Going from Paycheck to Paycheck to Saving $45k/yr in 4 Years in NYC

New York City skyline

Even though I often feel like I’ve been working and hustling forever, it’s only been 4 years since I started working full time. When I first began my Life in NYC, I had accepted the age-old trope that you “Can’t save any money in NYC because it’s so expensive to live.” The next few years of my life told me it doesn’t have to be the rule.

I began working full time in December 2014, for salary of $24k a year, and since then, have gradually hustled my way to maxing out my 401k, HSA, Roth IRA, and saving $25,000~30,000 in cash a year.

I consider the first few years of my “professional life” when I tried out the ins and outs of “living on the edge,” really having to pinch pennies and make the dollars stretch, and the next few years emulating similar lifestyles so that I don’t fall into the trap of lifestyle inflation.

I’m going to see if I can outline the “phases” of my life and how I gradually increased my income and savings to get to where I am now. Because honestly, the things I say I do now, I wouldn’t even have considered as a possibility last year around this time!

2014

  • Graduated college in May, and moved to New York City in June at 25 years old, armed with $6,000 in her bank account.
  • No student debt, and still under her parents’ insurance until 26, so could live on bare bones budget.
  • Had a $750/month sublet in UES and $300/week in income from babysitting twice a week.
  • Sent 600+ job applications, and heard back from 2.
  • Finally got a full-time job in end of November, at $14/hour.
  • Moved out of the sublet to a bedroom in an apartment-share in Queens for $750/month.

2015

  • After 3 months of probation, was “officially” hired with full benefits for a whooping salary of $37k/year.
  • No 401k for a year at this job (not that I knew what that meant anyways, nor could I have contributed to it).
  • Was working 2 nights a week as a tutor to pay for the day to day living expenses like food.
  • Had a “rule” that any pre-tax/pre-tips meal could be $12 at maximum.
  • Moved out of the apartment-share because of extremely poor conditions of the apartment into a 2 bedroom apartment that she couldn’t afford.
  • Got a roommate to cut down the rent to about $850/month.
  • Finds out about this magical place called Uniqlo that lets her dress acceptably for modest costs.
  • Roommate moves out in the fall, and boyfriend moves in. He’s very haphazard about paying rent, so paying the $1,670/month rent by herself for the most part.
  • Not on rice and beans, but basically on rice and beans, trying out a lot of strange recipes for cheap food. Especially because she’s basically supporting another person (boyfriend is a medical student).
  • After almost a whole year without a peep from the company about raises, jumps ship to another company in October for salary of $50k/year.

2016

  • By then, working 3 nights a week as a tutor to supplement her income, so by the time they offered her 401k, 3 months after hiring, she could contribute to it (even though she had no idea what it meant). At her peak, making $1,000/month tutoring.
  • Gets a roommate so the rent is once again cut in half. (Boyfriend doesn’t pay rent.)
  • Cuts down tutoring to 2 nights a week. Income also goes down by a lot because instead of $90 a session 2 nights a week + $50 a session 1 night, it’s now $50 a session 2 nights.
  • Contributing erratically to 401k, 6%~35% of her salary in Roth, changing month to month.
  • Boyfriend cheats with roommate in July; both move out. Finds a new roommate to replace them in August.
  • Tutoring cut down to 1 night a week, to income of $50 a week. Still nice to have, but isn’t going to be helping with paying the bills like before.
  • Gets new boyfriend but he lives in San Francisco. Commences long distance relationship.
  • Move on from super toxic work place to a tech start up for salary of $60k/year in December.

2017

  • Stopped tutoring, so solely living on full-time job’s income of $60k/year.
  • Putting in 6% Roth for 401k.
  • Begins having chronic pain in January. Is diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis in August.
  • Starts maxing out HSA to help pay for medical bills.
  • June Net Worth: $60,722.
  • Boyfriend moves to DC area to have a “shorter” long distance relationship.
  • Buys an $850 phone because life’s too short to not have spectacular cellphone cameras.
  • Convinced by a friend to put some of the cash savings into investment portfolio because it’s rotting in the low-interest savings account.
  • Didn’t want to because the stock market is A Dark and Scary Place, but decides to test the waters with $10~15,000.
  • Shit goin’ up so by end of the year, have $50,000 of cash savings in the market.
  • December Net Worth: $77,335.

2018

  • January Net Worth: $80,905
  • Roommate moved out, and got a new one. Rent at $800/month before being raised to $810/month when a new lease was signed.
  • Found out about FIRE and joined the Twitter community. Realizes that “Not Working Forever” might be a thing that’s achievable.
  • Set a goal to have $100,000 Net Worth by June, 2020 (30th birthday).
  • Found out about and created a Roth IRA account and maxed out 2017 and 2018 contributions in January.
  • HSA maxed out for 2018 as well.
  • Saving $1,500/month (a little over 1 paycheck).
    • $750/month into savings account, $750/month into investment portfolio.
  • Was interviewed by Olivia in May.
  • Was putting in 6% Roth into 401k in beginning of the year, slowly going up to 8% Roth, to 10% Roth, ending with 20% Traditional by June. Maintained 20% Traditional for the rest of the year.
  • Finally creates savings account with high-interest online bank instead of letting cash rot in local bank with abysmal interest rates.
  • Gets a promotion and $15k raise in November.
  • Gets a contract to create a video course for a large publisher in October.
  • Publishes eBook in November for passive income.
  • December Net Worth: $100,416.
  • Saves $33k in 2018, which includes 401k, cash savings, and side hustle income.

2019

  • January Net Worth: $101,758.
  • Maxes out 2019 Roth IRA in January.
  • Sets up 401k and HSA to max out contributions in 2019.
  • Saving $1,500/month in cash along with money made via side hustles.
  • Finishes the video course in January, spends rest of January and beginning of February hustling hard with babysitting and dog sitting.
  • Signs 3 more contracts for video courses, and falls back to that side hustle.

Escalation

As you can see, I didn’t even have a 401k until 3 years ago. I just opened my Roth IRA last year. The amazingness of HSAs were unknown to me until I became chronically ill 2 years ago. My net worth was at $60k in 2017, and I discovered FIRE movement only one year ago.

The first few years of my professional life was self-preservation and making sure my bills could be paid. And as the years went on, I slowly started poking around at things like investments. It took me years to come to terms of letting my hard earned and hard saved cash into the uncertainties of the stock market.

And one by one, my accounts started getting maxed out, starting with my HSA, then Roth IRA, and then 401k. I think not doing all at once has helped me achieve this, because as my income went up, I was able to focus on one thing at a time to adjust to keep similar quality of life while contributing more.

My take home is actually pretty similar to what I had in 2015, which I find remarkable, because there is a $25k income difference.

In a strange way, I am glad that I started out with such a low salary because it allowed me to turn the “common sense” of “New York City is extremely expensive and you need a lot of money to live” on its head and test every variable until I found a “Recipe” of financial decisions that allows me to live on less than $1,500 a month.

Comments

  1. Abigail @ipickuppennies

    Phew, that’s quite a long way to have come. I live in a very low cost of living area, and having just jettisoned my very pricey (mostly in that he was a spender) husband, I’m hoping to emulate your results soon. Except not in a 401(k) because I’m a contract worker. So a SEP-IRA is the closest I get. Alas, that means no matching funds, but at least I can finally start socking away more money. Even if it’s at the not-so-tender age of 40.

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      Zero

      It feels like forever, but it’s only been a few years. How the time warps in the mind! Haha. I think no day like today to start! We’re never gonna be any younger than today! Hehe. I’m glad you are finally able to make your own financial decisions and control your finances! 😀

  2. Megan

    In 2017, you put your cash savings in an investment portfolio, but you were already contributing to a Roth, 401k and HSA. What else are you contributing to? Can you clarify what you mean by investment portfolio. Thanks!

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