living with money

‘I Bought a New York Apartment on a Librarian’s Salary’

Photo: George Marks/Getty Images

In New York, buying an apartment often feels out of reach to anyone without a trust fund or a giant salary. In Brooklyn, the average home sale price in 2017 was $993,955 (the median was $770,000), so you can understand why a woman making $57,000 as a librarian would think real estate was beyond her means. But with a lot of determination — and a willingness to compromise on size and neighborhood — she bought her own studio apartment in 2015. Here’s how she did it.

I never thought of myself as being good at saving. I always wanted to be the kind of person who tracks their spending, but I’m not. And for most of my life, there was no point, because I didn’t have any money to track. Buying an apartment certainly didn’t feel within reach, especially when I was in my 20s, living in New York and working as a Broadway usher. My take-home pay was about $300 a week for years. My friends who have office jobs and make a lot of money were always like, “Oh, maybe I could buy at some point,” but we’re in our mid-to-late 30s now and most of them haven’t.

I was first inspired to buy when a friend of mine, another Broadway usher, bought her apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. She was extremely frugal, and she encouraged me. It can be really hard if you’re doing it solo. But the more people I met who’d done it, the more I realized that I could, too.

I bought my studio apartment in 2015, and the biggest reason I was able to save up for it was that I had a really cheap living situation before that. I rented a tiny bedroom in a three-bedroom apartment in Kensington, Brooklyn, for $450 a month. The room was only big enough to fit a twin bed. I was there for 12 years, and I stayed even when I could afford something better, because I knew it was the only way I could save up for down payment.

I am the second youngest of nine kids, and frugality was part of the culture of our family. My dad was a professor, and because there was so many of us to support, he worked summers at a horse-racing track. We all got jobs as soon as humanly possible. One big thing that affected my finances as an adult was that my mom insisted that we not take out student loans for college. We could either go to the school where my dad worked, which was free for us, or we could get scholarships. My sisters joined the military to pay for school. Borrowing money was just not something we did. Most of my friends have had to pay a couple hundred dollars a month toward student loans their whole adult lives. I think that if they could have saved that money instead, they might have enough to buy by now.

I got scholarships for my bachelor’s degree, and between that and summer jobs I finished without debt. Then I got my master’s in theater from a university in Ireland, which was super cheap. I lived with one of my sisters and babysat her kids while I was there, so between her help and some savings, I was able to swing it. I thought I wanted to be a theater critic, so I moved to New York. Then it turned out I didn’t really like writing theater reviews as much as I always thought I would.

I was able to bounce around for a bit by living very, very cheaply. All of my friends had regular jobs, so they could go to the bar and spend $70 without thinking, and I absolutely could not do that. I could have one drink. That’s not a big deal, but if you’re not drinking, you just get tired after a while and want to go home. It affected my social life, for sure. And I never wanted to force people to pay for me on dates, so I probably dated less. I still had fun, but I definitely met fewer new people than I could have. I also didn’t really travel. I remember going on a ski trip with friends, but I stayed in the house the whole time because I couldn’t afford to actually ski. I didn’t mind. I liked staying home and reading a book.

Being a Broadway usher was fun, but I knew it was unsustainable, so I looked at my skill sets and started thinking about what I could do. Becoming a librarian hadn’t occurred to me before, but I needed a job that could allow me to retire properly. Ushering taught me that I like dealing with people, and I also like literature and writing. Being a librarian checks all those boxes. I got my master’s degree in library sciences at Queens College when I was in my early 30s, and it cost about $12,000 total. I really wanted to go to Pratt, but it would have cost much more. I did have to take out a federal student loan for about $7,000 to pay for tuition, but I could keep covering my living expenses by ushering on the side.

After I finished my degree, I got my full-time librarian job, and my starting salary was $57,000 — more than double what I’d ever made before. I had the initial reaction of, “Oh, I can go out with my friends now!” But I did my best to keep my former lifestyle for several years. I knew that if I didn’t save up for an apartment then, I wasn’t going to be able to do it at all. First, I paid off that student loan, which I did in about five or six months. I later realized that wasn’t the best way to prioritize, but I just wanted it gone. Secondly, I wanted to buy a place of my own. And thirdly, I wanted to save for retirement.

It took about three years to save enough to make an offer on a studio apartment. I was hoping to spend maybe $175,000 or $200,000 to get a proper one-bedroom in a slightly more interesting neighborhood, but that probably would have taken another two years of saving, and I was getting impatient. The apartment I bought is close to where I was renting in Kensington, near Midwood, and it was listed for only $115,000. I walked in and thought it was so cute. My friend was like, “It’s like an H&M dress: Do you like it because you like it, or because it’s cheap?” And I was like, “I don’t know!” But I put in an offer for $109,000, and it was accepted. I had enough money saved for 20 percent down and closing costs, which totaled to about $30,000.

At first, I thought it was just a starter place, and I’d maybe rent it out after a couple of years and buy something bigger. But since I fixed it up with a Murphy bed and custom cabinets, I think I’ll stay. The improvements cost about $11,000 total, and they made a huge difference. If I put it on the market today, I think I could get about $150,000 for it, because it looks so much better. I also bought a car so that I don’t feel so isolated in my neighborhood, which isn’t close to many trains. I drive to my job, which is also in Brooklyn, and I also can drive to see friends if I want.

The mortgage process took a while, but when my final wire transfer went through and I got the keys, I was so happy. I invited friends over and we had Champagne and pizza, and I brought a picture of my family as the first thing to put in it. I take so much pride in my home now, and I keep it beautiful and neat. My old roommates thought I was a big mess, but now I’m really clean, and I love coming home every night.

‘I Bought a Brooklyn Apartment on a Librarian’s Salary’