Kate is 30 and lives in LA with her kitten Cashew. She works in payroll at a university, which is a stable job with great benefits and low stress. As she approaches the five-year mark in her current position, she’d like to examine her options for moving to a lower cost of living area and a smaller town. Kate also hopes to have children one day and she’d like our help with determining a financial plan that’ll make that tenable. Ideally, she’d love to work part-time or take a few years off work after having kids, but is concerned about the impact that might have on her career and her income. Let’s see if we can help her figure out a plan to make it happen!

What’s a Reader Case Study?

Case Studies address financial and life dilemmas that readers of Frugalwoods send to me requesting advice. Then, we (that’d be me and YOU, dear reader) read through their situation and provide advice, encouragement, insight, and feedback in the comments section.

For an example, check out the last case study. Case Studies are updated by participants (at the end of the post) several months after the Case is featured. Visit this page for links to all updated Case Studies.

The Goal Of Reader Case Studies

A bear Kate spotted in Sequoia

Reader Case Studies are intended to highlight a diverse range of financial situations, ages, ethnicities, geography, goals, careers, incomes, family composition, and more!

The Case Study series started in 2016 and, to date, there’ve been 55 Case Studies. I’ve featured folks with annual incomes ranging from $17,160 to $192,720 and net worths ranging from -$317,596 to $1.5M.

I’ve featured single, married, partnered, divorced, child-filled, and child-free households. I’ve featured gay, straight, and trans people. I’ve featured cat people and dog people. I’ve featured folks from the US, Australia, Canada, England, South Africa, and France.

I’ve featured folks with PhDs and folks with high school diplomas. I’ve featured people in their early 20’s and people in their late 60’s. I’ve featured folks who live on farms and folks who live in New York City.

The goal is diversity and only YOU can help me achieve that by emailing me your story! If you haven’t seen your circumstances reflected in a Case Study, I encourage you to apply to be a Case Study participant by emailing mrs@frugalwoods.com.

Reader Case Study Guidelines

I probably don’t need to say the following because you folks 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 condemn. There’s no room for rudeness here–the goal is to create a supportive environment where we all acknowledge that we’re human, we’re flawed, but we choose to be here together, workshopping our money and our lives with positive, proactive suggestions and ideas.

A disclaimer that I am not a trained financial professional and I encourage people not to make serious financial decisions based solely on what one person on the internet advises. I encourage everyone to do their own research to determine the best course of action for their finances. I am not a financial advisor and I am not your financial advisor.

With that I’ll let Kate, today’s Case Study subject, take it from here!

Kate’s Story

Kate with her baby kitten

Hi Frugalwoods community! My name is Kate, I’m 30 and live in sunny Los Angeles, CA with my kitten, Cashew. I’m a low key person who loves camping, visiting National Parks, taking dance classes and spending time with the people I care about. I’ve lived in Southern California for most of my life. My mom lives two hours away, and I visit her every month (laundry bag in hand since she has an in unit washer/dryer!).

I studied abroad in Turkey in college, which was my first time leaving the country. I fell in love with travel, so after graduating, I immediately moved to Seoul, South Korea. I taught English there for three years before moving back to California to start my first full-time American job. I’ve lived in LA ever since (6 years!), but I’ve always known this is not where I want to settle down forever. The university I work for has a pension plan in which you vest after 5 years, so I wanted to wait until year 5 before thinking about moving. I will hit 5 years in May 2021, so the time has come to start thinking about what might be next.

Kate’s Job

I currently work in university payroll making $63k (gross not net). I generally enjoy my job, especially now that we’re working remotely during the pandemic (no commute or office politics)! The benefits at my job are great and the work is straightforward and not too stressful. There is great job security and the benefits get better the longer I work here. I’m about to vest in the pension plan as I hit 5 years. If I hit 10 years, I’d qualify for additional vacation accrual and retiree medical care and so on.

I’m not the kind of person who ever had a dream job in mind per se, I just wanted something stable that paid a decent salary and wasn’t too stressful. I have that at my current job, which I really appreciate. Ideally, I’m hoping that remote work options will be expanded at my university or at one of the sister campuses. They all share the same payroll system so I might be able to transfer to another university within the same system. In that scenario, I could continue working for the university system while potentially moving elsewhere. The administration has said that some jobs may remain fully or partially remote post-pandemic, but nothing has been confirmed yet and it’s not something I can count on. As of now, we are confirmed to work 100% remotely until June.

If remote work or a transfer to another university in the system doesn’t pan out, I’ve considered getting some kind of payroll or accounting certification so I could find another job more easily. I don’t have any formal background in payroll besides my year and a half experience in my current role. I was working in international education before and was able to transfer to my current role due to some overlapping transferrable skills (visa advising etc). I’ve learned pretty well on the job, and the system we use is Oracle-based so it might be somewhat transferrable, but I’m not sure. I could likely have a good job in my current university system for the rest of my life (and would be happy with that if I could take the job and move to another area), but if I left my job I worry that I would not be able to find as good a job easily. If you can’t tell, I’m extremely risk-averse! I don’t know that I have the credentials to work in payroll in private industry, and international education is competitive and doesn’t always pay well.

Kate’s Money Story

I graduated from college in 2012 with $5k in credit card debt and $35,000 in student loan debt. While in Korea, I started learning about personal finance from blogs. As I learned, I was able to slowly pay off the $5k in credit card debt (I wish I knew then what I know now because I was living rent-free and definitely could’ve saved more!).

Kate hiking in Yosemite

At 24, I returned to the US permanently. I was credit card debt free by then (and have been since!), but I hadn’t touched my student loans and the balance was $38k. My first job in LA paid $37,500 with very expensive health insurance taken out, so I had a bare bones budget but was able to get by and save up a modest emergency fund of $2k. Once I switched to my current job at age 25, I was able to start paying off my student loan debt via the avalanche method.

I have $8,500 left at interest rates of 3-4%, which I am currently paying off less aggressively then I did with my previous loans that were at 5-7%. I qualify for PSLF in my current job, but don’t intend to pursue it as the loans will be paid off before I would qualify even if I just made the minimum payments. For now, I have the payments on hold as the interest rate is 0% during the pandemic. I’m waiting to see if any loan forgiveness will come through in the new administration, as the rumored plan of $10k would wipe my debt out completely. Given that, I’m focusing on boosting my retirement savings right now.

I started saving for retirement at age 27, and have slowly ramped up contributions as the interest rates on my loans went down. Pre-pandemic I was contributing about $350/month split between my 403b and 457 offered by work (which has some great low fee index funds!), but bumped up to $650/month during the pandemic because my loans are in forbearance. I also contribute $375 to my pension fund every month, which can’t be changed.

Currently, the pandemic and hitting the 5 year vesting point at work have me considering what changes I’d like to make in my life. I’ve always known that I didn’t want to settle down in LA, and the time to make that move feels like it is within the next year or two.

Where Kate Might Want to Live

My favorite place to be is in the forest, so I’ve considered relocating to the PNW, Colorado, or somewhere similar. I know my salary would likely be lower in any of these places, so somewhere with lower taxes/cost of living to balance it out would be ideal. A vibrant social scene isn’t that important to me, but I’d want to move somewhere with enough people to make sure I’d have dating options as I’m single, as well as meetups etc. to make new friends.

I’ve lived in snow before (in Korea) and I like having all four seasons, but I don’t think I could deal with a harsh winter like in the Northeast (I visited a friend in Boston during a winter storm and it was INTENSE!). After dealing with increased crime and civil unrest this past year, I’m not sure about moving to another huge urban area, but would consider medium/smaller cities. My intention for 2020 had been to take some short trips to Colorado/PNW etc. to see how it felt there, but the pandemic put that on hold. If any Frugalwoods readers have suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them!

Where Kate Wants to be in 10 years

  • Kate at the DMZ while working in South Korea

    Finances: I would ideally like to be in the financial position to work part time/stay-at-home when my future kids are small. This has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. This is my “why” for frugality and I can envision myself staying home with kids for a few years and then going back to work until I’m 65.

    • I’ve never given much thought to owning a home, since in LA that’s really not an option with my salary. However, it would definitely be nice to have one if I were able to move somewhere I could afford one! It’s not a top priority though.
    • I would like to be in good shape for retirement, although if I am able to stay with the university system I am eligible to receive my full salary at 65 (I started working there at 25, so 40 years of service gets this – this would of course be reduced if I took a few years off or worked part time, but I will be eligible for social security and have the 403b/457 as well).
  • Lifestyle: I would ideally like to be married and have a few children. I might have or adopt children on my own if I don’t get married in the next 7-8 years (in this case, I would probably have to continue working full-time and live near my mom). Depending on their ages and my financial/marital situation, I would either be staying home with them/working part time or back to work full-time in 10 years. I would ideally be settled down in a new location.
  • Career: Ideally, I would like to be in a similar role (if not the same) as I am now. Both my current manager and my manager in my previous role at the university have indicated there’s a path to advancement open to me if I want it, but my priority in life is not my career and I’m not sure I want the additional stress and responsibility. The extra money would be nice of course, but that is the only reason I would take a promotion as I don’t enjoy leadership roles. I’m pretty happy where I’m at right now. If I needed to leave the university system, I’m not quite sure what I’d be doing. I’d be OK doing payroll in another setting, but I’m not sure if I would need to get some kind of certification since I learned on the job. I’m not interested in going to grad school if not truly necessary as I don’t want to take on any more loans.

Kate’s Finances


Item Amount Notes
Kate’s net income $2,900 It’s a little less now as I boosted my retirement savings. This is after taxes, health/vision/dental insurance, st+lt disability insurance, legal insurance, FSA, bus pass and retirement savings. We didn’t get one in 2020, but we usually get a 3% annual raise.
Kate’s OT $69 I only do OT occasionally; this was the 2020 average for OT pay
Kate’s side hustle income $158 Money from my side hustle selling tradelines. I’ve been doing this less than a year, but this is the average so far.
Cashback/bank interest/other income $93 I am SERIOUS about my cashback programs and also participate in paid studies when campus is open. I track these amounts every year and this is last year’s average.
Tax Refund $75 I get a big tax refund every year, this is averaged out from last year.
Monthly subtotal: $3,294
Annual total: $39,528


Item Outstanding loan balance Interest Rate Loan Period/Payoff Terms/ monthly required payment
Student Loans $8,500 3-4.25%. Currently 0% due to COVID student loan forbearance Currently paying $0 due to COVID, will eventually be  paying $305 minimum
Car $1,053 1.99% but I get a 1% boost to my savings for having it open $237/mo, will be paid in full in June 2021
Total: $9,553


Item Amount Notes Interest/type of securities held Name of bank/brokerage
Pension $20,729  I have the option to roll the pension over into a retirement account when I leave the university. The value when I’m older will depend on how long I work for the university. I contribute $375/mo, which can’t be changed. Pension fund University
403B $14,406 Contributed $50/mo pre pandemic and $100/mo during pandemic 85% US index fund, 15% international index fund Fidelity
457 $12,314 Contributed $300/mo pre-pandemic and $600/mo during pandemic. I used to contribute only to my 403B until I listened to a ChooseFI episode about 457s and now have been focusing more on the 457. 85% US index fund, 15% international index fund Fidelity
Savings Account $8,600 Emergency fund #1 Earns 3% interest, will go down to 2% interest when my car is paid off in June 2021 Credit Union
Cash $500 Emergency fund #2 Kept in cash in case of earthquake N/A
Bitcoin $65 I got this for $30 as part of a promotion and now it’s worth $65! It’s just for fun, I don’t plan to buy more N/A Paypal
Total: $56,614


Vehicle  Valued at Mileage Paid off?
Toyota Prius 2010 $7,300 80,000 Will be paid off in June 2021

Credit Card Strategy

Card Name Rewards Type? Bank/card company
Chase Sapphire* Travel/Cashback Chase Bank
Citi* Cashback Citi
Discover Cashback Discover
Target Discount Target

Kate’s notes:

  • I put all my expenses on these cards and pay the balances in full every month!
  • I have $75 in CC points on one card and $1,025 on another. I’ve been saving them for travel this year as I will travel to Yellowstone in the summer and Tahoe for a wedding in the Fall (if it works out with the pandemic). Alternately, these points can be converted to statement credits so I could float expenses with them.

*affiliate links


Item Amount Notes
Rent $1,095 I live with a roommate and this is a really good deal for the area! They typically raise the rent by 3% every year, but didn’t this year due to COVID. Water and trash are included.
Eating Out $335 Ouch. Includes both meals out with friends and delivery. This has been a little higher ($365) due to pandemic boredom but I’m using pre-pandemic amounts for continuity.
Student Loan $305 $0 during pandemic as I’ve been using the 0% interest rate as an opportunity to boost my retirement savings. I used to overpay when I had loans at higher interest rates, but now that they are 3-4% I plan to just pay the $305 minimum.
Shopping $245 I had to buy a new laptop this year ($1,000) because my 2010 Macbook broke, but other than that this is maybe 20% necessary toiletries and 80% unnecessary stuff like clothes, makeup, and camping gear
Car Payment $237 Will be paid off in June 2021, and I get an extra 1% interest boost in my savings for having this account open.
Groceries $200 This is higher due to the pandemic (closer to $260/mo because I pay for grocery delivery), but using pre-pandemic amounts for continuity
Car Insurance $98 Geico premium paid in full every 6 months, broken down by month. When my car is paid off this year, I might go down to liability only which would be a little bit cheaper
Travel $94 2019 average, was $30 during pandemic. Mostly camping trips and one trip to NOLA, as well as getting a hotel to be a bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding. I try to use points but am not an expert at it. In 2021 I will for sure go camping in Yellowstone & Grand Tetons, as well as Tahoe for a wedding if possible by Fall. I rarely travel internationally.
Classpass $50 $0 during pandemic. I love dance classes and it’s more cost effective to do Classpass than join the studio. Not willing to cut this expense.
Uber/Lyft $50 $0 during pandemic. 2019 was trips to and from the airport, while traveling, trips if I knew I was drinking or going somewhere with no parking, and a lot of little $5 ubers to/from work if I woke up late (it’s cheaper to uber than park) or if I stayed at work late and didn’t want to take the bus. This is higher than I realized!
Car fees $46 Oil changes, tire rotations, registration, smog, parking fees around town
Pet Insurance $42 Group plan through work. She had to get all vaccines, spay, microchip, some prescriptions and one trip to the emergency vet so it has already more than paid for itself. In June, I plan to switch to the less expensive ($22/mo) plan which has less extras but should be sufficient for her needs
Gas $41 I don’t drive much, most of this is my monthly trip to visit my mom (200 miles RT) and occasional road trip with friends (I’m always nominated to drive since I have a Prius)
Internet $39 Split with roommate
Pet Food/Supplies $38 I split this cost with my roommate and we tend to stock up on food when we see a sale. My kitten is graduating to adult cat food soon, so I’d love to hear frugal cat food brand recommendations!
Vet Visits/Medicine $31 I don’t think it will be so high again as in 2020 she went to the vet twice before I got the pet insurance, and then 3 visits for kitten vaccines, get fixed, microchip etc
Gift $29 For friends or family, some of the shopping category above is also gifts because I only got strict about categorizing this year
Electric/Gas $28 Split with roommate. It’s up now due to the pandemic, but this is pre-pandemic for continuity
Cell Phone $15 Mint Mobile, paid the full year in advance
Laundry/Dry Cleaning $10 This included 3 times I had to get dry cleaning on something, other than that I use the machines in my building ($2.75/load) or take it to my mom’s house when I visit
Renter’s Insurance $8 Through Lemonade
Monthly subtotal: $3,035
Annual total: $36,420

Kate’s Questions for You:

  1. How should I allocate my finances to put myself in the best position to stay home or work part time when I have children? My idea for the last few years has been to aggressively pay down my higher interest student loan debt and save as much as possible in my retirement accounts while I’m young and living in the city without too many expenses. Now that I’m hopefully within a few years of moving into a new stage of my life, should I be doing anything differently?
  2. What should I consider when choosing a place to move to? If you moved cities without a clear reason (partner or new job) how did you make your choice? Also open to any recommendations if your part of the country sounds like a match for me!
  3. Does anyone have any ideas for what should be a backup career plan in case I need to leave the university?

Mrs. Frugalwoods’ Recommendations

Kate is doing a fantastic job with her money and deserves some congratulations!! The word that came to mind as I read her story was “agility.” Kate is agile with her money in a way that many people twice her age never quite master. At the wee age of 30, she commits herself to the following:

  1. Learning about money management. I LOVED her little aside that she listened to a ChooseFI podcast about 457s and then changed her retirement savings strategy. Kate is living proof that you can teach yourself how to manage your money–really, really well!
  2. Adapting to changing circumstances and adjusting her finances accordingly. Kate wisely transitioned her focus towards retirement savings when the government enacted student loan forbearance for federal student loans.
  3. Staying focused on timelines that matter. Kate not only knows about her employer’s retirement vesting strategy, she’s planning for it!
  4. Embodying a growth mindset. Kate isn’t fixed in place in how she manages her money or views her life.

This stuff might sound really obvious, but it’s actually not. In order to be agile with your money and to take advantage of changing financial policies and programs, you have to know the following:

Kate’s cat eyeing what’s cooking

What you earn every month. This is your net (post-tax) income, not your gross income. This is especially crucial if you’re a freelancer or contract employee with variable income, you need to track your income all year long and then calculate your monthly average. It’s not a mystery what you earn–it’s just variable.

What you spend every month. Kate has pre-pandemic and pandemic spending totals listed, which indicates she judiciously tracks her spending every month. If you’re not tracking your spending every single month, you might try the free service Personal Capital, which is what I use and recommend (affiliate link).

Know your debts AND their interest rates. Kate understands the importance of the interest rate of her debt, which is why she’s wisely not paying her 0% student loans right now. It’s not the debt that’s bad, it’s the interest rate.

Know your assets AND any parameters they might have. Kate is on top of her assets and has the critical understanding of what exactly her employer-sponsored retirements accounts mean for her and at what time.

Kate’s Question #1:

  1. How should I allocate my finances to put myself in the best position to stay home or work part time when I have children? My idea for the last few years has been to aggressively pay down my higher interest student loan debt and save as much as possible in my retirement accounts while I’m young and living in the city without too many expenses. Now that I’m hopefully within a few years of moving into a new stage of my life, should I be doing anything differently?

Let’s back up a teensy bit and check in on Kate’s overall financial health.

Emergency Fund: this is everyone’s favorite, the buffer between you and crisis: cash held in an easily accessible checking or savings account. Emergency funds are calibrated on what you spend every month. Three to six months worth of expenses are the standard recommended amount. Kate’s current monthly spending of $3,035 indicates she needs an emergency fund in the range of $9,105 (three months’ worth of spending) to $18,210 (six months’ worth).

Kate has a total of $9,100, which clocks her in on the low end of a fully funded emergency fund. I’m not too concerned since she has demonstrated so much agility with managing her money. If she were to lose her job tomorrow, I have no doubt she’d slash all of her discretionary spending in order to reduce her monthly outlay.

Kate’s strategy of paying down high interest debt and investing for retirement is spot on. After building an emergency fund, that’s exactly what I would advise. My answer to her question of if she should be doing anything differently is “probably not.”

Student Loans

Kate did a commendable job of paying down her $38K in student loans and I very much agree with her current strategy for the remaining $8K:

  • Continue to not make payments while the loan is in forbearance and the interest rate is 0% for federal student loans.
  • Wait to see if this administration moves forward with waiving student loan debt of up to $10K (higher amounts of forgiveness are being discussed as well, so it’s very much a wait-and-see moment for student loans)
  • I very rarely advise people to not pay off debt, but given the forbearance program as well as the looming potential for loan forgiveness I think it’s wise not to pay down federal student loans right now (provided you’re certain you qualify for the federal student loan forbearance program. Read more about pandemic-specific financial programs in my series Uber Frugal Week: How to Manage Your Money in the Time Of Pandemic and Recession).
  • Once the COVID forbearance program ends on September 30, 2021 (although keep an eye on this date as it continues to be pushed back), resume paying the monthly minimum required payment.

I think Kate’s right that PSLF doesn’t make sense given how small her loan is and how many years it takes for PSLF to kick in.

Kate’s Retirement Investments

Kate’s in an enviable position for a 30-year-old! Between her pension, 403b and 457, she has a total of $47,449. When someone is decades away from retirement–as Kate is–I like to use Fidelity’s fairly simply retirement savings rule of thumb:

Aim to save at least 1x your salary by 30, 3x by 40, 6x by 50, 8x by 60, and 10x by 67.

Based on that, Kate should have one times her gross (not net) salary, which is $63k. She’s a bit under, but I’m not concerned because she’s been putting all of her extra funds towards paying off her student loans. Now that her focus is trained on her retirement savings, I have no doubt she’ll catch up and be on track. She should keep this rule of thumb in mind and aim to be at 3x her salary in ten years when she’s 40.

Kate’s Question: How to prepare for working part-time/taking time off with future babies?

Unfortunately, I can’t answer this for Kate since it involves too many unknown variables. I’d have to pick: D) Not enough information. But no worries, Kate! The things that will ALWAYS help a person work fewer hours–for whatever reason–are the same and are pretty simple:

  1. Spend WAY less than you earn. Save and invest the difference to build a massive emergency fund to the tune of several years worth of expenses. If a person does this, a person can then afford to not work for awhile. That person WILL have to go back to work at some point, but as Kate astutely noted, that’s her plan anyway!
  2. Attack it from both ends: earn more AND spend less. Kate, my friend, I will tell you that you will never have more free time than you have right now if you one day have children. Now is the time to focus on boosting your earnings through either:
    • Advancement at your current job
    • Augmented side hustles
    • Finding a new, higher-paying job
Kate’s cat Cashew!

To be clear, Kate has an awesome job with a great salary and enviable benefits. BUT, she’s not clearing enough between her income and expenses every month to work part-time at present. But in ten years? She could totally be there.

Kate is really adept at navigating diverse financial priorities and I encourage her to keep on keeping on that road of lifelong learning and agility. That’s what’ll enable her to afford kids and reduce her work hours and pay for daycare and little league and soccer and… It’s all possible, but it will entail following that super simple mantra of earning more, spending less, and saving the rest.

There’s not any magic or sorcery involved in this. If Kate can save up enough in the next, say, five years, to cover several years of living expenses, then she can stay home with her babies for a few years. If Kate can save up, let’s say half a year’s worth of living expenses, she can drop down to part-time work with her babies (although be on top of researching daycare costs as they are astronomical). It’s all a math game and thankfully, that’s what Kate does for a living. You’ve got this, Kate!

In terms of what to do with all this potential future liquid cash, I’ll point Kate to last month’s Reader Case Study, in which I did an excellent (if I do say so myself) rundown of taxable investments (also known as non-retirement investments). Kate read that and, if you haven’t already, check out the book  The Simple Path To Wealth by JL Collins, a version of which is also available in his blog’s “Stock Series.”

And way, way, waaaaaay down the road, Kate should look into 529 college savings plans. Although if she’s still working at the university, her kids would likely qualify for free or reduced undergraduate tuition… But that’s for another time in life.

Kate’s Question #2:

  1. What should I consider when choosing a place to move to? If you moved cities without a clear reason (partner or new job) how did you make your choice? Also open to any recommendations if your part of the country sounds like a match for me!

Hmmm, in many ways, I think I’m not clear on why Kate wants to move. I get that LA is not her longterm dream locale, but she seems to be making it work really well right now:

  • Her rent is amazingly low given the area
  • She has a good relationship with her roommate (priceless)
  • She lives in a cat-friendly building (meow!)
  • Her expenses are low considering she lives in LA
  • She lives close enough to visit her mom regularly (consider the cost and inconvenience if this changed from a driving to a flying visit)

As a person who moved five times in my 20s, I totally get the itch to move and I’m not saying Kate shouldn’t move, just that she might want to take some time to consider what’s prompting this move. Additionally, from a social angle, I encourage Kate to consider the following:

  • It sounds like she has a great (non-pandemic) social life with dance classes, hiking with friends, and taking trips with friends. In my (admittedly limited) experience, the older you get, the harder it is to meet new friends because you no longer have the built-in network of your college dorm or going out for drinks after work because people start to partner up and have kids and have less free time to make friends.
  • Plus, Kate mentioned her desire to meet a partner and I have to imagine the singles scene is more robust and varied in LA than it would be in a smaller town.
  • Further, Kate has the golden trifecta with her job: it’s low stress, she doesn’t hate it, it pays well, and it has AMAZING benefits. Oh wait, that’s four good things! Quadfecta?

All that to say, yes Kate should absolutely research other areas to live in, but I would do so with eyes wide open and a catalogue of the conveniences and pros of her current location in mind. And if she’s looking for a dramatically lower cost of living, she’s going to need to go farther inland to more like the midwest. It’s my understanding that Colorado and the PNW aren’t all that much cheaper than LA.

California is a Big State

Kate hiking with friends in Zion

As a native Californian (I was born in San Diego), I can attest that California is a big state. Anyone with a map can attest the same. While Kate didn’t share which university system she works for, it sounds like they have campuses all across the state. Given that, if it were me, I would aggressively pursue researching job opportunities at those other campuses. Is there a campus in a town that would better fit with Kate’s desired location? Is there a campus closer to her mom?

As Kate noted, if she decides to become a single mother, she will likely want to live very close to her mom (like ideally next door…. ). If I could send my kids outside to run over to grandma’s house…. life changing. Point being, there may be a town that’ll fit the bill that’s within the university system. Post-COVID, this could be a great road trip research project for Kate!

One of the other reasons I’m team Stay In The University System are the benefits. I mean, these are benefits that could make a grown woman weep. I might’ve wept a tad.

A few avenues of research Kate should go down with her HR manual:

  • What is the university’s parental leave policy? Does it cover adoptions? Would she be allowed to tack on short-term disability or other types of leave to extend a parental leave?
  • What does her health insurance cover in terms of fertility/adoption/IVF/all the ways to conceive a baby/prenatal care and birth? Not all insurances are created equal and you can spend $100 on this stuff or $100,000++.

Related to her job, Kate should research:

  • What certificate programs are available in her field? Would the university pay for them as continuing education? Would any of these certifications qualify her for a raise or promotion?
  • Are there part-time opportunities within her department? Have other people done this? Is her boss likely to approve a part-time schedule?
  • If she leaves her job wholesale, will she restart the benefits accrual clock if she’s re-employed by the university? Or will they count her previous years of service? It would really stink if she left for a few years and lost her previous years of service towards vesting and other benefits.
  • Is there an on-campus daycare center? What is the cost and availability of spots for university staff? Should she get on the waitlist now? If Kate’s able to truncate her commute, that would allow her to spend a lot more time with her kids and to have the same holidays (nothing worse than daycare being closed when your office is open–good times!). Plus, could she visit them every day during her lunch break, etc? There’s a TON of value in having an on-site daycare and it might tip the balance in considering whether or not to leave her job.

Another thing I want to point out is that the longer she’s in this job, the less of an issue her lack of “formal” training becomes. At the outset, sure it matters, but once she’s been doing this job for say ten years, I’d be hard pressed to think a different employer wouldn’t value those years of experience as much (if not more) than formal training. Payroll experts should feel free to disagree with me here!

That being said, I’ll echo my previous statement that–if she has kids–Kate will never have as much free time as she has right now. If she even thinks she wants to pursue a certification program, do it now! Do not try to do that after having kids (or, wait until they’re older).

Kate’s Question: If you moved cities without a clear reason (partner or new job) how did you make your choice?

Since we’ve already established that I moved five times after college, I think we can safely say I do NOT know the answer to this question ;).


  1. Do an inventory of the reasons why she wants to leave LA along with the pros and cons of staying in LA.
  2. Research the options for transferring to another campus within the same university system. Explore the towns and the administrative process of switching jobs between campuses.
  3. Do a deep dive into her university’s benefit plans regarding all things baby as well as the provisions for part-time work or extended leaves of absence. What’s possible and what would happen to her years of service accrual?
  4. Check out the availability of on-site daycare.
  5. Explore what certifications she might obtain and, if she wants to pursue them, know that sooner is better than later.
  6. Continue to hold off on paying down the student loan until: a) the COVID loan forbearance program expires; or b) the government approves a student loan waiver program.
  7. Pay off the car loan as scheduled.
  8. Examine options for increasing income and decreasing spending in order to build up the savings required to take a few years off of work in the future.
  9. Keep an eye on her retirement investments to ensure she’s on track to hit 3x her salary by age 40.
  10. Pat herself on the back as she has done a TREMENDOUS job with her finances and will, no doubt, continue to rock it!

Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice would you give to Kate? We’ll all 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 (mrs@frugalwoods.com) your brief story and we’ll talk.

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  1. Great job Kate!! My only comment is regarding cat food, and that it is *not* the place to cheap out. Rule of thumb is, cheap wet food is better than expensive dry food, but do some research on protein content and other nutrients. Plus cats love variety, so as soon as you buy bulk your cat will decide she never wants to eat that brand or texture again (I speak from cat mom experience lol).

  2. I’ve worked in the university setting for my adult career, so my advice comes from that background.
    First and foremost, congrats on what you’ve accomplished! The university setting isn’t always the best place to roar ahead financially, but it’s a comfortable place for most people if you can practice frugality. Aside from that…

    1. Agree with Mrs. FW to check out other locations within your current system. You would retain your acquired benefits by staying within your system instead of changing to a new one. Most places that I have worked require a 3 year vesting period for retirement and 5 years to start increasing the vacation time (both things that you mentioned).
    2. More and more places are seeing that remote work is doable without loss of productivity. When the question arises with your supervisor, ask for it! Make sure you have well thought out reasons to share for why you want to remain remote and how you think it helps to improve the work you’re doing.
    3. Most universities have education benefits that you can check out. That could help you acquire more skills for your job or get any educational hours you might need toward any certificates that you think will help you. If the classes are still too expensive, there are other online options such as Udemy, Coursera, or EdX that may have classes you can take to acquire credit (and those courses are often on sales). Then ask if your employer can cover the costs to sit the exams or join any professional organizations. Many places will help with these things if you frame it as career development.
    4. Re: onsite daycare. Sometimes it’s awesome. Sometimes it sucks. It’s almost always difficult to get into. BUT some universities have partnerships with local daycares and those daycares then give a discount (we’re using this option now with our two kids). So be sure to consider that as well.
    5. Benefits offered for childbirth or adoption tend to change slowly at universities, so the current situation would be a great starting point for knowledge. However, more and more places are changing. The last place that I was at changed their policy a year before baby 1 was born. The place I’m currently working was scheduled to change their policy last year (though I think it was delayed due to financial impact from the pandemic). The point being, those benefits may change drastically between now and when you have/adopt a kid, but many of the other benefits (healthcare, retirement, education, etc.) will not improve.

    I wish you all the best!

    1. Thank you! The education benefits in my university aren’t that great, but seeing if my department might help cover some costs is a good idea I hadn’t considered

  3. As far as having children goes, I suggest that once she settles on an area, she look into childcare costs and begin to save that every month. Will give her an idea of how it will be to live once theer are children involved. Where I live (Boston) my work childcare (academic medical center) five days a week costs are: $2,400 a month for infant, $2,089 a month for toddler and $1,705 for preschool (and that is the SUBSIDIZED!). I remember back when I was worried about the relatively small costs of conceiving on my own (I am a singe mother by choice) I realized that they were nothing in comparison to monthly childcare costs, and began to put that amount away each month while I was pregnant. I also agree that staying in the university system would be ideal for benefits and pension (also perhaps for tuition benefits for future children) and feel that CA is a big place with lots of forests. Being close to a grandmother would be the number ONE thing I would be thinking about for life with children!

    1. I completely agree, childcare costs can be very high and should be budgeted and planned for -call a few local daycares, or daycares in places you’re considering moving to since these can range drastically. Even adding a child to health insurance can add up.

      I’d also point out that you mention the next 7-8 years as your consideration period for having kids on your own. I just want to mention that if you are very confident in your decision on having children, and it seems like you are, to consider shortening that timeline if having biologic kids is important to you. If adoption is equally high on your list, then don’t worry about it at all and take your time! But as someone who is 31 and going through unexpected fertility treatments, it’s not a stress I’d wish on anyone and now I wish I hadn’t waited even this long. The rates of success decrease rapidly in the age range you mentioned though.

      1. I strongly second Katie’s suggestion that if having a biological child is your choice for becoming a parent, start looking into it sooner / -est. (I don’t think you have to ask me how I know! 😉

        1. I will third that idea! Fertility treatments are no joke and you aren’t guaranteed a baby. Adoption can also cost tens of thousands of dollars and take years. I would even consider freezing eggs if in a few years you are not yet ready to have a baby.

  4. I second that living close to relatives is wonderful when you have kids, so if that’s a possibility I’d definitely go for it! We live on the same street as my in-laws along with three sets of aunts and uncles and their kids, so our daughter has tons of kids to play with and in pre-pandemic times we got free babysitting.

    Also, if it were me, I’d try to bring that eating out expense down. I do this by reading cooking blogs (my favorite’s The Kitchn) for ideas when I’m bored and buying frozen meals, like dumplings or pizza when I don’t feel like cooking. Even if it’s a bit more expensive than my usual meals, I don’t feel guilty as long as it’s cheaper than eating out.

  5. Nice job! It’s impressive how much you’ve accomplished, and I can relate to living in a high cost of living city while paying off student loans. My numbers actually matched pretty neatly to yours about 5 years ago in NYC, and while I remember it feeling like it took a while, I suddenly was debt free. You can do it!

    I also had a couple of thoughts about your situation. I noticed that you lived in Korea but don’t travel internationally now. I’m wondering if the itch to move could be quelled by 1-2 international trips a year (when it’s safe to travel) as that could bring some adventure and change to your life. Also, I know you mentioned not wanting to take a promotion that comes with additional responsibility but I wanted to note that there are many types of leaders and more responsibility doesn’t necessarily take up more hours during the day. I bet you could add $20K to your annual salary and have a comparable quality of life. It’s clear from your personal finance approach that you add value to the work you do Don’t be afraid to ask for more – even if it’s a tight financial time; it behooves the university to reduce turnover and is a worthwhile investment for them.

  6. I will be honest, as independent as I am, as I neared 30 and finished graduate school, I only applied to jobs in cities where I thought there were enough single people to have a lively social life and dating opportunities. It worked out, I met my now husband in the DC area and we moved to a quieter and less expensive area after we married. If Kate does hope to find a partner, being intentional about the social scene in a town she is considering is a way to set yourself up in a good position for opportunities. As someone who moved from the west to the East in adulthood, leaving behind the national parks and beauty of the west was and is TOUGH. The east has beauty, but it is different and it doesn’t suit me as well. So my two cents are stay west if it’s outdoors bring you a lot of joy.
    And my last point is rather niche and for post pandemic, but maybe it’ll be right for someone reading- if you think you’d like the sport of curling, try it out. (CA has clubs that play at hockey arenas and PNW have clubs that play in their own buildings.) I started curling when I was 26 and met loads of people ages 15-90 and it’s been a built in social community waiting for me in each city I’ve moved to. This is clutch, as I am not religious, but craved community. Maybe in Kate’s case, this would look like finding hiking clubs?
    Good luck! Her path resembles my own in so many ways a few years ago.

    1. Thanks for the advice and your story! Glad it worked out for you. Curling is an interesting hobby! I used to go on camping meetups occasionally pre-COVID, maybe when things start back up I can do that again.

  7. I am a trained on the job HR Generalist (benefits, payroll, employee relations, etc) and I have had no problems finding HR work without formal training. If your current employer will pay for SHRM certification, go for it! Having certification can increase your earning potential. But if they don’t, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Demonstrating knowledge and ability is more important than formal training in the HR world, I have found.

  8. As Liz mentioned, your agility and flexibility will serve you very well! The questions around best preparing for family formation are really tough because, of course, there are so many unknowns. That’s ok- that’s quite normal! The best preparation is focusing on your overall financial picture (which you’re already doing) to give you a wide set of options. I’ll leave you 2 thoughts for your consideration. 1) Do some research on HSA to see if it makes sense to add to your retirement mix. 2) This is admittedly a little more out of the box and might not be popular. Considering doing a little research on freezing your eggs soonish. I’m suggesting this in the spirit of giving your future self the options you’ve mentioned. Not many women your age openly consider having kids on their own. So if this is a real option for you, perhaps this is something for you to consider. I’m not saying this is right for everyone, but it MAY be something to consider. For a variety of reasons, you may never require IVF. But having those eggs on ice is a nice insurance policy if you end up in a partnership or not. It’s not cheap by any means, but if you have access to an HSA, it can be a lot less expensive in real terms than the sticker price will suggest. Many women I know long for the eggs we never had the foresight to freeze at your age.

    1. I second looking into freezing your eggs and will encourage my daughters to do so if they are in their early 30s and aren’t married. It just gives you more options, whether you marry or not. Your employer may actually help you with the costs. I’ve birthed and adopted as a single parent – both are expensive, adoption more so. There are ways to be frugal for both SMBC and adoption, but the book I will recommend to my daughters after they finish college is “Marry Him” – good food for thought as you date especially in your early 30s. It strikes me that you think through things and will figure out what’s best for you. Good luck!

    2. My work does offer an HSA – I had to have a major surgery very suddenly when I was in my early twenties, and had a lot of issues dealing with my PPO insurance. Even though I know the HSA is probably a better long term financial choice than my HMO insurance, I haven’t been able to mentally accept the risk of having to deal with all that again.

      And freezing eggs is something I’ve thought about! I need to do more research on it for sure

  9. Love your kitty and your approach to life!
    This may not apply to your job situation but one thing I have observed over the course of a long and varied career is that if your bosses offer you a path to advancement and you show no interest you really run the risk of being pigeonholed as someone who has no ambition. I know that is not you but sometimes it is worthwhile to pursue growth just to show you have fire in your belly and want to stay in the game. Maybe it’s not growth path to managing other people but it’s some thing else. I never wanted to manage anyone either. So I made sure I could show plenty of ambition pursuing other things… Acquiring new skills/certifications, helping out in adjacent departments, offering new ideas and making sure higher ups could see that even though I didn’t want to manage people, I wasn’t stagnating. I think it is very important to —in the ways your employer values — look the part of an ambitious growing person because you never know when there will be cutbacks.
    I admire your desire to raise children and spend time with them and hike in the great outdoors. All very worthwhile pursuits!!

  10. You’re doing a great job!
    Did I completely read it incorrectly that at 10 years, you are vested into future medical? If you like your job, I think this is a huge benefit to consider when moving/transferring. I currently work for a pension program and refer to this as the “unicorn ” of benefits!
    Having lived and worked in a few communities with colleges, I’d like to mention that some have a good amount of year-round all-ages residents and some nearly clear out in the summer. It sounds strange, but something to consider if/when deciding on a transfer. I loved living in a city that was a ghost town during spring break and summer, but a lot of local places closed during those times because the students weren’t there.

  11. Perhaps you’ve already had this conversation with your mother, but what would she be willing to do regarding helping with a child? My mom told me that she didn’t mind ‘filling in’ babysitting, but she wasn’t keen on being a 5-day-a-week-while -I-work babysitter. (A colleague’s mother, on the other hand, insisted on watching her kids.) But she actually did help out quite a bit.
    Similarly, a friend who conceived a child while single (more or less a conscious decision) did end up moving about 30 miles so she lived only a block or two away from her sister, who constantly helped with child pickups, afterschool care, etc.
    Grandparents and other family can be invaluable in terms of support, both emotionally and financially! Of course I don’t know how old your mother is, or what kind of health she’s in. Something also to consider if you are planning your future around her.
    Good luck, you are doing great! (Also, factor in the financial worth from your university’s benefits when you think about your salary.)

    1. Thank you!

      We’ve had that conversation, she would be thrilled if I had a baby and moved home so she could help out. But you’re right, she’s 65 so I also know if I don’t have kids for 5+ years, she might not be able to help me that much even if she does really want to. So I’m not banking on it.

      And this case study has definitely led me to reflect more on the job benefits! I really haven’t worked anywhere else so I think I was undervaluing them a little bit

  12. I just wanted to say 3 things: 1) I think you have done an amazing job with your money so far, 2) I agree with Mrs Frugalwoods about the move, and 3) your cat is gorgeous!

  13. Just wanted to note that while Colorado is wonderful in many ways, it is not an inexpensive place to live. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check it out, but income levels do not match living expenses for many people, except probably in tech. That being said, apparently Denver is super hot for dating, so…..
    And also second the recommendation to look at tuition benefits for the university you work at – could be a great way to up your education. I am currently completing a business degree through tuition benefits.

    1. I live in Oregon and moved from CA, COL isn’t much cheaper / negligible when you account from differences in salaries. I work in healthcare. I have friends in the education system in CA and OR and CA pays considerably higher. Working in Healthcare and education I would argue that CA is one of the best states to be in pay wise. All that to stay, there is more space and way less people in OR, two things money can’t buy.

  14. Best guidance I can share — life moves in cycles which Kate seems to instinctually know. 7-10 year cycles. I’m so impressed that she is planning for this next shift in her life — major kudos.

    Colorado, Texas and Arizona are some of the states our friends have chosen to move to from California. But I personally, love California and would choose to live here for the rest of my life if we can. (It’s the husband’s turn to choose this time.)

    Life-planning tip: Be sure to ask your heart, soul and the “powers that be” for absolutely everything you want. No matter how outrageous it seems. Because over time — somehow, it all comes to you. Your deepest hearts desires. Say them out loud and write them down. The things you want, also want you. ;-). So be honest about it. Share only with trusted friends who are truly on your side. And prepare for the life you truly, truly want.

    When choosing places to move to (as we are in the same exercise here) we consider FAMILY + the Climate Migration Map.
    Since Kate is planning for her long-term future and wants all of her investment to continue to increase in value (I assume)
    the climate migration map is something the smartest people I know look at. I was shocked to see that the effects of climate change are actually much worse in Texas than many parts of California. Big surprise.

    Close to family is important, and following one’s internal guidance system is also important. Sometimes it’s good to live close to mamma/grandma — and sometimes mamma/grandma is inspired by the children’s choices and moves to where the children have settled! It all depends. For this decision, I, again, would consult the climate migration map and talk with Mamma to find out how her mother’s current home and life plans fit into Kate’s life-long plans. Not knowing where her mom lives, it’s difficult to assess.

    My mom moved back to her hometown to be with her family when own children began to arrive. It was great. But my husband’s 2 sets of grandparents moved out to California when their grandchildren started rolling in… to be close to family and have a milder climate to live in. So, it can work two different ways. She might want to discuss with her mom, to feel out her mom’s 30 year hopes and dreams and how her mom envisions the rest of her life, too.

    Good luck, Kate!
    Your story read like a precious tale of a life well lived, so far! You’ve made some great choices.

    1. Thank you for this! I have an art print on my wall of the Rumi quote: “what you seek is seeking you”, so your words about asking for what you really want resonated with me 🙂

      And the climate migration map is interesting! I never thought about that

    2. Marta, your paragraph enjoining us to “prepare for the life you truly, truly want” brought tears to my eyes. How many of us, I wonder, “settle” for a life that is just OK, because of fear the universe will say No if we ask for something better? Such a wonderful reminder, that even as we plan carefully and frugally, we shouldn’t forget that life is meant to be a celebration too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  15. Ooops… and I’m also on the team of staying within the same university system if you can – you’ve accrued so many benefits and universities will be changing so many things… new opportunities will emerge.

  16. I’m 33, have a BS in Biology/Chemistry. Worked full time for a decade and went back to work after I had mg first. (31) quit a few months later. The commute and daycare combined with work not being so fulfilling when I only saw my baby for an hour a day all came crashing down. A week before my husband proposed, I lost my job, so we entered marriage basically living on one salary and when I found another job, just kept doing that. And that is what enabled me to confidently quit my job as the breadwinner. Having a baby helped trim the rest of the fat from our budget (bars, restaurants etc). Having a baby isn’t that expensive. I buy almost everything used and dont go crazy.
    You are doing a great job. If you ever have an HSA available to you, max your contributions and investment in low fee index funds.
    Being close to family is really helpful with a family of your own but let me tell you about where its sooo cheap to live……Southwest Michigan. Where I grew up. SO CHEAP. Chicago is a two hr drive or train. Detroit is about 2.5 hrs, Indianapolis is about 3. Northern Michigan is a forest lovers dream, we get 4 glorious seasons and have the great lakes. I live 20 minutes from Lake Michigan and go weekly nearly year round. We hike with our daughter weekly at various parks and nature preserves. I love it here. Living so cheap lets us travel domestically once, camp up north once and internationally with friends every other year or so. Love my life, I work hard at home to stretch my husbands income and keep saving (keeping bills low, making food from scratch, mending, buying used everything), but its great to be home with my daughter.
    When you are searching for a partner, make
    sure they view money the same. Being financially in the same page is everything! Best if luck!

    1. Hmm I’ll have to add Michigan to my list of places to visit! I’ve never been, but it sounds beautiful! Thank you for sharing your story

  17. I’m really impressed with your money management skills. As a fellow Californian (and someone who worked and lived in LA for 10 months in 2018/2019) I know how expensive it is to live in California, especially Southern California. Reading your case study, I came up with a suggestions/things to think about:
    1. Super impressed with your #2 emergency fund in cash in case of an emergency. I also have one of these . I would suggest starting a “when I have kids fund” to start saving for staying home some day. If you adopt of have a child on your own, you’ll need to take time off work even if part time for a few years is not an option.
    2. You didn’t say which university system you work for. I strongly suggest looking at places to move that would allow you to transfer with the university system you are currently employed with. If it is the UC system, Davis, and Merced are all smaller and cheaper areas to live. If it is part of the CSU system Sacramento, Chico, Humboldt and Stanislaus are all located in areas were your expenses would be much lower. Staying in the same university system would give you stability when you move and you’d be keeping the retirement gains you have already made. If you do decide to change employer’s, start looking at the California State website. Many of those positions are in smaller towns, or allow you to work remotely, the pay is decent, and the benefits are great. Don’t sell yourself short. If you have learned the payroll system of a major university within 18 months, you can likely learn the payroll system at any organization. I fully understand not wanting to manage other people, but consider opportunities to move up in your career that may not require you to manage people.

    1. Thank you! That’s all really good advice. I have thought about Merced since it’s pretty close to Yosemite, but I’ve never made it up there for a visit.

  18. Not assuming which California university system she works for (but one that might still be a good fit!) a great place to move might be Davis, CA. It is a college town, has affordable housing and is great for families. It is not in the mountains but is close to Tahoe and Sierra foothills as well as Sacramento (in case the University affiliates are not as datable as Kate might like.) It is also situated right off of the 5 for visiting your mom if it works out long term.

    I really appreciated how you said your career/ job isn’t the most important thing to you. Low stress, stability and fair compensation are so often overlooked as things that make it easier to be content at work and in life. Really great reminder.

    1. That’s interesting! I had a friend who went there for undergrad and just talked about the cows, so I never really looked into it as that was the picture I had in my head. I didn’t realize it was that close to Tahoe. I’ll have to go check it out!

    2. My son goes to UC Davis and I agree that it is a wonderful little town with easy access to tons of activities. I actually attended college in Sacramento many moons ago and love the proximity to Tahoe and the Bay Area. Davis has a nice vibe and seems to still be somewhat affordable for families.

    3. Agree – Davis and Merced are probably the most affordable locations from a UC perspective. Davis is much more expensive than Merced from a housing perspective. It’s also a much nicer place to live IMHO. Davis is cheaper than LA and the Bay Area, but apartment vacancy rate is super low so I don’t know that you’d save much more than a $200-300 per month on rent. But you could always live in Sacramento (many 30-somethings like living in Midtown, where all the nightlife is) and find something more affordable than in Davis.

      From a CSU perspective, maybe think about Chico. It’s also cheaper than Davis and a nice outdoorsy community.

      1. I grew up in Malibu. I went to UCLA and UC Davis. Davis is is no longer the nice little college town it once was. It is very expensive and has huge developments going in with no parking. I moved north. Chico is probably the last true college town in the state system. People love it there. But it is pretty far away from Sacramento ( the next big metropolis.) As for the dating pool. I was single in a small town between UC Davis and Chico State for 15 years. People said I would never meet anyone. But It was so cheap I could buy a house, reach Tahoe in 90 miles, and visit friends in the Bay Area in 90 miles. All my hobbies lead to many relationships until I married a farmer at 37 and had a fabulous son. There are gems like this all around Northern California. I ended up happier here than in Malibu.

  19. Ay 30 with your wishes, I would double down on saving, increasing my income, via at job advencement or gigs. Don’t move yet, and be active in Looking for a partner, a nice nerdy professor would work🧐. If you meet someone, you will take those decisions together and if not, consider donor ( way cheaper then IVF) and look at your options then. My 5 years advice for you is money saving and man hunting.

    1. You’re doing great. I would definitely get formal education related to your job. It might end up being a requirement at some point and no guarantee of grandfathering or not being red circled.

  20. Sounds like you are well-grounded in reality and understand what you want to do with your life. Perhaps you are displacing the disappointment of not having found a partner yet, nor had children, with a feeling of wanderlust (South Korea, another city to work in)? If so, why not stay where you are but try new ways to meet a man who will make you happy? You have nothing to lose, and if it doesn’t work out once you are pension-vested, try another city in the Cali university system?

  21. You are doing amazingly well and Cashew is gorgeous!!! Like others, I would also encourage checking how your retirement vesting/other schedule might be transferrable to jobs in entirely other entities, including the vested healthcare clock. Given that you have access to both a 403B/457, I assume you are somewhere in the CalPERS system, which services much more than just the universities, and your retirement package might be transferable to entirely different sectors as long as they are state/govt entities. In addition, for the future, it’s worth noting that you can max out BOTH your 403B and 457 accounts at the same time, meaning that, if you salary allows, you can double your tax-deferred savings and really, really drive down your taxable income. It’s really an incredible benefit, especially for folks looking to FIRE. Given that there are sister campuses to your university and you don’t hate your job, it’s hard to advise you to do anything but stay in as long as you can bear it, and look for a location you’d like to settle into more than LA. As others have suggested, perhaps closer to your mom? Northern Cali is entirely a different beast from SoCal, and the top part is similar in many way to parts of the PNW, if that is what you are looking for (and has some really pretty Ntl and State parks!). Plus university towns have many built-in social benefits and are often fun to live in. I also agree with suggestion of others above about taking advantage of free classes at your school to earn additional certificates, if not degrees, to help you build your resume/CV to the point that you’d feel more comfortable about your ability to get a job outside the university system, without adding any loan debt. Good luck!!

  22. Hello, I also work for a university setting in California, going on my 21st year. When I was hired, we were vested with everything after 5 years, with lifetime medical and pension after 5 years of being vested and 50 years of age. While our salaries are low, our benefits – health, retirement, education discounts, etc – are amazing.

    It is not unheard of staff moving from one campus to another for advancement or job moves. My opinion would be to use the education benefits, max out the retirement (we have CalPers, plus they offer to use the Savings Plus Program and now Fidelity as pre taxed retirement options).

    Right now state university jobs are getting harder and harder to come by and they keep changing the retirement and vesting times. I would be very leery to give up a state job, especially after being vested and in the union.

    1. Thank you! Yes, you’re right about that. My university has different tiers depending on your hire date, and I was lucky enough to be hired 3 months before a new tier started. I think the tier above me had 5 year vesting in some medical benefits, for mine it’s 10, the next tier down is probably longer. I have to do some research into CalPers, I’ve never heard of that so I assume we don’t have it but I’m not sure.

  23. Cashew is so pretty! Congrats on becoming an adoptive pet parent and everything else you’re doing to plan for the future.

    A couple of suggestions for you to consider:

    Pet care

    (1) You mentioned that you think your vet expenses will be lower in the next few years, and also that you’re going to move to a lower-cost pet insurance plan. I encourage you to set aside at least the “savings” between the higher and lower-cost plans as an emergency fund for your cat. Just one illness or injury can be extraordinarily expensive (in hundreds or even thousands of dollars) and you want to be prepared for that possibility. Pet insurance often doesn’t cover what you hope it will cover, so “self-insuring” with some emergency savings is important. For a healthy, young indoor cat (see below), an emergency fund of about $500 is probably enough, but that amount should increase if she develops any chronic conditions and after she reaches middle age.

    (2) Also, if you don’t already do this, please keep your cat indoors. This will reduce the risk of sky-high bills (e.g. for accidents, flea treatment, or illnesses picked up from other animals) and also will protect wild birds and other small animals. (If you want to let your cat outside, please look into building a secure cat-io or training her to walk on a leash.)

    (3) Develop a pet guardianship plan and communicate it. If something happened to you (short-term or long-term), who would take on responsibility for your cat? Do you have an agreement with them to do so, and do they understand your wishes regarding how the cat is cared for? (For example, if you keep her as an indoor cat, are they willing do so?) It’s a good idea to have a primary guardian and a back-up. Also, depending on your potential cat guardians’ resources, you might also want to set aside some funds for the cat’s care, should the unthinkable happen. (If you have a will – and you should have one – it should provide for a sum of money to be transferred to the pet guardian – even a few hundred dollars could be helpful, to cover initial vet bills.) The pet guardianship plan should include your vet’s information, and you should also provide the relevant contact information for the guardian and back-up guardian to your vet.)

    Moving somewhere else

    I’ve picked up and moved to different cities and countries a number of times in my career (New York City – twice, London, UK, and Paris, among other places). I don’t regret any of the moves, but I do wish I’d done a little more research sometimes before making the leap.

    Given your incredibly good set-up right now but also recognizing that you’ve got itchy feet, maybe you could explore the possibility of short-term relocation to try out a new town. I took a one-year sabbatical to London when I was in my mid-30s and it was an amazing experience. At the time, I owned my apartment in Canada and I also had a cat who I couldn’t take to the UK (because of their ridiculous quarantine laws). I actually managed to find someone (friend of a friend) who wanted to rent a furnished apartment for a year (and she was thrilled to take on responsibility for my cat, too) – so I basically rented my apartment and cat to her for the year! 🙂

    Of course, I’m not suggesting that you rent out your cat. I’m just suggesting that there are some creative ways to explore other places while holding onto your existing home. Maybe your roommate would be open to the possibility of having you sublet out your place for 3-6 months, if you want to try living somewhere else. And maybe your employer would be open to you relocating to another location in the university system for a short period of time.

    1. Cashew is 100% an indoor cat! We live in an apartment so there’s no place to let her out anyway, but we took her to the park once when we first got her and she was NOT into that.

      My roommate and her family also love her so if anything ever happened to me, there would be no issue. Saving a little emergency fund for her is a good idea! She already has a little earthquake bag lol

      1. Also Cashew appears to be a beautiful Siamese – purebred (even strays) tend to have more long term health issues. 🙁 This isn’t a guarantee but I work in rescue and we see it all the time.

    2. Quarantine laws aren’t ridiculous. Whether animal or plant, something that is not an issue in one country can kill or take over in another, where the environment is different. Japanese knotweed, grey squirrels, bamboo, rabbits are all examples. Also rabies is incurable if you don’t catch it early. Your cat might be ok but rules have to be written for the masses.

  24. As a life-long PNW-er, I can tell you that the “Seattle freeze” is real. This is a really hard area to make new friends in. People tend to keep to themselves and do their own thing up here. I wouldn’t let that stop you from moving here, but it’s something to keep in mind, especially if you don’t know anyone here and are trying to date. (Online works great, though!) Also, the greater Seattle area is pretty expensive in terms of housing. Even an hour or more outside of Seattle has fairly high priced rent/home prices. Washington has no income tax, but it does have a state sales tax. I believe Oregon is a little cheaper, but they have a state income tax. Vancouver, WA is cheaper, and right across the River from Portland. I hope this helps! You’ve done such a great job of saving and planning!!

    1. I am a fourth generation PNWer (in the Puget Sound region) and I wanted to add to the above. If you consider moving to the PNW you really really really need to be ready for some gray weather. Summers are incredible but late fall, winter, and early spring are very wet and gray. It may not be pouring but it will be drizzling and overcast for days. Also – I echo the comments from Laura that prices in the Seattle real estate market are very high for what you get. Other parts of the state have better value but you may be further from the forests (eastern WA has more desert but is much more affordable). We do have 3 beautiful national parks and a national monument. There is lots of hiking but recently, the hiking areas have been very overcrowded and really not as nice at all with trash, human and animal waste, and people carrying and playing portable speakers out in nature or on hikes and degrading the parks by not adhering to trails, etc. I don’t even want to go near them on the weekends. The Puget Sound area is sadly, not what it used to be.

    2. Interesting. I’ve only visited Seattle one time. Hadn’t heard the term “Seattle Freeze”, but yes, observed people are very different from Oklahoma where I live. I have a good friend here in (OK), who lived most of her life, and all growing up years in Seattle. Very interesting her descriptions of how people/parenting differ compared to Oklahoma. Today, a stranger walked over to my house to help me because they noticed my car was stuck in snow at the bottom of our driveway. I’d say that’s pretty common behavior. The downside is that summers are beastly hot here, I really envy the climate of the PNM.

    3. Yes – as someone who just left Seattle after 11 years there, I can say the Seattle Freeze is real. Plus, the 9 months of gray is really depressing.

    1. You add someone who needs good credit to your credit card (assuming you have pretty good credit) and they pay you in exchange. It improves their credit, and they never actually have access to your credit card.

      1. That sounds like a really bad idea. Not to be dramatic, but Kate might want to consider her employment code of conduct. Even something legal but shady might be a risk, especially in a university or public sector where a higher moral/social code is expected.

      1. And I will say, I believe this is why Chase canceled all 6 of my personal cards and 2 business cards at the beginning of the pandemic. I hadn’t done anything else to cause this strange action, and their letter canceling all of my cards just said “account not used as intended.”

  25. I just want to say that I recently moved to the Denver area, and while I love living here, winters are intense (although in different ways from the NE–I’m from there), but if you didn’t like your Boston snowstorm experience, CO might not be the best place for you.

    We moved here “without a clear reason” like a job or for family, and chose the area based on cost of living, the “vibe” of the downtown-ish area, school systems, traffic, weather. These were the priorities for us, I’m sure they vary by person.

    The ONE thing I regret about moving away from the east coast is how far we are from our parents, as they really were clutch in some childcare situations. If you are serious about having kids (especially potentially as a single mom) I would highly rank childcare costs and proximity to grandma into the mix. We decided that we could handle living further from our parents in part because daycare is so much more affordable here.

    Good luck!!

    1. Hey, Rachel! I’m glad to see you comment here, as I posted my comment 4 minutes after you and live in Denver as well (I was crafting my reply while you posted yours). I definitely agree about proximity from family being a consideration. Several of my younger friends have talked about moving away from Denver when they have children because they feel so isolated here (despite plenty of social support). Years ago I wouldn’t have understood that, but I totally get it.

  26. Hi Kate, I was glad to read that there’s someone else out there like me who just wants a stable job that pays a decent salary without being too stressful! Being able to turn off at the end of the day and on weekends is a gift, so definitely don’t overlook that benefit. Great job on the student loans, and your kitty is just precious. I don’t have financial advice, but just a word of caution from someone who has lived in Denver, CO for ~10 years: Denver is mostly plains which means it’s dry, dusty, and brown; isn’t as close to the mountains as you’d expect, and wildfire season is especially troubling. A bajillion people have moved here in the past 10 years, and it feels like CO is being loved to death (although I do acknowledge that I’m part of the problem). My partner and I both work M-F 9-6 jobs and cram most activities into Sat & Sun like everyone else, which is frustrating and exhausting. I had a bit of an existential crisis two years ago while freezing my butt off in a lift line at Copper Mountain; I was like “wait, I’m cold and tired. Why am I doing this?!” We’re planning to take a sabbatical next summer in order to finally be able to enjoy Colorado’s national forests, parks, and do fun summer activities without being so frantic. If you’re thinking about relocating to CO, you’ve probably already done some research and know that there are plenty of other cities/towns that may check off more boxes for you (and it may be the case that you weren’t even considering Denver or the front range). Here’s hoping that someone else will leave a comment about Golden, Boulder, Longmont, mountain towns, and/or the western slope. Despite the frustrations, Denver has been good to us: there’s always something to do (in non-pandemic times), we’ve managed to find a sense of community through sports clubs and church, and I’ve learned to love the prairies and foothills (bird nerd checking in). But I miss trees and water, so I don’t see myself living here forever.

    1. I wanted to chime in about CO as well and echo Anne and Rachel’s comments. My husband and I (and our kids aged 2 and 8 at the time), moved to southwest Denver five years ago from the Bay Area (we lived there for 10 years). We both grew up on the East Coast. We wanted to move to CO to be closer to the mountains for skiing, hiking, mountain biking, etc. We were also looking for a more family friendly area to raise kids and we missed seasons and both adore snow. When we arrived five years ago it was incredible—empty trails, short lift lines, minimal traffic to the mountains, great schools, low crime, etc. It was was super easy to meet new friends and get plugged into the community (having school aged kids already really helped). It was pretty perfect for a while!

      But then things really shifted a ton over the past few years (and I know we are part of the problem since we moved here too!)—massive crowding on the trails, insane traffic to get to the mountains to ski, garbage left on trails, huge crime spikes, school quality dropping, etc. CO has been a victim of its own beauty and awesomeness. We literally got stuck in a 20 HOUR traffic jam coming back from Copper Mountain one Sunday evening (we were also thinking—we thought we left massive traffic jams behind in CA—what are we doing?!)

      We love it here and have a lot of family and friends here, but are already searching for a less populated area to springboard to once our kids graduate HS.

      Also—winters are no joke—you really, really need to love snow. We had snow on Easter and snow in October.

      Hope this helps with your search!

      And I echo what everyone else said—you are doing an awesome job financially!!! You are in a great place:)

  27. Hi, just agreeing with Ariel about cat food, budget food is not always the best choice, as food affects the cats health totally! There are some good foods out there if you research carefully, human grade, not boiled up old leather! remember cats eat almost ALL of their kill in the wild, so strictly a diet of chicken breast does not cut it. good luck researching, asking your vet too (although they sometimes are tied to a certain product they sell)

  28. Echoing what others have said, you are doing great, especially with being knowledgeable about your benefits. You mentioned social security. I’d encourage you to confirm whether you will be eligible for it with your pension contributions, or whether you are subject to the Windfall Elimination Provision. (The WEP apllies to many governmental organizations, such as municipalities, state governments and educational institutions.) Not a bad thing, just something to be aware of. Also, if your employer’s pension program is well funded, don’t roll over that pension if you leave. A monthly guaranteed lifetime payment of even a few hundred dollars will likely work out to more than you’d earn on the principal amount. Finally, Colorado is lovely (been here almost 20 years), but even Denver lack the diversity of a big city like LA.

    1. Former public university employee here. I’ve been trying to figure out whether to keep my retirement contributions and match parked in my former employer’s very stable and high-performing state pension fund or take out my contributions. I think you just answered my question. Thank you!

  29. Moving to any other state(except NY/NJ/CT/OR/WA) would increase her salary immediately by 13.3% as Calif leads the US with the highest state income TAX in the US.. Given that her overall monthly costs are great for LA can she replicate that??? Also if she were to decide to be a single Mom…the daycare-childcare costs in Calif are very high much to consider in a move..esp away from her Mom..

    1. She doesn’t make enough to be taxed at that rate. CA’s 13.3% state tax rate only applies to every dollar in earned income over $1,000,000. The highest amount she pays in state income tax is 9.3% on her gross income for every dollar she earns over $58,634 – and with her retirement contributions, I believe she’s below this threshold, even. I wouldn’t move from CA, with her income level and expenses, based solely on any tax considerations.

      The daycare/childcare costs, however, are a very good point – she hasn’t indicated whether her mother is willing to provide that type of childcare for her. However, I would be very reluctant to assume that anyone would take care of her children for her at no cost and plan for it. If, by the time she has children, that situation changes, then she could treat the extra money not spent on childcare as a windfall, but if not then she’s ready, no matter what happens.

  30. It sounds like you are really on top of your finances Kate! I think anticipating that you may want to stay home with your children is wise, and will put you in a better position to be a stay at home parent, or part time employment parent. I chose to finish my masters and pay off my student loans before we had our first (of 3) babies. Looking back, I’m really glad I did. If you can pay off debt/live on one income BEFORE your children arrive (that’s obviously assuming you have a partner.). That’s been the most helpful thing for me personally being a SAHM.

    And no matter what people tell you about kids being so expensive/demanding/taking away sleep and free time; this may all be true to some extent. But I like being a mom more than I ever liked my freedom or extra cash☺️☺️☺️

    Sounds like you’ve got this👍👍🤷‍♀️

  31. Hi there! My husband and I live in the Denver metro area and I would say the cost of living is pretty high here, coupled with childcare costs, we are consistently evaluating if this is the right place for us to raise our family. Our money just doesn’t stretch nearly as far. We also lived in the PNW (Oregon) and had better quality of life i.e. less people, lower cost of living. However, childcare was expensive in Oregon, and is still expensive here, too. If you are lucky enough to find a good in-home daycare provider, it can cut the cost considerably (that is our current set up), but I know most people aren’t comfortable or don’t have a reference which means they pay anywhere from $1,500-$1,900 per month, per kid for a more conventional setting. It is insanely expensive! As well, housing here is really expensive, too. If you decide Colorado is some place you are really interested in I would recommend checking out the Western Slope (Grand Junction/Montrose) or Southwest Colorado (Durango/La Plata County). Much lower cost of living, less people, and, in my opinion, you get the real Colorado experience i.e. mountains, snow, rivers, and LOTS of hiking. Best of luck and congratulations! You are making great decisions, thinking through things, and really that is the best anyone can do!

  32. I can throw out a few recommendations for Colorado if you’re interested in smaller University towns. Check out: Grand Junction (Colorado Mesa University), Durango (Fort Lewis College), and Gunnison (Western Colorado University). The Front Range is a huge urban area so it may not be of interest to you, but it is home to many excellent institutions of higher learning. My husband and I are from Colorado and the COL has dramatically increased with no sign of stopping. Median home prices are $500k (Denver) or $800k+(Boulder) at the moment.

  33. I didn’t read all of the comments yet, I am on the ‘stay in the system if you can’ team. Or work in the system until you are financially independent see our Frugal Expert! I worked and retired from the UC system and really appreciate the monthly pension and benefits now that I am retired. I remember saying I hope my future self appreciates all my hard work and past self I want you to know I do!!

    Kudos for learning the new payroll system – it is a valuable skill and not easy and my sense is you also have a lot of people, communication skills that are also valuable. The payroll is system-wide and that opens opportunities on other campuses. Also each campus has a study abroad office and usually someone in charge of their payroll so that might be attractive. I recommend instead of more payroll training check out extension courses and certification in human resources, leadership or management that could open up other options.

    Consider investing in a Roth IRA so many advantages if you can afford to delay the tax advantages. Also check out self-directed IRAs and ‘Your money or your life’. consider investing in real estate some way or the other – if you can put a roof over your and any children’s head free and clear if feels wonderful. While looking for a mate look for someone on the same page as you and preferable with some ‘love to fix it myself’ skills. Good Luck enjoy the journey!

  34. p.s. I forget to check out any women networking groups on campus to help you share support and information on advancing

  35. Kate, you have done and are doing a fantastic job!! As I grew up in the SF Bay Area and now live in Portland, Oregon, I just wanted to comment on places to live. Since you like mountains, if you are with the UC system, consider Santa Cruz or Davis (can get to Tahoe easily). If you are with the Cal State system, consider Humboldt, Chico, Stanislaus, or Sacto. I absolutely love living in Portland! It is green and lush. I can be in the mountains or at the beach within 60-70 minutes driving. In Oregon, Eugene and Corvallis are both college towns with lots of young people. Cost of living in those towns is lower than Portland. Bend is also very beautiful. Seattle, WA is pretty spendy but really pretty – water everywhere! Very close to mountains. My daughter is 28 years old and has met lots of people post-college playing Ultimate Frisbee. Fun group of people and mostly educated professionals.

    1. Totally agree with the Sacramento/Davis recommendation. I moved to Sac 20 years ago after graduating from the University of Wyoming. Sac has treated me well, and although outshined by nearby Tahoe, Napa, etc, it’s still a lot of fun with River biking and hiking trails and breweries on every block. The hubs is a prof at CSUS and the benefits are to die for! Their student/staff daycare was amazing, and you only pay for the hours you actually need. That said, we plan to get out of here when he retires in a few years. Eventually I want to move back to Wyoming which remains insanely cheap and completely overlooked. Spent 2 weeks there last summer visiting the fam, and we were literally boating alone on lakes, hiking in utter solitude. I just hope to get back there before the rest of the world notices! (It’s butt ass cold though).

  36. Just chiming in about retirement. If you are excited about staying vested in the pension plan you might look into portability with other public employers, sometimes even different pension systems will allow for service or salary credit from other systems. Even if not, that you have access to TWO pre-tax retirement accounts seems pretty great!

    I work in HR and can tell you that I’ve seen some great crossover functions with payroll if you choose to stay in it for a long haul career. Payroll knows the system inside and out and can be invaluable for understanding how costs and operations intersect. I have seen folks platform from payroll to either system programming or analytics (used for budgeting exercises or negotiations with unions , for example). The ability to jump from the exercise of reconciling reports to bigger picture view of organizations is essential to making the shift.

    Payroll can also be a flexible job for going part time or working odd hours, so long as you find an accommodating manager. I think you have many options ahead!

    1. Thank you! Those are some good ideas I’ll have to look into. I have a friend in a similar role who got a masters degree in analytics and he loved that

  37. Regarding cheap cats food my advice is to cook it yourself from scratch. Not only cheaper but I can’t stress enough HOW MUCH better this would be for your cat. Even the best and the most expensive store bought ready to eat cats foods contain stuff that a cat should not be eating. You also would save big on the future vets bills as your cat gets older. There are many legitimate websites with recipes for healthy and nutritious meals for cats so she won’t miss any necessary nutrients.

    1. I want to try that!!!! I need to get a meat grinder. My cat is kind of picky but she loves the raw chicken bites from Stella and Chewy, so I think she’d really like homemade chicken cat food

      1. Cats need nutrients and supplements like taurine that can be difficult to replicate in homemade cat food. Make sure you read up quite a bit before trying this, as it can actually be dangerous!

  38. You’ve received a lot of great advice! I want to chime in about choosing a place to live. Unfortunately small town doesn’t always mean a low cost of living. I live in a mountain town not far from some of the places you mentioned wanting to move to. My word of caution is that a lot of people had the same idea of fleeing the cities post-pandemic due to remote work options etc. This has driven the cost of living in my small town enormously. Specifically housing but also seeing it at the grocery store, etc. Sadly the jobs out here have not caught up to this higher cost of living and I doubt they will. :/ I just read an article about this occurring in many other remote towns so this is definitely something to consider. Good luck!

  39. Seems like I’m in the minority in thinking you should move if you want to! It sounds like you are in a great position to be potentially able to negotiate continuing to work remotely after the pandemic. If so, that seems like the best of both worlds, and also gives you the freedom to move again if you change your mind. Furthermore, if you think you want to move, it makes sense to do it now, because once you have a partner and/or children it becomes much more complicated.

    I’ve chosen within locations at my company before, partially based on job but I’ve also compared the locations, and I plan to do so again in the future. If job and partner weren’t a factor, my top priorities would be culture (similar values in average to me), physical environment (I love the feel of being in cities and mountains), being near loved ones (even one close friend in the area is a big help especially at the beginning), enough things to do (e.g. I like rock climbing so I want a rock gym, I want to have sports leagues to join, etc), and having a major airport nearby (love to travel). I definitely would consider discussing plans with your mom because childcare is the biggest factor that might make you want to stay near her or hope she will move with you.

    Similar to others, I would definitely reconsider CO (at least denver/boulder area) if you don’t want a harsh winter, it gets cold!!! If you’re okay with the grey by comparison, PNW would be the way to go (and better forests in my opinion). Or as others have suggested, NorCal. Also, don’t totally write off the east coast because of weather. Once you reach DC, the winter stops being so harsh. And virginia has beautiful forests, as do other eastern states. East coast is also great for international travel because you’re so close to Europe.

    Maybe think through what you like most and least about LA, and look from there. What brings you pleasure or displeasure on a daily basis about your area? I lived in Orange County for a little while, and I did not love it, but I think I would have liked it a lot better if I was just half an hour west in an ocean town. I lived in Santa Barbara for a while and the view of the mountains made me happy every single day.

    Good luck! You sound like you have been totally crushing it so far 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience! Yeah, I’m pretty surprised that everyone is against moving! I always thought since CA is so expensive and I don’t love it, there’s not much sense in staying here, but everyone has given me a lot to think about. Sounds like it’s pretty expensive everywhere these days unfortunately.

      Santa Barbara is beautiful, I’m not surprised you loved it there! I’ll have to think through living in LA like you mentioned and go from there

  40. Only one serious comment: Prepare now for multiple potential future jobs. Take advantage of any student payments for classes that will currently apply to your job and stretch that as far as you can. Your experience currently seems to be fairly limited which is great for this job and anything reasonably similar, but could limit you in a future look at job in some other place. I suggest that one job you might consider and probably have not thought of is the IRS. I have a grandson in law who graduated with a BS AD degree as do so many others and went to work for the IRS, and after a stint at a CPA’s office, went back to the IRS. In doing this, he had to pick up a few extra finance courses locally in order to qualify to become a Certified Public Accountant, which increased his salary substantially. If you check out what it would take to essentially develop a second degree in finance with a few courses, if you go for a CPA certificate down the road your job opportunities will increase dramatically and time off for kids and cats wont be the same kind of issue you may be facing without something special and reasonably well paying on your resume. The very best of luck with whatever you choose to do.

    1. Hmmmm that’s interesting! I never would’ve thought of the IRS. I’ll look into that. I have a friend who went back to grad school a bit later in life for accounting, so I always considered that an option if payroll starts to feel like a dead end.

      Thank you!

      1. You dont have to go to grad school for the extra classes – just the regular accounting classes at a BA orBS level will do the trick and save a few bucks. Find out from the IRS what you need and find the cheapest places to get the classes and you can end up with a double (or two) bachelors degrees. I’m a great believer in always keeping your options open and it served me well in my life. It can do the same for you if you so choose.

  41. Kate – I think it’s incredible how you have been able to live in LA, which as we very well know is not a very cost-efficient place to live (high rent costs, taxes, etc.). Yet, you made it work – and I think this is a very inspirational story. I’m impressed. It sounds like where most people struggle to lower the cost of their rent, you found an excellent deal, by finding a roommate. I think this is fantastic. If you’re looking to save more, then I’ve listed only a few pointers that I would consider if I were in a similar situation – and it sounds like the rest of this community has some fantastic points as well. It might be a good idea to cut out the eating out / entertainment costs. Another thought that ran through my mind was that since you are working from home, I wonder if you could move in with your mom full-time, and save money on rent (assuming you don’t pay rent or pay less to live with your mom). It’s great to see how far you’ve come by learning from blogs. I would suggest to learn more about personal finance, find a mentor who can help navigate you through the financial ups and downs and possibly consider growing your online business, for extra income. Good luck on your journey!

    1. Thank you! 🙂

      I think I would’ve moved back in with my mom if I knew how long we were going to be working remotely from the beginning! They have moved the return to work date back a few months at a time, and I didn’t want to give up my apartment/roommate situation if I was going to have to come back in a few months.

      Eating out has always been my achilles heel, but making this case study made me more determined to curb it! And my uber spending which really surprised me.

      Finding a mentor is a good idea! I’ll look into that

  42. The $305 not going to the student loan should now go into a non-retirement savings or investment account. If your loan is not forgiven, you will be able to pay it off; if it is forgiven, you will have a fund for moving and travel, or the beginning of a down payment on a condo or house for you and your future children. You are over-invested, by the way, in retirement funds. It will be many years before you will be able to access any $$$ without huge penalties. It is time to start a non-retirement Fidelity fund for things you might want in the next 29 1/2 years.

  43. Hi Kate, my husband and I moved a lot in our 20s, with reason (education and jobs). We relocated overseas when I was 29, arguably without reason- my husband was given a choice to relocate if he liked, or stay in his current job, with the financial picture roughly equal. So- we didn’t have to go, but we did- because it was a chance to base ourselves in that part of the world and explore it. That may be a reason for you too- if you find your forest “city”.
    About your payroll work, if you have observed that there is any kind of bias towards preferring employees or candidates with formal qualifications, I would look into acquiring them. Otherwise, I would assume your experience is what’s most valuable.
    Your dreams of parenting and relocating seem dearer to you than home ownership. Saved capital doesn’t have to become a down payment. You don’t need to decide on the purpose of your savings now.
    Also, it’s true child care expenses are no joke, but most of your child’s supervision until adulthood will occur at school. It’s great to have help nearby during those early years, but I’m not sure I’d limit myself geographically just for that reason, (And I can confirm your kids can have close relationships with grandparents even across an ocean.)

  44. I love what you wrote, Kate–and all the echoing comments saying similar things–about valuing quality of life over just blindly pursuing advancement no matter what. It has taken me some serious self-work to peel off the layers of conditioning that inclined me to pursue “more” just because that seemed like a logical default.

    I am, like many other commenters, on team “stay in the system if you can.” I also work at a university and the benefits are incredible. If you have a major health issue, it will be priceless (perhaps literally) to have healthcare coverage like a state university can offer (although with the pandemic, our benefits recently underwent minor cost-saving tweaks–like, now my copay is $15 instead of $10 to visit the doctor).

    As far as the itchy feet, I completely understand. In non-COVID times, I like to travel internationally every year and nationally a couple times a year. (I’m revisiting this due to travel’s impact on climate change, but that’s another story). What works for me is basing myself in a low-cost-of-living place with quality people, a job with great benefits, and proximity to family; this makes travel much more feasible.

    I live in the Midwest and after reading about what’s happened to Colorado recently, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Silicon Prairie” is the next place to experience a population boom. Our access to nature isn’t as dramatic, but it’s free of traffic jams (at least where I am). Look into the Driftless Region of SW WI, NW IL, NE IA, and SE MN.

    For perspective on pricing, I own my own home (a duplex that provides about $9k rent a year, or about $5 after paying property and income taxes as well as insurance) and make about $38k at my university job, plus a couple thousand through random side hustles, and I’m able to save $25k a year. I am very frugal, but I’m able to travel internationally, support my pets, enjoy life with my partner, and eat well (mostly made at home) on less than $10k a year. (I know rent/mortgage is a major cost for most folks; when my home wasn’t paid off, I saved less and put that into paying off the principal. That being said, you can get a very nice home here for under $200k if you don’t need a triple garage or don’t mind “character” of something older than 50 years… or if you must, spend $280k and be set with something that won’t really need major repairs for a long time).

    Personally, if I were you I’d stay within the system there and move to a lower cost of living location, then prioritize traveling more (when we all can). You can reevaluate in a few years to see if you still have the urge to move farther away.

    1. Wow your situation sounds AMAZING thanks for sharing your story! And the video too, Tahoe has come up a few times in the comments so I’ll have to look into it! I visited briefly years ago and never gave it much thought since there’s not a university up there, but now with work remote it might be a different story.

  45. Hi Kate,

    I think you will have zero issues with your job hunt if you stay in the same field. I work in state government in New York and previously did state government in Colorado. I know either of these places would be looking and happy to hire someone like you. Experience in Oracle payroll software is a highly transferable skill. Give yourself some credit, you’re doing great!

    Consider Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s one of my favorite small cities and has a lot of what you’re looking for. Colorado State University is there and you could find a job similar to what you do now.

    It sounds like your relationship with your mom is really important to you. If you do end up moving out of the area, perhaps you could purchase or rent a place with an extra bedroom or MIL suite so she could do long visits with you. Lots of grandmas also decide to move to wherever the grandkids are when the time comes.


  46. I think you may have the perfect job situation already that you could just tweak RE location. At least something to look into. Living in CA seems like a dream (I’m in beautiful but rainy Vancouver Canada) so I recommend you not go anywhere more northern than OR (which is a spectacular state for many reasons already mentioned). Also – grandparents nearby when you have kids is priceless (maybe your mom would be up for a relo?).

  47. Lots of great comments so not much to add, and Ms Frugal lady already touched on this…

    You can only save and scrimp so much, but earnings have no limit. So Kate should not be afraid of taking on more responsibility and leadership at work. She might find that she actually likes it, will make more money, and achieve her goals faster.

  48. It’s so interesting that people think their geographic location will make them happy. Maybe it will! But there are a lot of other factors to consider. After all, my friends (who like me came of age in the Midwest) love living in New York City area, but have had for decades little time or money to visit museums, restaurants, etc.
    I live in St. Louis and could take my daughter to our free world-class zoo for an hour or so before I went to work. Our museums are almost entirely free and we have as much traveling theater and concerts (pre- and post-covid) as you could want. Of course once I had kids, I mostly did family-friendly things rather than night life.
    Housing is mostly affordable. One thing that bugs me: when I was young Missouri was a bellwether state. Now it, like many states, seems more conservative, even though the urban areas are not conservative at all.
    It’s a lot to weigh, of course, and a person used to California may not want to live in the Midwest or wherever if you don’t have family/friends in place. (I, by the way, was born in San Diego and the ocean is as appealing to me as it is to anyone. I just don’t know that living closer to the ocean would change my overall happiness level.)
    Good luck!

  49. Would you consider Utah? I live in Utah and have lots of access to outdoor recreation! Mountains views from my kitchen window, trails a five minute drive from my house, and several national parks within a 3-4 hour drive. Where I live, there are lots of young single professionals in their late 20’s and early to mid 30’s, so pre covid, I had a robust social life. I still see friends, but most is outside for walks/ hikes/ other socially distanced activities.
    Economically, Utah has been doing very well these past few years, so there are a lot of job opportunities and there are two large universities within 15 minutes of my house. The cost of living here has increased recently, but my understanding is that it is still relatively affordable compared to Denver or PNW.

  50. Having grown up CO, moved to Los Angeles for 10 years in my mid 20s to mid 30s, and now living in the PNW, each has its upside and downside but overall are very similar. If you’re only paying $1100 to live in LA, you’re winning! Denver has more outdoors, but the traffic has gotten bad, possibly worse the LA when there’s a storm. Seattle has more trees, but the dark and rainy winters are a very difficult adjustment from daily sunshine. If you have family near you, I’ve found the older I get that’s the part I miss about all the moving around all the time.

    Also, as someone that works in Accounting and Payroll, I can tell you there’s always a need for quality experienced people. I wouldn’t worry too much about not finding a new position.

    Good luck and thanks for sharing your story!

  51. It looks like you are doing great! Check out single mothers by choice, it is a very supportive community of women who are (or considering becoming) mothers on their own. You will get much more diverse and nuanced experiences of how to balance motherhood and career.

    As a single mother of 2 young kids, I have found that job stability is really reassuring, and I am transitioning to a career with a little less money but better family benefits, stability, and a pension. So I would encourage you to try to continue within the Uni system to your 10 years, move to another local if something desirable comes up, and simultaneously work on saving for a kid (I think you know there is a lot of room to reduce your budget to get serious about saving for child expenses) and broadening your skill set to provide more options 5 years from now, if you choose to leave then. And keep in mind that 5 years is a reasonable timeframe to meet-marry-have a kid, or to get to around 35, when most women become more serious about having a child on their own.

    Check out your educational benefits to broaden your skill set in HR, or in finance. In particular learn quick books, if you may someday want to leave the Uni system, and see if there are opportunities to move from payroll to positions where you work on the broader financial picture. A lot of small or kid sized companies prefer to hire a bookkeeper part time, some combine it with basic HR. So if you build up these skills (or even classes/certificate) now, especially while it may be sponsored by your employer, you will be more broadly marketable when your kids are young.

  52. Kate sounds clued up with adapting her life when needed so I’m sure she’s been thinking about the things like moving etc for some time and it isn’t recent. But, you might want to think about whether the pandemic is impacting the urge to move now.

    The job sounds great and with good benefits. I don’t like management, it’s a pain in the neck, so I agree that a good job you like is better than a high paying one you hate. You’ve got a good roommate situation too. I guess what I mean to say is to think about how much of your desire for change is wondering if the grass is greener and whether, like your pandemic eating out boredom, you’re craving a short term change that you can get another way without blowing up your life.

    There’s clearly some transference in my comment because I’m struggling with the pandemic boredom too and worrying about the property ladder moving more out of my reach (I live in London). Anyhow, all that to say, you’re doing great.

  53. Hi Kate, I think you have done a great job so far with your finances. As a life long east coaster I can’t speak much to your question on whether to move or not. We did visit Oregon a couple years ago and thought it was the most beautiful state ever though! I have worked my entire career for a university (in the health care system) and although the pay is not as competitive the benefits can’t be beat and I think the opportunity for you to have life time medical in a few more years is priceless. I did switch jobs within the system several times to keep things a little more interesting for me.
    There hasn’t been many comments regarding your spending. I’m sure the cost of groceries/eating out is higher in CA, but I think that is probably an area you could slash expenses and add to your savings. I like budget bytes, damn delicious and Cookie + Kate for delicious and affordable recipes!
    Last, your kitty is beautiful 🙂
    Good luck!

  54. Great job Kate! On employment, it sounds like you’ve found a job that fits your goals and lifestyle well. That’s not a simple accomplishment. Well done. That being said, I’d recommend that you consider a transfer within the university system. There are some campuses outside of LA and in Northern CA that you might really like. And then you’d have an opportunity to keep those awesome benefits, and you wouldn’t have to learn a whole new job!

  55. Wow – there is a lot of advice here! I am overwhelmed for you, but in the best way. For you, Kate, you are clearly responsible, pragmatic, and know what you want in your life. You have made great decisions so far. It makes sense you want to deepen your connection to the place you live, given that you work to live and not the other way around.

    Take my ideas with a grain of salt and know that you have all the answers – you just need to lean in and listen:

    What about taking a few road trips this spring/summer to the PNW and other spots to feel out the idea of moving there? From someone who grew up in Seattle and has lived in Portland for the past 6 years, I can tell you that Seattle is very expensive, crowded, and traffic-y, but, it’s an amazing, beautiful city and region with world-class organizations and universities. You would have no shortage of great university job options there, between the UW and Seattle U alone.

    Portland is way more affordable, smaller-scale, loads of beautiful parks (Seattle does too), and you can have a much better work-life balance, with many adventures nearby, within 90 minutes. It’s creative, quirky, liberal, and a fun town, but not for everyone. My move was tough initially, but I adapted and found my groove. Now in my late 30s, I instinctively knew I needed to “leave the nest” to find myself and Portland has really helped me to do that.

    I second what others have said about your unique employment/benefits situation and also a low-stress/stable job. Those things are very important, however, you are too young to settle for your first major job, IMO. It sounds like you are internally motivated to keep exploring and finding yourself, and what kind of career you may want. As someone who has been there – evaluating how I want to design my life, many times over – shoot for the moon and find out what really lights you up. Maybe it’s university admin, which sounds really great for many reasons, but there’s a broad world of jobs in universities (and beyond).

    Alike what the others have said, some experimentation might help you get clarity – try some classes, take some trips, see what feels right to you. I highly recommend the book, “Designing your Life” which recommends a creative/iterative approach to figuring out who we are and what we want in this one, precious life.

    Lastly…don’t worry about “finding a man.” People will tell you this because they think it’s the right next step for you, but you will find the right partner for you as you move through your life, embarking on your passions (outdoors, travel, animals, etc).

    Good luck to you, Kate – you seem like an awesome, level-headed person and it’s all going to work out for you :).

  56. Hi Kate – you are WAY ahead of where I was when I was 30 & sharing an apartment in Playa del Rey ($800/month in 1988)! Congratulations!

    I have a few thoughts on your career. First, payroll is usually one of the first back office functions that is consolidated or outsourced when budget cuts are required. If you decide to leave your current employer, look for a job with a company that provides the back office function rather than at a specific company. That’s where HR is growing.

    The area that is really in demand right now is data analysis & visualization. Working with large data sets, analyzing the data & then presenting the results in an easy to understand way is a huge add to your skill set. There are so many more jobs than people with this skill. I checked & their is a certificate from UCLA Extension in Data Science. Even if you don’t have a job doing the analysis yourself, being able to define a business problem & work with a data analyst is also a great skill. If you should decide to leave your employer, this skill is highly transferable to other businesses.

    I wish you good luck in your future. I lived in LA from age 17 to 55. I loved living on the west side when I was in my late 20s/early 30s. (You could get from PDR to Santa Monica in 20 minutes back then!)

  57. You are doing great in your financial path!

    I echo what many have said about being in a big city to meet a life partner of that is your plan. So much easier to meet people via meet up groups in populous areas.

    I also wanted to share something from being a mother which I think I am only really qualified to answer on.

    I am married and we still depend heavily on my retired mother for support (she watched my son until he started going to part time daycare at 2.5 and then full time at 4). She is 70 now and just turned 65 and retired when my first son was born. Our full time day care/Pre-K is $218/week which is on low side for major city burb and much cheaper than an infant rate. But my son is hyper and needs interaction so school is necessary after a certain age. I just had another baby and my mother will continue with the same assistance until 2.5 with part time care and cease when he begins full time school at 4. My point to sharing this is if you don’t have access to a family member who can watch your child, be prepared to spend $1,000/ month minimum for child care if you return to work. In addition, my mom is there in case of babysitting emergencies so it’s a godsend to have her.

    But my other point of concern is health insurance. If you are not married and have a child and are not working somewhere that provides health insurance for dependents, it can be expensive to obtain health insurance for a child, and you must have good coverage because stuff happens. My son broke his arm running down our stairs and we were right behind him! (He is ok and healed nicely) In PA, there is no income limit to CHIP but of you make too much, you just pay full rate (around $350/month now, but much more affordable and better coverage than an ACA plan). So my recommendation is to check your local state rules on obtaining health insurance for kids if you plan on cutting back on employment as a single parent.

    Lastly, I would also recommend verifying rules about having kids and quitting a job or cutting hours. A friend of mine’s job required coming back to work for xxx amount of time after being on leave or else she was on the hook for insurance/child birth costs.

    One last suggestion to investigate… Some states have foster-to-adopt programs which make it financially possible to adopt a child as the cost to parents is free or significantly reduced to adopting out right. And any employer childbirth leave policy also covers adoption/fostering. Plus, in some states, going this route gets you access to Medicaid for health insurance for the child often until they are 18 or graduate high school (whichever is later), even after you finalize the adoption and are no longer fostering. Even if you are working and have health insurance, you can get supplemental coverage so all copays etc would be covered, helping you out a lot. A friend of mine did this with a 1 year old boy and they are a very cute family and he does well now at 5.

  58. Hi Kate! I suspect we work for the same university system in California. As our benefits and pensions are pretty amazing (and definitely coveted), I would be cautious about uprooting and leaving the state entirely. There is (some) pension reciprocity between the CSU and UC system, so you have options within the state! Also, I believe the community college system also has reciprocity (so that’s another 110+ employers). Based on your wish lists of location type, Sac State, UC Davis, Chico State, and Humboldt State are all in towns that fit the smaller location, better cost of living, and outdoorsy vibes you are after!

  59. I am just going to talk about relocation, since that is what I know more about. The last two times I did a job search, I used https://www.bestplaces.net/ to help compare cost of living in different cities. I did not even apply for jobs in places that were too far above the range of where I was living at the time. I have lived in California for many years, and while it is a place like no other, it is just too expensive in my opinion. I would recommend New Mexico. There is wonderful outdoor recreation year-round and the cost of living is very low in most of the state. Since you are concerned about crime, maybe not Albuquerque but Las Cruces is a good-sized college town. Besides the academic job market there, there are also other government agencies that would offer the kind of stable employment you mention.

  60. Do not switch to a bare-bones car insurance! My husband is a personal injury attorney and I can’t tell you how many of his clients are totally shocked that they had car insurance but were left injured and broke after a car accident that wasn’t even their fault because all of the vehicles involved were underinsured. There are MANY uninsured drivers on the road, and getting hit by one can ruin your life, especially if there’s no insurance to tap into for your losses.

  61. I would like to push back a bit on your resistance to “leadership” roles. I also work within a University, and over the 11 years I’ve been there I’ve more than doubled my salary by taking on increasing leadership responsibility. What I can say is that actually it’s not any more stressful than being on the bottom of the totem pole was, and the increased salary (and how that’s reflected in my 401K) has been transformational. And, in fact, my work is much more interesting now than it was at first. I think “leadership” can seem stressful and off-putting, but given that your supervisors seem to be inviting you to move up, I’d strongly consider it. You could try a more advanced job for several years and sock away the extra money and always step down to a position of less responsibility later if you really don’t like it, but it seems a shame to eliminate that option when it could get you closer to your goals so much faster….

  62. Kate, based on the benefits you listed I’m assuming you work for the UC system. If that’s the case you may want to check out transferring to UC Davis. My husband and I are from southern California and moved up here and he works for the University. The benefits are the same as you listed. We also used to live in Seattle and wanted to move from southern California to be around more nature. There are great places for hiking, biking, and swimming up here plus it’s only about a hour drive to San Francisco if you want the city or Napa/Sonoma to visit wineries. There are beautiful redwood forests and stunning coastline within an hour drive. You can live in Sacramento which is a much smaller city than LA but still large enough for plenty of things to do and people to date and the cost of living is less than LA. When we moved we used the forums on the City Data website to ask questions of locals and do research. We narrowed it down to Portland and the Sacramento area and then visited both before moving. This has been a good move for us. Good luck to you! I hope you’re really happy with whatever you end up.

  63. Cat food- echoing others that a good diet will help avoid or delay health problems. That said, it doesn’t need to be expensive. Cats are natural carnivores, so the less carbs the better. Canned wet food is an affordable option, I buy friskies pate.

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