Living Large on an Entry-Level Budget

Living Large on an Entry-Level Budget
by Sarah Pike
Photos Diana Zapata | October 05, 2015
Entry-level jobs don't leave much room for chic restaurant outings, but by playing smart and living savvy, you can build a bustling social life on your own terms.
It’s exciting to start your first “real” job after college. You finally have a salary, paid time off, and benefits. But before you start fantasizing about buying a fancy apartment, upgrading your car, and traveling the world, make sure you’ve seen your first paycheck. No doubt it will be more than you ever made serving coffee between classes, but not nearly enough to fund your fabulous new fantasy life.

If you want to live that dream, it’s time to establish a budget.

“Budget” can feel like a dirty word, but when you’re living on an entry-level salary, it’s also your best friend. Even though the National Association for Colleges and Employers (NACE) reports the average salary for 2014 college grads is $48,707, consider the engineers in there skewing the average—the reality is that you may make much less at your new gig. Plus, where you live makes a big impact on how far that income goes.

No matter what your salary is, there are still ways to stretch those dollars. Here are the tricks and strategies that helped me live large on a tiny paycheck, one smart, single girl to another.

LOCATION MATTERS

We all want to live in the coolest neighborhood, close to downtown, in an apartment with character. But the cost of rent in a swanky neighborhood can be more than you bargain for. Moving just a few miles outside your number one choice may help you get twice the apartment for half the money.

Research lesser known neighborhoods adjacent to the coolest parts of town—often listings in these areas get overlooked on Craigslist but offer almost as many perks without the hipster rent hike. Plus other creatives tend to follow bargains, too, so you may just land yourself a rent-controlled apartment in next year’s trending neighborhood.
We all want to live in the coolest neighborhood, close to downtown, in an apartment with character. But [m]oving just a few miles outside your number one choice may help you get twice the apartment for half the money.
Also, don’t forget to consider your commute. A place close to a train stop can eliminate the need for a car. Plus, some employers offer monthly stipends for employees who use public transportation rather than taking up valuable real estate in their expensive downtown parking garage, which puts bonus funds in your account right away.

WATCH YOUR MONTHLY EXPENSES

This sounds like a no-brainer, but you can spend more than you should if you aren’t paying attention. Whether it’s extra fees that you don’t understand or are paying for too much Internet, a close review of your monthly bills may save you enough money to fund a bonus night on the town with your besties. Often, calling your Internet provider or credit card company to request a reduced bill or interest rate is all it takes to cut some costs.

EAT LIKE A FOODIE

After years of eating ramen and cold cereal, you’re ready to upgrade your culinary routine. However, eating out every night may leave you resorting to the same cheap eats of your college days before payday. Cooking will elevate your gastronomic life and add dollars to your wallet.

Prioritize

Brown bag your lunch to save your budget for evening outings.

Reframe

Instead of going to an expensive eatery, have friends over for a night of cooking and wine—ask everyone to pitch in, saving you even more. You’ll enjoy the same social time you’d get at a restaurant or bar and learn how to make gourmet meals, all while improving your nutrition and preserving your bank balance.

LEARN TO TRADE

Sometimes you just need a new pair of boots. Rather than blowing a month’s worth of discretionary income on new kicks, trade in an old pair at a consignment store. Most stores will give you store credit and, if you don’t see anything you like, many will fork over cash.

This is a great way to update the wardrobe and scratch the shopping itch without breaking the bank or overloading your closet. Some of the coolest pieces are in consignment or vintage shops. Expand your shopping trips beyond the mall and you’ll be surprised how much more bang you can get for your buck.

DO FREE STUFF

Minding your money doesn’t mean you have to become a hermit. There’s plenty of free stuff to do if you actually look for it. Most museums have a dedicated day when entry is free. Check out local gallery strolls where you can mingle with an artsy crowd and enjoy free music, art, and tasty nibbles and wine.
Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to your finances.
If you live near resorts or other tourist attractions, look for free concert series and offseason events that don’t have an entrance fee. Or volunteer for a local music or arts organization and you may be rewarded with free perks and entry.

BECOME A HAPPY HOUR QUEEN

Limit eating and drinking out in restaurants and bars to places with happy hour specials. This is a great way to stay social and save money. If you pay attention, you can find an awesome happy hour for nearly every day of the week.

TRACK YOUR SPENDING

Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to your finances. Use a budget tracker to monitor where you’re spending and how close you’re coming to zero. Set up automatic payments as much as possible, and consider using cash for discretionary purposes. For fun money, go cash-only. This can turn you into a disciplined spending diva who can stretch $100 farther than you imagined.
We've all got our tricks—what are yours? Share the wealth in our comment thread.