The Billfold

Our Attempt at a $20-a-Day Budget

History I am a 29-year-old woman, married for four years. I am a playwright, actor, blogger, screenwriter, tutor, and babysitter. My husband is a software engineer. My money-making schedule is varied and inconsistent and sometimes I will just freak out about it—especially now, because I’m pregnant.

If you’re like me, getting pregnant means you immediately start Pinteresting and reading magazines about pregnancy and you start thinking that you need a lot of Things. The baby needs lots of Things and you need to buy them. Your baby needs his own room, his own thoughtfully organized closet, his own bookcase and nightlight and humidifier and small appliances that warm up various [...]


What Did Your First Job Pay Then and What Does It Pay Now?

What did your first job pay? What does it pay now? Here are some of the many fascinating answers we've received, with more to come.  

Fran: I graduated USC school of journalism in 1963 and got a job on a daily paper called the San Gabriel Valley Daily Tribune. It is still in existence in L.A. county. I was fully trained to write about everything from fires to sports. However it was the olden days and my job was on the Women's Page. I earned $60 a week gross and lived at home to pay off my car. I spent an entire summer writing about brides and their veils [...]


The Burrower: Part I

Before Hurricane Sandy, your boss at the University predicted that one day you would resort to sleeping in the office. “Why bother driving the two hours to Long Island when you have to come back in the morning? You may as well sleep here.” A month into the job, your boss handed you a secret set of keys: one for a storage room, located in the subbasement; the other for the office that you worked out of, on the sixth floor. “I trust you, not that there’s anything valuable here, but, now you have some options of where to go after hours while you’re waiting for traffic to end," he [...]


Are You My Landlord?

When I asked my lawyer, “where do you see us on the timeline of getting our money back,” I assumed that, after almost a year of forms, fees and exhaustive Google searches for my ex-landlord’s property records, we were near the end. She paused, and I could hear a whirl of traffic through the phone. “I don’t know,” she sighed. “This is why so many people resort to bats and bricks.”

Okay, I thought. Okay, okay, okay, just be patient. You’re going about this by the books and you’re bound to win this thing. Right?

After Hurricane Sandy hit, when homes darkened, flooded [...]


Places I’ve Lived: A Dormitory for the Arts, Urban Hilltops, and a Former Department Store

We had a roof deck on which Mike Myers performed beat poetry in So I Married an Axe Murderer­.September 2002 – June 2013, Prado Hall, Mesa Court Housing at the University of California, Irvine, a chunk of my freshman year tuition. Prado happened to be the dorm I got to check out on a campus tour during college decision time. It was the arts themed hall; downstairs, there was a piano in the shared living room so the musical theatre and composition majors could rehearse, and upstairs in the communal kitchen was one long, mirrored wall for the dance majors to use for practice. I knew I had to [...]


My Time on the Assembly Line Working Alongside the Robots That Would Replace Us

The small town I grew up in was surrounded by factories and existed for the sole reason of supporting the local paper mill, which employed most of our residents and brought people in from outside cities. In the surrounding areas there were numerous paper mills and medical supply factories. Everyone in my immediate family worked in a factory at one time or another; some still do.

Factory jobs—when available—are relatively stable, and provide good wages and benefits. Some are in clean environments and don't require much manual labor. As far as jobs that don’t require higher education go, working in a factory can be quite a good option.

One summer [...]


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 [...]


The Most Expensive Meals We've Ever Paid For

My first job out of college was fact-checking restaurant listings. Every day, I called 25 restaurants in New York City to see if any of their information had changed, asking if their curtains were still red, their bathrooms still adorned with lavender sprigs, if their salad was still served with strawberries, if their servers still donned bow ties. With time, I had a mental Rolodex of places I wanted to eat, and Peter Luger Steak House, a restaurant so fancy it has its own Wikipedia page, was at the top.

When given the chance to celebrate a two-and-a-half-year anniversary, I chose steak. My boyfriend was game. Happy steak-iversary to [...]


The Cost of Being Exposed to HIV While Uninsured

To spoil the end before the beginning, this is a story about being exposed to HIV while not having health insurance, taking actions to prevent infection, and ending up successfully still HIV negative (several years and counting). Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) (taking a combination of anti-retrovirals (anti-HIV) medications as soon as you know you've been exposed to avoid being infected) works in many cases. It worked for me, and I am endlessly thankful that I had access to credit and adequate care to make it happen.

A few years ago, I was seeing someone who was HIV positive. I'm a cis woman; he's a cis man. He was infected either [...]


From Botanical Gardens Intern to Anthony Bourdain's Assistant

Intern, Brooklyn Botanic Garden

In 1996, when I was 22, I started a paid internship at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, making $245 a week and paying $350 a month for a charmless basement apartment in a house occupied by its owners. I’d just graduated from Cornell with a BS in Natural Resources, and I had a mere $6,250 in student loan debt. I’d interviewed for the internship in person, over spring break, and was hired, I guess, because I’d worked on farms and interned with Green Guerillas, a community gardening non-profit. As an intern, I had to mow lawns and pick up trash. I also did some focused work with master [...]


You Never Leave Houston

Houston, the fourth-largest city in America, has a self-esteem problem. Our local boosters are continuously looking for new branding approaches, commissioning expensive ads and websites extolling our municipal virtues. There was "Houston, It’s worth it;" "Houston is hip/tasty/inspired," and the latest "Houston, the city without limits." The city’s younger residents are partial to the more profane "Fuck You, Houston’s Awesome," in response to criticisms of the city. There are many reasons for this insecurity. For Houstonians, who know of our parks, our museums, our bars, our restaurants, our people, it can feel like the rest of the country has settled on an idea of the city [...]


Times I Thought I'd Go Broke: 2012-2014

My post-college financial life hasn’t been the overflowing pot of gold that the admissions marketing told when I was a wide-eyed high school student applying to lockdown my destiny. Most of my academic advisors and department chairs were the same, full of positive energy and congratulating me on making it through those "tough four years." Interestingly enough, out of the professors from the four departments that were my academic home, the only honest and useful words about my future came from Classical Studies. Forever academics, they told us to give them a call when we needed advice on deferring our loans for graduate school. It turns out that deferment has [...]


Chatting With Artist Darren Bader About His Donation Boxes at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Cats and Money

Darren Bader is a New York City artist whose work is characterized by his use of seemingly mundane objects and unconventional mediums like burritos, readymades like furniture, and cats. Yes, cats. He had a show back in 2012 at MoMA PS1 where he corralled living cats into a white gallery space. They lounged on a couch. They soaked up the sun as cats are wont to do. Presumably, they submitted themselves to the heavy petting and affection of lonely gallery visitors. They were up for adoption. But this article is not about cats. (Though I can talk about cats for hours; Bader and I are both admitted cat lovers.)

Bader’s [...]


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 [...]


The Economics of My Hometown: Boothbay Harbor, Maine

It used to be a given that if you were gay and grew up in a small town and you didn’t want to stay in the closet, you left. You ran to the big city and never looked back. I ran to San Francisco — how original! I have often joked that I moved as far away from home as physically possible without leaving the continent. Of course, since both my hometowns are tourist destinations located at the very ends of their respective peninsulas, in many ways they are more similar than I’d always like to admit. For all the examples of things I fled, there are features [...]


The Burrower, Part II

To read Part I, click here

You discover a solution that saves you from the cockroaches: the Chair-Bed. Making the Chair-Bed is so blatantly easy you wonder, Why did it take ten months to reach this solution? To construct the Chair-Bed, you take four arm-less chairs and line them in a row. The back of the first chair serves as your headboard while the backs of the middle two chairs act as a barrier so you don’t roll over onto the floor in the middle of the night. Sure, it can feel like sleeping in an open casket. But the Chair-Bed is situated between your brightly [...]


The Woman We Hired to Help Us Communicate With Our Cat

About six years ago when my boyfriend and I returned from vacation, his cat, Zane, decided to stop using the litter box. He preferred the kitchen floor. Every day, sometimes twice a day, a tiny pile of offensive matter, piled perfectly in the center of the kitchen. The toilet paper and disinfectant spray were always close at hand. We took the disagreeable substance to the vet; there was nothing therein that indicated alarm. We took Zane himself to the vet; they said he was fine. Sometimes when cats get older, they told us—he was nine years old at the time—they just make up their minds. Hundreds of dollars later, they [...]


Aim Low

Emily Layden’s excellent exploration of when a person can call herself a writer (or a painter, or a musician), given that many writers must also call themselves waiters, teachers, or lawyers, raises an interesting question about job satisfaction and how we measure success. I do write, make art, and make music, and have been paid actual US currency for each of those endeavors within the last year. But if someone asks me if I am a writer or a musician or an artist, I shrug and say, “I’m a lawyer.” That’s easy because it’s true, and eminently defensible: I make a lot more money from being a lawyer than [...]


'Should I Go To Grad School?' vs 'MFA vs NYC'

Jessica Gross: Hi, Merve!

Merve Emre: Hi, Jess! I'm very excited to talk to you about Should I Go to Grad School?, a collection of essays out this week from Bloomsbury on … well, whether or not people should go to graduate school.

Jessica: Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let's give a little background: I'm a freelance writer, and in 2011 I graduated from NYU's Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, a year-and-a-half-long MA program within the journalism school. And you?

Merve: I'm finishing a PhD in English Literature at Yale; I'm also the film editor for the L.A. Review of Books and a freelance writer. But in [...]


Some Costs Of A Career Change

The summer of 2005 was a fine time to be 26 and an even finer time to have a dream. All around me, people were going big by purchasing homes or committing as heavily as they could to can’t-miss ventures or, in a lot of cases, reinventing themselves entirely: friends and colleagues were moving into two-, three- and four-bedroom "smart investments" all across Chicagoland while locked in an arms race with people "chasing the dream" in oddball lines of work to see who could "live more fully." I, wise young man that I was, set my heart on joining the ranks of the latter.

My university mandated that [...]