- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2008

When the register’s running total reached $29.50, Brandon Carmack knew the frozen chicken would have to go.

“Man,this sounds ridiculous, but I´m just going to have to pass on the chicken,” Mr. Carmack, an intern at the Heritage Foundation, told a clerk at Trader Joe´s.

Mr. Carmack, 20, is one of thousands of twentysomethings who come to the District to round out their college educations with the practical training of an internship or first job. Along the way, they get a dose of real life, a sort-of crash course in budgeting, grocery shopping and paying rent.

Although Washington ranks No. 6 on Forbes.com’s Best Cities for Young Professionals list and, according to Forbes.com, the average starting salary is $43,300, the high costs in the area make life on a budget in the nation’s capital challenging for more than just unpaid interns and congressional staffers (whose salaries start as low as $23,000).

“This is not a place to get rich,” said Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia Republican, who started his Washington career as a page in the Nixon White House. “This is a place to come and get experience. Working for a member of Congress is like having a resume-enhancing degree.”

The trade-off for superior quality of life is the prospect of building future career options, but it takes some careful planning to live on some start-up salaries.

“How do they do it?” said Lily Garcia, director of training for Employment Practices Solutions in Washington. “They live in group houses. They live hand-to-mouth. They work second jobs. They get a little help from mom and dad. But where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Rent is most people’s largest expense, particularly in the D.C. metro area, where the average is $1,459 a month, according to the apartment data hub PadZing.

Even with a salary of $40,000, Ms. Garcia said a budget can be tight.

Carmen Pettus, 21, and an unpaid intern on Capitol Hill, said she waitresses 20 hours on weekends to pay rent, utilities, groceries and transportation.

“This is the first time I’m completely taking care of myself,” said Ms. Pettus, a government major at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va. She said she refused financial support from her parents during her summer in Washington because she wanted to provide for herself.

“I’m putting a roof over my head, and I’m putting food in my mouth. It’s a really nice feeling. I like it a lot.”

She spends $25 a week on groceries and only drives when she must. She buys yogurt on sale, eats bananas because they’re cheap and is slowly making her way through a jar of peanut butter she expects to spread on bagels for breakfast the rest of the summer.

Once or twice a week, she splurges by buying fish or eating a $2 hamburger in the Capitol’s cafeteria.

“For someone who has never been completely financially independent before, it is a shock to see where money goes,” said Erin Weston, 23, a government advocate with the religious freedom organization Jubilee Campaign USA, in Fairfax.

She said her perspective of money has changed since she moved into shared housing in the Foxhall Crescent neighborhood after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2007 and started earning less than $30,000 a year.

“I might look at a $20 shirt and say, ‘Well, that’s five meals right there,’” she said.

Interns and young professionals face similarly tough decisions when making entertainment choices.

Rebekah Sharpe, 23, who works for the nonprofit Institute for Religion and Democracy and makes $30,000 a year, said she and her friends favor free events, such as outdoor jazz concerts or lectures.

“You kind of get fed and educated at the same time,” she said.

Most important, she is doing what she came here to do: have an impact on policy.

“I won’t say that it’s been easy, as far as the strain and living within your means,” she said. “But I’ve learned a lot about saving money. The quality of life has been great, even if I’ve had to go without some things.”

And living in the nation’s capital can make up for the high costs and tight budgets, she said.

“My basic mind-set is, how far can I take a penny?” said Mr Carmack, who couldn’t afford chicken at Trader Joe’s. “It’s like a game I play with myself. How close to my budget can I get?”

After working for his father’s plumbing company this spring to pay for his rent, Mr. Carmack now earns $230 a week. He limits his expense budget to $100 - and he only spends a third of that on food. He saves the rest of his income to pay for school next year.

Fortunately for Mr. Carmack, the cashier at Trader Joe’s took pity on his budget shortage.

“The chicken’s on me, man,” he said after learning Mr. Carmack was an intern. “You guys do a lot down here, and you don’t get paid a lot for it. This one’s on me.”

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