The Money Diaries: Real Writers, Real Budgets

The following is the third of a six-part collaboration with Dirt about “The Myth of the Middle Class” writer. Check back here throughout the week for more on the increasingly difficult prospect of making a living as a full-time writer, or subscribe to Dirt to get the series in your inbox.


I’ve long wished that there was an equivalent to Refinery29’s Money Diary series just for writers. The media and publishing industries are uniquely opaque when it comes to who gets money, who already has it, and mostly importantly: how much. Ironically, that makes the parties who are transparent about money more of a target to be picked apart.

When presented with the rare piece of concrete data it’s hard not to think that’s not how I would have spent my advance or should this person really be going out to dinner so much? I’ve learned to temper that impulse. Information is a form of generosity and the writers included in the following roundup have offered up a week in their financial lives for public consumption. I’m grateful for them!

Daisy Alioto



Age: 39
Location: Brooklyn, NY

Three biggest expenses:
This seems like a straightforward prompt, but I’ve struggled with how to answer it. Student loans are by far my biggest burden—all $77,631.98 of them. I pay them back based on my income, though, so the monthly bill right now is $278.21. That’s less than my credit card bill, which covers a range of purchases and usually clocks in around $1,200 a month. Then there’s the maintenance fee on our apartment, $1,210/month, which I split with my partner; we prorate how much we pay, based on our incomes.

But I’m also a freelancer who tracks my expenses throughout the year in order to write them off. So, looking at my spreadsheet for 2023, I see that my biggest annual expense was travel ($4,467—and that’s just travel that was work related, so the real total is higher), followed by research, a catch-all category for what I do to stay up to date on my field ($2,675.65).

Do you own your home or apartment?
My partner owns it.

Are you dual income? What is your partner’s salary?
Yes; my partner’s salary is $79,000. This seems like a good place to add that we’ve been together for a decade but only filed taxes jointly for the first time last year. It saved us a significant amount of money on our return, but the tradeoff was that it increased my student loan payments. Predictably, the system is designed in contradictory ways.

Does your family help you with expenses?
Sort of? I have savings that come partly from family inheritance that I dip into to pay bills sometimes.

What does one week look like in your financial life?
New York City is an absurdly expensive place, but I’m a freelancer who works from home a lot. I was also raised to be very frugal, and I don’t make a lot of money, so I’m always generally conscious of how much I’m spending—or maybe what I really mean is that I’m good at not spending too much. But when I do go out, I don’t worry about it too much, and since this is NYC, I go out a decent amount: dinners with friends, drinks with colleagues; often I’m just out for one reason or another (teaching, a doctor’s appointment, a work assignment) and after a few hours, I need to eat. But if it’s just me, I’ll get a pastry or a slice of pizza and call it a meal. When I’m with others, I don’t usually go to super expensive or high-end restaurants, but even at—I want to call them Yelp two-dollar-sign places, dinner and drinks with friends might cost $50–75. I have a meal like that once or twice a week.

Beyond that, I’m always spending money on groceries and cat food, the two staples of our lives. Also the pharmacy—I go to the pharmacy way more than a normal person should. I feel like I’m there all the time? Like, I was just there, but then there’s something I forgot or another medication that needs to be refilled. I have a bunch of health issues, which are exhausting, but thankfully all my medications and remedies are relatively affordable and accessible.

What else? I don’t shop a lot, but there’s often some practical thing for me or the apartment (a new mouse, a shower curtain liner) that I’m ordering online. Or I’ll buy a book, even though we do not actually have room for any more books. Or I’ll stop in at a thrift store and come home with yet another sweater. None of these are big purchases. I’m a firm believer in small treats. I don’t need a lot to be happy—mostly just a turmeric latte and a croissant at least twice a week.

My weekly financial life is pretty chill and boring, honestly, and I like it that way. The interruptions come in two forms: 1) bad, which is usually a medical thing, like I had some procedure that insurance won’t cover (surprise!) and now I owe thousands of dollars; 2) good, which is usually travel, like planning a big vacation or work trip. I prefer to spend less money at home and then splurge when I’m away.

Everything I’ve talked about so far relates to spending, because as a freelancer, I don’t have much in the way of steady, stable income. I’m an adjunct teacher, so I do get a small biweekly salary that helps me avoid total financial panic. Otherwise the paychecks come when they come. Sometimes they’re decently sized, and other times, they’re depressingly small.



Age: 39
Location: Midwestern city

Three biggest expenses:
Mortgage, retirement/investing, groceries

Do you own your home or apartment?
Own a house

Are you dual income? What is your partner’s salary?
Yes. We’re both in academia. My current salary is $120k (I have a temporary bonus and will later go back to $95k). For years, I made less than a tenth of that from royalties, but I recently sold a book in a “good deal,” as they say, and have received part of that advance.

I think my husband makes about $30k working part-time. I pay for the majority of our shared expenses. We typically keep our finances separate because that’s how we did it before we were married and we didn’t see any reason to change, but we do share the credit card with the grocery rewards.

Does your family help you with expenses?

What does one week look like in your financial life? 

I worked from home today. My husband bought groceries for $57.33 but I’m not sure what he got other than asparagus and brussels sprouts. I got my monthly paycheck, which came to $5517 after taxes, health insurance (for my husband and me), FSA (I have them set aside the max amount because I’m always sick), parking, small donations, and retirement plans (both the mandatory plan and a supplemental one, because I was patching together part-time jobs and contract work until my mid-30s and have a lot of catching up to do).

In the evening, I did some crypto trading and realized $119 profit.

One of my bank accounts accrued interest totaling $69.75 for the month.

I got to campus brutally early to give a talk, then had to drive across town for a dentist appointment, then back to campus for a grad student’s thesis defense, then meetings. I hate running around. I hate leaving the house at all. I had to do it because none of this was easy enough to reschedule, so I bought myself an iced coffee at Starbucks for $4.35 to make all the driving less unbearable.

I went home briefly and ate leftover pasta, then went back out to a nearby bar with my husband and a couple of friends. I got a fancy soda for $6 with tip.

In the evening, I did some more trading and realized $38 profit.

My husband bought groceries for $11.18 but I’m not sure what he got. We took a long walk and went out to dinner at our favorite restaurant, which cost $70.31 total. I considered doing our taxes but instead fell asleep.

One of my bank accounts accrued interest totaling $39.34 for the month.

My mortgage was auto-paid for $1,676.

I stayed home working to catch up for the week ahead. I’ve been trying not to work evenings and weekends anymore–not for my salary job, anyway, but writing during that time is okay–but I fell behind after getting covid so bad I had to go to the ER, and I was already behind because I had covid a couple months earlier, and I was behind at that point anyway because I had covid a few years ago and never really recovered. I did some trading and came away with $377 in profit. It’s not always like this, by the way. This is a bull market. Dinner was leftover pasta.

I was charged for my monthly Amazon subscription order:

$45.80 for coffee grounds
$36.27 for cat food
$18.22 for dishwasher pods
$12.34 for trash bags
$6.02 for cereal

I taught and had a couple of meetings and it was fucking exhausting. I sent $50 to a pool for competitive walking—basically, if I reach 10k steps a day, I get my deposit back, and I could get more back if others don’t reach the minimum step goal. I respond well to gamification.

Dinner was tofu, rice, broccoli. I eat cereal for breakfast every morning, by the way.

I had a psychiatrist telehealth appointment very early and declined to pay my medical bill when I checked in because dealing with the FSA is tedious and I just did a batch of reimbursement requests a few weeks ago. I walked a lot, did some work from home, and ate a frozen pizza. I went to telehealth therapy and talked about how hard it’s been to catch up at work. My husband and I had tickets to a game but we didn’t go because of storms. I did some trading for a $39 loss, ope. My monthly skincare box subscription was auto-paid for $26.82. My gas bill was auto-paid for $90.37. As I was falling asleep, I put many pairs of pajamas in my Amazon cart but didn’t buy them.

I taught and had a couple of meetings and it was fucking exhausting. I did some trading because I don’t know how long I’ll be able to go on working like this, utterly depleted physically/mentally/spiritually by every mental activity that isn’t watching chart patterns, and I realized $239 profit. I ate two small tuna fish sandwiches for dinner.



Age: 36
Location: Santa Fe, New Mexico

Three biggest expenses:
Rent, groceries, dependents and healthcare

Do you own your home or apartment?
No, but we own a separate property that we aren’t currently living in and rent out to pay for its mortgage (and for a little extra income).

Are you dual income? What is your partner’s salary?
Yes, my partner makes $75,000 a year and this year, it looks like I’ll be making somewhere between $30,000 and $45,000.

Does your family help you with expenses?

What does one week look like in your financial life?
This year, I’m making substantially less than I have in previous years, and it’s been difficult to anticipate when I will be getting money in. For the first time in my life, I feel scarily dependent on my partner’s income. He’s taking care of our rent, and I pay miscellaneous bills, including the phone bill for our family, activities for our daughter, and I often pay for groceries.

Lately, my income has been wildly variable; I might make $0 one week and $2000 the next. Groceries for our family, including dog food and alcohol, cost around $300 or $400 per week. Our rent is $2,200 and we own both of our cars, though one of them needs constant work and they’re both running with over 100,000 miles. Transportation is a major expense, and I spend between $50 and $100 per week on gas.

We eat out once a week on average, and the cost for that is usually around $175. (The babysitter costs $100, the meal costs around $75.) Realistically, we’re extremely lucky to have such a good life, though I am trying to save up for a larger place to live. We’re in one-bedroom apartment and I dream of someday having three bedrooms, one for our daughter, one for us, and one for a guest room or study. Last year, I added quite a bit to my savings account but I haven’t been able to contribute to any savings for months. I also don’t have a retirement account, which means (again) I’m very dependent on my partner.

I often think of finding more stable income, but I really love writing, so I’m going to continue working in media for as long as I can.



Age: 30
Location: Upstate NY

Three biggest expenses:
Mortgage, Student Loans, Health Insurance

Do you own your home or apartment?
My wife purchased the home before we met, and we share expenses on it. She bought it for $120,000 ten years ago with a super-low interest rate and a 15-year mortgage, so we’re close to full ownership.

Are you dual income? What is your partner’s salary?
Yes. She makes $90,000 a year as co-owner of a family business. I make $45,000 as a bartender and another $5,000 doing occasional freelance photography worker.

Does your family help you with expenses?

What does one week look like in your financial life?
I haven’t made money off writing since I quit a freelance position writing poetry guides for a study website six months ago. I work as a bartender five days a week, and my wife runs a restaurant with her family. This past week was quite normal—work during the days (I run the daytime bar), make dinner at home four nights, one night at the restaurant, one night out, and one night at the extended family’s for dinner.

Our major expenses are standard—mortgage, student loans, health insurance—and otherwise we buy fairly little except organic produce and a stupid amount of Gerolsteiner mineral waters. I’ve recently decided that I want to open a small bookstore, so I’ve started spending my days off buying used books for cheap from thrift stores and Facebook Marketplace.

My savings are tied up on a stock investment from COVID days (NOT crypto or meme stocks I swear), and we don’t want to take out new loans against the house until interest rates drop, so for now the books will pile up in the basement, awaiting the day they’ll be picked up by another hungry reader.

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