A Week In Bergen County, NJ, On $18 An Hour

Refinery29
·26 min read

Welcome to Money Diaries, where we’re tackling what might be the last taboo facing modern working women: money. We’re asking women how they spend their hard-earned money during a seven-day period — and we’re tracking every last dollar.

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Today: a Paralegal who makes $18 an hour and spends some of her money this week on Gucci perfume.

Occupation: Paralegal
Industry: Law
Age: 25
Location: Bergen County, NJ
Salary: $18/hour
Paycheck Amount (Biweekly): Varies, usually anywhere between $1,070-$1,235
Gender Identity: Woman

Monthly Expenses
Rent: $954
Student Loans: $0 (currently deferred because I’m in school)
Loan Repayment to Mom: $500 ($16,000 remaining)
Renter’s Insurance: $17.17
Utilities: $118 (I’m on an equal payment plan through PSE&G for heat and hot water)
Health Insurance: $0 (under my dad’s until August)
PP Birth Control Installment: $25
Internet: $82.67
“TV” (Netflix/Hulu/Spotify): $19.16
Cell Phone: $125
Donations: $30 ($10 to PP, ACLU, Bernie Sanders); Investment: $20 ($10 to Ellevest and Acorns.)
Truebill/Acorns Subscription Fee: $5
Patreon: $35 ($20 to Crime Junkies, $15 to True Crime BS)
Spa Membership: $63.92
Amazon Prime: $6.92
SimpliSafe: $26.65
LinkedIn: $30
NYT App: $4
Savings: ~$200 ($100 1x/month for Car Insurance; $50 2x/month to two different accounts)
Car Insurance (2x/year): $519
Debt Info: I have $23,000 in credit card debt. I have 11 active credit cards; three have 0% interest balance transfers on them ($900, $5,700, and $6,000 are their present balances, respectively), one has 0% APR on purchases until next March ($4,000), one card for my recurring expenses above (paid in full), one card is for gas because I only go to one gas station brand (paid in full), my AmEx ( ~$3,980) has five “Pay-It, Plan-It” charges on it. I put everyday expenses on my TD Cash Card (running at $800) or Discover (~$300) (depending on the 5% cashback). I have a running $600 on another card from unexpected car repairs. Lastly, I’m dumping money onto mostly my Apple card (currently at around $2,000, a terrible mistake on my part). I have zero balances on my Target, eBates/Rakuten, Old Navy, Orbitz, and AAA credit cards. I track everything through Mint.

Day One

4:30 a.m. — I’m awake, but I don’t want to be. Today is laundry day, which means $1.49 washers! Every two weeks, I swear up and down I’m going to crack and do wash and fold, but I never do it because I can’t justify it. My card is pre-loaded, but next week I know I’m going to have to put more money on it.

6:45 a.m. — Laundry day is done. I don’t need to be at work until 9 a.m. and I know if I go in now, one of the partners will be in and ask me to start working (but will then complain when I make overtime), so I opt to push my daily headache back later and go to Panera for breakfast and to do homework for class tonight. I get a bacon, egg, and cheese on an everything bagel and an iced café latte. I pay with a gift card.

9 a.m. — I’m at work and am immediately pulled in ten different directions. I’m the *only* employee for four attorneys, so I do everything: reception, mailing, ordering, calendaring, drafting, etc. There’s no support staff whatsoever, despite my begging and pleading for a receptionist so I can bill more time (which would hopefully result in more money).

1 p.m. — On days I have class (I’m in grad school), I leave an hour early at 4 and skip having a formal lunch break. However, I just got an email that class is canceled for tonight and it’s already 30 minutes into my lunch break, so I don’t go and order sushi instead. In the fit of my excitement from cancellation, I spill that class was canceled to one of the partners, which means I’ll be stuck here until 5. $21

5 p.m. — I refuse to stay here a minute later than needed. I drive home, stopping at Wendy’s for a 4-for-$4 because I didn’t plan a meal for today (I’d usually stop for this on my way to class so I don’t need to cook when I get home, so keeping with my usual scheduling ways). $5.74

8 p.m. — Plants: watered, shower: done, dinner: eaten. I try to watch some of The Good Place using my friend’s Optimum login, but I’m falling asleep. I pop my usual two CBD gummies and fall asleep in what feels like seconds.

Daily Total: $26.74

Day Two

7:48 a.m. — I’ve been snoozing for an hour, so I guess it’s time to wake up. I see from my NYT alerts that a merger with Morgan Stanley and E-Trade was approved, so I transfer $110 to my Robinhood account to buy a share of each to see if this can benefit me in some way. Afterward, I wash my face (Dermalogica face wash, Tea Tree Toner, and moisturizer from the Body Shop). Not feeling makeup today in any respect. As I’m walking out, I send my Starbucks order through the app (paid with a gift card). $110

9 a.m. — Another day, another migraine the second I pull into the parking lot. I know I have so much to do and no time to do all of it. Two of the attorneys are in the city for meetings at federal court, one is in the office, and the other isn’t in yet.

12:30 p.m. — I brought TJ’s chicken dumplings to the office for lunch a few days ago and never got around to eating them, so that’s lunch! So good, but still hungry afterward.

1 p.m. — The Colourpop x Sailor Moon line comes out! The full gift set sells out within minutes, but I still end up getting a lip set and eye shadow palette, which ultimately is cheaper than my original plan. I’m not a makeup person, but I’m here for some good childhood nostalgia. $45.85

5 p.m. — Usually I’d leave now, but I have so much to do still and I have therapy tonight at 7, so I stay. (Therapy is typically $78 per session and I go once a week, but my therapist said he changed the coding recently which should make my sessions cheaper, but I don’t currently know the amount I’m going to pay since I’m invoiced each month.)

6 p.m. — Clocking out. On days I have therapy, I usually pick up dinner from Cava on my way in. I order my bowl from the app and swing by on my way to the office. $12.39

8 p.m. — Raise your hand if you ever felt personally attacked by your therapist. The weeks I struggle wanting to go the most are the weeks he tends to break down my life and everything I thought I knew. I was trying to hold out on going back to therapy until I turned 26 so I could go without having to use my father’s insurance (we’re estranged), but life had other plans.

9:30 p.m. — My ex (if we want to call him that), T., texts me about having a movie night. We’ve had a mainly on and off FWB situation for the past seven years but at some point last October, we apparently started dating (which he didn’t tell me about until December, expecting me to just read his mind). We broke up two weeks ago, which was traumatizing at first (it was my first “real” relationship), but the sting passed and I think we’re better this way. I agree to him coming over, but I know he won’t be here until after he’s done choir practice, so I start binging The Good Place again.

Daily Total: $168.24

Day Three

12:30 a.m. — T. shows up and I’m half asleep. We skip the movie (I’m in no respect a movie person to begin with, so part of me is thrilled). I pay for him to street park and we fall asleep around 2 a.m. $5

8:15 a.m. — The only thing getting me out of bed right now is the fact today is payday and I don’t have direct deposit (one of the many perks of being the only employee, I have to do my own payroll and write my own checks). I throw on Torrid leggings, a Torrid striped shirt, and my usual Payless sneakers with holes in them. I bring a bag of Thomas Bagel Thins, a new container of cream cheese, and Chobani with me to the office. I order an iced coffee on my Starbucks app (last one for a while since I don’t have another gift card to re-up with). I’m out the door by 8:35. T. is still sleeping, and I don’t wake him, but I leave him a good morning/have a good day note.

9 a.m. — I get to the office and realize that half of the bagels have mold on them. Ugh. I throw out the bad half and wrap the other half, hoping they don’t go bad before Monday.

12:45 p.m. — I pick up lunch I pre-ordered from a Cuban restaurant down the street; two chicken empanadas and a small yuca fry is what I need after this week. I pay cash. Total includes tip. $9

1:30 p.m. — I get back from lunch and see that payroll brought over my paystub. I’m annoyed that I didn’t take lunch for two weeks and I’m only getting $1,079.86 post taxes. I’m drastically underpaid for the amount of work I do in comparison to my friends in the field. Some days, I get the impression the attorneys keep me in the dark on how to do certain things/tasks in order to make sure I can’t leave and go somewhere else because I’d be under-qualified. I recalculate all of my finances for the rest of this month/next month in Goodnotes. $1,022.81 comes out today for bills.

4:21 p.m. — Today is dragging. I have frozen pretzels in the freezer at work and heat one up to munch on, but it lasts a total of three seconds. I wish this was a real office where I could duck out early.

5 p.m. — I make an attempt to swing by the dry cleaners to drop off some clothes, but there’s no parking (small place, only has one parking spot). I put my hazard lights on with the intention of jumping out and running in, but a cop pulls up next to me and doesn’t move, so I drive away.

6 p.m. — Finally home. In my annoyance from the dry-cleaning incident, I stop by Chipotle to get dinner, paid for with a gift card. As a side note, whenever there’s a holiday or my birthday, my family only gets me gift cards after years of struggling. While eating, I half-listen to Law and Order SVU while browsing through apartments. I’m probably going to have to move at the end of the year. I found out through my security camera that my landlord comes into my apartment without notice and I confronted him about it. It hasn’t happened since, but in case he doesn’t want to renew my lease at the end of the term, I want to be prepared. Shower, nighttime skincare routine, and it’s lights out by 10.

Daily Total: $14

Day Four

9:38 a.m. — I slept for almost twelve hours and I’m pretty sure I could sleep twelve more. I schlep around aimlessly getting ready to run errands with my best friend, B. We have a long list of things to do and no one to impress, so I throw on an old work sweatshirt from my old job and Torrid leggings and I’m out the door by 10:30.

10:40 a.m. — First stop, Starbucks. I break my rule and refill my card so I can get a venti iced cinnamon dolce latte. $10

10:55 a.m. — Successfully drop off my laundry at the dry cleaners this time! It’ll be done on Tuesday, so I’ll add the charge when I pick them up.

11:30 a.m. — Pick up B. and we’re off on a day full of adult-related adventures. Neither of us ate breakfast so we stop by McDonald’s. We both get a sandwich and I get an orange juice. We have a buy-one-get-one-free coupon; I cover the meal. $6.16

11:45 a.m. — We stop by the mall. First, we go to Macy’s. I’ve been eyeing a perfume (Gucci Guilty) and finally decide to pull the trigger on this weekend ($108.75). This is something I’d never do, considering the price point, but knowing it’s only something I’ll wear when going out or to events, I know it’ll last for a long time. Next, we stop by the Body Shop. I have to restock my cleanser, toner, and moisturizer ($45.85). After swiping, I immediately get a notification from Dosh that I got $1.38 back. Does this soften the blow of the purchase? Nope, but it’s still good. B. asks me about Dosh and signs up herself, which means I get a $5 referral bonus! Afterward, we run to Foot Locker and Piercing Pagoda for B., where she gets a new pair of sneakers (her obsession) and her third earhole re-pierced. I don’t buy anything at either place. $154.60

1:30 p.m. — I have a waxing appointment, so we head over there. B. waits in the lobby for me. At check out, the receptionist tells me I’m running low on my prepaid packages for two of the three services I get done. I decide to pull the trigger and buy them now. She offers to do a four-month payment plan, but I decide against it because I’ll forget to add them to my budget. It’s a lot more than I intended to spend, but I know in the future I may not have the means to cover it and I don’t want to fall off the wagon with it ($20 in the total was cash tip). $386.71

2:15 p.m. — My car is in desperate need of a car wash, both inside and out, so we head down the street to the best spot in town (I tip $2 to the hand dryers and $2 to the people who vacuum). $21

2:30 p.m. — B. says she’s hungry, so we go to Wendy’s. It’s National Margarita Day and we’re going out for dinner later, so I don’t want to get anything big. We settle on getting a 4-for-$4 each. B. pays for lunch.

2:40 p.m. — We stop by Michael’s. I pick up two frames for posters that need to get hung up soon. B. uses her teacher’s discount and we find another coupon on the Retail Me Not app. $28.55

3:15 p.m. — Next is Kohl’s. B. needs to return shoes that she got for her boyfriend for his birthday. She uses her credit to get him a mattress topper. She also picks up clothes for her new part-time job. I get new pillows for my bed; the ones I have on it now are at least five years old. I also pick up socks for T. to keep at the apartment. I have a 20% off coupon. $45.36

6 p.m. — We make two more stops at Bed Bath and Beyond and Home Depot, both for B. I don’t make any purchases (shocking, I know).

7 p.m. — Last stop (before dinner) is Walmart. I pick up sports bras, Sensodyne toothpaste, Chapstick, a package of frosted sugar cookies, and a collapsible storage box. B. gets a whole bunch of things (too much to name). $88.67

8 p.m. — Our day is done and I am exhausted! We stop for dinner for margaritas and dinner. I get a frozen strawberry margarita, avocado fries, and chicken fajitas, while B. gets the same (minus the avocado fries). While we’re eating, one of my friends, D., Snapchats me, saying she can’t celebrate the “holiday” because all of her friends are back home. I feel bad, so I send her a gift through Amazon to hopefully make home not feel so far away ($46.29 for dinner, $16.98 for Amazon). $63.27

9:15 p.m. — I drop B. off at home and help her load up her car. I also pick up a pair of shoes I ordered for us that got shipped to her house — no more sneakers with holes! I get home around 10, immediately shower, and change into PJs. I’m out like a light by 11:30.

Daily Total: 804.32

Day Five

8:30 a.m. — Doesn’t my body know it’s too early for this? I jump back into bed after using the bathroom and am now painfully awake. I lay there and scroll through my phone and realize I got my PSE&G statement emailed to me. I open it to see that my electric bill is $650!? I pinch myself to make sure I didn’t fall back asleep (I didn’t). I try to call PSE&G, but they’re closed. I know this has to do with the shop that opened in the vacant spot underneath my apartment this past month, but I still try to run through the possibility that I overused my heat…

10:55 a.m. — Every other Sunday, I meet my mom for lunch. I leave an hour earlier than I need to so I can drive and get her Tim Hortons. She was so upset when the one near her closed, so I don’t mind the 40-minute trek out to the only other location in NJ. I get her a box of Timbits and two large chilis, and myself a large iced capp. $25.65

12:50 p.m. — Somehow, I make it to the meeting point before my mom. I’m shocked! While I wait, I get a notification that my EZ-Pass refilled. It’s my account, but my mom and T. are also linked to it, so my refills amounts are painfully high. $130

1:15 p.m. — My mom and I go to lunch. She has a bunch of promo gift cards from the holidays that are going to expire, so we order six appetizers to split. My mom pays.

4 p.m. — We get dessert from Cold Stone. My mom has a buy-one-get-one-free coupon and I have a gift card. I don’t pay anything out of pocket. We sit outside on the benches and discuss politics, my job, and of course, my electric bill.

5:15 p.m. — Home for the rest of the night. I can’t believe the weekend is over already and I start to get the Sunday scaries. After bringing in all of my stuff, I go across the hall to talk to my neighbor about her electric bill. She says that she’s been complaining to our landlord about her utility bills since the business downstairs moved in, however she is in complete shock when I tell her about mine. I’m both relieved and annoyed after talking to her. This means I’m going to have to take a day off from work to deal with this. Plus, this probably means that my bill has always been high from being connected to the businesses downstairs that have come and gone in the three years I’ve lived here. Adulting sucks.

7:30 p.m. — While putting my laundry away from Wednesday (I’m the worst), I realize that two of the pillows I bought from Kohl’s are king-sized. Not sure how I didn’t recognize this in the store, so I suffer and buy two king-sized pillow sheets from Amazon. $15.40

9:30 p.m. — Just as I’m going to sleep, B. calls me. It was her and her boyfriend’s two-year anniversary today and apparently, they fought the whole time they were together. She thinks it’s time to leave the relationship, and while I agree, I don’t try to voice my opinion. I like him as a person, don’t get me wrong, but my senses are telling me that he’s not the best for her. Plus, she’s 22, there’s no reason to be tolerating anyone’s baggage this young (or literally ever). We hang up at 10:30 and I knock out.

Daily Total: $171.05

Day Six

6:50 a.m. — I wake up extra early because of two reasons: PSE&G opens at 7 and my boss is going to trial today, so I want to make sure I catch him by phone before he goes in. I call the electric company first and they tell me that this is the first reading they’ve been able to get on my meter in months. They do however agree that this bill is substantially higher than any other month I’ve lived here (one other time when I first moved in, it was $300 because I didn’t realize the travesty of keeping my heat on 70 all winter, I learned my lesson after). The woman tells me that I would have to hire an electrician to do a wire check and if the wires have been fed wrong. I have to send the meter to them to see how much of a credit I’m owed (from both this bill and over the past three years). I hang up and text my landlord, who asks me to send him all of my bills.

7:30 a.m. — I go through my emails and see that Crime Junkies is doing another tour. I buy myself a ticket and hope that by July I’ll be able to go to an event by myself. $85.25

8 a.m. — I call my boss as I’m getting ready for work to catch up on things. I also let him know that I may need to take a morning off for an electrician appointment and confirm his schedule to find the best day for this week. Afterward, I call his partner to see if he knows what day he’s coming into the office this week to see if I can get them to align so I have “reception coverage.” This call makes me later than I wish and I’m out the door by 8:40. As I’m walking out the door, I pre-order Starbucks: a morning bun and venti iced cinnamon dolce latte, no whipped cream (paid for with the refill from Saturday).

9:10 a.m. — Slightly late, but I consider it justified since I was on the phone with my bosses. Apparently they’re both supposed to be on a conference call with a mediator this morning and the mediator calls the office angry at me, even though she didn’t copy me in the email. I immediately panic; one time when I first started, I didn’t share a calendar invite and I got destroyed. I call my boss panicking and he says that he refuses to join the call because she was “useless” at her job in helping them settle the case. I borderline beg and he relents.

12:30 p.m. — Today is a day I have class and while I brought lunch, the phones haven’t stopped ringing enough for me to heat anything up. I bite the bullet and order my weekly sushi on a Monday. I try to make Friday the day I order but clearly it’s going to be that type of day. Not even 15 minutes after submitting my order, I get an email that class is canceled. Instead of being a narc on myself, I text my mom that I’m relieved instead of saying it out loud. $21

1:30 p.m. — I reach out to T. to see if he wants to do dinner tomorrow or Wednesday night. He’s starting a new job (a full time 9-5!) and I know it’ll be a big transition in the right direction for him. We go back and forth for a little bit trying to see which day will be better, but he stops answering after a few messages.

3 p.m. — My landlord texts me that he’ll need to figure out my billing to PSE&G tonight and get back to me tomorrow. I consider calling the electrician my friend has for me on standby, but I’m going to hold off until tomorrow. Hopefully, he’ll be able to come by on short notice Wednesday morning.

4 p.m. — I’m out the door. I stop at the post office to drop off some mail, get gas ($26) and pick up a sandwich, chips, and soda from Wawa ($5.71 out of pocket, I had gift cards and a $2 rewards coupon). $31.71

5 p.m. — I get home and see that I have a new invoice from my therapist in the mail. I bless myself and open it and damn near have a stroke — $795! I’m going to have to cut down on going once a week for sure or get another job (which I should probably do regardless).

7 p.m. — I FaceTime with B. and her sister for the rest of the night. This is an everyday thing. Shower and pass out by 9.

Daily Total: $137.96

Day Seven

8 a.m. — Still probably could sleep another ten hours. Get up, get ready, get out the door by 8:30. I stop by Dunkin’ and get a large French vanilla iced cappuccino and an everything bagel toasted with veggie cream cheese. It takes next to forever to get my bagel. I try not to stress, but I know it’s a precursor for a bad day. My Dosh account gives me $0.30 back. $7.41

9:10 a.m. — As to be expected, I’m late. I know one day this will catch up with me. I’m immediately directed to do at a minimum of ten different things at once. I hold off on going until after 10 a.m. so I can snag tickets for The Weeknd. I succeed after much impending anxiety. (Total is for two people, both tickets have insurance.) $100

12:30 p.m. — I’m swamped, so I order two empanadas and small yuca fry to go from the Cuban place. $10

3:56 p.m. — After a ridiculously busy day, and against my better judgment, I text my boss borderline begging for him to talk to the partners about hiring someone else. I know this seems irrational since this MD is only a glance, but this is long overdue and not the first time this has happened. His partner comes out and asks me what happened, and I can’t get a grip on my bearings to even speak.

4:10 p.m. — I go into my boss’s office so he can walk me through how to do something. While I’m standing behind his desk, I see that his phone is unlocked to the partners’ group chat. After appropriately straining my eyes, I can see the terrible things they’re saying about me. One says I’ve been moody again and another says I’ll complain even if they do hire someone else. The millisecond we’re done, I walk out of his office. I know that bosses do this, but to see it confirmed is extremely frustrating.

7:45 p.m. — I finally finish work. I immediately call my mom to tell her everything that happened. I feel completely drained. I stop at Wendy’s on my way home (I’m trash this week, sorry to y’all and to my internal organs, I definitely cook at home more than this implies). $4.74

9:15 p.m. — Showered, fed, and in bed. I text T. since we left off not knowing if we were doing dinner tonight, asking that if he still wanted to, to please make it a night that isn’t tonight. He says I shouldn’t be worried about dinner and to take care of myself. I fall asleep wondering if I’m going to wake up with a job or not.

Daily Total: $122.15

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