Reader Case Study: Single Psychologist Saving In NYC
It’s back to the Big Apple for this month’s Reader Case Study for a conversation with Lauren, a psychologist in Manhattan with a love of dogs and the arts. She has questions about planning for possibly adopting a child and potentially buying a condo in NYC.
Case Studies are financial and life dilemmas that a reader of Frugalwoods sends to me requesting that Frugalwoods nation weigh in. Then, Frugalwoods nation (that’s you!), reads through their situation and provides advice, encouragement, insight, and feedback in the comments section. For an example, check out last month’s case study.
I provide updates from our Case Study subjects at the bottom of each Case Study several months after a Case is featured. You all have requested an easier way to track Case Study updates and I have heard your pleas :)! Here’s list of all the Case Studies that currently have an update provided at the end of the post:
- Reader Case Study: Earn More, Spend Less, Or Both? (Julie’s story, published October 2016)
- Reader Case Study: Stay Home With Baby or Return To Work? (Kelly’s story, published November 2016)
- Reader Case Study: The Case Of The Over-gifting In-Laws! (Grace’s story, published December 2016)
- Reader Case Study: Renovations and Vacations (Audrey’s story, published January 2017)
- Reader Case Study: Help Me Decide How To Pay Off $185K In Student Loans (Bridget’s story, published February 2017)
- Reader Case Study: The Grad School Dilemma (Emily’s story, published March 2017)
- Reader Case Study: Can We Buy Our Dream Home? (Jack & Elizabeth’s story, published April 2017)
- Reader Case Study: We Have A Van, Now We Need A Plan! (Florence & Anna’s story, published May 2017)
- Reader Case Study: To Buy Or Not To Buy In Sydney, Australia? (Jemma & Greg’s story, published June 2017)
- Reader Case Study: Starting From Scratch In Canada; Where Do I Go From Here? (Alison’s story, published July 2017)
- Reader Case Study: Should We Stay (In San Francisco) Or Should We Go Now? (Melanie & Kurt’s story, published September 2017)
- Reader Case Study: Having A Quarter-Life Crisis in Nashville, TN! (Steph & Zach’s story, published October 2017)
- Reader Case Study: At Age 57, It’s Not Over Yet! (Lucy’s story, published January 2018)
I probably don’t need to say the following because you all are the kindest, most polite commenters on the internet, but, please note that Frugalwoods is a judgement-free zone where we endeavor to help one another, not to condemn.
With that I’ll let Lauren, this month’s case study subject, take it from here!
Hi everyone! I’m Lauren, a 36-year-old psychologist living in Manhattan, never married and without any children. I attended undergraduate and graduate school in the south before moving here five years ago. I love living in New York City because it appeals to so many of my interests. I am very into the arts and am always scoping out discounted or free ways to see theater and dance performances.
Dogs are also a passion and I have two of my own, plus I dog sit through Rover at times (though not as often now). One of my favorite things to do is walk with my dogs for miles, either at nearby Central Park or roaming random streets while admiring the architecture. I have a moderately active social life and enjoy getting free books through the library. I am a pescatarian and love to learn about health and wellness.
I didn’t start learning about personal finance until 7 years ago, at which time I straightened up my act after years of taking out unnecessary student loans and charging credit cards. Although the loans were for school, I know now that I could have tightened my belt and planned/saved a little better to be in a more favorable position now. But the past is the past, and I’m looking forward while appreciating the progress I’ve made. I’m now debt free and am maxing out my retirement accounts in order to catch up!
I have a PhD in psychology and work full-time as a psychologist at a local state hospital and also have a part-time job based at a hospital in another state (both of these are government jobs). I do have to fly back and forth occasionally (on a heavy discount because I have a family member who works for the airline), but it gives me flexibility because I can conduct a batch of evaluations while out of town and then write the reports at home.
I have looked for local opportunities for a part-time position, but haven’t found anything that pays as well and provides so much flexibility. My local commute is a breezy 15-20 minutes depending on traffic, in part because I never got rid of my now 12-year-old car. I know my car is a luxury item, but it is somewhat offset by free street parking where I live (usually easily found) and free parking at work. This saves me at least 30-40 minutes daily in commute time as taking public transportation would require transfers and waits.
My biggest challenge right now is how to plan for the future when I still have so many unknowns in my life. Ideally, I would love to get married, start a family, and stay somewhere at least close to NYC. If I ever moved in with a significant other, my rent would decrease, but I can’t guarantee that will happen. If I don’t meet someone by age 39-40 or so, I would like to adopt a child by myself, which I assume will be costly (I haven’t started researching this just yet).
If I stay with my current state job I will have a pension; however, while I enjoy this job, I’m only one year in and don’t know if I can count on staying for another 9 years minimum. I know city living is expensive, but it’s a dream come true for me to live here and provides so much joy that I don’t want to leave unless absolutely necessary.
After my last relationship ended, I started utilizing online dating as a means to meet a potential partner. Although I’ve met some great people, so far there’s no one that I’ve meshed with well enough to believe there is long-term potential. I have considered meet-up events for vegetarians or dog lovers, but haven’t done any yet. The rest of my interest areas (ballet, musicals) don’t tend to have a high concentration of single men attending, and if they do, the setting is not typically conducive to talking and meeting new people.
I am wondering if I should consider buying a condo at this point. I currently live on the upper east side of Manhattan. I would love to stay around here (I think the Yorkville neighborhood specifically is more reasonable), but am also open to Queens and Brooklyn for the future if I end up buying. If I do go to Brooklyn or Queens I would prefer to still be close to Manhattan, but if I do end up adopting and buying a place on my own, I know I will most likely have to move farther out.
|Full-time job||$3,530||After all deductions including taxes and retirement contributions|
|Part-time job||$2,900||After all deductions including taxes and retirement contributions|
|Rent||$2,050||Alcove studio in a safe area. This is below market rent.|
|Groceries||$330||I meal prep at home (vegetarian) most of the time, shop at Aldi’s, BJ’s, and sometimes Whole Foods (when in a time crunch)|
|Commuting expenses to out-of-state part-time job||$260||I have to commute for my part-time job. I have not found a local part-time job that pays as well. $100 of this pays a pet sitter for my two dogs while I’m gone.|
|Entertainment||$245||Monthly average. Typically includes cultural events (discounted dance performances or Broadway shows and socializing)|
|Health Savings Account||$216||I’m using this for Lasik surgery this year and so this expense will not recur in 2019|
|Shopping/clothes||$149||I didn’t buy new clothes for years while paying off debt and I am slowly working on building a professional wardrobe. I don’t intend to shop much after that’s complete.|
|Health Insurance||$114||Through full-time employer|
|Auto Insurance||$87||Through Geico|
|Auto Expenses||$80||Monthly average for 2017|
|Pets (two dogs)||$76||Monthly average for 2017|
|Home Supplies||$72||Monthly average for 2017, should be lower this year since I’m now settled into a new apartment.|
|Hair/Cosmetics/miscellaneous||$70||Monthly average. I do get my hair highlighted but use a discount student salon.|
|Utilities: Electricity||$67||My building pays for water and heat|
|Laundry||$55||In building but not in unit. Local laundromats are sadly no cheaper.|
|Travel||$42||Mainly to visit family. I tack these on to work trips to save, and only count the extra cost as travel|
|Subway card||$40||Pre-tax through work|
|Cell Phone||$35||Through Cricket|
|Healthcare/Doctor Visits||$35||Monthly average for 2017|
|Gas||$31||Mostly for driving to work|
|Part-time job Pension Fund||$38,500||I contribute $400 per month. I can either cash this out when I leave this job or have a tiny pension starting at age 65.|
|ROTH IRA||$33,628||VTSAX, .04% fee; I contribute $458 per month|
|Investments earmarked for buying an apartment||$22,013||VASIX, .11% fee. I picked this due to its historically low risk, but the fact that it earns more interest than just a savings account|
|457 B Retirement||$21,918||I contribute $1,541 per month in order to max this out at $18,500 annually|
|Investments for long-term investing||$14,925||VTI, .04% fee|
|Emergency Fund*||$12,165||Capital One savings account with 1% interest|
|401K for part-time job||$1,780||Vanguard Lifecycle 2050 fund. I can’t contribute to this anymore because I’m part-time , but I can’t pull it out either.|
*My emergency fund is small, but I considered the following: 1) I have two very stable (both government) jobs and am exceedingly unlikely to lose both. If I lost either one I could live comfortably off the other one. 2) I just signed up for long-term disability insurance in case I get sick and am unable to work at all. 3) My apartment fund could be used for emergencies in worst-case scenarios if my cash fund runs out.
|2006 Honda Accord||Worth $4,000||Paid off|
Where Lauren Wants To Be In 10 years:
- Own an apartment either alone or with a partner.
- Continue maxing out/catching up for retirement.
- Be working toward financial independence.
- Ideally, I would be married and have at least one child. I plan to always have a dog. If I don’t marry, I would like to be raising a child as a single mother.
- Ideally I will still live in the city, but if I have a child I would like to move out of my studio apartment.
- I want to continue to focus on health and wellness, be active, and in good physical and mental shape.
- I would like to travel more. I have put this off to focus on visiting people and saving money, but I would like to experience new cultures and life outside of the U.S.
- I’m okay with still working in a hospital in ten years, but I’d like to be part-time. I would like to be board-certified and explore other part-time options, such as private practice or a new hospital, and be able to spend more time with my child than a full-time job would allow.
- At present, my second (part-time) job provides tons of flexibility, as I only have to be on campus once per month and still earn a good income, so this is a consideration depending on how ambitious I feel at the time.
Lauren’s Questions For You:
- Am I correct to max out my 457B and Roth IRA to try and make up for all the years I contributed nothing? What consideration should I give for my pensions, or should I plan as if they won’t exist since I could change jobs? The pension from my part-time job would pay between $4,000-$8,000/year pre-tax; the pension from my primary job would pay 1.66% for each year under 20 years. For example, if I worked there for 15 years, it would pay about $25,750 annually before taxes are taken out, or $16,500 for 10 years.
- How are my investments and asset allocations? Am I misguided in having a small cash emergency fund? Are there areas to reduce spending that I’ve overlooked?
- Should I start an adoption fund seeing as I would like to adopt by myself in 3 years if I’m not married? If I do end up married this may be a moot point, but who knows if I can actually get pregnant, in which case I would also consider adoption.
- Should I buy an apartment and how? I am just starting to research this, but it looks like I should budget at least $500,000 for a studio or small one bedroom in Manhattan. Should I think of getting something for myself (studio or 1 bedroom) that I can rent out if I end up married and raising a child? Or should I be more future-oriented and look for a 2 bedroom with the option to add a roommate if I need to (not ideal but I’ve done it before). This will probably be cost prohibitive, however. If anyone is familiar with buying in NYC, should I lean towards a condo or co-op?
- Alternately, should I continue renting and instead invest my money? I don’t mind renting per se, but I want to live in NYC for the longterm and rents keep increasing, which worries me. I like the idea of being rent-free later in life, but will the taxes and homeowners association fees negate that benefit?
Mrs. Frugalwoods’ Recommendations
I must start off with a big congratulations to Lauren for paying off all of her debt and making excellent progress on her retirement accounts and investments! Lauren’s diligence in saving and investing has given her a healthy net worth and the financial security to consider what she might want to do next in life. By not living paycheck to paycheck, by saving and investing every month, Lauren has created a comfortable financial position from which to make her next move. Congrats, Lauren!
The Big Two
Lauren has a lot of specific questions–which I love!–but I want to start with broad strokes since I think most of her questions hinge on the two big unknowns in her life: 1) finding a partner/getting married; and 2) having/adopting a child. These are two major life events and not things that are strictly financial, but that deeply impact one’s finances.
I agree with Lauren that it’s tough to plan when these two elements are up in the air; however, it’s also true that by saving and investing, Lauren has put herself in an excellent position to navigate these unknowns. I am fond of saying that no one has ever regretted saving more than they needed to and that saving money is a way to make the unforeseen–but entirely predictable–events of life much easier to weather.
In terms of finding a partner/potential future spouse, I preface this with the caveat that I am not a relationship or dating expert. What I will say is that it makes sense to me that Lauren start going to the meet-ups she mentioned for dog lovers and vegetarians. I’m also certain there’s a financial independence meet-up group (likely organized through the Mr. Money Mustache forum). I figure the more people Lauren meets, the more likely she is to meet someone who might become a partner. I think taking action and being proactive is probably the best route to take in this department. I am also hoping that readers will weigh in with their dating advice since I am the opposite of proficient in this area!
In terms of becoming a parent, I commend Lauren for thinking about charting this territory as a single parent. If she wants to be a momma, she should do it! Adoption is another area I am no expert in, but I do know that it’s often relatively expensive and time-consuming. I think it would be wise for Lauren to start exploring her options now so that she’s aware of the outlay of money and time that’s likely to be involved. Researching adoption agencies and processes can’t hurt even if she doesn’t end up adopting. Knowing what to save and how much time to plan for is wise and will give Lauren more data on what to expect. I’m not really a fan of having segregated savings accounts for different things, but if that’s Lauren’s jam, she probably should start saving specifically for an adoption now. Either way, the more money saved up, the more options she’ll have.
I also encourage Lauren to seek out other single adoptive parents in NYC to get some first-hand intel on what the process is like. I am guessing there’s probably a group (or groups) whose advice she could seek out. I’ve found that community support is of extreme importance while parenting and so working to build that network before adopting could provide Lauren with some wonderful resources, knowledge, and friendships (not to mention the potential for hand-me-down baby stuff :)! ).
Staying in NYC?
Lauren frequently mentions her love for living in NYC and I think it’s important to live where you want to live. Our environment has a profound impact on our happiness, fulfillment, and stress levels and if NYC is where Lauren really wants to be, then I think she should make it happen. However, there are a few realities to consider.
If Lauren becomes a single parent in NYC, I think she’ll need to increase her income. Assuming she wants to live in a larger apartment and also continue working, she will have the added costs of higher rent and also daycare. Child care is expensive and there’s often no way around it if you work full-time outside of the home. This is another variable Lauren could start researching now so that she has some real numbers to crunch. Call up daycare centers, explore nannies, and look into any cooperative daycares or nanny-share possibilities. In a place like NYC, daycare can easily run $2,000-$3,000+ per month and so is not an expense to be trifled with.
Another factor is Lauren’s excellent part-time job. If she’s going to continue commuting to this job, she’ll need to explore a live-in nanny to watch her child while she travels, or look into whether or not she could take her kiddo with her on these trips.
I’m also wondering if Lauren has any family in NYC? Having family members nearby could greatly alleviate some of these childcare concerns if they were willing to babysit on a regular basis. I never realized how amazing it would be to have family nearby until we had kids. The fact that we don’t have any local family is the one major downside to where we live. Something for Lauren to consider.
A Better Paying Job?
I don’t know much about the field of psychology, but Lauren mentioned the possibility of exploring private practice and I wonder if that would pay more? Without a kid, Lauren’s able to save and invest at a fantastic rate, but as a single parent, her income would be stretched pretty thin, especially if she needed to give up her part-time job in order to avoid traveling. I’d put this down as another point for Lauren to gather data on as she explores the possibility of single parenthood.
I also didn’t get the sense that Lauren absolutely loves her current full-time job and so, if she’s willing to change jobs, and if there’s a potential for her to earn more elsewhere, now’s the time to look into that. Especially if she’s thinking of parenthood in the near future, she’ll want to make sure she’s with an employer for long enough to accrue/quality for parental leave (this varies by employer, but many have a minimum amount of time you must work before being eligible for the benefit).
Of course the other end of the equation is to trim expenses, although Lauren is already pretty frugal and there’s not a ton of wiggle room in her budget to save more. If she’s going to cover the costs of a larger apartment and daycare in NYC, I surmise she’s going to need to increase her income. However, Lauren did ask if we had any savings recommendations so I will take a stroll through her finances (and of course no Case Study would be complete without it!).
In every single Case Study, I like to point out that what you choose to save or not save is a very personal decision. Cutting every last expense is NOT the right answer for everyone and I am NOT an advocate for making yourself miserable in the process of achieving financial stability. I AM an advocate for values-based, goal-oriented spending. I think it’s important to assess whether all of your expenses bring you fulfillment and a good return on your investment.
I think it’s also important to question if your rate of savings will help you to achieve your long-term goals. But what you spend on? That’s a very personal choice and one that you have to make for yourself. My job is to point out areas where you might be able to save, but only you can decide if that level of savings is right for you. If you’re struggling with where to save more and how to map out a longterm financial plan, I encourage you to take my free 31-day Uber Frugal Month Challenge.
If Lauren decides that she wants to save at a higher rate, here are a few ideas that popped out at me:
- At $330, groceries seem a tad high for one person. This is about what Mr. FW and I spent on the two of us when we lived in the city, so I think there’s probably room to reduce this line item by a bit. Although I will say, it’s pretty low! Ideas for how to save more here.
- At $245, entertainment is a relatively expensive line item in Lauren’s budget. However, since I know Lauren is prioritizing meeting a future spouse, some of these expenses might be in service of that goal. Lauren mentioned that she loves going to ballets and musicals and I wonder if she has looked into the possibility of working as an usher for shows in exchange for free admission? This is a tactic that was introduced to me by Frugalwoods readers and it seems like a great way to patronize the arts for free! Plus, she’d have the opportunity to meet and socialize with the other ushers. I advise Lauren at least explore this as it could save her $2,940 per year.
- Lauren mentioned she plans to stop shopping for clothes, which sounds like a great idea as this’ll save her $149/month (or $1,788 per year). Once you have a wardrobe established as an adult, I find it’s often unnecessary to buy new clothes on a regular basis. Usually we can make do with what we already own–that’s what I’ve been doing for years! For more on how to stop buying clothing, check out this series.
- For hair/cosmetics/miscellaneous at $70 and hygiene/personal care at $25, neither of these line items are outrageous, but I wonder if there might be some opportunities for reduction? I have a number of friends in NYC who get totally free hair cuts and color from student salons. Lauren mentioned she gets a reduced rate from a student salon, but it might be worth trying to find one that offers a totally free experience. NYC readers, please chime in with your recommendations of where to go!
To Buy Or Not To Buy?
I get the sense that Lauren’s main impetus for thinking about buying a condo is a question of whether it’s the wisest way to deploy her capital. I say this because it doesn’t seem like now is the right time in her life to buy. With the unknowns of marriage and parenthood, it seems likely her circumstances could change dramatically in the next few years. Buying a two-bedroom apartment could make sense for future-proofing, but would likely be out of her price range at this point.
Since real estate is so expensive in NYC, buying a property would consume a huge portion of Lauren’s capital and would un-diversify (is that a word?) her investments. I don’t see any compelling reason for her to buy right now and would advise she continue saving and investing. She can revisit the question of whether or not to buy after she determines if/when she wants to adopt and if she wants to stay in the city with her child. Since that plan is largely predicated upon her earning more, she could then likely afford a larger apartment that would fit her family’s needs.
Additionally, Mr. Frugalwoods and I found that what we valued in a home changed dramatically after we had kids, and Lauren might experience the same thing. She could always start life as a momma in her current apartment, assess her needs, and condo-hunt with the framework of what she knows will work best for her and her child. It’s tough to know what you’ll want as a parent until you are a parent. For example, Lauren might find that a studio works just fine for her and her child; alternately, she might discover that she’s dead set on a two-bedroom. By continuing to rent, she’ll give herself the opportunity to figure out what’ll be best for her future.
Plus, as Lauren seems well aware, buying is not always the best financial decision–especially not in a market as expensive as NYC. It is 100% possible to achieve financial independence, be financially stable, and otherwise have a sound financial portfolio without owning a home. Here are a few helpful resources for determining whether to rent or buy:
- Is It Better To Rent Or Buy -The New York Times
- Why your house is a terrible investment -JL Collins
- Is buying better than renting? -Mr. Frugalwoods
Investment and Asset Allocations
Lauren is doing a phenomenal job of saving both for retirement and in her brokerage accounts and has achieved the first four (and arguably most important) steps of creating a fabulous financial portfolio:
- Lauren is debt-free. Always step #1!
- She has a healthy emergency fund. This is imperative! An emergency fund is what serves as your buffer from debt or catastrophe. If you lose your job, have a health crises, your car breaks down, your iguana/child becomes ill, you need a new roof, a family member dies unexpectedly and you need to buy a last minute plane ticket, etc etc and so forth…. ALL of these are examples of why you want to have a healthy emergency fund. You NEVER know what’s going to happen in life and having enough money saved up to cover such unexpected–but entirely predictable–events is crucial. It makes the crises of life that much easier to cope with. Lauren mentioned that she thinks her emergency fund is small, but at $12,165, it’s actually just shy of three months worth of her living expenses. Conventional wisdom advises an emergency fund equal three to six months worth of living expenses. So while she’s on the lower end of the calculation, she’s very much in the ballpark of what’s appropriate. She could funnel a tad more in there if she’d be more comfortable with a larger buffer, but I think that’s a reasonable amount.
- She is saving for retirement! Hooray!
- She has investments through Vanguard. Remember: retirement accounts are just ONE way that you should be saving for the future. A brokerage account is the other! I’m a big fan of using either Vanguard or Fidelity (I personally have Fidelity, but either is fine) as both offer low-fee index funds, which is–in my opinion–the wisest (and easiest) way to invest. For more on investing, check out this post.
I’m a little uneasy about her “apartment” brokerage account since I’m just not sure that buying a place is in her near future and that’s a large amount of her net worth ($22k) in a lower earning account. The more aggressive, and lower fee, VTSAX would likely provide a higher return on that money. However, it is true that VTSAX is a more aggressive account and shouldn’t be used for money you might want in the very near term. If Lauren plans to buy soon, it probably makes sense to leave this money where it is. However, if her buying horizon is farther out, I’d move this money into the more aggressive VTSAX with her other investments.
- Lauren’s biggest hurdle at this point is gaining clarity on her two big unknowns: marriage and becoming a parent. Since she has identified these as two areas in her life that are likely to change in the relatively near future, I don’t advise that she buy a home right now. With multiple unknowns–including the unknown of whether or not she’ll even stay in NYC–house buying is not advantageous. You want to buy a place when you are decently certain you’ll be in the same location for at least five years.
- If Lauren decides to become a single parent and wants to stay in NYC, I think she’ll need to increase her income. Between the expenses of daycare and possibly renting a larger apartment, more money will be necessary. The other option is to move somewhere with a lower cost of living; however, she might not be able to earn as much in a lower cost of living area and she loves living in NYC. I recommend she begin exploring other jobs that might pay more, especially since she might need to give up her out-of-state part-time job once she becomes a parent, unless she can devise a creative and cost-effective way of providing childcare while she travels.
- I encourage Lauren to start researching the costs and timelines associated with adopting a baby. I also advise she seek out support groups for single adoptive parents in NYC as I imagine they’d be able to provide a wealth of knowledge and resources.
- I think Lauren is doing a terrific job financially and, for the most part, my advice is to stay the course with her savings and investments until she has greater clarity on her two big unknowns. I think making any major financial decisions–such as buying a house–likely don’t make sense at this stage. But the wonderful news is that Lauren is putting herself into the financial position to be able to do what she wants with her life.
Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice would you give to Lauren? She and I will both reply to comments, so please feel free to ask any clarifying questions!
Would you like your own case study to appear here on Frugalwoods? Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) your brief story and we’ll talk.
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