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Kenyon alums advise how to live cheaply in cities

By Susannah Green

For Kenyon graduate and psychology major Alyssa Van Denburg 12, who now lives and works in Chicago as a healthcare consultant for Ernst & Young, learning to budget her money was one of the more challenging aspects of her post-graduate life.

I didnt [budget my money] when I first graduated, Van Denburg said via email. Big mistake. I had very few out-of-pocket expenses at Kenyon maybe dinner at the VI or a coffee from the bookstore? I had on-campus jobs, but I … now, I have these all of these expenses, all of which I am having to pay myself.

This year, President Barack Obama recently declared April National Financial Capability Month. As part of the initiative, he vowed that his administration would focus on teaching young people how to budget responsibly. For many Kenyon graduates who live in expensive cities, responsible budgeting is a part of their day-to-day reality.

Van Denburg recommends, a free service, for online planning, and offered specific advice from her meeting with a financial planner.

Here are three of the recommendations my financial planner gave me: One, start saving early (e.g., max out your 401k, open a Roth IRA, etc.), Van Denburg said. Two, spend no more than 30 percent of your monthly net income on rent, and three, try to limit your groceries to $300/month, entertainment to $300-600/month and clothing to $1,200/year.

For Alicia Johnston 11, a French area studies major working as an Americorps volunteer and living in Highwood, Ill. (a suburb north of Chicago), taking advantage of free entertainment has become a useful money-saving technique.

Chicago is amazing, and you can always find something to do for free or cheap, Johnston said via email. Winter sucks, but the rest of the year, you can make your own free fun outside. She also recommends using sites like, which emails recipients about free or discounted tickets for theatre, museums and other public events.

Johnston also devised a careful cash system to keep herself from overspending. Working full-time for a nonprofit, she receives a small living stipend and free housing rather than a salary.

I set an amount I can spend on groceries and fun per week, Johnston said. Fun includes anything that isnt an absolute need: going out, clothes, gifts, haircuts, coffee … I withdraw it in cash every two weeks and keep it in two little envelopes in my wallet. I dont track anything, but I have to be conscious of my spending so I dont run out of money. When I do [run out], thats it! I use credit for expenses that stay more or less the same, like my car insurance and gas. I keep my normal spending pretty frugal so that when important events come up a trip home, a friends wedding I dont have to miss out.

Richard Wylde 11, Cait Weiss 05 and Dan Neidecker 05, all live or have lived, in New York City. Weiss, a double major in English and dance and drama, now manages her own social media marketing company and recommends learning to spend money only on things that will actually make you happier.

Figure out what really matters to you, indulgence-wise, Weiss said via email. For me, its experiential things, … not items. Im lucky Ive never been into labels. Fashion-wise Ive worked on creating my own style instead of falling for labels or quick-bling trends. Get confident in who you are and youll find yourself less reliant on costly signifiers, be they chic cocktails [or] fancy gadgets.

Neidecker, who graduated with a drama degree and moved to New York City right out of college (he now lives in Seattle), recommended learning to take care of tasks by yourself that are easy to splurge on, such as cooking you own food or doing your own home repairs.

I ended up living in Brooklyn with a roommate in a place that was zoned commercial, Neidecker said via email. It helps to learn a few things about basic plumbing (fixing clogged drains and toilets), and a bit of carpentry doesnt hurt (the place didnt have any walls and landlords in NYC generally arent bothered by improvements they dont have to pay for). If you can take care of a few things on your own, youll save money and it will make a place thats not ideal feel quite a bit more comfortable.

For Wylde, who lives in Brooklyn and does publicity for audiobooks and travel guides at Random House, cooking and drinking at home has also become a useful way to save money.

Hands down, the biggest way to waste money is by eating out and going to bars, Wylde said. Renting an apartment is expensive in New York, and you have to build up savings somewhere. … I try to be mindful where my money is going. Bring your own lunch to work, and, when possible, drink at your own apartment. Having the same drinks at a bar will be three times as much.

Washington, D.C. alums Delia Turner 08 and Chris Philpot 12 have also learned to budget on a small income by taking advantage of free entertainment. Turner, an anthropology major who works at Information International Associates, recommended setting aside money each month for essentials, such as rent, utilities, metro fares and groceries, and then surrounding yourself with other young professionals who are trying to live cheaply.

There are many people in the same boat, so its easy to find reasonably priced or free things to do, Turner said. From just hanging out with your friends at apartments to taking advantage of the free Smithsonians, theres always something to meet the social and budgetary requirements.

Philpot, a Spanish literature major and womens and gender studies concentrator, works as a youth developer at the Latin American Youth Center.

I allot $200 a month for food, and I try not to spend more than that, Philpot said. Another big thing is I have money automatically transfer from my checking to my savings account whenever I get my paycheck trying to save a little bit. … I think most of my money I end up spending on eating out and transportation and books I really miss OhioLink and Consort. I also dont spend too much on clothing. I have, like, five or six shirts and outfits that I rotate through, but Im really up front with my friends about it. Ive told them all that Im just not going to spend money on clothes until I have the money to spend.

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