4 Women with 4 Very Different Incomes Open Up About the Lives They Can Afford
From a single mother just above the poverty line to a real-estate millionaire.
Over her lifetime, the average American woman can expect to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars less than a man with similar credentials and employment. For women of color, that pay gap looks more like a chasm. And while motherhood is often cited as the primary reason for lower earnings over the course of a career, it doesn’t explain why, as occupational segregation falls, women still only make $0.79 for every dollar men do.
The same financial pressures men face only increase when a Y-chromosome is taken out of the equation. So, as we did with men, we asked four women with four different incomes about the lives they can afford.
$1,000,000 PER YEAR – HEIDI BURKHART, 34
Occupation: Real-estate brokerage for affordable housing
Family status: In a relationship, but we’re not living together.
Monthly rent: $6,500
Do you keep a budget? I didn’t used to at all. That’s changing.
What’s a weekly grocery bill for you? About $200. If I’m entertaining clients, it could be more than $1,000.
One thing you need but can’t afford: There’s nothing. If I really need it, I’ll work for it.
One thing you want but can’t afford: More travel. But that’s more about a balanced work life. A private jet would be nice.
The last thing you bought that required serious planning: I’ve worked to a point where that doesn’t really apply anymore.
Do you have credit cards? I do: Two for personal use, two for business.
How much debt are you carrying now? Mortgages on investment properties.
Saving for retirement? Yes, definitely. Starting when I was 24. I’ve put away seven figures in savings.
I HAVE MADE MORE THAN PEOPLE OLDER AND YOUNGER THAN ME, MAN OR WOMAN. I HAVE ALSO MADE MUCH LESS.
At what age would you like to retire? I’ll be working forever. At least in some capacity.
How much money do you think you’ll be earning in ten years’ time? My goal is a net worth of $50 million.
How happy are you on any given day, on a scale of one to ten? I choose happiness. Most days are a ten.
How often do you worry about money? I don’t think about it, really. When deals get delayed, and I’m maxing out on credit…it happens. If I’m productive, not just busy, I worry less. I was broke long ago and it was hard to believe I was ever going to get out of it.
Do you think your taxes are too high? I’m indifferent.
Do you keep a budget? I’m not the best. I’m primarily in charge of finances, and the concept I usually use is one of artificial scarcity. We spend what’s left over at the end of the month, but I always make sure that there’s not a lot left.
What’s a weekly grocery bill for you? It’s kind of embarrassing: about $225 on groceries and another $75 on restaurants.
One thing you need but can’t afford: I honestly don’t think think there’s anything.
One thing you want but can’t afford: Probably just more time with my family. More of a relaxed lifestyle. For the time being, I can’t afford not to work a lot.
The last thing you bought that required serious planning: My car was 13 years old and my nephew was planning on moving out on his own. So I had a plan to save to buy a new car so I could give him the old one. We paid off the new one in about four months, though.
Do you have credit cards? We have one credit card. It’s only used for the kids’ daycare. We try as much as possible to live a life without debt.
How much debt are you carrying now? A mortgage on the main house and two investment properties with mortgages. I’ve paid off my student loans and two other investment properties.
Saving for retirement? Oh, yeah. Of course.
At what age would you like to retire? I’m not sure that I’ll ever retire. I don’t see myself not working.
Felt the effects of the wage gap? As the female in the family, I’m typically more involved in the care of the kids. When they get sick at school, I go to get them. When they have a day off, I stay home with them. Not because I have to or because my husband doesn’t want to, but because I want to. I started working part time in my main job when my baby was 5 months old. I know I make less than male coworkers in the same field—I am less able to fully dedicate myself to my job like my male coworkers. But it’s OK. I try to make up for the differences by making sure that financially my family is judicious in our spending, more diversified, and not dependent on just earned income.
College plans for the kids? We started saving the day each one of them was born. My husband projected the cost of Duke University–where I went–when the kids are 18, so the contributions increase year over year, with the hope that the costs will be covered completely.
How much money do you think you’ll be earning in ten years’ time? We hit $1,000,000 net worth a couple months ago. Subjectively, I’m thinking when we hit the $5,000,000 mark, that will probably be a good point where we can say we could just live off of interest of income from the properties. If we were making $200,000 off of passive income, then we wouldn’t have to work.
“I KNOW I MAKE LESS THAN MALE COWORKERS IN THE SAME FIELD.”
How often do you worry about money? Not so much now. During medical school and residency I didn’t have a lot of money, so not having to worry about it is very important to me. Up until the point of getting to the net-worth milestone, I hated worrying. I worry less than I do, but it used to be a constant nagging.
Do you think your taxes are too high? No. I don’t think so. The way I see it, you drive down a road, that’s what your taxes pay for. There’s someone who can’t take care of themselves, that’s what your taxes go toward. It’s not unreasonable.
Location: Novato, California
Occupation: In-home caregiver and licensed esthetician
Family status: It’s complicated. Divorced four years ago. I have two sons who are 6 and 4, both have been diagnosed with autism. Every year we have to go to court because [my ex-husband] requests more visitation. I have full custody. I need the help because I don’t have any family here. It’s just me. When I walked away from that house, I had to leave everything behind—all the friends, money. I just took myself and my two boys. My youngest son was only 2 weeks old. I did what I had to do for them.
Homeowner? Renter? I’m part of a program called Gilead House. It’s a nonprofit organization that provides transitional housing for single mothers like me, and it’s been a blessing. I got there two years ago and I was able to go to school and get my GED and put the boys in a good program. I’m in an apartment for $400 per month. But it’s temporary and I don’t know for sure what I’ll do in June when I have to move.
WHEN I WALKED AWAY FROM THAT HOUSE, I HAD TO LEAVE EVERYTHING BEHIND—ALL THE FRIENDS, MONEY.
Do you keep a budget? I spend $40 on cable because the boys love Sesame Street. I still qualify for medical and the father of my kids is paying for the boys’ primary insurance, so I don’t have to spend a lot of money at the doctor. I spend so much money on laundry though. I just refinanced my car so the payment is about $360.
What’s a weekly grocery bill for you? My boys are on a very specific diet that is gluten free and organic. I cook and make their lunch boxes every day. It is almost $250 every week. Sometimes I get free food from the boys’ school, too. I don’t ever go out to eat.
One thing your family needs but can’t afford: I think we are doing OK. We always have enough food. But the support of the organizations in this county like United Way and Community Action Marin and Novato Human Needs: that is how I am able to get by.
One thing you want but can’t afford: I would like to get the boys those bicycles with the training wheels on the back. I’m going to save for those.
Felt the effects of the wage gap? Yes, definitely! And also that women don’t get maternity leave. Especially in a country like this. I was in shock when I found that out.
The last thing you bought that required serious planning: Christmas gifts. And I am trying to bring my mother here from Colombia. She’s 65 and it is difficult, but I would like to train her to take care of the boys so I can go back to work.
I AM PREPARING TO LIVE WITH MY OLDEST SON FOREVER IF I HAVE TO. I WANT HIM TO BE INDEPENDENT BECAUSE I WANT HIM TO BE HAPPY.
Do you have credit cards? I have one, but it is prepaid. I use it to improve my credit score. I survive with the money I have. Before, my ex-husband had everything in his name and he took away my passport and my social security card, and he used my credit cards without me knowing.
Saving for retirement? I hadn’t ever thought about retiring.
What do you think about your sons’ futures? My oldest son, he’s not high-functioning. He’s still non-verbal. He has a regression type of autism, and I can’t really change routines. Every time I move to a new place, he can’t see any boxes. He had a big regression two years ago when we moved and lost all his speech even after all we’ve been doing. My goal is to make sure that the boys are independent and that they can pursue their dreams. But also, I am preparing to live with my oldest son forever if I have to. I want him to be independent because I want him to be happy. That’s why I’m working really hard to get this house for us, so that when I am no longer on this planet he will have a place that is for him. My 4-year-old is more functional. He started talking finally.
How much money do you think you’ll be earning in ten years’ time? I’m a hard worker. Probably $7,000 a month if I do really well in what I want to do.
How happy are you on any given day, on a scale of one to ten? I’m an eight. When I wake up the morning with my boys, I’m ten. We have a very stable life, even with everything going on. We’re safe. The boys are in the right programs. I was able to go to school. I will figure out a way to bring my mom, and to work more hours. I am a pretty positive person and that helps a lot.
How often do you worry about money? Not all the time.
Do you think your taxes are too high? For people in general, yes, I think they’re high.
The median household income in America is $53,657. Politicians draw $250,000 as the line between the middle and upper classes. And the true starting point of real wealth remains a cool $1,000,000. We asked four more or less typical men, each of whom earns one of these incomes, to tell us about the lives they can afford.
$1,000,000 PER YEAR – TIM NGUYEN, 35
Location: Huntington Beach, California
Occupation: Business owner, CEO/cofounder of BeSmartee, a DIY mortgage marketplace
Family status: Married with a 9-month-old son
Homeowner? Renter? “I’m a homeowner. No mortgage.” (Price of home: $1 million.)
Do you keep a budget? We track every single penny that comes in and out of our bank account. And we give 6 percent of our money away to charity. We have a big heart for animals, children, the elderly, the underprivileged.
What’s a weekly grocery bill for you? I break it down monthly. We eat mainly at home. We spend around $1,200 a month.
One thing your family needs but can’t afford: There’s nothing that we need that we can’t afford. Anything reasonable I can afford.
One thing you want but can’t afford: The thing that keeps me up at night is wanting to retire my parents. There’s a certain dollar figure that would allow me to pay off all their debts. That’s my first goal: to retire my parents so they can be independent and just live their lives.
The last thing you bought that required serious planning: We budget our money all the time, so we’ve already been planning for everything—I could tell you exactly where all my money is going over the next five years.
Do you have credit cards? I have one credit card. It’s cash for points, so we charge everything on the card and pay it off at the end of the month.
How much debt are you carrying now? Less than 10 grand.
I’VE BEEN BROKE BEFORE. I’VE REFINANCED MY HOUSE TO PAY MY EMPLOYEES. I’VE BEEN THROUGH ALL THAT—THAT WAS ME WORRIED.
Saving for retirement? Yes. [I’ve put away] north of $5 million.
At what age would you like to retire? I’ll always be working. As far as working on a start-up, I want to be done with that in five or 10 years. But as far as working, investing in real estate, things of that nature, you can do that until you’re 90.
College plans for your kids? We set up a trust with our attorney where our kids will have money for college. But they’ll only get more than that if they achieve their milestones, such as getting a certain GPA or volunteering in the community. We want our kids to be good citizens. They can’t be spoiled brats. We want them to understand what it means to work and to earn your way to the top. We put the rules in place to help reinforce that.
Looking at your current career prospects, how much money do you think you’ll be earning in ten years’ time? My goal is to have a net worth of $150 to $200 million.
How happy are you on any given day, on a scale of one to ten? I’d say eight or nine. Lately, with the start-up, I’ve been putting in two to three hours more per day than I’d like, and that’s taking away from family time. So if I could get those two or three hours back, I’d be a happy man.
How often do you worry about money? Maybe once a week. I’ve been broke before. I’ve refinanced my house to pay my employees. I’ve been through all that—that was me worried. Now, because I’m able to forecast and plan my money better, there’s not as much worry.
How much money do you think you’d need to have the life you want? I need about 25 [million]. That includes retiring my parents, an upgraded home, and enough money to make sure my kids have funds available when they want to start their own businesses. There’s a certain amount of money you need to live the life you want. Beyond that, it’s really a game, and money is the scoreboard.
Do you think your taxes are too high? I’m happy with taxes. I had a really good year when I was 22 or 23—I made about 250 grand—and I came home and complained to my dad about it. I said, “I can’t believe I’m paying all those taxes! Half the money is gone!” And my dad said, “You should feel lucky that you live in a country where you can pay taxes”: He came from a communist-run country. Ever since that day, I never complain about my taxes.
Occupation: Real Estate Agent
Family Status: In a relationship; one son, 10 years old
Monthly rent: $2,000
Do you keep a budget? Yes, I’m very organized with it. Overall, my fixed expenses are about $7,000 a month. They include rent and about $1,000 a month for transportation, $180 a month to the cleaning lady, $200 for gas for the vehicle, and a handful of little things—$300 a month for Netflix, Pandora, Skype, subscriptions like that.
What’s a weekly grocery bill for you? I would say about $200 a week.
AT THIS POINT IN MY LIFE, IF I HAD $600,000 YEARLY INCOME, I WOULD HAVE THE LIFE THAT I WANT TO BE LIVING. BUT THEN AGAIN, WHEN I GET THERE, I’LL WANT TO BUY THE JET.
One thing your family needs but can’t afford: Nothing.
One thing you want but can’t afford: I’m a fan of watches, and there’s a Cartier that just came out that’s about $10,000. It’s not that I can’t afford it; it’s just not a priority right now.
The last thing you bought that required serious planning: I spend money traveling every year, and that’s something I put some thought into. Last December, I went to Austria, Slovenia, and Italy.
Do you have credit cards? Fifteen.
How much debt are you carrying now? $7,700 on one card, and it should be paid off by the end of the month.
Saving for retirement? I am saving, but not for retirement. I’m saving up to buy an apartment building, which will give me another stream of income. My money is all in play right now to make more money. The kind of life that I want to live when I retire is not one I have to manage by having, you know, a million dollars and 3 or 4 percent [interest]. It’s not going to happen.
At what age would you like to retire? I don’t think that I want to retire.
But say you did: At what age would you be able to retire? I want to be financially free by age 50.
College plans for your kid? No, but it’s all part of making sound investments.
Looking at your current career prospects, how much money do you think you’ll be earning per year in 10 years’ time? In 10 years’ time, I want to have $50,000 a month from apartment buildings, and another $50,000 a month from the real estate business. A million-five per year is the goal.
How often do you worry about money? Every single day. Every single minute. I always want more, and every single day I’m thinking, “What’s the next move?”
How much money do you think you’d need to have the life you want? At this point in my life, if I had $600,000 yearly income, I would have the life that I want to be living. But then again, when I get there, I’ll want to buy the jet.
How happy are you, on a scale of one to 10? I’m a good nine every day.
Do you think your taxes are too high? You know what? No, I don’t think they’re too high. I remember I had a boss about 10 years ago who said, “You guys complain about the taxes being taken out—if you don’t want them to take that much, just make less.”
$53,000 PER YEAR – MICHAEL GREENE, 48
Occupation: Concierge for a property-management group
Family status: Married with 3 children (a 21-year-old stepson and 8-year-old twin girls)
Monthly rent: $1,000
Do you keep a budget?
We do. Because of the size of our family, we have to budget at least $150 per month for BJ’s [Wholesale Club]. BJ’s is our friend; we have to buy in bulk.
What’s a weekly grocery bill for you? Probably in the range of $100 to $125.
I’D LOVE TO STAY IN BROOKLYN, BUT RIGHT NOW THE ASKING PRICE IS BETWEEN $500,000 AND $600,000.
One thing your family needs but can’t afford: A ranch-style home, four to five bedrooms, two to three bathrooms. I’d love to stay in Brooklyn, but right now the asking price is between $500,000 and $600,000.
One thing you want but can’t afford: I’ve always liked Volvos. If I could get a big, six-seater Volvo, that would be nice. In my color: navy blue. With a little TV in the back for the kids.
The last thing you bought that required serious planning? We bought bedroom sets for ourselves and our girls four years ago. Our set was between $5,000 and $6,000, with the dressers and everything. Our girls’ little beds—which they’re about to outgrow now—we got a better deal for them: around $2,000 or $2,500. I had to go into my savings a bit to get it, but we got it. We got it done.
Do you have credit cards? Just one. A Chase Visa. I’m definitely on top of my monthly payments, and I try not to go anywhere past $300 to $400 a month. That would be stretching it. And I have to thank my wife for that. She helps me stay focused.
How much debt are you carrying now? No credit-card debt, but I definitely still have a student loan from the mid-nineties that I’m trying to bang out. I think I still have seven G’s left.
Saving for retirement? Yes, I am. Our company offers a 401(k) plan, and our union offers one, so I have two separate running retirement plans. Gotta do it. I don’t know how much is in there at the moment.
At what age would you like to retire? I’m 48 now. Realistically, I’d say I wouldn’t want to go past 60. But I think I’m looking at 60 before I’ll be able to retire.
College plans for your kids? We have a college plan in place for the girls. I put away money biweekly—$75 to $100.
How much money do you think you’ll be earning per year in 10 years’ time? I’d love to say I’ll be making double if not more than double what I’m making now.
How often do you worry about money? Money is not something that I stress over.
How much money do you think you’d need to have the life you want? I’m not a greedy guy. Because of my upbringing, where we learned how to do more with less, and with the times and the economy we live in now, my family and I could be very comfortable at $200 to $250K a year. I could be very comfortable with that.
How happy are you, on a scale of one to ten? Eight.
Do you think your taxes are too high? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
THE POVERTY LINE (OR: $7 AN HOUR PLUS TIPS) – DEMETRIUS CAMPBELL, 25
Occupation: Bar-back at the Signature Lounge in the John Hancock building
Family status: Single with two daughters, 7 and 4
Monthly rent: 30 percent of income through antipoverty nonprofit Heartland Alliance
Do you keep a budget? No, but I have been working on trying to recently. I know I have to pay bills for food, for clothes, gas. It’s a lot of things that go into budgeting. It’s hard to plan for, because you never really know what you’re going to need to spend money on. And the amount of money I make varies, because I work different hours. The biggest two-week check I’ve had so far is $250.
I’M IN A LOT OF DEBT. I HAVE TRAFFIC TICKETS, HOSPITAL BILLS, OLD PHONE BILLS. I’M PRETTY SURE THAT MY DEBT FROM THE TICKETS ALONE IS ROUGHLY $3,000.
What’s a weekly grocery bill for you? In a week, about $130 to $140—that’s when I have the money to spend. I’m on food stamps, and I get $400 a month through EBT.
One thing your family needs but can’t afford: I don’t really think about stuff like that. I just try to make do with what I have. I feel like I’m just working to pay for the bills. I don’t even have time to spend with my family—to take them out to certain places.
One thing you want but can’t afford: I’d buy a newer-model car. And every time those commercials come on TV—the Pillow Pets—my kids always ask for those. It’s discouraging, having to tell them all the time that we can’t afford things.
The last thing you bought that required serious planning: I bought a TV—a Black Friday deal. It’s a Vizio 39-inch. I paid like $250. I had to work for it. I saved up.
“Do you have credit cards? No.
How much debt are you carrying now? I’m in a lot of debt. I have traffic tickets, hospital bills, old phone bills. I’m pretty sure that my debt from the tickets alone is roughly $3,000. By the time you get the money to pay the ticket, the fine has doubled. Then you get another one and can’t pay that one. Like, I’m on a boot [booted vehicles] list, and I got the money to get off the list, but my car got towed that morning, so I had to pay half that money to get it out of the impound. It just keeps going like that.”
Saving for retirement? No. Retirement is a long ways from now.
At what age would you like to retire? As young as I can and still have money. Probably late 60s.
College plans for your kids? I’ve thought about it. Once I get all my debts paid off and I’m in a better place, I’ll start putting as much money as I can toward it. I’ll take steps to put myself in better standing.
How much money do you think you’ll be earning per year in 10 years’ time? My goal is to triple what I’m making now.
How often do you worry about money? Always. Living like this is hard to do.
Does money ever keep you up at night? I can say that it has. It’s a lot of things building up—having the money when the bills are due, having a ticket, and not being able to pay it before it doubles.
How much money do you think you’d need to have the life you want? 50 to 60 thousand a year.
How happy are you, on a scale of one to 10? I’d say a seven or eight. But you might get lucky and catch me on 10 now and then.
Do you think your taxes are too high? Yes, I do.