Money diaries logo

A Week In Fort Wayne, IN, On A $20,000 Salary

Photo: Getty Images.
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 server who makes $20,000 per year and spends some of their money this week on a caramel sundae.
Occupation: Server
Industry: Food & Beverage
Age: 23
Location: Fort Wayne, IN
Salary: $20,000
Net Worth: -$22,500 ($200 in savings, $300 in checking, minus debt.)
Debt: $23,000 ($5,000 car loan; $4,000 credit card; $14,000 student loans)
Paycheck Amount (1x/week): ~$400 in tips (I'm technically paid hourly but I don't see any of that money because it all goes right to taxes. The restaurant pays me in cash at the end of every shift and that is what I use as my paycheck.)
Pronouns: She/they

Monthly Expenses
Rent: $317 ($950 total for a three-bedroom house with roommates.)
Car Payment: $174
Electric: $35
Gas: $45
Water/Trash: $35
Compost: $5
Internet: $25
Renters' Insurance: $7
Car Insurance: $0, paid by my mom but the insurance company is about to boot me
Health Insurance: $10 state Medicaid (payments currently paused due to COVID)
Cell Phone: $0, paid by my mom
Hulu/Spotify: $9.99
Apple TV: $4.99
Netflix/HBO Max/Disney+: $0, mooched from parents
Prescription Cat Food/Meds: $110
Savings: $100 (just started saving for a road trip next year)
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?
There was always an expectation for me to attend higher education because I excelled in school. I loved being a student and it was expected from a very young age that I would continue to be a student for as long as possible. I have a BA in Theatre & Drama from a state university, paid for primarily by scholarships and grants with a few loans. I was able to cover the bulk of my college expenses with a state scholarship. Other fees and housing were covered by additional aid and I generally paid for the rest of my living expenses with part-time jobs. I had to put an extra part-time semester of tuition on my credit card because I had surpassed what my tuition scholarship would cover. I'm still slowly (but surely!) paying off that debt.
Growing up, what kind of conversations did you have about money? Did your parent/guardian(s) educate you about finances?
We had lots of casual conversations about money. My family has always been poor and never been shy about discussing it, and they never felt they had to hide those conversations from me. I was raised by a single mom and when I was a kid she also worked in restaurants, so our finances tended to be less fixed as her income fluctuated. I also attended large, low-income public schools all of K-12 and I credit that experience with building class consciousness from an early age.
What was your first job and why did you get it?
My first job was a seasonal position with my local library, which I started when I was 16. I didn't have a car yet and spent the school year involved in plenty of extracurriculars, so I didn't think I was ready to take on a year-long job without my own transportation. I split my income halfway between spending money and savings.
Did you worry about money growing up?
Yes. Around middle school, I became very concerned that I was costing my family too much money. I started applying for scholarships before I ever applied to any colleges because I knew I wouldn't be able to go to school if I couldn't get funding for it myself. In general, I became pretty concerned about building credit and savings fairly early because it was always in the back of my head that I would have little if any financial safety net once I started living on my own.
Do you worry about money now?
Yes. Though I've noticed that I'm far less anxious about my own finances than peers who grew up in financially stable households. I think I learned early how to be resourceful enough to get the necessities covered and make do with the rest, and some friends of mine are only just starting to have to do that out of college.
At what age did you become financially responsible for yourself and do you have a financial safety net?
I became financially responsible for myself when I moved out of town for college at 18, though I was still receiving a good amount of help during that first year. I would say I fully began supporting myself when I was 20. I have some amount of financial safety net in that my family will always give me what they can in the case of an emergency, but they can't afford to fully support me. My mom has graciously helped cover things like unexpected car repairs, but she wouldn't be able to cover a month's worth of expenses for me.
Do you or have you ever received passive or inherited income? If yes, please explain.
This isn't really income but I very gratefully have to mention that my mom paid for my first car on her own. It was a used car in good condition, and she financed around $5,000 total for it.

Day One

8:30 a.m. — I wake up with my boyfriend, F., who's up early to get ready for work. Today is a day off for me. Unfortunately, yesterday was an unplanned day off because my restaurant was so slow I was called off. We're in our slow season right now so this has been happening fairly regularly. This week was also a bills-and-cat-food week, so suffice to say I'm pretty damn broke until I go into work tomorrow. The nice thing about serving is you leave with cash in your pocket, so I only have to wait until my next shift rather than my next paycheck. I do have one task today that can't wait — getting an oil change — but otherwise, I'm planning on a no-spend day.
11:30 a.m. — I eat a late breakfast at home: coffee, bagel with cream cheese, and a bowl of fruit. Then, I head out and drop my car off for an oil change. My grandparents live close to my mechanic; they pick me up and hang out with me while I wait. I absolutely adore Fort Wayne, but the city has little to offer in terms of public transportation. I'm fortunate to be able to afford a car in this city because otherwise my options for work and housing would be drastically reduced. $40
3 p.m. — I snack on more fruit and some hummus chips — an impulse purchase the last time I went to the grocery store. They're fine. I work on some chores around the house and wait for my roommates to get home.
5 p.m. — I eat leftover pasta for dinner with my boyfriend. My boyfriend is also one of my roommates, but not in a mooching way — he pays rent and utilities. You see... I New Girl'd myself — we were roommates first. It's going surprisingly well.
9 p.m. — I fail my no-spend day in the final hour by going out for ice cream. I spend $4 on a caramel sundae. $4
Daily Total: $44

Day Two

9 a.m. — F. and I start off the day with coffee and breakfast sandwiches at home. One of our regular splurges is nice coffee from a local roaster, so we always have some in the house.
11 a.m. — In college, I opened a PayPal Credit account in order to finance a laptop. I paid that off recently but want to keep the account open, so today I use the account to purchase a pair of refurbished Bose headphones on eBay. $160
1:30 p.m. — I make a big batch of chicken and rice soup for lunch and catch up on a podcast.
4 p.m. — The start of an overall uneventful shift. Our kitchen manager brings cupcakes and another server buys an appetizer for all of us to share.
10 p.m. — I finish my shift with over $100 in hand, which was the goal. After work, I have more soup and some fruit for dinner.
Daily Total: $160

Day Three

10 a.m. — A bagel and coffee from home for breakfast.
11:30 a.m. — On the way to work I swing by one of my favorite coffee shops for a lavender latte and a croissant. $14
2:30 p.m. — Work is — you guessed it — super slow, so I go home early with very little to show for my time. I use the extra hours to catch up on YouTube and plan out tasks and errands for the next few days.
3:30 p.m. — Egg rolls have been on my mind for several days now, so I decide it's time to treat myself to food delivery. I order Kung Pao shrimp and egg rolls. $25
9 p.m. — F. and I go for a drive and stop to get snacks from the gas station. After we drive around for a bit we go home and go to bed. $4
Daily Total: $43

Day Four

9 a.m. — I have yogurt with fruit and a coffee for breakfast, and pack a chai latte and snacks for work. Today is going to be one of our busiest days of the year and I'm excited after having so much downtime recently. It goes mostly smoothly, but by the time it starts to slow down I'm ready for a nap.
5 p.m. — I go out with a few coworkers to celebrate a stressful shift that went well. I spend $22 on a hard cider, brisket sliders, and tip. $22
6 p.m. — Once I'm home, I realize work today hit me harder than I was expecting. I end up spending most of the evening scrolling TikTok. At some point, F. and I start watching a documentary, but I fall asleep pretty much immediately.
Daily Total: $22

Day Five

8 a.m. — I wake up not feeling too well and mostly graze on leftover snacks for breakfast. This does not help and I spend a few hours being miserable before I realize I need to eat something substantial.
11 a.m. — I finally eat a bowl of soup. I feel better after a shower and start working on the chores I've been putting off for a few days.
2 p.m. — My mom takes my grandma and me out for lunch at our favorite Vietnamese place. We share spring rolls and egg rolls and I order a noodle dish with shrimp. My mom pays.
5 p.m. — My mom drove me to lunch, so I tag along back to her place. We stop by Walmart on the way. Tomorrow, F. and I are going on a short cabin camping trip and I need to pick up some supplies. I buy a small tank of propane for our camp stove, a new bin for washing dishes, and snacks for the road. I also pick up cat litter and a few grocery items for the house (chai, crackers, paper towels). I hang out at my mom's until F. gets out of work and picks me up. $49
8 p.m. — More leftovers and cheese and crackers for dinner. F. and I pack up all of our kitchen supplies for tomorrow. We have every intention of packing clothes and toiletries, but fall asleep instead.
Daily Total: $49

Day Six

6 a.m. — Today is our cabin camping day! This is a last-second, short trip we planned when we realized we had some convenient time off. We're only staying for one night, but it's not too long a drive so we essentially have two full days to explore the park and stop by the closest town to say hello. I wake up early to finish packing and tidying up the house.
9 a.m. — It takes longer than expected to get up and moving, but we're not on any strict timeframe so we're not too concerned. We make coffee at home, pack up the car, and pick up fast food for breakfast (F. pays). I gas up before we get on the interstate. $25
10 a.m. — I traveled this route frequently in college, so I'll be driving this trip. Plus, my car gets better gas mileage anyway. We realize pretty much immediately that we never grabbed the cooler from the garage and will have to buy a new one when we stop for groceries. It's not ideal, but I only have one small cooler and we go camping often enough that another one will definitely be put to good use in the future.
1 p.m. — We stop for coffee and a doughnut at one of my favorite coffee shops. $16
1:30 p.m. — We pick up groceries for the trip — bread, butter, lunch meat, cheese, canned soup, chocolate chip cookies, bananas, grapes, oat milk, ice, and of course a new cooler (we found one on sale!). We also brought some groceries from home: coffee, quick oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, granola bars, and peanut butter crackers. Our cabin will have only a microwave and a coffee maker, so we're bringing a propane camp stove borrowed from my stepdad for most of our cooking. F. pays for our groceries and I Venmo him half the cost. $35
2:30 p.m. — All Indiana State Parks charge a $7 entrance fee. A few years ago I purchased an annual entrance pass and put it to good use and I'm thinking I'm going to do the same this year. We already paid $53 each for the cabin reservation. Our check-in isn't until 4, so we spend some time wandering around the park inn. It has a cute gift shop, a restaurant, and a common area where someone has abandoned a puzzle. I set my mind to it while we wait to check in. $7
4 p.m. — Disaster strikes after check-in. The cabin is, to be frank, quite gross. We regularly tent camp in the actual outdoors and this is substantially dirtier and more bug-infested than a regular campsite would be. Admittedly, the straw that breaks my back is a live wasp making its presence known near a window that doesn't properly close. We ask to move into a different cabin. This is state property and Indiana is not a state that spends its tax dollars reasonably, so to a certain extent the cabin situation is to be expected.
5 p.m. — The new cabin is much better. After settling in, we make grilled cheese and soup on the camp stove. We have an adventure realizing the cabin locks automatically from the inside regardless of whether or not you've remembered to keep your key on you and have to ask the front desk to let us back into the cabin. We're feeling very guilty at this point for how much the staff has seen of us already, but they're very kind and courteous in helping us out.
7 p.m. — We go for a quick mile-long hike near our cabin. It's beautiful and we see some deer on the trail ahead of us. There are about a thousand woodpeckers in the area as well. Afterward, we head back to the cabin and tuck in for the night.
Daily Total: $83

Day Seven

6 a.m. — We wake up early to watch the sunrise. We enjoy some coffee and a granola bar before setting out on a two-mile hike, which turns out to be my favorite part of the trip.
10 a.m. — After our hike last night and another this morning, I realize the oatmeal breakfast I had planned for us is not going to be substantial enough. We head to the inn's restaurant for breakfast instead. I order an omelette, hash browns, and coffee. F. pays and I cover the tip. $5
11 a.m. — We pack up the car and check out of the cabin. I buy a mug from the gift shop because who doesn't love a souvenir? $10
12 p.m. — We spend the next several hours exploring the park. The nature center is one of my favorite things about this park, so we head there first. The park has a ton of side-of-the-road vistas to stop and see. We climb an old fire tower which at one point was the tallest point in southern Indiana, stop at a playground to soak in some sun, and relax by a lake.
4 p.m. — It's finally time to start heading home. It was an incredible trip and I'm already talking about coming back to camp properly once it's a bit warmer. On the way out of town, F. pays for gas and more ice for the cooler.
7 p.m. — There's a slowdown on the interstate due to a crash, so we take a detour and stop at a local restaurant. I order a cider and a burger with fries. F. pays and I cover the tip again. $10
8 p.m. — Once home we unpack and clean out the cooler and all of our camp gear. We watch some TV and fall asleep.
Daily Total: $25
Money Diaries are meant to reflect an individual's experience 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.

Do you have a Money Diary you'd like to share? Submit it with us here.

Have questions about how to submit or our publishing process? Read our Money Diaries FAQ doc here or email us here.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series