Last night, I went to buy gas and groceries after work. I was standing in the checkout lane, scanning my items: a package of chicken, whole-grain pasta, mushrooms; some mints, ice cream, and laundry detergent. After I swiped my “discount” club card, my total came to $30.80.
Then, I went to the gas station. My cumulative grocery points (1 point per $1 spent) give me an extra $0.10 off per gallon after each 100 points, provided they don’t expire before I can use them. I put $20 in the tank and watched it squeak past the halfway point. I will need to fill up again by the end of the week.
I try to live on $20 a day. It’s not much, but after rent and the car payment, I put some money away in savings. Then I make my credit-card payment after buying all of the things I couldn’t afford with cash. I live modestly; I don’t buy new clothes or go out very much. Still, my budget ends up between $20 to $25 per day.
What I do spend a lot of money on is the necessities: food, gas, utilities. I would venture to say that 40 percent of my budget goes to food, yet when I look in the fridge at any given moment, I usually find only my water filter and some old lettuce. I buy, I consume, and I take the leftovers for lunch the next day.
Paycheck to Paycheck Living Is No Fun
Yet in the span of 30 minutes I managed to spend two and a half days’ budget on laundry detergent and mushrooms. Why do I feel so poor?
This article by Andrew Flowers provides a real eye-opening understanding for me. It shows that millennials who entered the job market during the recession earned less starting out than comparable graduates 24 years before, and that they will likely earn less for life as a consequence.
Having graduated in 2011, I am the recession millennial. Out of the 300 communications graduates who shared my degree, I believe I was one of maybe 50 who graduated from my school with a job. My salary pays well, better than most people in administration, but not enough to pay the bills and have any disposable income left over. Last weekend, I bought my boyfriend new shoes after his sole split in half. He didn’t have enough money to buy them before his next pay period, so I offered to help.
The total cost of one pair of shoes and three pairs of socks came to $120. Since that is six days’ budget for me, it went on the credit card again. I also bought a pair of shoes for myself for $15. That $15 is the most I have spent on clothes for myself in the last four months.
Don’t Even Get Me Started on Student Loans
I also know a thing or two about student debt. My student loans are modest, thanks to some scholarships, and my father covers them—the one expense of mine for which I depend on my parents. My boyfriend’s, however, are both expansive and expensive, and he pays for them himself. He will most likely be paying off his undergrad well into his forties. Graduate school? Forget about it.
Not only does the high cost of living make budgeting difficult, but it worries me when I think about my ability to afford my own future. My company offers a 401(k) with matching and I still have not taken advantage of it because I cannot afford the deduction in my paycheck. I put some money in savings each month but because of financial setbacks, trips home, etc., my savings account just breaks even every year. I constantly contribute yet feel no real boost to my financial circumstances.
I should take a moment to explain that I am not poor. In fact my combined household income nears $75,000 annually. My boyfriend and I live in Los Angeles, in the heart of Hollywood, no less. And we have nice things—a 42” television, a laptop computer, and a lightly-used 2012 Honda Civic, which we will drive until the wheels falls off. We are completely financially independent from our parents, save for my student loans. By no means are we suffering.
How Can Millennials Ever Get Ahead?
But we do struggle. Put together, my boyfriend’s and my monthly income should afford us a much loftier lifestyle, but we’re young and already stretching dollars. When I think about the average cost of a wedding, buying a home, raising children, and saving for retirement, the gears in my head start spinning so fast I have to sit down. I can barely afford to live in the now. How much money am I going to have to earn just to be able to balance all of those debts (and it will be all debt—buying a house in cash? Get real) if I can’t afford to fill up my gas tank on a $75,000 income?
I suppose one answer would be to move to a cheaper location. Buying a house in the area we live in is out of the question. Sometimes we tour open houses a few blocks away that consistently sell for $2 to 2.5 million. I’m sure the average cost of a home in our neighborhood is more like $500,000 to 700,000, but even still, there’s no way an office manager and a sales assistant are ever going to get that home loan approved.
The problem with moving somewhere cheaper is the lack of employment opportunities. Living in an international hub like Los Angeles, or Chicago, or New York, you find that there are more opportunities for work. Granted, there is also more competition. But when law students are checkout clerks back in my hometown, the incentive to relocate someplace “cheaper” dissipates when I realize it won’t make the cost of living any easier.
The second solution would simply be to earn more money, which absolutely no one opposes. I would love to earn more money. Let me earn all the money! But I recently changed jobs and with that came a slight increase in pay—about $5,000, to be exact. So I am earning more money. The problem is, as soon as I earned that extra $5,000 I was bumped into a higher tax bracket and the Internal Revenue Service decided that meant taking 10 percent more of my income.
So Don’t Talk to Me about Social Issues
So I get very tired of hearing political debates about social issues in this country. As a woman, I did not know I was offended by so many things—from the shirts that NASA scientists wear to a private corporation’s decision not to cover every birth control option for its employees. When a millionaire actress leans on her Oscar speech as a platform for women’s wage equality, though, that’s when I get offended. Seriously, Patricia Arquette, what the hell do you know about being a middle-class, millennial woman in this country? You were married to Nicholas Cage. Courteney Cox was your sister-in-law. You are holding an Oscar. Your concept of reality is marginal at best.
It offends me that someone tries to tell me what my concerns should be. That 25 percent of my paycheck goes to federal programs like welfare and immigration, things I want no part in, but as soon as someone says she don’t want her taxes funding abortion clinics, then everyone loses their minds. I’m pro-choice, but pro-choice means respecting the choice, and not forcing others to agree with my beliefs.
This country is huge. It’s diverse. There are many different people living on many different planes of existence. Who is anybody to tell me what my day-to-day challenges are? Who is anybody to tell me what I should be offended by or what I should spend my money on, or that I have an obligation to spend it on other people with absolutely zero influence on how they spend it?
According to Flowers’ article, my generation and especially my graduating class has gotten a pretty raw deal here; a situation we have inherited into the next several decades of our lives, and you expect me to put all my energy into rooting for the spouses of highly skilled immigrants and their eligibility to enter the workforce? That’s great that Neha Mahajan can finally “dream of being herself,” but when there are so few of us able to gain employment, let alone employment in the field from which we graduated, forgive me if I’m not all that enthused. I’m glad my grocery money can fund her self-actualization. What’s her husband’s tax bracket, I’d like to know!
Millennials, Mugged by Reality
I didn’t used to be so curmudgeonly. I used to want free programs for everyone and federal grants and incentives for everything. I thought most European countries were run far better than the United States. Then I got into the real world and realized that Sweden and Germany and the United Kingdom are the size of U.S. states and they’re almost entirely homogenous. Their systems just don’t work here.
Most of all, I’ve come to resent being called a millennial as if it’s derogatory, being made to feel like I have an attitude problem when I take a lunch break or refuse to spend my money on company expenses. I’ve come to resent being told that I don’t know what hard work is because my job involves a chair and a computer. I resent being told that I earn too much money to refinance my student loans, but my taxes should go toward free community college for others. Are these others unable to get student loans? I am tired of hearing about oil tycoons conducting layoffs to account for “low gas prices” as I pay $3.75 a gallon.
Most of all, I resent being told that if I don’t give 100 percent of my attention to social issues, I’m an “ist.” I’m a racist or sexist. If my top priority isn’t gay marriage, I’m a homophobe. If my top priority isn’t the victim blaming/rape dialogue, I’m contributing to gender bashing. I think it’s time for everyone to stop telling me what I care about and start doing some listening.