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A Week In Madison, WI On A $55,473 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.

This week: a research assistant who makes $55,473 per year and spends some of her money this week on playing pool.
Occupation: Research assistant
Industry: Higher education
Age: 27
Location: Madison, WI
Salary: $55,473 ($27,113 PhD stipend; $27,360 summer tech internship; $1,000 mentoring stipends)
Assets: Checking: $18,918.25; savings: $4,555.83; HYSA: $31,023.23; Roth IRA: $27,337.72. My partner, P., and I have separate finances (his net worth is higher than mine since he has a regular job), and we split expenses roughly 50/50.
Debt: $0
Paycheck Amount (bi-weekly): $1,360.90
Pronouns: She/her

Monthly Expenses
Monthly Housing Costs: $555 (I share a two-bedroom apartment with P. in university housing)
Monthly Loan Payments: $0
All Other Monthly Expenses:
Utilities: $20-70 (split with P.)
Spotify/Hulu: $5.99 (student deal)
Crunchyroll: $7.99
Health & Dental Insurance: $44 (deducted from my biweekly paycheck) Medication: $10
Savings: $1,360.90 (This is half of my paycheck. It gets deposited directly into my regular savings account, which I deposit into my HYSA when enough has accumulated.)

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 was definitely an expectation for me to go to college. My parents really value education and financial security. Growing up, there was a lot of pressure for me to excel at school and get admitted into a prestigious university. I am extremely fortunate that my parents were able to afford in-state tuition and living costs during my four years in college, so I have no student loans — a fact I do not take for granted. Currently, I’m enrolled in a PhD program, which not only has no tuition costs, but even provides me with a stipend with which to support myself.

Growing up, what kind of conversations did you have about money? Did your parent(s)/guardian(s) educate you about finances?
My mom emphasized the importance of saving money; she is the most frugal person I know, and my sister and I take after her. My sister advised me to open a HYSA and Roth IRA after I became financially independent, but she was surprised I did not already know of such things.

What was your first job and why did you get it?
Aside from the occasional babysitting gig during high school, my first job was with Jumpstart, the AmeriCorps program that recruits college students to teach in preschools in underserved inner city neighborhoods. I got the job because I was inspired by my civics class in high school to serve the country, and I have a soft spot for young children. Even though my parents were supporting me financially, it was still nice to have some money saved up; this money, along with the money I later made tutoring, helped fund my move to Wisconsin after college.

Did you worry about money growing up?
No, not at all, and I am very fortunate that was the case. As an upper-middle-class family from an affluent community in California, my family always had more than enough.

Do you worry about money now?
For the most part, I don’t, because I am very fortunate to have no debt or overwhelming financial obligations. But I do wish my net worth were higher, since I feel that I don’t have nearly enough money to afford a house anywhere I dream of living, or to pay for daycare if I were to have a kid (my partner and I would both want to work full time, so daycare would be a necessity).

At what age did you become financially responsible for yourself and do you have a financial safety net?
I became financially independent when I turned 22 and moved across the country to start a new life in Madison, Wisconsin. Luckily, I had enough money saved up from jobs I took in college to fund the move and the first month before my first paycheck. Since my parents are well-off, they are my financial safety net, a fact I do not take for granted at all. I have never asked for their help financially since my move across the country.

Do you or have you ever received passive or inherited income? If yes, please explain.
I haven’t received an inheritance yet since my parents are, luckily, still alive and healthy, but I expect they will leave a sizeable one for my sister and me. Again, I do not take this inheritance for granted at all and am resolved to not rely on it financially.

Day One

9 a.m. — I wake up, wishing I had gone to bed earlier. After lying in bed for 20 minutes checking my phone, I roll out of bed and get ready. Breakfast today is arugula, nutritional yeast, and avocados mashed with pico de gallo on top of some sourdough bread, all from my Trader Joe’s run from last week. I don’t like to work when I’m eating, so I put on an anime while I eat; this month, I have a Crunchyroll subscription (I’m planning to cancel it in two weeks). I got it to pass the time during my winter break, but I don’t think I need it every month especially since I normally don’t watch that much anime.
10:25 a.m. — After prepping a bit for my meeting at 11 a.m., it’s time to leave the house to catch the bus, which stops right next to my apartment once every 15 minutes. I don’t have to pay a fare because the bus that goes between university housing and campus is free. I normally bike to school, but I left my bike on campus after hitching a ride with friends on Saturday. The bus is crowded and the guy next to me has doused himself with Axe body spray, which I hate the scent of since it reminds me of middle school. I suddenly really miss my bike.
10:50 a.m. — I arrive at my office in time to set up my meeting with my future postdoctoral advisor, C., at 11 a.m. I just accepted the job offer last Friday, and we’re both really excited. I’m looking forward to living in a warmer and more diverse city, working with C., and getting the pay raise (it’s still less than half of what I would make if I were to take the industry offer I also have, but becoming a professor is my dream so I wanted to give it a shot). We plan my visit in early March and discuss a problem I’ve been thinking about sporadically for the past few weeks. We realize the problem has already been solved by a decades-old paper that I overlooked. I’m unfazed because such is research.
12 p.m. — After my meeting, I work for a bit, looking up the main result of the paper C. mentioned and feeling stupid about not having noticed it before. Then it’s time to get lunch with the seminar speaker. My research group has a weekly seminar that features an external speaker; we usually get lunch and dinner with the speaker when they visit. This week, the speaker is a graduate student like myself who’s planning on working in the industry, so I’m looking forward to meeting him. I order two vegan tacos, and my advisor picks up the tab since he always pays for my food. I feel bad about it, but he insists on doing it, telling me to pay it forward when I get students of my own.
1:30 p.m. — I arrive back at my office and work for a bit more before my seminar. I then head to the seminar at 2:30 p.m. The speaker has a nice talk prepared, so I pay attention the whole time (sometimes, I tune out after the first 20 minutes if I don’t understand the talk and/or am not interested).
3:30 p.m. — Seminar is over, and I have plans to meet up with my friend to get bubble tea. We head over to the tea shop, and I order a strawberry milk with boba, which I specifically pick because it’s not caffeinated. Even though I order the smallest size, the price still comes to $7.69 due to the non-dairy milk surcharge (and inflation). But it’s worth it since I get to catch up with my friend, who I haven’t seen in over a month. We talk about our job offers and some department gossip. $7.69
5:30 p.m. — My friend heads over to badminton while I find my bike on campus and bike home. It’s been a really mild winter, so I’m really lucky that I’ve been able to ride my bike almost everyday. I found it for $150 on Craigslist, so it’s much cheaper than buying a car and paying for insurance, gas, registration, and maintenance.
6 p.m. — I get home and heat up some rice and leftover vegan bulgogi (from Trader Joe’s) that I stir-fried last night with some leftover vegetables in my fridge. I add some gochujang sauce and kimchi. While I’m eating, I watch another episode of the anime I watched this morning. This is a bad idea, since I end up watching three episodes. For dessert, I have a blood orange and three peach and oolong tea Oreos (a Chinese flavor that I found in a local Asian supermarket).
10 p.m. — I finally begin working, going back to the paper C. pointed me to earlier. I work until 1 a.m., when I take a break to shower; I try to avoid showering right before going to bed because I find that it wakes me up. I work for another half an hour before heading to bed at 2 a.m. (I’m a night owl).
Daily Total: $7.69

Day Two

9 a.m. — I make myself the same breakfast as yesterday, pouring myself a large glass of soy milk for calcium. My favorite non-dairy milk is oat milk, but soy milk has more protein and is cheaper, so I buy it more often. I have a hankering for another episode of anime, but since my weekly meeting with my advisor is this afternoon and I feel very behind, I opt instead to respond to some emails while eating so that I don’t end up watching anime instead of working. I finish breakfast and get straight to work.
12:30 p.m. — It’s time to bike to class, which starts at 1 p.m. My commute to school, which takes 15-20 minutes, is along a bike path around a lake, and it’s an unusually warm day again, so the bike ride is enjoyable. Class has already started when I arrive; I’m always late because I have a hard time leaving my house in time. The professor teaching the class keeps me on my toes, so I’m hyper-focused for the entire 75 minutes.
2:15 p.m. — Class ends and I rush to my office to prepare for my weekly meeting with my advisor in 45 minutes. Almost as soon as I sit down and start poring over my notes, he asks to postpone the meeting to 3:30 p.m.; I gladly oblige. Since I have some extra time and haven’t eaten since this morning, I decide to grab a vegan breakfast sandwich from an on-campus cafeteria next to my department that I usually go to when I’m short on time. I have $30 deposited on my Wiscard, which I use to pay for the sandwich. The sandwich is tasty, but I wish the campus offered other plant-based options so that I don’t have to buy the same thing every time I get hungry.
3:30 p.m. — It’s time to meet with my advisor. We catch up a bit, chatting about our weeks; I tell him my plan to visit Houston, where my new job will be, and he’s really excited for me. We also talk a bit about job market gossip, which has been on our minds a lot lately since I was on the job market these past few months. I tell him about the paper C. pointed me to and discuss how it could applied to my thesis problem.
5 p.m. — I grab my stuff from my office and head upstairs to the departmental teaching assistants union meeting. I’m no longer a teaching assistant, but I still try to attend if I happen to be on campus. It’s pretty amazing how problems such as low pay for student lecturers, uneven teaching assignments, international student fees, and segregated fees were an issue when I started graduate school and still are an issue six years later. Luckily, in recent years there’s been a national movement by various graduate student unions to fight for better pay, which has been inspiring to see, even if change has been slow.
6:30 p.m. — The meeting ends, and I head home with S., my friend who lives across the street from me. I decide to take the bus so that I can talk to S., leaving my bike locked up on campus. S. invites me into her apartment to chat for a bit. We gossip about the apartment for another hour or so before S.’ husband comes home. The three of us chat for another hour before I decide to head back since S. needs to prepare for a meeting tomorrow and I need to do more work.
8:30 p.m. — I ate two slices of vegan pizza at the union meeting, but I’m still a little hungry. It’s late and I’m feeling lazy, so I make myself instant sesame noodles I bought from a Chinese supermarket a few days ago. I eat the noodles with tofu puffs, a chopped baby cucumber, and some kimchi. I eat a blood orange and a mini Trader Joe’s Drop the Dairy! ice cream cone for dessert. It’s been a long day, so I reward myself with a few episodes of the anime I watched yesterday, Skip Beat!, which I’m hooked on because of the strong, badass, female main character.
11:30 p.m. — I’m getting really tired so I hop in the shower and get ready for bed. The shower wakes me up again, so I end up staying up another hour before being tired enough to go to bed at 1 a.m.
Daily Total: $0

Day Three

9 a.m. — I wake up, get out of bed, and make myself the same breakfast I’ve been eating the past three days. It’s my last avocado, so I make a mental note to myself to stop by Trader Joe’s later today to buy even more of the same breakfast. I want to watch anime while I eat, but the wifi isn’t working. I spend half an hour trying to fix it, to no avail.
10:15 a.m. — I catch the bus to campus, grab my bike, and bike to a teashop downtown to work for a bit since my wifi isn’t working. The barista has my order memorized because I always have the same thing: black tea latte with oat milk, boba, and lavender syrup, less ice, 50% sugar. I prep for my meeting with my collaborators on Friday. $6.79
12:45 p.m. — It’s time to bike to campus to attend a graduate student reading seminar. I’ve gotten to a point where I have a hard time sitting through talks that are over an hour, so I start fading at the one hour mark, but the topic is interesting, the speaker gives a decent talk, and I’m engaged.
2:30 p.m. — Seminar ends. I read online that the wifi issue still hasn’t been resolved; I’m really annoyed since I was planning to go home and work since I already spent money on tea today, and I don’t work very well from my office. I end up biking to a coffee shop across the street from Trader Joe’s, where I was planning to get groceries for the week, and order a small chai latte with oat milk (it doesn’t help that I don’t like black coffee, so my drinks tend to be more expensive and sugary). The total, combined with tip and the vegan milk tax, ends up being just over $5. $5.04
5 p.m. — It’s starting to the get dark, and I like to avoid biking in the dark, so I decide to head to Trader Joe’s to get some groceries. I could probably buy more food for less at other grocery stores, but when P. is traveling, I go to Trader Joe’s because I like the frozen pre-made and low-effort food options they offer. Dinner this week will be another batch of vegan bulgogi; I grab a jar of kimchi and cucumbers for topping. I also grab a bag of microwaveable potstickers, frozen veggies, blood oranges, and more avocado toast ingredients. Finally, I grab some Impossible meat — a rare treat — and tempeh to cook when P. gets back. None of the snacks appeal to me — probably because I had too much sugar today. $45.76
6:30 p.m. — I arrive home and cook myself some vegan bulgogi from leftover vegetables in the fridge: half a bell pepper, half a shallot, half a bag of kale, and a carrot. I eat the mixture with rice, kimchi, a chopped baby cucumber, and some gochujang sauce. Luckily, the wifi is back on, so I of course watch a few episodes of anime.
8:30 p.m. — Time to do work again. I alternate between starting my dissertation (I found out today that I have less than three months to write it), reading the paper for my meeting on Friday, and proofreading and transcribing an idea one of my collaborators came up with. I’m a ball of stress, really feeling the pressure of all the work I need to get done between now and May. I stay up until 2 a.m. working.
Daily Total: $57.59

Day Four

9 a.m. — I wake up and lie in bed for another 30 minutes, trying to sleep some more, to no avail. I get up, make myself the same breakfast I’ve been eating all week, and sit down to watch another episode of anime.
10 a.m. — In the middle of watching anime, I get a call from the dental office I’m trying to schedule a preliminary visit at; I want to get my teeth checked out since I haven’t gone to the dentist in two years. After scheduling the first available slot they have, I decide to book a bang trim; I’ve been wanting curtain bangs for a while now. I then finish my anime episode and head back to my desk to write more of my dissertation.
12:30 p.m. — It’s time for the only class I’m taking this semester again, so I bike to school and go to class, packing some frozen potstickers to heat up for lunch afterwards.
2:30 p.m. — Class is over, and I go to a coffee shop to pick up a matcha latte with oat milk with my office mate. We sit at the coffee shop until it closes at 3 p.m., discussing some points we were confused about in class. $6.59
3 p.m. — I head back to my office, heat up some potstickers, and work on my dissertation some more, taking a break to go to my academic sibling’s talk at 4 p.m. I stay behind and chat with some friends before returning to my office at 4:45 p.m. Then it’s time for more thesis writing before my friend, J., is supposed to pick me up.
6:30 p.m. — I get an email about a tornado warning, so I text J. for a rain check. Even though the tornado is unlikely to reach Madison, we decide to reschedule for the next day just in case. I run to the bus to catch it home before the weather gets any worse.
7 p.m. — I’m home, so I quickly heat up a bowl of my leftovers from dinner yesterday, topped with the usual cucumber, kimchi, and gochujang. I watch the last two episodes of Skip Beat! as I eat, feeling really dissatisfied with the ending. I guess I’ll have to read the manga.
8:30 p.m. — After dinner, it’s dissertation writing time again! While I’m writing, A. texts a group text complaining that her ex-boyfriend, who just broke up with her a few weeks ago, has lost one of her favorite board games. The rest of us decide to all pitch in to replace the board game, Decrypto, as a Galentine’s gift; the breakup has been really hard on A. and we want to do something to cheer her up a bit. S. orders it on Amazon Prime and I venmo her a quarter of the cost since there are four of us. I work until 12:30 a.m., when I shower and go to bed. (It’s an “early night” for me since I have to get up “early” for a haircut tomorrow morning.) $6.59
Daily Total: $13.18

Day Five

8 a.m. — My alarm goes off; I have to get up earlier than usual today for the haircut I have scheduled for 9 a.m. I’m so tired I lie in bed for 10 minutes before realizing I really need to get up. I quickly get ready, make myself some avocado toast, and run out the door at 8:40 a.m.
9 a.m. — I arrive at the beauty school where I usually get my hair cut at 9 a.m. on the dot. I’m glad I’ve gotten faster at biking — it only took 20 minutes to ride my bike to campus, lock it, and cross the street to the hair salon. My stylist cuts the curtain bangs I requested and tells me how to style them. I don’t tell her that I’m a low-maintenance person, doing the bare minimum to get ready. I can’t even be bothered to brush my hair most days, let alone apply styling mousse, tease, and blowdry my bangs every morning. Plus I don’t even own a round-tip brush or blowdryer. My bangs look cute, though. $8
9:30 a.m. — I settle down in a coffee shop next to the hair salon and order my expensive iced matcha with oat milk and lavender syrup. I then start reading the paper I will be discussing during my meeting this afternoon. The paper is really dense and outside my comfort zone, so I don’t feel ready for the meeting. $7.81
11:45 p.m. — I head towards the department, drop everything off at my office, and head downstairs to meet with some undergraduates I’m mentoring.
1 p.m. — I run to my office to get ready for my Zoom meeting at 1:30 p.m. I try to go to the cafeteria by the department to get a vegan breakfast sandwich since I’m starving and didn’t have time to pack myself food while I was running out the door this morning, but they’re out and there are no other vegan options. I’m forced to go back to my office and go to the meeting hungry.
3 p.m. — The meeting is over, and I’m drained; the paper we are reading is quite dense and technical, but at least my collaborators are really nice and communicate effectively. I’m already 30 minutes late for the graduate student town hall my department is holding, but I decide that I really, really need food. I walk to Target, which is about 10 minutes from the department, and buy myself some non-dairy yogurt, a box of vegan mac ‘n’ cheese (for dinner), and a GoMacro oatmeal chocolate chip bar. It}s far from a proper meal, but I’m hoping this food will tide me over until dinner. I then rush over to the town hall to catch the tail end of it while devouring my GoMacro bar. $9.76
4 p.m. — The town hall is over, so I pack up my belongings and head towards my friend J.’s car for our weekly hangout. He drives us to the pool hall we go to every week to shoot some pool. Along the way, we chat about jobs (we’re both graduating, so this has been on our minds) and reflect on our six years in Madison; we’ve been friends since our first year and everything feels so different now. We get to the pool hall and I grab us a table while J. gets a beer; I decide to forgo one to save some money. We play four games, and I pay the $28 tab, which is unusually high since there’s a special Friday night rate. J. venmos me half. $14
7 p.m. — After I help J. pick up some of his belongings at his old apartment, he drops me off back at my place. I quickly cook up the box of mac ‘n’ cheese I just bought at Target. I also add in some arugula, broccoli slaw mix, and a cut up vegan buffalo chicken patty. I eat while watching my favorite YouTuber, Beryl Shereshewsky, who cooks foods around the world submitted by her subscribers with a common theme in mind. Today’s video is about mayonnaise dishes; even though mayo is usually not vegan, I like to think about whether I can veganize a dish that looks interesting.
8:15 p.m. — I shove the rest of the mac ‘n’ cheese in the fridge and make my way to the bus stop to go to my friend A.’s place for a weekly knitting night with a group of girls in the department. This week, I’m working on a sweater with the yarn left over from a scarf I knit for P. a while ago. A. made some delicious vegan pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, which we snack on while we knit and gossip.
1 a.m. — Knitting night is over, so I hitch a ride with my friend S., who lives across the street from me. I vegetate for a few minutes, scrolling my phone before showering and crawling into bed at around 2 a.m..
Daily Total: $39.57

Day Six

9:30 a.m. — I wake up and lie in bed scrolling my phone for half an hour, really glad that I don’t have anywhere to be. I make myself some avocado toast and eat the rest of the mac ‘n’ cheese from yesterday. I finished Skip Beat! so I decide to watch two episodes of another anime, Yona of the Dawn, to test it out. I’m not completely hooked yet, but decide to give it a few more episodes.
12 p.m. — After responding to some texts, I start writing my dissertation again. For a boost of energy, I make myself a small matcha latte with soy milk and agave syrup.
2 p.m. — P. texts me and says that he’s arrived back in town, so I drive his car to go pick him up at the bus stop downtown; he flew out of O’Hare in Chicago since the tickets are a lot cheaper, and there’s a bus that travels pretty frequently between downtown Madison and O’Hare. I’m really excited to see him and we catch up about our weeks as he drives us back.
2:30 p.m. — We get home and P. immediately goes to bed for a nap since he’s been awake since 4 a.m. I decide to join him since I’m also exhausted from a long, draining week.
5:30 p.m. — I’m feeling really refreshed from my nap. We’re both starving, so I get up and rummage in the fridge before quickly making us some frozen vegan orange chicken from Trader Joe’s, steamed eggplant, and rice. P. and I split up the household chores; I’m in charge of cooking since I enjoy it, while P. is in charge of the dishes. We catch up some more as we eat dinner.
7 p.m. — P. and I drive to a nearby grocery store, discussing what to eat this week. Today’s list includes ingredients for two types of lentil soup, oatmeal with frozen fruit for breakfast, and a Thai green curry to use up the open containers of curry paste we have in the fridge. It’s P.’s turn to pay for the groceries (we switch off week to week), which are around $80.
8:30 p.m. — We get home, and I make us a blackberry cobbler using some blackberries I froze in the fridge from a grocery run two weeks ago; I saw them on sale for $1.99 for an 8oz carton so I came back with a mountain of cartons of blackberries. I then sit down to catch up on some administrative work and write more of my thesis.
12:30 a.m. — P. and I sit down to watch the episode of Spy x Family we’ve been ending our days with. I cut us up some blackberry cobbler topped with vegan vanilla ice cream to enjoy while we eat. After the episode of anime, we brush our teeth, and then I take a shower and crawl into bed with P.
Daily Total: $0

Day Seven

11:30 a.m. — P. and I sleep in because it’s Sunday. I finally get up at 11 a.m. to make some breakfast. This morning, I’m attempting to make dosa masala and sambar; P. bought some dosa mix a while back from the Indian grocery store, but I’ve been too lazy to make it. I figure that today is the right occasion since he just got back from his trip.
1:30 p.m. — P. and I finally sit down to eat the dosa masala and sambar with store-bought mint and coconut chutney. Breakfast took longer than expected to make in part because I had to steam potatoes, soak some pigeon peas, and cook the sambar for a long time. It’s also my first time making dosas, so my dosas do not look anything like the ones I’ve ordered at restaurants. Still, you can’t really go wrong with a crepe fried in vegan butter and stuffed with spiced potatoes, so the fruits of my labor still taste good.
2:30 p.m. — I finally sit down to work on my dissertation some more with EDM playing in the background. P. does the mountain of dishes from this morning and then browses some license plate options for his car in preparation for our move to Texas.
5:15 p.m. — One of the faculty members in my field, M., picks me up to get dinner with the seminar speaker this week. P. is jealous that I’m going to a diner with lots of vegan options that we haven’t been to for years, so I promise to bring him back some food. I order a tempeh and portobello sandwich with lemon tahini dressing for myself and a tempeh BLT to go for P. Everyone at the table orders milkshakes, so I get jealous and also splurge on a vegan Oreo shake to go for P. and I to share. The total comes out to $45.71, including tip. $45.71
8 p.m. — M. drops me back home, where I find P. sitting in the living room in the middle of a virtual movie night. I join him for a bit, sipping my half of the vegan Oreo shake. I’m so glad I decided to splurge since the shake is delicious. While P. finishes his movie, I return to my office to write my dissertation since every minute counts when you’re in a time crunch!
10 p.m. — P. wraps up his movie night, and it’s time for the two of us to go on our weekly Sunday night pool date. We like to go at this time since the hourly rate between 10 p.m. and 12 a.m. on Sundays is only $5 an hour. But today, when we get to the pool hall, we see that they have closed, probably because it was a slow night since not that many people are out after Super Bowl Sunday. Dejected, we drive back home and spend the rest of the night watching YouTube videos together.
12:30 a.m. — It’s time for our nightly episode of Spy x Family (we finish season 1!). I then shower and climb into bed with P.
Daily Total: $45.71

The Breakdown

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