A Week In Los Angeles, CA, On $15.50 An Hour

Laveta Brigham

Welcome to Money Diaries where we are tackling the ever-present taboo that is money. We’re asking real people how they spend their hard-earned money during a seven-day period — and we’re tracking every last dollar. Today: a cheesemonger who makes $15.50/hour and spends some of her money this week on […]

Welcome to Money Diaries where we are tackling the ever-present taboo that is money. We’re asking real people how they spend their hard-earned money during a seven-day period — and we’re tracking every last dollar.

Today: a cheesemonger who makes $15.50/hour and spends some of her money this week on Idiazabal cheese.

Occupation: Cheesemonger
Industry: Service
Age: 32
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Salary: $15.50 + tips + side hustles (photography, dog-sitting) + unemployment (just during the pandemic since I’m currently only working 14 hours a week)
Net Worth: $2,000 in savings + IRA + used car (which probably isn’t worth much). I have no debt and I rent.
Debt: $0
Paycheck Amount (Biweekly): Approx. $600 ($15.50/hour + credit card tips, which average to $7/hour)
Pronouns: She/her

Monthly Expenses
Rent: $1,160 in a three-bedroom apartment (my landlord gave me a bit of a break during the pandemic so it was briefly less than this, but I backpay my rent in this diary)
Loans: $0 (no student loans and I bought a used car in cash)
Quip: $10.95/every three months
Format Web Hosting: $7.99
Adobe Creative Cloud: $9.99
Health Insurance: $1 (I get a big tax credit from Covered California but usually end up paying some back at the end of the year)
Dental Insurance: $7.66
Patreon: $41 (I subscribe to three different primarily yoga-based Patreons)
Private Yoga: $30 (two classes a week for a group of four of us)
Disney+: $6.99 (I mostly use this as a bargaining chip — I’ve traded my Disney+ login for Netflix and Hulu passwords)
Amazon Prime + HBO: $14.99
Spotify Premium: $9.99
MLB Audio: $21.76/year (I need Yankees baseball radio in my life)
Car Insurance: $47.95
Parking: $60 but my employer pay
WNYC: $10 (I should probably start donating to LA’s local NPR station since I’ve lived here three years now)
NY Times Digital: $16.32
Internet/Utilities: ~$60
Apple iCloud Storage: $0.99

Was there an expectation for you to attend higher education? Did you participate in any form of higher education? If yes, how did you pay for it?
I was already thinking about college when I was in elementary school. I remember being excited about the possibility of a new city. My younger self wanted to go to college in New York or California. I had two older brothers go before me so it was expected that I would go as well. I never felt academic pressure from my parents, but their children getting a college education was important to them. I ended up attending art school in Ohio for Photography. I got a partial scholarship, and my parents paid the rest.

Growing up, what kind of conversations did you have about money? Did your parent/guardian(s) educate you about finances?
Growing up, we were always comfortable. The biggest lesson my parents taught me was “live below your means.” We didn’t talk about finances much, but now that I’m older I’ve been trying to ask more questions. My dad was always good with money and I want to make sure those lessons get passed down.

What was your first job and why did you get it?
My brothers and I started with paper routes in elementary school. It didn’t pay much, but it gave me a little spending money and instilled a good work ethic in me when was I was pretty young. My first job other than that was at KFC when I was 15. My brother worked there too, and it was mostly just screwing around with our friends and getting free food. My high school jobs were fun because I was always working among friends.

Did you worry about money growing up?
Not at all. I feel very lucky for that privilege. And if my parents ever worried about money, they didn’t show it.

Do you worry about money now?
Yes. Especially now, with the pandemic, I’m not working much and the money I have, I don’t know how long it has to last.

At what age did you become financially responsible for yourself and do you have a financial safety net?
When I graduated from college, I was 22 and I moved to New York and became financially independent. I was excited to have that kind of independence in my life. I’ve always known, though, that if anything happened, I can always call on my parents for help.

Do you or have you ever received passive or inherited income? If yes, please explain.

Day One

6:30 a.m. — I wake up and make coffee. I recently got a Norwich City FC alarm clock and I’m already obsessed. So begins the era of me preaching to my friends about how much better it is to wake up to an alarm clock than a phone. I drink a cup of coffee, read for a bit (Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings), and eat a hard-boiled egg.

10 a.m. — Private yoga on Google Meet with a small group from my former studio. It’s always good to see familiar faces and it is without fail the best workout of the week, every week. The yoga studio I used to go to closed for non-COVID reasons in February, so when everything shut down, I had already started getting into my at-home practice. Now, there are a ton of resources for online yoga and I am so thankful for all of it. I’m able to support instructors directly and basically choose my own yoga adventure.

11:30 a.m. — I talk to my mom on the phone while I make a mango lassi. My parents are in Cincinnati, where virus cases had been surging, but when I talk to my mom, she says they’re going down in the county where they live. I’m thankful they’re both retired and are very good at staying home. I was a proud daughter in March when she told me about their cart-sanitizing regimen at Aldi. We talk about how excited I am that I put $100 into my IRA last week (baby steps). Also, I tell her I just found out that my roommate and I both won our D.A.R.E. essay contests in sixth grade.

2:30 p.m. — I make a quick trip to my work to take a staff photo for a magazine. While I’m there, I grab a couple of salads and sandwiches for me and the boy (henceforth known as B.) to have for dinner. Free!

3:30 p.m. — I get to B.’s apartment and we eat ham sandwiches (I’ve been a vegetarian and then pescatarian for 16 years, but I make an exception for work sandwiches) with iced coffee he made. We talk about all the things we did this morning to try to get our unemployment money. Both of our payments are 12 weeks behind and it is nearly impossible to get answers. I called California’s Employment Development Department (EDD) 78 times this morning and B. got in touch with his local assemblywoman to try to push things along. Still, so far, nothing.

7 p.m. — B. and I go for a sunset bike ride. On the way back to his place we stop to pick up some beer. Both of us are low on money because of the aforementioned unemployment situation, but I have a little cash from work last week and want to treat him/us. In June, I went back to work two days a week, which allows me to still qualify for unemployment. We get a six-pack of beer, a four-pack of some hard mango seltzer (that is very embarrassing for me to admit! I promise it’s all natural wine after this!), plus a push-pop that B. mercilessly makes fun of me for, and a cup of Master P brand noodles for B. Later, we will look back on this moment and joke about it being a low point. $32.68

8:30 p.m. — Salads for dinner while watching The Sopranos and Airplane.

11:30 p.m. — I’m in the kitchen refilling my water bottle before bed. B. comes in and shows me the balance on his EDD Debit Card. HOLY SHIT! I run to the bedroom to check my phone. HOLY SHIT! We both got our unemployment money!!! We’re hugging and literally (really, literally) jumping for joy. I got $9,533. We spend the next hour fantasizing about all the bullshit we’re going to buy (such as a $20,000 rap video, but also prescription sunglasses) before we get real and talk about all the bills we need to pay. We both immediately transfer $3,000 to our checking accounts for said bills. I donate $50 to Black Women for Wellness. $50

Daily Total: $82.68

Day Two

5 a.m. — I wake up from a terrible nightmare, but also a sex dream about Humphrey Bogart in which we were drinking mulberry wine from the bottle. Hm. I wish I could call on Dr. Melfi to figure this one out.

6 a.m. — B. happens to be awake early too, thank god, because it was a genuinely scary nightmare. We go to get donuts and the (empty, early morning) beach. I pay for the donuts and B. picks up the gas. His car needs transmission repairs so I’ve been doing all the driving the last few months. All the driving is fine by me because I just bought my car in January (my first one). It’s still a very new and exciting thing. I’ve been incredibly grateful for this car this year. $22 for donuts and beach parking. $22

10 a.m. — Back at B.’s for a shower and mid-morning nap. Neither of us got much sleep last night. When we wake up, we eat our guava jelly donuts and some leftover salad. It’s Saturday and 95 degrees outside so we spend the afternoon lounging around his place.

5 p.m. — Both my roommates are gone for the night (a very rare occasion). I need to wash my clothes from the beach so I throw in a load of laundry. While that’s going, I put the Yankees game on TV and do a 45-minute yoga class on Patreon. My knees have been hurting and this class did them real good. Plus, the Yankees win.

6 p.m. — B. and I pick up two bottles of wine from my favorite neighborhood restaurant. Before the pandemic, there was one thing I was especially good at — being a regular at bars. I used to go there at least once a week. It’s where I celebrated my birthday, the purchase of my car, and the place I take every out-of-town friend. I miss that place and the staff so, so much. ($56 + tax + tip…TIP EVERYONE right now, please.) $78

6:30 p.m. — My neighbors drop off an AC unit they were going to get rid of (I have the sweetest neighbors). Unpopular opinion, but I don’t particularly like air-conditioning (or deodorant, which is a funny combination of things to dislike). I lived through many summers in NYC without it. I used to do a lot of hot yoga. I built up a high tolerance for heat, resulting in my tolerance for cold being low. But B. was interested, and he did the installing, so I had no reason to say no. And I have to admit it felt pretty good on a 95-degree day.

7 p.m. — I open the bottle of Broc Cellars Grenache Gris and make us a little cheese plate. This wine is incredible. B. grills sausages and squash in my backyard while I cook pasta with scallops. I make a sauce with shallots, Bordier seaweed butter, and lemon juice from lemons my friend picked from her tree. (About once a week, I bring her sandwiches, she gives me lemons, and usually, there’s a book exchange involved as well). We eat dinner and watch an episode of The Sopranos — we only have two episodes left!

10 p.m. — The new AC has been cooling my bedroom since we started dinner, making it comfortable for two people to share a bed. The other day, we were talking about musicals, so tonight we rent Grease before bed. $4

Daily Total: $104

Day Three

8 a.m. — I wake up for a boot camp class on Zoom with one of my favorite instructors from the old studio. I am definitely feeling the wine from last night. I anticipated this feeling which is why I signed up for the class last night. Now I can’t give myself the option of backing out.

9 a.m. — Phew, who needs a hot yoga room when it’s August in L.A. Shower, make coffee, send a snap to my friend, L. Today is day 267 of our streak. I drink my coffee from the “I’m a Belieber” mug she got me when we were in Copenhagen together in 2016.

10 a.m. — I do a quick edit of the staff photo we took at the cheese shop. “Quick” is not an accurate description of how long this takes because I still have the iMac I got in college in 2009. Plus, in the middle of editing, I have to charge my AA mouse batteries. It’s a goal of mine to trade in the iMac and my Macbook (a work computer from my old job) and upgrade to a better laptop, but it’s not at the top of my list.

11 a.m. — B. makes chicken stock while we snack on a baguette with beurre de baratte for breakfast. I remember back in January when we went to San Francisco for the Cheesemonger Invitational. B. and I were walking around the after-party sampling all the cheese goodies. Rodolphe le Meunier was there with his incredible butter and basically fed it to us off his thumb. Gone are the days of eating butter out of an iconic French cheesemonger’s hands.

12:30 p.m. — I do some online shopping for prescription sunglasses. I lost mine months ago and have been waiting for this unemployment money to buy new ones. Not going to pull the trigger just yet — it’s a huge decision! Soon, though, very soon.

3:15 p.m. — We go to CVS because I need tampons. Of course we stay there browsing for longer than anticipated and end up getting a million other things: cleaning supplies, bug spray, and a Diva Cup! I’m excited to try it!!! (I pay for B.’s stuff and he’ll just buy the next thing.) $79

6 p.m. — We get a snack of fish tacos from a place down the street from me. B. goes inside to order while I stay in the car with the sanitizer ready. He pays and the tacos are amazing.

7 p.m. — We make dinner back at B.’s apartment. He makes a great tomato sauce so I ask him to make me some to have with leftover spaghetti. I top it with fresh basil with some grated Prairie Breeze. I tell B. if someone came to the shop and said, “I’m looking for a cheese to grate on pasta,” this is not what I would recommend to them, but it’s a super versatile cheddar that works on anything, so it works for me here. (In case you were wondering, my favorite grating cheese is Belper Knolle from Switzerland. If you see it anywhere, buy it, and you’ll be as addicted to it as I am.) We watch Project Power over dinner and I finish the wine from last night. I tend to fall asleep long before B. is even tired, so I make an effort to stay awake with McConnell’s coffee ice cream for dessert.

10:20 p.m. — My domain name renews. I open my website and spend a few minutes feeling nostalgic for my days as a photographer, then I remember that being a cheesemonger is way more fun. I still do occasional freelance photography on the side, so the website remains. $12 for another year. $12

10:45 p.m. — My transfer of unemployment money to my checking account goes through. I pay off the balance on all three credit cards. My credit is good, and I’ve become obsessed with keeping it that way. I’ve built up a balance in the last couple of months because of the delayed unemployment plus some other larger expenses — car repair, laptop battery, and an abortion. $1,981.71 and it feels so good. $1,981.71

11 p.m. — While I’m at it, I Venmo my landlord the back rent I owe him. I’m incredibly grateful he was understanding of my financial situation and let me pay a lower rent for two months. $720

Daily Total: $2,792.71

Day Four

7:30 a.m. — Wake up from a dream about Lebron James and Kevin Love. Must’ve been a Cavs-era dream because I didn’t seem angry at Lebron. I spend the next hour-and-a-half reading in bed.

9 a.m. — I come home to clean the apartment. While I’m cleaning, my Imperfect Produce box arrives. Peaches, plums, mangos, grapes, bread, onions, potatoes, broccoli, and mushrooms. My landlord emails me a thank you for sending the back rent. It feels good to not have that hanging over my head anymore. $42.13

12 p.m. — Take a break from cleaning to finish filling out my claim form for the abortion I had in July. When I went to the clinic (one highly recommended from a friend), they said my insurance would have required a referral. At the time, my only concern was getting the whole thing over with. To be honest, I had no idea how much an abortion would cost. It was $685. B. promised to split it with me, but I told him to let me file a claim with my insurance first and see if I could get anything reimbursed. So, fingers crossed.

12:30 p.m. — I have a plum and drink some milk before my boot camp class. Usually, I try to get raw milk, but it’s not available everywhere so at the moment I just have regular whole milk and it’s not nearly as good.

2 p.m. — Finally, I order two pairs of prescription sunglasses! I got one pair of gold frames with green lenses, and one pair of round pink frames with a rose gold mirror finish. I have been ordering glasses from Zenni Optical online for years because they’re such a bargain. $117.55

2:45 p.m. — I eat a quick sandwich for lunch, and when I go to throw something out, I see ants going to town on our recycling. I hurry to take it all out and clean the whole area. Now that I think I feel ants crawling all over my body, I take a break to watch a little bit of Raptors/Nets. It is the first day of the NBA playoffs after all.

4 p.m. — I’m out of coffee so I order some beans from a nearby shop I used to go to for all sorts of things — soap, jeans, cards. I’ve often described it as “a store that smells good.” I ask my roommate if she wants me to get her some “Love Potion Black Tea” to help with her current issues in that department. She happily accepts. We both hope it works. I listen to Planet Money on my short walk to pick them up. $28.48

6:30 p.m. — I just finished a core flow yoga class I signed up for last night. It was a great class but I could tell my energy level was low. I have some dinner, watch Mavs/Clippers, text with my Mavs fan friend a bit, then watch a couple of episodes of One Tree Hill (a friend in London and I are re-watching “together,” though he’s way ahead of me).

10 p.m. — Last month, my Snapchat and real-life best friend, L., sent me a little Venmo to treat myself after my abortion. With it, I got a healing candle from a local apothecary. I light it and read for hopefully about an hour. Tonight I’m reading Rene Redzepi’s A Work in Progress.

Daily Total: $188.16

Day Five

7 a.m. — Wake up, coffee, read, yoga. I shower and have some yogurt and granola while I listen to Hidden Brain. I work today! In mid-March, the shop where I work closed completely. I didn’t work at all until early May when I started working from home on building us a new website and getting an online ordering system up with our current POS. We did curbside pickup on the weekends, but I still wasn’t working. When we reopened the shop in early June, I went back to work two days a week. It’s still not quite busy enough for me to go back to full-time yet. Right now, it’s hard to know what things in the future will look like, so there’s no estimated date on when full-time work will be available. I’m happy to have an incredibly close relationship with my boss, so we can have open and honest conversations about the state of things for both of us.

9 a.m. — Getting ready for work and listening to Planet Money Summer School, my absolute favorite podcast. I know it sounds crazy but they really do make learning about economics fun.

11 a.m. — At work. I take a break and I run into a friend. I tell him about the books I’ve been eyeing and he encourages me to pull the trigger and buy them. Patsy; Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change; Butter: A Rich History, Girl, Woman, Other; Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close; The Nickel Boys; and My Sister, The Serial Killer. I read a lot, and it’s still hard for me to keep up with all the books I’m interested in. $144.28 from bookshop.org. $144.28

2 p.m. — I check my weather app and it says the temperature is 104. The shop where I work is in an open-air market. On a day like today, it’s a challenging environment for cheese and also for human beings (even human beings such as myself who don’t mind the heat). Did you know that if you take a drink of really cold water and then breathe into your mask it has a nice little face-cooling effect? This heat reminds me of my first summer living in New York when I worked at Yankee Stadium.

2:30 p.m. — I eat a salad for lunch in our office while listening to Jackie Chan’s autobiography on Audible. I don’t listen to audiobooks that often, but I signed up for Audible last year to listen to Jon Ronson’s podcast, The Last Days of August. I had a subscription for about a year but recently canceled it because I barely used it. I had a lot of built-up credits so I stocked up on audiobooks and am slowly making my way through them. Will I ever finish the 47-hour audiobook on the Russian Revolution? Only time will tell.

3:30 p.m. — The most difficult part of my day — choosing which cheeses I want to bring home for myself this week. I’m basically a personal trainer for B., but for cheese instead of fitness. I only work two days a week, so I need to stretch my cheesemongering muscles somehow (other than long-distance mongering for my brother and sister-in-law in New York). My training is working, because he has shamed his own family for their Trader Joe’s cheese. This week, there’s a little piece of Monte Enebro that I’ll wrap up for us. I need to break down a big piece of Comte, so I’ll cut some of that while I have it out. We were just talking about smoked cheeses and how most of them suck, so I cut us a piece of Idiazabal (one of the very few good ones). And Ameribella, a washed rind from Indiana that I haven’t had in a while and need to brush up on. I also need some of that Rodolphe le Meunier butter. $34.68

4 p.m. — My friend in New York sends me a picture of a natural wine she just got! It makes me so happy to have been a good wine influence last time she came to visit. I’m excited to be able to go back and visit New York and drink natural wine with her.

6 p.m. — One year ago today, I went on a first date with a guy I was unsure about. We had drinks at a bar in my neighborhood and afterward he came over so I could make him watch an animated movie from my childhood, Fluppy Dogs. We stayed up late watching episodes of Recess and Doug. The next day my roommate texted me “Who was watching cartoons and making out?!” Now here I am picking up that same guy to come over for pizza.

8 p.m. — We get pizza from Triple Beam and watch Ted Lasso. He treats. B. just started using the Robin Hood app. He invites me so we both get one free stock. I download it while we watch TV. I also download the Acorns app, which has been recommended to me by my boss. I figure I’ll try them both out for a month or so and see what I like.

Daily Total: $178.96

Day Six

6:30 a.m. — I wake up with the sunrise. The sun is glowing super red because of the wildfires. Coffee, read, yoga. I’m in the market for a heavier set of weights, so if anyone knows of a small business sporting goods store I can order from online, please sound off in the comments.

9:30 a.m. — I have a leftover ham sandwich from work yesterday and coffee for breakfast. B. drives me to work so I don’t have to take him all the way home.

2:30 p.m. — Another extremely sweaty day at the market. I scarf a giant salad for lunch and finish the Jackie Chan audiobook. I’ll start The Truth About Animals next week. I watch a few minutes of my favorite restaurant, Hippo’s “Wine Wednesday” Instagram live. They discuss two or three wines they offer, sometimes interview a winemaker, and sometimes include a little discount on those bottles. I’ll probably order the bottles they talked about sometime soon.

5 p.m. — I’m getting ready to close up the shop when B. texts me to ask if I want to stay at a hotel. The short answer is yes, of course, I do. But is it safe? I feel anxious about it, but I also feel anxious about going to work, and going to the grocery store, and leaving my apartment, but I manage to do all those things safely. I tell him to book it. Two nights in a corner room at one of my favorite hotels in Downtown L.A. He puts it on his card and I’ll Venmo him when we check out. It’ll be around $200.

6 p.m. — We check-in and go to our room, seeing a total of zero other people on the way except for the one man working the front desk. This is okay. We brought a ton of food and picked up a couple of beers on the way. $40.54

11 p.m. — We spend the night lounging in robes and watching TV (Mavs/Clippers, The Bourne Identity, Frasier) and obsessively looking at the Robin Hood app.

Daily Total: $40.54

Day Seven

7:30 a.m. — Why yes, I did pack my own alarm clock to bring to a hotel, but before it goes off, the construction on the street wakes me up. I spend the morning reading in bed. I have less than 100 pages left in The Interestings and after that will be Such a Fun Age. Hoping to get the book club back together for that one.

9 a.m. — We brought my electric kettle and french press with us so I’m able to make coffee in the room. B. is still sleeping so I keep reading and texting with one of my best friends. I tell him I downloaded Robin Hood so he tells me about the stocks he has.

12 p.m. — I spend the whole morning watching playoff basketball. I do two short yoga classes, one on Patreon and one on YouTube. Another game starts so I’m enjoying the hotel robe and big TV. I watch OKC/Houston while I snack on leftover pizza and grapes. We both play around on our Robin Hood apps and talk about stocks we’re looking at. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m extremely new at this and not very knowledgeable, but it’s fun to look around and learn. I have $1 in my account and put it towards Uber stock. I add Madison Square Garden and Goodyear to my watchlist. $1

3:30 p.m. — I have a gynecologist appointment in Burbank. While I wait, I order some wine from a liquor store I’ve been wanting to order from for a while. I get two red blends from California winemakers I read about in my Natural Wine book. Plus some tequila for B. I try to get Kahlua so I could make White Russians later this week, but they were all sold out. $41.32

5 p.m. — The appointment goes well and I make a follow-up appointment to get Nexplanon! I won’t be getting it until next month, but it’ll be a week before my birthday. Birthday birth control.

7 p.m. — I get back to the hotel and put on the Lakers/Blazers game, open some wine, and make a cheese plate for us. The game goes very poorly for me. I’m a Cavs fan, and I can’t help it — I hate Lebron now. I tend to be an extreme-grudge-holding sports fan (I still hate the Diamondbacks). Don’t get me wrong, 2016 was an incredible year before the election (Warriors blew a 3-1 lead), but when Lebron left again, I found myself looking at his face and wanting him to lose. The Lakers win by 23.

11:30 p.m. — I watch Sex and the City while B. plays FIFA. Cable television has been a special treat almost exclusively enjoyed in a hotel room for pretty much my entire life and it continues tonight. I’d guess I’ve never watched Sex and the City outside of a hotel room. We talk about how much more we can appreciate the show in our 30s — for me, especially, after having lived seven single years in my 20s in New York City. Plus, I feel a kinship with Sarah Jessica Parker as a fellow Ohio native. I’m struggling to stay awake, going back and forth between the TV and my book while I finish off the wine.

Daily Total: $42.32

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