In 2018, holding a college degree and a full-time professional job does not necessarily secure you a comfortable life. Nowhere is this more true than in cities like San Francisco and New York, where living “comfortably” all but requires a six-figure salary to avoid being priced out by ballooning housing costs. For women who earn less than that–and weather the effects of the persistent gender pay gap–taking up residence in a city means being financially precarious. Even women who are higher earners may feel financially adrift if they have to foot steep childcare costs and support family members.
Wages across the country have only increased significantly for the top 10% of earners and are not keeping pace with rising housing costs and student loan debt to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. A third of millennials have no savings for retirement, and median retirement savings for working families amount to just $5,000. It is little surprise, then, that more than half of millennials over the age of 21 reportedly receive some sort of financial support from their parents.
I talked to four working millennials–women from a range of professional industries and different walks of life–about how they make ends meet in cities across the U.S.
“I have $320,000 in student loan debt. I’ve just accepted it. I’m never going to pay it off.”
“I didn’t even know any lawyers before I went to grad school,” says Jennifer*, 29, who runs her own law firm in Washington, D.C. “I’m the only person [in my family] who has gone on to get a professional degree.” But with her law degree came $320,000 in student loan debt.
People make assumptions about how much lawyers earn, Jennifer says, but in reality, only attorneys at big law firms have handsome salaries in the $200,000 range. When she left a job at one such firm to do more meaningful work, starting her own firm seemed like the best course of action, both to spend more time with her son and keep her finances afloat. “In order to do family law or landlord tenant law, I would have made probably $60,000, and I just couldn’t stomach that,” she says.
Though Jennifer’s income is still sizable–now about $150,000, though her pay is irregular since it depends on how her business is doing–she has to set aside money for her monthly loan payments and multiple financial dependents. “My mom, unfortunately, just hasn’t really been able to stay on her feet financially, so I always budget in an amount each month to cover her bills,” she says. “I had [my son] in college . . . and I have a goddaughter who resides with me part-time.” Given those obligations, her student loan debt feels so insurmountable that Jennifer has now altered and increased her life insurance policy: In the event of her passing, her life insurance will fully cover the remaining balance. “For the first two years after graduation, I panicked about [loans] and obsessed constantly,” she says. “But now I’ve just accepted it. I’m never going to pay it off.”
Jennifer fastidiously maintains a line-item budget in an Excel spreadsheet, so she makes note of every time she swipes her credit card. “I have a very strict budget,” she says. “It makes me feel in control.” Her mom started leaning on her financially when she was just 16, so Jennifer has practiced being frugal and taking advantage of free opportunities. “I do travel a bit, and I dress decently, and I post fancy pictures on Instagram,” she says. “But if you ask me, I will be honest. I shoot locally with some photographers, and they paid for that outfit. I got that flight on Spirit for half off.” Jennifer says that as an extrovert and single mom, she is frequently out and about–but that many of the local parenting activities she partakes in, for example, are free.
Still, as a single mom footing childcare, providing for her mom and goddaughter, and swallowing the cost of living in D.C.–she spends about $500 a month just on gas, for example, in addition to metro and parking costs–Jennifer worries often about her savings and her ability to live there comfortably long-term. “It is scary to know I don’t have six months of living expenses saved,” she says. As much as she loves D.C., she knows living elsewhere would be more cost-effective, if it was a viable option. “I would love to move elsewhere, but I don’t want to have to take another bar exam,” she says. “If there were some way I could move away from the city, I absolutely would.”
“I felt like with ‘just’ a bachelor’s degree, I wasn’t really qualified for a lot of jobs”
“I feel like my earning potential is so much higher, based on my qualifications,” says Jessie Gotsdiner, a policy associate at a Chicago-based nonprofit. “But I also don’t want to work for some money-grubbing, for-profit firm. So that’s a constant struggle.” Gotsdiner, 28, earns a salary in the range of $45,000, despite having two degrees: She went to Northwestern University for her undergraduate degree and later earned an MPA from New York University. “As silly as it is to say this, I felt like with ‘just’ a bachelor’s degree, I wasn’t really qualified for a lot of jobs I was looking at,” she says.
Though money is tight for her–especially living in a city like Chicago–Gotsdiner’s work gives her perspective, and financial help from her dad eases some of her financial strain. “It’s all relative–our target population is low-income working families,” she says of the work she does. “So compared to the vast majority of America, I’m actually doing fine and can’t complain. And I have a huge safety net, so that’s really helpful. But then I look at other Northwestern graduates, and they’re making six figures, and they have been for years.”
Gotsdiner recently moved in with her boyfriend, which has significantly reduced her rent expenses; prior to that, she had a roommate and lived in a more affordable part of the city. “I don’t really adhere to a budget, but I do know approximately how much I can spend each week,” she says. “I actually do this really insane thing where I pay down my credit card [balance] multiple times a week.” She describes herself as very conscientious when it comes to saving money, and she makes it a priority to put 10% of her salary toward her 403b (a 401k for nonprofits). “But my dad still gives me money every month–a couple hundred dollars,” she adds.
While she’s lucky to have the support of her dad–who is a corporate attorney and could afford to pay for her education, both in college and grad school–Gotsdiner says she has never coasted on that. “I think I’m way more paranoid and concerned than I need to be,” she says of saving money. “But I want that personal satisfaction of ‘Oh, I earned this, and I wasn’t just born into a lucky situation.'”
She also knows that circumstances change. “Both my parents were attorneys for private firms, but my mom passed away when I was 11,” she says. “Losing a parent early on made me realize that anything could happen to my dad at anytime. But also, he could live until 120 years old, and I wouldn’t inherit as much. So I don’t rely on that.”
“It’s impossible to do arts full-time in a city”
When Katie Florez, 27, dropped out of Northwestern University her sophomore year, it was because she wanted to move to San Francisco and train at a dance conservatory. Though she did a work-exchange program, her parents helped foot some of her conservatory costs. But Florez still struggled to cover the rest of her expenses, both as a student and then as a dancer–especially in a city with exorbitant housing and living costs–and took odd jobs to make ends meet.
“After I had been here for a few months, I started working at an ice cream shop,” she says. “I would have eight-plus hour days and then go work on my feet all night a few days a week . . . I was babysitting, which is the best way to make money in San Francisco if you don’t have a regular job. I worked for a few different families, but with one of them I could make $100 in a few hours under the table. I also worked at a restaurant for a while as a server.”
Still, as someone working in the arts, it was a struggle to stay afloat financially. “It’s just fucking impossible to do arts full-time in a city,” she says. So she went back to school full-time at the University of San Francisco, to finish her bachelor’s degree. While in school, she continued dancing and teaching, worked as a restaurant server, and had a number of side gigs–doing transcription work for a friend, for example, and hosting Airbnb experiences.
Compensation for dance gigs was very inconsistent, so her pay was unpredictable–she could make $250 for a full weekend of performances, or get paid hourly at a rate anywhere from $10 up to $25 an hour. And she found that serving at a restaurant was especially tiring after dancing. “It was mentally and physically exhausting to go from rehearsing for four hours to running around and being on your feet,” she says. Eventually, Florez felt the most financially feasible path for her was to take a full-time role as a content strategist and dance on the side.
“There’s definitely a part of me in my soul that feels like you sell out a bit if you’re not doing the thing you’re passionate about full-time,” she says. “But I had to make the agreement with myself that I’m not good with not having some kind of regularity with my paycheck. And the amount of mental peace that gives me–knowing I have enough money to survive–makes that trade-off worth it for me.”
Since funding for the arts has dried up, Florez says 52-week paid dance contracts with benefits are also few and far between. “Everyone is freelancing,” she says. “It’s a mad hustle to find your next gig, and it’s rare that anyone is dancing full-time. That’s really a luxury–and even then, you wouldn’t be making that much.” For Florez, the other upside of having a full-time job is that it empowers her to be more selective about dance gigs.
Though her financial situation has stabilized somewhat with her current job, Florez knows that without her parents’ assistance with conservatory, her financial situation would have been even more precarious during her early years in San Francisco. But she has been fully financially independent since. “I got so burnt out and so self-critical about needing money from them at all,” she says. “As soon as I could make it by myself, it was a relief.”
“I might move and live in a country where the dollar goes really far”
Alex Tran, 34, works in logistics marketing in Seattle. She also moonlights as a fitness and travel blogger and yoga instructor, which cumulatively brings her yearly income to about $90,000. But that’s still not enough to live comfortably and save enough money in Seattle, which she says is fast becoming like San Francisco as the proverbial divide deepens between techies and non-techies.
“We don’t have rent control, so your rent can jump from $1,500 to $2,200,” she says. “People move from one unit to another unit in the same building.” Since rent costs are so unpredictable, Tran finds it difficult to pad her savings and virtually impossible to save up enough to buy her own place. (The irony, of course, is that Tran wants to buy an apartment to shield her bank account from rising rent costs.) Even a small studio in downtown Seattle can run about $500,000, she says. And unlike some of her friends, whose parents were able to foot part of their mortgage, she does not have family money to fall back on. “I was actually in foster care growing up, so I really don’t have a safety net at all,” she adds. She also still has $10,000 in student loan debt to pay off.
Tran claims she has a knack for finding good deals and that she is frugal when it comes to food and alcohol expenses; she also plans to apply for middle-income housing. Tran is the beneficiary of certain freebies–be it brand trips or nice meals–thanks to her blogging gig, but her actual income from blogging is very inconsistent. “I kind of have to look at my finances on a daily basis,” she says, adding that she uses tools like Mint and Credit Karma. “I don’t know if that’s a good habit or a bad habit, but I know exactly when money is moving. One of my fears is that somebody will hack into my account and I won’t be able to pay rent the next month.”
While Tran enjoys living in Seattle, she says it doesn’t quite feel like home. (She previously lived in California and Texas.) That’s both due to Seattle’s large contingent of transplants and because the city and its surrounding areas are not particularly diverse. But it’s also that Tran can’t fathom retiring there when the cost of living is so high. “I’ve been living here for about five years,” she says. “But one day I might move and live in a country where the U.S. dollar goes really far, like Thailand or Vietnam.”
*To maintain anonymity, we used a pseudonym.