How a Pittsburgh barista manages on lower than $ 2,000 a month

Pastel greens, lavender and blues adorn the exterior of Sharyn Sefton’s Edgewood apartment. It’s a welcome contrast to the overcrowded trash cans in front of the neighboring apartments and the crumbling facades nearby.

A bicycle is parked in front of Sefton’s door. She bought it hoping to drive to work a few days a week, but the tire broke and she couldn’t afford to fix it. So the bike takes on its role as lawn decoration.

Inside, the decor is similarly modest.

“It’s pretty empty here because we had to prioritize what we spend our money on,” she says.

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Sharyn Sefton, 22, shares her story of life as a barista in Pittsburgh and makes less than $ 22,000 a year.

Neil Strebig, York Daily Record

Sefton, 22, grew up in Butler, a rural community north of Pittsburgh that Sefton was dying to leave.

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She and her friend Brenden Neff, also a butler citizen, have lived in Pittsburgh since 2018 – first in the South Side district and recently in the east of the city. They moved into their current apartment last February just before the pandemic.

Rent was not an issue for the couple. Sefton works as a barista at 61B Cafe, a nearby coffeehouse in Pittsburgh’s Regent Square neighborhood. Neff is studying business administration and sports management on the Penn State Greater Allegheny campus in McKeesport. While he is in school he accumulates unemployment.

Half of Sefton’s monthly salary goes straight into the couple’s rent of $ 1,090. The other paycheck goes to utilities: gas, electricity, and water. What is left over is used for food.

“A paycheck is my part of the rent,” she says. “If I get that, that’s rent for the month. The next paycheck goes to utilities, food, and my car. My tips are my pocket money. “

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She estimates that she made about $ 22,000 last year, of which about $ 18,000 was due to unemployment. Before her appearance at 61B Cafe, she and Neff both worked at Crazy Mocha, a coffee chain in Pittsburgh. She says they made about $ 10.90 plus tip, but when the pandemic hit, they both lost their jobs. When things started to open up again, Sefton was not reinstated, and she and several other former employees filed a lawsuit against the coffee franchise.

She gets emotional when she talks about it, but her employment situation has improved at the 61B Cafe: she works 22-25 hours a week. On average, she makes about $ 100 on the morning shift. The afternoon shifts make her $ 30 at best.

“Somehow my tips seem to make up for it again and again,” she said of the difference between her actual net wage and relying on tips to make sure she and her boyfriend can survive.

She looks away and says her resume is a jigsaw puzzle of retail and hospitality experience with a brief stint as a bank clerk when she first moved from Butler.

“Nobody in this world should make $ 7.25,” she says.

Their hierarchy of needs – with rent on the perch – leaves very little for furniture or luxury.

In the living room of Sharyn Sefton’s apartment in Edgewood, Pittsburgh. 22-year-old Sefton shares the rent with her boyfriend Brenden Neff.Neil Strebig, York Daily Record

The couple’s decor is modest. Exactly what you need – what you can afford.

A blue couch with a white plaid fleece blanket is the focus of the room. A seat accompanies the couch, and an empty coffee table is missing decorative books or centerpieces that no one reads or remembers.

Sefton said if she didn’t have to use her stimulus check for her car inspection, she would have bought a TV stand. But it’s a luxury item, not a priority.

The recently empty dining room is furnished with a table that their father gave them as a Christmas present. A cat scratching post sits in the corner of the room, the frayed fibers give the room a kind of mood.

A mobile table with a microwave serves as a gatekeeper for the kitchen. The couple don’t cook much. Sefton admits she doesn’t like to cook – too time consuming – but if she does she’ll try to make something organic, even if it’s just homemade mashed potatoes instead of processed Idaho flakes in a bag.

“When we go to the grocery store, we feel like we’re spending more on groceries there and we’re going through it so quickly,” she said. “We never know what to do for food.”

Copy text
Copy the text of this quote. The quote was copied from Sharyn Sefton, a barista in PittsburghI have my days that I’m in, I don’t want to do this anymore. But it’s just what do I do instead?

This insecurity leads them to eat out a lot. Neff usually gets something from the get-go across the street or on the subway. Applebee’s is a common choice.

“I’m so sick of it, but he orders it as usual,” says Sefton.

When it’s not take away, Sefton usually makes some buttered noodles, steamed vegetables, or rice – something simple.

Access to fast food, quick or easy-to-prepare meals is nothing new to Americans near the poverty line or the minimum wage. Organic foods are more expensive; A get-go hoagie is $ 5 and five minutes away.

It’s a moot point for Sefton, who understands that this is the nature of their current situation – one shared by thousands of other Pennsylvanians.

“I have my days when I think, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ But what do I do instead? ”She says. “I don’t know. So I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.”

In the dining room of Sharyn Sefton's apartment in Edgewood, Pittsburgh.  22-year-old Sefton shares the rent with her boyfriend Brenden Neff.  The apartment has very little furniture, including this dining table that was a gift from Sefton's father.

It’s a race to pay bills and survive – the modern version of the American dream.

“I hate to say that I am in poverty because I don’t feel who I am. … I’m not starving, I’m not lagging behind on my bills, I’m not about to be evicted … [I’m] Always aware that there are people in worse situations, “she says.

Sefton takes solace in the idea that it could be worse – and it could. But finding the energy to climb out of a hole can feel like a Sisyphean task.

Behind Sefton is a mortar chimney with a crochet kit on the mantle. She recently started crocheting – even turned her older sister into a blanket. She was thinking about starting an Etsy shop for her hobby in order to get some extra money on the side.

The excitement in her voice subsides when asked how long the blanket lasted – roughly two months – but it could get faster over time, she says. The problem is the cost: delivery and shipping to a potential customer.

Sefton often shrugs his shoulders, a quiet “What can you do?” Her bills are paid and she is not starving.

That’s enough.

“I don’t know what else to do,” she says. “I don’t know of many careers that I can do without a degree or without a foot in the door.”

A bicycle is parked in front of Sharyn Sefton's apartment in Edgewood, Pittsburgh.  Sefton, 22, bought the bike to make traveling to work easier.  The bike burst a tire and stayed on the porch until Sefton can save enough to buy a new tire.

Sefton says she knows that some people may not sympathize with her situation.

“Being a barista is what you do in high school or college when you’re trying to make a career,” she says. “I don’t like the idea that someone thinks it’s my fault that I don’t make a lot of money for not getting a degree. I feel like there is a lot of judgment.”

She dreams of one day owning a cafe, but how would she get the capital?

Your boyfriend is at school now; both cannot participate and still pay rent. Plus, she’s not sure if she ever seriously considered going back to school.

“I love to study, but the whole thing about sitting up while working full-time is not ideal. And we can’t both do it at the same time right now, “she says.

It’s a situation that has caused her some concern, not because Neff decided to go to school, but because it cuts the de facto budget she has with it in half.

Sefton is grateful for the latest $ 1.9 trillion aid package that extended $ 300 unemployment benefits through August. Between their job and nephew’s unemployment, the two of them can get by. But that doesn’t leave much room for error. If things don’t go back to normal and business doesn’t pick up again, she isn’t sure what kind of situation she might be in when the unemployment extension ends.

Outside the 61B Cafe in Pittsburgh's Regent Square neighborhood.  After losing a job due to the pandemic last year, Sharyn Sefton started working in the cafe earlier this year.

Outside the 61B Cafe in Pittsburgh’s Regent Square neighborhood. After losing a job due to the pandemic last year, Sharyn Sefton started working in the cafe earlier this year.Neil Strebig, York Daily Record

“I worry if my boyfriend is still in school and accumulating unemployment and losing that $ 300 a week … I’m not sure I can support both of us,” she says.

She is happy with her job and even has a coffee leaf tattoo on her right forearm. However, her voice is angry when asked about the scars of her job and situation.

“You can see some of them looking through you … and that’s annoying sometimes,” she says. “They don’t take you seriously … I don’t like the idea that some people think they deserve more or that they are better than someone else just because of their job.”

She shares a few stories of rude customers who ignore mask mandates or are bad because an order took longer than they might have liked.

“I don’t go to your job and treat you like that,” she says. “Why do you think that’s okay?”

When asked if she saved something, she recalls a habit she picked up while working as a barista at Crazy Mocha.

“Every time I got a dollar or a $ 5 bill with the letter ‘E’ on it … I’d put it in savings, not spend,” she says.

Her serial code saving method saved her about $ 1,500 in a month. But that’s reserved for those moments in life when, she says, “s — hits the fan”.

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Released 1:04 UTC May. 3, 2021
Updated at 1:04 UTC May. 3, 2021

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