The Unemployed Couple Squatting in Their Brooklyn Apartment
Every other Thursday, a couple will get candid with Marie Claire about how they split their finances. This week, we're talking to a couple who haven't paid rent on their apartment in months.
Welcome to Couples + Money, (opens in new tab) where we break through the confines of polite conversation. Forget questions about your sex life. We're getting even more personal. Let's talk about what you and your partner are doing—and not doing—with your paychecks.
Every other Thursday, an anonymous couple will get candid with Marie Claire about how they split their finances. We’ll break down what each person pays for individually, what they split, and all the gritty details—from who picks up the bill in restaurants to who picks fights over bank statements.
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This week, we're talking with Dianne, 35, a currently unemployed digital/content strategist, and her husband, Tom, 32, a student, carpenter, and music producer, who together can make up to $10,000 per year in gig work. They've been together for four years and live in Brooklyn, NY, with their young daughter.
How It All Happened
Tom: We met on Tinder in May of 2016, and moved in together two weeks later. I think we traded "I love yous" quite soon after that. Why deal with a bunch of people who don't know how to take care of themselves when you can develop a relationship?
Dianne: We got married in December 2016. We were both not on the path to get married, but then we met each other.
Life Before COVID-19
Tom: Before COVID-19, I was working at a bar as a freelance sound technician. I've also been working at a chop shop for set design as a crew member and was working as a grip [technician working on lights and camera]. So having all those jobs and doing 17 credits at school was already rough. Then the gigs all stopped at roughly the same time.
Dianne: I was pregnant in 2018 with a very good job, and the company I was working for at the time went bankrupt. I haven’t had full-time work since. We're trying to do gigs. I've had calls about revamping my resume; my LinkedIn profile's all dusted off. I have a job interview every week. Whatever I can do, I'm doing. It just seems like there's not much I can do.
How COVID-19 Impacted Us
Tom: It's my last semester at a school in Brooklyn. The pandemic has made all curriculum distant learning, and that's not a learning style for me at all. I only needed about six credits to graduate, and since it's my last semester, I wanted to go out with a bang with a really cool visual thesis. Plus, the courses I took were hands-on: rigging, scenic design, and interior [design]. The only course I'm really thriving at is my thesis in post-production. I can do that at home with videos, making music. I had to drop a couple courses and I'm struggling in another one. But my professors know I'm a good pupil.
Dianne: My baby had been on a program called Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC. It supplies a certain amount of specific food items every month for children under five: things like milk, vegetables, and cheese. It's $40 worth of food on a card that you scan at the grocery store. When she turned one, her benefits [lapsed]. But I didn't want to take her to the clinic to get tested again to qualify. About two weeks ago they called me and said we could re-certify over the phone, so we got that benefit back.
Tom: My dad had the coronavirus. He's fine now, but it's very scary to know that he had COVID. Not being able to see my mom in Harlem due to social distancing has also been rough.
Dianne: In mid-March, I applied for cash assistance (we already have food stamps). I tried to tell the property management company what was going on but we were due to renew the lease May 1. I was too scared to go view apartments [during lockdown] and asked for a rent reduction or a small extension to sign instead of committing to a full year's lease. Our apartment is under 500 square feet, which is too small for us now. They did finally say, in a moment of humanity on the phone, "Pay what you can and then you can pay the rest in June." The government had already given them a small rent stipend, about $380, and might do so again; The remaining balance will be due in the summer. I didn’t resign the lease. Am I a squatter?
Tom: Just my wife, my daughter, and myself. It bugs me that it's stifling my daughter's growth by being in 450 square feet of space every day, all day. But we went outside yesterday for a safe, long walk. Social experience is a big thing, especially for toddlers. But we recreate that cognition, motor skills, and social communication as much as possible.
Dianne: I have two older children from a previous marriage who visit three times a year. Expenses are reduced, because if this was a normal summer there'd be travel.
How We Handle the Cost of Living
Dianne: Right before I got laid off, we'd been pushed out of a different lease. I didn't want to be a renter again. So we started looking at apartments, but we just didn't have time—apparently, we should have started the process three months ago. I'd saved up $100,000, and we've been living off of that—thankfully, but also dishearteningly. And some bills are just auto-paying onto a credit card.
Tom: There's absolutely no major income coming in. But with government assistance, we're able to get supplies, groceries, toiletries.
Dianne: I cashed out some small 401(k)s, from places where I lost my job before. They make you feel like it's going to be a grave error, but it was $2,000, and every month I'd lose 12 percent. It took me three years to cash out, because I'm a rule follower.
Why We Have Joint Accounts
Dianne: It's just useful right now. But I do feel like when we do have steady income again, we'll probably strategize differently.
Tom: When I'd get financial aid from school, or money from any gig, I give her that. She's the overseer of everything.
How Often We Talk About Money
Dianne: It's not really necessary to talk about it every day. The lockdown has helped in some ways. I reduced our phone plans. I was working in a coworking space to try to network, and I canceled that. Lately, we just talk when new benefits hit our account.
Tom: The last time I got paid, I charged my friend to edit a video for $175. We don't have the full $175 payment left, but it's crazy how there's no spending at all. If I go to the store and I see something I like, I'm like, "Can't really get that right now." That's humbling.
What We Keep Secret
Dianne: He's changing due to COVID, but I feel like I'm the more conscientious saver and spender. Every time he gets into a new thing, like biking, he buys all the stuff for it. COVID-19 puts a magnifying glass on what's important and what's extra.
How We Learned To Budget
Dianne: My dad had a difficult childhood. He was the youngest, but the responsible one. And I was the kid that if I got a $2 a week allowance, I would have $200 under my bed. When I got old enough, I worked at a fast food place. When I started college, I had $3,000 saved. While I don't know a lot about investing, I know how to not spend money. I thought if one day I could have a property, that could be my asset.
Tom: Before I met Dianne, I had a really decent job that landed in my lap. It balanced out my reckless spending: hotels, vacations, and casinos. My understanding of budgeting was nonexistent. It took a while for me to understand I don't need to spend money on certain things.
Our Biggest Fight About Money
Tom: Me spending money on things unnecessarily. Before we had our baby, we used to go out all the time. Now, she'll see a receipt [of mine] and it's unfair, because she wouldn't [go out like that anymore]. In this time there's no financial disagreements, but we've had a bunch in the past due to me relapsing: "Man, I just want to have fun right now."
How We Pay For The Non-Essentials
Dianne: We make ourselves feel fancy, like with food stamps on my birthday. He set up a nice table in the outdoor space of our building. He got meat and baked a cake, just like what your mom would've done for you as a kid to make you feel special. Otherwise, I'm on a free Facebook group for the neighborhood, and people will give things away—somebody finished a puzzle recently and I went and got it.
Tom: You run out of ideas sometimes. When this pandemic started I thought the shutdown would only last a week, two at most. But birthdays have always been a big thing for me. I didn't want Dianne to feel as if this crisis has diminished her birthday or how I feel about her. You find in this defeat, victory.
What We're Banking On
Tom: I'd want us to be a power couple where we're pursuing our [respective] crafts, and then there's stuff that we can do together and generates us money. I want that to help us have the honeymoon we never had, or for both of our extended families to be set. We both agree on owning a home.
Dianne: We've talked about the idea of moving out of the city. If you can't enjoy the benefits, then the rent doesn't make sense.
Tom: Every day I'm always looking for gigs. I try my best not to be overwhelmed by the shortage of job opportunities because being turned down can really affect your mental health. We're doing as much as we can right now, with the unforeseeable future, to be equipped when things get back to semi-normal.
[Editor's note: Since this interview, the couple indicated they're hoping to move out by September; Dianne found a job that will start on September 1.]
Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. Pseudonyms have been used. Reporting and editing by Katherine J. Igoe. Design by Morgan McMullen. Illustration by Rachelle Baker.
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