How an Assistant Editor in Pittsburgh Does Money

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Amy Sherman is 29 years old, works in scholarly publishing, and lives in Pittsburgh.

So, Amy, tell us a bit about your finances.

Okay. I guess for me “my finances” would mean an overview of salary and where I put my money, and how I move it around. I make about $28K a year, which I supplement with freelance income. I’ve got a bit over $2,000 in savings, which includes both a savings account and a mutual fund, and—I just checked—$33,356 in retirement investments.

Oh, nice!

I also have some debts, which I don’t actually keep very close track of, to be honest! I have a few thousand in student loans and, I think, about $2,000 on credit cards.

How far does $28K go in Pittsburgh? Do you feel like you have “enough?”

It’s okay. I do think I could be totally comfortable at $30,000, actually. Rent is a lot lower here than it is in Seattle (where I went to college), but not as low as it is in Lawrence, Kansas, which is where I went to grad school.

You mentioned grad school when you wrote to us—you described it as the time in your life when you were the most financially stable. That sounds unlike the typical grad school experience! What was that like?

I am also surprised by it, looking back—I had to double-check all the numbers. But I think the reason I say it was my best time was that I was paying all my bills, wasn’t carrying any credit card balances, and was putting money away in savings. And I didn’t feel deprived, like I was missing out on life because I wasn’t making enough money. What I didn’t have enough of was time and sleep, I guess. But I had the money I needed for what I needed/wanted.

How did your grad program work? Did you take out student loans? Did you get a stipend?

I was fully funded and the department gave me some extra money (I still don’t know why!), and I worked another part-time job during the second and third years.

So I didn’t have to take out any additional loans for grad school, and didn’t have to make any payments yet on the loan I took out for undergrad. I also didn’t have insurance or a car or pets or anything like that.

I had a 2/2 teaching load right off the bat, which is a lot, but I didn’t realize at the time that it was unusually high. But I still feel lucky, because a lot of programs don’t even fund Masters’ students.

[ED: A 2/2 teaching load means teaching two courses in the fall semester and two courses in the spring semester.]

So did your grad school experience lead you to believe you’d make even more money afterwards? What were you told about “money in publishing?”

I had planned to be an editor and went to school for an MA in English. I didn’t have any illusions about making any money in publishing; I was mostly concerned with being able to get a job, since it’s so competitive.

There was—and is—a lot of doom-and-gloom in academia about even getting tenure-track jobs, so I was kind of surrounded by general anxiety about getting any work at all. I actually felt like I was doing the right thing getting out and going into “the real world.”

How has your industry salary range shaped your decisions about your life/future? Do you think things like “well, I’ll never have a house” or “well, I’ll probably always have some kind of debt?”

Has it structured you to be frugal, or do you make big purchases because you know “putting it off until you have more money” isn’t going to happen?

I would say that it informs my day-to-day thinking more than it does my long-term thinking.

I do feel like I live more frugally than other people my age with better salaries, but that’s because I don’t want to get into debt. I feel pretty good about my prospects of paying off the debts I have, so that doesn’t worry me overmuch.

My long-term thinking is all focused on the retirement investments, I’d say.

How do you handle income disparities with peers/friends? Like, if somebody wanted to go out to an expensive restaurant, or do something you might not have planned to spend money on.

My social circle is all pretty much in the same boat, so it hasn’t really been an issue, that I can tell.

I might actually be that person, come to think of it.

You’re the one with expensive tastes?

Ha! Kind of! I’m more likely to want to go to concerts or the bar with the $14 cocktail. I just want to be able to enjoy living in the city sometimes, and I’ve been indulging a little more than I used to.

But not all the time, just occasionally. And those occasionallys might not always overlap with my friends’.

Got it. That is one of the hard parts of adulthood, to be sure. You have to plan for your own indulgences as well as all of the indulgences your friends want to share with you.

Right, and being able to do those indulging things are often dependent on having friends along anyway. I don’t go to the $14 cocktail bar on my own.

RIGHT. THIS. (Do people still say “THIS?”)

I’ve seen it! I think so!

So you mentioned retirement as one of your big savings goals. How are you thinking about and planning for retirement?

Well I don’t actually have concrete plans for retirement itself; I tend to think of it as a “long-term investment” rather than trying to get enough money FOR something.

That said, my grandmother has spent her retirement traveling the world, and I think that would be great.

What about your retirement savings? What percentage of your income are you putting towards retirement? And is that in your 401(k), your mutual fund, or both?

It’s a combination of a Roth 403(b), which is the nonprofit equivalent of a 401(k), and a Roth IRA.

For the 403(b), I put in 8 percent. My employer does match-and-a-half (however that’s said in fancy financial terms) for up to 8 percent, so that’s the maximum contribution I can get matched, but they actually put in the equivalent of 12 percent of my salary.

I started the Roth IRA in grad school, using money that I had been investing in a DRIP since high school, and I still throw in $50/month, just for a diverse portfolio, I guess.

Do you feel pretty good about how you’ve managed your finances so far, in life? Are there things you think you did exceptionally well, or mistakes you wish you hadn’t made?

Big picture, I think I’ve made mostly the right choices.

I don’t know if I’m currently doing as well as I could or should be, salary-wise. University budgets are not super-flexible, and I don’t know if it’s even possible to negotiate.

I think I was really lucky to have been put on the right track for long-term investing early on, by my dad.

That’s another theme we get all the time in these Doing Money pieces: how childhood experiences shape adult relationships to money. Did your childhood relationship to money help you as an adult?

Absolutely, yeah—which is one reason why I think sites like The Billfold are so cool and important, for talking about money in real-world, this-generation terms. Not everybody was raised the same way, so we don’t have, like, a common understanding of how money is supposed to work.

My dad was pretty insistent on raising all of us to be financially literate. Which is a privilege, for sure—not every parent has that luxury.

Very true. And yes, that’s why we have The Billfold—because talking about money together helps all of us understand it better!

Any last thoughts to share, or words of advice for other readers?

There’s so much! I don’t know if I’m qualified to give advice. Except, maybe, for people considering going to grad school: 1) Go somewhere where you can get funding, and 2) Go somewhere where cost of living is low; you’ll be spending all your time doing grad-school stuff anyway.

I can attest to that as well, from my own grad school experience!

That’s two expert opinions!

Photo credit: Michael Righi

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