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A Week In Central New Jersey On A $32,000 Salary

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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.

Today: a graduate student who makes $32,000 per year and spends some of her money this week on a croissant.
Occupation: Graduate Student
Age: 29
Location: Central New Jersey
Salary: $32,000
Net Worth: ~$44,000 ($13,000 in a Roth IRA, $18,000 in a TSP account from my old job, ~$7,500 in an Ellevest investment account, and emergency savings of about ~$4,000)
Debt: $0
Paycheck Amount (monthly): $1,900
Pronouns: She/her

Monthly Expenses
Rent: $770 for my share (with three roommates)
Utilities: ~$10-20 (my share)
Streaming Services: $2.99 for Hulu student subscription, I mooch off of family and friends for everything else
Phone: $0 (my mom pays for my phone while I'm in school)
Health Insurance: $100 through my program
Roth IRA: $100
Ellevest: $100
Car Lease: $190
Car Insurance: $80
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?
Yes, I never really questioned it. I was always a good student, loved learning, and am a bit of an ambitious perfectionist so it was always something I wanted to do. I went to a public university out of state that my parents paid for, and am extremely lucky to be debt-free, even though I have some guilt about my parents taking that on. I knew graduate school would be on my own dime, but I'm extremely lucky to have gotten into a fully funded program, so I will (hopefully) be debt-free when I graduate.

Growing up, what kind of conversations did you have about money? Did your parent/guardian(s) educate you about finances?
I think they tried. The recession was hard on my family, and though we didn't talk about money, things seemed wobbly. My grandmother always emphasized the importance of saving and being frugal where you can, and I took a lot of that to heart in how I live my life. I see what savings and a thrift mindset have done for her ability to live well in her old age, and I hope for the same for myself. Unfortunately, financial policy in the U.S. has made bootstrapping essentially impossible in the 21st century, thanks to a regressive taxation system and years of trickle down economic theory that has yet (in my opinion) to come to fruition for the disappearing middle class, let alone those living on lower incomes.

What was your first job and why did you get it?
I started babysitting when I was around 13 for kids in the neighborhood and eventually around town. Over the summers and through college I worked in retail or in restaurants as a server, babysitting here and there until I was around 25, too. I got these jobs to support purchasing fun things like eating out or necessities like gas money.

Did you worry about money growing up?
Yes. I was only 14 in 2008 but it was clear my family was in trouble. I tried not to ask for much but accepted the fact my parents' divorce agreement stated they would split my college expenses and took the money to pay for school.

Do you worry about money now?
Yes and no. My scholarship for my program is truly a blessing that saved me from years of debt. That being said, I have taken a massive pay cut even with my stipend and see I'm not keeping up with friends who didn't go to school and kept working instead. I also know my pay potential is severely hampered by staying in the public sector, but I really care about what I do. Ever since I graduated undergrad, I've kept meticulous financial records and stuck to a budget.

At what age did you become financially responsible for yourself and do you have a financial safety net?
At 22, when I graduated undergrad. I can always count on my mom to help me out if something happened though. For example, I had to have unplanned surgery in 2018, and she covered my out-of-pocket expenses. She'll still randomly Venmo me $20 sometimes with notes like “lunch out my treat” or something, which is so incredibly kind.

Do you or have you ever received passive or inherited income? If yes, please explain.
My father gave me a Roth IRA account worth $7,000 when I was 18. I continue to put $100 into that account monthly. I have no passive or inherited income that I can actively use at my current, pre-retirement age.

Day One

8 a.m. — I wake up, finish some reading for Tuesday's class, and head downstairs to make oatmeal. I have some oats from a previous grocery trip, plus frozen berries in the freezer to make this breakfast less sad. I grab the dregs of the coffee left by my roommates (we split coffee-making and bean-buying responsibilities) and drink it with my oatmeal as I finish reading my emails. After, I dig out some quinoa from my shelf in the cabinet and make the viral (but fake?) "Jennifer Aniston salad" with ingredients I have been holding onto a little too long. I'll eat this for lunch later today, and use it for a couple meal prep meals for later this week.
11 a.m. — After my culinary morning, I go on a run by the lake, which I'm super lucky to live nearby. I do a whole two miles at about a 13-minute pace. The NYC marathon was yesterday, and seeing all the runners really inspired me to get out. It's gorgeous but terrifyingly warm for NJ in November. Post-run I stretch, shower, and eat my pre-made quinoa lunch before heading to my afternoon class.
3:30 p.m. — This class is 3 hours, and we have a mid-class break. I'm starving (ugh, the salad was not enough) so I head to the campus coffee shop and get the last baked good they have: a vegan brownie. It's subpar but gets it done. I save half for later after dinner when my sweet tooth will hit again. $3.85
5 p.m. — I head home and I'm already hungry again. I make rice and beans for dinner because I'm low on food until I stock up at Trader Joe's on Wednesday. I try a new pre-made bean mix from A Dozen Cousins that I picked up for a night like this and mix it in with basmati rice and a fried egg. It's missing some crunch so I put some kimchi on the side. IDK but it works.
9 p.m. — I'm worried I might be getting sick, so I make myself some turmeric tea and send in my reflection paper. Done for the night! I need a night of rest for sure, and I spend the rest of it in bed reading my book. I've been reading Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney and I'm finding it pretty slow. Lights out by 10 p.m.
Daily Total: $3.85

Day Two

7 a.m. — Throat is still scratchy but it's no worse. I take a COVID rapid test just to check — negative! It must just be the weather or an underlying cold. I get dressed for the day — it's a longer one — and head downstairs to make my oatmeal. My roommates are already downstairs watching election coverage. I have plans to watch the returns later, but I'm not hopeful we'll know everything by tonight.
12 p.m. — One class down, two more to go. I signed up for a lunchtime lecture and grab a free sandwich to eat while I listen. The lecture is on imposter syndrome and how to combat it — a good reminder for graduate students.
4 p.m. — Final two classes are done for the day. It's freezing today, so I rush home to take a hot shower and sit in bed to do some life admin.
6 p.m. — My belly is telling me it's time for dinner. I have a sad day-before-food-shopping dinner of more rice, beans, and a fried egg. After wrapping up I head over to my friend's election night watch party, where the spread is much nicer (guac, hummus, cheese dips, chips, and crudites). Perhaps a small shot at the Senate race in PA?
10 p.m. — I stayed later than I planned but I'm fading fast. We still don't know much, but it doesn't look great for Democrats. I head home and hit the hay.
Daily Total: $0

Day Three

8 a.m. — I'm up! My throat is more of the same, which is just annoying me. Am I sick? Is it allergies? Make it stop. I grab some cereal and coffee, go over my inbox, and throw in a load of laundry (blessed for an in-unit washer/dryer). Insane news that Democrats fared better than anticipated, though a ton of critical Senate races are likely not to be called until later this week.
10 a.m. — Therapy time. I have a biweekly therapy appointment over Zoom, which I just started going to again after I felt my anxiety creeping back up. I love my therapist and we end up talking a lot about money today. $10
1 p.m. — Errands time. I love not having classes on Wednesdays, but the days end up being more full than I would like with all the random things I have to take care of. I first head to Jiffy Lube to get a super-overdue oil change. 45 minutes and a $15 coupon later, I'm out of there. $90
2 p.m. — I head to Trader Joe's to do my weekly shop, plus I'm buying all the groceries for a dinner party me and my roommates are having tomorrow. I grab stuff to make guac, margaritas, and then all the fixings for black bean, cauliflower and chicken tacos for dinner. For myself, I grab some mainstays: white beans, kale, pasta, egg, frozen fake-chicken nuggets, a pre-made salad bag, and some other random pantry staples. TJ's has its seasonal winter stuff out and I'm such a sucker — I grab a La Colombe peppermint mocha latte, a cedar balsam candle (my favorite scent), and a box mix of chocolate mint cookies. It's only November but I love the novelty of the limited edition and I could not be stopped. Little joys like this are exciting. $101
3 p.m. — I'm about to head home when a friend texts me that there's free entrees for students at the new Mediterranean fast-casual place off campus. I'm intrigued and since I'm already out running errands I go to grab one. I get a chicken and hummus bowl and head home so I can eat it later for dinner.
3:30 p.m. — Finally home. I put away all the groceries and calculate what to put into Splitwise to charge my roommates. Some of my friends are coming over to watch a movie so I work on the box mix of mint cookies I bought to have when they arrive.
5 p.m. — Daylight savings has messed me up and I'm already hungry. I go for the chicken hummus bowl I put in the fridge and it's weird — truly just a bowl full of chicken, hummus, and toppings. It's fine and was free so I eat half then save the other half, combining it with my quinoa leftovers to make it more of a normal meal for tomorrow.
7 p.m. — Friends are here! We turn on some random Netflix rom-com and drink wine, make popcorn, and eat some of the cookies. It's nice to catch up and have a chill night in, even though I have work to do.
Daily Total: $201

Day Four

7:45 a.m. — Another day of class, but the last day of classes of the week. My throat continues to be the same. I get up and hop in the shower for a quick rinse, keeping my hair dry since I don't have time to do it. I try to fix the cowlicks that somehow formed overnight with a straightener and my Revlon brush but they're not cooperating, so I just let it be and figure we can't look our best every day. I run to the bus with some coffee and a slice of toast in tow to eat in class.
12 p.m. — Morning class is done! I am feeling so burnt out from battling this baby cold and the busy week. I decide to skip my first class of the afternoon since I'm auditing it and I don't think I'd get much out of it today anyway. I head to the student center with my leftovers and decide to watch RHONY and do some readings until my 2:45 p.m. class. Self-care is important and I already feel better on the couches there.
4 p.m. — Last class of the week is done. I'm tired and not really in the mood to socialize tonight but figure I'll feel better once I get into the swing of things. I get a text from my roommates who are already prepping at home and learn that we need more chips and drinks. I run to CVS for some overpriced last-minute reinforcements. $20
7 p.m. — The dinner party is in full swing. We invited some first-year students from our program over. It's a little awkward at first as conversation is focused around classes, but we move past it and have a great time.
11 p.m. — Clean-up done. I watch an hour of TikTok (oops) while texting my boyfriend, G. We're doing long distance from NJ to NYC. I was supposed to come up and meet him this weekend, but he's swamped with work and I'm worried about giving him my low-grade cold during his busiest time of the year. We decide to rain check to another weekend. I'm bummed but also thankful that I'll have a weekend of real rest. Lights out by midnight.
Daily Total: $20

Day Five

9 a.m. — Real rest starts now! I sleep in and stay in bed late with period cramps. Ah, the joys of being a menstruating person. I pick up my book and read for an hour until my belly starts rumbling and head downstairs for breakfast.
12 p.m. — I signed up for another talk with free lunch, but I decided to bail in an act of ~real rest~ because it's rainy and I need some time. I have the house to myself, a rare luxury, so I turn on RHONY and make my to-do list for the weekend.
2 p.m. — I head out to a programming workshop. I have to use this new graphic design program for a report due in January. The instructor is kind of helpful, but seems just as confused as we are about the program (great). The school has ordered us all boba tea to sip on during the workshop — no idea why, but I'm not complaining. I leave the workshop feeling no smarter but also confident anyone born after 1990 could figure out the software intuitively, and hope that carries me over my project's finish line.
7 p.m. — Dinner time! My roommate made leftovers from our meal on Thursday and we have a cute house dinner. It's nice to have a living situation that feels safe, supportive and fun. We didn't know each other before our program, but I'm so lucky to have found three women I live well with. We talk about our plans for the weekend and indulge in some friendly gossip. Living in the suburbs is quiet and repetitive, and we could always use some drama to spice up our lives.
Daily Total: $0

Day Six

8:30 a.m. — I'm up and after a quick scroll of my phone, I head to the farmers' market. Me and G used to go most weekends when we lived in the same city, and now that we're long distance I'm trying to extend the tradition to my roommates. We wait in the longest line for a delicious but overpriced croissant. After scarfing it down, I pick up some rainbow chard to add to my pasta for the week and a couple of my favorite sweet potatoes. $14
2 p.m. — Another friend in the program asks me to go on a walk to enjoy the unseasonably nice weather. I agree and we head downtown to get matcha lattes and browse some of the clothing stores. I check the sales rack since I don't have a huge expendable income right now. Nothing is really speaking to me so I leave unscathed. $7
5 p.m. — I return home to find my sweet roommate has made some cocktails. It's a combo of Bee's Knees and a French 75 and it's delicious and dangerous. I'm decently tipsy, so I guess work for the day is done. We spend some time chatting on the porch and soaking in the last of the day's warmth. Leftovers for dinner again.
8 p.m. — I grab some communal White Claws from the fridge (a gift from a guest last week) and head over to our neighbors' place. I have two more drinks while shooting the breeze and talking about potential plans for our long winter break. I check my phone to see Senator Cortez Masto has won her reelection. This means Democrats are guaranteed a majority with at least 50 seats — yay! I check in on some House races as well, and the expected GOP majority continues to shrink. I'd be shocked if Democrats can keep the lower chamber, but I've already been shocked with how well we are doing in this election. The group shares my happy but surprised reaction and we talk a bit about the coming runoff in Georgia.
Daily Total: $21

Day Seven

8 a.m. — You guessed it: I'm up and it's time for more homework. No more sore throat so we are calling this cold over.
12 p.m. — My roommate and I decide to each use one of our dining swipes for Sunday buffet-style brunch at one of the dining halls. I drive us over and am shocked at how packed it is. I load up my plate with veggie scrambled eggs, French toast, tater tots, and some berries. I grab some watered-down OJ (a habit inherited from my mother) and some terribly burnt coffee and take a seat in the dining hall. It's funny to be nearly 30 and eating among teenage undergrads, but free is free.
2 p.m. — My roommate kindly reminded me this week that it's probably my turn to do a deep clean of the bathroom. I take a break from homework to clean the kitchen, load and unload the dishwasher, and wash some of my non-dishwasher-safe travel coffee mugs that I've left in my backpack a little too long. Then I head upstairs to deep scrub our shower and tub while listening to a podcast. Lately I've been really into Normal Gossip — the stories are so funny and I appreciate the host's commentary on gossip as a concept.
8 p.m. — After a quick dinner of scrambled eggs, I take a hot shower and check the gym's class schedule for tomorrow (free class since it's the school's gym). I decide to go to a morning yoga class, which means I need to go to bed early to get my preferred eight hours' sleep. I finish some reading and watch an episode of Los Espookys.
10:30 p.m. — I've been feeling really annoyed and blah about my wardrobe recently. I basically wear the same two pants and a combo of an old sweater or T-shirt, and I feel very old and out-of-fashion on a campus full of undergrads. I see Abercrombie & Fitch is having a sale and I order a pair of jeans, a sweater, and a long-sleeve thermal to keep me warm this winter. I feel guilty that I once again gave into fast fashion, but excited for my new stuff. $130
Daily Total: $130
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