How One Woman Balances Financial Shifts Due to COVID-19 While Saving for Her Son’s College Tuition

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Photo: Stocksy/Trinette Reed

You know where your friends get their hair done, what their dream job is, and even the details of the most recent fight they had with their partner. But what about their salary? Or how much they spend on athleisure every month? For some reason, talking about money remains taboo for many.

That's where Well+Good's Checks+Balanced series comes in. Think of it as a space to inspire more open, frank conversations around money—especially how different people afford the wellness habits that are important to them.

Here, a lawyer living in Chicago shares how she's navigating her changing finances during the pandemic while also prioritizing saving money for college for her 15-year-old son. Spoiler alert: She's a budgeting champ. 

Keep reading to see how a lawyer balances her finances during the pandemic while saving for college for her son.

saving for college budget
Art: W+G Creative

Maria Barlow, lawyer, Chicago, Illinois

Income: $84,000 per year. I've been a lawyer since 2011, and I specialize in family law—divorce, child support, that sort of thing—at my practice, which I own. The pandemic has affected my income greatly. I regard my business as a luxury business. It's not your lights, gas, or food, but something that's often the last thing people will pay for. Accordingly, I've been making less. Some months I make $10,000 a month, but other months I make $3,000. It takes a lot of planning.

Mortgage: $0 per month. I don't have a mortgage. When I first started out, I was making $13 an hour and I saved my money. For example, I loved to drink Starbucks iced tea, but I would buy the mix and make it at home instead of buying it at Starbucks every day. If I craved a bagel with cream cheese, I would make it at home and not buy it out. I learned how to make those kind of sacrifices when I didn't have a lot of money, and those budgeting habits have stayed with me. I also now own and paid off my law-office building, so I don't have a mortgage payment for that, either.

Other recurring bills: $1,440 per month. I don't have a car payment—paid that off, too!—but I do have some other recurring expenses: I spend about $380 for student loans, $60 for utilities, $20 for Internet, $120 for car insurance, $220 for life insurance, and $250 for health insurance. Then I have recurring monthly bills for my business, such as $230 for insurance for the building, $115 for utilities (though that can honestly get up to $500 a month in the summer when the air-conditioning is going non-stop), $40 for client-services software, and $25 for the website domain.

College savings: $600 per month. I have a 15-year-old son, and we're definitely starting to think a lot about college. Hopefully he'll be able to get some scholarships, but if not, we'll just try to pay as much as we can. I started saving for college for my son when he was 10 years old. I contribute to a Certificate of Deposit (CD) savings plan, because the rates are going to be better than a savings account, and I've already paid taxes on it that way. I contribute $600 a month to the CD, which is about what I receive in child support for my son.

Food: $400 per month. My 15-year-old boy eats a lot. I like to do my research before I grocery shop, seeing what sales and promotions are happening at different grocery stores. I often shop at Mariano's or Meijer, and if there's a good deal on something, I'll stock up. For example, I just came across a deal for shrimp being $4 a pound, so I bought a lot of shrimp.

We don't eat out very much. If there's something at a restaurant we like to eat, I'll find out how to make it for us at home. I spend about $400 a month on food for us.

Fitness: $0 per month. Lately, I've been doing a lot of walking, but sometimes I also like to do yoga at home using videos on YouTube. So my fitness spending is actually $0 a month, and I'm still able to be active.

Athleisure and beauty: $80 per month. When it comes to beauty, I'm more of a skin-care person than a makeup person. I use all-natural beauty products—and I'm not talking about beauty brands, I'm talking literally about things I have in my kitchen. I do like to get my hair done once a month, which is about $80 each visit. I'm not really into athleisure, so that's not something I spend much money on.

Other wellness habits: $120 per month. I get a massage twice a month because it helps me relax from my stressful job. Each massage is $60. Something else that is important to my mental health is going on vacation once a year—although obviously that's on hold right now because of COVID-19. Normally, though, I'm really good at planning amazing vacations for my son and me without spending a lot of money. I had planned a trip to Dubai for two of us—using a deal for $1,400, which included our flights and the hotel—but it's on hold because of the pandemic.

I'm so good at finding deals like those, though, that I'm planning on starting a side business for helping people plan their vacations on a budget. I'd get a percentage of the trip cost for planning and finding the deals. It's a way to spread my money-saving tips with others!

Want help navigating life events during uncertain times? Head to Fidelity for intel on handling everything from curveballs like job loss or illness, to joyful moments like marriage, babies, or planning for college.

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