3 Questions you ask me a lot, about money


I don’t usually write question and answer columns. (Although I have once or twice before.) I do read every single question that people send me. And these are three questions I’ve been answering a lot lately.

Q: Why do you pay $50,000 a year for a house manager?

A: The short answer is that I am buying a stay-at-home wife. Most people, who are at a similar spot in their career and have young kids at home, have a stay-at-home wife. (This is, of course, because I have the type of career that is dominated by men, and women without kids.)

I know you are thinking that most stay-at-home wives are taking care of kids. But almost all kids are in school most of the day. But the women are still busy. They are doing the infinite number of things required to run a household. Here is a sampling of things that I am sure that none of the startup CEOs I met with last week thought about for one second:

–What should we get my niece for her birthday?
–Who is the best teacher to request for third grade?
–Should the kids have private swimming lessons or is group okay?
–What’s the best way to train the dog not to pee on the sofa?

Those questions actually require thinking and planning, and they are constant. Running a house is like running a business, and very few people can do both well.

And then there’s grocery shopping. Do you actually enjoy it? Why not decide what your time is worth, and decide if you are actually going to grocery shop over the million other things you could do. It’s all a question of priorities, and for me, most things that are high priorities do not cost money, they cost time.

So instead of asking yourself why I’m paying $50K for household management, ask yourself why you are not paying for that, because it’s a bargain — salary.com says that a stay-at-home mom is worth $135,000 a year. Also, for those of you who have the coveted stay-at-home spouse, thank that person, because you’re getting all the work done for free, and you’re getting sex, too.

Q: Why does it cost so much to live in New York City?

A: I write a lot about how expensive it is to live in NYC because the majority of people in their twenties say they want to live there. And then, when I say something like when I was making $200,000 I was at the edge of poverty in NYC, people (who have never lived in NYC) tell me I’m crazy.

The first thing you need to understand is that visiting NYC does not give anyone the experience of what it’s like to live in NYC. For example, most New Yorkers don’t take cabs because they don’t have enough disposable income to do that, unless it’s a treat. And most New Yorkers do not live in an apartment as big as the hotel room you have at the Hilton.

Another thing you need to understand is that everything in NYC costs at least $2, because shelf space is so expensive that there is no way any store owner can stock anything he couldn’t sell for at least $2. Watch what you buy for a week–all the things that are less than $2 where you live. They are not so inexpensive in NYC.

The other thing you need to understand is that people become like the people they hang around. We know this is true for a wide range of qualities. For example, if you hang around fat people, you’ll become more fat. If you hang around successful people, you’ll be more successful. All because you start to value the things that people around you value.

So I’m going to tell you how life is in NYC, and you would think you’d never do that, but you would, if you lived there. Here are some examples:

You would eat out every meal. Really. It’s just how things are done. Home kitchens are small, takeout is cheap, and you pass a great fast-food opportunity every fifteen yards.

You will pay $300 a month to park your car somewhere that’s an hour away, just so you can still get away from the city on the weekend. You will do this because life in NYC is fun and interesting but claustrophobic. You will never afford an apartment with space, so you will substitute weekend getaways for space.

You will pay $150 for your haircut. You will tell yourself you’ll just do it once, because everyone else is. And then you will love it. Because it really does make a huge difference. And then you will get them all the time.

Q: How can I change careers without taking a pay cut?

A: You cannot change careers without taking a pay cut. It is childish to ask this question. So stop asking it. Instead, live below your means so you are not a slave to your career choice. Everyone can cut back on what they are spending. Everyone. Life is about difficult choices, if you are not willing to cut back on anything—your big house, those expensive dance lessons, fun family vacations—then you essentially are cutting back on your workplace engagement. You are saying that it’s more important to buy all the stuff you’re buying than it is to be engaged in your most rewarding work.

In most cases, really, you get more bang for your buck by switching to a career you like than staying in something else for 20 years just to live what is your fantasy of adult life. Because really, adult life is not about getting all the things that make you look stable and successful. Adult life is about constantly making difficult decisions about what you are going to give up.

So stop thinking about career changes without pay cuts. It’s impossible. Some of you will say in the comments section that you did it without a pay cut. I challenge that: I think people who make career changes without pay cuts actually do both careers at the same time in some capacity, for a while. In that case, the cost—the pay cut—is really your time: all the other things you did not do while you did both careers. (I did it that way. It’s a great way to ensure you don’t take a pay cut, but also it removes all time for friends.)

112 replies
Newer Comments »
  1. randy
    randy says:

    Yes, NYC is expensive. I have two friends who share a not-so-great west-side apartment at 110th with three other roommates. You read that correctly: FIVE single guys, a futon and two sets of bunk beds. And even with all the rent/utilities splitting and no cars, they still have to earn $40k each to maintain an average day-to-day, let’s-go-halves-on-a-pizza life.

    When I stayed with them last year (on the floor), a movie with popcorn was $20–just for me. So yah, it’s pricey there.

  2. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    Re: #2 What? It is most definitely possible for someone to live in NYC for $200K/yr, but apparently not you. Just don’t live on the UES, eat at Per Se and get your hair cut at Garren. Yes, rent will eat up a lot of your income, but come on – if you really want to live there, you can give up the car (trains go to lots great places), eat in the E Village, and get your haircut on salon training nights for a fraction of the regular cost – or free. Where there’s a will, there’s a way :)

  3. Tamar Weinberg
    Tamar Weinberg says:

    I live in NYC — I’ve lived in the heart of Manhattan for 6 years and now I live in an upscale suburban Bronx neighborhood — and I don’t nor have I ever related to question 2 at all. Sorry.

    Sure, it’s expensive to live here, but I’m not getting a $150 haircut, and even my $75 haircut at Aveda or Scott J. Salons have done nothing for me. I’ve found cheaper (and just as good, if not better) alternatives.

    I don’t eat out every night, because I don’t have money to burn on $10-25 meals (consider me much poorer than the $200k/year poverty line designation). I do, however, know that Fairway is not far away and it has a lot of food at a discount compared to Gristedes, D’Agostino, or Food Emporium. Cooking is something people do occasionally here, even with small kitchens.

    I think your article is more representative of those living the upscale lavish “Gossip Girl” (if you will) lifestyle. My peers and family who live here don’t live like kings or queens — we’re hard-working folks who’d rather save the money for family vacations, occasional fun purchases, or heck, even our kids.

  4. KateNonymous
    KateNonymous says:

    #1: Sometimes I think about what I’d do if I won the lottery. I don’t think I’d buy a bigger house or a more expensive car, but I’d definitely consider paying someone (indeed, multiple people) to do some of the things that I do on a daily basis.

    #2: Most of the New Yorkers I knew when I lived back East did not own cars, but those who did paid an awful lot for the privilege. I have one friend in Philadelphia who sold his car and gets around by bike and public transit. However, he continues to set aside the amount that he paid in car insurance; that lets him take cabs when he feels like it and rent a car when he has specific use for one, but not worry about how much those periodic expenses are affecting his daily budget.

    #3: If there’s one thing the past year or two has shown, it’s that living below your means is crucial. Even if you love your job, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get to keep it. (Where I work there haven’t been many layoffs, but we’re all facing pay cuts, which also require some choices.) And I agree that switching careers without a pay cut is rare–the question is how long it takes you to recover the salary difference and make more.

  5. Briana
    Briana says:

    I LOVE your response to number 3. Thanks for just saying it. When I left my money-making corporate career, I no longer needed to shop and spend myself into a tizzy on the weekends out of mind-numbing boredom with my work (i.e. life). “Because really, adult life is not about getting all the things that make you look stable and successful.” Yup, exactly.

  6. Patel
    Patel says:

    #2, Yes, NYC is expensive (in many cases, very) but it certainly not impossible. My wife and I do well but don’t make $200K each. However, we live off my check and bank hers. We are careful with how we spend but at the same time are able to enjoy what the city has to offer.

    There are plenty of activities in the city from dining to recreation that don’t require one to spend a lot of money. Anyone who thinks you need to be rich to live in Manhattan has either never done so or isn’t living like 99% of the population – even by NYC city standards.

    Do you need to make >100K yr to live here? It helps. Do you need to make 200K or more to live here? Definitely not.

  7. Zbar
    Zbar says:

    I have to disagree with you Penelope. I live in NYC on $26,000 after taxes and I am no where near the edge of poverty. Yes my apartment is small, yes I pay way too much given how itty bitty it is ($800 and I share with two others)but despite not making bajillions or having a trust fund I make it work. I have fun and I even manage to put money into savings. If I had 200,000 … well … let’s just say I’d make better use of it than you do.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Here are some data points:

      For all of you saying that you can live on xx amount of money in NYC. It’s true. You can. But you give up things that people in other places in the country would not dream of giving up: because those things are too expensive for you (e.g. a kitchen you can eat in). It strikes me as totally disingenuous to say that you are not giving up a lot to live in NYC. Here is a post on that (which I link to above as well)


      And something else: I was living on $200,000 in NYC with two kids and a husband. In Brooklyn, in a rent-controlled apartment that was 500 square feet. So I confess to be indignant that you think it was lavish.

      In order to live in a decent school district in NYC you need to live in an expensive neighborhood. I know that people will argue with me, but it’s a data point.

      Another data point you probably wouldn’t think of: Two small kids on the subway. You have to carry one kid, and the stroller, down the stairs and up the stairs. Every time you want to go anywhere. Or pay for cabs to go everywhere with the kids. Which would mean about $80 a day in added expense.

      There are a million small data points about NYC. The biggest one, maybe, is that living on your own, and sleeping on a fouton is fine, til you have kids. Most people who leave NYC do it after they have kids. I would love to hear from the people with two small kids who think $200,000 is a lavish live in NYC.


      • prklypr
        prklypr says:

        Your points are valid, Penelope. You just need to make it clearer in your post that you are talking about a family of 4, not an individaul person, living in NYC on 200K/yr. But you still do not need to spend $150 on a haircut :)
        PS Futon is the correct spelling

      • Tamar Weinberg
        Tamar Weinberg says:

        I do have a family. I’ve one kid so far, but I wouldn’t be surprised to still be living here with more. I apologize if I offended you, but the “lavish” comment is not so much about living in a 500sq ft apartment in Brooklyn but more about the option to get the $150 haircut or get takeout every single meal. I don’t eat out, I barely do takeout (though if I do, I try to make it last for several days/meals, since while you say it’s “cheap,” it’s just not cheap enough), and I don’t really know that many people who do that either. But if I had the money and the option to either live a nice life in a more spacious apartment over fashion designer jeans and dinner at a Zagat-rated (and expensive) restaurant, I’d go with nice digs.

        I’d rather comparison shop and make a smarter choice that isn’t as expensive. If that means Ramen noodles, cereal for dinner (oh yeah, I do that a lot) or the smarter family choice, home-cooked meals with lots of produce, I’ll opt for those instead of choosing the easy way or the more expensive options that may not be as good just because they’re so costly.

        You’re right though. We are giving up a lot of things to live here. However, your article reads like everyone will pay $300 for parking across town and $150 to get a nice little blow-dry. I beg to differ.

      • Deb
        Deb says:

        For a moment I misread your first sentence as “…people in other countries would not dream of giving up…”. And it made perfect sense to me. I had a friend over in NY who just came back to India, and his lifestlye made me squirm. It was galling to learn that many of the things we take for granted here – help with everything (and no, we’re not talking exploitative wages here), food, clothing, haircut, transport – are so much more expensive in NY on a percentage-of-pay basis. The only thing that seems extra is the social security. So you’re probably right, it’s about the choices we make.

      • underfunded heiress
        underfunded heiress says:

        Penelope- you are totally correct. I have friends that live in NYC and they can afford it (not lavish btw) but they are single girls in their early 30’s with a ok career soo..(not too mention dates that pay for dinner and drinks).

      • Dave
        Dave says:

        I went to graduate school at NYU, I lived on $40,000 per year for two years from student loans. I had a family of three. It was pretty expensive but I think Penelope might be exaggerating somewhat. Forget about the people who want to live there and remember the 8 million who actually do. Many have no choice, they grew up there and they have nowhere else to go but many simply find the benefits out weight the costs. As a friend put it “It’s pretty exciting to live in the center of the world”. I felt the same way.

        Also, regarding the schooling data point – shouldn’t we be homeschooling? Secondly, don’t you get to pick the school you go to in NY? I thought it was an open system where you get to go to any school you want? So that kids from poor neighborhoods can go to better schools.

    • Nat
      Nat says:

      You live in NYC on 26,000?
      do you have a rent-controlled apartment due to your level of income?
      if so, other people are paying for your privilege of living in NYC, b.c. rent control is not free and fair.

      imho, ultra high net worth individuals and poor people can “make” it in NYC, – first category can afford to pay for services and the second live on hand-outs.
      middle-class can’t do this.

    • DesertPoor
      DesertPoor says:

      Wow Zbar, I’m really curious to know what your other expenses are and the quality of your apartment complex! I’m guessing you don’t own a car …

      I lived in San Diego on about the same as you do and I was lucky to find a studio for $800 and as it turned out I couldn’t even afford that! Of course, in California a car is a must, and between car payments, insurance, and gas that’s a good $400/mo right there.

      And I agree with the comment above yours. Once you hit 30, you really don’t want to deal with roommates anymore. It seems impossible when you’re a single person who only brings home 2,000 or so a month after taxes… My idea of of “all the things that make you look stable and successful” … a small studio to my lonesome self where I don’t have to worry about roommates moving in and out or not paying the rent. That’s my modest, seemingly unattainable piece of the american dream… But alas, I have college loans to pay…….

  8. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Tell those 20-somethings to live in Brooklyn rather than Manhattan! I think it’s cooler anyway, and it’s certainly cheaper. You don’t miss out on the NYC lifestyle in Brooklyn, as long as you are near the East River, not out in the outer borough (Brooklyn’s huge).

  9. guinness416
    guinness416 says:

    Don’t like to pile on, but I’d hate to think anyone who reads your answer to #2 would defer moving to New Yawk if they really want to. I lived there for seven years and at my highest earned about half your salary – for many years I earned significantly less. We paid zero for parking and not too much for rent because we lived in LIC (one subway stop on the 7 from the east side). And needless to say I’ve never had a $150 haircut. I guess for some daft people Queens (or Brooklyn or the Bronx) “isn’t NYC” but we had the same amenities, hung out with the same people and worked the same jobs as if we lived in Manhattan. I miss NY every day, and mostly only moved to Toronto due to not having a green card.

  10. Matthew | Polaris Rising
    Matthew | Polaris Rising says:

    Brooklyn is much better when it comes to rent. And the positive thing with NYC is the transit. So you can live in the nearby suburbs and it’s not bad at all.

    I live on the west coast. Now that’s livable. Vancouver is my home now – though Portland is also absolutely wonderful. It’s one of the great livable cities in the US. Unlike Europe, there’s not that much infrastructure for when oil prices will explode.

  11. Lance
    Lance says:

    I switched careers last year and upgraded my salary by a few thou, but I it did specifically because my first career had a terrible financial ceiling. What I gave up was a career doing an activity I’m completely passionate about (coaching) that had gone off the rails in terms of hours worked (too many) and financial reward (none). I switched to web development, which I’m NOT passionate about but pays way way better then longer I’m in it. My strategy is to be full-time freelancer within 18 months.

    I can’t afford a house manager but I do recommend a cleaning lady. I have one that shows up every 2 weeks and does the whole house. Costs $60.

    • Caitlin
      Caitlin says:

      Yes, question 3 really depends in part on how much you can leverage your existing skills plus the median pay in that industry. I would expect to get a pay rise if I switched from journalism to PR but I’d be giving up a lot of things I value.

  12. Hope
    Hope says:

    I switched careers from journalism to PR and made more money. Then I switched from PR to fund raising and made even more money.

    This will make Penelope happy, though — even though I made more money each time, I gave up authority. I’m still working to get back the level of power I had when I was a magazine editor in 2000.

  13. P.A.
    P.A. says:

    SO TRUE, all of your 3 answers.

    I’m married and don’t have kids, but if I did, I’d be doing the exact same thing, hiring a “SAHM” even if it cost 50,000. Only women who work on demanding jobs can understand how good a deal this is.

    I’ve lived in NYC for the past 4 years and completely agree with your take (only difference is I travel to Brazil a lot and cut my hair there, getting questions from strangers on the subway about my stylist. He is great and cost $40 only, but you’d have to travel to Rio de Janeiro to have him :-).

  14. Steve
    Steve says:

    I’ve been a Stay At Home Dad for the last 8 1/2 years with two boys. Most people have a hard time believing that I chose to Stay At Home.

    I’m lucky because my wife is awesome and loves her job. I’ve never loved my job, liked it sure but never loved it. So I offered to Stay Home so that the kids would be looked after by one of us and so that my wife can continue in the job that she loves.

    From time to time I consult and give people advice and strategies for how to do the most with their blog, website etc but that’s always secondary. I’ve changed diapers for years,planned the birthday parties, been active in the local Moms Club, volunteer in the classrooms, built websites for my kids teachers, lead in PTA and so much more. While my wife appreciates it, most of society doesn’t. That’s okay I don’t do it for other people I do it for my kids and our family.

    I really appreciate you giving props to the Spouses who Stay Home and look after the kids and the “life” part. To often we get platitudes but not sincerity. Thanks for publicly noticing what us Stay At Homes do.

  15. Renee
    Renee says:

    I love this post… saved me a lot of hassle of having to move to NYC, realize I hate it and move back where I can live in my 10 year old 2,300 sq foot house for $149,000. What a flippin bargain and a time-saver!! I love your blog Penelope and really enjoy reading your posts; you tell us what other people won’t.

    I have a coworker who moved to NYC and “loves it” although her mom pays her rent and sends her money. Anyone she knows who thinks she is doing it on her own and thinks it’s “easy” would also need to know about momma’s sponsorship to get the whole story. But you, you leave out nothing and for that you rock!

  16. david
    david says:

    I have always believed that it is worth taking a step backwards in salary to get on a faster track or even just to do something else. In the end, I have always made it either up to but mostly past where I was when I made the change.

    In many ways one has to evaluate the new situation in its entirety, including potential and not just the salary trade downs immediately – that is the road to being enslaved by your current position or career

  17. boots
    boots says:

    AMEN about New York being absurdly expensive. My husband and I moved to Texas (from NYC) a year ago and consistently find ourselves surprised to have quite a bit of money left over at the end of each paycheck without even consciously trying to save. We were barely making it from paycheck to paycheck in New York, and we made about $105K between us and lived in an outer borough.

  18. Wack
    Wack says:

    You were on the “edge of poverty” because of your $150 haircuts… nice. You seriously need a reality check and/or to look up the word “poverty” in a dictionary.

    I wish there was a nicer way to say this but… you disgust me.

  19. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    Re: #2, I agree. Yes, the specifics can vary, but it is impossible to live a life “equal” to the one I lived in other cities (on ~$45K) in NYC for less than $100K. Sure, you can survive on whatever amount of money you feel is appropriate, but in terms of quality of life, I make twice as much in NYC as I did in other locales, yet I live significantly less richly. I got rid of the car, shop less, eat out less and cut out nearly all personal care services sans a $50 haircut. I don’t live large by any stretch of the imagination. That’s not to say I feel I am poor, I do fine and sock away some money, but the point is that your dollar does not stretch far here, particularly when compared to the same purchases in another city.

  20. Kate
    Kate says:

    @Lauren –
    I completely agree! I moved to NYC from another city as well and it is an understatement that a dollar does not stretch as far.

    From the Drum Major Institute:
    A family of four in the five boroughs is considered middle class with a median income of $105,000, and the figure for a single is $67,500. Link here:

    You have to spend a lot of money to enjoy the conveniences that people in other parts of the country can easily do. After a late night, I can’t get in my car and drive home- I have to take a cab or the subway (not always the safest option at certain times of the night). If I buy anything large, I have to have it delivered for a fee. You can’t buy in bulk if you have to carry your groceries home, etc.

    And Brooklyn is not less expensive than Manhattan. I just moved to Hoboken, NJ (with a roommate) to enjoy a more reasonable lifestyle- like grocery shopping at a place with wide aisles!

    And to chime in on the haircut: $150 is not expensive. I have tried SO MANY salons – including the Aveda student school, a reasonably priced UES salon, Bumble and Bumble, Jeffrey Stein, Murray Hill cheap salon etc. But I’ve found that a good cut can grow out a little bit but retain its shape enough to have it done less frequently than a cheaper cut by a less experienced stylist who you have to visit frequently to upkeep.

  21. Karl Staib - Work Happy Now
    Karl Staib - Work Happy Now says:

    I’m working on transitioning my career. Every job is a step back professionally and in pay. The sooner a person realizes this and goes for it the more likely they can build back to their previous wage.

    A career is so much more than money. A career should be about “work worth doing” because if you hate what you do then you’ll hate your life.

  22. Cynthia Morris
    Cynthia Morris says:

    I love that you recognize that running a household is in itself a whole other job. No one seems to notice that someone maintaining the home and the kids’ schedules takes a lot of time.
    I once read that when you total all the jobs a person taking care of the home and kids does, (chef, chauffeur, financial manager, etc) the salary totals $600,000 +++.
    Seems totally worth it to pay $50,000. I would pay for someone to do all the stuff I don’t want to do, and I don’t even have children.

    • Diana
      Diana says:

      Wait a minute… are you saying that CEO’s do worry about home matters but don’t need house managers because they use assistants at their company to do these tasks for them? That’s what I observed at my job too.

      “men compartmentalize and are more efficient at using all of the help that is available to them” Not true!

      They may not be paying for household help but their company is!

      “prioritizing and proper delegation” is laughable. They are using company time and resources. If a woman tried that she’d probably be fired. You are an admin asst. I take it your company knows you handled Halloween costumes for the big guy on the company’s dime? No wonder everything costs so much. We are all subsidizing the top earners!!

      • Editormum
        Editormum says:

        Diana: yes, I do both personal and business tasks for my bosses. All three. Since they are the owners of the company, yes, the company knows. And no, I don’t think a woman who did it would be fired. I’ve also done non-business related tasks for one of the VPs (she is not an owner), and my bosses knew and had no issues with it.

        I have worked in this position more than five years, so it’s reasonable to expect that a few “odd jobs” would crop up in the course of approximately 1185 work-days. And my bosses ASK — an important point. “Would you mind returning this costume after you take your lunch break” is a whole lot different than shoving it across the desk and saying “here; return this.” It’s the attitude that accompanies the requests that makes me feel valued rather than exploited.

        In the case of the anniversary planning … my boss specifically said that he had seen the event coordinating I’d done for the company and knew that it would be done right if he entrusted it to me. (Flattery will get you everywhere!)

        I think it’s also worth pointing out that a lot of high-level executives, men and women, work non-standard hours. It’s not unusual for my boss to come in at 0900 after meeting a client at 0630 for a business breakfast. Or to still be at the office at 1900, two hours after I’ve gone home. Or to attend a business function that starts at 1800 and lasts until 2300 or later. Or to work through lunch to free himself to attend his son’s baseball game at 1530.

        And it’s efficient delegation and prioritizing that makes his life run smoothly. (Though I must acknowledge that in a different company, with a different hierarchy, he might not be able to do things the way he does now.)

    • DesertPoor
      DesertPoor says:

      How can I apply for Household Manager? Seriously. I need a job and it already pays more than my last job.

  23. Editormum
    Editormum says:

    PT, you need a reality check big-time. Your answers to questions 1 and 2 just reek of complete disengagement with the reality that MOST of us live. The only thinkg I agree with is your answer to number 3. In that case, you nailed it.

    So: Reality Check. I am a single mother with two kids. My total income is less than $50K. So tell me, how in the hell am I supposed to pay $50K a year for a house manager? (And I could sure use one, believe me.) I DO pay $80 a month for a cleaning lady, and I pay about $100 a month to local teens to mow my lawn. Would I LIKE to contract out some of the other stuff (laundry, errands, taxes, etc.)? Sure, I’d love to. But I can’t afford to.

    I don’t get $150 haircuts, either. (I did, once. It wasn’t worth it. It didn’t look as good as the $10 one I got at the local cosmetology school.) I do splurge on my haircuts. I pay $60 twice a year. (In between cuts, I grow my hair long. When I cut it, I send it to Locks of Love.) I splurge ONLY because I adore my stylist; he knows how to compensate for my inability to use hair styling products (allergies) and my erratic trim schedule.

    If it was going to cost me $300 to garage my car so I could get away on weekends, I would sell the car and rent when I wanted to get away. It would be cheaper.

    And you don’t need a big kitchen to fix quality, nutritious meals on a small budget. So, no, I would NOT be eating out every meal.

    Fact is, you could have lived a lot less expensively in NY than you did. You just chose not to.

    Oh, and your list about what CEOs didn’t think about? I bet you’d be surprised. The difference is that men compartmentalize and are more efficient at using all of the help that is available to them. As an administrative assistant, I’ve been known to return rented Hallowe’en costumes, arrange an entire anniversary celebration (complete with flowers, hotel and dinner reservations, and tickets to the theatre), make appointments for parent-teacher conferences, and “buy something in the $20 to $40 range” for the CEO’s son to give as a birthday gift. It’s really more about prioritizing and proper delegation than anything else.

    • Missa
      Missa says:

      Regarding your last point, weren’t you then acting as that CEO’s house manager rather than his admin? Sure PT could hire a $50k exec assistant and make them run errands for her like lots of CEOs do, but I’m sure she’s better off with an employee that knows their job is that of “house manager” versus and employee who thinks they’re an administrative assistant hoping for advancement within the company only to be relegated to household duties unrelated to the business.

      • Editormum
        Editormum says:

        @Missa: I see what you are saying, but the answer is No. I was still the administrative assistant. I just fit those particular jobs into my regular duties of answering calls, greeting guests, handling correspondence, preparing marketing presentations, filing, etc. All job descriptions include the catch-all “and other duties as assigned/required.” Those were just a few “other duties” that cropped up — they didn’t happen often, and they were actually fun to do … a change of pace and focus is always nice!

        My point really was that, contrary to PT’s assertion in this post, the CEOs I have worked for DO think about these kinds of things.

  24. Nat
    Nat says:

    I very much agree with Penelope on #2.

    My husband and I tried living in NYC for a year, hated it, moved to NJ, still hated it and have finally moved back to Midwest. We both had good Wall Street jobs, and both lost them due to the crisis.

    We were only staying in NYC for the $$$ we were making (we were calling our i-banking jobs “golden handcuffs”, and we were very much surprised at our low standard of living as compared to what we used to have in Midwest.

    Those people who “love NYC” tend to be fresh off-the-boat foreigners who haven’t seen the rest of our great country.

  25. Sara
    Sara says:

    #3 – well that’s easy, change careers into a higher paying one ?!?!?!

    And it’s not even close to being impossible – I doubled my income when I switched careers.

  26. The Frugal New Yorker
    The Frugal New Yorker says:

    Honey, it does not take over $200K to get by in NYC. Believe me, I know–that’s what my blog is all about. I earn $45K and I live very comfortably, take frequent vacations, and put aside plenty for savings and retirement.

    Most New Yorkers do not eat out every meal. Most New Yorkers do not pay $300 for parking, because most New Yorkers don’t have a car–that’s what Metro-North is for. Most New Yorkers don’t pay $150 for a haircut, although I confess I’m guilty of that particular indulgence. (it really does make a difference!)

    I don’t deny that NYC is expensive. But you are talking about a very small segment of the population–professionals whose lives revolve around their careers–and a very small, foolish portion of that segment–those who don’t learn the skills that you now pay a housekeeper to provide. With a little savvy and effort, you can get by in NYC just fine on a low salary. Now, as for buying a home here, that’s a totally different question!

  27. The Frugal New Yorker
    The Frugal New Yorker says:

    Sorry to double-post, but I’ve been reading some of the comments above, including your responses, Penelope.

    First, let me clarify that I can only speak to single New Yorkers. I understand that it’s a lot more expensive for families, and I don’t pretend to know what’s reasonable for them. But as for everyone else…

    I just don’t understand what the NYer commenters spend their money on. How can you say that a single person earning less than $67K is not in the middle class?

    To say that living in NYC you have to give up what others are used to is disingenuous. Yes, you have to take the subway late at night or shell out for a cab–but you also avoid the obesity rates that the rest of our car-dependent country suffers. Yes, you have to forgo an eat-in kitchen–so what? Is that such a big deal? There are trade-offs no matter where you live.

    I have to wonder if our expectations aren’t just too high. Eat-in kitchens, indeed.

    PS– To be fair, Penelope, I have very little experience of the REST of the country, so maybe my expectations are just too low. Are there really places that sell things for less than $2? ;-)

  28. Meg
    Meg says:

    “I have to wonder if our expectations aren’t just too high. Eat-in kitchens, indeed.”

    This comment makes me lol. Yeah. Most people do like to eat a meal, sitting in a chair, at a table. Maybe even a fork, spoon and glass. (Crazy, I know!!!)

    People who stay in New York really drink the Kool-Aid to believe that eating a meal set at a simple table in your own home is a needless luxury. People who haven’t lived in New York have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea that having dinner like a normal human being is one of the things you’d have to give up.

    When I lived in New York, I ate most of my at home meals standing up over the sink. Or sitting on my sofa/bed. No room for a table in my tiny apartment, you see. That’s no way to live, man. No way to live at all.

    • The Frugal New Yorker
      The Frugal New Yorker says:

      Wow, just to clarify, I didn't mean that you shouldn't have anywhere to eat. I thought that's what dining rooms were for! Most NY apartments have a section off of the kitchen or living room to use as a dining area, or even proper, separate rooms.

      • dc
        dc says:

        “I have to wonder if our expectations aren’t just too high. Eat-in kitchens, indeed….Most NY apartments have a section off of the kitchen or living room to use as a dining area, or even proper, separate rooms.”

        Perhaps in your experience that has been the case, but in mine, it certainly has not. Less than 10% of the NYC apartments I’ve been in have had such an amenity. Recently, most places I’ve lived I’ve had to eat in the living room, where usually we’ve set up a corner with a small table. Or I would eat on the couch. Or at the kitchen counter. One of the things that sold me on my current apartment was that it had an eat-in kitchen – lucky yes, but not nearly what I would call extravagant or a high expectation. My mother actually laughed when I bragged about it, her thought was “OF COURSE there is room for a table, it would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise” – but that’s how life is here. I think it depends on what you are used to.

  29. linda Grant
    linda Grant says:

    I can not figure out why you continue to beat NYC.
    I am a single mother by choice and have never made $200,000. I Own my own apt, in Manhattan (ok its small) in a good neighborhood in a good public school zone, don’t get $200 haircuts, don’t eat do takeout everyday and thats before my daughter came along and don’t have a car (why do you think zipcar was invented?)
    Plus I know plenty of people who live here and make way less than $200K, save $$ and a happy life.

    I love NYC and I came from the suburbs and I have thought about moving for one second and still NYC is for me. Let’s face it, not everyone is cut out for NYC.

    on my blog, I wrote 10 reasons why NYC is great for single moms. Check it out.


  30. Heather
    Heather says:

    I wish I could have a house manager. I think it’s such a great idea. If I had a job where I had to spend more time working I would definitely need it.

  31. Kay Lorraine
    Kay Lorraine says:

    I win! Although I have no disagreement with anything that you have said in this article, according to the Cost of Living Wizard at Salary.Com it is even MORE expensive overall to live in Honolulu than it is NYC. This is because although the cost of living in Honolulu is 6.7% lower than in NYC, we in Hawaii have a deep and rich history of devaluing our people's work (particularly in areas of creativity, such as writing – €“ you should appreciate that). Thus, employers in Honolulu typically pay 10.1% LESS overall than the same type of job in the same type of company would pay in NYC. So if you think it is tough to make ends meet in your neck of the woods, try my life. Also – €“ data point – €“ no matter where you live, a $150 haircut is way better than a haircut at Fantastic Sams.

  32. Rich
    Rich says:

    Nice post P

    I like your response to the changing careers question. My wife and I moved around the country chasing corporate jobs and promotions for 12 years. She stayed at home with our kids (her dream job) while I went to work. This made my career choices very limited as the provider for our family. We met a lot of people who were very flexible with their career paths…taking 10-20k pay cuts for lateral positions that they felt would lead somewhere better. These people had a number of characteristics that worked in their favor:
    1. Had a spouse that worked outside of the home
    2. Lived in close proximity to family for free daycare
    3. Had very good control over their spending (driving older cars and brown bagging lunches)
    4. They were single, and rented their home/apartment

    The bottom line was that these people lived a lifestyle and had a support network that allowed them to be flexible. I would suggest to anyone thinking about changing careers and the inevitable pay cut, that you position your lifestyle accordingly first.

  33. Brian Kurth
    Brian Kurth says:

    Here! Here! Especially to Question #3.

    Penelope, I recently had a client from NYC (see Question #2 — It IS expensive — which is why I have chosen to “bounce” between my beloved NYC and Portland, OR. Get best of both worlds from work and lifestyle perspectives at a fraction of the cost…but I digress) who had been laid off this past fall. He had worked on Wall Street. In our first career consulting discussion he said, “You need to help me land a new career in a different industry where I am making at least what I was last making — $500,000.”

    We wrapped up the call. I thought about it for a nanosecond. I then immediately credited his credit card for the career consulting sessions he had purchased. I then called him to inform him I did so. His reaction: “What, you’re not up for the challenge and my money’s not good?” No, it’s not that, I told him. Simply, there was no way I was going to commit to such a thing. To make a career transition, one MUST be prepared to make sacrifices…including monetary. I told him that if HE is not up for THAT challenge, then I’m not his career consultant. So, to date, in five years, he goes down as the only the third client I have fired.

    Here, Here to your #3!

    Brian Kurth

  34. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    When it comes to money, the choices, lifestyle, location and needs obviously vary by individual. I thought I was frugal until one day a friend was complaining about grocery cost. He was having a hard time eating on less than $100 a month. I thought: man, he should write a book. I make all my own meals and lunches and spend $160. As for NYC, which I have been to maybe thirty times, I am always been surprised how many of my clients live there and call me for advice on what to do in NYC because they are unfamiliar with many of the things I have mentioned to them in the past. Maybe that is because we always like to graze in the “other” pasture, so when I go I am looking to spend money on doing things they are denying themselves to save money to come visit where I live. I was surprised by the quality and cost of fruit and vegetables in NYC at the grocery stores in the west side. As far as what a stay at home wife is worth: priceless.

  35. Lar Van Der Jagt
    Lar Van Der Jagt says:

    I agree with the other comments defending frugality in NYC and have lived decently in Brooklyn for just over 2 years on less than 75K total. I would recommended for anybody interested in living in one of the best cities in the world. Not only that but we the hub of the east coast & our three international airports can get you anywhere in the world, many places which will enable you to continue your travels without a vehicle. Shedding the dependence on a car is one of the main reasons I moved hear & I have found it extremely liberating. Paying 300$/month to store a car is really missing out on one of the best benefits of living in NYC.

    That being said, living like this does put certain restrictions on you. If you’re trying to start your own business, living in NYC & trying to maintain a decent quality of life makes that very difficult. So I’ve been making plans to relocate to someplace equally inspiring but in a different way. The first step is Costa Rica. You can read about my plan on my blog post Destination Bootstrapping in Costa Rica.

  36. Kapture
    Kapture says:

    Poor may be hyperbole, but happiness is a state of mind. So really, can the moral outrage.

    From ’93 to ’04 I lived in New York. I started on less than 30 K, saved nothing between rent and paying back student loans, and lived in a crappy apartment. Not tenement crappy, but close.

    At the end, my wife and I made between 60 K and 120 K depending. The apartment in Brooklyn was much better, but I paid in commute time and standing on the subway on mornings when it was busy.

    We got out before we had to pay for (very expensive) private school. I never owned a car, and it made vacations problematical, because rentals could get expensive. No expensive haircuts, though I wasn’t in an image obsessed profession. Moderate eating out. You aren’t living in New York unless you eat out. Grocery shopping was expensive, and worse, time consuming. So was laundry and any other chore that required you to leave your apartment.

    During none of that time did I think I was poor. However, I did move to the midwest to improve the quality of my life (and as an aside, although I did make a little more money, I lost three weeks of paid vacation).

    New York can be a great place to live (see eating out, above). But it’s not a moral failing to want to live fully in the middle class. Middle class in New York (on the coasts?) means sums that people in the midwest define as well off.

  37. Dave
    Dave says:

    The going rate for your house manager of $50k/yr doesn’t reconcile with the $135k/yr SAHM figure. If the difference in service level between your house manager and a SAHM doesn’t equate to $85k/yr, then the SAHM figure is bogus, no?

    • KateNonymous
      KateNonymous says:

      She’s also got a nanny and a housekeeping service, if memory serves, so multiple people are doing the work that would fall into the SAHM salary.

  38. DJ
    DJ says:

    I have lived in the Midwest, various cities and towns in New England, Central New York state and New York City. Here is my take:

    For single people, there is no greater place in the world to live than NYC. Just about every post above has mentioned the trade-offs. Well, there is what you get in those trades as well as what you give up. And from my perspective, what I got living in NYC as a single making @ $50k (seven years ago) was worth EVERYTHING I gave up (essentially, space and the ability to save).

    Long-term, especially with kids, I believe living in NYC is unsustainable. I met my wife in the city, but we moved before we had kids. Even as an intellectual exercise, it was apparent we would be hard pressed to find a place to live with sufficient space for the amount we could afford.

    That doesn’t mean I would trade a second of my experience there. Everything about the city is “more.” You can do more, you get more, you pay more, you feel more. Everyone should give it a try.

    All that being said, I can’t imagine having a family there.

  39. Anna
    Anna says:

    You know, I was going to go into my own history of growing up in New York (Brooklyn, specifically), how my parents made an incredibly small fraction of what you made in New York, how I went to a great private school and wanted for nothing.

    But really, Penelope, nothing will change your mind about NYC. It’s really sad. You’re discouraging people from moving to a city where they could potentially be very happy and successful.

    Also–I’m sure there are plenty of people living in NYC who would love to make $200,000 a year and certainly wouldn’t consider it living “at the edge of poverty”.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Anna, I write a lot about how New York is the most interesting place to live. I linked to it. Click the links up there. I lived in NYC for too long a time to think that NYC is a good/bad thing. It’s much more complicated than that. As is living in any place in the whole world…


  40. Deanna
    Deanna says:

    Re. your #1 Q&A, while I do not disagree that it’s great you have a house manager if you can afford it, once again you are generalizing and being patronizing by implying that the CEOs you meet with don’t have to think about things like swimming lessons. Despite what you obviously think, a lot of parents with high-end jobs do still put thought into what’s best for their children, even if they have a stay-at-home spouse. It really appears in many of your posts that you have this martyr complex “Because I’m a mom, I have to think of all these things. If I were a man, I’d have a wife to do it all…. poor me.” “My nanny and ex-husband were both gone and I had to have the kids for a whole day. How boring.” On and on it goes.

  41. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    The reality that house management is a job in itself explains, of course, why I feel like I have at least four “jobs” and do none of them excellently.

    My own business remains smaller than it could because it takes time to train others sufficiently for us to take on more clients and serve them with high quality.

    Five children, homeschooling half time. Enough said there.

    Managing my husband’s practice from the business side.

    Managing the “house” with all the myriad details (plus we’re remodeling too).

    Wealth management integrates with all of these — because you have to plan for wealth management way before you have wealth, in order to keep more of what you earn. Tax planning (including various retirement plans), business structure choices (and relationships between businesses), where to invest the money saved through these means, incredible amounts of paperwork for state and federal tax agencies, business and home loans for planning and asset protection, insurances up the wazoo. . . This alone is a full time job. Because the deadlines are non-negotiable and the consequences to wealth so huge, this one “job” really dictates the timing of the rest of my “jobs”.

    Seriously, a house manager would be WONDERFUL, and way worth the money when it frees up enough time for you to make even more money than you are spending. However, most people can get it cheaper than $50k. Just look for a personal assistant, and you can get a really good one, depending on where you live, for $15 an hour or less, and you probably don’t really need them full time, since other pieces will be delegated to others (like a housekeeper, etc.)

  42. sifi
    sifi says:

    I always enjoy the fray on here. I lived in NYC for a minute in the 80’s and yes, it is very expensive. I have also lived in LA and now I live just outside SF. (It is all relative. You want expensive? For me that is London and Tokyo.)
    Regarding haircuts: Many years ago, I decided to treat myself to a great haircut. I had Christophe himself cut my hair and it was worth every cent of the $250 (1995) dollars! It was the best haircut I have ever had, hands down. Like wearing a piece of fine art. And Cristophe himself was wonderful. Did I return? No. But I always got good hair cuts (now I am bald so don’t need them..LOL) and always wear nice glasses.

  43. Tzipporah
    Tzipporah says:

    Can’t speak to the NYC issues, but your conception of what people may be “giving up” assumes they have:
    a) health
    b) vacation time
    c) a house they own

    For many of us, especially those who get hit early on with chronic illness, disability, or a death in the family, it’s more of a choice between giving up food or rent.

    Just sayin’

  44. Jill
    Jill says:

    I live in New York, in a not so safe area of Washington Heights, and I LOVE it. I don’t spend very much money personally, but it is because I have to sacrifice doing things that I wouldn’t think twice about doing if I lived in the suburbs. The fast food restaurants don’t even have legitimate dollar menus.

    The part that makes it hard is when you have wealthier friends and going to restaurants, getting weekly manicures/pedicures and attending Broadway shows regularly is part of their normal lifestyle. It is tempting to spend too much money just to have a “normal” social life.

    I still think it’s worth it because it is so easy to find free things to do and the people that you meet are so interesting. That being said, unless I suddenly become a millionaire, I would never have kids here because I don’t mind giving up comforts, but I wouldn’t want them to have to.

  45. Nicole
    Nicole says:


    Been in NYC seven years and managed to save/pay off over $20k in debt while making less than 45K, in less that 2 years.

    Anything is possible. STILL…

    You can’t have space, a car, great vacations, nice clothes, takeout, kids, live in the best neighborhood, gym memberships, backyard and pets (etc, etc) without making amazing money in this city.

    Having come from the country I know what you can get that elsewhere.

    Then again if you want to be openly trans-gendered, you may be willing to trade a backyard for downtown NY.

    I think that’s your point.

  46. Colleen Grams
    Colleen Grams says:

    It’s funny. A very successful business woman recommended your blog to me, and the day that came here to read it this post was up. Years before, this same woman used to joke that because she was a single mom she wasn’t searching for a husband, but instead she needed a stay-at-home mom to help with the kids and house so she could continue her career. She ended up finding a husband and hiring a nanny.

  47. Mimi
    Mimi says:

    I lived in NYC right out of college in 1993. My first eye-opening experience regarding the cost of living (aside from the rent) was using a “free box of cereal” coupon at the store. It was only free “up to” a certain amount. I still had to pay for the cereal. The “free box.”

    Luckily, I lived near Rupert’s restaurant, where you could get a full meal for $3.95. I went with a date once who exclaimed that it was “cheaper than McDonald’s!”

    Traveling on buses and subways and watching moms with kids, I knew I could not ever live in NYC with children unless I could afford all the nice amenities you mention – the ones the rest of the world takes for granted. Like, being in your OWN CAR when your 2-year old decides to have a tantrum. Watching one mom on a crowded uptown bus with her two kids (one having said tantrum) on a rainy day – the judging eyes of everyone jockeying for a seat on her (as her kid laid down on the wet bus floor) – THAT did it for me!

    Do people on moderate incomes manage? Sure they can, but it is a lifestyle choice that (I think) results in a personality type New Yorkers are known for. It’s a tough life.

    • boots
      boots says:

      “…it is a lifestyle choice that (I think) results in a personality type New Yorkers are known for.”

      This is a great point! I think the personality type also comes from being crammed into a small area with millions of other people, but the money thing is a big deal.

Newer Comments »

Comments are closed.