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What $50,000 Doesn’t Buy You in San Francisco

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by Shayan Saalabi

As I hurtled toward my college graduation earlier this year, I became consumed by a ceaseless anxiety. I would no longer be a “student” (an English major, no less, floating without aim from semester to semester) but a part of “the workforce.”

You know, the unemployed part of it. 

You want a “career” after college? How cute.

While I was intent on spending my last days on campus staring at the remaining balances of my mounting student loans, a startup that I’d applied to invited me to interview in-person at their office in San Francisco for a marketing role. 

Despite my dipping self-confidence, I somehow survived a string of intensive interviews and landed an offer — 50,000 dollars. Fifty Thousand! To a 22-year-old with roughly 378 dollars of his parents’ money stashed away in savings, that is an almost incalculable amount of money. Fifty-fucking-thousand! 

What I thought getting paid $50,000 would feel like.

I soon signed on, foolishly thinking that $50,000 would be more than enough to sustain someone with essentially no expenses in San Francisco. Sure, maybe I’d spend a spell at my childhood home in San Jose to save up some moving cash, but I’d be brunching with my tech bros on a cool Sunday in Hayes Valley in no time. 

As soon as I started working, it became apparent, almost immediately, that this dream would be unsustainable, even on a salary that was almost 18,000 dollars higher than that of the average American. How stupid was I, someone who wasn’t playing shooting guard for the Golden State Warriors or product-managing something, to think that there’d be enough space for me? 

This, in no way, is a slight of my then-employer. I didn’t ask for more money because I didn’t think that I’d need it. I spent most of my life in San Jose, another unbelievably expensive place, and was more than aware of San Francisco’s skyrocketing costs and relentless pricing-out of longtime inhabitants. Still, I selfishly tried to ride the wave of the tech-this and tech-that washing the city’s lower-income residents (and cultural backbone) away, only to be swept up too. 

I commuted until I couldn’t. I’d wake up early, around 6:30, to drive 30 minutes to Diridon in a sleep-deprived panic. Then, if I hadn’t missed the bullet train (which I did far too often) I’d slip in-and-out of sleep for another 50 minutes as we’d skip toward King Street. Then, I’d shuffle off of the train with my fellow early-morning zombies and walk 25 minutes to my FiDi office… Only to do the whole fucking thing in-reverse that night. 

But the cruel thing about this commute wasn’t the time, it was the money. It was the six spent on parking. The ten for the train there. The ten for the train back. It was the 30, 40-dollar fill-ups at the pump. By month’s end, I was looking at a phantom 500 dollars spent on my commute alone. 

And as my first paychecks came in — maybe I should’ve accounted for taxes in my earlier daydreams — the thought of soon signing a lease somewhere in the city only made me sick.

Sure, I could’ve moved closer if I really had to. I could’ve scrapped and scrounged with a crew of entry-level marketers at the shady end of the street and still have had some change left over. But wasn’t the whole point of my saying “yes” to a startup — effectively abandoning my hopes of becoming some sort of writer to tweet tweets for somebody else — contingent on making the money that everyone in Silicon Valley couldn’t shut up about? 

Yes, it was. It was the whole point. I was lured by a number into an industry, a way-of-life, that I hated. And that number amounted to very little in a city whose buses flashed ads of apps that optimize workflows, instead of upcoming films. Caught between a brutal commute and an impossible move, I quit. 

I quit, but only because I could. I had no lasting ties to San Francisco or the chrome-covered, chopped salad dystopia it’s becoming. But so many San Franciscans who’ve built lives for themselves and their families over years and years can’t walk away, forever forced to survive on tightened belts and razor-thin budgets. If 50,000 dollars isn’t enough for this place, what is? 

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1 Comment

  1. Barbara Saunders
    April 20, 2020 at 7:22 am

    The great point the author brings up here: It’s hard to earn and save your way out of the problem because taxes are so high as your income increases.