Some Thoughts on That Obscene McDonald’s Sample Budget.

If you haven’t seen the “helpful” sample budget that McDonald’s has published for their workers, take a minute now to read about it. Yeah, apparently their workers don’t need heat or food, yet somehow have $27 a day in spending money (because they work 80 hours a week at two jobs).

It’s a ridiculous and offensive piece of work.

My day job is in accounting, so I work with budgets and numbers every day. I also keep a detailed personal budget for our household expenses, and update it once or twice a year. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I used to work for pretty low wages. I worked retail in my 20s, and then moved on to lower level office jobs. My pay hovered between $8.50 and $10.00 for years – and I know wages have not improved much in that time, though many things have become massively more expensive.

The poor have gotten much poorer in the last decade, and it’s not because they have cell phones now, you know?

In the interest of transparency in my rebuttal to this laughable “budget,” I’d like to share my actual 2005 budget. It was the earliest I could find in my archives, so it does not represent the time of my lowest paid work, though it was from a particularly lean time. I had just lost about 35% of my net income, and had cut back significantly on several expenses.

I was already working in “the new normal” then, though I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was that I was no longer able to find decently paid full time work, and had started working multiple part time jobs instead. I had also begun venturing into self employment with private bookkeeping clients.

Jobs 1 and 2 were calculated by month (4.3 weeks), less approximately 20% withholding. Texas does not have a state income tax, so that only included FICA and federal taxes withheld at single/0. Job 1 paid $11 an hour, where I worked about 20 hours a week. Job 2 paid $15 an hour, but only gave me 9 hours a week. My side client took about an hour a week, so I was only working about 30 hours a week. I would gladly have worked more (and did when work was available), but at least what I had was steady.

Actual 2005 Budget

expenses

rent

312

electric

150

phone

42

mobile

75

car insurance

73

cc payments

110

auto/gas

135

internet

16

donations

10

business exp

13

bank fees

11

food in

165

food out

80

entertainment

0

clothes

20

personal

25

savings

0

total

1237

income

job 1

750

job 2

450

client

50

total

1250

 

Some notes: Yes, my rent really was that low. I lived in a single car garage apartment that had about 285 square feet. That same apartment probably goes for more than $500 now –  despite the relative low cost of living usually cited for Houston. The entertainment line is blank, as I had recently given up my Netflix disc subscription. I had dial-up at the time, so internet cost seems very low eight years later. The personal category included personal care products and also vitamins, which may be why it looks a little high. I really was spending only about $35 a week on groceries, believe it or not. I did not have health insurance, so that was omitted as a line item. (I still do not in 2013.) I drove a well-running used car that had been gifted to me, so I did not have a car payment. (The auto/gas line item included funds set aside for maintenance and small repairs, and almost all of the credit card debt was for a large car repair the previous year.)

I recognize in retrospect that I was pretty well off, all things considered. I’m frugal by nature, know how to cook (and enjoy it), find thrift store shopping a pleasant challenge, and have no expensive vices. I was able to live within the constraints of that budget, even if I felt pretty skint at the time.

But the real issue is that wages have not really increased much for these types of jobs since 2005. (I make a little more per hour today, but I am working for less per hour than I did in 2009, and have not had a raise at my current job since 2010.) It’s true that I don’t have a college degree, but I am a skilled pink collar office worker who makes well above minimum wage.

So let’s do an experiment.

My current budget wouldn’t really compare, as there are two of us now and my partner’s income makes us solidly middle class. So let’s look at this same budget using approximate 2013 numbers for a single person in a similar situation to my own in 2005.

Similar 2013 Budget

expenses

rent

525

electric

165

phone

0

mobile

45

car insurance

50

cc payments

 0

auto/gas

200

internet

45

donations

10

business exp

20

bank fees

15

food in

210

food out

100

entertainment

8

clothes

20

personal

35

savings

0

total

1448

income

job 1

825

job 2

500

clients

150

total

1475

 

In this rosy re-imagining for 2013, our theoretical office worker (who is single and has no children) is now making $12 and $16 an hour at her jobs, but is still working limited part time hours. She has more private clients, and has paid off her credit card debt. She no longer has a landline, and uses a cheap pay-as-you-go mobile phone. She still does not have health insurance, and has no savings. She’s driving as little as possible (and takes transit when available), but another car repair will put her underwater. Even if she puts the repair on her credit card, the monthly payments will mean giving up all discretionary spending. She still may not be able to make the payments even then, depending on the price of the repair. If she gets sick, the situation will get even worse. She doesn’t live extravagantly, and is just barely scraping by.

But let’s say this isn’t stringent enough. Many people would consider netting $1475 a living wage. Our budgeter is just being irresponsible, some would say. SHE’S PAYING $8 A MONTH FOR NETFLIX! And eating…at restaurants! Peasant scum always mismanage their money, of course. And she MUST have health insurance. And savings!

Okay, let’s try it their way.

Bare Bones 2013 Budget

expenses

rent

400

electric

125

phone

0

mobile

45

transit

70

cabs/rentals

 90

cc payments

0

internet

25

donations

0

business exp

20

bank fees

0

food in

250

food out

0

health ins

325

entertainment

0

clothes

0

personal

25

savings

100

total

1475

income

job 1

825

job 2

500

clients

150

total

1475

 

Our office worker has given up her car and is now sharing a $1200 two bedroom apartment with two other people. (I once lived in a two bedroom apartment with five other people, so this sounds kind of cushy to me.) She pays half of their shared internet bill (as she needs internet access for the work she does at home), and a third of the utilities. She never eats out, has no entertainment expenses, uses an online bank with no fees, and saves as much as she can. Neither of her employers offer health insurance to part time workers, so she is paying as little as she can on the private market – but as a woman in her 30s with pre-existing conditions, she pays more for (pre-ACA) coverage. I’m also not sure how she’s paying medical co-pays or the deductible on her private policy. My guess is that she doesn’t go to the doctor much, even when she should.

There isn’t any wiggle room in this budget at all. Any mis-step or unexpected expense will mean calamity.

Both of the previous scenarios were for a skilled office worker with an hourly rate well above federal minimum wage. Now, let’s look at a fast food or retail worker’s salary.

An average McDonald’s worker makes $8.25 an hour. Many fast food and retail employers are limiting workers to 29 hours per week to limit financial obligations when the ACA goes into effect next year. (They will have to provide health insurance or pay a fine for workers with 30 or more hours per week.) So this hypothetical service worker would bring home about $825 a month: $8.25 X 29 hours per week, X 4.3 weeks, less 20% withholding, rounded off.

Furthermore, it has become increasingly hard to find a “second” job, and with the flexible scheduling required of service workers, it’s very difficult to make two service jobs fit together. (Weekly schedules usually change from week to week. Many – if not most – service workers work different shifts on different days, and have different days off each week, which make juggling multiple schedules even more problematic.)

Even using the bare bones budget from the previous example, our service worker would live frighteningly near the edge. She would not be able to afford private health insurance, period. She would qualify for some limited SNAP (food stamps) assistance in most states, but would not qualify for Medicaid without the Medicaid expansion. Even without home internet service, using only public transit, and with no extraneous spending whatsoever, she would still be in the red much of the time.

Bare Bones Service Work Budget

expenses

rent

400

electric

125

phone

0

mobile

45

transit

70

cabs/rentals

 0

cc payments

0

internet

0

donations

0

business exp

0

bank fees

0

food in

155

food out

0

health ins

0

entertainment

0

clothes

0

personal

15

savings

0

total

820

income

service job

825

total

825

 

Our service worker has $5 wiggle room in this budget, barely enough for a fancy Starbucks drink, which she would not be able to afford. Her rent and utilities are 64% of her net pay, almost double the recommended number. She cannot miss a single day of work because she does not have paid sick leave (like the majority of service workers), and she will be destitute if she has a medical emergency. She probably does not have access to credit for emergencies, and would not be able to make the minimum payments even if she did. She may be able to use the library for some free entertainment and internet access, if she is able to get there during business hours, which may be difficult with her schedule. She has no budget to replace clothing, which will be a problem if she does not have generous friends or relatives. (Maybe she will have some luck dumpster diving near a college campus. I hear the pickings are good at the end of the spring semester.) Her food budget is directly from the current USDA “thifty” food plan (May 2013), but without SNAP assistance, that leaves her only $36 a week for all of her food costs – just $1.71 per meal. She may become malnourished in time.

Her rent is likely to increase yearly, but her pay probably won’t. She is one tiny mistake/accident/slight bit of inflation away from homelessness. That’s the reality of our McDonald’s worker’s budget. And this is a best case fantasy scenario with ideal circumstances. Our mythical service worker is in good health and able bodied. She has a safe living arrangement with people she trusts. She may get a big tax refund at the end of the year, thanks to the Earned Income Tax Credit, which she could put into a savings account for emergencies. (After she replaces her worn out shoes, maybe.) She is responsible, and does everything by the book – no petty vices, no criminal record. But she may never feel financially secure, and probably will never be able to escape poverty.

So much for $27 a day in “spending money.”


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