SpaghettiOs, Mom's Credit Card, and Centipedes in the Basement

Hungry grads make a shoestring assault on New York

That thumping sound you hear isn't the city's air conditioners kicking in for the summer. It's our share of the nation's 1.2 million new college grads hitting the pavement, scrambling for a job, an apartment, a futon, and a clue. A few of these eager young men and women, with some prodding, bared their financial souls to the Voice.

Shanna Zell, 20, and her friend Amy Gottlieb, 21, just graduated from Brandeis and are planning a move to the city from their hometowns of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and Dobbs Ferry, New York. Shanna's looking for a job in advertising, while Amy has picked public relations. Neither woman has student loans. Bryan Camphire, 24, a Pittsburgh native, completed a degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice after six years; he has $20,000 in student loans and works as a nanny part-time. Audrey (not her real name), 23, came to New York from Illinois three years ago to attend Pratt Institute, where she majored in industrial design and racked up a total of $31,000 in debt; she's looking for work in design, licensing, or retail.


Hoping the growth in jobs includes them: Amy Gottlieb (left) and Shanna Zell
photo: Jay Muhlin
Hoping the growth in jobs includes them: Amy Gottlieb (left) and Shanna Zell

What's in your wallet right this minute?

Shanna: I just bought a new purse ($13) and a new wallet ($6) at Target for my job interview today. I've got my parents' credit card, my debit card, and $28.85 in cash. My health insurance card, which expires June 14. Also a pack of cigarettes—eight freakin' dollars! I should really stop.

Audrey: A friend who designs handbags gave me this one. I've got a winning $1 Lotto ticket. A weekly MetroCard. Six dollars in McDonald's gift certificates—I can't spend them after seeing Super Size Me. And $46.11 in cash.

Bryan: I've got $50 right now, which is really rare. A weekly MetroCard, since I can never afford a monthly one. My student ID, which gets me $10 ballet tickets. And a tattered old Access Arts card from when I worked at Merrill Lynch doing data entry two years ago, which gets me into museums for free with a guest.

Amy: My mom's a principal, so she gave me some gift certificates she got from students: Banana Republic, Pier 1, and the Gap. A single-ride subway card. A one-way ticket back to Dobbs Ferry, where my parents live. Dad's credit card for emergencies. A bunch of receipts. $19.10 in cash. Oh, and my lucky $2 bill.


How often do you go to the ATM and how much money do you take out?

Audrey: $60 to $100. I've gone twice this week.

Amy: $20 or $40. Maybe two times a week? I just closed out my account—I'm waiting till I get a job.

Bryan: Twice in the past month, my balance has gotten below $20, so I have to go to the bank during work hours to get out money. That sucks.


What's the job market like?

Bryan: Being a nanny is the greatest job ever. I work 20 hours a week for $12 an hour, hanging out with a kid and sometimes his little brother. This summer I'll be spending three days a week in the Hamptons. But I'm really tight for money. Now that I have a college degree, I want to make it work for me a little, but I really don't want to work 40 hours a week—I want time to play music. My friends who work 40-plus hours a week say, What planet are you on? Stop being poor.

Amy: I'm looking for jobs in PR, but I don't have too high expectations. I would take an unpaid internship at this point to get experience. I've had trouble even getting interviews, since I majored in history, not marketing. That puts me behind right from the start.


What will your parents help out with?

Audrey: My parents are cutting me off. I got $1,200 for a graduation gift. They'll buy me plane tickets home, and that's it.

Bryan: Nothing. They're pretty tight.

Shanna: On my parents' credit card I charge emergencies and things they only find out about once they get the bill—like meals, and a suit I just bought for my interview. It has to be justifiable or I get shit from them. I can spend maybe $300 a month.


Where are you going to live?

Amy: I just looked at an apartment in Stuyvesant Town. It was $2,100 for a convertible one-bedroom—I'd be living there with my twin sister. For rent it seems like paying less than $1,000 is not really feasible.

Bryan: I just moved into a new apartment in Bushwick. It's the best ever. It's got rehearsal space for both of my bands, so my rent's $825; they pay $225.

Audrey: I just moved into the basement of my brownstone in Fort Greene. I'm now paying $350 a month. I decided I can live with the bugs and the centipedes. I have a really sweet deal.


What's the most money you'll spend without thinking about it?

Bryan: No amount. Even $3, I'll think twice.

Shanna: $10.

Amy: Over $10, I'll question whether or not I need it.

Audrey: $40. But only on design projects, never on clothes.


Have you ever dated for a meal ticket?

Shanna: I never am attracted to men with more money than me.

Amy: I would be uncomfortable in a relationship if it didn't even out in the end. Like I was regressing. But ask me in a year when I can't afford sushi.

Audrey: Last night I went out to the meatpacking district with a guy friend who would undoubtedly like to be more than a friend. He spent $133 on dinner, and tipped $30. The reason I don't mind getting a lot of free dinners is that, in my opinion, in New York, if you are a not-unfortunate-looking young girl, no matter how bright you are, you'll always be a piece of ass first. Besides, I just tend to be attracted to older men, and to Manhattan. In the past year I've dated a lawyer, an ad exec, and a guy who made a lot of money on the Internet. But I'm not a gold digger. I would rather have a real relationship than just have some guy take care of me.


Speaking of dinner, what are you planning to do for groceries?

Amy: SpaghettiOs. Lots of frozen veggies. I make this stew with chicken breast, canned tomatoes, and frozen peas. I buy a family-size thing of chicken and freeze it in portions. You're always very happy about finding that last chicken breast there in the freezer. Grocery-wise I'd like not to spend more than $20 a week.

Shanna: Eggs. Also tofu. I'm on this diet, and the basis is meat, so it's expensive. I'm thinking maybe I'll go home once a month and go shopping in Jersey. I like eggplant—you can get a big one for like a dollar. Canned tomato sauce is key. I'm hoping not to spend more than $100 a week on eating, including restaurants.

Audrey: Ramen noodles. Four-for-$5 Celeste frozen pepperoni pizza. I make this bean salad with limes and cilantro that I can throw in the fridge for a week. Generic sugary cereal in a bag for $1.99.

Bryan: I eat out a lot. I can tell you at least five meals off the top of my head under $5: the taxicab Indian place on 1st Street, North Dumpling on Essex between Hester and Canal, dollar slices on Eighth Avenue and 36th Street, falafel.


What was the last thing you bought?

Shanna: I bought the whole outfit I'm wearing right now at this huge sale at Express on the way back from my interview: Two pink tank tops for $10, a black skirt for $10, plastic earrings for $2.90, a bracelet for $1.90.

Audrey: I was just shopping on Canal Street for a freelance design project. I got two yards of fake grass for $14.95 and a big roll of iridescent material for $17.95. Then I found 100 feet of coaxial cable, for my basement, for $14.01. And two fiber-optic glass balls for these necklaces I make and sell, for $5 each.


Where do you see yourself in five years? How much do you need to survive in New York?

Shanna: Right now, I've decided I can't work for less than 30K, which I know is pretentious. If I'm making more than 50K when I'm 25, I'll be very proud of myself. If I'm making 25K, I won't be living in New York City anymore.

Amy: I hope to be at the top end of entry level: $40,000. I don't expect to be above that.

Bryan: I love scraping by here. I like the contradiction of living in the most expensive city in the world and getting by the way I do. Realistically, I'll be paying off my student loans for another 10 to 15 years, and that affects how I make decisions. Still, in five years I'd like to have a master's degree in either forensic computing at John Jay or early childhood at Hunter. I want to study music internationally, in Southeast Asia or Estonia. Maybe have a couple records under my belt. And I definitely want to settle down and have kids. Although it's tough to be thinking about how many kids I want versus how many I'll be able to afford.

Audrey: I know I can live on $575 a month, plus ramen and cocktail appointments. I have no idea where I'll be in five years. I have options. Hopefully I'll have paid off my $22,000 in loans and $9,000 in credit card debt. I carry around a fortune-cookie fortune, "Fame, riches, and romance are yours for the asking." Yeah, baby! Bring it on!

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