The Hill Life: Making It on a Meager Salary

May 16, 2012

Dear Belle,

I am a huge fan of your blog! I have been offered a job working on the Hill. I am very excited, but also very nervous.

I was blessed to have parents pay for my private college education, as well as all my living expenses. I have developed somewhat of an expensive living habit.  I’m ashamed to say, and I know this will get flack from commenters, but I do not know the value of a dollar. I know my parents will help me out, but I want to be independent and stand on my own two feet.

How did you afford rent, groceries, going out, and fabulous clothes on such a meager salary? I’ll be graduating college with zero debt and no loans…I want it to stay that way.

Riches to Rags

The truth is that I didn’t stand on my own two feet at first.  When I finished grad school, I was drowning in student loan debt.  At one point, my monthly payment was more than my rent.  So I took a weekend job at a tanning salon, but it was about as glamorous as it was lucrative. So my Father, in his infinite generosity, supplemented my income.  

I didn’t live well, but I did have a comfortable apartment, food to eat and I didn’t worry about keeping the lights turned on.  But a lot of staffers aren’t so lucky, especially male staffers.  So here are some tips on how to save money, to make your meager income go further:

Know What You’re Earning: You need to know what you will be making after taxes, not your gross salary.  Visit Paycheck City, to make those calculations.  You’ll also want to deduct about $100 from that number for your contribution to health and life insurance.

Take Advantage of Perks.  The House and Senate offer Metro benefits to cover the cost of taking the subway to work.  If it’s feasible, even if you have a car, train to work to save money on gas.  Unless, of course, you can save significantly on rent by living off the Metro line.

Also, even though you don’t need it, the House and Senate offer student loan repayment benefits to some employees.  There is a maximum payment of $833 per month, and you need to pay taxes on the money as if it were salary.  But the amount you receive, if you receive any at all, is up to your individual office.

Housing.   Most financial advisors recommend that rent + utilities should cost no more than 33% of your net salary.  Usually, the only way to make that workable on the Hill is to find a group house or a roommate.  If you went to school in D.C., some of your friends might be sticking around, I’d look into living with them.  Living alone is just too expensive for most junior staffers to swing.

Save on Food.  When I was a young staffer, I partnered with some of my neighbors to go bulk shopping.  We’d go to Costco, buy huge portions of meat, cheese, crackers, etc., and then we’d split the products and the bill.  I also clipped coupons and compared prices on everything.

Many young staffers pack lunches.  Others, like me, buy lunch and then eat cereal for dinner.  But spending $10 a day on lunch can eat up your paycheck fast.

Find More Work.  I know a lot of staffers who have second jobs.  Some bartend or waitress, others work retail and a lot of staffers babysit.  But anything that you can do to make extra money on the side is something that you should consider.

Don’t Fall Into the Trap. Some of the staffers who hacked it out on their own, scrimping and saving, will be upset that you speak openly about being fortunate.  I appreciate that you want to make it on your own, and frankly, I think that being responsible for your own financial security will help you grow as a person.  And you’re blessed that you don’t have any debts to cover, so keep it that way.  

Many new graduates finish college, enter the working world and immediately start trying to keep up with the Joneses.  So they live on credit, but debt is a shackle.  Once you have more debt than you can easily pay off, your life revolves around keeping up with your obligations.  

Most young staffers live on less than $30k per year in a very expensive city.  So it can be done.  It may not be comfortable or pretty, but it can be done.  The good news is that it doesn’t last forever, and learning how to take care of yourself and live on what you earn is a rite of passage that will serve you well whether you make $27k or $80k.

One Last Thing. If you decide that you do want some help from your parents, ask for a set amount of money every month.  Just asking for money when you need it isn’t going to teach you how to work a budget. And having an “emergency” credit card seems like a good idea until shoes and dinners at nice restaurants start to look like emergencies.

So sit down, figure out a number and only accept that amount in cash.  At least you’ll be learning how to live within a certain budget without the ability to charge whatever you want on a credit card.

Try not to be too hard on this girl.  It isn’t a crime that she was lucky enough to have an enviable college experience, and it shows a lot of character that she wants to make it on her own.  So if you have some tips for her, or the other new staffers who may read this post, on how to save money and get by on a junior staffer paycheck, leave them in the comments.

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  1. gingerr says:

    Living in a group house was a pivotal experience for me. I met so many people who're still my friends!
    The house was miserable. It had mice, the heat didn't work very well, the neighborhood was iffy, but the people I met made up for it.
    They knew people at other houses and we went to house parties (which are cheap compared to bar hopping) all the time. I found my first job from somebody who lived there and needed temporary help.

    Yes, roomates are obnoxious and you'll wish for your own kitchen, but the benefits of connecting with other recent graduates in the area is worth it. Work friends tend to come and go but those first roomates have persisted across multiple jobs.

  2. R says:

    I was also like this girl – I graduated with no student debt and took a professional job at the bottom of the totem pole for little to no money ($25K). My suggestion (like Belle) is to take a second job. I worked every other weekend and was able to save enough money to pay off my car (used) in 2 years. The every other also allowed me some off time to enjoy life. Even without a car expense, something will come up and it is quite nice to have your own money to fall back on. It sounds like this writer has a good head on her shoulders to think about this in advance and who is grateful for help from her parents. I'm similarly trying to raise my now 3-year old to be a grateful person as well.

  3. Ellen says:

    Automatic bill pay – set every bill you have to pay rent, cable, utilities, insurance, student loan/credit card, etc. to draft out of your account the day after you get your paycheck. For me, I get paid the 30th of every month and on the first every single fixed expense I have drafts out of my checking account without me having to do a thing. This is great for me because I can check my balance on the second or third of the month and that is the money I have left to budget on food and fun without having to worry.

  4. Blair says:

    I was in the exact same situation. I was very generously supported by my parents while working as a press assistant for 26K, and even when I was bumped up to Deputy at 35K, it was a rude awakening. The best advice I can give you is no matter what, save something each month, in addition to your 401K, TPS, etc. Even if it's just 25 dollars, get in the habit of stashing away money. YOu'll be very glad you did.

  5. bex says:

    Belle and Rags to Riches-
    I am in a very similar situation, and these questions have been spinning in my head too. So thank you to you both! I keep telling myself “it must be do-able, everyone in DC had to start somewhere” but it's nice to see it from such a reliable source.

  6. Emily says:

    Good for her for wanting to support herself! I also have very generous parents so I graduated with no student loans. However, my husbands parents were not so generous (which is totally fine) and, by keeping our budget tight, we have been able to get him through a (very expensive) private graduate school with no debt and we have also managed to stash away about $50k in savings over the past 3 years. We live on about $60k per year (before paying about $20k in tuition) in an expensive, large city with no quality public transit system. We prioritized 1) paying cash for school and 2) saving for a house/retirement. This meant several things: we rarely eat out, I make large batches of dinner (hello, crock pot soup!) so we can eat leftovers for lunch, for groceries we shop at Aldi and don't buy processed food (pizza, frizen dinners are very expensive), we buy meat but only chicken and one other kind per week (ie: chicken and pork chops one week, chicken and ground turkey for spaghetti, etc) and the biggest one: we seperate our “wants” from our “needs”. For us, it's all about prioritizing. We want to buy a house soon and (for us) we would rather have a house than new clothes, regulare manicures/pedicures, vacations, and restaurant food. I totally agree with Belle's advice to not try to keep up with other people's lifestyles – it will drive you crazy! Be happy with what you have and live within your means. Also (this doesn't work for everyone as it requires a great deal of self control) we signed up for a credit card that offers cash back and we put EVERYTHING on it. We treat it like a debit card so we never put more on it than what we have and we pay it off every Friday (just to make sure it doesn't get out of control). We have been rewarded in several hundred (free!) dollars of cash back over the past few years and we've never paid a cent in interest! Just my thoughts – sorry for the novel! 🙂

  7. Shannon says:

    My suggestion is to have a credit card for emergencies, but to freeze it in a block of ice. You radically redefine “emergency” when you have to sit there with a blowdryer for an hour defrosting your Mastercard. (This is actually how I paid off my credit card debt.)

    I made 25K when I first moved to the city (granted, it was less expensive to live here in 1999). I made batches of food to freeze, organized movie nights and potlucks with friends to save money on going out for the weekends, and asked myself “do I need this or do I want this?” every time I was about to make a purchase.

  8. r says:

    I highly second the comments re: TSP and automatic bill pay. If you're getting paid once a month, seeing the amount of “play money” you have after all of the essentials is key. When I first started on the Hill, I had about $150 a month for non-essential purchases, which included everything from dinners/drinks, clothes, trips, etc.

    Also, if you can find rent with utilities included, it might help you stick to your budget and have a clearer understanding of what you have to spend.

    And, this might go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: Do a great job, then ask for a raise.

  9. sweetpea says:

    As someone who lives on a $35K salary, has graduate school loan debt, and has not had any parental help with finances since leaving undergrad (indeed, I often assist my own cash-strapped mother), my biggest advice to you is let your parents help you. Take all the help you can get. You'll never be able to keep up with the Joneses in this town unless someone is supplementing your income and, believe me, people look at you funny when you have to skip happy hours or dress in clothes from Kohl's and Target because you don't have the cash. “Standing on your own two feet” is overrated. This, however, is just my opinion. Good luck.

  10. Beth says:

    The biggest trap I see people fall into is the so-called 'latte factor', small luxuries like coffees or deli lunches that quickly add up. Like you said, $10 a day for lunch adds up quickly, as does $4 a day for a fancy coffee. I've started doing challenges with my money, like no money Monday (no discretionary spending at all), $12 dollar Tuesday, pay day lunch date. It's enough variety that it doesn't feel like deprivation.

  11. Sara says:

    Unlike Riches to Rags, I have massive student loan debt from putting myself through undergrad and grad school. I have credit card debt from the times financial aid wouldn't cover my tuition. I don't have a car– I walk everywhere. I don't go on vacations except for a trip to New York on the $40 bus fare with a friend who can split a cheap room. I exercise at home, I do my own manicures and pedicures, I shamelessly but occasionally shop the clearance racks but I also bought myself one designer purse as a graduation gift and that keeps me from needing to quell the new purse craving. I eat oatmeal for breakfast, yogurt for lunch, and chicken for dinner. I keep my change in a bucket for snacks at work. I make everything from my shampoo to my dish soap last as long as possible. I get my split ends trimmed for only $16. I buy expensive foundation because it lasts six months. I go out for dinner once per paycheck and set a budget for it. I stay in on weekends with Netflix and Hulu and crochet as a hobby. Ultimately, I have learned how to say no to the things a higher paycheck can afford. I might be a little crazy by now, but I have managed to stay on Capitol Hill for five whole years amidst pay freezes and government shutdown threats without having a second job or access to the Bank of My Parents. It's hard as hell and, though I don't always realize it on a daily basis, I know I will look back on it as being rewarding because I'm self-made. Can't put a price on that— and I applaud her for wanting to make it on her own!

  12. I'll chime in here… I had a full academic scholarship to a top private school for undergrad, so I had no educational debt. I came to DC for a Ph.D. in science, which came with a $22,500/year academic stipend. I never had any supplemental income to that — I'm routinely in the lab 70+ hours/week, so there is certainly no time for a second job, and my parents helped me out financially only once, when I was slammed with a $12,000 bill following emergency surgery. Had I not required the surgery, or worked somewhere where my health insurance actually paid for things, I would not have received (or needed) a penny.

    Here's what I had: a roof over my head (2 bedroom apartment with a roommate), food (that I cooked myself, rather than eating out), all my utilities, a SmarTrip card since there was no way I could afford a car (but no metro benefits), enough spending money to go out with my friends once or twice a month (but there was always money for a night in with them), and about $200/month to put into savings.

    Here's what I didn't have: vacations, lots of nights out, happy hour binges, mani/pedis, haircuts more than once a year, expensive clothes/shoes/jewelry/anything (a dress on sale from J. Crew was a big splurge).

    You absolutely will make enough money to live… but you may not live the way you are used to living. That's your choice to make; if you really can't give up the extra frivolities, then you'll find yourself in debt. Only you can decide whether or not it's worth having the struggle of debt later to keep up with your current lifestyle. For me, I can absolutely 100% say that I made the right choice — I never look back on my earlier years of grad school and wish I had spend more money out drinking or had a better wardrobe; I look back with appreciation for my frugality that left me debt-free, while so many of my friends are wallowing in credit card debt.

  13. SLS says:

    Have a budget, if only because it makes you prioritize your financial obligations and see your paycheck as a pie rather than a dropping number in your bank account. Knowing that handbag will decimate your food budget for a month is a strong disincentive to an impulse buy. Having said that, like Blair said, save something every month so that you can splurge occasionally and have a little fun.

  14. HJ says:

    When I first came to DC, I had very little college debt and my parents had not supplemented my income since high school. I had had a part time job since high school and rarely asked my parents for money. After moving to DC and getting a starting out on the hill, money was tight and my parents gave me a loan to get me on my financial feet and help me get moved in to an apt. I paid them back in full for the money they loaned me. If your parents want to help you, let them help but pay them back.

    Another practice I started early was putting $250 into my savings at the beginning of the month. For a starting salary on this hill that sounds like a lot but it was great to have at the end of the month if I came up short. If I didn't use it, it just stayed in my savings.

  15. k-t says:

    Budget, budget, budget! Keep your rent as low as you comfortably can. Almost all recent grads in DC share housing. It is really the only way to afford something safe on a low salary without living way far out. And you want to live close-in, both to reduce commuting time and to be closer to other fun, young people and activities.

    If your housemates are amenable to it, sharing groceries and meals is much more cost effective than each person buying and cooking individually. Much less waste. And it can be really social and fun. But it takes the right mix of people for that to work well.

    Once you have figured out your costs for the basics (rent, utilities, food, gas, etc), determine what your clothing and grooming needs are. Determine a reasonable social budget. Balancing the social budget with the style budget is very personal. Is it more important to you to be able to do the river rafting trip or to have a new suit? Dinner out or nicer shoes? It might also vary from month to month. I think the key is to be mindful of what you are spending and not let your outgo exceed your income.

  16. Helena says:

    A tale from the other side: I lived totally beyond my means in law school. I borrowed a lot of money in private loans and racked up credit card debt, thinking I'd pay it all back when I had a high-paying firm job. That was 10 years ago and I'm STILL paying it all off. Not to mention, I was laid off in 2004 and had one credit line go into collection, which took a big hit on my credit score. I ended up asking my parents for help and they were so disappointed in me. I'm in a more stable place now, but even in a dual-income lawyer home, that money put towards old debt is a significant cut from money that could be going to education costs for kids, vacations, or retirement savings. You may feel safe because your parents can always bail you out, but the truth is, you never know what can happen. Be frugal now and learn the skills you'll need to get through hard times should they come your way.

  17. C says:

    I'm in a similar situation to the writer, but i currently work two jobs – i'd recommend the two job strategy for so many reasons – and find a FUN second job with some perks – for example, i work my second job at a running store, and it's great, as a runner-free races, shoes, great comaderie – in DC, you are lucky that there are so many retail opportunities, so try to find a place that sells what you love, and it starts to not feel like work anymore! it's also a nice mental break from the stress of a “real” job, and a good way to meet new friends!

  18. K says:

    My biggest challenge coming to DC was spending money on the social scene – happy hours, dinners to “catch up”, going out on weekends, etc. If you're new on the job there's a lot of pressure to put yourself out there and socialize to meet new people and that really ate away at my budget. My best piece of advice would be to set budgets with cash – on the weekends I only go out with cash so I don't spend more than I want or need to.

    Also, and this rings cliche – stick to your commitments. Set a budget and don't allow people to sway you. This will involve saying no to many things – concerts, dinners, shopping, etc. – which I always found difficult because I didn't want to be perceived as antisocial. But it's worth it because financial independence is both very gratifying and necessary to continue living in this city in the long term. Many young professionals are in the same boat so there's room to be creative with low-cost activities.

  19. Sally says:

    I moved to DC in 2006 and was making $35k/ year. My best advice is to have two checking accounts, each with a debit card. The first account is for necessities only. Decide beforehand what is a necessity. Mine are rent, electric, metro fare, groceries, prescriptions. I defined a necessity a,s “even if I can buy nothing else, I will be able to eat, pay my bills on time, and have metro fare to get to work.”

    Add it all up, give yourself as much of a cushion as you can, and have that amount direct deposited into your bill checking account, straight from your paycheck. You must have the discipline to use this money for only the basic needs you have already decided on.

    The second account gets whatever is left over from the paycheck. This is all the fun money I had for eating out, happy hour, cable, and clothes.

    Having this separation ensures that your basic needs will be taken care of, while you also have a clear picture of how much money you can play around with.

    Good for you for being independent. Once you get used to a high standard of living, it is difficult to back pedal. It will be hard. You will be tempted to spend more than you have. Be strong.

  20. J says:

    I also have experience being broke in the city post college and during grad school. One thing I did right away was figure out what “luxuries” I could easily give up. For me it was manicures and pedicures (once you learn it is quite easy to do a good job yourself) and expensive haircuts/color. I went natural on my color and found a place that does good and cheap cuts. Just those things alone saved me a lot of money. Also, shopping “cheaper” stores like H&M and Forever 21. Yes, these things may not last a lifetime (although I really do have some H&M work dresses and blazers that are going on five years old and still great), but you can find great basics and fun pieces here for super cheap. Also don't fall into a comparison trap. I often found myself wondering how my friends afforded shopping sprees at Bloomies or J Crew or tons of nights and dinners, but I later found out that nearly all of these ladies were swimming in thousands in credit card debt.

  21. Aunt_Pete says:

    I find it useful to have a two week budget. My first paycheck every month is for bills (don’t wait for the due date, it’s good to pay early). I pay every bill with that money. The second paycheck is for rent. The money left over after is discretionary. I keep a more even bank balance this way and I don’t have to worry as much about overspending early in the month and running short when it comes time to pay rent, etc.

    Also, be intentional about your money. Many people disagree, but I hate automatic bill pay. I make the payments myself every month so I can see my money going out. It’s easier to catch billing errors that way (yes they happen) and identify areas that I need to cut back. It also helps me stay grounded. When I’m clicking “pay”, it helps me think twice about clicking “buy” the next month.

    Last, make a planned trip to the store with a list. Buy what’s on the list. Do not buy what’s not on the list. Do not go back to the store later. You will go in for one thing and walk out with twelve. The best piece of advice I’ve ever received came from my grandpa: “you can go broke saving money”. Just because something is on sale does not mean the at you should buy it.

  22. CH says:

    My biggest tip is to set aside some money for fun. If you feel like you're always denying yourself, it's easy to “snap” and blow a ton of money on impulse – because you've had a bad day/week/month and need some retail therapy, because everyone at your office has cute spring shoes but you, whatever. Being able to splurge on a little luxury periodically – whether it's a fancy latte, lunch/dinner out with friends, a new dress or a really good haircut – and knowing that you've set aside the money to do it responsibly makes a big difference in feeling like you're living a comfortable life.

  23. Cara says:

    Love this question. I wasn't in this situation but can help with advice!

    I second the automatic bill pay. Due dates can sneak up on you. It can have benefits, too. My student loan interest went down 0.5%.

    Like Belle said, little luxuries add up fast. I give myself a cash allowance every week for things like going to lunch, coffee, candy, a movie. When it's done, I'm done. I also used to only go out for lunch on Friday as a treat at the end of the week so you don't feel deprived. Don't bend to peer pressure or judge yourself against how others are living. Most likely, people are paying for their expensive dinners and clothes with credit cards. You don't want to be still paying for that dinner in 10 years.

    Learn to cook. There are tons of websites but if you want a good book, get this one: The recipes are basic and foolproof.

    Get into the habit of paying yourself first. Set aside whatever you can afford from each paycheck for emergencies or retirement (preferably both). Even if it's only $10. Not doing this is a hard habit to break later – trust me. You can set up an automatic withdrawal into a savings account through your bank and 401k contributions can be automated. Also, this may not be an option at first but I have friends who set up any raises or bonuses to go straight to savings and they continue to live as though they never got the extra money. I haven't been so fortunate yet! 🙂

    As for your parents, if they can afford it without risking their own retirement (will they come back to you and say “your turn to care for me”?) and they won't hold it over your head for years to come, let them help in the beginning. Break that habit early though. You don't want to be 30 and still dependent. Not attractive and will probably mess with your self-esteem.

  24. S says:

    Whatever your salary and your monthly needs are, I would highly recommend using or a similar tool like Excel to help manage your budget. Like Rags to Riches, I was fortunate enough to receive financial help from my family, but now I am in my first permanent job out of professional school and am learning how to budget for the first time. On Mint, I set monthly budgets in the categories I most often use: groceries, gas, bills, rent, restaurants, etc., and the site also permits you to include once-every-few-months categories (haircuts, for example) or one-time budgets, for those times you might need car repairs and the like. I have found it extremely helpful to track how much I spend in each of these categories per month and if I go over, I can adjust my spending accordingly.

    This post from the Corporette blog may also be helpful:

    Best of luck to Rags to Riches and all the others just starting out!

  25. Seems like there's been a ton of good advice. A couple more things to toss in there:

    1. If you get a side job, try tutoring. On a per hour basis it's more bang for the buck than almost any other job I've had (other than BigLaw).

    2. Look for deals. Going out can get expensive but with Groupon, Living Social, and the really reasonable DC happy hour scene you can in fact have a social life on a budget.

  26. MM says:

    First, read “Making the Most of Your Money Now” by Jane Bryant Quinn. This book looks intimidating – it's about 3 inches thick – but the writing style is fun and easy to read, and it'll give you a good background on money management for all stages of your life. But don't buy the book – get it out of the library! (One of the big perks of being a congressional staffer is the ability to check books out of the Library of Congress – you usually get them faster than you would from amazon, and it's free!). And, if you’re interested in this topic, listen to the “Marketplace Money” podcast, free on itunes, and it will increase your all around money management knowledge.

    One of the big costs of being a young person in DC is going out on the weekends – it eats up cash fast! When you do go out, keep your budget in mind. What I prefer to do instead though, is have after work happy hours with friends at home – you can buy a 6-pack of nice beer or a bottle of wine at Trader Joes for less than you would spend on one drink at a bar.

    As others have said, cook for yourself, and I would add, try to cook vegetarian or low-meat dishes. Meat really adds to the cost of a meal, so if you do use it, just cook up a small portion and fill out the rest of the meal with grains/pasta and veggies. There are lots of great cookbooks on this topic out there – Mark Bittman’s “The Food Matters Cookbook” and “The Starving Students' Vegetarian Cookbook” are good places to start for quick, healthy and cheap meals – check them out of the library!

    Making and bringing your own lunch is great, but for days that you can't, two lunch options in Longworth that won't kill your budget are just getting 3 hot sides ($1.25 each for a total of $3.75), or the soup and crackers. Sure, it would be cheaper to keep a few cans of soup in your desk for those days, but if you can't, or you don't want to miss out on going to lunch with your coworkers in the cafeteria, those are the best bets.

    Think seriously about getting rid of your car (if you have one), or not getting one at all. With the Congressional discount, you can join zipcar for $25/year, and you can rent a car through them for about $10-12/hour, which includes gas and insurance. In addition to the cost of buying a car, you have to factor in insurance, registration in DC (not inexpensive), repairs, gas, and all the tickets you will inevitably get driving and parking in this city. The city has just installed speed cameras all over the place that will get you at $125 – I've had a couple already – not fun!

    Don't read fashion blogs too much (I know, I know) – they tend to raise your idea of what is an appropriate amount to be paying for individual items, and how much “everyone else” must be paying. Instead, just use them as inspiration for what you want your final outfits to look like. I never buy anything new that's not on significant sale (wait for it, it will always go on sale eventually, and you may find that a couple of weeks later, you don't actually want it that much after all). But really, I do most of my clothing shopping at Goodwill and on ebay. DC's Goodwill's usually have pretty current and nice stuff (I regularly find nice sweaters and jackets from J.Crew, BR, and Anne Taylor), and almost everything is under $10. Once you start shopping there, you'll have a hard time even justifying sale items from most retailers again – and that will be good for your budget!

    Finally, sign up to contribute to your Thrift Savings Account when you start your job. I think there is an employer match up to 4%, so if you don't contribute at least that much, you’re missing out on part of your salary. And because it's taken out of your paycheck from the beginning, you won't even notice it. It's a pleasant surprise at the end of the year to realize how much you've saved for retirement (now, when it has many years to grow!) without even realizing it.

  27. Ellen says:

    Just remembered another tip other than automatic bill pay, I am a “cash only” gal when it comes to happy hours or dinners out with friends. If my budget for the evening is $15 or $75 or anything in between I only bring that much in cash to spend on food and drinks. I don't know what it is, but it's so much easier to throw another cocktail on a tab than to have to hand over cash for it and an added perk you're way less likely to be the girl who is too drunk somewhere when all you have is enough money to cover 2 or 3 drinks.

  28. LAG says:

    Sign up for a financial planning/budgeting program- I use It's free, and it allows you to plug in your bank accounts and credit cards to help keep track of your finances and create budgets for yourself. When you're approaching a certain budget limit, it will send you an email. Can't tell you how depressing it is to see “You are almost over budget for Alcohol and Bars”- or worse, for Coffee, but it really can help to keep you on track.

  29. J says:

    I agree with Sally about setting up two checking accounts. I started out splitting it between necessities and discretionary money but have started dividing it differently now that I get paid once per month. I pay rent and all bills on the first and then split the remainder. One account is for the first half of the month and one is the second.

    Also, you can be independent without saying no to everything. My graduation present from my parents was my first month's rent and security deposit. It helped me get on my feet without prolonging dependence.

    Even when you are completely independent, it is okay to accept the occasional gift. If you are successfully living within your means, there is no shame in letting your parents but you a new work outfit if they offer.

  30. S says:

    I think there have been some great suggestions about budgeting.

    Some points I would emphasize:
    – Don't try to keep up with the people around you. You will look around and wonder how people are affording everything they buy. The truth is they don't. There are a lot of people with a lot of credit card debt, or the bank of mommy and daddy.

    – I am in a similiar situation to you, but I cut myself off early and it gives me the greatest sense of pride. While many of my friends are struggling to keep up with the DC lifestyle or living off their parent's money, I'm getting ready to buy a house and have a cushy savings account. Like someone else said I don't regret not buying certain clothes or not going to that one happy hour.

  31. Kate says:

    I'd second using a budgeting software. YNAB (You Need A Budget) has really been a lifesaver ( It costs a one-time fee of $60 I think, but it's well worth it. Unlike some other softwares, it lets you budget ahead for unforseen expenses, once a year/quarter expenses, and teaches you how to live a paycheck ahead, building up a buffer. But even if you don't use a software, budget anyway, even in just an excel spreadsheet. Budget everything, from your main expenses (rent, utilities, food, travel, car expenses, emergency funds, etc), to other discretionary expenses (fun, dinners out, haircuts, vacations, etc.). If you can't afford something one month, budget $10 or so per month until you have the amount. This might make it a while between haircuts, but it's worth it!

  32. CE says:

    Beth speaks the truth. Like RtR I was fortunate enough to have parents who put me through private college debt-free, and I'm extremely grateful to them, but my nonprofit job in DC doesn't pay enough for anything near the middle-class lifestyle I had growing up. It was (and sometimes still is) a tough adjustment. Don't fall into the “daily small purchase” trap. Make your own coffee, pack a lunch to work, etc. At one point I was spending hundreds of dollars a month that I didn't have on essentially nothing – salads, coffee, gelato (!), things I couldn't even remember!

    One thing that's worked well for me is to make a big pot of something on Sundays – stew in the winter, a big grain salad in warmer months – and then take that to work all week. If you don't already know how to cook, learn. You'll save a ton of money if you know how to work with what's in season and what's on sale. I second the recommendation to limit meat. You want to stock up on a variety of beans, pasta and grains, supplement with plenty of produce that's in season (and therefore cheap), and think of dairy and meat products, if you eat them, as add-ons to the main meal. They nearly always add significantly to the cost of your food. (101 Cookbooks is a great site for free, interesting recipes that are either low-cost or can be made so with judicious substitutions, and which don't feel austere.)

    On the “fabulous clothes” front – I wouldn't call my wardrobe “fabulous” by any means, but DC has some great thrift and consignment shops where you can pick up gently used (or even new) suiting, work-appropriate (or not) dresses, bags, and jewelry. Pretty much all my work clothes come from Secondi and similar these days. When you're figuring out your professional wardrobe, give these places a shot – you can get high-quality basics from J. Crew and similar for about the same as you'd pay at H&M. Sometimes you'll have to fix a button or take out a stain, but any way you look at it, you'll come out ahead.

    Finally: it's great that your parents are willing and able to help you if you need it. If you end up needing their help, don't go into debt because you were too proud to ask for it. You're lucky to have them, which I think you already know. Good luck!

  33. Kim says:

    I lost my very cushy, $50K a year job a few months ago and have been in a temp to perm position since then. This has cut my income to a meager $17 an hour, full-time salary. You can imagine how little I actually make after taxes, so my goal was to cut back on my expenses significantly without dipping into my savings. I've learned a few tricks in terms of my shopping habits to get me through the crunch:

    1.) I know it's been touched on to buy in bulk at places like Costco, but I'd even take it farther than that. I shop at two places: Harris Teeter for my dry goods (and I always buy the same thing every two weeks. I never, ever deviate) and my produce and meat at local Latino grocery stores up in Columbia Heights or Maryland. Look into taking the extra time on the weekend to stock up on perishables at places like BestWay or PanAm Grocery up on 14th Street. I get two weeks worth of meat and produce for under 20 dollars there, and it's just as good as anything I can find in big name grocery stores.

    2.) Bake your own bread. Bake your own bread!! I do this every weekend. I no longer buy sandwich bread anymore. I also bake my own bagels and muffins, so I'm not tempted to go out and get processed crap at Starbucks. One 3 dollar bag of flour, a 6 dollar bottle of yeast, and salt, have made me 4 or 5 loaves and I save a lot this way.

    3.) Metro is great, but I'd invest in a bike. I bike to work. I bike to social events, and I never, ever take a cab. Metro is cheap in comparison to cabbing, metro, or busing it, but biking is free! And you're exercising at the same time. Win-win.

    4.) And to echo what everyone else has said here, don't eat out. Even if I'm going out with friends on the weekend, I preemptively eat a big meal even if I'm planning on eating out with friends. That way, I can get an appetizer instead of an entree because I'm not as hungry, and I cut the costs.

  34. S says:

    The House and Senate also offer a lot of opportunities for free food – lunch briefings and evening receptions. A lot of the food is unhealthy but you can usually get a sandwich and apple for lunch and fresh fruit and/or veggies at evening receptions multiple days each week when the House is in session. Perfect? No. Helpful? Yes.

    I also once asked my dad for a new suit for my birthday. He loved the idea and I got a sharp suit at a higher price point than I would have purchased by myself. It didn't feel like cheating on my budget with help from my parents because he was going to get me a gift anyway.

  35. MM says:

    Some more thoughts, on utilities –

    Think about not getting cable. I never bothered to get it, and figure I save $50-$100 a month by not having it. Instead, I watch stuff on hulu and netflix, and over the air (I did spend $30 on a nice indoor antena for my TV). The DC public Library also has a decent DVD collection, but fines are steep if you forget to return them, so set reminders for yourself.

    You may also be able to split the bill and share wireless internet with your neighboors, which could save you $20 a month.

    If you pay for your heat and electricity, set your themostat a few degrees cooler in the winter, and warmer in the summer – don't fall into the strange norm of cooling your home to 68 degrees in the summer and warming it to 72 in the winter. If you're in a place that's safe to leave the windows open at night, do that on cooler summer nights, and shut them and draw the blinds during the day – you can keep your home a little cooler without using the AC that way. You can also get a programable thermostat ($30 or so, and installation isn't too bad if you're a little handy), which will keep the temp more comfortable when you're around to notice it, but not waste energy when you're not there or are asleep.

    For cell service, if you want a personal cell phone (and many hill staffers don't, if their office issued phones have unlimited plans – talk to your office and see if that's allowed), see if you can join/stay on your family's plan and just pay them the cost of the additional line. If you text a lot and have a data plan, download WhatsApp, which will let you send unlimited texts to other people with the app for free.

  36. nicci says:

    Great post. And good for you for thinking ahead about money in an expensive city.

    I come from a completely opposite background — little to no parental help — and I took a low-paying (but ultimately good for my career) job out of college. I looked around at my peers who made the same amount as me and wondered how on earth they afforded the clothes from Banana Republic (the Gap was a stretch on my budget) or the fancy brunches. That kind of envy led me down the credit card bunny hole. DO NOT DO THIS. While I did not rack up a ton of debt, it was still not a good move for me.

    Here's how I prevented taking on an even bigger amount of debt: No eating out on weeknights. If a friend suggested dinner after work, I said no or suggested a super cheap happy hour instead. Those happy hours were very, very limited, though. If I were meeting up with a big group of people for, say, a birthday celebration, I skipped the dinner and met people for drinks instead, where I would start my own tab at the bar and be better able to monitor my spending. (When money is tight, even if you're truly happy to celebrate your friend, those birthday dinners can be nightmarish — other pals in fancier jobs who order appetizers/more expensive entrees are usually the ones who suggest just splitting the bill evenly). No recreational shopping (passing time at the mall “just because” or even browsing aimlessly through Target is no good). Lunches out once every two weeks, on payday.

    I also recommend Suze Orman's book, Young Fabulous and Broke. Much of what she says is common sense but I read it at a time when I knew very, very little about money and it sounds like you are in the same place.

  37. Christine says:

    Bravo to this woman for having the courage to support herself instead of taking the easy way out by accepting money from her parents! As Belle said, it's really important for any adult to learn to live on what they make, whether it's $25k/year or $100k/year, because the principles are the same and it's easier than you think to blow even a large budget. I work an entry-level position for a non-profit and my student loans for grad school are about to go into repayment (yikes!). helps me keep track of my spending, saving and loan obligations, and I recommend it to everyone. It's free, easy, and fun to use. It has a great budget function that can help you split your income in a way that makes the most sense for you. And as other posters have said, save money for retirement and general savings each month, even if it's a tiny amount, because it will pay off in the long-run. Again, you should be so proud of yourself, and your future self will be much better off financially because of your decisions now.

  38. Parker says:

    Dear Riches,

    while I didn't get through college quite as comfortably, with scholarships, extra jobs and help from my parents I got outta there without any loan also and let me tell you, it is a great foundation to smart savings. So kudos to you for being so brave!

    – I'd second the second job. Apart from generating more income it'll also kill time – time in which you will not be able to spend any money. Maybe you can even do something to enhance your resume.
    – Review your bigger expenses. While spending money daily on Starbucks foamy lattes can quickly add up, it is the big things that really affect your balance. Make sure you are not overpaying on car or health insurance or your cable/internet/cell phone bill. If you live far away from home or are invited to lots of weddings out of town – see if you can't cut out one. I know how tough that is, but saving those one-time-500 bucks here and there can really help.
    – Take the smallest living quarters you can feel comfortable in – it'll also stop you from purchasing a ton of new things, because room for storage will be limited.
    – Join a library or find an inexpensive hobby. It'll give you something to do that makes you happy and it's more time that you are not spending out shopping or spending money. Or try a hobby that will help you save money on other things – for example learning to sew can kill plenty of time and will also save you money on tailoring.
    – Don't spend money on fashion magazines, but read online fashion blogs (oh wait, you are already doing that :D)
    – If you think you can stomach second hand clothing, I'd recommend focusing spending big bucks on basic investment pieces for work only and buying freetime or frilly accessoires on Ebay or 2nd hand stores. If you are like me and frequently change styles, check out the Buffalo Exchange ( – they have a DC location). They buy your lightly worn clothes for 50% store credit of the resale value and they also have cool pre-loved clothes in mint condition. (That could also be a cool second job).
    – Consider eating cheaper. That's right I said cheaper. I didn't say unhealthier. While I like Belle's buying in bulk idea remember that you are a 1 person household now. Buying in bulk just to let it rot, isn't saving money. And lots of people, when they start living by themselves, still grocery shop like they were taught (when they lived at home with x people). When I first started working, I started with a really basic pantry and frequently tried to finish everything before buying new stuff. It will surprise you on how little you can live. Also, instead of ordering in pizza or buying expensive TV dinners or pre-made sauces, consider simplifying your diet and meals. A little bit of green salad with lemon and oil, a grilled egg and tomato on a good slice of wheat bread with high quality butter runs you less than that and is nutritionally more balanced. I spent the summer of 2005 living at a food budget of 10 $ + 1 All you can eat meal at the Chinese restaurant/ week and while times have changed, I think living on 30-40 bucks/week should still be doable, even in DC.

    Best wishes to you and good luck!

  39. Budget: Use Mint, etc., if you need to. I use an Excel spreadsheet and a check register. And I write down every dime I spend. It's harder to waste $30 or $300 when you have to subtract it.
    Don't eat out: much. Do some, but save up for the trip. It'll make the food taste better and the experience more exciting.
    If you do spend on clothes, buy classic quality pieces that will last. Belle does a good job of showing them – use her advice.
    Cable: I find a good cable subscription (add HBO and Showtime) keep me from Redbox, Netflix and the movie theater. If you can't wait, don't have cable.
    Cell Phones: I agree – try to stick to a family line. Oftentimes you're saving them money, too.
    Banks: Don't pay for anything – find a bank that will give you free checking, free overdraft, free checks, etc. And don't rule out an ING Direct Money Market to funnel a few dollars a paycheck into – I use mine as a cash reserve and as a way to keep from saying “oh there's an extra $x in my account – I can totally afford to overspend at this 40% off sale!”
    Electricity: I agree on not too cool and not too warm, open windows, ceiling fans, strategic blinds. A down comforter and a box fan help a lot, too. And spend the extra money for surge protectors that prevent ghosting.
    Groceries: I buy at discount grocery stores every chance I get. If you can catch the chicken that needs to be sold by tomorrow, buy it, bag it and freeze it – those individual portions will last. Coupons are great – but you're wasting money if you print them from your ink jet printer, look for free inserts, etc. And use the grocery store cards.
    Beauty: Rethink what you buy, whittle down what you must have, and spend less on a few quality items.
    Credit cards: Pay for something every month with the card. Just don't use it otherwise. Leave it at home. Do not bring it with you. And don't save your credit card information into the websites of the stores you frequent.
    Ebates rocks. Don't forget to thrift & eBay.
    Good luck! And I'm glad you're aware of your lifestyle and trying to do it right. That's a huge part of financial soundness 🙂

  40. L says:

    Any suggestions for income-supplementing jobs? I work a standard 40 hrs/week and would love to find a way to make some extra money.

  41. C says:

    I started out at a nonprofit in DC and was very eager to make it “on my own.” Realistically, it was going to be almost impossible with my starting salary. My father made a proposal that ended up working out really well, for both of us (the one who wanted to be on her own and the one who wanted to be helping out). I got an apartment with a roommate in a safe neighborhood that was convenient enough and my dad paid my rent. Every month I would send him a check for 30% of my take-home pay, the guideline for how much you should spend on housing costs. As my salary increased, the amount I sent my dad increased until a short two years later I was able to move to a new apartment and handle the rent by myself. (Of course unbeknownst to me, my dad deposited all those checks I sent him into an IRA and when I was finally “on my own” he handed the retirement account over to me. At that point I was feeling good about being able to pay all my bills myself and was appreciative enough to accept the retirement savings as a gift.)

  42. Badatsaving says:

    I budget funky but my big thing is to declare a zero on my w2 and then I never owe taxes and get a huge chunk back in February. I know youre not supposed to do that but this way I'm forced to save money and then I use y tax return for a big purchase I would never have saved for otherwise. ( this year it's Miami with the girls).

    I also host trivia nights once a week, spare cash easy job free drinks and a new network of friends in a new city!

  43. E says:

    I was in this same position, but without the self-awareness to realize that I didn't know about money and had expensive taste. That was a dangerous combination. I was in financial turmoil throughout my 20s and am still feeling the consequences in some ways (I'm 34 now). Learning to budget is a necessary skill, of course, but for me the psychological aspect has been much harder. Keeping up with the Joneses can be so irresistible. But what I've learned is, just because someone bought it, doesn't mean they could afford it. Living within your means puts a spring in your step and radiance in your smile that is better than any high-priced beauty regimen!

  44. Katie says:

    I strongly recommend getting a second job to supplement a meager salary. When I moved here, I had a decent job, but was also dealing with student loan payments. I got a fun job on the weekends that brings in extra money and is also a nice distraction from my day job. Something that works for me is to accept a shift on Saturday mornings. It not only brings in money during a time when I wouldn't be doing anything but sleeping in and laying around (which I still get to do on Sundays!), but it forces me to keep things low-key on Friday night, which is helpful for my wallet and my waistline.

    I'll eat something before going out to dinner with friends so I'm not tempted to order the priciest thing on the menu, and I bring lunch to work almost every day. Avoid falling into the $5/day latte habit – I know office coffee sucks sometimes, but buy a bottle of flavored Coffeemate that you like, write your name on it, and keep it in the office fridge. Helps keep that Starbucks craving at bay. I also recommend getting a bike and riding everywhere you can. Even Metro adds up, and if I am going out at night, knowing I'll be biking home keeps me from drinking so much and then blowing money on a cab. Do your own manis/pedis, and basically, don't try to keep up with the Joneses.

    On occasion, I still find myself getting jealous of friends who seem to live fabulous lives, but a lot of those same people are getting help from their parents or carrying massive debt. It's worth it to me to skip a shopping spree in order to be able to say I'm making it on my own. Good luck!

  45. ES says:

    Good for you for wanting to be independent and to adopt good financial habits!

    When I was living in D.C., my roommate and I ate comfortably on a budget of about $25 a person per week (spent at Trader Joes) by cooking, avoiding processed foods, limiting our meat intake and sharing ingredients. I also made coffee at home every morning–which had the added benefit of saving myself time on my way to work.

    Going on with friends was important to me, so I made it room for it in my budget, pre-gamed often at friends' apartments, and limited the number of drinks I bought–that way I didn't feel deprived of time spent with friends, but I wasn't blowing my budget on multiple expensive cocktails. And don't be afraid to suggest bars with drink specials or without a cover–most people are on similarly limited budgets and will appreciate the suggestion.

    I'm now living at home and also trying to find the right balance between independence and accepting help when reasonable. If your parents or other relatives want to give you a generous graduation gift, use that as an opportunity to ask for something that will make your path to independence a bit easier–for me it was help repaying student loans, but it might also be a starter work wardrobe, furniture for a new apartment or even the beginning of an emergency fund.

    I'd also think now about how you'll handle emergencies–will your parents help? do you need to start saving an emergency fund? I had a couple thousand dollars in unexpected health costs this year–because I'm living at home, I have the savings to afford it, but my parents would rather I put the money toward student loan repayment, so I'm swallowing my desire for independence on this one and accepting their generous help. (Relatedly, you might also want to consider staying on your parents' health insurance if their coverage is better and their policy allows it. Often it won't cost them any additional money, but you can reimburse them if it does.)

    Finally, I highly recommend the site LearnVest for tips on saving money and managing your finances. It's geared to young women and they also send daily emails–I've found them to be really useful and great motivation!

  46. MM says:

    L –

    Babysitting – in DC I can earn about $15/hour, sometimes more (I've found my babysitting jobs on Craigslist and through older coworkers). Someone also suggested Tutoring earlier in the thread. There's also petsitting or house sitting for people on vacation.

    If you find your work hours are very reliable (no having to stay late periodically for votes, coming in on the weekend,etc.) , then retail, wating tables, or bartending are all options. Not sure how easy it is to do in DC, but my sister delivered papers in our hometown for a while – the hours are really early (starting at 3 or 4 am, I think), but she was done with plenty of time for a regular 9-5 job.

    If you have an artistic hobby, there's always the possibility of turning it into an etsy store, although that will take a lot of work to build up a reputation and customer base, etc.

    Finally, blogging. I think Young House Love has a couple of good peices on their website about how they turned blogging into a business, and I think I've seen Belle write about it too.

  47. Dina says:

    I was in a similar situation as a grad student living in NYC a few years ago.

    A different take: don't budget if you can't. I am not a good “budgeter” but I am a good thrifty person. I was not good at making spreadsheets of incoming money and outgoing money, but I was obsessive at that point at balancing my checkbook so I knew EXACTLY what was in my bank account.

    A few tips:
    –Don't obsess over money. If you worry every second, you'll get crazy. I didn't start saving for retirement until I was 25 not 23. You know what, it was fine. I needed the few extra dollars then and now I can afford to save more.
    –Ask your parents for ADVICE. Friends don't know shit. Everyone has different priorities.
    –When you get gifts, birthday, holiday, etc., don't get cash. My parents (still) send me a $100 check for my birthday. I put it away in my bank account and it gets spent on groceries. I MUCH prefer asking for a gift card to a clothing store or Starbucks or whatever when asked (my parents don't ask anymore…but that's a different story). If you save every penny you earn instead of small treats, you'll splurge. And find what you are about. I find massages are THE BEST. Worth every penny. I could not care less about a pedicure. I've gotten them before and am unhappy. A $100 massage is therefore worth more than 1 $20 pedicure for me. Or a whatever.
    –I didn't go out to eat with friends…much. I am not a big drinker, so happy hour wasn't an issue. But inviting a friend over for a pasta dinner and a walk after = MUCH CHEAPER THAN HAPPY HOUR. Esp. if your friend bring a cheap bottle of wine. I did a lot of walking in grad school because it was cheaper to walk with a friend for an hour and talk rather than go out to dinner.
    –I cannot reiterate the beauty of a small treat. Coffee from Starbucks every day is a waste. A grande latte on a walk with a friend on a weekend was the best thing ever.

    As a librarian, I second the public library. I didn't have netflix back then, but watched a hell of a lot of DVDs from the library. And read a lot without buying a single book.

  48. IRMcK says:

    I highly recommend the second job. While it's hard to give up part of the weekend (every weekend), I have found that the skills that make me a good waitress/bartender are the same skills that are valued on the Hill. So, while it really sucks sometimes, I get a lot of extra practice for that occasional extra tricky constituent, not to mention, cash.

    One thing that really works for us – gas, utilities and groceries (and savings!) are mandatory expenses, so we spend what we need to spend on these items, period, end of story. Everything else has to fit into the “just for fun” budget. (Ours is $300/month each on a credit card that gets paid every month. I've known folks who do $60/week cash. Same idea, different execution). As others have said, the trick is to separate out “need” from “want”. I “need” to eat lunch, but I can eat a PBJ/leftovers from home or spend $7 in the cafeteria of my budget money. If I really “want” a new pair of shoes, I bring my lunch everyday in the month so I still come in under budget.

    The trick is to figure out what you'd rather do, but recognize that it does take work. Making your lunch does take a little time and mental energy. Not much, but some. But if it's worth it to you to be a little lazy, just know that this Longworth salad is coming out of your bar tab later. It's also easy to not spend money if you are a hermit, but that's also no fun. I definitely go out to Happy Hour, but if I have already spend $280 and there are 10 days left in the month, I'll have a tonic and lime, thanks.

    It takes a lot of self control, but when the bank does your credit check on your first home and you come out with a great credit rating, it's totally, 100% worth it.

  49. ADL says:

    I went without cable and internet my first year (it was a luxury I couldn't afford). I borrowed books from the Library of Congress (a perk that I sorely miss, as I'm no longer on the Hill) and got a public library card (where you can also get DVDs and movies).

  50. Umphie says:

    I laugh at that 33% figure. If only 🙁

  51. another MM says:

    For many staffers, professional clothes are their biggest non-rent expense when they first start out. Could you ask your parents for a present where for your next birthday or to celebrate your first day of work, they will buy you ~1 week's worth of nice professional clothing and then you will set off on your own? That would go a long way toward starting you off on solid footing, I think.

    It sounds like you already have a lot of nice things from your college years — so keep enjoying them. Take care of your nice things so they will last, and figure out new ways to combine clothing items you already own so that they stay fresh and exciting. You'll feel less deprived if you remind yourself of the stuff you already have that you love. Also, avoid window shopping and online shopping as much as possible — it's harder to feel like you are missing out if you don't see things that tempt you. On a similar note, try to stay busy, either with a second job (as someone else suggested) or doing free things on the weekends — sports league, smithsonian museums, picnics in the park, whatever. If you keep yourself busy with commitments that don't involve spending money, you'll spend way less.

    Try to save as much as possible, but don't feel bad if it's not much. If you're contributing to your TSP and coming out even or ahead in your checking account at the end of every month, then you're doing well for living in DC on ~25,000/year. Since you're learning about the value of a dollar for the first time, I would start off by trying to spend nothing — no shopping for fun, no eating out — and then see how much you have left at the end of the month. That's how much you have monthly for fun purchases and savings combined. Figure out how you want to allocate it. (And some of it should definitely be for fun things, sooner or later.)

    Finally, yes, you will almost certainly have to live with roommates. Figure out how much you can afford (30% of take-home is usually the rule of thumb, but in this case you may want to bump it up to 35 or 40% to be realistic), and enter that as the max on craigslist and don't even tempt yourself by looking at other options. Look at neighborhoods outside of Upper NW — Petworth, Columbia Heights, Bloomingdale, Potomac Ave. You don't have to live in any of those places if you don't feel comfortable, but at least go look at some rooms there and give the cheaper neighborhoods a chance. If you REALLY want to live by yourself, but don't mind living dorm-style with some rules, the Thompson Markward Hall is on a very convenient location on the Hill and is a good deal if you'll eat the breakfast and dinner there.

    Good luck!

  52. Karen says:

    I second the two jobs suggestions. I have a part-time retail job at my favorite store. The extra cash is nice and the discount has helped me build a professional wardrobe. My real job is an entry level job in my field and I'm able to use that paycheck for my bills and essentials.

    Another thing that has helped me save is living one paycheck at a time. Like other commenters, as soon as I'm paid, I pay all of the bills that are due before my next paycheck. That way I know what I have left for gas, food and fun. When my next check is deposited, I transfer any money that's leftover from the first check — whether it's $5 or $500 — into another account. That way I don't see it in my available balance and I'm less likely to spend it on things I don't need. It's helped me develop a habit of saving something with every paycheck and it adds up quickly.

  53. L says:

    Two tech things that have helped me,

    1) LearnVest, it's like but geared towards women and there are a number of free “bootcamps” on area's you might want more financial knowledge in. You can set a budget and link your accounts. Since it's geared towards women it takes into consideration clothing cost, grooming, etc that men may not have to consider, and I've found that it is really helpful for me as a young professional woman.

    2) I have an app on my iphone called “Budget”. It literally just looks like a little ledger but it doesn't sync to anything. Every Monday I input a deposit at the amount I've determined as my weekly allotment. I do it on Monday so if I eat lunch out and go to happy hour, when the weekend rolls around and I'm out of money I have to stay in. Every time I spend anything, whether it's on a credit card, debit card or in cash I input it into the program immediately. I can always see how much money I have left in my weekly budget and because I carry it with me I don't have to try and remember it later when I get home. Also, if there is unspent money into the next week its super easy to track.

    Lastly, as far as missing out on shopping and happy hour with friends and the whole DC scene… I've learned to go shopping and have fun with friends without necessarily buying anything. This doesn't work for everyone, but it is working for me. Also, I have gone out to bars with friends and drank diet coke all night. Free refills keeps the budget down. I've been up front with some friends about drinking not being in my budget, but still wanting to hangout and with other people I make up an excuse about an early morning as an excuse for not drinking. I also always make a point to eat dinner at home before I go out for a night, bar food is tempting and expensive. My point is, you don't have to be a hermit to save money. Budget for things you want to do, but if it's not in the budget your presence doesn't always have to cost anything. Bar tenders don't always love this, but make sure to budget for a tip and if you're with a big group they know their tip will be good from your more financially secure friends.

  54. LW says:

    Thought I'd add my own bits of advice for living on a budget.

    1 – Learn/use Metro buses and the Circulator. Less expensive than Metrorail and goes more places.
    2 – I have a rule for myself that whenever I'm eating alone, I don't eat/order/take out. If you keep dining out as something you'll only do with friends, then you're killing 2 birds with 1 stone: sustenance and being social. Also, usually if I go to a happy hour, I bring a small sandwich or something that I eat right before I leave. That way, I don't get hungry and fill up on bar food.
    3 – Keep track of your finances, but don't let it drive you crazy. Sometimes, I get so obsessed with sticking to my budget that I freak out if I go even a couple of dollars over in one category. Some months you spend more, some months you spend less. Just try to keep them even.

    Good luck!

  55. R says:

    I love all of the comments from all of these savvy, working women. I was also extremely lucky – I didn't have any student loans when I came to DC, and was supported by a very small inheritance for my first few months I was here. My mom helped me when I became really strapped for cash, but that didn't stop me from racking up a $6,000 credit card bill. It wasn't until I had this huge debt that I became very disciplined about spending, and set up automatic payments to my credit card after every pay check. It took me two years to pay off.

    I'm not condoning amassing huge debt, but having my finances slip away from me was the first time I learned how to be fiscally responsible. Now that my credit card is paid off, those payments that used to go to my credit card automatically go to my savings account, as soon as the money comes in. Ideally, everyone should have enough money in savings to cover three months rent and living expenses, just in case.

    Something that really helps me control my finances is something I learned from a friend – I immediately put half of my month's rent in my savings account as soon as I receive my paycheck. That way, I'm not scrambling for funds after my second paycheck of the month. It helps you see how much money you really have to spend, and prevents that painful chunk from coming out all at once.

  56. Theresa says:

    2nd Job:
    – if you can work in the service industry (waitress/bartender/hostress), you will want/need to work on Fridays and Saturdays. Not only are you making money, but you're saving money from not being out on the town. It will also give you an appreciation for how much profit bars/restaurants are making on overpriced drinks and make you think about buying them when you're out. (It only costs about 35 cents for a bar to fill a pint glass with Miller Lite. Crazy!)

    Going out with friends:
    – Preface: I have a severe case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), which has taken a year to try and 'deal with'. If i'm tired/trying on outfits and have nothing to wear/feeling that 'forced to go out because I may miss out on a good time' feeling : give in and enjoy a night at home. catch up on sleep. This will give you an opportunity to have a whole weekend out and not feel guilty at a later date.
    – Alternate every alcoholic drink you have with a water. It's free, takes just as much time to drink, no hangover, keeps you hydrated. Also 2 buck chuck from Trader Joes for any pre-partying is a life saver.

    Feeding Yourself:
    – I make it a point to only go out to lunch with friends. Dinners are more expensive – many places have lunch portions of my favorite meals that are much cheaper. Plus, I'm far less likely to be tempted by a glass of wine with lunch than at dinner. (Not a working lunch that's rushed – a Saturday or Sunday to get the socializing feel)
    -If you can, stop drinking soda and coffee. Water is free, they are not. I know cutting out all caffeine makes me sound like a crazy person, but I feel so much better health-wise and knowing that I am hydrating myself and saving money.
    – Learn to cook! A great cooking blog for cheap: – Beth is awesome, breaks down the cost for every ingredient, the site is extremely well organized.

    – obviously our Achilles heel, as we are on a fashion blog. Try this blog: – where she recreates jcrew windows/things on blogs for very inexpensive.

    – if you can do it, don't open a credit card. I don't have one = no option to dip into debt at all.

  57. eb says:

    When I was in graduate school, I got by on a tiny stipend, primarily by sharing housing with multiple roommates, carefully watching my grocery spending (I would purposefully purchase sale items), shopping at Marshalls, and taking on second jobs (babysitting and serving tables once a week in my case). Now, I have a fairly solid income, but it doesn't go far in a city as expensive as DC. I still share housing and chose to live in a less expensive neighborhood, farther from the metro (but within a 12 minute walk, so not too bad). I also still rely quite a bit on consignment shops in the area for clothing, as well as TJMaxx/Marshalls. However, I do find that I'm spending way too much on eating out, socializing and working out. In particular, it's interesting for me to hear what others do with yoga, ext – I really value my classes, but the price is extraordinary! Anyone have suggestions?

  58. Maharani says:

    Check out the “get rich slowly”blog-chock full of useful money management advice.

  59. RoseAG says:

    As someone who has helped children I disagree with Belle's thoughts about getting a set amount of money each month, at least for children who have a job, but the job isn't enough to cover their expenses. Parents are not employers, and contributions shouldn't become predictable.

    I sent my kids out with a lump-sum which I sometimes re-upped annually. Managing the money was their responsibility. The lump-sum pushed home the point that this was not an on-going entitlement, rather they were going to fledge eventually. I bought tickets home, paid for various wardrobe additions, covered car expenses and kept them on my health coverage (when needed) in addition to the lump-sum payout. I still have three E-Z passes and cell phones I”m footing the bill on. The day-to-day/month-to-month management/budgeting is their responsibility.

    If they're dipping into their lump-sum every month they decide and know when they are spending beyond their incomes.

    I'm all for kids going after their dreams and realize that dream jobs don't always allow you to be self-supporting immediately, but my support is not a paycheck and I want my kids motivated to be working towards self-sufficiency. If a particular job venue is never going to cover a kid's expenses then they'll have to decide if they can live on less or if they should look elsewhere. The first episode of “Girls” told that story quite well.

  60. A says:

    Automate your savings.

    ING Direct allows subaccounts. A couple days after I get paid, four subaccounts withdraw from my checking account: general savings, Christmas gifts, repayment for a loan from my mom, and wedding travel. (That may seem far off to you now, but friends will start getting married in a few years and if it involves hotel and airfare, it's easy to come close to $1000 per wedding.) These withdrawals can be very small amounts; mine are three at $12.50 apiece and one of $25. I opened them when I got a raise – if you start now, it won't be cutting into what you live on because you won't have lived on it.

  61. Anne says:

    Couldn't agree more with your advice, Belle, and good for her for trying to make it on her own. My pearls of wisdom are to freeze your credit card in the freezer, literally. I saved, no exaggeration, thousands of dollars (and paid off my credit card) this way. I also budgeted “fun money” into my weekly and monthly budgets, but took it out in cash– it's easier to say, 'when it's gone, it's gone' when you see it disappearing from your wallet.

    The biggest money saver, though, for me, was to learn how to cook. You don't have to be a great cook– even the cereal-for-dinner thing counts– but eating out is SO expensive.

    Also, take advantage of every single benefit from work. Transit, loan, go to the sparse gyms here instead of paying $80/month, etc. Under $30K doesn't go far in this city, so milk it for all it's worth.

    (Last note, my grandparents lived through the Depression, and passed this adage down to me when I was living meagerly: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.)

  62. Shannon says:

    Anne – YES! I'm so glad I'm not the only person who has paid off a credit card by freezing it in a block of ice.

  63. Sara says:

    Get an expense-tracking app on your phone (I use iXpenseIt on my iPhone) and track all your expenses. The simple act of recording what you spend will make you way more conscious of how much you're spending.

    I agree with the others whose parents have helped them out – find a way to limit it to specific kinds of help. For me, my parents covered my car insurance when I had a car, and they pay for my flights home for holidays, which is really helpful as they promptly moved to the other side of the country when I graduated college, whereas I would have been able to take the train or bus home had they not moved.

    Set up your TSP immediately and do the full 5% withholding. If you never see the money, you won't miss it, and we're going to need all the help we can get in retirement; it's never too early to start saving. Set up an allotment to your savings account for $20 or $25 per month/paycheck, so you're saving a little bit each month for rainy days/unexpected expenses.

    Don't listen to the people talking about feeling bad for shopping at Target or Kohl's. I have a dress from Target that was about $30; I wear it to work almost once a week; and I am constantly getting compliments on it. Plus, unlike the more expensive dresses I've bought from stores like Ann Taylor, the Target dress can go straight in the washing machine and dryer. Don't try to keep up with the Joneses – keep up with your budget, and spend wisely. Go to free events (there are TONS in DC).

    Finally, be proud of yourself for recognizing the importance of building responsible financial habits now, when you are still relatively young and have your parents as back-up; it's much easier than waiting until you are older, or suddenly having to change because your parents retire, or lose their jobs, or something that changes their budget and means they can't support you any more.

  64. GeorgetownGirl says:

    Sign up for's emails. They are geared towards women taking control of their own financials. They also let you link your bank accounts and create a budget, and help you stay on track with your spending. It will definitely help you create a budget from scratch.

  65. MKal says:

    Adding my two cents (and echoing others):

    1. Find free or cheap alternatives to the things that you love to do. For example, I love yoga but hate paying $20 for a class. Instead, my friends and I will go to free classes at Lululemon (the Georgetown store has free classes at noon) or use an online video together. We also take advantage of free screenings/pay what you will showings. Yes, it can be a pain to stand in line or to watch an outdoor movie in the July heat but it's also a lot of fun.

    2. Eat with friends but not at restaurants. A lot of people have talked about cooking at home, which is important, but it can get boring and lonely. Have a potluck once a week, it will help you find new recipes and it will give you a chance to socialize. These weekly dinners will also help you deal with food fatigue (when you get frustrated eating the same thing all the time) and new leftovers to add into your fridge/freezer.

    3. Thrift stores, consignment stores, and estate sales in the DC area can be a gold mine. I also recommend doing clothing swaps with friends or through MeetUp groups. I've gotten rid of a lot of clothes and accessories that way (and gotten some good ones as well).

    4. Use a credit card (but wisely). I've had a credit card for the past five years and have paid it off in full every single month. I have it to build credit, for purchases that aren't appropriate for a debit card (hotels, rental cars, etc), and for the rewards. I have a Southwest card so I can earn points with each purchase. I can then use those points to fly home for holidays or to weddings.

  66. GoGoGo says:

    MKal's two cents overlap with mine! But writing them turned into a bit of an exercise in nostalgia. Staying in a budget here has led to some good times, really! Enjoy yourself. These are good problems we're all talking about.

    Try to make regular plans with the buddies that are free. It's good to be able to say “Can't go out for dinner tonight guys, sorry!” But it's even better, and easier, to be able to say, “Can't go out for dinner tonight guys, I've got Top Chef night/Guitar Hero night/book club.” is also worth checking.

    See how often you can bus instead of Metro, and walk instead of bus. That's easy on a beautiful day!

    Go to events and eat free food. DC is great like that. Get on mailing lists on the Hill and off. Go to random organizations' receptions, find the organizers with the big name tags, freely admit your ignorance on the topic and chat a while. Subsist on brie wedges and grapes twice a week. There are worse things!

    Find your affordable grocery store and stock up regularly. Don't rely on 7-11s and chain drug stores for last-minute necessities. They're deceptively expensive! Ditto many corner liquor stores. Dollar stores on the other hand, non-chain ones, are awesome for misc house purchases, like office supplies and tupperware.

    Use the DC public libraries. Placing a hold on a DVD works just like ordering it from Netflix, and it often arrives at your branch library just as quick, so just bookmark the search page at the top of your browser. They are up to date on most TV shows on DVD. Also, you know, books.

    Clothing swaps.

  67. Jennifer says:

    In the mix of the fashion blogs that make me want to buy things, I read personal finance blogs (I like the Simple Dollar). They are a reminder to slow down and think about the purchase and how it can delay to long-term goals, as well as being a regular source of debt horror stories to remove any remaining temptation.

    Beyond that, I never buy things the first time I see them in stores or online. I decide I “want” something, then wait a week or two before thinking about the purchase again. Sometimes they sell out, sometimes I forget about the, sometimes I find a cheaper option.

    On the topic of clothes shopping, I have a separate email I use to sign up for my favorite stores newsletters/ coupons. before I buy something, I go to that email account and see if any coupons or sales would apply toward the purchase.

  68. K says:

    A little late to the game, but I just moved back to DC after Peace Corps and I'm temping, so I yearn for the days I made $32k/year. Things that work for me:

    Bikeshare. The metro is actually really expensive when it adds up, and for $75/year I can bike EVERYWHERE I go, and usually in less time. I ride often enough that each trip costs me about 4 cents, to put the cost in perspective. I want my own bike, but the cost of that plus locks, lights, maintenance, etc, is too much for me now.

    Share internet. I live in an apartment with one roommate, and we have two neighbors upstairs, and we all share internet, so it's less than $10/month each. We don't have a tv.

    Volunteer. Lots of free food, networking, new friends, and it has helped me find some paid gigs as well. You could also volunteer at Yoga District and get comped in all the free yoga you want. (With that and bikesharing everywhere, no gym membership! I'm sure there are other orgs that do similar things, I just love working with YD.)

    Drink less. If you take a hiatus for a few months, your tolerance will go way down and two happy hour drinks will feel like five! It is SHOCKING how much money I spent on booze back in the day. Or do a no-booze [month]–a good exercise in self control, helps you develop other interests, and saves enough dollars for a vacation, in my experience.

    Do a pay-as-you cell phone plan. I feel no need to have a smartphone, and I spend about $20/month on my phone. Think REALLY hard about what is a necessity and what is a luxury. This city is lousy with free internet, and on days I know I'll need it I carry my (cheap, tiny) netbook with me.

    Go the library. The DC library lets you borrow books to a kindle for free, if that's your thing.

    Be honest with your friends. All my friends are very aware of how little money I have right now, and they're all fine with it. (I'm lucky in that I don't mingle with the credit card posse, and none of us have much money. Befriend nonprofiteers!) They're also mostly generous, and if they buy me dinner I will gracious accept and bake them some bread or something. (The commenter who bakes her own bread is totally right, it is delicious, super easy, and crazy cheap.) I also have become very in touch with all the free events in DC and have started to take better advantage of them. Getting there on bikeshare, of course.

    Have a budget/live cash only. I have a credit card that I use ONLY at the grocery store, and pay off twice a month to build good credit. Other than that, I pay for everything in cash (apparently if you hand someone physical money for something you are less likely to part with it). Obvious exception are rent/utilities.

    Don't use lots of a/c/heat. This is hard in this city, but totally doable with a ceiling fan and a heated blanket. I'm fortunate to have a frugal roommate in an old, well-insulated house so it works and saves hundreds.

    This totally makes me seem like a crazy person, but it works! My parents put me through college as well, but I'm lucky in that they taught me the value of money after I put a $200 pair of jeans on their credit card. Within three months of graduating college, they stopped bankrolling my expenses but continue to pay for my plane tickets when I visit family, which is mutually beneficial and something I am comfortable accepting.

  69. Elle says:

    Thank you all! While my own situation is in neither extreme and I'm somewhere in the middle with a slight amount of debt, all of these tips are incredibly helpful.
    I had one question though, most of you mentioned cooking at home as one of your expense savers, how do you manage to find the time?

  70. SRW says:

    Perfect timing for this to come out. I graduated undergrad a year ago and am trying to get my budget on track.

    I disagree with one post about not getting a credit card. I didn't get my first credit card until 6 months after graduation and not having credit can be a bitch. I went off my parents' cell plan and had to pay a $400 deposit to the phone company because of lack of credit. I suggest getting a credit card and never carrying a balance month to month so you can earn credit, which you'll need for rent/mortgage/car/etc.

    I agree with utilizing your Thrift Savings Plan (or whatever). You will never miss it if you never knew you had it.

    PS rent is cheaper in VA 😉

  71. margot says:

    My best suggestion is to adjust your expectations and lifestyle! You mentioned “fabulous clothes.” You might not be able afford “fabulous clothes” or other aspects of a wealthy lifestyle, or you may need to define “fabulous” as whatever is cutest at Target. When parents support their children, it's often based on a lifetime of accumulated wealth and having worked decades in the labor market. You, on the other hand, are just starting out in life. It's normal to start out with “start” housing and “starter” clothing and “starter” furniture. It's not normal to maintain the same lifestyle that your parents provided for you.

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