How a Library Assistant in Dallas Does Money

Photo credit: Michael Zanussi, CC BY 2.0.

Elizabeth is a 31-year-old library assistant in Dallas.

So, Elizabeth, how much are you making?

With the New Job, it should be about $27,000 a year. Until a week and a half ago, I was working two part-time jobs, and probably averaging $20,000.

Congratulations on the New Job!

Thank you, I’m super stoked about it, LOL.

So prior to the new job, how did your income match up to your expenses? Did you feel like you were earning enough? Where was your money going?

I definitely did not feel I was earning enough, especially in the long-term. After all the mandatory payments of my life, I was usually left with about $30 a week for food and miscellany, and I was getting by, but there’s only so long you can do that. Plus any kind of emergency expense had to go on the credit card. /shudder

Where was the money going: payments on three credit cards, utilities, rent, gas, car payment. Fortunately wrangled $0.00 income-based repayment on my student loan for this year.

What’s “$0.00 income-based repayment” mean?

I’m on an income-based repayment plan, so every year I file my paystubs and my monthly minimum changes accordingly. This year my monthly minimum came back as zero, just for the one year. [insert hallelujah chorus]

How does that affect your interest?

My understanding is that it continues to accrue interest. A problem for Future Elizabeth.

Who is earning more money, so that’s a step in the right direction!

Yes!

So what are you going to do with the extra income? Have you made a plan for it?

My sister (who is also my roommate) would love for me to pay a bigger percentage of the rent. I told her we’d look at the possibilities. Other than that, I want more savings, hopefully a slight lifestyle lift, and to actually make progress paying down my debts instead of just keeping them at bay.

What part of your lifestyle do you want to lift? Clothes? Food? Experiences?

All of the above, LOL. I want to be able to go out to eat once a week without running out of gas money, buy a pair of shoes from Target now and then without saving up for weeks beforehand, and most importantly, afford to go home (Alabama) for holidays.

I guess I want to live like my sister — not extravagant, just not worried to death all the time.

What industry is your sister working in? Is she earning a lot more than you’ll be with your new job, or about the same?

She’s a teacher. And when the public school teacher is the financially plump one, things are bad!

She’ll still be making significantly more than me — she has a lot of experience and a master’s, so she gets a good salary — and that’s something I need to keep in mind so I don’t play too much keeping-up-with-the-Joneses.

Very true. So I’m curious how you got into your career, and how much you thought you’d be making.

I decided I wanted to be a librarian sometime in high school. It seemed like something that would really suit me — I’m bookish to a fault and very introverted (which it turns out is not a great thing for a librarian, because there’s a fair amount of public contact, but anyway). I knew I wouldn’t make much money but again, I wasn’t looking for extravagance anyway, and I liked (still like) that unlike many other professions, such as teaching, there’s not a lot of “bringing the work home with you.” You clock out, you’re done. That way I can also write, someday have time to devote to a family, etc.

I didn’t expect that I would be quite this far from extravagance! But I also didn’t realize at the time that I would need a master’s degree in order to make the big bucks, such as they are.

And I’m not opposed to getting one, but, of course, I can’t afford it.

I remember going in to grad school for my MFA and having people tell me “this degree will prepare you for both professional work and teaching at the high school level,” and then three years later sitting down with an adviser to talk about the high school teaching option and hearing “actually, now you need a M. Ed for that.”

It’s something a lot of us weren’t expecting. Everything changed in under a decade.

Oh, yikes. Yeah, that ain’t cool.

On the subject of “everything changing:” do you think about the long-term at all? Retirement, or even where you want to be in five years? I know you mentioned starting a family.

Right now I’m single and only have myself to support. I’d love to get a dog when I feel like I can afford it. Hopefully I’ll eventually meet Mr. Right and that’ll change things.

I actually just spoke with the workplace retirement planner guy yesterday about setting up my retirement account and rolling the retirement money from all my previous jobs into it. It’s definitely something I think about, because I’m watching my parents struggle financially in their retirement, but it’s hard to sacrifice that money for the future when I feel like I need it now! It’s hard but I’m doing it.

What percentage are you putting aside? Do you get a company match?

I’m putting 5 percent right now. I don’t get a match until I’ve been there a year, but then they match 7 percent to my 5 percent.

The planner would like me to inch up to 10 percent. We’ll see.

Everyone would LIKE us to be saving more. But you’ve got debts to pay down, and a career you’d like to build, and a personal life!

Not much of one, maybe, but yeah!

What do you feel you do really well, financially, and what do you wish you could do better?

I feel like I’ve gotten good at the day-to-day “money dieting” — keeping within the grocery budget, not buying anything impulsive, always thinking through my financial decisions. My sisters actually say I’m the best in the family at that.

What do I wish I could do better? Mostly I just wish I had more money! That and planning for the future, I guess. I fight and fight to put together any savings and then they’re wiped out by the first emergency. It’s hard to imagine getting out of that hole.

That’s the same hole a lot of people are in, so you’re in good company. Doesn’t mean it’s a good hole, though.

Getting crowded in this hole.

How did your family influence the way you interact with money? Did you pick up your money habits in childhood? Does having your sister as a roommate help you manage your finances in a way that might not be the case if it were someone who didn’t come from a similar family/financial background?

Oh, definitely a strong family influence. With five kids and one income, I’m not sure there was ever a time we weren’t struggling, so I’ve never developed any bad habits of impulsive spending or expecting to have expensive things, you know? I saw the importance of savings and thinking ahead first-hand.

In some ways living with my sister might be worse for managing my finances, really. I expect us to have the same lifestyle and do things together and sometimes we just can’t. But there’s also accountability, in that she knows my situation and if I ever did something dumb with my money she’d know I did a dumb thing! I care about her opinion of me.

I usually end these by asking people what advice they’d give to Billfold readers, but I’m going to ask you specifically: what advice would you give to people who are in your situation — close friends and family (maybe even roommates!) living a slightly more expensive lifestyle than you. How do you manage those relationships and your finances simultaneously?

First off, choose experiences over things. I’d rather save my money to go to a movie with my sister than buy a new shirt just because she’s buying a new shirt. Akin to that, prioritize. Maybe you can afford to do X-very-important-thing if you pass on Y-and-Z-less-important-things.

Here’s a bit of hypocritical advice I ought to take myself but haven’t yet: go shopping separately. My sister and I go grocery shopping together and it’s maddening watching her fill her cart with stuff I can’t afford. Don’t do that to yourself.