Until recently, I never had to think about a survival salary.

In the four months since I graduated from college, I've worked at a variety of odd jobs as they were presented to me — from freelance writing to coaching high school rowing. This was the perfect fit for me over the summer, primarily because I was lucky enough that I could live with my parents and sock away most of the money I earned into savings.

How Much Do You Need to Survive?

The only true expenses I had were the costs of taking care of my two new kittens and the occasional dinner out with friends. However, in the past month, I've moved into an apartment, and I’m in charge of the bills for both my roommate and myself.

Between rent, utility bills, hazelnut lattes, kitten vaccinations, and more, I’ve begun to wonder how much money I actually need to survive each year.

Beyond that, how much money do I need to live comfortably? I decided first to calculate the essentials and see what my “zero dark thirty” survival fund has to be each year. I averaged out the estimated monthly costs that I would incur if I were to live with no excesses at all:

  • Apartment rent (water included): $1,100
  • Comcast bill (I view Wi-Fi as necessary, and I’m willing to fight for that one): $70
  • Electricity bill: $50 (averaging between winter and summer costs)
  • Grocery bill: $150 (God, give me strength to walk past the wine aisle)
  • Gas: $150
  • Food and litter supplies for two adorable unicorn kittens: $200

(My parents still cover my health care, since I’m 22. Also, my cell phone is on my family plan.)

Can Your Survival Salary Provide a Realistic Lifestyle?

As I said, this is the threat level red type of survival mode. It’s the absolute minimum I would need to continue to exist on this planet without getting evicted, audited, or sued for improper care of animals.

And so I reached my first number: $1,700 monthly, which would lead me to a $20,400 annual salary. Keep in mind, this would have to be after taxes in order for me to pay off my bills. So my salary would have to be upwards of $30,000, although my taxes would be quite low, as I would fall under the second-lowest tax bracket.

This is also assuming that I incur zero emergencies or unexpected costs. There’s no room for medical bills not covered by health insurance.

I have to assume there would be no emergency unicorn kitten surgery, no flat tire in the middle of nowhere. That calculation, though brutal to look at, was not hard to compute.

What was infinitely harder was trying to calculate what I would need to live both reasonably and comfortably at my age.

Miscellaneous Expenses

This is when I throw in the variables like clothing, incidentals (that pesky flat tire comes in here), and veterinary costs. And some that make life enjoyable, like dinner out, coffee after rowing practice, the occasional train ticket to visit friends. . . . I did my best to calculate these, and then added them to my original $1,700 a month:

  • Personal liberties (aka caffeine): $120
  • Restaurant bills: $200
  • Alcohol expenses (a strong argument to be made to shift this to the survival fund): $200
  • Traveling and social expenditures: $300
  • The unexpected annual allotment: $1,500 (I lowballed this one, since buying new snow tires is in itself $500)
  • Clothing and miscellaneous annual allotment: $2,000

That’s $2,812 each month. I now need to make an annual salary of $33,744 after tax! The difference between survival and relatively comfortable living in my case is over $10,000. This is where the missile gets launched.

The entire calculation is based on me breaking zero every month, saving nothing. I can’t create a retirement fund or plan for my future mortgage in this scenario. More important, there is no room for me to take a vacation in Hawaii. This is particularly upsetting.

Knowing the Difference Between Survival and Comfort

This exercise, though slightly terrifying, was infinitely helpful for reasons that I didn’t expect when I began. Instead of making me feel guilty for all of the ways that I could be spending and living on less, it made me aware that most of my costs are, for the most part, justified.

My expectations of “quality living” are generally upheld by most people. The expenses that I do deem necessary for my combined emotional and physical well-being seem pretty standard. Therefore, I now know that I need to pursue employment that allows me to manage these financial scenarios in the future.