personal finance

This 27-Year-Old Flight Attendant Earns $51,000 a Year and Opened a Restaurant During Covid

CNBC Make It

This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save their money.

Nicholas Alston, 27, was barely a year into working as a flight attendant when the pandemic upended the travel industry. By November 2020, due to budget cuts and decreased service, he took a voluntary leave of absence where he only worked every other month.

But during this downtime, he saw an opportunity. Alston worked in the food industry before becoming a flight attendant in 2019, which he saw as a way to supercharge his savings to fund other career and financial goals. So when the pandemic slowed his flying schedule, he took it as a sign to revisit his goal of opening a restaurant — a passion project of his since college.

In December 2020, he soft-launched his very own restaurant business, Clutch Handheld Breakfast, a one-person operation that he ran from a ghost kitchen in Columbus, Ohio.

In May 2021, Alston returned to flying full-time and kept a "hectic" schedule: He would report to work at the Detroit Metro Airport on Fridays, fly around the country through Tuesday, return to Detroit and immediately hop on a plane to Columbus to start service for his restaurant, which he operated Thursday and Friday mornings. By Friday afternoon, he'd commute back to Detroit by plane and start his week over again.

As of August, Alston temporarily closed Clutch so he could increase his flying hours, save money and move onto the next phase of his business plan: Buying a food trailer to run his business out of.

Here's how Alston manages his time and money earning $51,000 as a flight attendant to fuel his restaurant dreams.

A career detour — and big pay raise

Back in 2019, Alston was earning $15 an hour working as a shift manager for a German food truck when his friend introduced him to the idea of becoming a flight attendant. He was attracted to the job for its comparatively high pay (his friend earned $45 an hour), perks like a 6% match on a company 401(k), the freedom to set his own schedule and, of course, being able to travel the world.

After doing some research, he applied to six airlines, received offers from two and landed on one. He completed an eight-week training course and began flying in May 2019.

Alston gets a pay raise every year on his hiring anniversary and currently earns $35 an hour. With time, he expects to reach a cap of $69 per hour, he tells CNBC Make It.

An average flying schedule is around 75 to 85 hours per month, Alston says, though he picks up as many shifts as he's allowed within Federal Aviation Administration rules, and regularly logs 100 to 120 hours in a month.

Alston likes having control over how much he works and earns, as well as the transparent pay progression with seniority: "It can go up quite significantly," he says.

Cooking up something on the side

Alston says using his flying income to fund his dreams of opening a restaurant on the side "was always the plan."

In college, he came up with the idea to open a food truck that specialized in handheld breakfast foods — think omelets and French toast, but in sandwich form. By mid-2020, he had about $28,000 earmarked to open the business. It wasn't enough to invest in a truck, but he could launch his restaurant from a so-called ghost kitchen, or a cooking facility that produces food only for delivery and takeout with no dine-in areas.

Alston rented out space from a kitchen and storage facility on an hourly basis. He spent about $5,000 in startup costs, including establishing an LLC, getting his food handler's license, gathering supplies and testing his menu.

Nicholas Alston's passion project, Clutch Handheld Breakfast, is a restaurant that specializes in breakfast sandwiches.
CNBC Make It
Nicholas Alston's passion project, Clutch Handheld Breakfast, is a restaurant that specializes in breakfast sandwiches.

For the next eight months, Alston operated Clutch from Columbus on Thursday and Friday mornings when he wasn't flying. Expenses varied month to month, from $1,800 to $2,300, depending on the cost of supplies and advertising. Revenue depended on his schedule, too: in June, he was open for six days and brought in $760.

He considers the first part of 2021 as phase one of his business: getting a feel for running a food business and gathering customer feedback.

In late August, Alston shut down his ghost kitchen temporarily to focus on flying and saving money again. Phase two of his plan is to buy a food trailer to house Clutch before the end of the year. He's about $9,000 away from his goal of $33,000.

"I know it's going to take a little bit of time," Alston says of his business plan. Eventually, he hopes to grow Clutch enough to hire employees and expand to new locations.

So far, the best learning experience has been hearing positive feedback from customers, which keeps him motivated. "I'm lucky enough to have enough money to see that through," he says. "This is my passion, and one of these days, it's going to be a profitable business."

How he spends his money

Here's a look at how Alston typically spends his money, as of July 2021, before he shut down his kitchen:

Elham Ataeiazar | CNBC Make It
  • Savings: $1,180 split between his business account, personal savings, emergency fund and Health Savings Account
  • Business expenses: $1,125 for kitchen time and storage, supplies and marketing
  • Investments: $854, including contributions to a Roth 401(k), Roth IRA and several brokerage accounts
  • Discretionary: $658 for a bachelor party weekend, entertainment and other miscellaneous expenses
  • Rent: $400 for a bedroom in a condo in Canton, Michigan
  • Transportation: $305 for gas, insurance, Lyft rides and a $150 car repair
  • Food: $259 on groceries and dining out
  • Student loans: $150 paid directly to his mom for her parent PLUS loan
  • Insurance: $67 for health, dental, vision and life
  • Phone: $55

In Columbus, Alston stays with his parents for free and borrows his dad's car to get around. Back in Detroit, he rents a room for $400 in nearby Canton, Michigan, in a condo that he shares with two other people, and he drives his own car. As of September 2021, he primarily stays in Michigan when he's not working.

Alston aims to put about half of his paycheck into savings and over the years, he has become a fan of opening accounts to get sign-on bonuses and other introductory offers. He currently has savings spread across six different banks.

Alston contributes 15% of his paycheck into his company's Roth 401(k) plan, and another $50 per month into a Roth IRA. Outside of retirement, he has several brokerage accounts to invest in the stock market, cryptocurrency and shares of real estate.

Alston graduated from college with $26,000 in student loans, which he paid off in a year by slashing his living expenses and putting 90% of his earnings toward his balance. Today, he pays $150 a month directly to his mom, who took out a parent PLUS loan for his college education.

As his parents near their retirement, "I plan on sowing a good amount of money into their lives to be able to pay that student loan back and just thank them for all the support they gave me growing up," Alston says.

Most of Alston's leisure time is during layovers in between flights. Because he's in charge of his flight path, he tries to bid for cities where he knows someone and can catch up with friends or family.

"What I like about my work is the lifestyle that it brings," he says. Some of his favorite destinations include Vancouver; San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; Kansas City, Missouri; and Cincinnati, Ohio, where he grew up.

Looking ahead

In the next five years, Alston hopes to move to Washington, D.C., where he's always wanted to live. In order to do so, he'll have to decide whether to move his food business from Columbus to D.C. But he loves his day job with his current employer in Detroit and hopes to grow in his flying career, too. "I do my best every day to give the best hospitality to everyone onboard," he says.

"The goal is to do both: have this job with this company, [have] good benefits, a good lifestyle, and also making my own company and running the business on the side as well," Alston adds.

Nicholas Alston hopes to have a long career as a flight attendant and use his earnings to fund his restaurant on the side.
CNBC Make It
Nicholas Alston hopes to have a long career as a flight attendant and use his earnings to fund his restaurant on the side.

He's also focused on growing his net worth, including by buying and renting out income property. Eventually, he hopes to have a portfolio of properties that he can manage as affordable housing through a nonprofit partner. In the next 10 years, his goal is to become a millionaire.

"My hope is to be a person that has good means, be comfortable and able to cover my life and then some," Alston says, "and sow money back to those who helped me."

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Check out: How a 26-year-old expat in Seoul, South Korea lives on $24,000 a year

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