Trading in the Expense Account: Transitioning from Big Law to Public Interest: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I’m from the South – Georgia to be exact – where big trucks and fast cars are not only symbols of success, but also symbols of patriotism and masculinity (although I’m sure we could all do with a little less of this). Getting your license and getting a car were essential rites of passage – akin to bar/bat mitzvahs – turning 16 was the point at which you were an adult. I had a late birthday, so I didn’t turn 16 until my senior year. Luckily, I had an older sister to drive me around starting in my sophomore year and some great friends who graciously gave me rides during my junior year. Obviously, upper classmen would never be caught dead on the bus. As if!

Now I ride the bus every morning to work. What a difference a decade makes. Now that I’m a real adult who has real expenses – but very little money with which to play ­– a car is a luxury that I cannot afford if I also want to eat. Thankfully, the past ten years has also brought about things like Zipcar and Car2Go, which make it easier to live without owning your ride.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s an aspect of working for a non-profit or even the government (depending on the type of work that you’re doing) that encourages you to live in a manner that approximates the type of life experienced by the people whom you are serving. It can be romantic to think about being one of “the people,” but the reality is obviously much different. I recognize the privilege that I grew up with and appreciate all of the things that my parents did for me – and I think that’s part of the motivation I have to work on behalf of those who don’t have the same opportunities – but it also makes it a lot harder to feel like you’re doing good and doing well when you’re constantly worried about money.

Transportation is one of those things that you don’t really think about until it’s eating up a significant part of your budget. When I was 16 and had a car, I was also working part-time at the local grocery store and, although my dad made me pay for the insurance and gas, my income was otherwise completely discretionary and rising gas prices (I literally remember a time when gas was $.99/gallon) did little to deter me from driving as much as I wanted. It’s shocking to me now, but many southern towns either don’t have sidewalks or only have them on one side of the street so sometimes walking is actually dangerous. It’s no wonder most of America’s fattest cities are sprinkled throughout the “Sun Belt,” is it?

I digress. My transportation expenses at 16 were probably significantly more than my transportation expenses now. I spend $1.60 per bus ride and between $1.70 and $2.10 for the Metro, depending on time of day. My work also allows me to deduct my transportation expenses from my paycheck pre-tax, thus also lowering my overall tax liability. I rarely spend more than $80/month (the amount deducted from my paycheck) on my transportation needs, making them roughly 3% of my monthly budget. I try to walk to take the bus when I can since obviously, it’s cheaper. These are the types of calculations you will become intimately familiar with when you’re living on less.

Not everyone will have the choice of whether to own a car or not, but if you are living in a city with a reliable public transportation system you should probably think long and hard about how necessary it is to have a car of your own. Start thinking about how much you’re paying per drive, including insurance, gas, and maintenance.  If you’re still making car payments on top of other car-related expenses, it may just not be the best time to transition to a non-profit career.

Of course, it’s possible to get a great deal on housing outside of major cities that may make up for the expense of owning a car, but I have not found that to be particularly true in D.C. unless you’re willing to move really far away, which I wasn’t because all of my friends are in the city. As you may remember from last month, I am living in a part of the city that is still “up-and-coming” and doesn’t provide access to everything that I would like. But, I can get from point A to point B, safely and cheaply, and that’s exactly what I need.

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