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Money Journal: 1 Week in Kingfield on a $160K Salary

How far do the dollars of a 52-year-old university faculty member go?

10:41 AM CST on February 6, 2023

Job: University faculty, previously private sector
Age: 52
Neighborhood: Kingfield
Education: Ph.D.
Salary: $160,000
Credit Score: 750
Dependents: None
Estimated net worth: Around $350K. It should be a lot higher, but divorce took a big chunk and close to a year of unemployment a few years ago made me tap into my retirement savings.

Debt

Credit cards: $38,000. Oof. That said, most of that is on balance transfer/promotional rate cards, which the credit card companies keep offering me—the fee for one of those is usually 3% of the balance, which is a LOT lower than even the cost of a HELOC or personal loan over a year. I’ve gamed this out; it’s probably the least painful way to carry debt. I now have so many of them open, most with zero balance, that my available credit is ridiculous, and I just keep pinging the balances around when the promo rate is about to expire. Right now I pay cash for any expenditures and put everything that’s left towards paying down debt—it’s the only way to make that debt go away. 

A lot of things have led to that sum of debt. I had an epically bad last five years. I divorced in 2017, which cost $40K just in attorney’s fees, and it turns out the ex was hiding a bunch of debt from me, which I became jointly responsible for. When you have two working professionals who have bought and sold several houses over 10+ years, with multiple retirement accounts, and one partner inherited family money, money gets insanely complicated to split up in a divorce. The ex and I probably could have just gone to arbitration for the bulk of it, but they decided to lawyer up because of the money complexities. (They inherited the money that let us make the down payment on a house, for example.) I started my newly single life with a huge legal bill, though fortunately no spousal support to pay or anything like that. Going from part of a yuppie couple to a single person meant adapting to a pretty different standard of living, which I did a poor job at—I tried to maintain the same standard of living, tried to replace the half of my possessions that I lost in the divorce with stuff of the same quality, and figured spending more money going out because I was dating was just to be expected. 

About a year after the divorce was settled, I bought a house. One month after buying it, I was laid off. I had the double whammy of having depleted most of my cash to buy the house at the exact time that I needed it most. I was unemployed for almost a year; unemployment benefits paid (I think) $690 a week for six months—enough to cover my mortgage and essential bills at least for that long. But six months is not a reasonable time frame to find an equivalent job if you’re a professional with 15+ years of experience. I went to a career advisor who said to estimate spending one month searching for every $10K in salary you expect to earn. When I finally found a job I wouldn't immediately want to quit, it only paid 80% of what I made pre-layoff. And that was of course less than 50% of the household income that existed pre-divorce. I’ve since changed careers, rebounded and made some progress in terms of salary, but that sting isn’t going away anytime soon. 

It gets worse. While I was unemployed, I developed a medical condition that morphed into a cancer scare. That whole situation would have cost over $30,000 out of pocket in medical bills. I was on MNSure at the time (about $350/month) and paid the full annual deductible amount ($7,500) rather than out-of-pocket, but that was a brutal add-on to the misery. Laid off, divorced, and potentially having cancer—not a fun way to spend a year.

Then, just after getting back on my feet with a job, my dog developed a terminal illness that cost me probably $12K. For what it’s worth, I had pet insurance (it cost me about $40/month) and it paid very, very little of that. Over her lifetime, it didn’t pay off at all. Pet insurance generally has lifetime caps on payouts for many conditions, and if your dog develops one, the insurance is worthless. For my new dog, I’m just putting $50/month into a savings account for his medical care, from now until he's gone. I question my sanity in having spent so much to keep a dog alive, but that dog was my most steadfast companion through some of the worst years of my life. I owed it to her to give her as much life as I could afford. The treatments were expensive but effective—she lived two years longer than she would have otherwise, and with good quality of life. 

Oh yeah—and I’ve had two major car accidents in the last two years. Those didn’t help, either, even if it was just the deductible. I must have terrible karma! And I’m not sure why, because I try to act with kindness and respect to everyone, I volunteer, I even donate blood regularly—all the stuff you’re supposed to do.

Vehicle: My car is paid for (it’s nine years old) but I pay around $600 a month on a loan that I used to finance a camper that I bought during the pandemic. It was a three-year loan that will be done this summer. Should I have done that with this amount of debt hanging over me? No. Do I need to have a hobby that gets me out of my house and into nature on a regular basis? Yes. I consider it essential for my mental health. The weekends that I spend with the dog away from the house are worth every penny. Plus, when my next financial catastrophe hits, I’ll be homeless in style.

Loans/etc.: About $9K right now—I used a zero-percent-finance option to pay for a new furnace and water heater over 36 months. During an inflationary period, it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. The furnace was an absolute must; the old one was failing.

Assets

Retirement accounts: Around $320K—I have a traditional IRA, a 401K from a past employer that I should really roll into the IRA, and now a 403B. I hate even looking at the balances. My IRA lost around 20% of its value last year (I’d rather say that than think of the actual number—$60,000). I’ve been through a couple recessions now and I know it gets better, but it never gets easier to see those numbers shrink by such huge amounts. I’m getting older and I’m really worried now what might happen if the Republicans force the U.S. to default on debt—I’ve been saving for years and there is absolutely no secure long-term value in those accounts.

Non-retirement cash (spend and savings accounts): $7,500, though some of that is earmarked for taxes in April.

Equity in my home: Around $80K, but it’s amazing how fast that goes away when you have to actually sell a home, which I’m currently considering. I’d be moving to the West Coast, so there’s no chance I’ll ever be able to afford a house there—period, end of story. It’s just not possible on less than $300K a year in any major West Coast city. In the area I’d be moving to, a house like mine would easily cost 2-3 times what it does here. I don’t know how anyone is buying now—mortgage rates look like they're back in the 1980s or something. Taking some of the proceeds to pay off debt at this point is rational because homeownership is an impossibility.

Miscellaneous things: I own some Ethereum that I’m holding onto because I paid very little for it and want to see where it goes. I could sell and pay down some debt, but maybe things will pick up again? I’m a techie and got into Bitcoin very, very early. I laugh that I own a pair of $5,000 jeans, because in 2013 I actually paid for a pair of jeans from a company in San Francisco with around 0.25 BTC, which was less than $100 at the time. Bitcoin now trades at around $20K. (The jeans still fit, though—yay me.) I figured Bitcoin was a silly techno-libertarian thing that would never really amount to much, and didn’t know what to do with the amounts that I had. About six years ago, which was just after my divorce, the price of BTC started to spike and I sold 2 BTC to help pay for the down payment on my house. I cashed in when the exchange rate was about $11K. It went up to $60K in the following year and is now back to around $20K. D’oh. But I got part of a house down payment out of it for maybe $500 that I invested, so… shrug? But also: Capital gains taxes were a beast that year—it was one of the first years that the IRS started telling people that they had to report crypto gains and losses.

Monthly Income

Paycheck amount: $3,645 every two weeks after deductions.

Expenses

Mortgage: $1,821 (includes taxes & insurance). My mortgage rate is 2.975%—I refinanced in 2020 and it paid off within a year.

Utilities:

  • Electric: About $180 averaged out. Because my house is old and weirdly structured, I have to run a window A/C in addition to main A/C in the summer, and in the winter, I have to run an electric heater in my bedroom. It’s just dumb, but putting in a mini-split would cost another couple grand at least. 
  • Gas: Averaged over the year, about $75 a month. I just put in a super efficient furnace but the house is old and inefficient. Making the house maximally energy-efficient would run $15-20K (seal the attic, replace a bunch of windows, add more insulation, etc.) and that would only pay off if I’m planning on staying here long-term, which I’m not. 
  • Water, trash/recycling, sewer: $98. My city bill keeps changing and I don’t know why—last month it was $138 for some reason. [Ed. note: Same, WTH?]
  • Phone: $118
  • Internet: $70 ($50 is subsidized by my employer because I’m remote)

Insurances:

  • Health: $144.36 biweekly, plus another $96.15 to my FSA. (I have several long-term prescriptions, I wear specialty contact lenses, and I’ve had a tough recovery from Covid that sent me to a LOT of specialists last year—I’m expecting that to continue for a while.)
  • Dental: $4.27 (biweekly)
  • Vision: $2.82 (biweekly)
  • Critical illness (optional, biweekly): $22.15. Per cancer scare above, I feel mortal and carry this kind of coverage now.
  • Car: $134/month

Taxes (bi-weekly):

  • Federal withholding: $1,015.38 every paycheck. I also put $200 per paycheck into a savings account for taxes. I could have it withheld directly but saving it in an earmarked account is kind of a rainy day fund if shit really hits the fan. The changes that the U.S. House Republicans made to the tax code in 2017 have cost me an average of $4,000 extra per year. Trump wanted to punish blue state voters, so they put a cap of $10K on deductions for state and local taxes. That means that if you’re a high earner in a high tax state (likely dirty librul scum), you can’t deduct the full amount of your state income taxes and property taxes anymore. The combination of my Minnesota income tax plus Hennepin County property taxes puts me well over that limit. It basically means I’m being double-taxed, or taxed on income I never had. I’ve written to Rep. Ilhan Omar about it, but she doesn’t care because this is supposedly a tax loophole used by billionaires who own multiple properties. (I’m in the 91st percentile of income earners—often called a H.E.N.R.Y., “high earner, not rich yet”— but like virtually all Americans, far closer to being homeless than to being a billionaire.)
  • State Withholding: $366. Not cheap but better than some other places I’ve lived.
  • Social Security: $381.54. Gen Xers like me are never gonna see a dime of that. You know when I first become eligible for social security (62.5 years old)? May of 2034. You know when the trustees of the Social Security Administration have projected that they’ll no longer be able to pay full benefits to eligible individuals? May of 2034. And that’s if the Republicans don’t try to eliminate it before then, or decide that you can’t have both social security and a retirement account.
  • Medicare: $89.23. Never gonna see that, either. 

Retirement: I put 8.5% of my pre-tax income into my 403b. My employer also automatically contributes 3% (for everyone!) and matches up to 3% of my salary in contributions. Should I cut that amount back given how much debt I have—maybe save less and pay down the debt faster? Dunno—but retirement accounts can’t be seized in a bankruptcy, so again, if things get really bad, it's an untouchable pile. 

Gas: I work from home in a very walkable neighborhood, so I drive infrequently. An average month is maybe $60 now. 

Groceries: $600. I shop for some stuff at Aldi and buy produce and meat at the better places (Kowalski’s or Whole Foods). Meal planning for a household of one seems like it should be cheap and easy, but it's not. I am a good home chef and I like to eat well, so I will pay more for quality ingredients for certain things. I go out to eat maybe once a week and very rarely get delivery.

Dependents (dog): My dog is young, and right now he only costs me about $100 in food and toys, but I pay another $200 or so in training classes or doggy daycare visits per month. He’s very well-behaved and has great manners with other dogs, so I’m doing everything I can to maintain that. 

Subscriptions:

  • AppleOne ($31) 
  • Netflix ($21)
  • One of Hulu/Disney, HBO Max, or Paramount Plus depending on what series I’m watching (usually around $15? )
  • Washington Post digital ($40/year)
  • PlayStation Plus ($99/year)
  • Planet Fitness ($10/month)
  • Duolingo ($15/month)
  • Audible ($15/month) a necessity for my road trips
  • MSW Media podcasts ($5)
  • I just re-upped Racket ($5) [Ed. note: Hell yeah]

Charities:

  • International Red Cross ($15/month)
  • Public radio ($20/month)
  • Our Justice, provides funds to abortion-seekers ($10/month)

I used to make more charitable donations but the extra taxes and debt have eaten into my ability to do so. I used to earmark a chunk of my annual bonus for charity but I no longer get one.

Other stuff

  • Home maintenance is expensive. I always find myself having to DIY something in my old house. Between DIY projects, garden/landscaping (which I do myself, but plants and supplies still aren’t cheap), and paid repairs/services, I probably average $200/month. Stuff like gutters, tree cutting, plumbing—it all adds up. I really hate being a homeowner, but renting is worse.
  • I travel a lot. I haven’t managed to make real friends here in Minnesota, so I travel to visit old friends to keep my sanity. It adds up, but again, my life without some in-person friend time would be rough—the pandemic made it clear just how difficult it can be. I won’t get into the whole “it’s hard to make friends in Minneapolis” thing, but it’s true. It’s tough to make friends as an adult, and it’s tougher here than anywhere else I’ve lived. Having to date, find activities to make friends at, or travel to see existing friends is another hidden cost of living alone.
  • Speaking of which, one of those friends is a romantic partner who I’m going to move in with… on the West Coast… which would mean selling the house and paying for a move. Another big financial hit if I do it, but I guess happiness has a price.

Money Talk Q&A

Did your family talk about money growing up?

Kinda. My dad was a hard-ass and made sure I spent as many non-school hours as I could working at a part-time job. He never gave me a dime once I was eligible to work, even though he made plenty of money. I had to buy my own clothes, for example, which none of my friends did. I remember him regularly sitting down to review paystubs from my part-time jobs with me and propagandizing about all the bad things the government was doing with my money. My parents gave me a savings account when I was in grade school, and of course I had a checking account as soon as I had a part-time job in high school, so they at least gave me the basic tools to save and budget.

Did you worry about money growing up?

My dad was a VP at his company, and I’m not sure how much he took home, but in retrospect, it must have been a lot. My mom worked part time but whatever she earned was a pittance and definitely wasn’t needed to make ends meet. I think she mostly wanted time away from all the kids. I grew up in a large Catholic family, so even though we had a nice house, there were a lot of mouths to feed, which meant I didn’t grow up feeling like a rich kid. My mom grew up dirt poor (her family lived in a two-bedroom kit house next to some railroad tracks) and I don’t think she had any idea what to do with the amount of money my dad made. We ate like we were in the Great Depression, but my dad had a boat, and we lived in a huge house and took a vacation every few years. I was always led to believe that there was no money for anything frivolous and that’s why I had to work a part-time job. The truth is that my dad was just kind of a dick.

At what age did you become financially independent?

When I turned 17 (as a high school senior), I was informed that I had two options when I turned 18 the next year—I could go to college, and my parents would pay for some or all of it, or I could leave the house. Period. Join the Army, whatever, but you can’t stay a single night in this house past your 18th birthday unless you’re enrolled in college. When I was about to finish college, he said he was done paying for anything for me once I graduated—basically "you’re on your own as soon as you finish." I had no intent of returning home for so much as a day, anyway, but literally the day I got my diploma, I was cut off—which made me financially independent, I guess. I paid for grad school with a combination of scholarships, teaching assistant jobs, some student loans, and usually at least one part time job. My student loans totaled about $35K (I finished in 2000, inflation-adjusted equivalent would be $59K) and I think I paid them off in 10 years.

How did you learn how to budget your life?

When you make more than you need, budgets are guesstimates, and they should really just keep you grounded regarding the types of things you can afford. I’ve tried being slavish to them (it sucks) and ignoring them (bad idea). What really impacts your financial destiny are the catastrophes you encounter, but you don’t go to your financial planner with your paystub and ask for recommendations based on potentially getting divorced at age 45 or being unemployed for 11 months or having cancer at 50. Well... maybe you plan for one of those, but not all three. You plan for a kind of steady-state income and somewhat rosy view of the future based on what you can earn. If I tried to budget accurately, I’d be ridiculously pessimistic. I could quite literally sit down with a budget and think, "Mmm, I haven’t had a car accident for two years, so I better add in a couple thousand for that this year, so that means no more going out until 2025." I have drilled into my brain now that if you think you want to put something on a credit card, add 20 to 50% to the price tag, and see if it’s still worth it, because that's ultimately what you're going to pay. Do like grandpa did and pay cash for everything. No cash? You can’t afford it—give something else up.

Have you ever received inherited income, major financial gifts, or large insurance payouts?

My parents paid for the parts of my undergrad expenses that weren’t covered by a scholarship—50% of tuition at an elite private university. I actually didn’t even want to go to the school I went to, but they insisted I go to a Catholic university, so I’ve always said that they brought that extra cost on themselves—I would have gone somewhere else. (Going there also made me a born-again atheist, so the joke’s on them.) My dad is now terminally ill and I expect to inherit some money from him, but honestly can’t tell you if that will be $300 or $300,000. He’s mercurial and very, very weird about money. And stupid rich, though he wouldn't loan me a dollar if I was homeless. And as I mentioned above, I had some dumb luck with crypto that was almost like winning the lottery. (The Pick 3 lottery, not the Powerball).

Do you worry about money now?

Of course. It’s ridiculous that I’m not saving more for retirement on my salary. I worry about how soon I’ll realistically be able to finish off this debt, and I worry what happens when the next catastrophe hits me. I worry about my sanity when I’m considering selling my house and moving cross-country to live with a partner—but I know that living alone is expensive and that it gets more difficult the older you are, so I hope it’s short term pain for long-term gain. Plus, you know, love. You don’t get a lot of shots at that, either.

How much do you think a person or household needs to earn to live comfortably in the Twin Cities?

I honestly don’t know how a family with two kids could exist on less than $100K, but plenty do, so my experience is completely out of whack. When I was a graduate student, I lived on the equivalent of $25K, inflation-adjusted. I had two roommates, no car, drank bad beer, and ate worse food, and thought it was fine. Then I lived as part of a yuppie couple and somehow we never had enough for everything we wanted—but a lot of that was due to comparing ourselves with very successful couples and thinking that we needed the types of things they had: a BMW, real midcentury furniture, vacations in exotic places. Now I’m a single person with a lot of debt and very different expectations. I know that I’m in the top 10% of income earners and have no dependents, so my definition of comfort is not reality.

Money Journal

Day 1

The first weekday of the month—bills start coming due. 

Mortgage: $1,900.

Planet Fitness: $42.13. I guess you have to pay an annual fee in January? It’s usually $10.

GrubHub: $21.28. OK, I caved on my first workday back after the holidays and ordered lunch.

US Internet: $70, net cost is $20 since work pays me a $50 stipend.

Target: $187.14. I needed to replenish a bunch of cleaning supplies after the holidays, ended up adding groceries and dog toys, and walked out having spent way more than I intended. 

Total: $2,220.55

Day 2

Disney+/ Hulu: $16.53. 

Total: $16.53

Day 3

Loan: $608.34, nine months remain.

Credit card bill, one of three: $388.

Gift for a family member’s birthday: $47.74.

Vitamins: $13.20—have to take Vitamin D in the winter and forgot to pick some up earlier in the week.

Total: $1,057.28

Day 4

CenterPoint gas bill: $162.94. January through March is always terrible. I have the thermostat set at 65 during the day (I work from home) and it’s still just stupidly expensive.

Total: $162.94

Day 5

Hardware store: $53.36. My freakin' shovel broke on this heavy, icy, garbage snow, and I was also out of pet-safe ice melter and duct tape.

Total: $53.36

Day 6

Audible.com: $6.43. 

Whole Foods: $41.53. Decided to make a recipe that called for short ribs and some other ingredients I didn’t have. 

Total: 47.96

Day 7

T-Mobile: $118.53

Total: $118.53

Weekly Total: $3,677.15

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