This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which profiles people around the world and details how they earn, spend and save their money.
After graduating from Spelman College in 2015, Brieonna Johnson knew she wanted to work with children.
She applied for teaching jobs, but the pay was low and she was worried about paying off her student loans. Although she had worked as a part-time nanny in college, she hadn't considered that she could turn it into a full-blown career. But then she came across a nannying agency in Atlanta.
"It was like a whole new world opened up where I discovered nannies can get paid benefits and full-time hours and guaranteed hours so that I'm making sure I'm making the salary that I want," the 29-year-old tells CNBC Make It.
In 2016, Johnson found a live-in position with a family in Atlanta and fell in love with the work and the kids. Being able to live with the family was a major draw as she's been able to avoid spending money on rent.
A few years later, in 2019, Johnson's boyfriend accepted a new job in New York City, prompting her to move, too. She landed another live-in job with a family in Manhattan in March, where she worked five days a week. Then, in November 2019, she transitioned to a new schedule where she'd work seven days straight, then have a full week off.
The flexibility allowed her to resume working for her Atlanta family as well, flying back and forth between the cities each week. Although her boyfriend's work eventually took him elsewhere, Johnson decided to stay in New York.
The logistics of flying back and forth each week is tough, but Johnson gets paid well for the work. She earns about $175,000 a year. Her base salary for the family in New York is $130,000, plus any overtime. She earns an additional $30,000 working part-time for the family in Atlanta and another $15,000 through occasional side jobs as a travel nanny and newborn-care specialist.
For Johnson, the best part is being able to form long-term relationships with the families. "It's really rewarding. I have a great bond with both the kids and the parents," she says. "With some families, I really feel like a family member. And it's great being a part of the kids' lives and tag-teaming with the parents to help raise the next generation."
Although Johnson doesn't work a corporate job, she still expects her salary to match her expertise. But because her job blurs the lines of personal and professional more than a typical 9-to-5, it can be nerve-wracking to bring up things like pay increases and benefits, Johnson says.
"Being a nanny, we don't have an HR department. It's very close-knit," she says. "And so it makes it a lot harder to leave the job without feeling like you're leaving the children."
When Johnson moved to New York, she had never dealt with NYC-specific situations, such as navigating the subway with kids, and so she decided to accept a offer lower than what more seasoned nannies were earning. But as she gained more experience, she wanted her salary to reflect that.
In the fall of 2019, she applied for a new position and received an offer from another family for $120,000 a year — nearly double what she had been making — plus a schedule where she'd work one week on, one week off. The money was solid, but the more flexible schedule was what sealed the deal.
She brought the offer to her current employer, expecting to put in her resignation. But they matched it. "I did not in any way expect them to offer such a large raise," Johnson says. "But they were happy to provide what I needed to stay." That, combined with the close relationship she had already formed with the family, made it an easy decision.
Since the pandemic started in March, Johnson has primarily been living in Atlanta. She's still employed by the New York family, and they continue to pay her base salary though she hasn't cared for their kid since the pandemic began.
But pre-pandemic, flying back and forth between New York and Atlanta was routine for Johnson. It helps that her boyfriend works for an airline, which allows her to fly standby for free. Still, if it ever takes more than a few hours for her to get a flight back to New York, her NYC employers cover the cost — a benefit they added when she re-negotiated her schedule and salary.
That doesn't mean it's easy to be constantly traveling back and forth. "I absolutely get tired of flying so much," Johnson says. "It makes it hard to plan vacations because I'm like, 'If it involves getting on a plane, I'm not sure I want to go.'"
Still, the financial security of working multiple jobs is worth it for Johnson. Her father instilled in her the importance of hard work: Growing up, Johnson says he always had at least two jobs as well. By day, he worked in insurance and at night, he waited tables.
Johnson's decision to maintain her life in Atlanta while also working in New York wasn't just about earning more money. Her parents and her boyfriend live in Georgia, as well as many of her friends.
The bond she's developed with the kids she cares for is also a key factor. "I've been with this family in Atlanta for four years, and it's one of those things where you get attached to the kids and you can't let go," she says.
Johnson's employers cover most of her basic living expenses, including rent, utilities, insurance and food when she's working. Her typical monthly budget looks different than most 20-somethings.
Here's what she spent in November 2020.
One of Johnson's biggest, and most unusual, expenses is the private chef she hires during her off weeks in Atlanta when she's not eating with the family. Although it's a luxury, it's well worth it, she says, since she's a "terrible cook" but wants to prioritize healthy eating.
"I love being able to have someone come and cook for me and prepare all of these things that I am just too exhausted to do," she says.
On a more practical level, a good chunk of her income goes toward aggressively paying off her debt. After graduating from college, Johnson had around $25,000 in student loans. She also racked up around $13,000 in credit card debt.
But today, she has just about $15,000 total debt left. She was previously putting $4,000 into savings each month, but shifted her focus toward her debt in May after realizing that the interest her savings earned was far less than what she was losing on her debt. She had also built up a solid emergency fund and aims to keep about $10,000 in savings at any given time.
The pandemic "was a wake-up call for me to realize that I could be let go and have no income and no way of getting a new position, as families were staying in place and letting their staff go," she says. "I was lucky not to be let go. However, I realized that could be me if this goes on long-term."
While Johnson was already an avid saver, she realized she needed to get smart about her debt, too. The pandemic "really changed my mindset," she says.
Johnson knows she wants nannying to be her career, and the family she works for in NYC hopes she'll stay with them until their child is 18.
But she doesn't plan to work forever; Johnson is aiming to retire by 40. "I would love to continue in this career for at least the next 10 years. I look forward to retiring early, so it's not something I'd want to do my entire life," she says. "But I love what I do, and I love the freedom that it allows me to have."
To make early retirement a reality, she's set on maxing out her retirement savings in both her SIMPLE IRA and Roth IRA. In addition to paying off debt, saving money is Johnson's "default," she says. "When I have those two things covered, I'm able to spend a little bit more freely on other things."
She also plans to continue building the nannying agency she helped start in Atlanta in January 2019 with her current employer and co-nanny there. The agency, So Life, utilizes their networks to connect families with qualified nannies. Since the pandemic began, business has started to pick up, Johnson says.
By sharing her story, she hopes to show that being a nanny is a sustainable and fulfilling career. "Often, I feel like the career as a nanny is undervalued and underpaid as well. Even myself, I started off making $400 a month total," she says. "I want to show that there is another way to make money and that there are positions out there for people who are truly interested in kids and love what they do."
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