This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which profiles people across the U.S. and details how they earn, spend and give away their money.
For Leah Warwick, saving for the future is as important as spending money in accordance with her values.
The 25-year-old social worker in New York earns $70,000 per year. One of her financial goals, she explains on a clear June day from her living room in Sunnyside, Queens, is to learn more about investing and financial literacy through a socially conscious lens.
"I want to give my money to a place that is run for women, by women," Warwick tells CNBC Make It. "It's important for me to ensure that the money I spend is well spent."
She makes an effort to support companies and brands whose mission and practices take into account the betterment of society, not purely profit.
Warwick compares her interest in impact investing to choosing high quality ingredients when she bakes: "I love to cook, so I want to buy the best butter," she says. "The best butter is going to produce a better cake. And so if I can give my money to a place that does better investing ... it creates a better world, a better environment, a better future."
That desire to influence change is also at the center of her career. Warwick moved to New York from Florida to attend graduate school at New York University, where she graduated with a master's degree in social work in 2017. After graduation, she briefly worked at a family shelter before accepting her current job, working for the city as a social worker on Rikers Island.
There, Warwick advocates for incarcerated men living with infectious diseases, primarily HIV and hepatitis C, in one of the complex's 10 jails. She helps her patients get approved for treatments, talks with them about their lives and tries to be "a friendly face in a place that is so depressing and oppressive."
She has worked on Rikers for 1½ years and finds the job fulfilling. She wants to continue working there, hopefully one day in management.
"I've been so humbled by being able to be in an environment where I'm able to get to know these people that society has made so many assumptions about," she says of her patients, who may be held on Rikers anywhere from one day to years.
Warwick is passionate about her job, but she says it's important that her manager recognize and reward the value she brings to the table. Learning her worth was a process, but now she's comfortable advocating for herself.
That mentality has already paid off: When she started working at Rikers, she earned $60,000 per year. Soon, a co-worker left and Warwick picked up more responsibility. That led her to ask her supervisor for an increase in compensation to match her workload, and she was given a $10,000 raise.
"I don't have a problem leaving for another place that values me," she says. "I have very clear boundaries of what I think I deserve and what I think I'm good at."
When she was unemployed, Warwick earned extra income by taking surveys and being part of focus groups, which she still periodically participates in to supplement her income. She finds them by scouring Craigslist and calling local agencies, and she says there's a certain skill involved to being selected to participate.
Pay varies by company, but she estimates this side hustle averages around $60 an hour. She's saved over $5,000 in a PayPal account from her side hustle, which acts as her emergency savings and an occasional Seamless fund.
"I knew how to market myself so that people would want to hear my opinion and pay me for it," she says. "I am very good at telling people what I don't like."
Here's a breakdown of how Warwick saves and spends in a typical month.
One of the benefits of living in Sunnyside, aside from its proximity to Rikers Island, is that it can be easier to find a decently sized, reasonably priced apartment than in Manhattan and many parts of Brooklyn. Warwick and her partner, Gabs Ricci, split a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment that costs $1,760 per month.
They have a large kitchen, spacious living room, communal backyard and plenty of space for entertaining guests. Laundry is included in the rent, which is a luxury in New York, as is the storage space in the basement.
Warwick is one of the rare millennials offered a pension at work. She takes advantage of it by contributing 4.5% of her annual salary, which comes to around $240 each month.
She also automatically invests $780 per month in a Roth 457, a retirement account similar to a 401(k) for government and nonprofit workers. Since it's a Roth, Warwick won't have to pay taxes on disbursements she takes in retirement, assuming she follows the withdrawal rules.
Warwick likes to splurge on quality, fresh ingredients. She enjoys cooking for her partner, and the couple occasionally go out for meals in the neighborhood. They split monthly food costs evenly and recently spent $560 to receive fresh, organic produce from a local farm every week for 26 weeks. A recent box included arugula, kale, bok choy, scallions and more, perfect for Warwick, who is a vegetarian. The couple also contributed $40 to a fund that subsidizes the produce boxes for low-income families.
"I love to eat and I love to cook," says Warwick. "I don't believe in denying myself those things. I don't want to feel guilty about it."
Entertaining is also important to Warwick, and she enjoys cooking for friends and treating them to meals at her apartment every now and then.
Warwick brings her lunch to work every day. While she could eat at the jail's commissary, she prefers to prepare her own meals and coffee.
Warwick has student loans totaling around $115,000 from her undergraduate and graduate education. All of her loans are federal, and she is registered for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a 2007 program that allows qualified government and not-for-profit workers to have their federal student loans canceled after they make on-time payments for 10 years. She is currently on an income-based repayment plan, paying $60 per month.
Though she's still on her mother's phone plan, Warwick pays $75 for service. She and Ricci split utilities, which come out to around $120 per month each.
Warwick takes advantage of the commuter benefit program offered by her workplace and has her $127-per-month unlimited Metrocard deducted from her paycheck pretax. This saves her a few hundred dollars per year. On late nights out, she occasionally opts to take an Uber home.
A $10-per-month makeup bag is one of Warwick's rare indulgences. "It brings me so much joy," she says. "They're cute little bags, you can use them for anything." She also pays for Hulu and Spotify subscriptions, which are around $5 and $10, respectively.
As an employee at Rikers, she's part of a union and pays $30 a month in dues, which cover her health insurance costs and worker's comp.
"My health insurance is completely free, which is the most incredible privilege that I have access to," she says. "I've developed a lot of medical issues lately, so I've actually been utilizing my health insurance a lot, which is so wonderful."
An avid runner, Warwick spends around $25 per month on average for races, but running outside is free, and her yoga studio is donation-based. She spends around $30 per month on food and toys for Barney, her cat. Her other miscellaneous expenses add up to around $10. She's not much of a drinker, she says, and looks for free or inexpensive activities to do with Ricci. She doesn't budget for travel; rather, she uses her JetBlue Plus card points to cover the cost.
"We're actually looking at taking a vacation [to Portland] using the massive amount of points we've accrued from opening that card and using it so much," she says. "I really like JetBlue, and I will typically pay $30 to $40 more a plane ticket to fly them, as opposed to another airline."
The card comes with a $99 annual fee, but Warwick says she earns enough points for the expense to be worth it.
She also routinely donates to GoFundMe campaigns and funds for those recently released from Rikers, but her main form of giving, she says, is to friends who might need some help splitting the cost of dinner, for example, or taking a group trip. Eventually, she'd like to be able to give even more.
"I think it should be about equity, not equality. There's a distinct difference," she says.
Pension included, Warwick is saving around 17% of her pre-tax income, well over the 10% Ginty recommends for people in their twenties.
"I'm happy with what she has in savings, when you add it all up," says Ginty. "She's going to have a pension, which is fantastic, she'll have Social Security because she's paying into right now, and she has her own savings."
If she wanted a bit more diversification, Ginty says she could split her retirement contributions between the Roth and a traditional 457 account. That would save her a bit on taxes right now.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is an amazing opportunity, says Ginty — if you qualify for it. The program, which first opened for enrollment in 2008, forgives a participant's federal loan balance after 10 years if they meet certain strict requirements. So far, fewer than 1% of applicants have had their loans forgiven.
Ginty, who has helped clients with PSLF, calls it a "convoluted, frustrating experience."
"I like it in practice, it's a great program, but the question is can you get it to work for you," she says. "It's a lot of work on the participant's part to stay on top of it and have a paper trail."
News reports of the program's effectiveness have driven this point home. Following all of the program's rules, getting re-certified every year and ensuring your loan servicer tracks your payments correctly takes a lot of effort in and of itself.
Warwick's job definitely makes her qualified for forgiveness, and she says she is often on the phone with her servicer. But Ginty advises her to get everything in writing: Send all paperwork via certified mail, Ginty says, and hold on to the receipt. Email is preferable to a phone call, she adds, because servicers often provide incorrect information over the phone.
"If you do it over the phone you can't prove that they provided incorrect information," Ginty says. "You could record the phone call, but you want to make sure you have your own documentation. It's better to do it over email so you get everything in writing."
If her servicer is only responsive over the phone, Ginty suggests following up with an email that summarizes the call. "Then say, 'Is this correct? Please write back if not.'"
Finally, hiring a lawyer who specializes in PSLF at the beginning of the process is worth the cost, Ginty says, if Warwick can afford it. Ginty suggests asking a trusted source, like a CFP, CPA or another lawyer, for a recommendation, and says meetings can run a couple hundred dollars.
It's smart to have savings in a separate account so you aren't tempted to spend it, says Ginty. And keeping some funds in a PayPal to use for guilt-free spending makes sense as well. Still, Warwick's money could be working a little harder for her in a high-yield savings account at an institution like Ally or Discover.
"Overall, opening a high-yield account might make her $120 a year," says Ginty.
Plus, PayPal accounts aren't FDIC-insured, whereas savings accounts are.
Warwick is contributing around 17% of her pay to her retirement investments, which is significant. It's invested in mutual funds, which is also smart.
But she has also started purchasing individual shares in companies like Apple and PayPal using Robinhood, an investing app. While advisors don't typically encourage newbie investors to invest in individual companies — they should focus on mutual funds and ETFs in a retirement account — Ginty says Warwick is contributing enough to her retirement and emergency savings that "dabbling" with the Robinhood account is fair game.
"It's really important to keep dabbling in the stock market separate from your retirement accounts, so I think she's doing that well," says Ginty. "Her attitude on it is correct, 'I'm going to put it in there as a play account.'"
All of this said, the one area Warwick could improve on is her "fun" money, says Ginty. Warwick prioritizes helping others, but she shouldn't forget to treat herself every now and then.
"She doesn't spend very much money on herself," says Ginty. "She has wiggle room to save for something fun."
While Ginty recommends Warwick spend more on herself, one of Warwick's financial goals is to be able to give some money to her family. Warwick grew up in a lower middle class family in South Florida — her mom is a high school teacher and her dad restores luxury cars — and she says while her family is doing fine without her help, she'd like to pay for periodic small indulgences, like buying her mom a plane ticket to come visit her.
"It would be cool just to alleviate some financial tension," says Warwick. "The most important lesson I've learned about money is that if you have it, you should share it."
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program as the Public Student Loan Forgiveness program. It has been updated.
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