The Billfold

The Cost of Spring Break With School-Age Children, Illustrated And Annotated

Of all the coming sacrifices that you fail to consider when you have kids (so many!), the most insidious is how all the vacation time you accumulate will be divided in equal measure between staying home with them when they are sick and taking them places when they are on school vacation. This is not to say that raising kids isn’t wonderful and enriching and etc. etc., but for much of their lives, they are whiny travelers who insist on doing boring stuff. Important pleasures that they generally fail to appreciate include ocean sunsets, after-rain forest smell, and weekends walking around Philadelphia and getting drunk. Also, entertaining them costs [...]


Aging Out of the Foster Care System

Kyo, not his real name, is a young black man in his mid-20s currently living in transitional housing for the homeless in Northern New Jersey. I have known him since he was 18. I had met Kyo during my former job as a reporter with The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper.

Kyo was placed in the foster care system as a toddler. His mother was dead of a drug overdose, and his father was a long-time drug addict until he became clean several years ago. Kyo does not have a close relationship with his father, but has kept regular contact with his siblings, one younger brother and two older [...]


The Torture Of Giving Critical Feedback at Work

[byline] Hands down, my worst work experience to date was trying to tell someone they have a bad attitude. This someone was my coworker, Ruth, and technically, I was her supervisor even though we were the same age. My boss directed me to give her this feedback during her annual review. Ruth was actually terrific at many parts of her job, but according to my boss she had a "negative attitude." It was a combination of an unfriendly and unhelpful demeanor (that I think was accidental, e.g. that she frowned when her face was at rest), and a tendency to avoid taking on additional work (mostly pretty boring stuff [...]


Detroit Would Rather You Not Take Pictures of Its Ruins

Like probably everyone else, I came across Drew Philp's essay, "Why I Bought A House In Detroit For $500," when someone I know posted it on Facebook. "Ugh," I thought, clicking, "Buzzfeed."

But I shouldn't have! Philp's essay, once I got past my URL prejudice, was complex, mature and open-hearted, the kind of inside-looking-out journalism everyone says they want more of but doesn't always have a place in traditional media.

I've lived in the house for more than three years now. The neighbors don't think I'm so crazy. They've brought me lemonade while I was working on my house, or they've cut my lawn when my mower was [...]


All My Grownup Jobs And How I Actually Got Them

Plenty of people have very practical advice about how to get a job or break into an industry, but I do not. Or not really. When I look back on work in my twenties, I see mostly dumb luck, good timing, and knowing the right people. In the interest of real talk, here are all my jobs — from college graduation onwards — and how I actually got them.

This is possibly discouraging but it is true.

Live-in nanny: When I graduated college I'd been working since I was 16 but had no idea what I wanted to do. I applied to Teach for America and didn't get [...]


Relationships When One Person Earns More

My fiancée is an RN in the ICU unit of a government hospital in the Southwest. She’s not always happy in her work, but she makes three times what I do, making it far easier for us to travel often, drive a brand new Outback, be grocery snobs, feed our dog the top-shelf stuff, etc. She does genuinely like it (as far as jobs go), but admits that she can’t see herself being an RN for the rest of her life, anticipating how the long days and the stress inherent to being responsible for people’s lives and wellbeing while dealing with their emotionally charged families will wear down on [...]


Sex Work Is A Labor Issue

Melissa Gira Grant is a writer and freelance journalist covering sex, politics, and the internet. In past lives she has worked at a feminist foundation, been a member of the Exotic Dancers’ Union, and co-edited a book with me back in 2010. Her latest book, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, is not a juicy memoir, and it is not a debate about whether sex work should or shouldn't exist. Instead it challenges the myths we perpetuate about sex work, and examines how our 'feelings talk' and theoretical debate can be a distraction from the more immediate labor and human rights issues that sex workers [...]


Bathroomless Basements, Vegan Lunches, And Other Places I've Worked

ESL Teacher, 2010:

Midway through my senior year of college it dawned on me that I was months away from graduating into a terrible economy with a liberal arts degree and no job prospects. I wanted to go abroad desperately but didn’t have any money. After I was rejected from my *dream* international fellowship (still bitter about it) I started googling “Teach English no TEFL free” and eventually found one program that didn’t require any certifications and was completely free. The assignment was in Thailand. Though any country that boasts a monsoon season isn’t my first choice, I figured that learning more about Thai culture other than the obvious [...]


Sailing Around the World And Getting By Without Cash

Sixty-five mangos, 12 coconuts, and three rubber-banded baggies of coffee slide across the deck in two large plastic bins. There’s a broad-built man in a little boat called COUNTRY staring at me. I have no money and it’s 600 miles to the nearest ATM.

For four years, I've been traveling the high seas, alone aboard my sailboat BOBBIE long enough to know that being cashless doesn’t have to be a problem. For centuries, explorers have ploughed all corners of our watery world, armed with little more than improvised currencies. From the Portuguese pursuits of exotic spices in the Moluccas, to the movement of molasses across the West Indies, the [...]


The Cost of (Almost) Getting Bed Bugs in Los Angeles

Three months ago, my boyfriend and I made the decision to move in together. We serendipitously found a perfect, large two-bedroom apartment with two bathrooms in trendy Los Feliz. For this area in Los Angeles, $1,600 for rent is an absolute steal for a place this size. We had to take it; even after the landlord raised the monthly rent a paltry $60 in exchange for some much needed kitchen updates. The building left its heyday 50 years ago but, despite the cracks and cheap repairs, it still has charm.

We couldn't believe our good fortune. How was this gem so unbelievably affordable?

Well, two months later, my boyfriend [...]


Inside An Apartment/Cat Shelter

If you’re a New Yorker with a beating heart, you probably remember the subway kittens that shut down the MTA last summer in the most adorable way possible. If you’re a cat lady like me (which oh praise is now a badge of honor, thanks New York Times), then you might already know Steven Liu, the guy behind the Scratching Pad, who took in the tiny bandits and fostered them through their eventual adoption. In July of last year, Steve found a duplex apartment in Bushwick, moved in with two roommates, and started taking in cats—current total eight.

When Steve answers the door and gives [...]


Walking Rich People's Dogs

The first dog was named Gucci. As Justin, my trainer (as if I were some kind of dog too!), told it, it was because Gucci's owner wanted to advertise that she'd spent as much on him as on a designer handbag. Gucci was definitely cuter than a handbag, but a lot less practical. Bernese Mountain dogs are built to survive in the Alps, and a high-elevation Financial District apartment in New York City is hardly the same thing. Coaxing Gucci into the elevator, and keeping him from barking long enough to hustle across the marble lobby and out the service entrance, was an act of sheer will that I [...]


Bosses I Have Had

The Salesman The Salesman was an older gentleman with a smoker's cough and a bad gossip-site habit. He read Perez Hilton every day at 4 p.m., for one hour, while cackling and reading tidbits out loud over my cubicle wall. He left the office promptly at five, often with his manager, a brusque but nice woman with a penchant for pantsuits, usually off to a bar around the corner to have a cocktail and dish before getting on the BART and heading back to San Francisco's East Bay. As bosses go, he was one of the best I've had: low maintenance, trusting, out of my hair. His teeth were [...]


My Job Tasting Frozen Food

Matthew is a 24-year-old freelance illustrator and a former professional "sensory panelist" for a frozen foods company. We recently talked about his experience eating french fries and other frozen fried foods for four hours a day, three days a week over the course of eight months. "I'd come home with huge blisters in my mouth from the salt," Matthew said. He earned $4,200.

Mike: How did you get this job in the first place?

Matthew: I do freelance art, but in order to stay afloat I have to take odd jobs whenever my cash flow is low. I was browsing my college’s alumni job board, and a temp agency [...]


'Gold Diggers' 2005/1933

In the summer of 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and Kanye West's "Gold Digger" hit the radio waves. I was 14 and didn't know how to help, but I had some money saved so I sent it along. There was a collection box in the school cafeteria the week I started ninth grade, and a big poster board chart on the wall tracked how much the school had raised using columns made of crepe paper. Soon I learned on the national news that the Red Cross wasn't doing much with the money. Nobody had planned for that kind of disaster.

"Gold Digger" was a chart-topper, spending 10 [...]


Let's Talk About Money And Death

Like money, death is something most people know is there and unavoidable but would prefer to spend as little time thinking about as possible. I get it. And I get that, like money, it can be painful when you first start reckoning with death in any real way. And mostly it stays painful. But it’s good pain, useful pain, maybe even pain in service of something greater, even if you won’t be around to see it.

Sarah Wambold was more than willing to be my inaugural subject for this column—which, having now talked to Sarah Wambold, isn’t surprising at all. She is not a squeamish person. She was just a [...]


How We Think About Class

In his memoir, the late Christopher Hitchens offered the following pithy summation of class in the United States:

An old joke has an Oxford professor meeting an American former graduate student and asking him what he's working on these days. 'My thesis is on the survival of the class system in the United States.' 'Oh really, that's interesting: one didn't think there was a class system in the United States.' 'Nobody does. That's how it survives.

This should come as no surprise in the country where everyone, rich or poor, sees herself as middle class. But a recent experience reminded me that class is real, we can [...]


The Art Of Asking For A Discount

In January, This American Life aired a segment in which reporter Ben Calhoun went to a few stores and tried asking for a "good guy discount" at the register. Here's how Calhoun explained it: A friend of his named Sonari Glinton was interviewing a negotiations expert from Columbia University Business School who described a technique where you ask at the register, "Can I get a good guy discount on that? You're a good guy, I'm a good guy—come on, just, you know, a good guy discount."

Essentially, what you're doing is simply asking if the salesperson can give you a discount—just for being a person who is supposedly [...]


An Elegy For Maggie Estep

Last summer my Gmail was hacked. Every single person on my contacts list received a note from me announcing I’d become a ReMax real estate agent — a convincing facsimile, complete with the red, white and blue ReMax parachute logo. "Click here to view listings!" it lied, luring clickers instead to a link that ensured they’d contract the email virus themselves.

Cue the succession of annoying replies: numerous contacts admonishing me to change my password; otherwise intelligent people duped by the scheme, believing it was really me.

"Don’t you think you should at least ask me how I’ve been before you start sending me real estate listings?" wrote an [...]


Running A Band And A Business

A lot of people start bands. I started my first band in junior high, with my little sister and my best friend (we wrote one song, which pretty much lifted the hook from "Penny Lane," before we fell apart over creative differences). As an adult I actually spent some time as a performing musician, where I faced the question that nearly every musician faces at some point: Is this something I’m doing for fun? Is this a job? Is this a business?

It’s one of the hardest things to figure out, because indie musicianry is one of the hardest ways to build a career. It has all of the [...]