Living On $30k In The DC Area-Possible or Far Fetched?

woman kneeling in bills

DC is no stranger to the high cost of living you often see in New York City, Miami and Los Angeles.  But can you live on $30,000 a year there?  This question came up on a listserv I frequent and the responses were equally divided amongst those who felt it would be damn near impossible and others saying it’s hard but doable.

Here’s how it started and I’d like your thoughts on the matter.

Here’s the job posting:

Job Title: Festival Assistant @ The Kennedy Center
Department: International Programming
Job Type: Full-Time, Regular
Salary: $30,000 – $33,000 / Yearly
This position provides administrative and logistical support to the Festival Manager and the Office of International Programming to support planning and implementation of international festivals that take place at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The first reply which sparked the debate stated that while she would love to work at The Kennedy Center since she is applying to graduate school for the performing arts, but the salary is too low for anyone to live on comfortably.

I agree that the salary is low.  But your ability to survive on this salary really depends on your ability to manage your finances appropriately and live below your means.  When I graduated college and moved here I didnt even make 30k and I worked at a major university, but the position unbeknownst to me at the time was a stepping stone.  It only when I got a raise bumping me up to not even 30k was I able to get a better apartment and a car.  My bills were paid, but still things were tight.  Luxuries are relative given your goals at the time.  So while I wasn’t shopping like I am right now, I remember being cool with my finances at the time.  I then got a job in the field I wanted to be in and the salary was barely over 30k and you couldnt tell me nothin!  I made it work and while I  hated it,  that position alone is the backbone of my resume now even after finishing grad school.

I feel that if the position might help your career but it would require sacrifices then look into it further, yes it’s low for someone who has been in the field but if you can show commitment to your field by taking a job in your area then hey it wouldnt hurt.  Just my two cents.

By the way here are the breakdown of expenses based on my post about this issue last year:  This is based on someone who has no real financial responsibilities like a mortgage, student loans, credit cards-this is a very lean estimate as we have a low salary to start with…

Here’s the breakdown of taxes and take home from for someone who is single with no dependents:

Picture 39

  • $150- Utilities:  You can find an apartment where utilities are included but if you do pay utilities on a small 1 bedroom or studio then it’s not likely to be more than $60.
  • $75 Cable/Internet/Phone bundled through RCN.  I realize that cable might be considered a luxury so it’s really optional.
  • $200 Transportation $200 for the metro  Here in DC it probably on average costs between $7-$10 per day depending on the distance traveled from point A->B
  • $300 Food/Groceries (including bringing your lunch to work) $250 (coupons obviously cut this down significantly)  My grocery bill for two people is around $400 with no coupons so this is doable for a single person.
  • $250 Health Insurance



This leaves $625 to put towards savings, credit card bills, student loans (work out a lower payment if needed), shopping (makeup, clothes etc) and eating out.

  • $200-Savings
  • $100-Credit Card-this really depends on your balance, if you have one
  • $150-Student loans-again this depends on your balance and what you work out with the lender
  • $175-Discretionary: shopping, eating out, gym membership-essentially play money for you



Maybe I am being idealistic, but it can be done.  Obviously things like prescriptions, emergencies and unplanned expenses come into play here.  Check out this post for even more tips on how to cut your costs on a low salary.

What are your thoughts?  Do you live in a high cost of living area?  If so could you live on $30k per year?


    I fully agree with what you have to learn to manage finances svomi! Luxury – a relative term!

  • Stake Jimmy

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  • Kari

    I wanted to say that I loved reading this article, lots of nice tips! I am still living with my parents but am looking to save enough to move out on my own and complete my masters. I think that living on 30K is doable if you get a roommate or two. Also, becoming a rep for a direct sales beauty or wellness company may help. Or babysitting or dog walking. Those little extra sources of income help a lot.

    • medical assistant

      I agree, living with your parents can save you a lot of money. 30k a year can be manageable if you know how to save and spend.

  • Tanya

    My question is: you say your grocery bill is 400 a month for 2 people while you eat non-processed whole organic foods? How? I am a single woman in Northern VA who eats a clean organic vegetarian diet and my grocery bill is ridiculously high, I probably spend about 400 alone.

    • Gingerlatte

      For my readers who ask what I buy at Whole Foods to keep the bill below $100 This was $78

  • notsosnarky

    When I first moved to DC I lived on 34K. I shopped, ate out, and flew back and forth to Boston for my LD relationship and had a great life. The only thing I would say I didn't do was save or do 401k contributions. People figure it out everyday.

  • Gayatri

    Think this could be done but only by a single woman, not a married couple, and,.certainly not anyone who has children (daycare $$$ would kill the income completely). I would also be wary of compromising on housing. I live in high cost CA and I can tell you that compromising on housing is not only silly but also a security threat. Not all the $$$ in the world would persuade me to rent a place in the seedy part of town just to save a couple of hundred dollars. I am sure my life and personal safety are worth much more than the few hundred bucks I'd save a month. Also, if you rent in a tricky area, your automobile and renter's insurances automatically sky rockets. Either way, you pay so you may as well pay for your safety and well-being.

    Other than that… a single woman making $1800 a month can possibly make it.. but that means no cable, no eating out, no partying, just work, work and more work… not a fun way to live but if jumpstarts one's career and gets one's foot in the door… then heck, I'd have taken it. (had I been single and had no kids, that is) :)

  • Dawn

    I did live in D.C. on $30K. It was eight years ago and it was horrible. I had to live with a roommate, and I had to juggle which bills got paid. I was delinquent with student loans and blew off my credit cards entirely.

    I wasn't out partying or anything like that — my family lived out-of-state (and wouldn't/couldn't visit me) and I spent my spare money on gas and car repairs. Yay for museums and other free entertainment in D.C.; boo for the higher cost of living.

    You're right, though, about those cornerstone positions on your resume. I had just switched careers and it was a terrible job, too, but one that I milked for all it was worth and used it as a springboard to way better things. I did get the student loans on track but I gave up on the credit card debt as other life issues arose.

  • aisha1908

    I'm sorry – who here has an advanced degree and pays $150 per month in student loans? I attended a relatively cheap grad school, had in state tuition and a partial scholarship. That still left 15,000/yr in tuition. repayment of federal loans alone will cost at least $300 a month. I think the only way one can live on $30,000 in a city like DC, NY, Chicago, etc… with student loan debt is with roommates. you won't be able to furnish a studio apartment or handle the utilities along with loans. If you're loan free – than $30,000 is more than enough!

  • ParisGirl111

    When I took the net pay of $910.18 and multiplied by 26 weeks (bi-weekly pay) and then divided this by 12, I came up with $1972 per month. That is significantly less than the estimated $2300. Did I miss something?

  • Lisa

    We lived in Fairfax and then Prince William County when we first moved here, family of 4, on my husband's salary of $28k after I quit my job in DC to stay home with the kids. We owned a townhouse that we bought for $91k in 2001, CHEAP for NOVA, we had no cable, never ate out, entertained ourselves and only vacationed with family. Yes it can be done, you have to make sacrifices, but it can pay off.

  • Sarah

    What list serv is this? Just curious because I am looking for arts admin jobs and that is definitely the starting salary. I have interviewed for jobs under $30k in that field as well. You gotta pay your dues starting out in this field. Thanks for the post! Just found this site and love it.

  • Lila

    Okay, weird. Now my other comment is missing? I'll just post the whole thing here if you want to delete what's up above:

    I apologize if I'm looking at this incorrectly, but how did you come up with $625 for leftover money each month? A $910.18 bi-weekly pay translates to $1972/month net pay (26 paychecks divided over 12 months). Subtracting the fixed expenses that you estimate would leave $297, not $625, which is a huge difference, especially if someone has student loans. I think that you were doubling the gross pay, and even if the person in question gets some of the tax money back, it won't be the full tax amount–and he or she wouldn't see any of it for months anyway.

    I'm from the DC area and I'd agree that someone could live on a $30K salary, but only with roommates. My ex had the exact salary, I think, or maybe $28K, and his rent was about $450; he was definitely paycheck-to-paycheck, though, with three roommates. He also was able to Metro to home and work without a bike, car, or need of a bus, which saved money.

  • Lila

    Oops, the rest of my comment was cut off:

    He was definitely paycheck-to-paycheck, though, with three roommates. He also was able to Metro to home and work without a bike, car, or need of a bus, which saved money.

  • mel

    I don't spend that much either because my husband foots the bill for eating out and most discretionary. 2 hair appointments a month have me at $120 so if I wanted to eat out and see a movie I'd be over $175.

  • Nisha

    I love in DC but I think it'd be impossible to do it on $30k unless you really sacrificed a lot. For instance, $175 a month for discretionary/going out/eating out expenses? That's near impossible to do if you live in DC and plan on having a life. Also, the only way to get cheap rent is with roommates – studios are not affordable on a $30k salary.

  • me in millions

    I started off in the DC area making $32,000 and it was hard but do-able. I had a roommate, no student loan debt, and no car which definitely helped with expenses.

  • Gingerlatte

    I went the roommate route and lived in VA at the time. My rent there was $640 sharing a two bedroom apartment. If I were single Im not sure I would do it again because she was a nutball but if I had to I guess living in a house where I had my own bathroom wouldnt be bad at all. Studios do tend to cost more than a shared house/apartment situation but I guess it's up to your preferences.

  • Greta

    As a single woman I wouldn't live by myself in SW DC in a $700 a month condo. Not worth it. Georgetown really isn't all that expensive if you're in a group house. I lived there for 2 years and paid $575 a month. back in 2005. You just have to find the right house and if you're going to be taking public transportation living in a safe area is invaluable. The walk to and from the Metro can be very dicey at night in certain parts of the city. Also, I worked in a bar when I first started out here making $25,000. You can do it, but you have to be committed to being responsible.

  • Gingerlatte

    I went the roommate route and lived in VA at the time. My rent there was $640 sharing a two bedroom apartment. If I were single Im not sure I would do it again because she was a nutball but if I had to I guess living in a house where I had my own bathroom wouldnt be bad at all. Studios do tend to cost more than a shared house/apartment situation but I guess it's up to your preferences.

  • missmajestic

    I lived in the DC on 31K. Downtown Silver Spring with a roommate. I had a car, but it was paid for. I had Student Loans, too. My employer paid for my health insurance. And I was looking for higher paying jobs. I liked my job (at a non-profit of course) but I had no intention of staying there for a long time and grad school was one of my long-term goals anyway. I had several friends who lived in the DC area after college….all of them had roommates…some had more than 1 roommate. When my roommate got married and I moved into a studio that was 800 something plus utilities it was super tight but I was planning to leave the area to go to grad school. I was going to stay in that situation I would have been in the way red on my salary. In our building, you had to make below 50K to qualify for a reduced rental rate. (The market value was 1800) The rental office told me as long as I made at least 23K I "qualified" for the apt. yeah right.

    If I were going to take the job listing in the post, I would get a part-time retail job just to stack extra paper.

  • mapgirl

    I think you are being too idealistic on the housing as far as living alone is concerned. FMV for a studio in the Washington Metro Area is over $1000 a month w/o utilities. For $700+/mo you are sharing a group house and still paying about $100-150/mo for utilities. That rent is realistic because that was my rent in Georgetown with a bunch of roommates back in 2003. I certainly know someone who lived in a sun room with french doors and little privacy for <$500/mo, but I wouldn't call the neighborhood very safe or a long-term situation. BTW, you can't take Metro to the Kennedy Center. You'll be riding the bus or bike to get there after getting off at Foggy Bottom.

    There are plenty of my old friends who lived in DC for <$30K/yr. It takes some flexibility and compromise, but it can be done. A lot of them shared chores/mother's helper work in exchange for cheap rent. They rarely drank; they packed their lunch; they walked or took the bus. Some of them lived in ratholes, some of them lived in swanky neighborhoods. It all depends.

  • fabdogooder

    I think it can definitely be done, but I can image it would be a bit of a challenge to save money though.