Talking Millennial Money: Student Debt, Tax Write-Offs, and Beyond

A Conversation Between Jazmine Hughes and Haley Mlotek

Illustrations by Riikka Sormunen

Jazmine: It’s the most wonderful time of the year: “the time of year where I stress out for weeks about my taxes because I had two jobs in 2015 with two different sets of paperwork and I don’t know if I should fork over the money to go to an accountant or just do my taxes myself.”

To make myself feel better, I interviewed a friend whose financial situation is more complex than mine. She didn’t want her identity known, so let’s just call her “Haley Mlotek,” former editor of The Hairpin.

J: Hi “Haley.” Are you doing your taxes by yourself?

H: I have — my god, the luxury of what I’m about to type out — TWO accountants. Although I’ve been avoiding them lately because I’m a little overwhelmed with real work, and even paying someone else to do my taxes still does not get me off the hook, what a rip-off. Jkjkjkjkjk. My accountants (one in Canada, one in the US) are both very nice and cool. I found both of them by figuring out which one of my freelancer writer friends had gotten tax refunds, and then I hired those accountants to do my taxes, which seems like as good a job interview as any.

A few years ago I used an accountant my family member recommended, and he had no idea what the fuck a freelance writer even did or was (so he was cool in one way but horrendous in others). By the time he was done with my return he said I owed the Canadian government something absurd like $7,000. I fired him — the one time I’ve ever fired anyone, my god, the luxury of typing that out — and re-filed with my current accountant, who, of course, knew what she was doing, and got me a $2,000 refund. Ever since then I’ve trusted her with my life. I’ll probably name my firstborn son after her.

Jazmine, do you get tax refunds, or have you ever? If so, what are you going to buy me with your tax refund? No, just kidding. What overpriced luxury good will you buy for yourself, or us to share?

J: My favorite story is, obviously, one about me: it’s the story of how, last year, I cut my accountant a check for $4,000, the combined sum of what I owed in 2014 and the first payment for my quarterly taxes in 2015. Let’s break the anecdote down: one, not to brag, but I was alive and a tax-paying American last year. Second, I got myself an accountant, which was the sexiest thing I’d done since I bought my first set of lingerie from Forever 21 in 2010. Third: I got checks, which is a far cry from the ancient times (2012) where I’d pay my rent in $20 dollar bills. Lastly: I not only *had* $4,000, but I was not totally financially ruined after writing a check for $4,000. It was incredibly painful, but probably the most responsible I ever felt… and I never want to do it again.

In 2015 I started out with a 1099 job, hence the quarterly taxes, but I got scooped up by a small independent zine, and now I am a w-2 American. In my wildest dreams, I get a tiny amount back — I didn’t start at the Times until April, so my first quarterly taxes payment should’ve covered everything before that, right? — but, um, who knows.

Haley, what are you writing off? What should I write off?

H: What am I NOT writing off, that’s a better question. Ha ha write-offs amiright!!! No just kidding, I use my expenses sparingly and with great restraint. I write off a percentage of my rent, the rent-related utilities (can’t write when I’m cold!), a percentage of my cell phone (can’t write when I’m disconnected from the world at large!), and a lot of food and drink stuff (can’t write when I’m hungry or thirsty, you get it). Any time I go to a restaurant with a friend/colleague I take the receipt and write it off, so, hopefully the IRS thinks it’s real cute that we went for ramen last Friday. I write off all my Metro Passes, and any cab that I take to or from a meeting or work-related event. Any work-related travel, duh. When I buy notebooks or pens, that gets written off; likewise books or magazines I need for research.

J: What do you think Kim Kardashian will write off?

H: I would love to write off my Christoph Robin purple conditioner and my new disgusting, shameful, life-ruining habit of buying $60 candles, but not even Kim Kardashian has managed such a feat. I do know some lucky people from my fashion retail years who had managed to write off their impeccably gorgeous wardrobes, but that was because they were required to wear the brand head-to-toe. At the time I worked in the stock room and no one gave a shit what I wore :((( I don’t work in a stock room anymore but I’m pretty sure it’s still true that no one gives a shit what I wear :)))

What about your expenses? Are you allowed to expense your salads from the New York Times cafeteria? What if you really want a Snickers bar and you can’t get anything done until you have one — does that count? What do you think Kanye West writes off?

“My tweets” — Kanye West, probably.

J: I think I am going to write off… everything? I was worried that getting a Real Lady Job would prohibit me from writing off things like my internet or “research expenses,” like movies or shows, because I wasn’t a freelancer anymore, but then one of my friends pointed out that I haven’t stopped freelancing, so… maybe I can still do that?

I have a lot of student loan debt — I repeat, I HAVE A LOT OF STUDENT LOAN DEBT. Ok, I’m pretty sure Bernie Sanders heard me and he’s on his way. Most of the time, it feels awful, like my life is controlled by this huge mound of debt… until tax season, where I write my interest off with the QUICKNESS. It’s probably my biggest expense.

Do you have student loan debt? How does that configure into your tax strat?

H: I actually don’t! *high-fives a million angels* I have a little bit of credit card debt that I’d like to pay off very soon, but my student loan debt was quite minimal; the perks of only attending part-time, and then dropping out. Kids: drop out of school. No jk do what you want what am I your mom?! No.

I managed to pay it off at the start of last year, which was a huge relief. I was making monthly loan payments — with interest, of course — and scrounging together enough to pay it all in one swoop was probably the only moment I can point to and say that’s it, that’s where it happened, that’s where I got my life together. I mean, my life is still not together, but not paying a loan with interest is a good start, right?

J: This has nothing to do with taxes, but the Ferrante novels are being turned into a television show. Who do you think should play Donato?

H: This is literally the only thing I want to talk about from now until the end of time. Hmm Donato. He’s Nino’s dad, right? The gross-hot professor? This is where you find out that I have a real thing for David Strathairn, probably because of one too many League of Their Own viewings as a child, not at all helped by this Vogue editorial featuring him and Daria Werbowy. I think he could do the gross-hot-professor thing ~very well~.

Who is going to play NINO, that’s my question. Are we still into Oscar Isaac? Yes, right?

J: Yes! Where is your casting award?! How do you think Elena Ferrante does *her* taxes, since she is actually Jonathan Franzen?

H: If she really is Jonathan Franzen it’s probably just all bird-watching related expenses.

“Jonathan, you gave ANOTHER million to a bird-watching society?”

“I just love birds so much :’)” — meeting between Jonathan Franzen and his accountant, probably.

J: OK! But tax season doesn’t last forever — how do you stay on top of your banking for the rest of the year? Do you use cool apps? I used to use Mint, but it was always yelling at me, so now I just get my balance of my checking account in my email every fucking morning, which is why I’m so sad all the time.

Last year, I promised myself that I’d have $1,000 in my regular savings account at all times for quick cash, and then I moved the rest of my savings to a high-interest account, the password for which I’ve conveniently forgotten, so I’m sure it’s growing healthily.

H: Oooh, apps. I had the exact same experience with Mint, and I just stopped using it, because I’m pretty paranoid and obsessive and constantly worried about money, so I’m always checking my bank account and credit card balance. I used to have savings, but then I moved to New York and got a new apartment and started freelancing, so, lol, I guess? I’m working on building those savings back up. In Canada, we have tax-free savings accounts that are pretty cool (“a tax-free savings account is pretty cool” — my tombstone), so my plan is to put all my Canadian income for 2016 in there, as per my Canadian accountant’s advice. In 2016, I’d like to pay off my credit card debt and save $5,000 in the Canadian savings account and $5,000 in an American savings account, which I think is ambitious but doable, which is a combination of phrases that is also a top contender for my tombstone.

J: You and I have basically the same money strat — save for the “Canadian savings account,” which: ew — which extends to most of my New York-based friends. My other friends, however, who don’t live in this hot pile of garbage, are either constantly on vacation or buying condos and I do not understand. Granted, their lives are boring and totally devoid of culture and subway rats, but I suppose it’s a draw. Do you think your money habits are similar to normal (non-media, lol) people our age?

H. I do think my habits are pretty similar, yeah. I’m lucky enough to have a group of friends who also think it’s important to be really transparent, no matter what their jobs are, and we talk a lot about what we’re making and what we’re spending. Most of us spend the majority of our income on rent, because we live in dumb overpopulated urban areas; a few of us are really into saving or buying property in the next few years, which I can’t relate to, but I think it’s more or less in line with our age and values. Some people are doing a bunch of traveling, which is also not something I do, but again, it’s a priority that makes sense at this time.

In terms of daily spending, I think we all spend roughly the same amount on our disposable income: nice restaurants every so often, the requisite coffee for freelancers who need to get out of the house in the afternoon, going out to bars, buying dumb outfits, spending too much time and money at Sephora. My friends who are dating regularly talk about the amount of money those drinks and meals add up to, which I’ve always thought is kind of a fascinating facet of dating, just how much of a literal investment you have to make when you’re getting to know another person. Or “getting to know” another person. *winky face emojis here*

I think we’ll probably stay more or less the same until more people start having babies. THAT’S the real divide in priorities. Right now we’re still mostly a bunch of Adult Teens.

J: What effect do you parents and their financial habits have on you?

H: Oooooooooooooooooooh this is….a loaded question. Lol. Money + families is always a potent mix. And we definitely had a lot of rough years when I was growing up, which had a big impact on me, and still impacts me. I’m very, very, very afraid of debt, and I’m very afraid of not being able to pay my bills, and it’s the kind of irrational childhood fear that really has nothing to do with how much debt I have or how much money I have, it’s about the feeling of not being safe. Or about not feeling like I have a safe space I can return to, like everything is about to be taken away from me. I try to use that as a good motivator to stay out of debt and to save and to keep making as much money as I can, and not let it cross over into a bad anxious space.

J: Same! This is why I get so obsessive about spending: there’s no safety net to catch me if I get into any financial trouble. Fear is a great motivator, right — I’ve saved up several months worth of expenses at this point — but it’s still fear, which means that a lot of my money habits seem healthy and admirable, but they’re actually deeply anxiety-inducing and from a place of shame. Love to be alive!

Ok! Last question: what did you spend your last $100 on?

H: I had to look up my bank statement and I’m actually very impressed and disturbed by how accurate of a picture this paints of my weekend. Ok, more or less in order: ramen with a mean teen ($25), coffee on the way to the subway Saturday morning ($3), water for the subway ride home ($1.50), the cab from a bar to Williamsburg Pizza (it was $8, I think? Idk it was late), said slice of pizza ($4 to Jazmine Hughes over Venmo), a bag of fancy coffee ($12), a box of fancy condoms ($15), tampons ($10, a criminal rate, what did feminism even DO if not get us free tampons), a bag of peanut M&M’s ($1.50, see: tampons, cliches about menstruation and feminists), some tabloid called The New York Times and a big bottle of sparkling water ($7), buncha dumb groceries like paper towels, sponges, arugula, eggs, bread at the grocery store ($20).

What did you spend your last $100 on? Don’t tell me if it was something illegal. Actually, just tell me over Instagram DM.

J: Check your DMs 😉

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