Earlier this year, a Yelp employee publicly complained to the CEO that she couldn’t afford to buy groceries, thanks to the combination of making an $8.15-an-hour after-tax salary while living in the notoriously expensive San Francisco Bay Area.
Hours later, she was fired, which sparked a lively dialogue.
It also intensified the minimum wage debate, as Talia Jane (not her full name) certainly isn’t the only one having trouble making ends meet.
According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, 4% of all hourly paid workers (3 million people) earn the before-tax $7.25-per-hour federal minimum wage or less. Pew Research Center found that 30% of hourly workers (about 20.6 million people) are “near minimum wage” workers — those who make more than the minimum wage in their state but less than $10.10 an hour.
I decided to simulate living on Jane’s salary for 30 days to see how hard it actually is to make ends meet with a “near minimum wage” or otherwise limited salary. After taking my fixed costs out of my “new salary,” I was left with exactly $150 for the month.
My experience was worlds away from the millions of Americans who live on minimum or nearly minimum wage day in and day out — after all, I did have a safety net of savings and my challenge had a 30-day “timer” on it — but it gave me a small glimpse of what it’s like to make ends meet with limited income in an expensive city.
Spoiler alert: It was difficult.
The hardest part was something I didn’t see coming, and something that many of us continually delude ourselves about: There are always unexpected costs — and they can ruin your budget in an instant.
My unexpected cost happened to be my best friend’s birthday — it ate up over half of my monthly budget and left me with a mere $34 of spending money for the remaining 2 1/2 weeks of the 30-day challenge.
And this wasn’t an isolated incident — I could have picked any month to live off $8.15 an hour and there would have been something to account for: a wedding, flight home, or moving expenses, for instance.
These unexpected costs aren’t necessarily emergencies, and they aren’t even always unexpected (I knew it was my best friend’s birthday), but they aren’t consistent, like rent or cable, and they can wreck your budget.
As my experience attests, I haven’t figured out the best way to accommodate these costs, but Ramit Sethi, author of “I Will Teach You to Be Rich,” suggests one solution: designating a sub-savings account for nonemergency, unplanned expenses.
His rule of thumb is to add 15% to your estimate of your fixed costs to cover the unplanned or surprise expenses, starting with $50 each month.
You’ll soon realise that this cartoonishly low figure [$50/month] is not enough. But with some time, you’ll have a better idea of what the figure should actually be and can change the amount accordingly … After about a year or two (remember, think long term), you’ll have a very accurate understanding of how to project. The beginning is the hard part, but it only gets easier.
I failed to plan for the biggest, most significant unexpected expense, but I learned from the birthday mishap and planned ahead for other necessities I would face throughout the month. For example, I knew I had to get to the airport the third week of April; as soon as I realised that, I immediately put the necessary fare ($11) on my MetroCard so I wouldn’t even have the chance to spend that travel money elsewhere.
Moving forward, I can use this strategy for the bigger, unexpected costs. I’ll never be able to plan everything to a tee, but I can look at each month from a big-picture standpoint, anticipate certain inconsistent costs, and set aside an appropriate chunk of money to accommodate those costs.
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