ($48.88). I'm hungry from the gym, so I eat a packet of fruit snacks as soon as I get in the car. $48.88
5 p.m. — On my drive home, I decide to stop at one of my favorite thrift shops to look around. I didn't plan this visit, so I don't commit to my usual “look at every item” strategy, but my eye is quickly drawn to a royal blue cropped puffer jacket, as well as an oversized tee that I think will be good for layering. I buy both ($10.36). I also pop into the Walgreens across the street to buy stamps. I really only need one, but they're sold in booklets of twenty ($11.60). $21.96
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7 p.m. — By this point, the thought of chili makes me want to cry, but I hate wasting food, so I muscle through one more serving. Sour cream, tabasco, and tortilla chips as usual, plus some scallions and avocado this time to keep things exciting. While eating, I daydream about the groceries I bought this afternoon. I watch the final two episodes of Squid Game, have a miniature mental breakdown, then watch an episode of The Great British Baking Show to cleanse my mental palate.
10 p.m. — I'm in the mood for something sweet, but I left both ice creams in K's freezer, so I blend up a frozen banana with some non-dairy coffee creamer and throw a few chocolate chips on top. It's no Ben & Jerry's, but it scratches my itch. I start a new book, Women Talking by Miriam Toews, and doze off a few chapters in.
Daily Total: $328.52
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