A Week In Phoenix, AZ, On A $44,500 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.
Today: a victim advocate working in government who makes $44,500 per year and spends some of her money this week on breakfast tacos. We were inspired to run this diary from a 57-year-old woman living in Phoenix, AZ, in connection with our Life Begins At campaign — it’s time we shed the negative stereotypes, unconscious cultural bias, and misconceptions associated with age and get real about what aging really looks like for us.
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Below, we asked the OP some questions.
Are you prepared to retire one day? Is there anything you would change about the way you save for retirement? How much do you have in your retirement account(s)?
I have a pension from 19 years of working at my last company. I don't know how much is in it, but only that if I wait until I'm 65 to collect, I would be drawing about $950 a month from that source. I contributed 11.8% of my income, matched by my employer. (We were mandated to contribute to the Arizona State Retirement System.) I currently have a meager $14,000 of my own contributions from the past two and a half years, and my new job also participates in the Arizona State Retirement System, so they will continue to put 11.8% of my income into the ASRS and will match my contributions. Even so, by the time I reach retirement age, I won't have enough. I imagine that I will at least have to work part-time past retirement age, but that's okay because I love working. I didn't save at all for retirement when I was younger, but looking back now, I don't know how I could have. I raised my daughter on a single income working for nonprofits and lived paycheck to paycheck. I suppose I could have changed careers for something higher-paying, but then...my work has given so much purpose to my life. It's a tradeoff!
Do you have any money regrets from when you were younger? Any financial advice you'd give to your younger self?
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I have many money regrets from my younger years, including maxing out credit cards that had higher limits than I should have had. I also had a "stick my head in the sand" mentality with money. I avoided dealing with the problem for a long time, and as a result ended up paying late fees, interest, etc. With help from a financial counselor, I was able to negotiate a payoff agreement to avoid bankruptcy. For five years after, I refused to apply for another credit card until I knew I could be responsible with money. I now have two credit cards that I've had for many years, and I pay off the balance every month and earn a cash reward from purchases. I haven't paid credit card interest in years. The biggest lesson I learned was that if I want something that's out of my budget, I save for it. I also would tell my younger self to face up to the reality of my financial situation and budget according to that reality. I could have saved myself a lot of money and anxiety if I had done that.
At the end of the diary, you get a new job. Was that the first time you negotiated for yourself? What inspired you to do it now?
Yes, it was the first time I negotiated a salary for myself. I have always worked for nonprofits, until recently working for the government the past two and a half years. I was always told my salary, and I accepted it. This time, when the HR rep called me, she told me the salary range and the offer, but then asked me what I thought was fair. As I have gotten older, I have learned to acknowledge my skills and my worth in my field, and I took a leap. It was a surprise to me that I negotiated. I hadn't planned it...but she was so kind, and created the opportunity for me to do so.
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Occupation: Victim Advocate
Industry: Government
Age: 57
Location: Phoenix, AZ
Salary: $44,500
Paycheck Amount (Biweekly): $1,287
Monthly Expenses
Mortgage: $835
HOA: $190
Student Loans: $50 from my master's program 22 years ago — I have one payment left!
Internet: $76
Electricity: $80
Car Insurance: $260 (This will decrease soon when my daughter graduates from college and she will be paying her own.)
Netflix: $11.94
Home Warranty: $43 (Because I don't know how to fix things. And I don't want to learn.)
Cell Phones: $145 for me and daughter. This will decrease to $80 as my daughter takes on this expense.
French App: $10 (Because I am planning to move to the south of France!)
Savings: $150
Arizona State Retirement: $400

Day One

5:30 a.m. — I keep hitting the snooze on the alarm. I need to get up. I want time to meditate and then I want to get the bus at 7. I finally get up at 6 and make coffee. I should make my breakfast and lunch to bring to work, but my routine has slipped — my mom died last month after an intense year of decline. I vow to pull it back together this weekend. I leave at 7:25, and as I lock the door, the bus passes. Damn. I drive to the park for the light rail and have to run to catch it. When I get on, it's packed. I squeeze in and hold my breath. I close my eyes and remind myself that every moment is a gift. Half the riders get off at the next stop and I can breathe again. I get to work, check in at my desk, and then head downstairs to buy coffee and hard-boiled eggs at the coffee shop. Stupid. I had coffee and eggs at home. $6.16
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1:30 p.m. — I grab my earplugs, open up Pandora, and walk around downtown Phoenix. It is 60 degrees and cloudy, and people are out. I make eye contact with strangers in passing, and for some reason, it makes my day. I stop at Grabbagreen because I didn't bring my lunch. I get a bowl with rice, spinach, edamame, black beans, and sesame dressing. So good. Sheesh. I need to bring my breakfast and lunch tomorrow. I eat at my desk while I work on developing a PowerPoint on the topic of vicarious trauma. Fun stuff. $16.39
5:15 p.m. — I stop at CVS on my way to the light rail and buy batteries. I have a 25% off coupon that expires today, and I need them anyway. I also buy a bottle of wine. When I pay, I can't find the coupon so I pay full price. But then on the light rail, I find the coupon in my pocket. I arrive home at 5:45 and check the mail. There is a letter from hospice about their bereavement services, with tips for coping with grief. One tip says to be gentle with yourself, and I am glad for the reminder. I have dishes in the sink and my bed hasn't been made in a week, and that's not my style. My sister texts me to ask the dates again for our mom's memorial. For a confusing second, I look at my phone and want to call my mom. $22.56
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7 p.m. — I slice and fry up some mushrooms and then make a salad. I also boil eggs for tomorrow's breakfast. Then I pick up my guitar and practice the songs I will lead at the Dances of Universal Peace. One of them is "Om Shanti," which means peace. Om Shanti, indeed. I wash the dishes in the sink and feel better.
7:15 p.m. — I go upstairs to my room to work on my book edits. My bed is unmade and it makes me uncomfortable, so I make it because it bugs me to look at it. I edit my book and get into the zone. Then I wash my face, brush my teeth, and am in bed by 10. Good job, self, I say. I've been staying up past midnight the past few weeks.
Daily Total: $45.11

Day Two

5 a.m. — The alarm goes off. I hit snooze and finally get up at 5:30. Coffee. Ten minutes of meditation. I make my bed and then pack up hard-boiled eggs, mushrooms, and some Thai noodles with a spring onion packet to eat at work.
7:05 a.m. — I am outside in time for the bus. Forty-two degrees, which is cold by Phoenix standards. The bus is unusually crowded and my favorite seat in the back is taken. Plus, the battery in my wireless earbuds dies after a minute. So instead I have to listen to two men in the back of the bus giving their loud opinions about everything that is wrong with the world. It must be comforting to think you have all the answers.
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7:45 a.m. — Arrive at work. I make some tea. Intern arrives at 8, and I train him to use our online file system. We attempt to make initial contact calls with victims, but we only get voicemails.
12 p.m. — I review intern applications and call to schedule interviews. Then I make my lunch of Thai noodles and mushrooms and eat at my desk. A coworker friend comes in to vent. She asks if I want to come over tonight for wine and movies, but I tell her my daughter, R., is coming home tonight. But then R. texts me to say she might just come for brunch in the morning. I tell her have fun. I love having her as my daughter. I wonder if I should call my friend to see if she wants to do something, but I decide I want to be home tonight after all.
1 p.m. — Pop in earbuds and go outside for a walk. It's sunny and 64. That eye contact with strangers thing again. Kind of magical.
2 p.m. — It's Friday and I'm trying to work, but my office neighbors are being silly and the energy is contagious. I'd rather play. Someone jokes about creating a YouTube video about “conversation exploitation” with coworkers. We take the concept to the extreme.
3:30 p.m. — I do the stairs. Twenty flights. Ten up, then down again, and ten back up. But actually, each flight of stairs is a double flight, so I really climbed 40 flights of stairs. I know I'm bragging, but I'm 57. It makes me feel like a badass.
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5:20 p.m. — On the bus. Earbuds are charged, and I get the good seat by the heat. I'm so tired from the accumulation of lack of sleep this past month that I start to nod off. Then I jerk awake, feeling embarrassed. I wonder if people think I'm a junkie. I laugh at myself. No...they probably just think I'm old.
6 p.m. — Home and so, so tired! I collapse on the couch for 30 minutes and then make a baked potato, throw some goat cheese, Greek yogurt, butter, and leftover mushrooms on top, and call it dinner. I wash my face and brush my teeth and I'm in bed by 8. I swear. I never go to bed at 8, but oh...I'm so tired!
Daily Total: $0

Day Three

8 a.m. — Wake up. I got 12 hours of sleep, and I feel great. Make coffee. My Sufi friend texts me with his reflections on his meditation practice. I text my daughter, and we are still on for brunch. I send a quick email to my co-dance leader and practice a new song, because I think I'm going to change what I lead tonight. At 9:25, I realize I'm dallying and am going to be late. My daughter hates it when I'm late — she is always on time, and I don't know where she got that from. Better just throw clothes on, twist my wet hair in a bun, and go. Makeup can wait. She thinks I'm beautiful no matter what.
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9:54 a.m. — I arrive at Fame Caffe, and I'm early! I'm going to slide in like being on time is a breeze. Five minutes later, R. calls to ask where I am. She went to the condo thinking we were meeting there. She ruined my moment. I get in line and order for both of us. Breakfast tacos with beans, scrambled egg, and a thin layer of mashed potatoes, plus two cappuccinos. $30.28
11 a.m. — R. goes with me to Trader Joe's. She wants to buy a bottle of wine for a housewarming party this evening. I buy food for the week: mushrooms, greens, apples, cheese, two bottles of wine, pasta sauce, marinated artichoke hearts, vegetable broth, a box of gluten-free mac 'n' cheese, a carton of pea soup, and frozen veggies. Plus some paper towels and a few other things ($50.28 total). After Trader Joe's, we go through the car wash and I start cracking up. I love the car wash — it's like a carnival ride. R. shakes her head and laughs. It costs $9 and is worth every penny. $59.28
4 p.m. — I head to my friend's house, where her friend is visiting from Snowflake. We play music together on guitars. For dinner we have vegetarian shepherd's pie with beans and onions topped with a cornbread crust. Wonderful! I am so happy to spend this evening with these two women.
6:15 p.m. — The three of us load up and drive to the Dances. We get lost because the freeway is closed, but we get there with plenty of time. Beautiful evening. My dance mentor leads four songs, and then I lead my two and he finishes with a few more. Magical. Everyone is glowing by the end of the evening, and we are so in love with each other.
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10 p.m. — Back at my friend's house, we have some tea and her gluten-free apple crisp. I go home at 11.
11:15 p.m. — Work on edits to the book. Wash my face, brush my teeth, and am in bed at 1.
Daily Total: $89.56

Day Four

7:45 a.m. — Wake up. Today is my day. No errands. No visitors. No obligations. Yay! I make coffee.
8:30 a.m. — My Sufi friend calls. We talk on the phone about life. Reality (or the lack thereof). We talk about the beautiful mystery of it all.
9:15 a.m. — Chores. Vacuum, mop, laundry, clean the cat boxes. I want to be done in two hours — this is my day and I've got plans! I have two unmatched socks after I put the laundry away. Here is my wisdom to share with all you young people: The sock mystery will NEVER be solved.
11:45 a.m. — Make gluten-free avocado toast. I grind some Trader Joe's salt with roasted garlic on the avocado. I want to thank millennials for giving the world avocado toast. Thank you.
12 p.m. — The rest of the day is mine! I write and listen to Pandora. Then I play some music and read.
5 p.m. — I make stuffed bell peppers with quinoa, black beans, green chiles, and an avocado sauce. YUM! While I cook dinner, R. and I FaceTime and I talk her through making quinoa tabbouleh. She is almost ready to throw in the towel with the rinsing quinoa thing, but we get through it. It's nice hanging out with her this way. I have two glasses of wine while we cook together via FaceTime and chat.
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7 p.m. — Watch a movie, Life Itself. Oh. My. Don't watch it if you don't want to cry.
9 p.m. — Get caught in an email exchange with a friend that is fun and engaging but keeps me up until midnight. Dang. Then I wash my face, brush my teeth, and go to bed.
Daily Total: $0

Day Five

5 a.m. — Alarm goes off. I snooze until 6, but it's not like I actually get any extra sleep. I make coffee, shower, and make my bed. I take the light rail to work today. Go through emails and email a prosecutor about a case. Then I make plans for the intern tomorrow and schedule an interview with another intern.
10 a.m. — I have a $5 gift certificate for Starbucks. A coworker and I walk over. I order a coffee and egg bites. The total comes to $1.63 after my gift card. It isn't until I get back to my office that I realize they misunderstood and gave me an egg-and-bacon sandwich. I can't eat it, since I have Celiac, but I find a coworker who can. Back to work. $1.63
1 p.m. — Walk outside. It's warm and a little cloudy. I listen to music. A homeless man standing next to a hotdog stand asks if I would buy him a hotdog. I want to but don't have my wallet with me. That makes me sad. R. texts to let me know her quinoa salad is amazing. I congratulate her and suggest she buy pre-rinsed quinoa next time.
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5:15 p.m. — I hop on the light rail and meet my friend B. for dinner at Fez. We have been best friends since I was 19. He has a brain scan thing scheduled and is worried about it. We talk about that for a while and then we talk about cosmic math formulas — the mystery of the number zero and how that fits in the meaning of life and the universe. We always end up talking about these things, no matter where our conversations start. That's why he's my best friend. I have mini Baja tacos and a glass of wine. He buys dinner.
8 p.m. — Home. Do a little writing. Wash my face, brush my teeth, and I'm in bed by 9. Sweet.
Daily Total: $1.63

Day Six

5:15 a.m. — I make coffee, shower, text a friend, fix my lunch, and make my bed. I'm starting to think my life is boring!
7:30 a.m. — Light rail. At work by 8.
8:30 a.m. — Meet victim's next of kin at court. The trial date has been pushed, and they are upset. It has been going on for so long. We meet with the prosecutor and explain why, but it doesn't really help them feel much better.
10:30 a.m. — Back at my desk. Eat two hard-boiled eggs I made this morning. Work, phone calls, yada yada. My work friend texts to see if I want to walk to the drugstore with her. I agree — I could use the break. I don't spend anything, but I'm eyeing some Bluetooth headphones and wondering if they will be better than the ones I have. Decide I'll do some research.
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1 p.m. — Lunch is a salad with artichoke hearts, garbanzo beans, and Parmesan cheese. Eh. I go for my noon walk. My wireless earbuds die again mid-walk, so I go on Amazon and buy an over-the-ear pair that has good reviews. $29.99
5:30 p.m. — Home. My sister calls to see if I want to go to Fat Cats for dancing lessons, but I don't want to. And then I remember that I just started to think my life is boring. Maybe this is why. I make gluten-free macaroni and cheese with tomatoes for dinner and watch the last episode of Killing Eve on Hulu.
10:15 p.m. — Washed, brushed, and in bed.
Daily Total: $29.99

Day Seven

5:30 a.m. — Another day. You all know the routine now. Coffee, pack lunch. Out the door at 7:25 to catch the light rail. I look at my voicemail while I'm on the train, and I see I have six saved voicemails from my mom. I listen to one of them and am shocked to hear her voice. I get teary on the train.
9:15 a.m. — My cell rings. I can see it is the agency I interviewed at for a job back in early December, just before my mom passed. I was one of two final candidates, but they chose the other. I answer, curious. She asks if I am still interested and says another position is available for a victim advocate. I say I am. She says HR will call me. I hang up, my heart pounding. Did she actually offer it? I can't tell. I wait for HR.
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12:30 p.m. — Lunch is leftover gluten-free mac 'n' cheese and lightly salted edamame. I go for a walk and come back and do the stairs. The stairs!
2:15 p.m. — HR calls. We negotiate a salary. I don't know what to say. It's a big, big, big increase — 25%, more than I ever thought I would make in my career. I suddenly feel very grown-up. At 57. I don't know how to wrap my head around it. I text R., who blows up my phone with how much of a badass she thinks I am and how hard I have worked and how much I deserve this. I am pumped! I accept the job and put in my notice. But I'm sad, too. I love seeing my work friends every day. For the rest of the day, I try to work while a steady stream of well-wishers comes to talk to me.
5 p.m. — I walk to the light-rail station, catch the 5:15, and am home by 5:45.
6 p.m. — I am not hungry. I'm too pumped up. I open a can of pinto beans, eat half of them out of the can, and call it dinner. I swear...I've never done that before. Then I work on some music and do some writing.
8 p.m. — Talk to my sister on the phone and do some more writing. I'm in bed by 10:30.
Daily Total: $0
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