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”.


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