A Week In Lincoln, NE, On A $21,000 Salary

Welcome to Money Diaries, where we're tackling what might be the last taboo facing modern working women: money. We're asking millennials how they spend their hard-earned money during a seven-day period — and we're tracking every last dollar.
Want to continue the conversation? Join our Money Diaries Facebook Group to discuss finances, share spending habits and saving advice, ask money- and career-related questions, and get access to exclusive content. It's a judgment-free zone.
Today, as part of Your Spending In Your State:a graduate research assistant working in education and food science who makes $21,000 per year and spends some of her money this week on brussels sprouts.
Occupation: Graduate Research Assistant
Industry: Education/Food Science
Age: 29
Location: Lincoln, NE
Salary: $21,000
Paycheck Amount (Month): $1,600
Monthly Expenses
Rent: $559 (I rent a one-bedroom apartment by myself.)
Student Loan Payment: $0 (My parents paid for my undergrad and I worked as a graduate research assistant for my master's. I'm also working as a graduate research assistant for my PhD.)
Cell Phone: $55
Tuition & Health Insurance: My graduate research assistantship covers tuition and part of my insurance, but I still pay about $1,000 for insurance and student fees at the beginning of each term.
Utilities: $90
Netflix: $0 (family account!)
Savings: $465 (for travel and student fees)

Day One

6:30 a.m. — I get up earlier than usual today. I have an 8 a.m. doctor's appointment at the university's health center because I injured my knee about four weeks ago while training for a half marathon. I make myself an omelette with reheated caramelized onions, pack my lunch, and take the city bus to the main campus with my student bus pass, which lets me ride both the campus and city buses for free.
8 a.m. — My doctor thinks it's best to refer me to a specialist, who will be in early on Friday morning. The appointment with him will be covered by my insurance, thankfully. I get X-rays of my knee and take the campus bus to my office.
12 p.m. — I heat up my lunch (pasta with ground turkey, tomato sauce, spinach, and olives) at the staff lounge. My department moved into this building three years ago, and everything still feels shiny and new.
3 p.m. — I take a break from work to have my afternoon snack and check on my bank account. It's the beginning of the month, so my account looks great. I eat my Greek yogurt with blueberries and chia seeds while I transfer money into my savings account and check if my automatic rent payment has gone through.
5:10 p.m. — Two friends stop by my office to talk about their research projects and how they might need to borrow equipment from my lab. I miss the 5 p.m. bus to the main campus, which means I miss the 5:10 city bus home and will have to take the next one in 30 minutes. I really want to get home as soon as possible — I have a date tonight!
6:30 p.m. — I change clothes quickly, put on makeup, and grab my umbrella to go back downtown. I make it to the date on time, though not as dressed up as I had planned to be. I've been avoiding heels since my knee injury, which really limits my shoe choices. I meet my date for a cup of tea, and he pays. This is our first timing meeting in real life — we met on a dating app. He's cuter in person, and the conversation is good. But he says he had a long day at work and ends the date quickly. He does ask for my number, though, so we can plan another date.
7:30 p.m. — I don't feel like going home just yet, so I wander around campus. The rain has subsided and it's nice to walk around with my umbrella and look at the blooming flowers and trees. It's finals week, but I finished all of my coursework last week and I feel like summer has already started for me. There's a study zone at the alumni center with free beverages and food, so I take a fried chicken sandwich and relax while watching everyone else study.
8:30 p.m. — The bus route closest to my house doesn't run this late, so I take the next best one and walk 15 minutes from the stop to my apartment. It's not raining anymore and I take pictures of the blooming trees outside my building to send to my mom. There are no marked seasons back home, which makes winter here more tragic and spring more magical for me. I put ice on my knee every night to help with the pain, either while watching Netflix or reading. I just bought A Brief History of Time and am quite enjoying it, even if I feel I don't understand all of it. I go to bed at 10:30.
Daily Total: $0

Day Two

7 a.m. — I get up at my usual hour. I forgot to thaw blueberries in advance for breakfast, so I set out a bowl with the frozen berries, chia, oats, milk, and Greek yogurt, and then get in the shower. I'm trying washing my hair only two times a week, per Jonathan Van Ness's suggestion. It's been easier now that I'm not working out every day. I pack lunch and take the city bus to campus. Looks like another grey day today.
8 a.m. — I grab coffee at the alumni center and get to work. My boss/advisor is delivering a training on food safety for juice processors next month, and I'm preparing the presentation. I work until my laptop's battery runs out, and then my advisor emails me about something I need to get done at the lab, so I take the bus to campus.
12 p.m. — Another pasta lunch by a gray window. Usually I can see the state capitol from here, but today is just too cloudy. It'll start raining soon.
3 p.m. — I'm having my afternoon snack (baby carrots and almonds), when I get a text from a friend telling me which restaurant she chose for her birthday dinner on Saturday. I freak out a little when I Google the menu and see the $33 steak entrees. I don't think of myself as poor, but I know I can't spend that much on meals (plus drinks, plus bar cover, and so on) without upsetting my monthly budget. Luckily there's a $10 cheeseburger on the menu.
5:30 p.m. — I miss the 5 p.m. bus again, so I hang out at the main campus waiting for the 5:45. I get bubble tea from the food court while I wait. It's the day before the last day of classes, and everything is super quiet. $3.25
7 p.m. — I take an hour long nap when I get home. Then, I go down to my building's laundry room to put in a load of shirts and underwear ($1.50 for the washer and $0.75 for the dryer). I text yesterday's date, though I was kind of hoping he would text me first. I've spent most of my 20s just hooking up with guys, and I'm trying to grow out of that phase. Dating has been fun so far, but it takes way more brain power. $2.25
9 p.m. — I don't feel like cooking, so I have refried black beans on toast and a tangerine for dinner. I put away my laundry, text with the guy, and keep reading on juice processing. I also catch up on the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in lettuce, since it's the kind of thing my office mates and I like to discuss. I ice my knee until I go to bed at 9:30.
Daily Total: $5.50

Day Three

7 a.m. — I get to the university health center 10 minutes before my doctor's appointment, and eat a black bean and cheese sandwich for breakfast while I wait for the specialist. He goes over my medical history and tests my leg's range of movement. It's very painful when he tries to fully straighten my leg, so he suggests I do physical therapy. I have to see another doctor to get the referral and then schedule my first session for next Tuesday. I take the bus from the main campus to my building, and arrive at work at 9 a.m.
11:30 a.m. — Our building is hosting a free walking taco bar today, so I go there with my office mates. I get Fritos topped with lettuce, beef, tomatoes, sour cream, cheese, and olives, and a virgin margarita. We sit together and talk about classes, research, and the PhD job market while we eat.
2 p.m. — I leave work early and head downtown. A friend is graduating today, and I want to get her a card, so I wander into a local art supply and pick one with a red, black, and white print of a sandhill crane ($4.28). Their spring migration is a destination wildlife event here in Nebraska, and we went to watch it together this year. I mess up the bus schedule (what is up with me this week?), so I barely have time to drop my book bag at home and take the bus back downtown for the commencement ceremony. $4.28
3:20 p.m. — I meet up with other friends at the entrance of the commencement venue. After the ceremony and hugs and pictures, we drive to the main campus so she can take pictures in her cap and gown with her favorite buildings and the blooming trees. Someone jokes that it feels like a wedding photo shoot. Hey, getting an M.A. is also a big deal!
6:30 p.m. — We go to a local pizzeria for dinner. Our friend has never been before, and she's trying to do as many Nebraska things as she can before leaving for good on Tuesday. They're planning a visit to the state capitol and a local brewery tomorrow. I've already been to the capitol at least four times (I'm a museum geek), but I agree to join them for the brewery tour. The whole group shares a pie, and one of our friends insists on paying the bill and treating the graduate. I figure I'll pay him for my share later.
8:30 p.m. — A friend is driving back to her hometown an hour away, but her phone is almost dead, so I invite everyone back to my place and we hang out while she charges her phone. It's the first time I've had people over since I moved here four months ago, and I'm glad I bought a big couch! We talk about my rent, which is fairly high since I'm by myself and only a 15-minute walk from campus. Living alone was one of the luxuries I really wanted while getting my PhD. I lived with family for undergrad and had a roommate while I got my master's, so I figured this was a good time to have a place of my own. I ask about my share of the pizza bill, but my friend insists it's on him. Everyone leaves around 9 p.m. and I change into pajamas and ice my knee.
9:30 p.m. — A friend texts me about a different brewery visit on Sunday afternoon — the craft beer scene in town has really grown in the past couple of years! The visit includes a tour of the facility, a big historic building in the downtown area. I've never had their beer before, so I say yes and buy my ticket online. It's going to be a busy weekend, so I call it a night by 10 p.m. $12
Daily Total: $16.28

Day Four

7:30 a.m. — I wake up super early, eat some cereal, and take the bus downtown. I signed up for the city's half marathon this Sunday way back in January, but I won't be able to run it because of my knee. I go to pick up the race packet, bib, and shirt anyway, and walk around the runner's expo for a bit. I find the volunteer stand and they still need people to help out at the finish line, so I sign up. It's better than staying home and crying about it.
9 a.m. — I walk over to historic downtown on what is a sunny and beautiful day. They're hosting the first farmer's market of the season, and I can't resist going. There's not much produce yet, but there are tons of plants and baked goods. I refrain from buying more plants, since I just got basil, cilantro, and oregano, but I get two pounds of sweet potatoes ($2) and a poppy seed kolache, a traditional Czech pastry ($1). I find a sunny sidewalk to eat my pastry and people-watch. $3
11 a.m. — I take the bus to Aldi for my weekly grocery shopping. I usually do meal prep on Sundays for the week and then wing dinner every night. I have a Pinterest board for new and different lunch ideas, and I decide to do a lentil salad for next week. I already have lentils at home, so I get brussels sprouts, tomatoes, bananas, avocados, mangoes, cantaloupe, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, bread, tortillas, canned corn, canned bean salad, parmesan cheese, and milk. I'm very pleased that the total is under $30! I cram everything into my backpack and reusable grocery bags, and then take the bus home. $29.60
1 p.m. — I make a quick lunch from the week's leftovers and my new groceries: mozzarella quesadilla with sautéed wilted spinach and leftover ground turkey in pasta sauce. Then I check on my African violets and new plants, for which I still have to buy planters. My friends are picking me up for the brewery tour in a couple of hours and I have a birthday dinner after that, so after I clean up the kitchen, I take a nap. It's going to be a long day!
4 p.m. — My friends pick me up to go tour the city's largest craft brewery. Most of us are food science majors and have taken classes on fermented foods (wine, beer and cheese, yay!), so we geek out on the process. The guide is great at explaining and answering questions. The tour includes a free pint, so we hang out in the beer hall and make plans for the rest of the summer. It's so amazing to wear shorts again.
8 p.m. — My birthday friend picks me up to go to dinner. We get to the place around 8 and by the time all of her friends and labmates show up, it's already 9. I ate a tomato salad and a slice of bread with peanut butter before coming here, but I am starving. Mostly everyone gets steak, but I order the house cheeseburger. It's huge, with a half pound patty and a big side of French fries, but I manage to eat all of it. The birthday girl brought a cake — vanilla and chocolate with vanilla and coffee buttercream — and we sing "Happy Birthday" and take lots of pictures. $15
11 p.m. — After dinner, we go to one of our favorite bars, where there's a $5 cover at the door. We find a big table on the rooftop and talk and take pictures. A guy I went out with two weeks ago is texting me, and we discuss maybe going out again. The dance floor opens at midnight, and we go down to dance to our favorite DJ. $5
2 a.m. — The bar closes at 2 a.m., and my friend drives me home. It was a good night. I'm really tired, but I have to make sure to prep my backpack for volunteering at the marathon tomorrow. I go to bed around 3 a.m.
Daily Total: $52.60

Day Five

6 a.m. — I get up at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m., eat cereal, and shower. Then I take my bike and my backpack and head out to the university's football stadium, where the marathon's finish line is. I bike by all the runners making their way to the start line and try not to feel sad. Once in the stadium, I get a volunteer shirt and help prep post-race snacks for the runners. There are bagels, cookies, donut holes, oranges, bananas, trail mix, chips, water, Gatorade, and chocolate milk. I'll stay at the chocolate milk table.
8:10 a.m. — The first three runners come in! I can't believe someone can run 13.1 miles so fast. The race started at 7! All the volunteers cheer and clap for them and for the other runners who start trickling in. As the minutes pass, more runners start coming in and we all concentrate on stocking our tables and handing out food. It's a fun job, but also bittersweet. I really want to be out there running!
11:30 a.m. — People keep coming in, either the slower half marathon runners or the full marathon runners. I'm tired and kind of hungry, so I find one of the volunteer supervisors, who says my shift ended at 10:3o a.m. She points me in the direction of the free lunch for runners, volunteers, and families, and I get a pulled pork sandwich with a side of coleslaw salad and a cookie before biking home.
1:30 p.m. — I take a quick nap and then meet a friend for the brewery tour we signed up for. This is a smaller brewery, located in the former boiler room of a building on the National Register of Historic Places. The first part of the tour is about the building, which was first a post office, then a courtroom, and now hosts restaurants, offices, and apartments. It's gorgeous, with all the original wood, moldings, and marble floors. The brewery tour is much shorter, since they produce very limited quantities of beer, which also means they can take greater risks with their flavors. We each get a free pint, so I choose a Russian Imperial stout with coffee, coconut, and Guatemalan cacao nibs. It's amazing! My friend and I stretch out our beers and hang out for a long time at the bar.
7 p.m. — I get home a little lightheaded from the beer (11% ABV!) and the sun (80°F!) and standing up for four hours on three hours of sleep. I struggle to get my bike up the stairs to my third floor apartment. I wanted to cook lunch for the week today, but I need a nap.
8:30 p.m. — I fix a tortilla with black beans and Greek yogurt for dinner, and then get into pajamas and prep for bed. I fall asleep by 9:30.
Daily Total: $0

Day Six

6:30 a.m. — I get up earlier than usual since I went to bed super early last night. I spend the extra half hour making lunch to take with me to school: fried tilapia fillet and pico de gallo, using cilantro from my windowsill! I also pack mango slices and half an avocado. It's the first day of summer term, so campus bus service is reduced and I have to use a different route. I could ride my bike, but I'm taking my laptop to the office and it seems like too much work for a Monday morning.
11 a.m. — I have a meeting with my boss to discuss my work for the summer. We're having an undergraduate student as an intern for two months, and I'm in charge of training and supervising her while she's in the lab. I meet her and give her a tour of the building.
12 p.m. — I eat my food in the student lounge and chat with some friends about the food protection conference this summer, immigration, and taxes. I freaked out when Republicans proposed taxing grad students' tuition waivers as income. It would have severely affected my finances, and I'm glad the provision didn't make it into the final bill.
5:45 p.m. — I leave work at around 5 and take two buses to get to Home Depot. I need planters for my cilantro, basil, and oregano plants. I find three planters with matching dishes ($12.10) and walk back to the bus station before I'm tempted to buy more. $12.10
7 p.m. — I take a mini nap and then make guacamole that I eat with chips, black beans, and feta for dinner. It's too hot outside to heat it up! When I'm done, I go out to the balcony with the plants, potting mix, and planters to transfer them. I have a bunch of potting mix left, so I text my gardener friend to check what I should do about it. He suggests buying more plants...or storing it for re-potting next year. Fingers crossed that the plants will make it to next year!
9 p.m. — I start on the lentil salad that I'll have for lunch the rest of the week. I cube sweet potato and slice brussels sprouts, which I douse with olive oil and honey before roasting them in the oven. I've had issues with my smoke alarm going off when I bake, so I make sure to open the window and balcony door and turn on the kitchen extractor. While they roast, I cook the lentils on the stove. The vegetables smell amazing! It's been more work than I expected, but I'm excited for lunch tomorrow! I ice my knee and go to bed at 11.
Daily Total: $12.10

Day Seven

6:30 a.m. — I get up early to have breakfast (two bowls of cereal) and shower, and then bike to the university health center for my first physical therapy appointment.
8 a.m. — It goes well — the therapist is clear and patient with me and my questions. He does treatment for the inflammation on my knee and teaches me some stretches for my tight hamstrings. I schedule my next three appointments, one more this week and two for next week. Very thankful for my health insurance!
12 p.m. — I was right to be excited about lunch — this lentil salad is super good, and the balsamic vinegar adds a nice punch. A friend joins me while I eat and we talk about his upcoming road trip to Mount Rushmore. I get a text from Mr. Second Date to make plans for tonight, and he suggests bowling. I haven't bowled in years and I'm not very good, but it sounds fun.
5 p.m. — I rush home after work to change clothes and put on makeup. My date already had dinner, so I eat avocado and mayo on toast. I bike to the bowling alley, and between enjoying the sunshine and trying not to get too sweaty, I'm ten minutes late.
6:10 p.m. — Since it's a weeknight, the bowling alley is almost empty. We play two games, and I'm as bad as I remembered. He give me tips, though, and I do improve by the end. We switch over to pool, and I'm better at it than I thought I'd be. The three rounds are fairly close, and there's a lot of teasing and bantering and light touching going on. We call it a night and he pays for our tab. We have a quick goodbye kiss in the parking lot.
8:40 p.m. — I get home very pleased with the date. We'd talked about taking it slow, and it feels right. I'm fairly hungry after the bike ride, so I eat black beans on toast. Then I prepare mango slices for tomorrow, eat about half of them, and check on my plants, which seem to be okay after the potting. I ice my knee, check social media, and go to bed at 10:30.
Daily Total: $0
Money Diaries are meant to reflect individual women's experiences 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.
Have a Money Diary you'd like to share? Right now, in addition to our ongoing diaries, we're looking for potential diarists along the following theme:
Your Spending In Your State: We want to run one Money Diary from a different state each week. Want to rep your state? Submit here!
Have questions about how to submit or our publishing process? Read our Money Diaries FAQ doc here: r29.co/mdfaqs
In addition to our Money Diaries, we're looking for people who want to talk to us about the following topics for other stories on Refinery29:
1. Calling all twins: In honor of National Twin Day, we're looking to showcase Money Diaries of twins. Make sure your twin is on board, and then email us here for a chance to be featured on the site.
2. Ever gotten a weird freebie from your job, like a lifetime supply of gum or a pet goldfish? We're rounding up the weirdest work perks out there. Email us here if you've got one to share.
3. We’ve talked a bit about the financial relationship between parents/guardians on R29 recently, and we’d love to hear more of your stories. Tell us the biggest money lesson you learned from parents/guardians here.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series