Aitken: ‘Life After Yale’: maybe I should learn to budget

I spent more on clothes last summer than I did on two months’ rent in New York City.

Needless to say, this didn’t go down very well with my parents, who were already convinced that I don’t understand the value of money. My accounting of the summer’s expenses — documented beautifully in an Excel spreadsheet, no less — was met with a lot of yelling, crying and wringing of hands (and necks). My parents asked me to reconsider whether the financial services industry was really an appropriate career path for someone who couldn’t stick within a budget. I replied that there is a big difference between knowing how the stock market works and knowing how to turn down a Diane von Furstenberg dress.

Given that I’m about to graduate and return to New York City in less than four months, it’s no surprise that my parents are very, very concerned about my imminent future. My angsty mother sends helpful, upbeat e-mail messages to remind me daily that the stratospheric cost of living in New York City is going to sap my i-banker salary dry. My Republican father tells me next year’s income taxes will make me wish that I had never voted for Obama. My sister yells at me to get my spending under control “because there’s, like, a recession going on.” The only person who doesn’t seem to care about my financial future is my brother, who’s pursuing a career as a freelance comic book writer (and has his own financial issues to worry about).

My father also has taken to keeping a running list of things he will no longer be paying for after I graduate: my dry cleaning, my cell phone bill, my contact lenses, my Economist subscription, my late-night Durfee’s runs and so on. This is a fun game for him; less so for me. He’s also started making cruel jokes, such as suggesting that I spend the next two years living at home with the family, or worse, in Brooklyn.

My parents claim that they love me, that they’re doing it to scare me into understanding that “in the real world things cost money, and you have to learn to save and spend accordingly.” But there’s so much I don’t understand: How much do utilities cost? What tax forms will I have to fill out? Is it bad to spend $3,000 a month on a two-bedroom in Greenwich Village if it comes with a breakfast bar and exposed brick walls? Why is “budget” such a funny word anyway?

The appalling truth is that I’m about as clueless as every other second-semester senior when it comes to this stuff. One of my friends asked me yesterday whether “you’re actually supposed to keep receipts,” as he put it. Another forgot the PIN to his debit card and had to skip class to go to the bank and get it changed. Yet another confessed to not understanding how a credit card works. I can name half a dozen Yalies who have confided to me in hushed tones that they’ve never actually balanced a checkbook (and another who was surprised to learn that checkbooks actually cost money).

Fortunately, there is a solution to this endemic financial ineptitude — “Life After Yale,” a survival guide put together by the folks at Undergraduate Career Services with input from recent Yale alumni (the 2008 edition is available online). It might not have all the answers, but it does provide some useful rules of thumb. For instance, if you work from an annual salary of $40,000 you should expect to lose about 23 percent of it in taxes. Rent should cost between a quarter and a third of your monthly salary. Groceries should cost about $150 per person per month, and so on.

It’s apparently important to save money, too. If your company gives you the option of contributing a percentage of your salary to a 401(k) plan, contribute the maximum amount. You should also save your signing bonus and your annual bonus, if you’re fortunate enough to earn one. “Reinvesting” your bonus in companies like American Airlines and Marriott International does not count, even if you do own stock (trust me, I looked into it for spring break).

In short, the “Life” guide is a veritable treasure trove of financial wisdom in pdf form. Find it. Save it. Memorize it. Yale may have milked us for every tuition dollar we had over the past eight semesters, but it’s good to know that $160,000 later they really do have our financial interests at heart. The “Life” guide even includes professional fashion advice and fun little recipes for those of us who are not just helpless at finance, but helpless at life. And just for the record, I may not know how to budget, but I can rock business formal attire and make a mean penne alla vodka — and you can’t do that in Excel.

Kate Aitken is a senior in Silliman College and a former Arts & Living editor for the News.

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