It’s Not What You Make; It’s What You Spend: or how I have more than my friend who makes twice my salary

I make $35k/yr. My friend CJ makes $70k/yr. Both CJ and I have pretty modest savings and retirement accounts. And it’s not uncommon for me to complain that I only have $200 in my checking only to hear CJ echo the same complaint. How can this be? He makes twice as much as I do! When I finally dissected CJ’s spending habits (he was okay with it), I realized something crazy: I have more money than the guy who makes twice my salary. My boss makes what CJ makes and has somewhat similiar spending habits. Do I have more money than my boss?! This phenomenon has intrigued me ever since reading an article some time ago entitled, “Living luxe at $12k/yr; Scraping by at $65k/yr” or something like that. It told the story of a frugal grad student making only $12k and no-budget hot shot struggling on $65k/yr. My dad always says “It’s not what you make, it’s what you spend.” And when I break down the data I’ve collected in comparing both mine and CJ’s spending habits, he’s absolutely correct. The breakdown is fascinating to me, but if you’re crunched for time or just want to see the numbers, you can scroll down to the table. I won’t tell.

The breakdown:

1. My friend CJ insisted on buying a chic condo in one of the more expensive areas of the city. He pays $1500 a month for a snug one bedroom space. Yes, it has a walk-in closet, granite countertops, a concierge and a rooftop pool. Afterall, this is Kansas City where cost of living is quite affordable. But he has to walk almost two blocks from his car parking spot (which he pays $60/month for) whenever he gets groceries or a big purchase. Consequently, he doesn’t like buying a lot of groceries or bulky stuff that he’ll have to haul. So he ends up missing out on wholesale pricing and often buys travel sized products to save space in his grocery bag. This significantly inhibits his ability to take advantage of bargain prices or get the best bang for his buck. You ever carry a six pack of beer, a 12 pack of toilet paper, a 2 pack of paper towels, and 2 bags full of groceries? It’s not fun. Now imagine walking 2 blocks in the rain and realizing half way that you forgot your cell phone in the car and you make it to your building only to see that the elevator’s being worked on and you live on the 9th floor…you get the idea. On the other hand, I have a house in the ‘burbs and a lovely circle driveway. Psst! My place is actually CHEAPER than his. You really pay for that chic downtown location and amenities.

2. Since it’s annoying to haul groceries downtown and he lives near the best restaurants in the city, CJ dines out a lot. He uses excuses like “it’s not economical to cook for one” or “I deserve a night out so long as it’s not every night.” CJ’s favorite places to eat are not crazy expensive but they’re not greasy spoon cheap either. I once asked him how many times he goes out for dinner or orders in. “Only about 4 or 5 nights a week…..but the average cost is only maybe $16 tops.” I think he was low balling it but we’ll use his figure anyway. That’s $81 a week just for dinner out.

3. While we’re on the subject of dinner out, it’s important to note that CJ is big on the dating scene. He’s out every week getting drinks with friends or Sunday brunch. He told me that if it’s a normal night out, it’s not uncommon to drop $50 on drinks and maybe an appetizer. If the night is crazy fun, the cost climbs to around $85-$100. And that’s him being “frugal about it.” Since he’s usually out 3 nights a week at least, we’ll say the weekly total for drinks out on the dating scene run him about $235.

4. Then there’s CJ’s work. He’s a digital marketing associate at a pretty swanky firm here in Kansas City. I’ve noted that it’s a big paycheck – loads more than I make. Twice as much to be exact. Since the firm is full of a lot of other late 20s/early 30s crowd, they go out to eat or order into the office… “I’ve never seen anyone bring their lunch from home,” CJ admitted. How much is lunch out everyday? CJ estimates it only runs about $40 per week. “It’s not like I’m eating ribeye steak everyday!” Right…but we’ll see how it all adds up.

5. Okay. Now when I say “young urban creative type making great money”, there’s a certain guy that pops into your mind. He’s sleek, put together, looks approachable and interesting. Now, let me add that it’s about 8:30am and the city is bustling with urban pulse and this guy is walking down the street with his messenger bag, cardigan, and —- in hand. C’mon you know this! What’s missing?Starbucks. Also called “5 bucks” by finance geeks like me. Yes, CJ gets it every weekday morning and sometimes on Saturday too. That’s another $30 per week.

6. Gym membership: $65/month. Plus personal trainer twice a month at $80/session. Is he fit? Yes. If you looked at both of us and had to pick who has the gym membership, though, you wouldn’t automatically say CJ. I work out just fine without the membership.

7. Hair cut and hot oil massage at a swanky spa: $160/month. CJ maintains, “It’s my only luxury!”

8. Nice car with a nice car payment of $320/month.

9. Student loans. CJ went to school out of state, did study abroad, and lived off student loans for 4 years. He managed to get a scholarship to grad school but still had to take out loans to cover a majority of his living expenses. I don’t know exactly how much his total loan amount is but I know that he tries to pay a little more than the minimum to keep a curb on interest and his monthly payment runs him “between $540-$700 a month”. One time he joked that he’ll probably be nearing retirement by the time they’re totally paid off. That makes me sad, considering that if he tightened up his lifestyle a little, he could probably double or even triple his monthly payment.

10. Jet setting. As a young person, there’s a lot of messages out there to travel at my age. I hear things like, “It’s the only thing worth going into debt for” or “You HAVE TO travel in your 20s” and “You’ll never get to have that experience again!” And I do travel. I take travel very seriously. I take it so seriously that I make sure I can afford to do it BEFORE I do it. I haven’t always had this foresight and it’s bitten me in the ass a few times. But now, I refuse to go anywhere unless I have all the funds ready. It makes traveling and vacationing way more fun when you know you don’t have a bunch of debt to come to home to. Trust me on that one. And CJ’s not racking up everything on his credit card. But he also has no problem charging stuff to pay off later. And after paying for a trip to Comic Con San Francisco, a weeklong friends trip to Belize, a visit to Brazil to see friends, a weekend Las Vegas adventure and two trips home to see family, I imagine that CJ has some credit card debt. Even if he doesn’t, think of all the funds that could have gone to debt repayment or retirement or investing. Even if he just took out two trips last year, he could save around $5,000 easy. Dissecting each trip he took last year, CJ spent approx. $2500 for Comic Con, $4000 for Belize, $3500 for Brazil, $1600 for Vegas, and $2000 to go home twice. That’s $13,600 that CJ spent last year “traveling on a budget.” Does he regret it? Of course not. Has he added up how much he could have saved or how far ahead he’d be in paying his loans if he just postponed one trip? Of course not.

11. Clothing and recreational activities. CJ spends more on clothing and fun stuff than I do. CJ’s jeans cost about $120, his dog chews on $30 pet toys and he buys most of the latest gadgets that come out. If he’s invited to a movie or bowling or a concert, he’s in. There’s never a “no, maybe next time” or “can’t this week, I’m on a budget.” It’s always instant gratification and full availability. “Why not? I make good money and I’m sensible about stuff. I probably spend about $400- $500 a month on stuff like clothes, concert tickets, or cool stuff I want. That’s not a ludicrous amount.”

12. Furnitures and fixes. When The Beard and I wanted a new couch, we first sold our old one on Craigslist for $100. Then we lived in a bare, couch-less living room for about three months while we shopped and budgeted for our newest piece of expensive furniture. We threw down $780 for an awesome Broyhill sofa that had reviews like, “Sturdy, comfortable, will last a lifetime.” Because we spent so much on our new couch, we care for it amazingly well and didn’t have a problem going cheap for our coffee table which cost us a whopping $25 at the thrift store. It looks good and we love it. CJ got his couch from West Elm for $1300 and his coffee table from Restoration Hardware for $700. I use these as examples but it’s pretty much this way with everything he owns. We have a 10 year old bed we bought off Craigslist, while CJ makes payments on a tempurpedic mattress. Of course I recognize the merit in “paying more for quality” but I don’t subscribe to the all or nothing mentality of quality at a price vs cheap on the thrift. My coffee table and CJ’s coffee table are both made of solid wood and don’t wobble. He paid $675 more than I did for the same quality and function. I’m too frugal to excuse that kind of logic. As for fixes, CJ knows how to screw in a lightbulb and tighten a sink’s washers but he calls in the experts for anything else. The Beard and I will at least research how necessary it is to call a pro before we dial them. Sometimes, there are youtube tutorials to show you how to spend an afternoon tackling your obstacle for a few dollars for parts and other times you have to fork over the money to call a professional or risk spending more on repairing your own mistakes. CJ can’t be bothered with the former and calls a pro for most tasks.

And now in chart form!

Monthly Expense CJ Kate What CJ Has/Does: What Kate Has/Does:
Housing & Parking $1,560.00 $1,000.00 A one bedroom loft in a chic downtown neighborhood + a parking spot two blocks away A three bedroom house on a quarter acre of land in the city’s suburban south side
Dinner & Drinks Out $1,369.00 $455.00 Dinner out at foodie restaurants downtown 4-5 nights/week, cocktails out on the dating scene 3-4 nights/week Dinner and drinks out 1-2 nights/week; somewhere especially nice once/month
Lunch Out $174.00 $15.00 Every day of the work week. It’s part of his work culture. Brings own lunch to work every day. Treats herself to lunch out with a friend once a month.
Coffee Out $130.00 $25.00 Starbucks an average of 6 days a week Local coffee shop on Saturdays
Gym & Personal Training $225.00 $0.00 Gym membership and sessions with personal trainer Walks dog daily and lifts kettlebell weights at home. Yoga at home.
Car Payment $320.00 $0.00 Drives a lovely 2012 Prius. Drives a lovely 2000 Volvo that was bought with $3500 cash 5 years ago.
Student Loans $620.00 $0.00 Attended out of state school for undergrad; studied abroad; lived on loans throughout grad school Attended in state school; no study abroad; worked two jobs throughout college; no grad school
Travel/Vacations $1,133.00 $100.00 In one year, went to Comic Con San Francisco, one week in Belize, weekend in Las Vegas, two weeks in Brazil to see friends, and two trips home for the holidays. In one year, had a one week “stay-cation”, a one week trip to Florida beach condo with expenses divided between 8 people, family getaway weekend at lakehouse in Oklahoma.
Clothing & Recreational $450.00 $120.00 Pays retail for clothing, new gadgets, goes to concerts, sports games, and outings often. Only buys clothing on sale or thrifted, new gadget only once per year, and budgets out concerts and events.
Spa & Haircuts $160.00 $8.00 Monthly hair cut and hot oil massage Expensive hair cut once a year; free trims or self trims; low maintenance style. Only massages if it’s a gift otherwise I request free back rubs from my husband regularly.
Furniture $700.00 $25.00 West Elm; TempurPedic; Restoration Hardware A few expensive items we save up to pay cash for; scour thrift stores, yard sales, and Craigslist for deals
Repairs $120.00 $45.00 Contracts out for renovations; simple and complex repairs. DIY for simple repairs and renovations/demolitions; contacts out for only complex repairs.
Groceries $440.00 $265.00 Shops exclusively at Whole Foods; does not use coupons or shop sale ads. Buys groceries for less than half of all meals. Shops at Aldi, Trader Joe’s , Price Chopper, and Costco. Shops sale ads and uses coupons when necessary. Buys groceries for majority of meals.
Fuel $90.00 $200.00 Drives fuel efficient Prius; walks to work and most restaurants/bars. Drives most places and commutes across town to work.
Monthly Totals $7,491.00 $2,354.00
Yearly Spending $89,892.00 $28,248.00

That’s right. It’s actually a lot worse than I expected. CJ seems to spend almost $20k more than he makes every year. And if you ask him if he’s being too lavish, he’s quick to respond with “What are you talking about? I live comfortably but carefully.”

Again, I’m not an expert in household economics, but I am coming out ahead when you look at the break down. I actually prefer being frugal because it doesn’t feel like deprivation to me. It just makes the good times that much better.