This story is part of CNBC Make It’s Millennial Money series, which profiles people around the world and details how they earn, spend and save their money.
In 2017, just days after their wedding, Lucas and Yana Bononi left their $600 a month apartment in Aspen, Colorado, to pursue their creative ambitions in New York City.
Lucas had been building a following as an artist, while Yana earned her bachelor’s degree in public relations.
Six years later, Lucas, 31, is a full-time painter represented by a gallery in Chelsea, Manhattan’s art district. Yana, 29, an emigré from Moscow, is a fashion influencer with 111,000 followers on Instagram. Together, they brought in more than $123,000 in 2022 and more than $154,000 in 2021.
“I always was very ambitious and saw this as the place for me,” Yana tells CNBC Make It. “I always dreamed of being in New York because it felt like the top of the world.”
For Lucas, New York was always part of the plan, especially since he wanted to continue his art education at Grand Central Atelier, a school known for its rigorous instruction in figure painting and drawing.
“When I first moved to New York in 2017 with Yana, I told her I’d like to do a solo show in Chelsea, Manhattan, and then retire,” says Lucas. “I thought that would take me about 40 years — it ended up happening in four years.”
The couple — introduced by a mutual friend in 2015 — were used to living frugally. Lucas frequently visited food pantries while studying for a bachelor’s degree in fine art at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. And their Aspen apartment had cost very little to rent.
Even so, making ends meet was a challenge. Yana, who first came to the U.S. in 2015 on a student visa, was not able to legally work when they moved to New York. “I was basically just sitting home and stressed about how to make money,” she says.
Lucas, on the other hand, was already selling paintings for thousands of dollars a piece through his Instagram account. He had $188,000 in savings from painting sales when they arrived in New York and invested all of it in a rental property in North Bergen, New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan.
The condo was listed for $215,000, but he negotiated a deal to buy it for $184,000: “The owner really wanted to move back to his country and I was a cash buyer.”
While the investment provided the couple with stable, passive income, they were still struggling to make ends meet. In 2017, they made roughly $75,000 and lived off a $40 a week grocery budget.
During this time, they “moved to Koreatown, then to the Upper East Side, and, oh my gosh, that place was a nightmare,” says Lucas. “We had all the New York stereotypes — mice, cockroaches, black mold. I felt like I was living in a subway station.”
While Yana was looking for work in 2017, she started an Instagram account about her immigrant experience for a mostly Eastern European audience. Realizing that she “wasn’t going back to Russia,” she changed her focus and started writing her posts in English.
She wanted to do something different than what she already saw: “It’s glamorous girls living in New York; everything is minimalistic and beige — I was never that glamorous girl.”
To set herself apart, Yana made increasingly intricate fashion videos she describes as “risky and creative,” featuring brightly colored bodysuits, elaborate motion effects and kaleidoscopic lenses.
Her work steadily gained a following on Instagram, which led to representation by an agency that negotiates paid sponsorships on her behalf. She was able to quit her part-time job building window displays at Tiffany and Co. in September 2022 and now makes as much as $5,000 per Instagram post.
She made about $20,000 in the three months after leaving her job, which was about half of her total income for 2022.
Lucas continued selling paintings, as well as teaching part-time both independently and at Grand Central Atelier. By the time he graduated from Grand Central Atelier’s certificate program in 2021, the price of his paintings had risen from $5 per inch to $10 per inch, with larger paintings priced for as much as $35,000.
In 2022, he made just over $83,000 and had his first solo show at the Sugarlift gallery in Chelsea.
Here’s how Lucas and Yana spent their money in November 2022.
- Business expenses: $2,549 for editing software, painting supplies and travel costs
- Food: $690 for dining out and groceries
- Housing and utilities: $686 for electric, heating, HOA fees and property taxes
- Discretionary: $244 for beauty and health products, clothes, and laundry
- Transportation: $192 for ride shares and subway fare
- Subscriptions: $101 for AMC+, Apple Music, Audible, Google Cloud Storage, iCloud storage and Spotify
- Phone: $90 for two phones
- Homeowner’s insurance: $12
In early 2022, the couple was facing a $300 rent hike that would have increased their monthly Upper East Side apartment costs to $3,250, so they decided to move into their property in New Jersey, which had more space.
Financially, the move made sense: Their earnings had increased to the point where they didn’t need to rely on the passive income from their rental property anymore, and they wouldn’t have to pay thousands in rent like they did with their Manhattan apartment. Plus, they “got everything we could get out of living in Manhattan,” says Lucas.
Other than housing costs and food, their monthly costs are relatively low. The premiums on their city-run MetroPlus health insurance policies are subsidized by Covid-19 relief funding, and much of their discretionary monthly costs are covered by the free products Yana receives for her work.
“Our expenses are low because I’m getting a lot of things for free as an influencer,” says Yana. “Makeup, shower gels, shampoos — even furniture I can get for free.”
They don’t have any debt, aside from about $2,000 spread across two of their three credit cards from a $35,000 renovation of the bathroom and floors in their condo that went over budget.
Neither Lucas nor Yana has ever taken out student loans. Lucas’s tuition costs for art school in New York were largely covered by a federal scholarship from the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program. The full-ride scholarship is one of the most exclusive in the country, and is typically given to fewer than 200 applicants each year.
Yana and Lucas aren’t saving or investing anything right now. Instead, they’re putting pretty much everything they earn back into their work, whether that’s buying camera equipment or software.
“We’ve learned to invest in ourselves,” Yana says. “I personally believe it’s the same as investing in stocks.”
Going forward, the couple wants to focus on striking a better balance between life and work, as well as start a family, Yana says.
“Our New Year’s resolution was to pay more attention to each other, to our relationship,” says Yana. But she says there’s also “so much more to do” with her career, including work that’s more creative and less commercial.