Growing up, I've had unique experiences with socioeconomic class. For the first seven years of my life, my family and I lived in a 700-square foot apartment and received food stamps. Then, after my dad got his Phd., he became an engineer, which meant living in a two-story house in an affluent city in Texas. I've lived through class polarities. Adding to my experience, from August 2016 to September 2017, I lived in the Bay Area on $18K.
The first disclaimer I'd like to make is that I have the privilege and resources to choose this life path. This disclaimer should not be taken lightly. Although I was on my own financially, I still had social capital that translated to friends offering me free dinners at their tech companies and the ability to be on my dad's health insurance. Privilege notwithstanding, it was fascinating to have a taste of what it meant to be classified as "low-income".
After living in Seoul for a year, I moved to Berkeley in August 2016 for a job. Specifically, I moved to do a fellowship in the social sector that entailed working full-time at non-profit. The fellowship was an Americorps-funded program, but after I got accepted, I received an email stating that it had lost its Americorps status. This meant saying goodbye to health and graduate tuition benefits and hello to an ~$18,000 spendable income after taxes. Out of all places, this income didn't go far where I was living. The Bay Area is notorious for being one of the most expensive areas in the U.S. With the booming tech bubble, the housing market alone has sky-high rates. According to the Pew Research Center's income calculator (calculates before taxes), I was in the "lower income tier, along with 24% of adults" in the Bay Area.
One of the things that stood out to me from this experience is the increase of the "vulture mindset". A vulture mindset means that if I noticed that there were leftover boxed lunches after a meeting at work, I would hurriedly grab two or three for dinner that night and tomorrow's lunch. Something I've seen with my own parents is that the "vulture" mindset remains. To this day, my family makes sure sheets of paper towels can be reused and usually buys food that is on sale. In other words, the hustle is still very real. This year, I also took part in the hustle. I've easily had 75+ packs of GreeNoodle Yakisoba ($1.89/pack) and 50+ of Shin Ramen Black noodles ($2.59/pack). The healthiest? Probably not, but that was how I had to make my budget work.
My experience was eye-opening in understanding the kinds of challenges low-income, first-generation college students face. When I graduated from college in 2015, support for students from the aforementioned demographic became a burgeoning topic. It was something that intellectually made sense, but experientially I was removed from. With my own income situation from this past year, I can't even begin to imagine how challenging it must be to be a low-income and/or first-generation university student. For example, I would cook on the weekend for the week's lunch, because I could not afford to buy pre-cooked meals. Meal-prepping would easily take 4-5 hours—by no means a small chunk of time. I'm sure some of my low-income peers would also cook to save money or even forego meals. Some peers who were first-gen, low-income even had to work to send money back home. With the privileges I possess, I can never fully know what it's like to be part of this population, but to begin to understand their reality is humbling.
This past year also taught me to be meticulous and disciplined about my budget. Not doing so could mean I wouldn't be able to pay for food or shelter. I used a tool to track every single purchase I made, so I could see where my limited money was going towards:
By tracking every single purchase, I could better discern between my absolute needs versus wants.
Overall, living in the Bay Area with my income was interesting from a class perspective. There is such immense wealth and yet, such pockets of poverty. San Francisco is unfortunately home to a high homeless population. Amidst such disparity, something I wondered when seeing my peers who worked at companies with salaries that are 3 or 4 times my own and where they are fed 5 times a week is 'Where do they spend their money?' After reflecting on my own times when money was not a central concern, the conclusion I came to is... I guess if you have money, you find ways to spend it. When I wasn't on a shoestring budget, I would pay money for eating out or going to concerts without worrying about how this would impact if I could eat for the rest of the month.
Given that my future career will probably entail something along the lines of education, research, and academia, my path will not be the most lucrative compared to those of many of my Ivy-League educated peers. Despite the challenges of this year, my $18K budget not only furthered my hustle and built my resilience, but also made me realize the extent of privilege I truly possess.