How a Grants and Contracts Manager With a Master Life Spreadsheet Does Money

Photo credit: bobistraveling, CC BY 2.0.

Meg (not her real name) is a 33-year-old international grants and contracts manager in the Triangle, North Carolina area.

So, Meg, how much are you making?

$56,000 and some change. I actually took about a $10K pay cut moving from DC to NC, but I think it’s paid for itself in cheaper rent and transportation costs and also quality of life. DC and I had a love/hate relationship that was mostly hate by the time I left. So I live in the Triangle, NC area now and have been here for a little over a year. But I spent about 15 years in DC before that.

We just ran a piece from another Triangle resident! She was noting that rents were going up, but compared to DC they must be significantly lower.

Yeah! The one who bought a mattress mid-move? I was contemplating the exact plan until I read that article. The rents are pricier than I was expecting for the area but waaaaay better than DC.

So what are you paying in rent?

I’m getting ready to move in a couple of weeks, so I’ll do new rent (old rent is complicated with lots of specials/discounts). I’ll be paying $1,025/month for a 2 bed/1 bath duplex near downtown.

That’s not bad. Certainly better than what you’d be paying in a lot of cities.

Agreed! The closest I came to that in DC was a basement room without a kitchen but with an hour commute each way. This will be my first time having anything bigger than a one-bedroom and I’m very excited. 😄

I’m excited for you!


So let’s jump back to what you said about taking a pay cut to move to NC. Did you specifically choose where you wanted to move, how much you thought you’d make, how much your life might improve, etc.?

I’d been planning to leave DC for a few years but was having trouble landing a job somewhere else as an out-of-state candidate. I’d get to final interviews and then get feedback that they went with someone local. Before doing grants and contracts, I did international exchange programs and people tend to retire or die in those jobs so the competition can be stiff.

I saved up a Fuck Off Fund of sorts and decided to move when my lease was up in 2016. I actually ended up quitting a contractor job with the State Department right before the election, so I got lucky there.

I didn’t have a job lined up, but I had interviews and was working with a temp agency so I knew I could make it work until I found a job.

I knew I wanted to move to the RDU/Triangle area because it’s the most affordable place to do international exchange-type work and there are a bunch of large universities to work at. And also, I was trying to get closer to my folks who live across the border in VA (but not too close).

I had a budget set up of the bare minimum I’d need to make and I knew I’d be saving money on rent and not having to pay metro/parking costs.

This was definitely a quality of life move though.

I’m glad it worked out for you — and I like that you pre-planned your budget! Are you a budgeter by nature?

Thanks! I am. I actually have a MASTER LIFE SPREADSHEET that details job searches/applications, potential grad degrees/certifications, budgets for buying a house, budgets for renting, ideal budgets (sigh), what if I get fired budgets, retirement budgets, what I actually spend each month, savings goals projected out, net worth tracker, housing/apartment info.


Haha I love it, but I get a lot of flack my friends who think I’m nuts. But! I think it allows me to do things like move to NC without a job or join the Peace Corps.

I do not think you’re nuts. In fact, I think I should add a few more sheets to my current financial spreadsheet, LOL.

Haha I’m glad I’ve inspired you! I actually made one for a friend who was planning a career change/move, but he didn’t really use it.

Tell me more about that “ideal budget.” Is that what you would like to be spending but can’t right now because… ???

It is! It’s a budget of all the things I want to spend money on or spend more money on, but can’t because I don’t currently make enough. Like I’d love to adopt a dog! But that would mean hiring a dog walker and that’s money I don’t have in my budget right now. Or I’d love to incorporate some yoga classes to supplement/balance out my Crossfit membership, but I can’t afford both right now.

Got it. That brings us back to income vs. expenses. What are your major expenses at present? What about saving, etc.?

  • Rent: $1025
  • Utilities: $75
  • Entertainment (Netflix, Spotify, Wi-Fi, etc): $75
  • Student Loans: $275
  • Groceries/Toiletries/House Supplies: $675
  • Restaurants: $50
  • Gas: $25
  • Car Insurance: $50
  • Phone: $40
  • Savings: $500
  • Crossfit: $150
  • Charity: $50
  • Flex Funds: $100 (this usually goes to haircuts, birthday gifts, supplementing eating out, etc.)
  • Acorns Investing: $10
  • Health/Dental Insurance: $120
  • Retirement: $280 + $420 (employer match) = $700

I love that you clearly had this list prepared.

Haha worrier/planner for life. 😄

How do you feel about these expenses? Are they pretty much where you think they should be? Are you always trying to optimize them?

My food costs and the Crossfit classes are scary expensive, but I view them as investments in Future Meg’s health? I try to eat Paleo most of the time and it’s expensive. I could do both things cheaper, but I know eating Paleo makes me feel better and the only exercise thing I’ve ever stuck with is this Crossfit program. Every time I get a COLA or my rent changes I go back in and try to be critical with my budget. Like for a while I was in denial about my food costs. I knew what it cost every month but I kept budgeting it lower. So I might add extra money there or up my savings.

Everyone feels like they’re spending too much on food. EVERYONE I INTERVIEW. And yet here we are.

I’m glad I’m not alone? But also why is it so expensive?!

Because we need it or we’ll starve. Same with rent.

This is true. With rent I could pay maybe $100–$200 less if I got roommates. But I don’t want roommates anymore unless I have to. It’s all choices and personal balancing acts, I think.

I agree. Although there’s a certain amount of “you need to be earning X to make choice Y.” Income is as big of a factor as anything else.

That’s very true. Privilege as well. I fully appreciate that I’m lucky I’m able to say no to roommates now or that I can choose to eat Paleo.

What choices are you hoping you’ll be able to make in the future? A dog, yoga classes, and… homeownership? A big vacation?

All of the above! I have a savings goal spreadsheet. The immediate goals are a new mattress and couch. But ultimately it’s a down payment for a house, a dog, and paying off student loans. A proper vacation would be nice too, but it’s pretty far down on the list right now.

Also retirement always.

Aside from “spending less on food,” are there any things you wish you did better financially? Or is it more like “I want to change my behavior, so I’ll make a spreadsheet to help me do it?”

There are definitely things I think I could be doing better financially.

I feel like I could be better about investing and retirement. My folks were/are awful with their finances. They make way more than they need but every month is a financial crisis and they have no savings or retirement and considerable credit card debt. Everything I’ve learned about finance has been me trying to go in the opposite direction of them. I’ve also learned a lot from awesome sites like The Billfold (you are a public service, Nicole).

I didn’t really know what I was doing with my first job when I opened up my 403(b), I mainly just did it because it sounded responsible. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s taken me a long time to realize I should be optimizing my choices for my situation and goals, not just doing things that sound responsible in my head. Also, investing overwhelms me. Right now I do the Acorns thing and if that doesn’t go horribly, then I will eventually graduate to real investing.

I don’t think I’m earning as much money as I could be either, but I’m not sure how to balance that with a job I don’t hate. If anyone knows of a job that pays really well and involves international travel, I would love to hear all about it! I’ve generally chosen jobs in the international non-profit sector that allow for a lot of work travel but don’t pay super well. I also did the Peace Corps, which is expensive in terms of what you need to save up for to go and in terms of lost income during the years you serve. These career choices have given me a ton of great experiences (hey there, 25 y/o me who saw the Great Wall and the Pyramids in the same week) that I’m so thankful for, but part of me feels like I’m behind my peers in terms of saving/retirement and owning property.

I think these are all what happens after the spreadsheet-type things. I need to read up on investing and how to balance my debts with building wealth.

That’s kinda where I am right now: I’ve got budgeting and saving down (thanks to a stable income) so I’m focusing on investing and building wealth.

Yes! It’s been really interesting reading your articles about that! I feel like I’m still getting my saving down for now.

I think you’re doing fine.

Thanks! I feel more comfortable financially here in NC than I did in DC.

Last question, then: what advice do you have for Billfold readers?

I’m really guilty of comparing myself to others and I think that’s one thing you shouldn’t do with finances. Definitely steal ideas from people that you think sound interesting or might work for you, but our situations are all so different that you shouldn’t feel bad that someone is doing Y when you’re still doing X. At least you’re doing X! I am working on practicing what I preach. 😄

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