How a Bookseller Does Money

Photo credit: Aranami, CC BY 2.0.

Louisa (not her real name) is a 27-year-old bookseller in the Pacific Northwest.

So, Louisa, how much money are you making?

I recently had my one year anniversary at my current job and I took home $17,600 before taxes.

I also occasionally work at my previous job as a barista, which sometimes adds about $150–300 to my monthly income.

How does that income compare to your expenses? Are you making it work? Do you have money left over at the end of the month?

Well, recently I’ve had to look at my finances a little differently. At my previous job, I was a manager and made about $25,000/year but had no benefits whatsoever. At this job I make significantly less—but I do, for the first time in my life, have regular health insurance and paid sick and vacation time. I’ve been able to take care of some stuff I wouldn’t normally have been able to do, and I also have a much greater safety net since my job also provides short and long-term disability insurance. So there’s some peace of mind there which can’t be priced!

But nuts and bolts:

I take home about $1,400 a month, maybe $1,600 if I pick up barista shifts. Rent is my biggest expense by far, at $800. Bills and other standing expenses — utilities, pet rent for my cats, phone bill, donations — only leave me with about $350/mo disposable income.

I have a savings account which I kick money into every month, but it’s a pretty small amount — $50 on a normal month, $100 on a good month.

It’s not enough for my savings goals, but in a lot of ways I feel very lucky.

So a couple of questions. First, “pet rent” is something you pay monthly on top of your current rent? So your cats can live in your home?

Haha, yeah. It’s an additional $25 per month, per pet, and I have two cats.

Wow, when I had a cat I just had to pay a cat fee up front.

I paid that, too! 😞

Ugh, everyone is trying to get just a little more money out of everybody.

Yeah, I do feel a little nickel-and-dimed by my apartment building at times!

Something they do that I find frustrating is ask a flat fee for utilities (this is billed separate from rent, but you still pay the building) that doesn’t change depending on your actual utilities use.

So there’s no incentive not to run your shower all day long?

Pretty much! I grew up in a household that was very frugal with electricity and water so it’s odd to me that you wouldn’t incentivize that kind of behavior.

I’d say that you could run your air conditioning at full blast, but I’d bet dollars to donuts you don’t have AC, LOL.

LOL! I definitely don’t! Just sweatin’ it out up here on the third floor all summer.

Is it just you and the cats, or do you have roommates?

I’ve been splitting a one-bedroom apartment with my partner, but we’re actually separating (very amicably). That’s been an interesting wrinkle in both of our financial situations!

We are going to be breaking our lease in a few months (yikes) and separately looking for new living spaces. So we are both now trying to bulk up our savings accounts to accommodate the expected costs of finding a new place.

Do you have someone to take over the lease, or do you have to pay a penalty?

We haven’t been able to find anyone to take over our lease. The building holds you liable for rent if the unit stays empty while they search for a new tenant, so we’re assuming we will have to pay at least one month’s rent while they find a new tenant, on top of whatever we each will be paying at our actual living place.

And my ex is ALSO a bookseller, so we aren’t really diving in piles of gold, haha.

It’ll probably take a month of your disposable income (and savings) just to pay half of that month’s rent, plus what you’re putting towards the first+security on a new place (she says, doing the math in her head).

It’s not a pretty picture!

On the subject of math: depending on how much you were paying for out-of-pocket health insurance at your old job (or if you were purchasing health insurance at all), it seems like it’s almost an equivalent salary, at least in terms of take-home, post-tax, post-health-insurance pay.

Is that kind of right?

You were probably bringing home a little over $1,600 a month at your previous job, and now you’re bringing $1,400 (plus $150–200 from barista-ing) but you’re getting paid health insurance?

Right! I just scrolled up and saw that I didn’t mention that I made tips on top of that $25,000 at my previous job though — that was easily an extra $200/week.

How did you transition into your new career as a bookseller? Was it something you had always wanted to do?

So my previous job, I was the lead manager of a small chain of coffee shops — basically, I managed my own location and also took lead on bigger stuff affecting all stores, like training programs, new products, coordinating other managers’ projects, helping develop policy, etc.

I did that for several years but ultimately, it was a lot of stress for me. I’m pretty introverted and need a lot of regular, consistent quiet time, which is hard to get when you are on-call for emergencies and at the top of the responsibility chain.

So I decided to give notice and then saved up a few months’ income before looking around and realizing I really loved books and would like to work with them, and bookselling is pretty noted for being low-stress.

Where do you see yourself in five years? (THE WORST QUESTION EVER, I KNOW.)

Oh no!!

Managing a bookstore? Continuing to work as a bookseller?

If anything puts a cap on the longevity of my bookselling career, it’s going to be the money. The financial situation of my family is not so great, and I would like to be in a better position to contribute.

So whether that means I’m going to try and fast-track myself into management, or find a more lucrative side hustle, or try to laterally shift into the publishing world, I’m not sure. Right now I’m just trying to get through this summer, but I’m definitely considering what my future should be in bookselling.

That makes sense. Right now it looks like you’re able to save a little bit, but not a huge lot — and not enough to help out your folks if they need it, or save for your own retirement. But I did notice that you had “donations” as a monthly budget line item, which I really appreciated.

Well, when it comes down to it, I have an okay safety net between insurance and my family (who aren’t in a great position, but who could still help me in an emergency), and many people don’t.

I actually don’t donate as much as I used to but instead I give what I can and volunteer at my local food bank. This actually feels like the bare minimum to me! I think I could afford to give up more if I weren’t trying to figure out this new apartment/lease-breaking thing.

Well, I hope that it all goes well and that you spend as little money as possible in the process!

Two more questions: What do you think you do really well, financially, and what do you wish you could do better?


I think I do pretty well at saving my money — I grew up with a single mom, raising my brother and me, and she demonstrated a lot of smart financial practices for us with a big emphasis on not spending beyond your means and always putting money aside every month.

So it’s never felt like a pinch or an undue burden to me to set aside a portion of my paycheck that can’t be used (for fun, everyday stuff anyway).

But I am trying to be better at explicitly tracking my money, instead of just sort of wincing at my checking account balance and trying to spend as little as possible. Like, this month I have been trying out a new budget plan which is actually working a lot better than what I was doing before, and I began the month by sitting down and looking at my account activity.

Most of my money after rent etc. goes to food, so while I’ve always been a frugal shopper and home cook, I worked out a weekly grocery budget.

But it’s hard! I have gone over a little bit every week. 😢

It’s still less than I spent last month, though.

Budgets are SO hard.

Yeah! And not fun!

It’s harder to keep to self-imposed rules, for one thing. The only adult telling me what to do with my money is me, right now!

YES. There’s also always something that comes up that you can’t predict, and even if you add in a budget buffer it comes right at the end of the month, after you already spent your buffer.

Yes!! Like, I dropped my phone in the toilet earlier this month (what an ignoble death) and I had to spend money this month I had earmarked to be a boost to my savings on getting it replaced.

So instead of being ahead in my savings, I’m just at normal so really it’s fine, but it’s frustrating! I couldn’t have predicted something like that.

I don’t really know if you can successfully ever budget for unpredictable incidentals — I think that’s the kind of thing where just having more disposable income not divided up into savings, etc. is key.

I know that YNAB wants you to put a little money aside every month for unpredictable stuff. They’d want you to start putting aside $25 a month for “new phone,” because you’re going to need a new phone someday—but if you take that to its extreme, you’ve got “new phone,” “new laptop,” “someday moving into a different apartment,” etc. My brain can only take so many sub-savings accounts!

That feels so stressful to me!

Multiple savings accounts to me just multiply the feeling of not being able to catch up/having multiple obligations to looming future debts. Like, quantifying bad things that might or will happen!

(You can see where I’m a natural wince-and-look-away when it comes to financial stuff after a certain point!)

I think a lot of us are, although we keep trying to stare at our finances long enough to pin them down (and then things change and spoil our plans).

With that in mind, last question: what advice do you have for Billfold readers?

Buy two toasters when you move in with someone, so you never have to figure out how to split one, LOL!

No, I would say, don’t be afraid of trying a new budget plan, even if you feel like you don’t have enough money to gain anything from trying to be a little more flexible.

And if you don’t have a savings account, get one! It makes a difference to not just keep things in your checking account, even if that’s money you don’t touch. Having it in a discrete place makes it easier to build it up slowly and makes looking at what *have* been able to save more rewarding (whether it’s a lot or a little).

Though I bet that’s pretty basic advice for Billfolders! 😀

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