Real money talk: Max

By Jessica Sier 14 May 2019 5 min read

This post is based on an interview we conducted with Max in April 2019.

Real Money Talk is our series where we interview Australians from all walks of life about their personal finances. The views expressed are those of the interviewees, based on their experiences with money, and as such are not necessarily representative of Spaceship's views.

We have changed the name of the interviewee for their privacy.


Name: Max

Age: 34

Where do you live: Coogee

Please tell us a bit about yourself: I’m a scientist and a writer, and I’m making Nutella on toast right this second because I’m all about that chocolate boost.

What is your current net worth, and how does it break down?

Savings: $3,000

Debt: None

Assets: $0

Super: About $80,000

I earned quite a lot of money when I first graduated, and I worked for the government, who put away more than the 9.5% of your income into super for you.


Tell us a bit about your career:

After I graduated with my master’s I worked full-time, first for a private company then for the government. I quit after 5-6 years of full-time work and moved to Taiwan to study Chinese. I did a bit of English teaching while I was there, but I was on a scholarship, so I didn’t need to. I came back to Australia in 2014, and I’ve been working for universities and doing my PhD since then.

Do you have income sources outside of your job? If so, how much do you earn from each?

I’ve historically been a salaried person but now all I have is my scholarship which is like $500, so I’ve sought more reliable writing gigs. It’s improved lately; now I aim for $250 extra a week, and I’m getting pretty close with writing, public speaking, and various consultancy gigs.

How did you develop them?

Slowly. You meet people, you network. I’m trans, so I do a lot of advocacy stuff. You get to know people who run events and they invite you back. I’ve made it clear that I only do some things for money, so some things have been paid when they might not have been.

What advice do you have for people who want to earn more money?

I struggle a bit myself. Beyond getting more qualifications, try access streams of revenue that don’t require a physical commitment. I can do my writing work outside 9-5. Be clear about your financial boundaries.


What is your savings rate? And how has it changed over time?

I’ve always been pretty good at saving. I had pretty good savings pre-Taiwan; I was set up for my PhD. I had about $20,000. Then my dad got really sick and I flew to the UK three times to see him. So that was international flights, plus missing about $5,000 worth of income. Plus, I had top surgery, which cost me around $12,000-$13,000 out of pocket. In my mind, it wasn’t something I could put off. So, that was around $20,000 unexpectedly knocked back. I can’t quite live on $500 a week, but sometimes I can.

I also broke my neck early on in my PhD, which cost me all of my cumulative sick leave for the whole three years. I had three official months off, and about three additional months of being less capable.

Do you have a budget?

Not really. My rent is $220. I try to keep my groceries to around $80 a week. I try only to use Uber Pool in specific circumstances, maybe once a week. Beyond that, not really.

Do you make purchase decisions carefully, or are you loose with your money?

Careful. I have to be, now. It’s hard going from more to less. In the past, I was more free with my spending.

How is your study-work-life balance?

Not great. I try to eat properly and exercise, but I definitely do way more than the standard. I work weekends really often and work all odd hours for my writing gigs.

What is your favourite thing to spend money on?

I do spend money on ticketed events. That’s pretty much it. I like going out for dinner and brunch when I can. I’ve done HelloFresh once or twice when I’m busy and that feels like a luxury.


How are you building wealth?

I’m pretty keen to have a real income after I finish my PhD. I’d like to own property at some point in my life. If there’s a suitable job related to my PhD and I get it, it’ll be well paid.

What are your main roadblocks? And how are you addressing them?

Finding a job in my field. It’s pretty niche. Accessing the property market will be a big one too. Plus, all sorts of queer discrimination and the “trans tax”. It’s like the tax on women (on things like menstrual products) but for trans people.

Can you tell us a little more about those costs?

Sure. My surgery wasn’t covered by Medicare, but honestly, I felt like I couldn’t live on without it. So, those costs include appointments, consults, and the surgery itself, plus the lost income for my recovery time. Even without surgery, hormonal transition takes time to balance itself, and there were many days where I was unable to work but not really ‘sick’.

The only endocrinologist I could find that bulk bills [and] that suited me was way out in Concord, which cost me more or less a day in travel time, and I rented a GoGet each time I had to go out there.

Another aspect many people don’t consider is the limitation it can put on your work opportunities. I am visible and publicly out, which isn’t welcome everywhere. I do have passing privilege (if you walked past me on the street, you wouldn’t immediately see I’m trans) which means I’m relatively safe on public transport and in bathrooms, but that’s not the case for many trans people.

If you could start again, what would you do differently? (Advice for younger self)

Sometimes I meet people I went to school with, and I was smarter than them, and they own an apartment in Paddington, and I worry about forking out for Hello Fresh. I don’t know. I did all the things I wanted to do. I paid off my student debt really quickly. At one point I had about $40,000 in the bank and I went to a financial advisor. He asked me if I loved my job and was prepared to give away my freedom for the next 10 years, and I said no. So, I’m glad I left that job and went to Taiwan. I don’t think I did anything particularly wrong. But I do resent the system that made me pay the tax for being transgender. That’s the difference between me being worried and being financially secure at this period in my life.

What mistakes have you made along the way that others can learn from?

When I earned good money, it was the first time in my life I really had any. I probably spent more than I would now, but I don’t regret it. I wouldn’t change it; it was so amazing not living week to week. Maybe I’d have sought advice for something other than property from a younger age.

Do you have any worries about retirement? If so, how are you planning to address them?

I have trouble thinking that far ahead. I do have some fear around being old and poor, but I’m not suddenly trying to plan for my retirement. I have more immediate concerns.

How are you learning about building wealth? Is it from family, books, forced to learn as wealth grew, etc.?

I listen to a podcast called Nancy. It’s like a fun American queer podcast, and they did a series on finances looking at roadblocks at all ages. It’s super interesting and relevant.

Do you give to charity? If you do, what per cent of time/money do you give?

I have, not so much now. I usually donate to Camp Out, small amounts where I can. I’m also a volunteer Surf Lifesaver and donate my time to various trans organisations.

Words by
Jessica Sier Right Chevron

Jessica Sier is a financial journalist. Prior to that she led content at Spaceship and was a reporter at the AFR where she discovered that breaking down financial jargon was a public good.

Real money talk: Max