A Week In San Jose, CA, On A $72,000 Wage

Welcome to Money Diaries where we are tackling the ever-present taboo that is money. We’re asking real people how they spend their hard-earned money during a seven-day period — and we’re tracking every last dollar.

Today: a landscaping consultant who makes $72,000 per year and spends some of her money this week on beer.

Editor’s Note: This diary is from the Money Diary archives and was written in October 2020.

Occupation: Consultant
Industry: Landscaping
Age: 32
Location: San Jose, CA
Salary: $72,000
Net Worth: $196,000 (includes retirement and investment savings)
Debt: $0
Paycheck Amount (1x/week): Up to $1,200 pretax, take home between $670-$1,015 (depending on whether I have finished contributing to retirement)
Pronouns: She/her

Monthly Expenses
Rent: $1,300 (shared rental with BF)
Renter’s Insurance: $7 (split with BF)
Water & Garbage: $70 (split with BF)
Gas: $80
Car Insurance: $100 (two vehicles, purchased used with cash)
Internet: $25 (split with BF)
Cell Phone: $143 (I pay for my family’s plan, doesn’t include BF)
Electric: $42 (split with BF; A/C set at 85F in the summer; heater at 62F in winter only when we are home)
Health Insurance: $0, covered by work
Dental Insurance: $32
Therapy: $165
Netflix: $13
Retirement Contribution: $400 between Simple & Roth IRAs (this ranges depending on my financial goals, but this year I maxed out my Roth IRA on Jan. 1 and contributed $2,000/month to my Simple IRA until I maxed it out)

Was there an expectation for you to attend higher education? Did you participate in any form of higher education? If yes, how did you pay for it?
I grew up in a bubble with other children of immigrants that were pushed towards college, so it wasn’t an option not to go. However, my parents never talked about saving or paying for college, because I don’t think they knew what it entailed. Fortunately, we were poor and my grades were good so my undergrad was fully covered by financial aid (grants, scholarships, part-time work). I lived off-campus the whole time, mostly using a living/dining room as my space, and learned to cook right away, so I saved a ton. Initially, I felt like I missed out on the college experience during my first two years by being an anti-social nerd, but in hindsight, I used the money the best way possible. That boost set me up for life and I feel it was based on luck to some extent. I also completed my master’s degree, and I know I only went for it after my TA told me that tuition would be waived if I had a certain graduate student position. I actually received a small monthly stipend on top of not having to pay for grad school. I took out a $5,000 loan just before my first term but paid it back right away once I found a position as a grader. After that, I had teaching assistant or research positions for the rest of my program, so I graduated with no debt.

Story continues

Growing up, what kind of conversations did you have about money? Did your parent/guardian(s) educate you about finances?
I know my parents were frugal, my mom much more so than my dad, so I was influenced by her. She saved abundantly but didn’t know about investments until later in life when we were adults and she still doesn’t really trust them. Because we lived well below our means, we occasionally got pocket money. Somewhere along the way, I incentivized myself to “earn” allowance by getting a quarter per chore — that way my parents could both work full time without being concerned about house management.

What was your first job and why did you get it?
Fast food worker the summer after high school graduation. I forget why I wanted it, perhaps out of boredom, but I loved it. I would have stayed on if I weren’t leaving the area for college. It was a formative experience that showed me my work ethic and preference for less mentally-taxing work (which comes into play now as I’m considering career changes).

Did you worry about money growing up?
No, I don’t think so, but I was rather absent-minded — it’s possible my parents worried and I didn’t pay attention. I didn’t even realize we were below the poverty line — free school food, discounted AP exam fees, bussing (to suburban schools), rent control, food stamps were the norm (the only one we didn’t participate in was bussing, but only because we didn’t get into the program). To be really honest, I was shocked when I found out (within the past few years) how heavily subsidized my life was! We also didn’t watch much TV so I don’t remember wanting toys or anything like that.

Do you worry about money now?
Not day-to-day, but in a long term, middle-class way (okay, I’m not middle class yet, at least not in the Bay Area!!!). My parents are aging and did not properly save for their own retirement, and the expectation in our culture is for the children to be responsible for the parents. I may also want to have children and am saving for my own retirement so as not to burden my children with my care, thus I often worry about how I can be financially prepared to support three generations at once. In the short term, I’m aggressively saving up for a 20% downpayment on a home, but that doesn’t seem feasible any time soon. I’m also planning a career shift that will take a 40% pay cut (to start). Don’t get me wrong, I’m scared, but I also have regretted not making that career change for the past five years. It’s something I need to get out of my system before I get older since it is a highly physical job. I will follow it as far as I can, knowing I can fall back on my current career. I’ve aggressively contributed to my net worth in the past five years and have tracked expenses for the past three years, so I know I can make it work. My fear of regret is much stronger than my fear of not being able to retire early-ish.

At what age did you become financially responsible for yourself and do you have a financial safety net?
Officially at 21. I started my graduate program, found a position that waived tuition, and provided a stipend. I became more deliberate about saving at 25 when I joined my current company. Around the same time, I started reading personal finance literature and panicked thinking that I’d wasted time during which my money could’ve grown. (Time is the most valuable factor in investment, after all.) Since I didn’t have other goals to work towards, I maxed out my retirement accounts for a few years and now have a solid emergency fund, retirement savings, and down payment fund. Worst-case scenario, I could rely on my siblings and cousin since we all have decent nest eggs.

Do you or have you ever received passive or inherited income? If yes, please explain.
Not a chance. My parents do not have wealth. Whatever savings they have will likely be spent to support their retirement.

Day One

5:15 a.m. — After watching the Social Dilemma documentary on Netflix last night, I’m more motivated to battle my smartphone addiction. I actually just misplaced my phone — this happens a lot and I find it later — so I technically haven’t used my phone for a full day! Win. (I do have a work phone and I did use that at work, so……) This morning I’m using my wake-up light alarm, which gradually bumps up the brightness to mimic sunrise. I prefer waking up naturally, but this is the next best thing if I’m going to get up early. I start stretching in bed, doze off in my poses, and get up at 5:45. I’m trying out a morning routine: make coffee, get stuff together for work, look at my plants. I recently invested in some LED grow lights to help them through the winter, which I turn on before heading out at 7.

1 p.m. — Out to revisit one of my job sites, a ranch-like property near a regional park. It’s a solo visit, which makes it feel like a mini-hike. Unfortunately, the area I’m looking at is covered in what looks like poison oak. Today is warm and I’m already hungry, so I chug water to fill my belly until I get back to the shop. I spot some willow trees by the road on my way in and snag a few branches on my way out. While I’m getting better at investing in my hobbies (e.g. *new grow lights*), I do like the cheap creative route too — I’ll be testing these out as rooting hormone for plant propagation. I stop by the gas station to grab a coconut water for my BF. We work together and he’s been outside all day. Back at the office, I reheat a massive pile of rice and Japanese curry (tofu, potatoes, carrots, broccoli). Japanese curry mix is good for covering up all kinds of old veggies, though this brand isn’t my favorite. $1.75

4 p.m. — I have a few minutes before my therapy session so I collect black walnut fruits for natural dying — it’s one of my many “ambitions” that is actually a gateway into hoarding. I like the idea of natural dyes, but I’ve only dyed fabric once and that was pretty wasteful. I prepaid my therapy session at the end of the previous month but that would otherwise cost $165. I’m slowly graduating from therapy after four years, so I only have one session a month and each session costs more.

5:45 p.m. — I start using my phone again after I shower, but set a 15-minute timer to help maintain my phone-free streak, so now I get up to “finish” a “project” by cutting the willow stems up and putting them in a jar of water. Preliminary research tells me that this “willow water” miiiiiiiiight be helpful in rooting plants, but hey, I’m not in academia anymore so that’s good enough for me.

7:30 p.m. — Discipline time means I’ve got a timer set for 30 minutes and I’m pushing through my hunter safety course. I’m not a hunter and have not touched a gun and may not become a hunter after this. However, my BF is a hunter and we’ve watched a few documentaries together that changed my ignorant perspective and I figure it doesn’t hurt to learn more. The course has been very informative thus far in terms of firearms, safety, and proper hunter behavior, and it heavily advocates against being one of “those” hunters that give the hobby a bad rap. Despite all my years of formal education, learning a new topic (especially after work) is very challenging and I’m not sure I can finish the class by my self-imposed deadline of two days.

8:30 p.m. — I’m BORED!! BUT boredom is normal and does not need to be chased away with phones!!! (I tell myself this. The psychology blogs tell me this.) Tomorrow I’m working in the field all day, doing manual labor, so I stretch out with a short yoga video and prepare oatmeal for breakfast. Overall, phone use for the day has dropped at least 50%, thanks to my convenient losing-of-the phone. I set my alarm for 4:45 a.m. since I need to get some computer work done before fieldwork.

Daily Total: $1.75

Day Two

5 a.m. — I wake up after the alarm and snuggle my BF (five minutes disciplined snuggle). I get up, do 10 minutes of morning yoga, and prep lunch and breakfast. My oatmeal sits neglected while I eye some stale jalapeño cheddar bagels. Since I have time, I cook an egg and melt cheese to make a sandwich. Unfortunately, the cooking draws an unwanted guest, and my BF snags my breakfast bagel for himself. I end up with the oatmeal after all and one basic toasted bagel for lunch.

11:30 a.m. — My coworker is leaving our company next week so I stop by the gas station and grab him a 12-pack of his favorite beer ($19). I have a report deadline for a project, so I mix up some instant coffee and creamer we have at work. It’s not great but it will do the job. $19

4 p.m. — Fridays are pizza-date night. We started this during the beginning of COVID, mainly because I wanted to save money, cut down on takeout waste, and basically learn more DIYs. I’ve been trying to live low-waste goals but am also learning where to let go a bit more. I buy bulk cheese, pepperoni, and giant cans of tomatoes; make and freeze multiple batches of pizza dough; make and freeze homemade pizza sauce. I reckon we’ve saved nearly $1,000 in pizza costs since we started AND have tried some really innovative pizzas! Today’s special is asparagus (see Smitten Kitchen’s blog for the recipe).

7 p.m. — The asparagus pizza is soooooooooo good and I almost like it more than pepperoni. Somehow, yet not surprisingly, the flavors are synergistic and way better than we could’ve imagined. My BF agrees that we will be having this consistently. I bang out another hour of the hunter education class, then transition into mindless browsing on my phone.

Daily Total: $19

Day Three

7 a.m. — I’m woken by sunlight and birds, so I get up to make coffee, toast up week-old blueberry pancakes (toasting did not improve them), and start laundry. I also make two slices of french toast for BF with old bread from the freezer. It’s been a good use of stale bread since we never finish a loaf quick enough and the frozen bread doesn’t over-absorb the egg mixture and get soggy.

9:30 a.m. — The wash load is done so I hang dry laundry in the bedroom with foldable drying racks. This washing machine sucks even though it’s new, but we can’t complain since we’re renters. It’s an efficient model that doesn’t clean well no matter what “deep clean” options you select. We hang dry the clothes over the summer and now I don’t even want to try using the dryer because it’s probably terrible too! With indoor hang drying, my plants get humid air and I can fold clothes directly into the dresser. (As of day six of this diary, the clothes are still “humidifying” the plants…i.e. #lazy). The willow water seems pretty potent so I add a bit to some of my plants. I imported a few plants during the summer because of COVID plant hype (social media consumerism is dangerous, my friends…I didn’t even really want these plants), and they’re not doing great. The imports have root rot so I repot them.

11:30 a.m. — WOOT I have also completed my hunter education class! Even if the information doesn’t stick, I now have a framework for future knowledge acquisition. The last part of the class is much easier to get through since it covers first aid, emergency response, and conservation, which I am already familiar with. Toast two slices of leftover pizza and it is still soooooooooo good. The toaster oven is a godsend for leftovers.

2 p.m. — One of the things I have been practicing is the concept of leaning into your boredom, which is a must with my phone reduction goals. I don’t have many vices, mainly specific junk foods and smartphone addiction, but I also recognize that I don’t exactly derive joy from either experience after the very beginning (e.g. 20-minute phone use or a handful of snacks). I know that my phone offers a quick way of escaping the current moment, whether I’m experiencing boredom or another negative feeling, but avoidance doesn’t help. I’m wasting so much of my life on my phone at the expense of growing hobbies, skills, and relationships. It’s early but I start cooking dinner. We have some chicken that was marked down to sell, as well as broccoli and zucchini from last week’s farmer’s market. The food is tasty but I overcook the chicken a bit.

6 p.m. — Tomorrow I’m helping BF move someone’s daughter from her apartment. I’m still sore, so I do some yin yoga to stretch out. For dessert, we have homemade ice cream. I made it in the summer and didn’t really appreciate it, but it’s really very tasty. We have mint chocolate chip and strawberry.

8:30 p.m. — I am SO BORED!!! I put on a YouTube video about dopamine and training yourself to do hard things (front load them and use easy stuff as rewards). Okay, fine, I will go to sleep with discipline (it’s 9 p.m.).

Daily Total: $0

Day Four

5:30 a.m. — I don’t wanna get up ???? it’s a Sunday. But we are helping someone with a move as a favor, so here we are. I pack a bunch of food that I don’t want to eat, but I know I’ll eat if I’m hungry (more stale bagels, bitter cocoa brownies). Do you see a trend here?? I bring coffee and water, too.

10 a.m. — What was supposed to be half a day is turning out to be multiple trips and we are the ONLY ones doing the moving. Where is the person to whom all this crap belongs?? Why is said person not helping her mom pack the rest of her crap? I am not happy but we are people of our word, so we are committed for as long as this takes. Plus, it’s a huge favor and I know that it’s not BF’s fault — he’s equally irritated he was bamboozled into this. I regret wearing heavy work boots.

3:30 p.m. — We are finally done and home. I have not been this fatigued in a while, probably because the muscles are totally different from what I’d use for other labor. BF professes that he’ll pay me whatever I want for helping. We shower, then cook up instant ramen and potstickers. The potstickers are homemade — I made them with pork and cabbage and froze them a while back. They’re time-consuming to make but so worth it for a quick homemade dinner.

5 p.m. — We eat, nap, then give each other massages while streaming both of Jo Koy’s stand up comedy specials. I’ve watched his shows multiple times but it’s BF’s first time and he likes them, too. We eat some more ice cream and go to bed at 9.

Daily Total: $0

Day Five

5 a.m. — I AM SO SORE! UGH!!!!!!!!! Fortunately, I’m working at my desk today, but I guess this is a good experience for my upcoming career transition. My goal is to work in the field full time, no more office comforts, so I’ll have to deal with being sore on a daily basis. I make coffee, do 20 minutes of yoga, and check out my plants. I’ve found that regular yoga is the best option for mitigating soreness and I thoroughly suffer when I am complacent about it. I also have enough time to journal — recording my self-reflections and mental/emotional growth from the weekend. I’ve journaled on and off throughout my life and currently only write as much or as little as I want. I have come to appreciate these snapshots of my life, especially when I reread entries and see what I’ve gotten past and what issues I’m still stuck on.

9 a.m. — How early is too early to heat up leftovers and eat at your desk? My workplace is pretty casual since my desk is currently in the breakroom (COVID separation). I eat my braised chicken, rice, and veggies. My food is over-seasoned, so I repack what I don’t eat and I’ll add more rice at home to dilute the flavor. I remember I need gas so I go out and get some. Normally I pay for gas, but I’ve been using my personal vehicle for work so I fill up with the company gas card. ($40 expensed)

5 p.m. — My fridge clearing dinner is not successful — I throw together leftover baked beans with sausage, pasta, marinara sauce, veggie mirepoix and hope it will somehow work together. It does not, but I will eat it.

7 p.m. — I’m stretching when BF starts to pout about his favorite dessert. We collaborate on homemade cookie dough and lemon bars — I bought this OXO cookie scoop in college and it is THE MOST INDISPENSABLE UNITASKER EVER! Best investment. We pre-portion and freeze the cookie dough so we can throw some in the oven whenever it’s on like during pizza nights.

9 p.m. — ???? I am back on my phone. I see that our local community college is having a plant sale and make a note to order some tomorrow. 9:40 p.m., let’s go to bed.

Daily Total: $0

Day Six

6 a.m. — Coffee, old bagel, and yoga. I dampen the bagel before toasting, and the rehydration definitely revives it. I’m still sore from the weekend and need to attack it ASAP.

7:30 a.m. — I email the community college horticulture club with my order — mainly perennial edibles common in permaculture. As usual, I second guess some items, as I know I tend to be overambitious with my hobbies, but I figure this is for a good cause. Technically this is $51 but I don’t pay until Saturday after my Money Diary is done.

2:30 p.m. — Today has been a fairly productive day because I promised several clients I would finish up their work this week. Now that I don’t have actual deadlines, I have to make my own by making promises that I don’t want to break. My coworkers bring me some interesting plant problems and I call up their clients to explain what’s going on. I am hungry so I bring out the “kitchen sink” pasta from last night.

4 p.m. — I get home and start looking for food to cook. I have been meaning to make honey walnut shrimp since we have frozen shrimps. Unfortunately, I overwhip the sugar and end up with candied nuts — still good, but now too hard. I pair that with brown rice, sauteed veggies, and homemade fried veggie eggrolls.

6 p.m. — My willow water experiment is a failure. My cuttings/plants are in water and have noticeably daily root growth, but their water is now murky and root growth has stopped. I replace the water and pot up the cuttings that may be established enough to continue growing in soil. I set up another grow light (GE bulbs for $10 each) with one of BF’s clamp lamps. I’m not drilling into the ceiling so I do my best to prop up the grow light near the plants.

Daily Total: $0

Day Seven

6 a.m. — My alarm fails to go off so I’m glad my body is on clockwork. BF tweaked his back overnight (most likely during the week, but these things sneak up on you) so I groggily give him a massage. I’m finding that I enjoy giving buttcrack-of-dawn massages since the slow movement helps me fully wake up with minimal effort and my partner feels better afterward. Today I try using a Moka pot for my coffee, but I get distracted putting dishes away and toasting a bagel so my coffee is over-brewed :(. I’ll “fix” it with hot water and half & half. Only one old bagel to go……..I will never buy clearance bagels again.

12 p.m. — Lunch consists of yesterday’s leftovers. Methinks I don’t like shrimp as much as I thought I did.

5:30 p.m. — We were tentatively going to get takeout, but I love how much progress we’ve made in clearing our pantry so I am motivated to keep it up. Dinner is one of our weird but favorite fusion meals — crispy corned beef hash fried rice (hash, brown rice, red pepper, black pepper, and soy sauce). This gets paired with a jarred four-bean salad from Costco, but the salad is way too sweet. I think the chickens will be feasting tomorrow. We’re running low on food so a Costco run is in the plans in the next week or so.

6 p.m. — Spend the next three hours watching plant videos, thus spurring my desire to spend. I message a Facebook seller on getting a metal shelf for plants for $35, but I don’t commit to paying yet.

9 p.m. — To “recover” the unproductive evening, I decide to be productive and make more pizza dough. We’re running low, and it’s not really a process I enjoy because the cleanup sucks. Food processors are so convenient, yet so annoying to clean! After that, I head to bed at 9:30.

Daily Total: $0

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