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Not So Nickel and Dimed

I finished reading the book Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. It was suggested as good reading material in response to another post I wrote a week ago.

In that post, I used the example of a young couple with a toddler. I didn’t use a single person as a case study because the majority opinion is that all financial matters – and life in general – is far easier for a single person.

In my math, I showed that this young couple could replace their current income by saving and investing their disposable income in as little as 23 years, allowing them to retire completely by age 41.

In fact, they would be millionaires by age 50.

Dr. Mo, you’re such a prick. Don’t you know how hard minimum wage workers have it?

 

Minimum Wage Income In Portland

Coincidentally, an article came out in the Willamette Week last week, a local Portland newspaper, showing that entry level jobs in Portland can and do pay quite well.

You can read the article yourself if you like to find out the details, I don’t want to put words in the author’s mouth. However, the income numbers for these entry-level jobs in the food service industry are quite a bit higher than what I calculated in my math.

Portland is an expensive city, I think there is a point to be made that workers will earn more money here but that the cost of living is higher. Not sure how this would translate to other cities.

What about construction? I looked at job postings and no construction job starts at minimum wage. Some of them actually start at impressive prices though they often require that you have a car in order to send you to various job sites.

What about janitorial work? I couldn’t find much information on this. Most of the ads make no mention of the hourly wage, so I figure it will be minimum wage.

What about retail sales? Quite a few jobs offer bonuses/commissions for meeting certain sales goals. The pay starts at minimum wage though I didn’t see much mentioned about benefits.

How about security jobs? Quite a few of these available. The Craigslist ads seem to advertise some nice benefits with 401k matching and will increase pay based on longevity.

 

Barbara’s undercover work

There is an afterword which it appears she wrote after the book had been published for a few years. I haven’t read it, I figure it’s her replying to criticism of her book – or praise.

I didn’t want her thoughts and other people’s opinion to affect my judgment of her work. This post will be published before reading her afterword.

Her pity for the minimum wage earners, especially the women is pervasive. I’m sad to say that she almost talks about these individuals as if they were unwilling animals without any survival skills – without the ability to advance in life.

She approached her mission by traveling to random places, living in motels and looking for jobs through paper advertisements and job agencies.

Her comments on the various races and the immigrants working various jobs seem at best ignorant. I’m not sure if she’s aware of the many first generation doctors, lawyers, dentists, and engineers produced out of the immigrant wave – whether poor or rich.

Immigrants rarely start out with many resources and for most, English is a second or third language.

Her thoughts on hard work, specifically back pain and knee pain caused by standing is neither scientifically accurate nor did she create adequate perspective for the plumbers, mechanics, electricians, neurosurgeons, dentists and contractors who make mad cash and treat their bodies far more sadistically.

 

How I got my minimum wage jobs

Most of the docs I know have had minimum wage jobs at some point before becoming professionals.

My first job was at a gas station, working the overnight shifts and the early morning shifts. I stood the entire time and I handled the car wash/mechanic tickets, gasoline purchases, and the convenience store sales.

I got paid under the table, like most of the entry-level jobs. If I had done the math of getting paid without having to worry about taxes, it would be even more advantageous to the minimum wage worker.

My next job was working as a fish and reptile specialist at Petco and later, Petsmart. I got a decent pay bump from minimum wage because I already had some knowledge of pets, having grown up with them.

I never sat down at that job, either. I had to empty massive trash bins, stock the shelves and I had to clean up some massive reptile shit. I can’t count how many times I got bit by snakes, lizards and got tarantula hairs on my face.

My arms were inside fish tanks damn near the entire shift, talk about soggy skin.

Not for one second did I feel sorry for myself, at least not that I can recall. I recognized the hard work involved and saw my fat manager who mostly ordered everyone else around.

I was either going to take his job or I was gonna get into medical school. I wasn’t stupid because I was in a minimum wage job, nor did I feel mistreated any more than I did as a resident working under surgeons, later in residency.

 

Living situation and food expenses for Barbara

Shockingly, Barbara who went undercover to report on low-wage earners didn’t spend much time discussing budgeting. I would think the only way for someone who is earning a minuscule wage to get ahead would be to stretch those dollars as much as possible.

If you’re a doctor who gets 5 figure biweekly paychecks, budgeting will matter in order to expedite your personal financial goals but it’s not critical.

Financial mistakes can be overcome when you take home $10k every 2 weeks. But they are really hard to recover from when you’re earning $1,000/week. In the latter household income, even $5 makes a huge difference.

Housing

She stayed in motels which I don’t get. I mean, motels are not cheap which she realizes because she commented on this. But I feel like that’s sort of a big deal.

She repeatedly discussed how housing was nearly 50% of her budget.

I realize that the new-age thing to do is to approach lifestyles from an egalitarian perspective. And if that’s her premise then she likely believes that if someone cannot own their living abode then they are disadvantaged and life isn’t worth living.

What about roommates? When I didn’t have much money in college I had a fuck ton of roommates. Are we assuming that those who become “adults” by entering the workforce, suddenly are entitled to independent living without having put in their dues?

I had 5 other roommates in a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment at one point and I was working at Petsmart when I lived in Irvine, California – not a cheap place to live.

I realize that my views won’t be shared by others. Everyone has their own definition of the minimum standards for quality of life. You’ve read about my lifestyle on this blog. My mom even thinks that my lifestyle is on par with homeless people and yet I think it to be an amazing luxury.

Food

I would have liked to see some comments on her food budget. The majority of her comments surrounded how she ate out at fast-food restaurants.

I couldn’t find any details. Again, when a particular resource is in low supply, stretching it would seem the logical way to get ahead.

At one point she mentioned that the fact that she lived in a place without a kitchen forced her to eat out. Sorry to use yet another example of myself. In 2014 I lived in a bachelor apartment, no kitchen, only 1 sink which was in the bathroom.

I bought a hot plate for $9 and a used college fridge for $45. I was cooking like a fucking champ.

She spent a couple of paragraphs talking about the poor quality of the food which assistance programs offered as aid.

She mentioned how the majority of the foods were canned and full of sugars. Yet, these are the foods that the majority of Americans eat. I believe she was in the midwest when she reached out for food assistance.

For the record, it was canned food, cereal, candy and some hamburger helper stuff.

 

Is Barbara entitled and rich?

Her comments about how good the rich have it, made me wanna throw up. She went as far as to discuss the subsidies the rich get for their mortgage interest deduction.

Again, some perspective would help here. I am not an expert in finances but I’m an amateur personal finance enthusiast who has read way too many fucking books on the topic.

The only thing I am sure of is that the tax code favors those who earn less. Barbara may not be aware of our progressive taxing system. She may not be aware of the extra medicare taxes imposed on those who earn past $200k.

Barbara may not be aware that a higher income cockblocks you from getting most of the subsidies available to those who earn less.

This was really interesting, at one point she mentioned that she gets to write off $20k a year of her home interest payments. Barabara, do you have a $20 million house?! If so, nice!

She took a gig as a maid as one of her undercover gigs, discussing how hard the work was and the rude homeowners she had to interact with.

Barbara, I hope that you are paying physician-rate wages to your maids for that $20 mil house of yours.

 

My friends who earn minimum wage

I reached out to a few friends who recently or still earn minimum wage. I think that’s the right thing to do in order to get an accurate idea of the minimum-wage scene since my own experience as a minimum wage earner may not suffice.

N. waitressing at a Vietnamese restaurant

My friend N. has been working as a waitress or dishwasher for most of life. She started cutting back when she started college only because she qualified for a few grants.

N. told me that she was mostly paid under the table and shared her tips with the kitchen staff.

N. didn’t have exact numbers to share with me but she said that in San Diego she didn’t have any trouble taking home at least $500/week.

Her rent, up until very recently, was $500/month in a house with roommates which was walking distance from her job. She doesn’t own a car.

M. bartending at a strip club

My old neighbor here in Portland, M., works at a bar and on weekends she can clear $100-150/night in tips. The rest of the nights it is in the $30-50/night range on top of minimum wage.

She makes so much that she has a hard time pursuing her part-time gig at a local school teaching. She told me a year ago that she was going to quit the strip club job for the teaching job – she’s still working both.

S. waitressing at a high-end restaurant

Another girl I knew, S., worked as a waitress at a higher end restaurant. She would make between $2,500-3,000/month.

Most of her income was from tips, she didn’t report them to the IRS and so my income as a resident was exactly the same every 2 weeks as her income from her job.

While I was struggling financially due to generally being an idiot with my money, having to count the minutes until pay-day, she would get to go home every night after work with some money in her pockets from customer tips.

M. working used apparel retail sales

Another person I knew, M.,  worked at a used handbag store in San Diego. They resold old but expensive handbags. This person told me that with her commissions she made more than she did as a therapist – her previous job, which she burnt out from.

 

Minimum wage as a lifestyle

There is nothing glorious about making minimum wage, that’s not what these 2 posts are supposed to indicate.

However, there is nothing glorious about being a doctor or a plumber or a mechanic, either. These are jobs. Put them on a pedestal as much as you want.

There is something humbling about fishing a retained tampon from a patient’s vagina just as it’s humbling to have to put a snake down a toilet to fish out a tampon from the drainage pipes. (Nothing against tampons!)

We earn the income for which we are suited. Doctors complain that they don’t earn enough and minimum wage earners complain that they don’t earn enough.

Food hospitality workers complain of the barrage of demanding, rude customers and ED docs complain about the many aggressive, demanding, drug seeking patients.

I’m happy to be hung for my comment on earning a minimum wage and if I’m wrong about the numbers or situations then some insight would be quite welcome.

Quite frankly, I have no business or right to comment on the lifestyle of those who are earning a minimum wage. The point of the initial post was to show that even with a very low income, a person can get ahead if they can apply budgeting to their lifestyle.

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