Monthly Date Ideas in D.C.

My amazing girlfriend is really, really good at planning dates. Actually, I think what she is good at is finding events and turning those events into dates. When I think about that way, it’s pretty brilliant to turn that to your own dating advantage. For one my New Years Resolutions, I pledged that I would flip the script and take her out on a date every month – one that I research and plan, and show her the fun underbelly of DC.

One month in and it’s already a struggle. DC, as I have learned, it not romantic and not always “fun”. Finding events that lend themselves easily to dates is a lot more trying than I expected. Rather, what I discovered was this is a nerdy city who loves a good poetry reading or museum exhibit. Or, you can have a lot of fun if you have a lot of money. A poetry reading isn’t our jam, money is always tight, I don’t drink, and we hate driving. With those barriers in mind, it takes me nearly a month to even think of a good idea. But, firmly committed to my resolution and desperately wanting to show My Girl how much she means to me, I’ve set out to plan 12 dates she’ll never forget.

For January, I saw the Renwick had an exhibit by Francis Glessner Lee – a woman who built dollhouse replicas of murders and then used those replicas to train police to have a more forensic eye. My girl has a great eye for detail and an interest in murders, so it seemed to be a natural fit. On Friday night we watched a documentary of Lee’s life and the use of the “nutshells”, and Saturday we headed down to the Renwick – only be to overrun and trampled by Women’s Protesters. My Girl hated the giant crowd that prevented us from getting a good look at the miniatures. I’d wager a good 2/3rd of the people in attendance hadn’t understood the assignment and either thought these were just murder dollhouses with no other point, or believe if they stood in front of each display long enough they could solve them. Hint – the point is to train your brain to look for clues that aren’t obvious. Without a trained eye and brain you’re not likely to solve the puzzle. I think the highlight of the date was when we left and got Taylor Sandwiches (because the great New York style Jewish Deli was closed that I had suggested). Date one of twelve was not a huge success.

February, I took some lessons learned and determined a controlled environment was important. February felt very expensive for both of us, so I was also looking for a fun date idea that wouldn’t cost a lot of money. My Girl loves her some candles – her house is filled with them. I have determined to secretly always have a renters insurance policy because one day she might just burn us out of house and home. So I got on and learned all I need to learn which took maybe 20 minutes.  Then, together, we picked out the various candle scents we wanted which was just earth tones on earth tones.

When our shipment arrived we opened each scent to determine if we liked them – and we did! We choose one, and we selected a glass jar from the various shapes and sizes I had been collecting. Our candle came out perfect! And since that one fateful candle, 9 1/2 pounds of wax and $80 dollars worth of supplies have sat in the living room untouched. At least 5 times I have suggested doing more candles and have been turned down for the worst of reasons. Mostly she claims she wants to do it “perfectly” – which apparently just means rather not do it at all. She mentioned making some candles for friends and family so it’s possible this returns again at some point – but not likely. I would this date a 4 out of 10, with high marks for the idea but somehow a swing and a miss on execution, but at least better than January. I’ve noted that “crafty” ideas should be ruled out entirely going forward.

March was just difficult because our schedules were crazy. We did two bike rides in March per My Girl’s recommendation and both went great. So for my date idea, I planned to take her to go see some bike races in an indoor parking garage! The only problem with this idea was My Girl already put it on her schedule because she knew some folks racing and attending. I guess that means I know her pretty well.

The races were decent but hard to see a lot of racing happening. It was also pretty cold down there given this unspring weather. There was some cheap beer but no food. My Girl saw some people she knew, but mostly she just talked smack about her competitors. We stayed about 90 minutes and left. Then we had a long, intense talk about the future of our relationship that lasted just as long as our date did. I’d rate the idea as an 8 out of 10, the actual event a 3 out of 10, minus some points for the heavy conversation which is all either of us will remember about this date, and overall this comes in at a 2 out of 10 bust. Lessons learned here are that 1) I should avoid taking her someplace where she’s too familiar and 2) our relationship needs some internal work before fun right now.

As it is now April, I need to find an event that is 1) structured, 2) something new for her, 3) not very many people, and 4) on a flexible timeline. Wish me luck.




Why Mint doesn’t work (for me), and other insights.

For years I used (and still use) Mint. The colorful charts pulled me in and the in-depth analysis of where my money was going could keep me adding categories and making budgets for hours. Mint was way more userfriendly than YNAB (You Need A Budget) and it’s also free, unlike YNAB. I credit Mint with getting me interested in where my money was going and I enjoyed it, but it never helped me save money.

Image result for mint budgets

Mint offers so much customization, too much actually, that it’s easy to subcategorize and dilute your budget into something meaningless. Mint offers five different options for food categories alone.  Just look at that example above – on first blush, looking good! Maybe cut back on Fast Food! But wait – there are three categories just for food: 600 dollars for Groceries, 10 dollars for Fast Food, and 10 dollars on Restaurants. This person has a $480 budget for food but that wasn’t clear from the start, was it.

Mint makes you boil down your budgets to tens of categories. You allocated $10 for Restaurants but what is the difference between Fast Food establishments versus Restaurants? If you buy some chips and soda at a gas station, on top of some gas, you can’t separate that out in Mint. Are you “over” your gas budget now? And on and on my mind falls down the rabbit hole of Mint budgeting – eventually to forget entirely what I was calling “fast food” and what I considered “restaurant” monies in the first place.

Image result for qapital

Additionally, I have to sort my various Venmo payments for roommate utilities, eating out, etc., into different options and Mint still thinks I have an overdue $30 electricity payment. Mint also was very confused by QAPITAL ( and Mint is lacking the ability to connect accounts to demonstrate it’s still apart of my income calculus. In the end, I often found myself “under budget” for what I had tried to categorize and over budget in non-designated categories.

Here’s my theory on budgeting – I can’t abide by any budget that tries to tell me exactly what, when, and where to spend. I don’t want to live a life where every dollar and cent is allocated, and the consequences of going over one budget area will mean your whole budget is in the red. YNAB’s entire concept is to give every cent and dollar a purpose – and I couldn’t do that. I need flexibility. Mint’s flaw exists in the idea I will spend $20 every month on coffee. In my mind, I see that budget as either 1) great, I have a free $20 to spend on coffee every.single.month. or 2) holy F, that’s a really small budget for coffee and I am too restricted.

That’s why I created my own budget spreadsheet. When I looked at Mint, what I really wanted to know was 1) how much money do I have to spend each month and 2) how much *extra* money am I spending each month? My biggest budgeting goal is simple: have more money. 

This is my Spreadsheet Example. 

This is the spreadsheet that I use. It’s very simple, it four columns that represent all my spending. Can it solve all your money problems? No. Will it work every single month? Not perfectly. But if your goal is more money in your bank, here’s my method that so simple it works. I’ve been tracking for five months now and I’m pleased to report I’ve saved every single month and kept some of my bad spending habits in check.

Here is my Step by Step Guide on how to use it:

Step 1 – how much money, per month, do I make? Thankfully that’s pretty easy, just added up my bimonthly paychecks. You have to know what’s coming in to judge how much is going on. (For a simple example, let’s see $3,000)

Step 2 – what are my Necessary Expenses? Necessary, for me, is defined as: rent, electric, internet, car insurance, student loans, gas, and parking. These are things that I cannot avoid (without making serious life changes) and will happen every month. I then take my income and subtract my Necessary expenses. (I determined I need $1500 for these “necessary” expenses. $3000 – 1500 = $1500)

Step 3 – how much do I want to save? Since my objective is just more money in my account, the question is how much am I able/willing to remove from my income and place into my savings account every month. It has to be a reasonable amount that works within my budget, and I can now get the sense of what that might look like once I know my necessary expenses. I would like to note this is not a “savings goal” – because goal gives the idea it’s ok to fall short. This is a savings requirement. I am forcing myself to think about how much money I want to have in 3 months, 6 months, a year. I think that’s scary for some people to realize that the best they can do is save $100 per month, meaning $1,200 for the entire year. They are not on track for multimillionaire status and that doesn’t feel good to realize you might end up with less money than you started the year with. That’s ok – we can fix that. But you have to know if that’s your situation first before anything can change.

Think of this as an (almost) ironclad agreement between you and your money. You can, and will, put X dollars into savings because that’s what you can afford and it’s all been accounted for and you will do it every month. Personally, I know I have my brother’s wedding coming up and need $2,000 at least for that, on top of just needing more money. So I worked to figure out what I needed to save to ensure by October I’ve met that. Again, not a goal, this is a set plan.

I have also determined that since I am paid on the 5th and the 20th of each month, my savings comes out of my paycheck on the 5th entirely. On the 5th, at some point when the money is in my account, I take it from my checking and put into my savings and it’s done. The 20th payday is used for all those expenses that hit me on the 1st of each month. This also means I don’t have $750 in my account at any given time for my other expenses; it’s more like a hundred between the 1st and the 5th, then about 300 from my one paycheck, then another $250 after the 20th from my second paycheck. Take whatever you were left with at the end of step 2, and subtract again. ($1500 – $750 (savings) = $750)

Step 4 – We are now left with $750. You might have noticed I failed to account for something very necessary – food. I did not forget. Food gets its own category. All food, one category. Not groceries here and restaurants there – all food, one budget. But many, many people think food belongs in the categories above savings because they need food. If you believe you need $600 for a food budget – you can do that. But we have to get it into our heads that food is EXPENSIVE and food is often ENTERTAINMENT and food comes from ALL TYPES of places that make it easy to skirt your budgets. Food can be manipulated for huge budgets or small ones. Food above savings ensures you will prioritize that way. Savings first, then food allowed me to realize I didn’t need to buy lunch when I already spent 100 dollars just days before, that I could have made coffee at home, and that I didn’t need little snacks and treats at $1 and $2 that eats away at my budget.

The truth about food is that if you needed to, you can live off white potatoes and have a monthly budget of $40. Now, my partner would probably murder me if I suggested such extremes. In our house, food is about health, it’s a fun activity, it’s an adventure, and it’s about friends and family. So you better believe, when my partner sets her eye on a recipe that calls for flank steak and avocados, we are buying flank steak and avocados. But it’s not a budget be damned situation. I allocate $400 for my food budget. It’s a huge amount of my money, but I’ve already paid off my necessary expenses, and I’ve saved what I set out to do, that I can afford to spend $400 on food every month. I also know we tend to make leftovers and we meal prep often, so big expenses like these even out in the long run. That’s what I value and that’s where I put my money.

(Side note: If your food budget, necessary expenses budget, and savings requirement leave you with zero dollars or less than zero, we’ve hit a problem. That problem is your NECESSARY expenses are too high. Some people may feel their savings is too high, but unless you have attempted over $1000 per month, I am here to tell you that there’s a fundamental problem with your money.  I recommend that you can change your saving goals – but you must find dollar per dollar equal savings within your necessary budget. Want to drop your savings requirement by $100 – sure, you just gotta find $100 in necessary savings as well. Can you change insurance providers, do you really need that car, are you being wasteful with your energy – worst case: you have to move. )

What we are left with now is $3000 in income minus $1500 in Necessary expenses minus $400 in food, which leaves us with $350.

Step 5 – Unnecessary budgeting. Congratulations, I have $350 to spend each month on whatever I want. I don’t allocate it piecemeal, I don’t put any requirements on it all. I do track it in my spreadsheet so I can see what I spend it on and I have it automatically set up so that it shows me the total left every time I enter in what I spend. I wanted some new socks and shoes – $80 bucks, put it in the spreadsheet. I went out for coffee – $4.20 into the spreadsheet. I had a bill for an unexpected Doctor’s appointment – that sucks, but $30 comes out of my budget. A spreadsheet makes it easy to punch in $25 for gas under Necessary and add in the $2.50 for chips under food.

Important – the Qapital/Digit/ other automatic savings you might use? Ignore those from all your budgets. Yes I know it pulls out money over time which could mean you don’t have the extra $350 – it’s only $150. If I really felt pressed for money, I could take my savings requirement budget and subtract an average (aka if I think my average savings with Qapital is $300, then I pull $450 out of my paycheck and not the full $750). Generally, these auto savers act in such a way you don’t notice anyway. The money is still yours, just on a different account, so I don’t see any need to track it or stop it from doing what it does best.

That’s my budget system. I can’t package it and sell it with pretty colors, but I can tell you I’ve saved 3,000 dollars in just a few months.


Shut It Down – with Thursday, April 27th update

Is Congress about to shut down the Federal government on Friday?

Shut It Down

Federal funding expires Friday, April 28th at midnight. We’ve been in this situation almost every time since the 2013 shutdown, and even years before that. For the previous eight years, blame has been on Obama. According to some House and Senate Republicans, they stopped submitting any appropriation funding requests and arguing if they can’t get their voice heard, they wouldn’t participate at all. Many claimed to be waiting for a Republican Administration to rejoin the funding fights.

So, for at least the last 4 (but more like 6 to 8) years, Congress has been passing Continuing Resolutions (CRs) which fund the government “at current levels” that is really at about a 2011 funding levels. But this time, with a Republican controlled House, Senate, and Oval Office, the party of fiscal responsibility should lead us out of the Shutdown crisis era, giving us robust budgets with increase military spending and elimination unnecessary domestic programs. Right? Surely someone has been working on this?

Across the US, federal employees have been dusting off their shutdown procedure manuals – sending emails, reminders, and FQA’s about pay, hours, and more. Confidence among Agencies is thin at best. Members of Congress gave the shutdown a “fifty-fifty chance”, and even the President admitted he “didn’t know yet” if a budget has to include his border funding. With 5 working days left to go, hundreds of Congressional staffers cancelling weekend plans – I’ve outlined the 3 possible situations we will find ourselves in by Friday.

Option one, and most unlikely: A new budget passes.

With Congress back in Session on Monday, a full legislative week is plenty of time to develop a new spending bill, but it would be difficult to draft legislation that appeases the Freedom Caucus Members, border state Republicans, and Moderate Democrats – and of course Trump himself.

Let’s break it down in numbers:  With 5 current House vacancies, Republicans need 215 votes to pass anything out of the House. At 237 Republican Members, it’s not a slam dunk it appears to be. The House Freedom Caucus, which keeps it membership secret, is estimated to have anywhere between 30 and 40 members. Typically these Members have voted to cut government spending, opposing social domestic programs. In this CR, funding for welfare, Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood – essentially all Obama era funding levels. Of the 237 Republicans, passing these funding levels is likely to result in at least 23 Freedom Caucus members who vote no, fearing a yes vote makes them appear more liberal and weaker than their constituency will tolerate. Out of the Top 40 most conservative Members in the House, I will wager all who vote yes will have a primary challenger announce within 60 days.

The Second groups of concern are border-state Republicans who are, for the most part, against any increased funding for building a wall. A budget that appeases President Trump’s campaign promise to build a way is likely to lose a handful of Republicans in southern states – but almost guaranteed to lose the votes of moderate Republicans, aka the Tuesday Group (like Charlie Dent, Elise Stefanki, other Northeastern Republicans)  whose states and even districts voted for Hillary in the 2016 Presidential. Not only would a vote to pass a budget that includes border funding be a political nightmare for their press teams, it is easy for these Republicans to stick to their guns of fiscal responsibility and vote against this measure.

Moderate Democrats are in an equally difficult situation – but if House Republicans have anything to teach their minority counterparts – it’s a lot easier to message a NO vote when your party doesn’t control the White House. Moderate Democrats only account for maybe 10 to 20 members, but when pass/fail margins will  be this slim – pulling a Moderate Dem might prove easier than a Freedom Caucus Republican. Of course, Democrats will want to see funding for social programs and are likely to oppose a wall as well.

The Senate is less mysterious, needing 51 votes to pass, and it’s Members operate with more transparency. We can expect some Democratic procedural posturing on anything that come sup, but with Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp who face uphill 2018 elections, the bill likely faces an easier fight in the Upper Chamber, though squeak by with only one or two votes.

Option two, most likely: A short-term CR passes

This option doesn’t resolve the conflicts listed above, but it does make things more interesting. Pushing a CR by a week or two would signal House Leadership will eventually bring up a new funding bill … or it could signal House Leadership is stalling for time. A short term CR meets the definition of compromise – that no one will be completely happy with it. This option rocks the boat the least but would have the longest reaching ramifications on elections. A CR that extends much longer than two weeks could rightly be considered a failure of Republican House and Senate Leadership. While we can appreciate the time consuming effort it took from Paul Ryan to save Trump from an embarrassing defeat on the Health Care vote, many will be less sympathetic towards their Republican leaders for failing to get a new budget up and running.

This sort of political quagmire is what took John Boehner down and out – he put up a compromise budget at the death to his own political career avoiding an otherwise inevitable shutdown. It seems unlikely that new-ish Speaker Ryan and his leadership would be willing to fall on this sword.  Additionally, it’s always been difficult to gather what the public opinion is on CRs as it’s a wonky policy move that has no visible impact on the day-to-day life of an average citizen. But it has far reaching implications to our military – and to campaign donors and campaign opponents. A CR doesn’t make anyone happy.


Stalling for time, in and of itself, doesn’t resolve any of the conflicts listed above. But politics is a shifting winds games, and it’s a tried and true strategy to try to wait out a bad vote. Waiting a week can often radically differ the outcome and perspective, allowing enough time for visits from the White House and Administration officials. More importantly, Republicans haven’t been ahead of this crisis – so a week or two stall gives Republicans the needed print and air time to message this effectively. Of course, it gives Democrats another week to punch a whole in their boat too.

My money is on a short term CR simply because it’s the path of least resistance for Republican Leadership right now. If you’ve heard your Members of Congress complain about the establishment – this is the textbook example. A new budgeting bill would be far better for keeping Republicans elected – but it’s proven too sticky for leadership to accomplish – and thus, forces a no win situation onto their Members. Politics!

Option three, wild card: A short-term CR passes both chambers, but is veto’d by the President.

It’s hard to say how likely this option is, but for now it’s as likely as any of the others. Senate and House Republicans, with the help of a few Moderate Democrats, could pass a slightly increased budget that avoids funding the wall and other controversial measures, and place it on the President’s desk with less than 24 hours to go before a shutdown is triggered. If that happens, watch for the House and Senate to adjourn and members to rush back home to their districts, leaving a giant turd in President Trump’s lap. It would force Trump to either single handedly shut the government down and call back all 535 Members of Congress, or he will forced to sign a budget that is lacking a vast majority of his campaign promises, and his 100 day mark comes to pass with honestly no major accomplishment to speak of. To the President’s record – he’s eaten more campaign promises before his 100 day mark than just about any other president without too much ill effect (besides declining poll numbers). Would the wall be any different to his base, if he would kick that can down the road with Health Care? Probably not.


But more importantly that Congress pulling the rug out from President Trump’s campaign platform is the fact this bill would erode the fear of Trump on Capitol Hill. A veto by the President, if he gets a bill without his priorities, would  be most Trump-esq to reject outright a proposal he doesn’t like – consequences be damned. If anything else, I believe that’s a large reason why Trump’s base still supports him and expect from him. Trump’s largest asset in Congress is the fact he’s been immune the battles he has already lost – but he hasn’t been sololy responsible. That is, up until now. If a bill makes it to his desk before 11:59 Friday, Trump holds the ultimate responsibly.

Congress will be quick to learn if they can wrestle Trump under their control by using deadlines and forcing him uncomfortable political positions to get what they want. I’d bet Steven Bannon would encourage Trump to veto a bill he doesn’t like – as Bannon understands well the importance of keeping an element of fear among the rank and file. A  veto causes major headaches and complaints from Members, but it would keep them afraid and in line, and Trump as powerful as ever. If Bannon still holds the President’s ear, which many have argued his is losing influence, we will know by the week’s end. Should this situation arise, it will at least give us an indication if there is anything left of the Art of Deal.



Update: We are now about 30 hours away from a shutdown. If you view  you’ll see that Government funding is not presently on the vote list, but listed under “possible consideration”. Friday is the likely day we can expect to see this.

Additionally, I’m hearing a one week CR – pushing the shutdown date to May 5th. One week doesn’t really change much and again has long term ramifications, especially on Military spending, but changes very little about the political landscape. Let’s wait to see what happens tomorrow, and watch to see how op eds and Press Shows start the Republican and Democratic spin to win.


Digit: Worth it or Worthless?

I’ve been using and recommending Digit for about a 6 months now. I was amazed at how quickly Digit money added up and I didn’t notice the missing $300 or so per month. I have Digit on a moderate aggressive setting, so it pulls semi regularly at $20 to $50 amounts throughout the month. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when Digit sent an email last week informing users it would place a $2.99 monthly service fee starting in June. Digit, after raking in $500,000,000 since their inception, saw they were sitting upon a Golden Goose. Since Digit never seemed to advertise and hopefully wasn’t selling my bank information, I assumed their revenue was built off the interest earned on the collective input of its users which seemed brilliant to me – I get a free service and a small incentive, while Digit’s employees do minimal work to keep me invested in a high interest account and split the profit. But then, Digit’s sales team killed their Golden Goose in a fit of miscalculated math I’m still trying to figure out.

TL;DR – don’t pay for service from Digit.

Let’s round to $3 for a monthly service fee. $3×12 = $36 per year, for the luxury of transferring my money from one account into the other. Before the service charge, Digit has an incentive that I’ve received interest over the course of quarterly periods, meaning I got a .20 bonus on whatever I’ve got in Digit four times a year. Digit announced it would also increase its saving bonus from .20 to .25 quarterly – a full 1% yearly rate – but that hasn’t been in place long enough to see the .05% increase for account holders.

To date, I’ve made about $2 in interest from Digit, probably less. Assuming that I’d make a whole $4 by the end of the year, I’ll have $32 less in my bank account than if I had done nothing once the service charge comes into play.

In order to break even using Digit once the service charge goes into effect, you need to have $3,600 in your account at all times (which is more than I have after 6 months of savings). That’s just to break even – where the service charge is covered by the interest. If you’d like to break even and then make the same 1% you would have under the old system? $7,200 in your Digit account, at all times, for a year.

I emailed Digit asking if they would be altering their 1% yearly plan and they emailed me back a four paragraph email and I’m quoting “Financial services in general is the worst, the whole industry is broken, and largely makes money by screwing their customers”. They didn’t answer my question, which I sent back again, asking if there was any intention of increasing the interest earned, which I doubt. Their FQA offered me links to Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and other large financial services that recently have engaged in fucking over their customer base. I will grant you this – Wells Fargo secretly screwed over a lot of people. Digit is different because it has openly informed me how it would like to screw me over, given me 100 days to get out of it, and assumes I won’t figure it out. Thank you Digit for the heads up.

If Digit collected 1% on the 500,000,000 (half a billion as they put it), they have earned $5,000,000 aka 5 million, per year. Sure, a fair amount goes back to its consumer base but that’s the (former) brilliance of Digit – my 1% cut was a few dollars. I didn’t sign up for Digit because of the 1% interest return – I didn’t even know about it until after my first 3 months – I signed up for the automatic savings. Digit is not my retirement account where I will come to depend on the compounding interest. Digit was building my “rainy day” funds. Digit could have kept all the interest from my account, and frankly I would have been just fine. My intentional use of Digit was to save and pull money as trips, events, and as life required. It was the buffer between my actual savings account and my checking. Digit grossly missed the mark on how its users view Digit assuming we will pay a monthly service charge.

If you’d like to have 1% savings account – I’d recommend opening an account with Ally bank. No service charge, while building credit and reputation with a bank that has no ATM fees. If you opt for the savings account, you are limited to 6 withdrawals/deposits per month so you’d need to likely do one or two large month deposits. Without Digit, I haven’t found an app that automatically saves money for me but I also haven’t looked that hard. I already use a system that “rolls up” my purchases to the even dollar amount, and transfers the difference into my savings.

Here’s another way I can replace Digit – transferring my money by myself. For free.

How To Survive On Your Staff Assistant Salary

Too many smart, capable, and valued public servants come and go in Washington D.C. before their careers have even begun. “It’s too expensive to live here” they lament, usually about two months before they leave DC forever. The only way to live in DC on your salary is to making lunch, not having cable, and ride a bike.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: Your Staff Assistant job pays $30,000 if you are luckier than other. After taxes, you are looking at around $23,000. You have a decent place to live, with roommates, for $800 a month, $50 for utilities. Of your $23,000, you spend $10,200 on rent to literally live.  This leaves you with $12,800 – which, at first, sounds like enough. Start by removing $1800 for lunches at work for the year, double that for the cost of dinner at $3600 since you spend at least $30 a plate, a plane ticket home at Christmas is about $400, clothing purchases total $300 for the year, a gym membership at $25 a month, $60 a month allotment for alcohol at bars, an Uber home one a week at $10 a ride, and groceries at $100 a month to include every breakfast, coffee, and snack ever for the year. That’s somewhat reasonable budget with nothing out of the normal.

If this is your budget, you’ve spent $8,800 and have $4,000 left for the entire year. If you move and needs first month rent plus a deposit – there goes $2,000. I didn’t count every dinner you eat for the year. I didn’t include concerts, trips, brunches, or any of the decent things that make life fun in D.C. I have not accounted for how you commute to work (hopefully your employer pays metro expenses but many don’t.) You haven’t saved any money for retirement or a down payment on a house, and most importantly – all of this is to assume you have no student loans, no debt, no car payments, no medical issues, no children, no family who needs a little help, nothing.

If this is your budget (or you aren’t sure because you don’t keep a detailed budget), then you need help. Trust me that salary raises and bonuses will come in time, but you don’t have the luxury of waiting right now. If you want to stay in Washington DC – here’s how you survive on your Staff Assistant Salary.  

  • Stop buying lunch. If you buy lunch between one and five days a week at work – stop immediately. First thing to know is that cafeterias are designed to rip you off. A sandwich will cost between $6 to $9. The buffet options, priced by weight are easily $12. Drink options are upwards of $2 dollars – bottled options are even more. Recently, I paid $2.40 for a cup of coffee and was outraged because I am aware the average cup of coffee I make at home is .16 cents.

Let’s say you spent $7.50 a day for lunch – a sandwich, soda, and chips at a pretty good deal. $37.50 per week, $150 a month, $1800 a year – or equal to a month’s rent, utilities, and extra.

Stop making excuses about “not having enough time” or not knowing how to cook. Making lunches takes me 2 to 3 hours on Sunday. It’s not the most fun thing I do in my week, but it’s the thing I value the most come noon Monday. I’ve made lunches with friends who have new ideas and are willing to split the cost and time. Unless you are making literally millions of dollars a year, convenience does not save you money. Paying for something you can do yourself is a tax on your laziness.

Too many people make the mistake of associating making lunch = super healthy salad. And when super healthy salad lunch fails to satisfy, they go running back to that Mac and Cheese downstairs. Do not make super healthy lunches to start – make things you want to eat. Chicken Enchiladas, Pot Roast, or this fancy Spinach Pasta with Feta are awesome options. Use crock pots, baking sheets, and grills. Take something boxed, and add in fresh veggies and chicken, there you go. This is not as hard as your lazy brain wants you to think it. You wanted to know how to survive and thrive in DC – this is honestly the secret.

But but – you cry – I won’t really save $1800 a month because I have to grocery shopping to make my meals! If I save any money at all, it won’t be anywhere close to $1800. Well naysayer, I have some handy math for you. Those chicken Enchiladas I mentioned; here is the real cost:

  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil (I’m going to assume you already have this or olive oil)
  • 1 small white onion, peeled and diced (I bought 2 for dollar, so .50 cents)
  • 5 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts (Pro Tip, buy from the meat counter, don’t get the prepacked stuff. Many times packaged is more expensive. Right now, my local Harris Teeter has $2.99 a pound so, I’m looking at $3.50)
  • salt and pepper (I’ll assume you have this)
  • 1 (4-ounce) can diced green chiles (the store brand is .59 cents)
  • 1 (15.5 ounce) can black beans or lentils, rinsed and drained ($1.00 for a can)
  • 8 large flour tortillas ($1.79 for 16, so .90 cents)
  • 3 cups Mexican-blend shredded cheese ( $2.99)
  • 1 batch red enchilada sauce, or 1 can store-bought enchilada sauce (Store brand is a $1.39)
  • (optional: 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro) (if you like cilantro, buy it fresh. The jars of spices will run you 5 dollars or more. Fresh, $1.49 for a bunch)

Our total cost for the ingredients used $12.36, plus a little tax. $12.36 is less than 2 days’ worth of lunches. You get 5 meals (or more) for the price of 1.5 lunches, plus you have left over ingredients to either make these again or turn it into something else. You get three and half meals essentially for free. In other terms, five meals divided by $12.36 is $2.47 per lunch, per day. Using the same model as before, just switching $2.47 per meal in place of $7.50, is $592.80 per year. You save $1207.20, per year. Guess what – still a month free of rent.

I have seen my interns, who were paid nothing, and my Staff Assistants who are paid slightly above nothing – buy coffee, breakfast, lunch, soda, and snack every day. God knows what they would do after work as well. Buying lunch every day because it’s easy, or because you can’t cook, is borrowing against how long you are going to last in this city. Worse, it’s stealing from your future down payment, your spouse, your children, your ability to travel – the list goes on. Stop robbing your future self. Make your own damn lunch.

  • Get rid of subscriptions. Drop cable and never, ever get it again. Tell your roommates you have to cancel it – even it is “just $20 a month, split between us”. Cable is evil, cable steals your time, and cable is full of hidden costs. There’s an installation cost, equipment rental fees, and so on. Pick one thing – Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and that’s your TV. Go to bar’s to watch the game, borrow your friend’s login – offer to pay them 5, 10 dollars to watch Game of Thrones. Share accounts with family and friends, but stop buying TV. We are the generation of the internet – you can figure out how to watch games on Twitter via a live stream, using an app to flick it onto your TV. $10 dollars for Netflix, $8 for Hulu, $15 for HBO, $35 for internet – that is $68 per month, $816 a year, or more than what I estimate a year of alcohol would cost.
  • Get a f*cking bike. Get a bike, any bike you like, and ride that bike into the ground. A bike will run you about $300 on Craigslist. Get a bike that feels comfortable for your height (your legs should extend almost all the way when pedaling but not all the way) as well as get something that makes you feel secure. If a road bike is too skinny for you, go for a mountain, and vice versa. I recommend avoiding beach cruisers because they are too heavy for hills, even though it can feel very sturdy and safe.

Maybe you are like me, who grew up where everyone had a car and we drove everywhere. I had a car at 16 and owned one until I moved to DC. I lived in large places with hills, where I could drive most places in 15 minutes but would easily take an hour on a bike. The opposite is the truth in DC. All of DC is accessible by bike, and 15 minutes by bike will take your further than a car. If you haven’t biked around DC, you can’t understand how small this place really is. The metro makes DC feel huge – because it takes an hour on Sundays to get from Union Station to DuPont. In actuality it is 3.2 miles, which will take you 32 minutes if you run a 10 minute mile. On a bike, about 15 minutes. I’ll pay someone to drive me if they can beat that time, but otherwise it’s a waste of money and time – two things I could use more of.

Every time you ride your bike – tell yourself you are saving $10. Go to work, bike to happy hour, go to the store, bike home – count that as saving yourself $40 dollar savings. A once a week Uber habit is a $560 expense for the year for the luxury of traveling a few miles. Owning a car is even worse. I can guarantee that a bike is the fastest way to get around Washington DC, even in the snow and cold. It will keep you healthy – so you can drop the gym membership as well. Bikes save you time. I could go on for days about bikes, but I’m confident that if you just borrow a bike, use a bike for a few days, you’ll convert. The bottom line is paying daily or weekly for transportation is luxury. Buying a cheap and sustainable way to move you around this city quickly is key to your success here.

So that’s how you stay in Washington D.C. on a staff assistant salary. You might have to work another job, you might need to cut costs even more, and your rent might be higher – I know about this struggle. But if you are doing these things, you are on the right path. And if you aren’t, well in less than two years you’ll probably tell somebody “this city is just too expensive”.