College Connect: Piecing together a budget in on of America’s largest, most lavish cities

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I moved to Miami about a week ago to take an internship at the Miami Herald. As a Missouri native and cold-weather aficionado, the South is largely a strange and foreign land to me, so I fully expected to melt into a pool of oil within 48 hours of entering Floridian territory. That, fortunately, has not been the case. And I’m living just fine in the sun with extra dark sunglasses and a constant protective coating of SPF 30. Climate aside, there is one aspect of this city that has left me reeling with worry—and learning to grasp it will teach me a hard, albeit necessary, life lesson.

The other night I found myself at a nightclub where one of my more favorite musicians was scheduled to play. Twenty-one years old and noticeably gawky in unfamiliar social situations, I ambled over to the bar to buy a beer. I asked for a Stella Artois—a lager beer brewed in Leuven, Belgium and owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer. Compared to the artisan Chimay it was shelved with, the Stella wasn’t the fanciest beer on the menu, and was perhaps one of the more generic options. After popping the cap off, the bartender handed it to me on a napkin and said, “$10, honey.”

I kind of stared at her blankly until my eyes glazed over, and then found myself reaching into my pocket and pulling out the only $10 bill I brought with me. I handed it to her and walked away, feeling like a deflated blow-up Homer Simpson yard fixture. Back in Columbia and St. Louis, I used to spend $10 a week on coffee. Ten dollars could get me roughly two meals at Subway; a few gallons of gas; 10 cans of soda; maybe one of those neon tank tops that have “MIAMI” obnoxiously stamped across the front in large, black block letters. All those wonderful possibilities for my $10 bill, and I squandered it on a beer that I don’t even really like. I felt totally defeated—funny how money does that.

At the moment, I have about $40 in my checking account. That’s pretty dire, but the good news is that I start work soon and I’ll be earning roughly $540 a week, after taxes. That’s real money. I think. But in a city where a bottle of beer costs 10 bucks, how far will that money get me? I need to form a budget—or at least learn how to form a budget. And at a time when funds are scarce for college-aged folks, a tight budget is an important thing for all of us to maintain.

Aside from that beer, Miami seems to be a pretty reasonable city financially. Rent and property costs are an entirely different story. In 2012, the metropolitan area ranked as the least affordable city for moderate-income families, according to a study of the nation’s 25 largest cities. Moderate-income families earn 50 percent to 100 percent of the median income and, usually, 59 percent of that income is spent on housing and transportation. But people of moderate income in Miami spent 72 percent on their income on housing and transportation.

Yet I am not supporting a family, and I think I’m more sub-income than moderate income. I also got extremely lucky finding a place and am only paying about $300 a month. On another note, one of the first things I noticed when making my way up and down Biscayne Boulevard was that gas prices don’t appear to be as high as they normally are in larger cities. According to this map, gas prices in Chicago were as high as $4.13 on May 31.

In Los Angeles, the prices were similar. When I left St. Louis, the cost-per-gallon was $3.63. But in Miami, I’ve seen prices 20 cents cheaper than that. Granted I haven’t been to many restaurants, and I don’t go out clubbing, but that’s not my lifestyle, so it doesn’t apply to me. Gas eats up a lot of my money, so that’s a big concern, and I’m glad to see that it won’t be a more burdensome worry than it was back home. That said, I’ll probably spend about $150 a month on gas.

So, if I make $540 a week, that’s $2,160 a month. Taking out rent and gas, that’s $1,710. But I have more expenses to deduct. Food’s a big one. I don’t like to scrimp on food. I would rather opt out of cable, cocktails, internet fees and 24-hour-a-day air conditioning than buy sub-par frozen products. That said, I probably spend about $350 a month on food. I’m now down to $1,360. Here comes the difficult part: I’d like to start putting money away for rent on my apartment next semester. That’s $450. I aim to put away two months’ rent each month. That’s $900. After taking away that, I’m down to $460.

At the bottom of the budget chain is frivolous spending. I try to keep myself at about $60 per week. That’s $240 per month, which, when deducted, leaves me at $220. I’ll deposit that remaining little slice directly into savings.

Money should be a “non-issue.” If I have a job that pays, there’s no reason for my income to just evaporate.I don’t physically allocate my money—like if I don’t take the cash and put it in designated envelopes—then it will turn to dust and hot air much more quickly. So I  have to think more deeply about what I want to spend, and on what, and to firmly stick to that. If I’m spending $240 a month on things like coffee and snacks and going out, then that’s all there is. If I run out, then that’s it. I can’t just dip into my other funds, because those have been set aside for separate, far more important things. I’m assuming it will be difficult—but only for a few weeks. And once I’ve disciplined myself, it should be fluid—not a chaotic scramble for quarters to afford a $10 beer.

— Madeline O’Leary is a senior at the Missouri School of Journalism, majoring in print and digital journalism.

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