A Week In Knoxville, TN, On A $78,750 Salary

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 research assistant working in government who makes $78,750 per year and spends some of it on a cast-iron grill press.
Occupation: Research Assistant
Industry: Government
Age: 24
Location: Knoxville, TN
Salary: $78,750
Net Worth: -$2,198 ($10,905 in checking, $11,932 in high-yield savings, $3,313 in Roth IRA, $4,259 in E-Trade, $5,483 in 401(k), $1,241 in pension plan, minus debt. I live with my partner, N., and with his investment accounts, we make comparable incomes. We keep our finances separate and split our bills evenly.)
Debt: $39,331 ($26,601 in student loans, $12,730 on a car.)
Paycheck Amount (1x a month): $4,762
Pronouns: They/she
Monthly Expenses
Rent: $880.75 (My partner and I split the $1,761.50 rent on a one-bedroom apartment.)
Loan Payments: $575 ($300 in car payments, $275 in student loan payments.)
Internet: $22.97 (for my half.)
Renter's Insurance: $11.25 (for my half.)
Water/Electricity: $50-$80 (for my half.)
Car Insurance: $96
Roth IRA: $500
401k/Pension: $525 (taken from paycheck.)
Nest Egg: $500
Home Down Payment Savings: $500
HBO: $10.94
Spotify: $10.94
Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime: $0 (shared accounts.)
Phone: $0 (Thanks, Mom :) )
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, there really wasn't any other option when I was growing up. Looking back, I wish I had put more thought into it. I like my job, but I would have liked to explore other career paths instead of focusing so hard on "succeeding." Luckily, I was able to get a full ride to an out-of-state school and was able to take out loans to help pay for my living expenses.
Growing up, what kind of conversations did you have about money? Did your parent/guardian(s) educate you about finances?
My parents didn't like to talk about finances and money. I still to this day have no idea how much either of them makes. They did, however, give me a more frugal mindset. They stressed the importance of saving money, and liked to remind me that there will always be dips in the roller coaster of life.
What was your first job, and why did you get it?
My first job was as an assistant track coach for my sister's middle school track team, when I was in my senior year of high school. It didn't pay much, and I saw it mainly as a fun way to spend time with my sister before going to college.
Did you worry about money growing up?
Yes and no. My parents were pretty hush-hush about money, but I heard them fighting from time to time about our finances. My dad was out of work periodically throughout my childhood and college life, so that was worrying. Still, we never went without anything, and the main consequence was that I had to take on more loans than I would have liked.
Do you worry about money now?
Yes. I try not to. I am making more than I thought I would, but I always have that nagging feeling that it could all go away. Maybe that's not the most healthy mindset, but I try my best to save money and to have money left over each month outside of my savings, as a little cushion. I don't want to be "cheap," but the concept of money stresses me out in general. I've been doing better at spending, as silly as that sounds, and treating myself to nice things every once in a while.
At what age did you become financially responsible for yourself, and do you have a financial safety net?
Honestly, I'm still not. My insurance is still through my parents (and it will be until the government kicks me off), and I'm still on the family phone plan. When my dad lost his job while I was at school, I had to take over my finances. I know parents aren't obligated to pay for their kids' college, but mine really wanted to, and they see this as a way to make up for it a bit. I am very grateful for their help, and it makes saving up for a home easier.
Do you or have you ever received passive or inherited income? If yes, please explain.
I've never received an official inheritance, but like I said, my parents still cover my health insurance and phone, and let me live with them rent-free for a period after college, when I struggled to find a job (spring 2020 COVID graduate :/), so I would count that.

Day One

6 a.m. — I am violently jerked from my sleep by my relentless alarm. I usually wake up a few minutes before it goes off, since my body hates the sound so much, but this week I've been extra sleepy. My lunch and coffee are already prepped, so all I have to do is turn the machine on and grab my food out of the fridge. It's freezing in the mornings, so I throw on jeans and a sweater, my winter work go-to, and do my skin care (The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid and Buffet serums, CeraVe moisturizer, and a 30 SPF sunscreen). Everyone at my workplace is vaccinated, and we wear masks inside, so I usually use only mascara and concealer these days. I kiss N. goodbye (he is still in bed, half asleep) and am out the door by 6:15 a.m.
6:45 a.m. — I usually get to the gate around this time, badge in, and drive down the road to my building. When I'm driving down the dark road in the morning, I like to imagine I'm at the start of a horror movie, and the audience can hear the scary music playing in the background, but I can't because I'm the one in the movie.
10 a.m. — I packed the leftover dinner N. made last night for lunch and eat it around 10 a.m. I usually try to pack my lunches, and almost always eat them early since I leave too early to eat breakfast. They are sizable portions, and I leave work around 3 to 3:30, so I can snack more then.
12 p.m. — So far I've had a productive morning! Lately we have had a few new people join the team, so I spent time this morning teaching them about our models and the data we use. I also listened in on a presentation from a potential new hire. It's very important in my job to keep learning, so I spend part of my time during the week reading research and listening to seminars the department puts out. It's a lot like academia, except I get paid more.
2 p.m. — Buy a coffee from the shop downstairs. The girl working said she liked my sweater. :) $3.07
3 p.m. — Time to log off and head back home! I get a lower-body workout in at the apartment gym, and do my daily chores (prep morning coffee, put my clothes away, and vacuum).
7 p.m. — My turn to make dinner tonight! I make a creamy chicken, tomato, and spinach pasta with Parmesan cheese. It's delicious, and I pack the leftovers for my lunch. N. works close enough to the apartment to come home for lunch, so the creamy pasta is all for me!
10 p.m. — I spend the rest of the night playing Animal Crossing and watching the new Succession episodes with N. Around 10, I do my nightly skin care (The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid and Buffet serums, a retinol oil, and CeraVe moisturizer) and fall asleep immediately.
Daily Total: $3.07

Day Two

5:45 a.m. — Same morning, different day.
6:40 a.m. — Get to my desk and realize I forgot my coffee and the shop doesn't open until 8 a.m. :((((
8 a.m. — Coffee acquired! $4.07
9 a.m. — Order N. a Christmas present: a new Carhartt jacket. He always goes all out for me during the holidays, and this is the first one I have the income to buy him something nice! I plan on doing a big stocking for him too, because who doesn't love stocking stuffers? $131.09
10 a.m. — Lunch today is leftover fried rice I made two nights before. In college, I ate fried rice almost every night since it was cheap, filling, and easy! It's still my comfort food today.
3 p.m. — It's been a very slow day, but I did see a turtle during my walking break around the pond. I practically sprint out of work and head to Kroger to pick up some wrapping paper and jelly beans (my treat for making it through another week in the office). Luckily, I work from home tomorrow, so I can sleep in an extra hour. $14.03
5 p.m. — N. and I go on a nice long walk around the city and have a few beers outside, since it's so unseasonably warm today. $7.40
7 p.m. — I eat ramen for dinner and watch Gilmore Girls while I wrap presents. I call two of my best friends, who live far away (a downside of graduating and getting jobs in different cities), and giddily talk about one of their upcoming engagements! I still feel too young to be thinking about marriage, but I guess getting engaged at 24 isn't uncommon. Around 10, I do my skin care and head to bed.
Daily Total: $156.59

Day Three

6 a.m. — I forgot to turn my alarm off! I check my computer and see I have an email from my boss, so I decide to start the day. For some reason, I have a headache (I only had two beers, c'mon!), so I drink some water and make a pot of coffee.
12 p.m. — Was just informed I have a VERY big meeting on Monday with some government sponsors, and that I need to prepare a short presentation. :) I scarf down some fried rice and hurriedly type up some notes and prepare a few slides.
3 p.m. — Division-wide meeting that I listen to while cleaning the bathroom and kitchen. I decide to skip my workout due to time constraints and hop in the shower after the meeting is over.
5 p.m. — N. has his company Christmas party tonight! I'm wearing a crimson satin slip dress with my mom's nice long coat. Wearing it makes me feel like a newly widowed heiress to a suspiciously large fortune. N.'s coworker picks us up since we are on the way, and we head to the party.
11 p.m. — Office Christmas parties have the reputation they do for a reason. I think at some point a karaoke machine was brought out? We get home and I start my transformation from dazzling arm candy to what N. lovingly calls my “Charlie Day” outfit (stained sweatpants and one of his old shirts). I help N. take off his shoes and put us both to bed.
Daily Total: $0

Day Four

6 a.m. — Wake up, chug water, fall back asleep.
8 a.m. — Up for real this time. Looks like that water chugging might have saved me from a headache, but N. isn't so lucky. I leave him in bed to fight his demons and head down to the farmers' market. I pick up a peppermint latte from my favorite coffee shop ($5) and sip it as I browse the stalls. Today I am on the prowl for stocking stuffers for N. Nothing in the market catches my eye, so I head into some shops and pick up a cast iron grill press, a pack of Burt's Bees lip balms, a solid tin of cologne, and a fancy hot sauce ($70). $75
12 p.m. — After checking on N. to see if he's alive, I head to the apartment gym. My body is actively fighting me on this workout, but I make it through and come home to see that N. went to the store.
5 p.m. — We are lazy lads today, so I order us Thai food from our favorite takeout place. N. bought dinner last time, so tonight is my treat! $50
10 p.m. — After a few more episodes of Succession, I do my nightly skin routine (forgot last night!), and we head to bed.
Daily Total: $125

Day Five

8 a.m. — Rise from the dead. Move from bed to couch and don't budge for three hours while I play Animal Crossing.
11 a.m. — Drag myself to the gym — it's upper-body day today. Lately, I've been getting a little bored with my workouts, but I find it difficult to change my routine. I like to joke that I need two to three business days to accommodate a change in plans. Last-minute change is my nightmare.
3 p.m. — I bought tickets to the Nutcracker ballet a few weeks ago for my mom's birthday, and today's the day! She picks me up, since I'm on the way. I should have bought the evening tickets, since it's mainly little kids dressed as ballerinas in the audience, and they do NOT want to sit through a three-hour ballet. Oh well, we still have fun, and it's nice to spend more time with my mom.
7 p.m. — N. picked up groceries while I was out. He does the majority of the shopping and cooking (thank God for both of us), and at the end of the month we tally it up and take my half off his portion of rent. Tonight he makes pizzas! I pack up some leftovers for lunch, and we fall asleep around 9. $16
Daily Total: $16

Day Six

5:30 a.m. — I cannot sleep. I have a big meeting today, and the nerves have my eyes wide open. Same morning routine, only earlier, and I make an effort to wear a nice and sensible work dress for the presentation.
6:30 a.m. — I am desperately low on gas. The first station I try is completely out, and I just barely make it to another. This has, of course, helped my nerves greatly. I get to my desk by 6:45 a.m. and start preparing for my presentation. $25.54
3:30 p.m. — Meeting complete! It went about an hour over, so by the time we wrapped up, it was time for me to head home.
6 p.m. — Go to the gym when I get home and bust out some squats and deadlifts. The commute was long, and my whole body just wants to lie down, but I don't want to have to make up the workout later in the week. N. goes grocery shopping while I drive home/work out. We cook together today and make roasted broccoli with sausage. I clean the kitchen, and we watch the latest episode of Succession. Next week is the season finale, and we are left on such a cliffhanger! $32
10 p.m. — Skin care and lights out!
Daily Total: $57.54

Day Seven

6 a.m. — I actually slept through the whole night! That's a rarity for me. I pull on some blue work trousers that I thrifted a few years ago and a red sweater to combat the cold. Today's lunch is ramen I made last night and put in a Tupperware in the fridge.
12 p.m. — Take a walk around the pond after eating my lunch at the totally reasonable hour of 10 a.m. I like to think that the walkway around the pond is where all the other researchers are making their breakthrough discoveries. I'm still waiting for mine to come, but it's a helpful thinking place (and I like to see the fish and turtles).
3 p.m. — Leave slightly early today! Anything to beat traffic and my usual hell of a commute. My main issue with my job is how far away it is.
5 p.m. — N.'s present has arrived, so I quickly hide it before he gets home. We go on a nice long walk together and look at the holiday lights downtown. I get a quick upper-body workout in after, and we both do our own thing for dinner. I only have about a week and a half left until my holiday break (two full weeks!!!), and I'm looking forward to doing absolutely nothing. :) I hardly celebrated last year, so I'm doing my best to be extra festive this year!
10 p.m. — After a few episodes of Gilmore Girls, I call it a night, do my skin care, and head to bed.
Daily Total: $0
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