What 5 Young Women with 5 Very Different Salaries Can Afford

From a part-time bartender with $15,000 of debt to a mortgage banker who bought a house three months after graduation.

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For many college graduates, the first year out can feel like a gauntlet. As soon as mortarboards are thrown, everyone races, Tough-Mudder-style, to post a status announcing "some personal news" about an amazing new job that aligns perfectly with their degree, and provides them the financial stability to repay loans and maybe even own some non-IKEA furniture. It's a terrifying time—particularly with an average of about $35,000 of student debt—and for women, this year is even scarier, as they face a professional environment where they're neither treated nor compensated equally. Even women in the vaunted STEM majors that are supposed to insure fiduciary security earn 31 percent less than their male counterparts in their first year postgrad. 

The average Millennial woman—from 16 to 34—makes $30,000 per year, and that number is lower for black and Latina women. As a woman of this generation, I've always looked at personal finance as a deck fundamentally stacked against me. My friends and I refuse to talk about our financial realities, preferring instead to make happy, shiny assumptions based on each other's social media highlight reels. So I set out to talk to five Millennial women in their first year out of school who earn wildly different incomes, from below that average to over $250,000 a year, about what their money lives really look like, and how they're taking control.

Related: This 17-Year-Old Was Fired for Asking for Equal Pay at Her Summer Job

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Ashley, 23 Major: Biology with a minor in management. Current job: Assistant women's lacrosse coach at a Division II college in Michigan. My salary is $20,000 per year, but I make extra money bartending and serving on the side.

Do you have student loans? 
I do have student loans. My monthly payment is around $230, but my parents pay that bill for me. They have Parent Plus loans in addition to that. I'm not sure exactly what my loans total, but I think it's in the $12,000 to $15,000 range.

How do you feel about the way you got your degree, financially? I feel fine about it. My college was a rather expensive private school, but my parents were supportive of my decision to go there and were comfortable taking out loans for me to fund it. I'm pretty aware of how unique my situation is, that my parents were willing to take on my loan payments until I could fully support myself financially. I do wish that I had applied for more scholarships before and throughout my college career.

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What is your living situation? I live in Marquette, Michigan. I have a two-bedroom apartment to myself, and it costs $640 a month.

How much do you spend a month on "going out"? I try to budget about $150 to 175 a month, between bars and restaurants. I just recently moved to this area and don't have too active of a social life yet, so I'm usually closer to $100.

Related: This Is the One Thing Keeping You from Making More Money

How much do you spend a month on beauty and fashion? I just buy makeup occasionally to replace my old makeup. I keep that budget as a part of my monthly groceries budget, but I probably spend about $20 a month. I typically get it from Target, because I don't do any of the high-end beauty brands. I really only buy new clothes and jewelry if I come into extra money from a birthday or special occasion. I probably spend $100 on clothes every two or three months.

What were your biggest financial splurges in the last month? This has probably been my best month on budget in a while, but I have gotten a few massages this past month, for $70. I also bought a pair of American Apparel leggings ($80) that I've been eyeing for a while. 

What were your biggest struggles, financially, in the last month? Staying on budget when I'm traveling. I had to travel for work recently and essentially threw my budgets out the window for a few weeks. I treated it like a special occasion. When I travel for pleasure, I don't usually consider if it is something that I can financially do or not. I'll take a long weekend or vacation, and spend like I want to, but I don't budget for it. However, I was recently really interested in going on a trip to Thailand with my friend but knew that I definitely couldn't swing it because of a low savings account balance—and most of my savings comes from the occasional bartending job, which means it takes a lot longer to build up. 

What are your money goals, short- and long-term? I'd like to save up a three-month emergency fund of $6,000, and then become financially independent by taking over the rest of my big bills from my parents (student loans, car payment, car insurance, and eventually get onto my own health insurance plan). I don't have a solid timeline for that. My parents aren't pressuring me and want me to be relatively settled in a career before I increase my financial burden. Considering my lack of direction in a career right now, I couldn't really fathom a guess. Ideally it would be within the next five years, or sooner if possible.

What are you doing to work toward those goals? I'm focusing on staying under budget every month, especially on groceries and going out. I don't include my extra bartending/serving money in my planned budget, so I will occasionally buy bigger things that I hadn't planned on with it, but I usually try to get it right into my savings account so I don't blow it somewhere. 

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Kathryn, 25 Major: My undergraduate degree was a double major in business and public policy. I graduated in 2011, then went to law school until 2015. Current job: Public defender, which is indigent criminal defense.

Do you have student loans? Yes. I have right around $172,000 total from undergrad and law school. I'm on the PAYE repayment plan for my federal loans, and I pay two times the standard payment for my one private loan. The monthly total payment for all loans is $480.

How do you feel about the way you got your degree, financially? I love (and use) both of my degrees, and I now have my dream job. I also worked part-time the entire time I was in school, earned scholarships, and graduated undergrad a year early. So for two degrees that I paid for 100 percent by myself, I'm OK with it. If I had to do it again, I think I might try to minimize living costs a bit more (like my food budget), and perhaps pick up a second job during the summers, but that's about it. 

Related: How to Figure Out Exactly What Your Dream Job Should Be

What is your living situation? I live in Richmond, Virginia, and I have my own studio apartment, which costs $925 a month. It includes water, trash, and cable/internet. 

How much do you spend a month on "going out"? I budget $120 for "going out" expenses. It's almost always just a happy hour or a meal out with my friends.

How much do you spend a month on beauty and fashion? I spend $75 maximum per month. I'm on a self-imposed shopping ban right now because I don't actually need any clothes, and I'm trying really hard to pay off my credit card debt from taking the bar exam last year. If I do need something, I usually get it at Target, and it's usually things like new mascara or replacing a cardigan for work. I have a standing waxing appointment every month as well, which is $50 (including tip), and is a non-negotiable for me. I do also get to treat myself to a pedicure for my birthday.

What were your biggest financial splurges in the last month? Getting my car's oil changed and the tires rotated and aligned! Oh, and I splurged on getting it washed at the same time (but I had a coupon).

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What were your biggest struggles, financially, in the last month? Just sticking to my budget. It's not so tight that I don't have any wiggle room, but watching $900 each month go to debt while you eat leftover casserole for the fourth night in a row is kind of depressing. I'm still building an emergency fund, so when I was recently the victim of a hit-and-run, where the whole side of my car needed to be repaired, I had to wait about a month to have it fixed. 

Related: The 9 Super-Craziest Things People Have Done After Getting Fired

What are your money goals, short- and long-term? Short term: Build up a full emergency fund (three months of necessary expenses, or $6,000), which should be done by November of this year. Medium term: Pay off my credit card (my birthday present to myself in 2017), and pay off my one private loan (hopefully by the end of 2018). Real long-term goals are to save enough to retire comfortably around 65, and purchase a home with 20 percent down at some point.

What are you doing to work toward those goals? For the debts, I pay more than the minimum each month and have stopped accruing all debt (the credit card now lives in a box). For savings, I automatically transfer $250 to my emergency fund and $150 to my Roth IRA each month on my payday. I've seriously cut back on my spending via my shopping ban, cooking all but two meals at home per week, and limiting myself to two happy hour drinks per week. I've also started blogging with my sister about our debt journey, which is helping keep me motivated to stick to my budget.

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Elia, 23 Major: Computer science with a minor in economics. Current job: Strategy consultant

Do you have student loans? I have $26,000 in student loans, and I pay just over $400 a month, except when I get a bonus, in which case I'll usually take off a large chunk at once. The goal is to have all of my loans totally paid off by 27, and I may be early! 

How do you feel about the way you got your degree, financially? I definitely would not change anything about my degree, because I took out student loans to go to a top-tier school for my field, which allowed me to get a job that started at just under $100,000 my first year. I had a full scholarship to a mediocre state school, but ultimately the cost of paying off my loans is far outweighed by the earning potential. But I knew that when I chose my school, that meant that I had to get the kind of job that would validate those loans—if I wanted to major in art or English, I would have taken that scholarship.

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What is your living situation? I live in New York City. I live with two roommates, and I pay $1,300 a month for a small bedroom in a three-bedroom apartment. I'm moving in a month to my own studio, though, because I am tired of my roommate situation, and also don't like living a 20-minute walk from the nearest train.

How much do you spend a month on "going out"? Some months, honestly, I don't know. But Mint estimates about $1,000 last month, which, I know, cringe.

How much do you spend a month on beauty and fashion? I do all my shopping at outlets of stores (a lot of Nordstrom Rack, Banana [Republic] and J.Crew outlets, some TJ Maxx, etc.) and I'd say I spend about $400 per quarter on my clothes and accessories. 

What were your biggest financial splurges in the last month? I travel a lot for work, and I just treated myself to a new set of beautiful red Tumi suitcases, about $1,000 total. No regrets.

What were your biggest struggles, financially, in the last month? Honestly, I understand that I am privileged, and my problems are really too minor to consider problems when it comes to finances. I need to spend less on going out, but I also feel like I want to soak up the experience of being young in New York City with a little money to spend, so I am not trying too hard on that front.

Related: What It's Like to Have Your College Essay Go Viral

What are your money goals, short- and long-term? Short term: Finish replenishing the emergency fund that I dipped into to buy a new bed when mine broke. Long term: Pay off my student loans no later than 27. Longer term: Own a home by 30, along with a healthy  and diverse portfolio. Longest term: Own a brownstone in Manhattan—we'll see about that one.

What are you doing to work toward those goals? I save a good amount each month. I'm currently working toward an emergency fund of $10,000, of which I have just under $9,000. I also contribute 7 percent of my income to my 401(k)—I know I could do more, but I'm also a little bit in "spend mode" right now. I read a lot about investments and I have a pretty good understanding of the NYC real estate market. I will always be very financially literate and won't ever rely on a man to "understand the money world" on my behalf. Earning a lot of money is just the beginning for me. I also need to understand it.

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Sara, 25 Major: Economics undergraduate, straight through to law school. Current job: Lawyer

Do you have student loans? No student loans due to merit-based scholarships for both undergrad and law school, and parental support. 

How do you feel about the way you got your degree, financially? Sometimes, I wish I had a degree from more of a brand-name school, but having no debt has been pretty awesome. 

What is your living situation? I live in Philadelphia, in a one-bedroom apartment with my boyfriend, we pay $1,345 total.

How much do you spend a month on "going out"? If "going out" includes nights out where the main event is dinner, then between $400 and $600 a month. 

Related: 8 Ways to Be the Best Assistant Ever

How much do you spend a month on beauty and fashion? I would say about $30 a month on beauty and maybe $100 on fashion. For beauty, my spending is mainly on makeup/hair staples (mostly from the drugstore), but I have one foundation/sunscreen that I buy from a dermatologist's office. For fashion, I do a lot of thrift store shopping for "going out" outfits. For work clothes, I do some J.Crew and Zara. I also like L.L. Bean and Lands' End for quality staples. These numbers could be significantly higher—by a few hundred dollars, even—for months where I get a haircut, color, or buy something like nice shoes or a coat. 

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Splurge: a trip to Lisbon.

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What were your biggest financial splurges in the last month? Travel is definitely my biggest splurge. I just came back from Lisbon, and I really didn't budget for the trip—it ended up being about $2,800. I did stay in a hostel for most of the trip, and then only spend two nights in a ~hip hotel~ that I really wanted to check out. 

What were your biggest struggles, financially, in the last month? I don't know if there is a specific financial struggle from last month I can point to. I would just say, overall, making sure I am spending money on things that add value to my life, and trying to ensure that my spending does not have a negative social or environmental impact.

What are your money goals, short- and long-term? My short-term money goal is to save over $5,000 each month. My long-term goal is to own property and have a passive income. I currently have about $35,000 in savings, but $10,000 of that was retirement savings before I started working full-time.

What are you doing to work toward those goals? For my short-term goal, I try to pack my lunch, cook dinner most nights, and limit mindless shopping. For my long-term, I'm trying to make smart investments with my savings and educate myself about different investment options.

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Jackie, 22 Major: Psychology and communications. Current job: Mortgage banker

Do you have student loans? I had about $25,000 in student loans when I graduated college. I went to a community college for my first two years (I would highly recommend this), and I got a scholarship for playing a sport there, so all of my loans are from my junior and senior years. My monthly payments were about $500, but I have been very fortunate to be able to pay them off within my first year postgrad.

Related: How I Landed My Dream Job Even Though I Wasn't an Overachiever

How do you feel about the way you got your degree, financially? This is a tough question. I took out the maximum I could in loans for two years (enough to pay my rent and fund my lifestyle even though I was working two jobs), which was irresponsible. But I was able to live a fun, unrestrained college life of going out four nights a week and buying new clothes, etc. I shouldn't have done this, but I would feel more guilt about it if the loans weren't paid off. This is a good demonstration of how easy it is for college kids to sign on the line for much bigger loans than are necessary. I have friends who made this same mistake but can now hardly afford their monthly student loan payments. 

What is your living situation? I live with my husband in a single-family home in the Chicago suburbs. We got engaged the day after I graduated college, bought a house three months after that, and got married another seven months after that. The down payment was 20 percent of $285,000 (so $57,000) and yes, it was hard to afford since I had just graduated college and had almost no savings! I contributed about $10,000 to the down payment, and my husband (who is two years older and had already been working for that long) paid the rest. Now our mortgage is about $2,000 a month, and our property taxes and homeowner's insurance are another $1,200. 

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Splurge: a couch (oh, and a house).

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How much do you spend a month on "going out"? I try to eat at home as much as possible. I go out for dinner maybe three time a month, and, with drinks, I spend less than $200 total per month.

How much do you spend a month on beauty and fashion? About $350 a month. I have to say, this question gives me a little bit of guilt, because I love, love, love shopping. I wear mostly dresses and skirts to work, and I shop at a combination of discount stores like TJ Maxx, department stores like Macy's, clothing stores like Express, and small local boutiques. I won't spend more than $30 on a shirt or skirt, $50 on a dress, and $75 on shoes. This past year, I have gotten into quality skin-care and makeup staples though.

What were your biggest financial splurges in the last month? The home we bought a few months ago is over double the size of my prior home—which I rented with four other women, biggest mistake—so I have been busy furnishing it. I bought a *gulp* $6,000 couch from LoveSac. Worth it.

Related: These Are the Highest-Paying Jobs in America

What were your biggest struggles, financially, in the last month? This sounds horrible, but I can't think of any. Our household monthly expenditures are less than 15 percent of our household monthly income, so I am just focused on being a saver. My job is 100 percent commission, and although things have been going very well, there is always a chance the floor drops out from under me. I want to be ready, and so we currently have $150,000 in actual savings and $300,000 in the stock market.

What are your money goals, short- and long-term? Short term: My husband and I are trying to have $2 million net worth by the time he is 31. Long term: Retire by 50.

What are you doing to work toward those goals? We just started a very aggressive savings/investment plan, and I do not allow myself to waver from it. If it means passing up a fun but expensive night out, or a killer designer dress, so be it.

Chelsea Fagan runs The Financial Diet, a website about money for Millennials. Follow her on Twitter.

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