Q1: Big Money Charts – Attempting to Live on Minimum Wage

I’ve been firmly unemployed for a little over two months now. I have been thoroughly enjoying my free time. I’ve been able to work on many projects (including this one) that I wouldn’t have been able had I otherwise been gainfully employed. There is, however, one little question that I can’t seem to avoid.

Open scene: intimate gathering among friends, cocktails in hand, light indie music playing in the background, calculated ambient light focuses on two guests on the couch.

Guest 1:    So, what do you do?
Amy: Me? I write and volunteer.
Guest 1: (confusion)  Uhh. So that’s like your job?
Amy:  Not really. I’m doing it because its what I want to do and I think its important.
Guest 1: OK, so then what do you do?

Picture pulls back then rockets towards Amy’s forehead symbolizing entering her inner dialogue.

Goddammit. Why do people ask this question if it’s not the question they want answered. Just come out and say it, “How do you make money?” At least that would be straightforward and honest. What exactly we are trying to suss out with this question still escapes me. Is this person happy? Are they rich? Do they enjoy their work? Can I date them? Are they successful? Can they fix my car?

I have to fight off the urge to say something like, “I work with a very tight knit group of wealthy individuals. My job is to eliminate people who know too much. Shall I go on?” Or perhaps, “Fine! You caught me! I sell my dirty underwear to creepy people on the internet,” and burst into to tears and run off.

But really, com’n, how do you make money?

Well, to be honest, currently, I don’t make any money. I have saved up enough to “pay myself” for hopefully a year or more. Some call it a gap year, I call it a project.

So, starting about one month before I quit my job, I decided that I would try an experiment to limit my expenditures and stretch out my freedom. I was and still am trying to live within the means of someone working minimum wage in the United States, which according to my calculations is about $1160 per month**.

At first, I kept my experiment a secret. It felt almost insulting to experiment with the reality of millions (arguably billions) of people. However, as I failed month after month, I realized that this was a story that needed to be told as well. Honestly, this is the graphic that broke this camel’s back: 

After I saw this, I started to talking with people. I heard about a lot of frustration, shame and guilt related to the issue. As I was comically fumbling through the fringes of frugality, many people I care about very much were carefully navigating this world, and had been for quite some time.

Unfortunately, for some reason, its taboo to discuss money. I suppose if you had a lot if, it may be kinda awkward to tell everyone about it. I forgot, the rich make the rules. But back here in reality, if you’re working a standard week earning what we as a community agree is the value of a standard person’s time, you can’t afford to have two things go right or wrong in the same month. Maybe this is something we should be talking about more openly.

Fortunately for all of you, I routinely keep strict financial records and produce colorful graphs at the end of each month to detail my expenditures. What, doesn’t everybody? Whatever; I do that….and the chips are in for the first quarter of 2012.

In the spirit of advocacy and of just plain letting it all hang out, I present to you…


January 2012

Despite all my best intentions, in January I overspent by $238.44 or 20.56%. Daaamn! You’d think I wasn’t even trying.

To be fair, I needed to pay the dump & various trucks to free me of my possessions, aaaand it was my special friend’s birthday, but I could have done better. Since I was still employed for most of the month I felt like my lavishness was justified. Oh com’n, don’t look at me like that. I had a lot to celebrate.  What? A girl can’t have a vices column without gettin’ the stank eye? Sheesh.

However, if you’re on the other end of the spectrum wondering how the hell I spent so little, I answer, “I hate shopping, live with roommates and ride my bike everywhere. That pretty much takes care of it.”

I would probably categorize this as my typical semi-frugal fully-employed spending.

Now onto February. This month I only overshot my target by 14.75% or $171.10. Come on, that’s not bad. It’s a 7.41% decrease in spending from the previous month. Sorry, my nerds showing.

Looking for “excuses” as to why I couldn’t keep my spending within the wages of your average minimum wage worker? Well, I went to the dentist.I needed a deep cleaning and a few cavities filled. I only went to the cleanings so far, next month is the heavy lifting. I want to make sure to avoid a root canal. Ouch!

February 2012

Other than that, I splurged on some Mac accessories to try and make the whole iPad thing work for me. Unfortunately, I don’t really like it as a work station. I’m debating getting something else. Not cheap. I’ll probably just make due. Finally, I spent a little extra on food, particularly groceries. We joined a co-op and bought a juicer, so we needed many tiny mountains of nice fruits and vegetables to experiment . So many tasty fruits and vegetables. Nom!

I would like to tell you that by March, I finally got the hang of it, and squeaked by heroically at the end of month. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Somewhere around the middle of the month I decided that being a stingy girl was no fun at all. I went on my Small Town Review, and drank coffee whenever I wanted. And then there were the birthdays, three in one month, and I may or may not have bought everyone a round of drinks on more than one occasion. Um, I do believe that there was also a delivery Chinese purchase for three in there as well. Oops.

March 2012

By the end of the month, I was truly frightened to find out how far I had strayed. I didn’t want to pull the final calculations together at all.

Thankfully, however, I didn’t do nearly bad as I thought. I guess I was able train myself to forego buying nearly anything, and to feel truly guilty for every splurge I make. Oh joy.

The kicker is that I’d have been one Chinese take out night away from success had I not paid taxes this month. Yup. Taxes. Now some may argue, that if I had, in fact, been making minimum for the last year, I wouldn’t have had to pay taxes, and instead I would be getting a refund. That may be true, and as it should be, but that means, my friend, that you are missing the point.

The point is: no matter what, something will happen. There will always be a cavity or a birthday party or worse, an illness or an injury, foiling any attempts to stay housed, fed & out of debt. This is a reality for millions upon millions of Americans.

Bummer, bra, bummer….

Yup. There you have it, I have bore my financial soul to the gods of the internet in the name of those less fortunate than myself.  And yes, concerning this particular challenge, I am a failure. If this experiment were real, I would be out on the streets or just another couch surfer wearing out their welcome. Each month I got better, but I still wasn’t able to do it. Nevertheless, I refuse to reinforce the idea that one is a failure if they are not able to make ends meet on limited (yet socially acceptable) wages. I am not a failure. We are not failures. There is something else, very real that has failed us here.


**Also, If you have a better idea of how much somone living on minimum wage in the US would make in take home pay, please let me know. I’d love to hear that it is more. Thanks!