San Diego on $20,000 a Year


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Pasta is cheap, so Jennifer Jacob eats a ton of spaghetti. “Though tonight I splurged and ordered Domino’s,” she confesses. “I probably eat out a bit more than I should, mostly because of time constraints. It’s usually 6:30 or 7 at night by the time I get home from work, and all I’ve got in the cupboard is ramen or soup.”

Indeed, the 22-year-old Jacob and other recent college grads quickly discover that living in America’s Finest City doesn’t come cheap. Beautiful weather and picturesque coastlines carry a steep price.

San Diegans spend, on average, more than $35,000 a year to live here, according to the most recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Thirty-five percent of every dollar we spend is eaten up by housing costs, which rose about 7 percent last year. “And they will probably rise as much this year, too,” says Alan Nevin, a consultant at Market Profiles of San Diego, which publishes data on new-home sales, rentals and rental trends.

“Renting is very difficult right now because the vacancy rate is going down fast,” Nevin says. “Rents have been relatively flat here since 1990, and landlords are now going to try and play catch-up.”

Even going out to dinner today costs 3 percent more than it did a year ago. Overall, San Diego’s cost of living is 20 percent above the national average, according to a recent Chamber of Commerce survey. Men and women in their early 20s are most affected by that. They toil in entry-level positions. Some wait tables while fantasizing careers as authors or actors; others sling cappuccino while dreaming about the surf.

But whatever they do to get by, many young people don’t want to be anywhere else. Maybe that’s why San Diego was ranked in the top 10 percent on Money magazine’s 1997 list of the 300 Best Places To Live in America.

The lure of living in one of the country’s most-desired destinations prompts Gen-Xers like Jacob to be creative in finding ways to make ends meet. Even with her most recent raise, she still hasn’t hit $25,000 a year. A 1997 UCSD graduate who studied communications and theater, Jacob wanted to move to Los Angeles and work on a career as a casting director. But as graduation neared, she decided against it. “Living in Los Angeles would have been even more expensive than it is here, and then there’s the traffic and the job competition. So I took a position as a summer children’s camp director at the La Jolla YMCA,” she says.

When the job ended with the summer, Jacob spent a month searching for a job in public relations, advertising or marketing. “My parents helped me as much as they could, but after four years of college the money was pretty scarce. I had some money saved, but I wound up maxing out my credit cards just to pay bills. It was really tough,” she says.

So tough she almost gave up and moved back to her parents’ home in Riverside County. Jacob says she was packing her things and preparing to move when a call came with the news she’d landed a job as an executive assistant with a public relations firm. That was in September, and Jacob is still there, working in what she describes as an often “frenzied” environment. “That’s just the way it is in a demanding industry like this one. My job is very hectic—long days; often I skip lunch. We’re a small firm, so everybody helps each other out.”

To start her job, Jacob had to lay out a hefty sum for business attire. “When I first got the position I was basically broke, so I had to charge all these new clothes on my Macy’s card. I wanted to put forth a good impression, which meant I had to go into debt to do it.”

Jacob now shares an apartment near Carmel Mountain with her boyfriend, though the finances are kept separate. “There is absolutely no way I could afford to live alone unless it was a tiny studio apartment. I have always had roommates,” she says. In order to cut corners, Jacob often skips lunch. For entertainment, there’s the weekend matinee.

Though she says a majority of her friends are making similar incomes, many had parents who were able to pay the full cost of college. “That’s what makes it so difficult for me. I can’t even maintain the lifestyle I was accustomed to in college, not with those thousands of dollars in student loans I’ve got to repay,” she says.

Jacob has six credit cards to help her out, and though she won’t reveal the exact amount of her loan payments, she compares them to the average amount of a car payment. “There are times when I make sure to keep my credit cards 10 dollars below the limit, just so I know I have 10 dollars available for gas to get to and from work,” she admits.

Things are even tighter for 24-year-old Steve Hansen, whose salary is about half Jacob’s. A native of Iowa, Hansen left when he was 19 and spent three years with his girlfriend in Arizona before moving to San Diego two years ago. Halfway through a four-year degree, Hansen put his education on hold while trying to support himself.

Now that he’s a California resident, he plans on applying to local colleges to finish his degree, perhaps pursuing a career in landscape architecture or “something environmental.” But even with a degree, Hansen sees life as an uphill climb. “I think it’s difficult to make a decent amount of money here if you don’t have a certain college degree, like chemistry or biology.”

Hansen wanted to live in San Diego so much he was willing to work at nearly anything. “My first job here was the worst one I ever had—putting up these huge signs in EastLake. I lasted a week.” He had just finished putting together a résumé at Kinko’s when he passed by Cafe Crema, a coffeehouse in Pacific Beach, and decided to drop one off there. “They called me the next day, and I’ve been there ever since. I’m managing now.”

Living on less than $20,000 a year isn’t easy, but it’s possible, says Hansen. “I live in Ocean Beach, by myself, in a tiny studio. I don’t go out to dinner much—and because the coffee shop is also a restaurant, I eat there a lot. I don’t have credit cards or student loans,” he says. He also rides his bike to work; his truck is in need of repairs he can’t afford.

Hansen says when he lived in Arizona he spent too much money going out on weekends. “And if you have a date, it’s really expensive. So I eliminated going out a lot, and if I go it’s usually to see a band I want to see, not to get drunk.

“I also don’t spend much money on clothes. You can be fashionable—cheaply—if you shop at thrift stores,” he says. “I mean, there are quite a few resale shops with hip clothes.”

Twenty-five-year-old Ann Mulhardt hasn’t resorted to thrift stores just yet, but she does admit to using her old student ID to get cheaper movie tickets. “Most of my friends do the same thing, even though we aren’t supposed to,” she says. But that’s probably the only time Mulhardt—a teacher at a Catholic school—bends the rules.

Though she’s not yet scouring thrift stores, she never, ever buys clothes that aren’t on sale. “I wait and wait for things to get marked down. But I mostly rely on what I bought during college to get me through now,” she says.

Mulhardt’s salary is under the $25,000 mark, so she’s had to take on two extra jobs—teaching summer school and directing after-school student activities—to make ends meet. “It would be impossible for me to make it on just my regular salary. I’d have to get a roommate, and that’s my biggest luxury: living alone. I’d rather cut dinners out and clothes than give that up,” she says.

Originally from Ventura, Mulhardt was fortunate enough to have parents who paid for her college and loaned her the money to buy a condo in Mission Valley. “I’m paying them back over 30 years at 61¼2 percent interest, which is $885 a month. Their loan was the only way I was able to buy something. I felt it was a good investment,” she says. Her parents also helped out by giving her a car at 16 years old, for which they still cover the insurance.

To save money, Mulhardt and her friends make dinner for one another or drink sodas instead of mixed drinks when they go out. “I rent videos a lot, don’t go to many places with cover charges, that kind of thing. And I’m very involved with my church, so that’s a social outlet that doesn’t cost anything.”

In June, Mulhardt embarks on a master’s degree program in science and educational administration at National University. But she worries that her life has settled into a troublesome pattern. “I see that every month ends up being pretty much the same: I’m not saving any money at all, and I chose a profession that doesn’t pay very well.”

Financially, Bill Homan, 24, once had the opposite problem. He worked in the hotel industry, making a pretty good living, but he wasn’t happy. So he quit and went into sports event management, taking a $10,000 pay cut.

“I just finished working on the Buick Invitational as ticket manager. It’s very exciting work; it’s just a matter of finding and keeping a job. I go from company to company. That’s how you start in this industry, and then you look for someone to take you on,” he says.

Homan says he’s lucky because he doesn’t have college loans and he doesn’t need expensive clothes for work. “Working for a golf tournament, for example, I’m given a uniform, which is basically golf clothes. And I’m not a clotheshorse anyway.” Most of the corners he cuts are social. Homan doesn’t go out often because dating is too expensive. “I’m fortunate that way right now because I don’t have a girlfriend. Last Valentine’s Day, I didn’t have to spend a fortune,” he laughs. “It’s something I used to have to spend a whole lot of money on, and instead I can put it toward my credit cards.” And those cards number 10, though Homan says he really only uses three.

His only luxuries are free ones. “Sometimes I get complimentary tickets to sporting events—one of the few perks of my job. I don’t have the money now for luxuries, but it’s not something I’m worried about; it’ll be there down the line. For now, at least, I’m happy.”

Steve Hansen echoes that thought. “I think even though it’s tough sometimes, it’s doable,” he says. “When I lived in Arizona it wasn’t easy either, though it was a lot cheaper than living in San Diego. But here there are plenty of free things to do—I like to bike ride and surf. And it doesn’t cost anything to take a walk on the beach.”

Standing behind the counter at work, Hansen turns to froth milk for a latté. “Even though this pays less than manual labor,” he says, gingerly shaking out cinnamon, “it’s much better. All I wanted was to be happy.”

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