In The Big Bang Theory, How can Penny afford a one bedroom apartment on a waitresses' salary?

She doesn't seem poor and lives off with free food and WiFi, right? enter image description here

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    In a building so expensive that someone with a Ph.D has to rent out the spare room!
    – Reactgular
    Commented Jun 1, 2013 at 2:25
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    As you note, she freeloads quite a bit, and the apartment is not flashy - the elevator hasn't worked in 7 years. Surely there are plenty of waitresses renting apartments in California. The PhDs across the hall are researchers, not professors, so their salaries may be quite average, and Sheldon keeps a roommate because he needs a driver.
    – MJ6
    Commented Jun 1, 2013 at 19:14
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    @MaryJoFinch Sounds reasonable, where's your answer? Don't be afraid of once writing an answer that isn't as well researched and backed by facts as your other ones, sometimes common sense can be enough for such plot-hole style questions. ;)
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Commented Jun 1, 2013 at 21:06
  • @ChristianRau Thus encouraged...
    – MJ6
    Commented Jun 1, 2013 at 21:36
  • @MJ6 Sheldon has stated in past episodes that, "Frankly if I could afford to live here myself, I would," or something to that effect.
    – JaredH
    Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 20:28

5 Answers 5


Internet searches for Cheesecake Factory waitress salaries range from $27,000-$33000. This may or may not include tips, but tips are shared with the kitchen. As you note, Penny freeloads quite a bit. Her car has had the engine-check light on forever.

Her apartment is not flashy - the elevator hasn't worked in 7 years. The PhDs across the hall are researchers, not professors, so their salaries may be quite average, and Sheldon keeps a roommate because he needs a driver.

Surely there are plenty of waitresses renting average apartments in California.

Additional Info (9/23/13)

On the episode entitled "The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification," Penny owes Leonard for several takeout dinners plus a month's rent which comes to "a little over $1400."

  • 3
    If we only knew the zip code we could find out the cost of the apartment. average-rent.findthedata.org/d/a/California
    – Reactgular
    Commented Jun 2, 2013 at 2:47
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    Assuming they all live in the save zip code as the university. The average rent is $1,200 to $1,400 for a 1 bedroom. Zip codes here. ucsf.edu/contact-us
    – Reactgular
    Commented Jun 2, 2013 at 3:11
  • Yup. And that $1400 seems about accurate. They live at 311, North Los Robles Avenue, Pasadena, California. A quick rental apartment search indeed shows plenty of apartments with rent below $1400: zillow.com/homes/…
    – Ravindra S
    Commented Oct 12, 2016 at 6:01
  • @Reactgular They lived in Pasadena, near LA. It was CalTech, not UCSF iirc.
    – whoisit
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 4:04

I found a potential answer to how Penny gets by here which explains a bit about California labour law and factors in the tips she would earn while working at the Cheesecake Factory:

Just because she is a waitress doesn't mean she doesn't make a decent income. I know a waitress at an upscale restaurant that makes considerably more than I do as an engineer. Let's do a little back of the envelope math:

Penny works at the Cheesecake Factory. At the Cheesecake Factory, appetizers are around $9, entrees around $15-$20, desserts around $9 and drinks around $6. I'm there periodically and for two people the bill is easily $50-$60, often more.

So, let's pretend Penny serves 2 person tables (3-4 is probably a more accurate number). Let's say she serves 5 tables an hour (I think average is 6). If her Cheesecake Factory is anything like the ones here, it is busy all day. The Cheesecake Factory is very high volume. Let's say she works full time.

($50 per table)*(15% tip)*(5 tables per hour)*(8 hours per shift)*(5 shifts per week)*(50 weeks per year) = $75,000 per year.

My understanding is that California requires a minimum salary for tipped employees of $8 an hour. That's an extra $16,000 per year.

So, at a gross income of up to $91,000 per year, Penny would be making more than Howard does. Now, to be fair, we know that Penny is not very good at her job, so she is probably not doing that well.

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    I am not familiar with California's labor laws, but usually the minimum wage at restaurants is a bit more complex. The restaurant will pay less than the minimum wage (in this case $8), and it's expected the waiter/waitress will earn enough to make up the differential so they earn more than minimum wage over the course of their shift. If this doesn't happen, then the restaurant needs to pay them enough so they earned minimum wage. So you can't calculate the income from tips, then just add on minimum wage.
    – user209
    Commented May 31, 2013 at 18:23
  • I think a more fair estimate would probably be 5% of how much she deals with. That'd put her around $41k, which still isn't anything to sneeze at.
    – DForck42
    Commented May 31, 2013 at 18:23
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    $91,000 a year? I think I might need to change professions! lol Commented May 31, 2013 at 18:50
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    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the annual mean wage of waiters and waitresses in California was $21,410 in May 2012.
    – Oliver_C
    Commented May 31, 2013 at 20:21
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    In retrospect, I'm not sure there's any point to our comments. The answer was simply lifted from the link, so it's not like we're commenting to the person who wrote it.
    – user209
    Commented Jun 1, 2013 at 0:41

This is a very old TV sitcom question. In multiple shows the protagonists live in apartments that are way beyond their means. Often, the apartments are huge or luxurious and in neighborhoods (mainly Manhattan) where the rents are astronomical.

Sitcoms are farce, not real life. The producers create spaces that are visually striking and easy to film around from one point of view; the camera never moves.

She lives beyond her means because theproducers want her to.


Notice that the Cheesecake Factory where she works is far more low rent than the restaurant is in real life; because the producers want it that way.


Unlike Sheldon and Leonard, she doesn't have student loan debts. She doesn't go out much and when she does, it's mostly to her job (where she gets a discount). Her car isn't new and needs repairs, so she's most likely not paying off a car loan.

In comparison, Leonard's crew go to comic cons, buy movie trinkets, stay up with the latest electronics, have nice cars, probably have years of student loan debts, and also eat out for the majority of their meals. So to live the lifestyle (and probably keep lots of savings) that they want, it makes sense for them to have a roommate.

As it's stated in several episodes, Penny mooches off the other characters. She eats their food and use their wifi. She seems to live paycheck to paycheck, and doesn't have savings like they do.

I work on tips as a bartender, so I understand the struggle.

  • 1
    Do you have a source for the claim that Sheldon and Leonard both have student loan debts? From the episode where Sheldon loans her the rent, his disposable income and apparently lack of a use for all of it makes seems surprising to me to think he might have student loans. After all, it doesn't take a PhD to realize that paying off a student loan early is a better return than hiding it in various places in your apartment.
    – Michael
    Commented Oct 25, 2014 at 1:52
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    Well Sheldon has had PhD since like he was 10. I'm sure they have mentioned that they have gotten scholarships too
    – cde
    Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 16:35

Not to mention that we later find out in season 8 or 9 (when Penny, Leonard, Sheldon & Amy) play a "truth or dare" kind of game, that Penny has substantial credit card debt that she was hiding from Leonard. And there's no way Penny is making anywhere near 90K or even 75K a year. She might clear 50K if she was working at a really high end restaurant, but she's an indifferent server at a chain restaurant.

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