Does not compute
April 27, 2013 4:28 AM   Subscribe

How do people survive on $12 an hour? I'm looking to get a job in this pay range, and I can't reconcile it with my budget. I live unlavishly. My own monthly budget within.

I've determined that working 40 hours a week at $12 an hour will end up being about $1450 a month net. Here are my expenses:

500--rent (I share a $1000/mo apartment)
100--pet food and bills (we own four geriatric cats, on prescriptions and special diets--this figure might actually be low)
50--small charitable donation (consider it my tithing)
150--car (gas and insurance--no worthwhile public transportation in my city, physical limitations mean I can't bike)
40--internet bill
20--phone bill
230--student loans (still owe $20,000 on these so paying off in advance is not an option)

Which leaves me with...$220 or so a month for everything else, including food, clothing, entertainment, savings, skydiving lessons, etc. I suppose I could make this work, but eek, seems like things could head south the first time I need major car repairs or whatever. I also am not factoring in health insurance.

I guess I could cut out the $50 charitable donation, but at the very least should I be putting that towards savings?

Twelve dollars an hour seems like a not-ungenerous salary in today's shitty job market, so I'm wondering how people with, like, kids make this work!? (I do not have kids, nor do I want to.)

(I am currently employed at a higher salary but am looking to leave that job for one that I want more.)
posted by whistle pig to Work & Money (69 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I've done it. I was always a little behind on one bill or another. It was frustrating and life got better when I started getting higher pay.

Your answer might be to pick up some additional work on the side.
posted by bunderful at 4:31 AM on April 27, 2013

When I was in a similar position, I tried to minimize rent as much as possible, found apartments where I split the utilities 3 ways instead of 2, and didn't have a pet.

Also, if your student loans led to a degree, try not to undersell yourself and TRY to find a job that pays more than that. The economy is shitty, but at least make attempts at finding something in the $15-$25/hr range.
posted by deanc at 4:34 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

You could cut out a few hundred bucks out of that budget if you that is what you need. Many people live poor at some point.

Better question: is the job worth it? Will holding this position advance your goals in a way that the poverty is worth the time you will spend?

Poverty sucks dirty cock. It's really not worth going into it without some hope of a carrot at the end of the stick. Then again, neither is working hard for something stupid.
posted by converge at 4:35 AM on April 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Twelve dollars an hour seems like a not-ungenerous salary in today's shitty job market, so I'm wondering how people with, like, kids make this work!?

Single, with kids? Can't get assistance? Then it's multiple jobs, maybe working under the table, poor quality food for the the people and the pets, the adults don't see the doctor, library internet, prepaid phones that when you run out of minutes you are done for the month, and then, if it gets really bad, letting your insurance lapse, taking out payday loans, getting fucked.

It's not like that for everyone single with kids who makes that amount of money or less, but it is for a lot. Is it inconceivable that so many people live a life that's not a middle class life? $12/hr is not a middle class salary in most places.
posted by cairdeas at 4:39 AM on April 27, 2013 [32 favorites]

P.S. I actually think everyone who grew up middle class or above should, at some point in life, need to try to live on that amount of money. You realize, viscerally, how hard it is to maintain the barest semblance of what you think of as a normal life; how much living on that amount of money sets you up for these insane no-win scenarios.
posted by cairdeas at 4:49 AM on April 27, 2013 [20 favorites]

The things that jump out at me--besides the fact that budgeting that tightly is sucky and nerve-wracking regardless--is that your utilities (on a shared apartment, not including phone or internet?) seem awfully high and that the pet meds would realistically be the first budget item you'd want to say goodbye to.
posted by psoas at 4:53 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Well, crap.

I guess these wages aren't as "middle-class" as I'd thought. I had hoped maybe I was missing something obvious, like "Oh, just cut out blah from your budget and you'll be fine." (Where "blah" is probably "get rid of your cats," unfortunately.)

(This is not to dissuade further answers.)
posted by whistle pig at 4:53 AM on April 27, 2013

Are your student loans through a private company? I have federal loans and my monthly payments are currently $0 because they are much more than my yearly salary. I'm paying them anyway because I want to get rid of them, but if you can, look into a different repayment plan for now.
posted by chaiminda at 4:55 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Look at your "disposable" income, too. Try to keep your grocery budget low (I recommend a mostly-vegetarian diet for this)--mine isn't because I have a specialized PITA diet, but if you can make beans your main protein you should be able to eat for under $30/week. Put everything you can into savings until you have about $1000 emergency fund for car repairs and other things that might come up--then you can be a little more free with your money. Or do this part before you switch jobs--save now so that your life will be a little easier once you make the transition.
posted by chaiminda at 5:04 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I guess these wages aren't as "middle-class" as I'd thought.

Federal poverty guidelines say that the "poverty level" is $23,550 for a family of 4-- just under $12/hr., and that's went factoring the national average costs of things like rent, which can be less than what you're paying.

Median household income is $45,000-- that's what the "average" family is bringing in, total.
posted by deanc at 5:08 AM on April 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

$12 an hour is shit pay for someone with a university education, even if you're in one of the lower-paying industries (publishing, let's say). Especially if you're living someplace where a 2BR apartment costs $1000/mo. From a students' perspective, the point of taking on student loans is to be able to get a starter job that at least puts you on the bottom of the middle-class spectrum, which I would put somewhere around the $18-20 range.

Now, shit happens all the time (tanked economy, personal crisis) that can cause a person to wind up with a bunch of student loans to pay off and yet without the sort of job that allows to you pay them off and afford that bottom-of-the-middle-class lifestyle.

As a point of reference, the federal poverty level is around $11,500 for a household of 1, and the "low income" range is often considered to be within the band of 200% of poverty level. Since higher cost-of-living urban areas usually have their own, higher, poverty levels, $12/hr almost certainly falls into the low-income range for a household of 1 in your area.
posted by drlith at 5:10 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

12$/hour is 25,000$/year. There's some discussion about whether or not that is middle class, but it's certainly teetering on the edge of being, how shall I say it, completely broke.

But this is also dependent on where you live. Since those definitions are national, they're somewhat skewed by people in rural areas who earn (and can live on) less. You're in a more expensive area, and people who make that probably can't afford pets or charitable donations, and would likely have some uncertainty in their lives about what if the car breaks, what if they get sick and miss a week*, and so on. *And of course the worst part is, the low end is usually an hourly situation with little to nothing in the way of benefits, paid leave, etc.
posted by anaelith at 5:14 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, while this article isn't clear whether they're using average mean or median, the "average" salary for a new college grad is $44,455. The lowest-paid majors paid an average of $36,988. So you're really underselling yourself and accepting menial work if you're only making $12/hr. with a college degree. And sure, a job is better than no job, but you should realize that you're making a desperation move by accepting a job like this (and, echoing drlith, especially in a place where the economy is such that a 2 bedroom apartment rents for $1000/month).
posted by deanc at 5:16 AM on April 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

At my financial nadir as a student, the salient points were:

* Share accommodation with >1 person (5 was the most, I think)
* No car
* No pets
* No donations
* No eating out
* No expensive food (vegetarian diet)
* No new clothes (thrift stores only)
* No internet at home (but I had it at university)
* No heating (in winter I often wore 5-6 layers indoors)
* Dumpster diving
* Cheap/free entertainment (hiking, running, outdoorsy things, and cheap student deals)

I don't know if that looks hellish, but I don't remember being unhappy about it at the time. It was a pretty enjoyable year actually. Also, I realize that not all these things are practical options for everyone.
posted by pont at 5:25 AM on April 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

(I am currently employed at a higher salary but am looking to leave that job for one that I want more.)

I would rethink this if at all possible. I know this isn't what your question is about and we don't have enough details to say. But you can see that you need to make at least $12 an hour just to be able to have about $200 left for "everything else," where food and clothing are just a fraction of "everything else." Even if "everything else" were just food, would you really want to be limited to just $50 a week for food? I'm sure it's possible, but you might not eat very well, even assuming you never go out to eat and don't spend any extra money on luxuries like entertainment. (I don't know if you're dating someone or interested in possibly doing so in the future, but ... think about it.) Of course, it can be a good decision sometimes to take a lower-paying job. But if that job has the very low salary of $24,000 a year, is that really the direction you want to be going?
posted by John Cohen at 5:30 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

* Cut out the $50 to charity.... sorry, but you can't afford to donate that money. If you insist on helping other people, do it with your time not your cash. Sort food or clothes at a donation center, deliver Meals on Wheels, but cut out that cash donation.
* Keep your food costs to a minimum --- packing a lunch is cheaper than fast food. Meat is more expensive than beans & tofu. Skip vending machines (the stuff is way more expensive there than in a store); skip convienence stores entirely; watch for sales.
* Reduce those pet expenses --- I'm not gonna say to get rid of your four cats, but I will say don't replace them as they pass away from age.
* Keep clothing costs down --- you don't need the latest or most-fashionable stuff; wear what you have, and wear it longer. Skip expensive brand names; try thrift stores. You also don't really need to buy ANY new clothes every single month.
* Going out is expensive --- cut way down on the clubs and bar scene. You can still spend time with your friends, just do it on hikes or game nights at home or whatever.
posted by easily confused at 5:31 AM on April 27, 2013 [12 favorites]

Calculations like that are partly keeping me at the non-profit job that I like instead of the non-profit jobs that I love and have trained for. You're not factoring in health costs like actually going to the doctor or pet emergencies or cleaning products/toiletries or laundry or computer maintenance, either. Even if you get toiletries from the dollar store, needing toothpaste and toilet paper and paper towels in a month could be a chunk of your disposable income. I'm not saying that it's impossible, or that you couldn't make it work. But it's a very low salary for an urban area, even one with relatively low housing costs.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:37 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Since this is veering into your perceptions of what "middle class" is, it might help for you to consult occupational employment statistics. For example, if your perception of what a "middle class" person does for a living is something like someone who works in "Human Resources", that job pays an average of about $60,000/yr (almost $30/hr).

Even though it's considered uncouth to ask someone what their salary is, it might help to find a middle class professional who doesn't come across as struggling and ask them what the "typical" salary of someone who works in their industry is. Your perceptions of what you need to live on given the lifestyle you want to have might be skewed.
posted by deanc at 5:40 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I make 12$ an hour. It is difficult, at best, on an average month to pay all of my bills. I had to move back home with my mom for this reason (among other things). For a few years, I worked 2 or 3 jobs to keep us on time for rent. A second job might be a necessity for you.

My advice:
-cut that charity tithing mess. You're close to being a charity case yourself, don't push yourself over the edge.
-skydiving lessons? Surely you're joking, right? Fun for you is going to be picking out ice cream at the grocery store or having beef one night a month instead of pork or chicken (or beans). Maybe give yourself one day a month at the movies, but make sure you go to a matinee.
-cut your food budget. If you're not already eating meat for only like three meals a week, start doing it. Meat being .99 or $1.99 per pound cuts of whatever you can get. Fix it up in stir fried with lots of veggies or in tacos.
-thrift storing! all of your goods will be second hand, free or couponed
-ask your vet if there's generics of your pet meds, or check at your local drug store to see if they carry the same medication (usually you can get it for cheaper if there's a human equivilent). Get basic, basic cat food. No treats for kitty.
-basic, basic cleaning supplies: make your own at home. Vinegar is your friend.
-find money wherever you can. I've sold stuff scavenged from dumpsters, mowed lawns, traded my stuff for other stuff, filled out surveys for gift cards, whatever it takes

It's doable, but it definitely puts you in the mood of constantly being starved for cash. Save up as much as you can when you can, because a time will come when bills are do and you won't be able to pay them.
posted by shesaysgo at 5:46 AM on April 27, 2013 [11 favorites]

I don't know where you are living, but in the Midwest someone making that sort of money probably lives in a house that is more like $600-800 a month and splits it 2 ways or more.

I live in the Midwest, and when I was making less than that I lived near a college campus in a duplex that was $650 split three ways. It was an ok house in a reasonably safe area (my definition of reasonably safe meant I didn't mind living there on my own - if I had had kids I probably wouldn't have loved it.) Being near the campus was helpful in that I didn't feel so deprived since there was always something cheap or free going on.

This would probably also cut your utilities. (Or not! Some cheap houses have no insulation and horrible furnaces that run constantly in the winter - ymmv)

That sort of thing probably isn't an option for you since it's so geographic dependent, and I assume you are already being frugal with housing, but it's one way people get by.

Is your internet bill split? You might be able to find cheaper internet than $80 a month, if so. If not, then maybe try to split it.

That's all I can think other than the obvious pets/charity/maybe deferring student loans. Your budget is pretty tight already, $12 an hour is really more of an income problem than a spending problem for most people.
posted by imabanana at 5:52 AM on April 27, 2013

In my experience, income that low will mean significantly lower taxes. There are a lot of deductions, so consider this something you can look into for next year or even set up your w-2 with extra allowances(and a smaller refund). One year I somehow got back more than the taxes I paid because of credits (no cheating either).
Good luck, and apologies for questioning the premise rather than answering the question, but I feel the point is valid.
posted by maya at 5:54 AM on April 27, 2013

By comparison, I made about $12 an hour at my first job out of college.

In 1989. And money was tight for me back then.
posted by COD at 6:22 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would not switch to a $12/hr job unless health insurance were part of the deal. I did $9-11/hr for several years, and now due to lucking onto a place with very cheap rent and giving up having a car, am living on about $700-800/month without assistance (but with health insurance). Quitting my previous job was an on-purpose change for me too, so I don't think your idea is strange, or necessarily can't work. But they will require mental adjustment.

Unfortunately, yes, charity money needs to go. Charity volunteering can take its place.

Internet and phone bill could possibly be pared down. Page Plus or other prepaid phone plans can get your costs down very low for basic use, and Skype can make longer calls cheaper. Don't know what's possible with your other utilities, but researching ways to lower your usage could help those bills.

I'm not someone who would have compromised on care when I had a pet, so I won't suggest that, but if you do not have a plan in place for any end-of-life interventions, that would be a good idea. Mefi could help you further there.

Getting a cheaper place that allows pets might be difficult, but it couldn't hurt to browse once a day for everything under $X/month that meets your other basic needs.

A part-time job that either provides food, gives a discount on food, or gives open access to good dumpster diving is not a bad idea.

Entertainment is Netflix streaming, and free or otherwise extremely low-cost admission events. You can also look around for events that will let you volunteer in exchange for admission- this is also a great way to meet people and can conceivably lead to a little paying work down the road, depending on your skills. Food will need to lose its place as a part of entertainment, and you will want to become blind to restaurants unless someone else is paying, or you're working there.

An important part of food shopping will be deciding how much per ounce you're willing to pay for something, and looking around until you find it, or doing without it on that trip. I for example will not buy meat over $3/lb, but if I see it for $2/lb, I'll buy as much as I can and freeze it in portions. My freezer at this point is always full, so that if I make less money one week and have $10 for the discount grocery store, I can still eat.
posted by notquitemaryann at 6:29 AM on April 27, 2013

One interesting effect of living on such a small budget is that even a modest raise translates into a huge increase in cash available for discretionary spending (your "everything else").
posted by jgreco at 6:36 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

The cats. I know I'll sound like a monster, but I can't understand why people feel so driven to provide extensive end-of-life care for pets. I've got friends who have spent four figures on surgery for cats aged over 15 years. This seems crazy to me, and even misplaced compassion. Why?

Two points: One, your pets are going to die soon anyway. Two, there's a thousand young, healthy cats who will be put to sleep this week in your neighborhood.

Let nature take its course with your old cats, and go save the life of another one instead. You'll save tons of money and save a cat's life in the bargain, one with 10-12 years to look forward to.

Limit it to one new cat though, until your finances are in better shape.
posted by Philemon at 6:44 AM on April 27, 2013 [8 favorites]

In one of your past comments you mentioned wanting to transition to a career in instructional design. lists salary ranges for instructional designers and they start at about 38K at the lowest. (This is in the US.), and Career One Stop also have salary statistics. CareerOneStop uses the Department of Labor figures.

So if this job is in that field, they are lowballing you, and you should hold out for something that pays more even if it is entry-level. In my experience - and definitely YMMV - these low-paying "fantastic opportunities" for training, career advancement, etc. often are just dead ends. If they're dangling the "great foot in the door opportunity" carrot in front of your nose, think about how long you will have to live on that low salary and whether it IS a great opportunity for you to retrain.

Living near or at the poverty line will probably erode any happiness that new job gives you because the rest of your life will be so hard. What will happen if you wind up hating and resenting your job because it pays too little to live on without endlessly scrimping? You'd probably do much better to keep your present job and look around for a career-changing job that pays decently.

(As to your direct question, it's really hard to live on $12/hour; you have to really scrimp and live always on the edge, OR you have a spouse, SO, parent or trust fund as a safety net. I wouldn't take a $12/hour job unless that was the only option out there.)
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:01 AM on April 27, 2013 [7 favorites]

> (I am currently employed at a higher salary but am looking to leave that job for one that I want more.)

Is this new job on a track that will pay much better within a year or two?

If so, there's some good suggestions here. You can ride out a temporary stretch of poverty.

If not, I'd think real hard before switching. You can do it, certainly, but you'd better love the new job a lot, because it's gonna hurt otherwise for that love of career.
posted by mattu at 7:13 AM on April 27, 2013

That's not a lot of money, although I suppose that depends whether you live in Kentucky or New York.

What I would do first is get rid of the cats. Second, look for a cheaper apartment. Finally, if need be pick up more work; and in the meantime look for a better job.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:19 AM on April 27, 2013

Two comments:
  • You should look at Income-Based Repayment of your student loans if they are federal loans. It caps the payment to 15% of the amount you make over 150% of the poverty line. A quick calculation on my part indicates that is more like $100 than the amount you pay.
  • You said (I am currently employed at a higher salary but am looking to leave that job for one that I want more.) I'm going to say at a fairly high level of confidence that this is a horrid idea and you should stop considering the job switch now. Beyond the fact that your short term life prospects would be difficult to manage, you would be damaging your long term earnings potential,, which has implications for your entire life. Voluntarily giving up income is, in almost all cases, a bad idea. Full stop.

posted by saeculorum at 7:20 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm wondering how people with, like, kids make this work!?

Pets do not receive health care. Thrift stores. Re-selling goods from thrift stores. Selling one's belongings. Having a modestly talented friend cut hair. Fixing up instead of replacing. Bartering for help with repairs. Small side hustles. Buy only when on sale and there's a coupon. Free entertainment. No charitable donations. Taking a walk on garbage night, dumpster diving. Going without; if you need a bandage, use tape and toilet paper, etc. Freecycle. Assorted social service agencies/gov't assistance.

You can manage but it will be a big change; you will spend a lot of your life looking for ways to get by. Being poor is a job in itself. What used to be a $1,000 gap you filled with $1,000 will turn into a gap you fill in ten different ways (and also just leave unfilled; which see comments above about bills going unpaid etc).
posted by kmennie at 7:37 AM on April 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

You should consider that two or more of your cats might be better off living with an old retired lady who can spend money on them. And pet them all day while you are at work. I would put up a flyer explaining your situation. And yes, I understand it will be hard but better for everyone.

You can't afford to tithe right now. It's irresponsible. Build up your strength knowing you can tithe later when you are stronger. The best way to help poor people is to not be one.

You can't afford to pay your student loan. Get a deferment or get payments based on income.

You need health insurance. Catastrophic insurance with a large deductible could be $150 a month. Defer the student loan and get health insurance instead. Invest in your own health.

Learn about how to take care of yourself and your cats naturally. Learn how to avoid doctor bills by being healthy.

Do not acquire any more pets until your income is at a certain level. I took in a cat that just started living with me, years ago, so I know what you are experiencing. But I study natural medicine so I have been able to avoid doctor bills with her. I only get her a rabies shot every three years. I don't feed her the very cheapest cat food. She must be about 15 now and I will not be putting her on any kind of medications or get her surgery. I have provided a very good life for her and I don't feel any need to extend her life un-naturally. (Although I have to say when she dies I am going to totally freak out she has been with me so long.) I think we all need a Kitty Hospice service to help us with this.

Get another roomy. Give him the bedroom and you sleep on the couch in the living room if you have to.

I'm a little jealous of you right now. I have always found the challenge of a tight budget to be exhilarating - you are forced to create priorities, you learn about all kinds of free entertainment, you know exactly who your friends are. I would look at this as a fun challenge if I were you.
posted by cda at 7:41 AM on April 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

The student loan and rent/utility numbers are the two biggest components there. The student loans, as mentioned, should be on IBR if they're federal loans, and most cities without meaningful public transportation have cheaper rent available for someone living with a roommate, at least somewhere in town. That somewhere may not be the nicest neighborhood; living there is how the people there "make this work".

Also, what are the components to your utility bill? Especially without internet in it, $150/mo./person seems high.

$220/mo. for food and clothes is hard but doable-- it mostly means thrift stores, rice and beans (which can be made into many tasty meals in Mexican and Indian and other styles), and no dining out. Buy your rice, beans, and other staples in giant bulk sacks from ethnic grocery stores.

The gas bill may be able to be lowered by combining trips as much as possible (do errands on your commute) and driving more efficiently.
posted by akgerber at 7:45 AM on April 27, 2013

I agree with Rosie M. Banks, if this is a job that's even remotely connected to instructional design, they're offering an insultingly low wage, even if health insurance is included. I've been in some crap-paying instructional design shops cranking out templated online courses for corporates and K-12 and even they were paying $25/hour ten years ago. I was "just" an editor for awhile in that world and got $40/hour, no benefits, no vacation, ten years ago.

Back to your question: I lived on a low income for awhile while paying off debt, and here's what I did in addition to the suggestions above.

- Bought an old but decent mobile home when I still had some money. It cost $3,000. It was in a quiet, wooded trailer park in town where the monthly rent for my trailer spot was $150. Prices have undoubtedly gone up since then but at least you'd own where you live and yes, a decent trailer is appropriate housing for that income level if you don't want more roommates, and even more so if you don't have health insurance. You can also rent mobile homes, usually for substantially less than a house or apartment, but look out for heating costs if you live somewhere cold.

- Heated it with wood pallets that I picked up for free (it had a woodstove).

- Bought my food at Aldi instead of Whole Foods-type places. I was vegetarian and could turn a few dollars' worth of veggies into a week of soup, frozen in small batches.

- Went to the low-income clinic for health care or treated things with home remedies. I didn't have health insurance because insurers rejected me.

- Never traveled except for road trips to campgrounds.

Like the other posters above, I also bought my clothes at thrift shops, dumpster dived for furniture, and went to free movies on campus even though I wasn't a student. When my water heater died and I didn't have enough money to replace it for a month, I took showers at a gym on campus where they didn't check ID. It helped that most of my friends had a similar lifestyle.

It was an adventure and gave me coping skills and flexibility that have helped me make the most of my currently much healthier income. However, I don't recommend it unless the job really will be a big stepping stone to a significantly higher income, and I have trouble picturing a $12/hour job doing that.
posted by ceiba at 7:54 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your $50 charity donation should go into an emergency fund for yourself. That would go a long way to making this existence survivable if something (anything) goes wrong. If you end up not needing it, then you can donate the fund later, when you're in a less precarious spot.

I volunteered for a pro-bono bankruptcy clinic a few years ago, and one of my clients was adamant about his charity donations. But he was under water every month, so those donations were actually money he was taking from his creditors. Since he ended up with a discharge in bankruptcy, I consider that money to be stolen from the creditors. He didn't need it to survive, so he shouldn't have borrowed it. He got the benefit of looking like a good, generous man; and the people that actually gave the money got stiffed.
posted by spacewrench at 7:58 AM on April 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've lived on a similar budget for a decade (more pay, but also more expenses because I am a single parent of two). In my view, you need a very, very good reason to do this voluntarily. It's impossible to avoid debt - your car will break down, you will have an accident, something in your home will break down - I don't know, for me it was the car + I am still trying to deal with stress and anxiety directly caused by often not knowing how to feed the kids the next week.
That I was in this situation was directly caused by me imagining I didn't care for money, just wanted to do the thing I loved. But when you are always under pressure because of a bad economy, you are easy to manipulate and push around. So I'll even say the dream job turned out to be a bit of a nightmare.
If you insist going on with this, I second the vegetarian diet, you can really minimize your food-budget radically that way, and the alternatives are extremely unhealthy, leading to healthcare issues, which you can't afford.
I hardly ever buy new clothes (still now, it's become a habit), and my clothes and the children's clothes are all the same colors, both so we can mix and match, and so I can save on laundry.
I have taken on extra jobs regularly.
I haven't been out for the decade on my own bill, but my work brings perks like fancy dinners, travel and sometimes theater.
If you can't ride a bike, what about a scooter? After my car broke down, I am biking, but I thought about buying a scooter or a Fiat 500 in order to save on gas.
posted by mumimor at 8:04 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I manage quite nicely on about that, but my apartment's $500 a month *with* all my utilities, if phone and internet aren't included. I also probably can, yes, fit food/clothing/entertainment into $220/mo. I shop a lot of sales and don't get to do much fun, but I do keep a Netflix subscription.

I would definitely not want to live at this income range without an emergency fund; mine is a couple grand and I had it before I dropped back to only making this, so I'd definitely make sure to arrange that first if you have time to plan. Especially with high-maintenance pets and a car.

But no, $12/hr is not a lot of money. It's livable, but it's not really middle class. Two people on $12/hr working together can be pretty comfortable, but I dunno about $1000/mo rent kind of comfortable. Where I am, that's a pretty nice place; if you're in a major metropolitan area, your cost of living needs to scale accordingly, and $12/hr won't go as far as it will in Nowhere, Ohio.
posted by Sequence at 8:13 AM on April 27, 2013

12 bucks an hour is fine; I've survived off of substantially less.

$500 a month rent isn't impossibly high, but if you had a 2-bedroom for $600-700 you would be saving a fair amount of cash. I don't know what fair prices are for where you live, though.

$50 for charity is a bad idea. YOU need the charity now. If you feel the need to donate, go work for Habitat for Humanity or a food bank/soup kitchen.

Utilities at $150 is fine if it includes EVERYTHING, and if it were split two ways. $150 for just your share is insane. Apartments can't charge for water, so I don't understand how your electric bill is that high, unless you live in some extreme temperature zone. When I lived alone in a 1-bedroom apt my power bill was like $40 a month. Sell your TV, shift your schedule to work around using natural light more.

Pet food and kitty litter should run you substantially less if you buy the cheaper stuff, but that's not a decision that I'd want to make either. Once your cats start dying off, don't get new ones. If you do, get ONE, and get a young, healthy shelter cat.

$150/month for your car isn't that high, but it's not that low. My auto insurance is under $400/year. What's yours at? Try shopping around for rates, and cut back your coverage if you can. I have a 20-year-old car and therefore have liability coverage only.

Internet at $40/month? Seriously? Internet here is $55/month tops, and you can get basic internet at like $30/month. Divided by two? You should not be paying $80/month on it. See if you can pool WiFi with someone, or do your surfing at a library.

I'm assuming $20/month is for a land line and that you don't have a cell phone, unless that was in utilities. Land lines shouldn't run more than $25/month for the basics, and surely you can split that with a roommate. Otherwise, that's fine--you do need a phone.

As far as how other people make it work, there are various answers. A lot of people can't. That's what food stamps, WIC, dumpster diving, gifts from parents and relatives, and odd jobs are for. Do you have any fringe benefits at your job? Free food, clothing, office supplies, that sort of thing? That helps a lot.
posted by Slinga at 8:20 AM on April 27, 2013

You might be able to shave a bit off the utilities by being extra cautious about usage. But it's a reasonable budget, though you don't mention your own health care costs.Months have 4.3 weeks in them, most employers pay every other week, so about every 6 months, you'll get an extra paycheck(every 3 months if you get paid weekly); that's the check that gets put into the emergency fund.

Many people choose to keep a job that pays more, and to enrich their lives as much as possible in their non-work hours. Would this new job lead to a better-paying job in, say, a year? Is your current job soul-killing? That might make the new job more appealing, but, remember, there's no guarantee that it will be as satisfying as you hope. There's a distinct possibility that if you give up money to take a new job, you'll end up resenting the new job for not paying enough, and for not appreciating you more.

I've lived on hardly anything and on an average salary, and my take is: Money doesn't buy happiness, but poverty sure can buy misery.
posted by theora55 at 8:37 AM on April 27, 2013

Response by poster: Wow. It's going to take me awhile to process all of these answers (thanks!) but wanted to clarify a few things:

-The job is not in instructional design. It does not have much opportunity for advancement, at least not in the foreseeable future.
-My utility bill and car budget are perhaps set a bit high.
-All right, I can totally give up the charitable donations. I think my perceptions of reality on this budget were a bit skewed.
-The taking sky-diving lessons thing was a joke.
posted by whistle pig at 8:42 AM on April 27, 2013

Like many Americans, in your budget you are living beyond your means. But instead of living beyond your means by buying a BMW and a Rolex, you are taking care of (4!) geriatric cats, living in a town vibrant enough that a 2br apartment costs $1000/month, and getting a job at a non-profit.

As far as charity, you might want to look at taking care of your own helpless animals to be the form of charity you engaged in. Yes, that means that you can't financially support the charities you like, but life is about choices. If you want to support cats AND a charity, that means you can't have a job at a non profit.

And the car-- you don't have a car payment, which is good, but the truth is that even if you don't have a loan, you have a car payment-- your car eventually is going to be in such poor condition that you need to replace it. (Replacement cost)/(months until replacement) = amount of money you should be saving each month for a car. You can't go without a car, but that means that perhaps the issues that prevent you from bicycling mean that you can't afford to own the "luxury" of a non profit job.

If you're poor, you're poor, and there's not a lot that can be done. But voluntarily choosing poverty under your circumstances within the parameters you have laid out comes across more like someone who is trying to live a lifestyle she can't afford.
posted by deanc at 8:45 AM on April 27, 2013

A $12/hour job that offers little to no opportunity for advancement is a job that is absolutely not worth taking, IMO - even if it was in a desirable career field. Even if you think the job is great at the beginning, you'd most likely grow to hate it once you've had to live in poverty for a few months.

It's up to you, of course, but if I were you - I'd turn down that job, and keep the one I have for now. You say you at least like your present job (and it pays decently!) - so you can afford to keep looking for a job that will pay you enough to live on, and that offers opportunities for advancement.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:52 AM on April 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

A bit of a derail, but how about coming to Korea and using your bachelor's to teach English? The living conditions are spartan, but you'll make more (~2.2k/month) and have an experience. Check out and other places for listings.
posted by charlemangy at 9:06 AM on April 27, 2013

You can probably cut your cat bill in half depending on what meds they are taking you can take the prescriptions to a "human" pharmacy/drug store and might be able to get the cheap cheap human rates that Walmart and the like have for a lot of drugs just ask your vet for the prescription or just take the container in and ask at your local pharmacy or maybe even try somewhere like PetMeds.

I am very skeptical about the specialized diets sold at vets as there is a lot less difference between all the "special" diets than you might think. While cats are a lot harder to feed a homemade diet if the diet is for something like arthritis, allergies or those bladder stones male cats get there is not a lot of difference between the expensive vet brands and pet shop brands that also deal with those issues just get the hang of reading pet food labels, there is a lot of good info out there about this if you Google it. Of course serious kidney or liver issues forget all that. Also if it's only because they need a supplement in the food it is often times cheaper to buy the supplement and add it to cheaper food yourself.

Your utilities seem crazy high, I pay that in total, the middle of winter in a crazy big old uninsulated house and I suck at turning off lights.

I spend $300 a month to feed 2 people and 2 small dogs good quality home made food (yes the dogs get homemade food too as it is cheaper way for us to keep the quality up, cats are hard to home feed as they need taurine in their diet). Going vegetarian (us not the dogs) or learning what to do with cheaper cuts of meat and not focusing on meat is the easiest way to do this

Cut your charity spending out, you can do good instead of spending money, go and volunteer one night a fortnight somewhere, that then can be your "tithe" and be your entertainment too.

I don't know where you live but $500 a month seems a lot for rent, look at moving and or getting more room mates, also cut back on car expenses and look into car pooling, also really look into your public transport, a lot of people bitch about their towns public transport until they really look into it. No it's not as convenient as a car, but if you only use it for some trips it can save you fuel costs if nothing else. Can you get cheaper car insurance hunt around about that?

Is living on the $12 doable, yes, is it doable long term I don't think I'd recommend it if you had a choice. If it's a temporary thing so you can do something you want, or a step up a ladder then I'd say give it a shot.
posted by wwax at 9:14 AM on April 27, 2013

I've lived on less than $12/hour, but at the time I was renting a room for $415/month, including utilities. I lived walking distance from my job and from grocery stores, so I neither had nor needed a car or a bus pass. I was also fortunate not to have student loans.

These conditions are not replicable for every person/every city/every job, though. It doesn't sound like you personally can live on $12/hour in a reasonably secure manner.

I would not take a step backwards from a higher-paying job to a $12/hour job without opportunities for a lot of advancement. If your current job isn't sustainable for you (stress or whatnot), look into other ideas/solutions.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:18 AM on April 27, 2013

$12/hr isn't much, but I could do it if I was single. Shared housing is the biggest compromise you need to make, and then you just live simply on top of that. Don't go out to eat very often. Drive a used car. Don't have lots of subscription services, have inexpensive forms of recreation, like bicycling, playing basketball in the park, watching movies at home.

I used to do this on $14/hr and got by ok. Then I got a job making $68k/year and I literally had so much money I didn't know what to do with it. Now I own a house and have a kid and I don't have that problem anymore.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:24 AM on April 27, 2013

I spent a couple of years in which my income was significantly less annually than what you state (we were self-employed), for a two-person, three-cat, one-geriatric-dog household with expenses similar to yours. I will not claim that I made it work, necessarily, but we did survive, so there's that.

What happens at a "working poor" level of income is that every dollar becomes much more significant -- that means you have to work hard to minimize waste, while taking advantage of seemingly minor money-saving opportunities. Jump at chances to get free meals or food, or anything anyone you know is giving away.

Minimize your expenses, of course, but also determine your priorities. Slashing everything to the bone across the board could be counterproductive if it results in a compensatory backlash. So stuff like preventative maintenance -- for your health, your car, your home -- where not spending enough money now will lead to spending much more money overall in the future if/when something fails catastrophically due to lack of care.

Student loan -- definitely look into an economic hardship deferral or a reduction of payment. I don't think you said what your credit situation is. There is a temptation to try to get more credit, like credit cards and such, but it's a bad idea and you should try not to start maxing out your cards and things like that.

Cats: I won't advise you to get rid of them because I would never consider that with our own. There is a thing called CareCredit, basically a line of credit extended for healthcare, that we had to use when one of our cats became seriously ill. It paid for the vet bills and there was no interest on repayment if we paid the bill off within a year. So that was helpful.

Also, some things are kind of counterintuitively economical. Instead of buying our cats cheaper food, we got them more expensive food that was far higher in quality. That meant the food actually lasted longer since it was more nutritious, and they were healthier so fewer health expenses.

That concept extends to human food as well. We switched to a mostly plant-based, mostly whole-food diet, and even though it was more expensive than, say, living on Kraft mac & cheese, it was more nutrition-dense so we didn't need to eat as much food overall even though pound for pound it was more expensive. You can save a lot on food if you're not eating meat. Eating high quality food and not cheap junk improves your health and your state of mind.

And what kills your food budget faster than anything is eating out, even fast food that seems cheap from meal to meal but when added up over the course of a month, is a lot more expensive than if you cook your meals at home, provided you shop and cook smart, plan meals for efficiency (for instance, you look for big sales on a few ingredients, and then make as many dishes as you can out of those same ingredients).

(I also kept a Costco membership during this period, despite the painful $50 annual fee. We ultimately saved much more than that in terms of things like trash bags and other bulk items. Although Costco isn't best for everything, so we had to do research to figure out the things that actually saved money by buying from there.)

Being poor can be stressful and soul-draining, so it's important to stay in good physical condition and do things that keep your mind and soul refreshed. Exercise and eat healthy and allow yourself luxuries that improve your quality of life. Don't just deprive yourself, because you save money in the short term but you also become miserable, and when your state of mind breaks down, you are more prone to bad impulsive decisions that could be more costly than whatever you initially saved. Economizing isn't about simply not spending money, but about spending your money more efficiently and intelligently.

You apparently aren't being forced to take this low-paying job, but then again neither were we -- we chose our situation as well. However, in our case we accepted the poverty because our work had the potential to become more lucrative. Then the economy tanked, so it didn't work out that way. But we did go into the situation with an exit route in mind. So I won't say not to take the low-paying job if it has something valuable to offer, but I would only do it if it was a fairly short-term thing (by which I mean 2-3 years max) that would open doors to something better-paying, and I would go through those doors at the earliest opportunity.

The situation you describe can certainly be made to work, but not without a lot of effort and tough decisions, creative budgeting, planning, thinking, and hustling. Without a doubt, the best thing for me about not being in that situation anymore is not having to devote so much energy and attention to the simple act of living. So I wouldn't enter into it lightly, and certainly not unless it was worthwhile down the road.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 9:27 AM on April 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

Why would you take a pay cut for a job without advancement? You need to be more specific than "I'd like this job more." Are you trying to break into a new field or do you just not like your current boss/co-workers/commute/company/etc.? I would try to hold off for a promotion within your field, assuming you have a field you're in and depending on your experience and education and if that's reasonable to see happening.

I think $220 a month would be fine if you only spent it on food. But you could also defer your student loans, and yes, cut out the $50 "charitable donation" (whatever that is). I deferred my student loans claiming hardship or whatever when my career got dicey after college. You will need to apply for deferment or forbearance, depending on the situation. And then after a while when I was making more money, I just picked back up paying them.

I also think owning four cats when you clearly can't afford it is a bit much. One cat? Sure. Four? Why? Even budget constraints aside, that's a lot of cats.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:41 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Student loans eat a big chunk out of this. I would say that with a college degree you should be aiming for 36.000 a year.

Cat vet bills etc are another luxury.

Tithing may seem noble, but it's another chunk of your pay - if you need to tithe, consider getting another part-time job at 4 hours a month to pay this tithe - you will have 2 dollars left over, enough for a coffee.

Internet is another luxury that many people do without and go to the library instead.

In utilities, is there a cable television bill? Many people living on the poverty line go without.

Cars are very expensive and cannot be maintained on 12 dollars an hour.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:12 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

As other's have said: Don't do heroic measures for the cats and let it naturally turn into one cat over time. Don't replace them as they die.
See if you can arrange cheaper accommodations. Keep moving expenses (and commuting expenses, etc) in mind and don't be penny wise, pound foolish about the decision.
Give up cash tithing for now. Find another way to be generous.
Look into what you can do to lower your student loan payment.

Also, go to the library and look for books on living cheaply like "How to survive without a salary" by Charles Long and "The Tightwad Gazette" (books 1-3) by Amy Dacyczyn.

This is an opportunity to change your relationship to money. People who are overly reliant on throwing money at their problems inevitably get bit in the ass when they run into some problem that money can't solve (and there are plenty of those in life). You need food, clothing and shelter but there are lots of ways to get those that don't involve scads of cash.

I grew up with a garden in the backyard, homecooked meals that often included fresh garden vegetables and game meat killed by my dad, clothes sewn by my mother, etc. Dad had put a very large down payment on a house when he left the military. The house payment was low and he had a military retirement check. He was also often unemployed for months at a time. So they didn't have a high income when I was a kid.

I had no idea when dad's check arrived. I was unaware of any connection between when he got paid and how well I ate. Meanwhile, I knew when my neighbor got paid because they ate mayonnaise sandwiches the night before payday and on payday their dad brought home mounds of fresh meat and grilled all evening. I ate well every day. And dressed better than the neighbors, etc. I only realized after I was an adult that we were technically "poor".
posted by Michele in California at 10:43 AM on April 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I live on about that, now. Here's how it shakes out:

$700 - rent and utilities on a small studio apartment
$150 - gas an insurance on my car
$75 - iPhone with data plan
$10 - Netflix stream-only subscription
$200 - food, including food for my dog
$250 - dog daycare

That leaves a couple hundred dollars a month for incidentals. Needless to say, I'm not taking skydiving lessons. I'm also not able to save meaningfully or give to charity. This is unfortunate, but most likely my current income is temporary and the plan is to bump back up to a more realistic paycheck within the next year or so. I'm also desperately hoping that my dog grows out of his separation anxiety soon and I don't have to rely on dog daycare anymore.
posted by Sara C. at 10:46 AM on April 27, 2013

I live on minimum wage. ($10.25). Lots of low-cost and discount (read: about to go bad) food, (plus the good old "don't eat" meal plan- i usually have one meal a day unless my boyfriend takes me out), no car, no pets, an apartment with inclusive utilities, a $30 plan that is both my phone and internet, only buy clothes second hand or at the outlet store, loan forgiviness for my student loan (that means I'm not paying it right now and the government pays my interest), no savings, about $10/month on "charity" (panhandlers), no tithe, no alcohol ever, special cheap repayment plan on my credit card which I maxed out paying bills, and not all the bills get paid every month.

I do eat out for brunch once a week and spend more than I should on grooming supplies because they make me happy. Those are my luxuries.

Lots of people live together to cut costs.

Oh yeah- my honey works at a used bookstore AND gets a discount , which saves us both a lot of $$.

When I can, I supplement by doing medical studies.
posted by windykites at 10:59 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah- I volunteer on sundays instead of giving money to the church, so I guess you could call that a tithe. I repair a lot of stuff myself (clothes, furniture etc), shop at dollar stores, and buy used furniture or build my furniture, usually out of cardboard. It's not pretty but it works. I'm blessed with a washing machine in my apartment, if I didn't have it I would spend the $60 on an industrial salad spinner, and wash my clothes in the tub, spin dry them. I have an indoor clothesline and so my clothes also last longer. I buy looser-fitting clothes and they don't wear out as fast. I don't have many clothes, and I always wear an undershirt so they don't need washing as frequently. I often have protein powder (from walmart) into a shake instead of a meal. I eat a lot of cabbage and potatoes. I don't replace things until I have no other choice. Of coyrse, when I DO have money I go crazy with spending, which doesn't help any.
posted by windykites at 11:11 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

One last thing- sure, for some people it's a "fun adventure". But it gets old real, real fast. Being poor is fucking horrible- I grew up poor. It sucks.
posted by windykites at 11:18 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Coming back in to say, CHOOSING to switch to a much-lower salary with no chance of advancement? Hell no!

Look, try this: stay at your current, higher-paying job, but try to live for at least the next six months AS IF you were making that $12/hour --- live ONLY on that, and stash the rest of your current paycheck in savings: don't touch that or any current money you already have saved. Pretend that you're making $12 gross per hour, which will probably come out to around $8 after taxes.

You're quickly going to find out just how hard it is, and how you've got to be mindful every. single. minute. of where each penny is going. You maybe like to pick up a coffee at Starbucks? Forget it, you can't afford it. Want new shoes or a new coat? Try the thrift store or do without --- and nobody 'needs' more than a couple pairs of shoes or more than one coat. New catnip cat-toys? Sorry, kitties, but food comes first. Like to go out to a bar with your friends once a week? You can't afford that either. Enjoy a cold soda or beer at home? Gonna have to cut WAY back there, too. On the other hand, you'll save a lot of money on gas, because you aren't ever going to the mall or a bookstore: you can't buy anything there, so why go?
posted by easily confused at 1:26 PM on April 27, 2013 [11 favorites]

I make a little more than you, and I asked a similar question a while ago. I got some good answers, some unhelpful answers, and a whole buncha' stuff - take a look.

Here's how my current budget shakes out:

$790 - rent and utilities (including internet)
$200 - dogwalker
$50 - other dog stuff
$160 - groceries
$150 - gas
$105 - car insurance
$200 - credit card payments (ugh)
$100 - savings
$20 - toiletries (soap, etc.)
$16.99 - netflix

My gross income is around $2,100/month (that's after taxes, paying for health insurance, and so on), so that leaves me with a little over $300 extra for whatever. I'm still on my parent's family plan for my cellphone, my roommate buys most of the toiletries, and I eat a lot of meals at work. I got rid of my gym membership and I eat a lot tuna salad for dinner.

I also have a lot more pressure to save money because I work in somewhat seasonal job, and I'm going to be unemployed in two weeks.

I work very long hours (60 hours/week) and can't get a second job. I do some freelance work, but it's quite inconsistent. You can (and, IMO, will need to) get a second job and use that as your extra money. I would also cut out the charitable donation.

I am ostensibly doing a lot better, financially, than you will be, and I feel really fucking pinched and stressed out about money. Is this new job going to lead to something worth it? Don't compare yourself to people making minimum wage. Minimum wage is not a living wage, and a lot of people have to scrape by using a combination of public assistance and working multiple jobs. You are going to be poor, not middle class.

I don't live extravagantly, but I like to buy nail polish now and then. I run, and I need to buy running shoes and sports bras sometimes. I went out last night for a friend's birthday and spent ZERO dollars, but tried to convince him to let me buy him a shot. I was drinking soda. I would like to be able to be more generous. I would like to travel at some point. There is a bunch of stuff wrong with my car that I can't afford to fix. The point is - you will need to get a second job and stop tithing, and please think really hard about whether this job is worth it. It might be. I'm not going to tell you what to do.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 3:07 PM on April 27, 2013

If you are looking at this job as an opportunity, remember that a lot of recruiters demand to know your most recent salary when you apply for a job. They're usually very very tenacious and not dissuaded by talk of wanting the "fair market rate".

You may be able to hide it to an extent, but your pay rate at one job sends a clear signal of your worth in the marketplace and you may be forced to take the same pay rate at the next job. Every time you accept a salary offer you really need to think about not just how you'll manage now, but how you'd manage if you had to live on that pay several years into the future.
posted by tel3path at 3:49 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think you might be overestimating your net income. I was making that much hourly not that long ago, and I don't think I was netting quite that much (then I started going to grad school and made even less). Maybe I'm wrong. I suppose local taxes might help determine that. Although, you'll get a lot of tax money back at that income level.

My thoughts, based on how I used to live:

You might need to move to a cheaper place if it's possible.
That seems awfully high for utilities. Are you in a place with a particularly inhospitable climate or high energy costs?
The charity obviously needs to go. You could balance it out by volunteering instead.
Sad as it is, you might not be able to keep the cats.

It's not going to be easy. I was kind of scraping along at that income level, when I was there - and I didn't have any pets OR student loans.

You need way more than $220/month for 'everything else.' I don't think I could get my food budget down to $220/month by itself. You need to at least double that number, which means you need to get some of the others down. Keep in mind that clothes are not an insignificant expense, and it's really hard to eliminate all your entertainment budget without ruining your social life and any relationship you are in.

Also, note that living at an income like this MUST be temporary, and you have to have a fallback plan (e.g. parents to swoop in and rescue you). You won't be able to save money or build a retirement program. You won't be able to financially handle any real injury or sickness, or get preventative medical care. Dental care might be difficult to afford. You won't be able to replace your car, if it goes. All of your equipment (computer, bikes, outdoor gear, etc) will continue to work, but as it goes out, you won't be able to replace it very often or with anything decent.

You can live on an income like this for a while, it's not even necessarily unpleasant, but it has to be a stepping stone to the way to something better. If you stay there for too long, either bad luck or aging will catch up with you and you'll eventually be swept into an endless cycle of debt by an injury, illness, or other expensive event (car accident, house fire, etc.)
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:43 PM on April 27, 2013

Oh yeah, and the first rule of choosing to make $12/hour in the US is that you absolutely, positively must be completely healthy. If you have any health problem that requires management, forget it. At that income level, the deductible for any kind of insurance you can actually get will be quite capable of ruining you all by itself.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:58 PM on April 27, 2013

Yeah, $10/hr is what In-n-Out pays here. $12 an hour? Maybe back in Arkansas (and even then, it'd be tough), but if you're an adult with plans and needs, you need to look into better job paths if you can.

Good luck.
posted by wintersweet at 6:14 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've done it, and I was fine! Some caveats:

1) NO PETS. Well, I had a betta. He cost me maybe $2 a month.
2) NO CAR. I worked a 30 minute walk from home. I can't tell you how much time and money not having a car has saved me. It's not an accident either, I specifically moved somewhere I could live without a car. I grew up where that was not feasible (absolutely horrid transit system and no centralization) and it is one of my biggest priorities. Being chained to having to own a vehicle to survive is insane.
4) NO DEBT. Thanks Mom and Dad!
3) I lived in a hole. A run down slum house with several roommates. We had no living room and the bathroom was a horror. And the rent was $400.
5) My country has universal healthcare, which was fucking amazing because my bladder tried to kill me. If I had been attempting this in the USA I'd probably have lost my kidneys. I remember being bummed out that I had to pay $50 for a prescription. It was my only cost as I did not make enough money that year to pay the healthcare fees out of my taxes.

I didn't eat out a ton, didn't have any expensive hobbies, but then neither did any of my friends and we made our own fun. I do remember once work taking us to an all you can eat lunch and I ate so much I couldn't see straight for 3 hours. I also remember once my dinner was a single baked sweet potato. My co-worker told me it was like I was a cartoon character because I wore the same pants and sweater every day.

The job was a starter that led to higher pay and more opportunities.

So my first thought was, why not? Worked for me! but looking at these lists now, I think you are about to leap into a potentially very bad situation.
posted by Dynex at 6:42 PM on April 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

I live on this amount with a lot of the same expenses - our student loans are the same amount, and I also have a small "tithe". The only major difference is I live in a state where there are low wages and a commensurately low cost of living - I share a 650/month apartment and pay 325 in rent. Is it possible for you to find a different living situation? I also now have IBR - I sent in my pay from the last year, and they told me I could pay 0.00 each month -- I would suggest that you look into it.

I will tell you that you need to gird your loins for emergencies. They will happen, and if you drop a bowling pin, you can destroy your credit, which will make life worse when it comes to routine poor person occurrences like replacing your beater, moving to a new apartment, and paying off emergency credit card balances when the rates shoot up. My current position has health coverage. If it didn't, it would be a huge gamble, because you can't even begin to pay out of pocket with this wage. Problem is, most jobs in this income range do not have health coverage -- it's an "Of course not!" I'm in this situation because I'm marginally employable. After three years of post-grad unemployment, I hang on to this job as if it were the wooden plank in the Titanic. It's the best available option for me. If it is not the best available option for you, don't choose it.
posted by Selena777 at 11:41 PM on April 27, 2013

How do people survive on $12 an hour?

I just want to emphasize the cost of living and differences in rent across the country. In a low income part of the Midwest in 2005, my rent was $275 a month for a large bedroom in a very nice house (dishwasher, washing machine, etc - four bedroom house, four of us living there, there was also a tiny guest bedroom we were not allowed to rent out). I just checked Craigslist for that area, and there are rooms for rent (with a private bathroom, even) for around $120 a month.

Other prices also vary significantly across the country, like gas and food. For example, gas today costs an average of $3.94 a gallon in Illinois, and $3.21 a gallon in South Carolina.

That's not to say that people don't live on minimum wage in the most expensive cities in the country -- but they are poor. The people who live a more comfortable existence on a lower wage live in less expensive areas.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:39 AM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I gross ~$28,000/year. I put 12% in a tax-deferred retirement account, and have group-plan health insurance. Otherwise, the summary:

1. When possible, I live with more than one roommate. For a while I was sleeping on the living room floor as the third person in a two-bedroom apartment, which put my rent under $400/month.

2. I have two cats but if I had to make that decision again I would probably opt to be pet-free. I live in fear of the day when one of them (cat who compulsively eats fabric, I'm looking in your direction) needs medical care I can't afford. Having pets also increases my rent, both because of pet surcharges and the fact that I have to limit my search to pet-friendly properties.

3. I volunteer my time (5-15 hours per month) rather than giving money to charity.

4. I buy almost everything used. It's a good thing you can't buy food at the thrift store, because I would do it. Sheets, underwear, shoes, clothing, bike parts (mostly on eBay), soap--yes, you can occasionally find soap at the thrift store--you name it. I have a sewing machine and I'm fairly adept at mending.

5. I cook most of my own food from scratch, and I'm aggressive about finding inexpensive ingredients. I buy virtually no prepared food. Grocery stores which serve immigrant populations are good for this. I don't each much meat, and when I do, it's sub-$2/lb. meat: chicken thigh & leg quarters, pork shoulder, etc. Organic or ethically raised meat is out of the question, which pains me. I have considered vegetarianism, but I suspect that it would actually raise my grocery expenses, at least in the short term. If I eat out, it's only from restaurants which are nearly as inexpensive as eating in (in Chicago, this is generally Mexican food). I make coffee at home, or I go without and get a headache.

6. I never, ever drink at bars. Usually, this means that I never go to the bar. I do drink, but I have an informal limit of $1/beer, and opt for one beer which I'll be able to savor over two or three cans of swill.

7. I iron my own shirts and never use commercial laundries/laundromats/dry cleaners. Luckily, there is currently a free washer in my apartment building, but in the past I've simply washed each day's clothing in the sink. I line- or rack-dry my clothing rather than pay for the dryer.

8. My student loans are on the IBR plan. Incidentally, if you have federal/Stafford loans and haven't signed up for this, do it now, but be aware that there is a one-year lag--that is, your payments in 2014 will be calculated on the basis of your 2013 tax return. Consider putting money aside now as a buffer.

9. I forgo non-essential medical care. For example, I still have my wisdom teeth, which are impacted (and one of them is cracked!)--and I have dental insurance. I'm essentially betting that I won't develop an infection/abscess before I can save up enough to cover the copay, which sucks, but the other option is putting it on a credit card (see item 14).

10. Whenever possible, I work a second job. Recently, this has been summer weekends as a mechanic at a bike shop for $8.50/hour. This means that I only have two or three days off between May and August.

11. Vacations are rarely longer than three days, and usually happen in the off-season (not summer)--for example, visiting my parents, or camping. I usually take the Megabus or coordinate a car trip with friends visiting the same city. It kills me that my passport is expired and I haven't left the United States since 2001.

12. I share a household streaming-only Netflix account with three people. Two devices can watch at once, so this requires some coordination, but we work it out.

13. I commute everywhere by bike, in all weather. If I'm sick or the weather is truly awful, which only happens once or twice a year, I'll treat myself to a ride on the bus or train. I don't point this out to make you feel bad about driving, but if I couldn't bike I would absolutely consider moving somewhere where I could get around without a car. If you have some time to lay the groundwork for your new lower-income lifestyle, consider moving somewhere with usable public transportation, or where you can walk to work.

14. I am fairly fastidious about maintaining an emergency fund and staying out of high-interest debt, because it's a very real possibility that in any given month I will wind up in the red--and interest/overdraft fees/service charges are a huge problem at this income level. If I'm not careful, I can easily lose 2-4% of my net to this kind of tomfoolery.

15. I have a hand-me-down "dumb" phone on the cheapest plan I can find. I try to use the internet to take the place of talking, since that bill is split up on a household basis, and the phone bill is solely my responsibility.

16. In the winter, we set the thermostat to 58-60° F.
posted by pullayup at 1:46 PM on April 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've lived on slightly less than that several times (most recently last year in Providence, RI, also have lived in Chicago on a similar budget). It's not super fun, but in my situation it wasn't as dire as people are making it sound. My budget was as follows:

-$300 rent (two roommates, cheap part of town) This is a big expense you might be able to cut, though I don't know the housing market where you are. However, I do think that people often budget too much for housing--this is a place where you can save a lot.
-$50/month average utilities, more in winter, less in summer (no AC), and free internet (your utilities seem high...?)
-$150/gas and car insurance, plus around $500 a year for oil changes and essential car repairs on my 1999 beater (though I junked the car in question shortly after I switched to a new job because I took it in and found out a lot of the noises I'd been pretending didn't exist were going to cost me ~$2000 cumulatively to repair.)
-$30 prepaid phone (straightalk for part of the year, then switched to Ting)
-I had $60/month food stamps, then spent another $50 on top of that on food monthly (mostly vegetarian, lots of beans and making meals from scratch)
-Leaving me $300 or so wiggle room for spending $15 at a cheap bar or restaurant every week or so, gas money for weekend camping trips or trips to the beach, admission to the zoo or a museum or cheap concert, some new clothes from thrift stores or TJ Maxx clearance, an occasional charitable contribution, etc. Not too bad, I rarely felt super stretched. I also always had an emergency fund of a couple thousand dollars that I was lucky enough not to have to dip into but that bought me peace of mind.

Your budget, however, worries me for the following reasons: you haven't got health insurance (I had this with my job), your rent and utilities is a big chunk of your budget, you haven't budgeted for car repairs, you're paying a lot in student loans, you don't say whether you have an emergency fund, and your food budget is part of the 'everything else' category.

Other concerns: You may not be used to living on less. I can live on very little but quite honestly it's because I've never been accustomed to more. Someone who was taking a decrease in salary or had a more middle class childhood would find it harder. I know if I had gotten used to living on more it would be difficult to adjust back down.

Also, what budgets are your friends on? My friends are as broke as me and they want to hang out at home some nights or have potlucks rather than going out to eat or camp instead of staying in a hotel. If I had friends who wanted to do more expensive things, I know it would be hard for me to stick to my budget.
posted by geegollygosh at 7:00 PM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Get multiple jobs. It will up your income and lower your entertainment budget because you'll always be either working or sleeping. If thath doesn't sound fun, stay at the higher paying job until you find a higher paying replacement.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:13 AM on April 29, 2013

At the risk of being one more voice in the hurricane:

* Get rid of the internet! Seriously, like today. This evening. Call and cancel it. Use internet at the library. That's what it's there for! If the library is closed, go to a friend's house, or go buy a cup of tea at a coffee shop. But for real, despite what the UN says home internet is a luxury and you can't afford it right now. Later, once you can afford it, ask yourself if you really need it, because that bill adds up and there are public resources you can continue to take advantage of for free.

*Ditch those cats! If you really aren't able to make ends meet, you need to loose those sweet kitties and give them to people who can. If you miss having pets, go be a dog walker or pet sitter for a local shelter.

*Depending upon what your "physical limitations" are, reconsider biking, or get a trike or a recombinant bike. There may be places/local charities that will sell used bikes cheap, or help you build one cheaper (or free!).

*Add a roommate, or move. I'm sorry, I'm sure the place you're in right now rules. Someday you'll find a place even nicer. But this place is not right for you at this moment, and it is punishing you to live there.

*DON'T stop donating money. That's a cool thing to do.

*Do some internet homework about how to buy food. Tips: Stop going to Whole Foods right now. Start buying at Aldi. Keep a notebook of what you pay for staples, and when you see them cheaper than normal, buy 'em in bulk and put them in the freezer. There is a world of good advice on the internet about how to eat on the cheap in America, so use it.

*Stop buying clothes. If you have to look nice for something, thrift an outfit or borrow pieces from friends.

*Entertainment: Libraries are filled with books, and many many many of them rent out movies, music and even video games, so take advantage of what your tax dollars have already bought. STOP going to movies and restaurants; they are a trick played by jerks to separate people who don't care about their money from that money. If you have to go to the bar, pre-game before you go and either 1) drink water all night, 2) let people buy you drinks (doesn't work for everyone, sadly) or 3) buy airplane bottles and hide them in your purse, then hide in the restroom and mix them with the coke you bought at the bar.

*Skydiving lessons and other fun things will just have to wait. It's okay. You won't miss anything.

Do this, and recalculate your budget, and see if you can't find room for insurance, savings, and making bigger payments on your student loans. The more you consider personal austerity a lifestyle and not a choice (or worse, something you reward yourself for doing by splurging periodically) the more successful you will be. I would read a junk-load of frugality blogs to steal other people's tips as well.

And finally, don't get tricked by advertising, your own expectations, or the lives of people around you into feeling resentful about living within your means. Advertising is meant to trick you into living outside your means. If you see someone doing it in advertising, you should probably avoid it. Your expectations are emotional, not rational. Don't listen do them. You're doing the right thing and should feel good about how smart and forward thinking you are. And you can never fully know what is motivating other people, what their financial situation is, and whether they're completely underwater and just trying to trick everyone else so they feel better about their situation. Mind your own boat and you'll do just fine.
posted by Poppa Bear at 12:15 PM on April 29, 2013

When I was a poor student living off approximately the same amount, $150 would cover all utilities including internet, cable tv, and my $25 cell phone service. Do you run the AC all day or something?

I also didn't have a pet. Shit sucks, but that's life.
posted by Precision at 11:26 PM on April 29, 2013

Getting rid of internet is terrible advice.

1 - it's very low cost entertainment
2 - you should be able to save the cost of your subscription every month via knowledge or things you pick up on the internet, i.e. researching best practices with spending money, etc. Yes, you can do this at the library, but it won't be nearly as effective in 30 min chunks or whatever you get, and you also will be losing the entertainment aspect of the service.

In a bare bones spending environment your internet can easily replace cable television and your phone, and provide 99% of your entertainment needs in general. You can also use it to pick up freelance work (writing online, Craigslist gigs) so it can be a source of income.

Losing the internet is an example of penny wise, pound foolish, in my opinion.
posted by imabanana at 11:49 PM on April 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

Getting rid of internet is terrible advice.

I know I'm a little late, but I want to heartily second this. Having the internet at home, which can cost as little as $25/month for a low-speed plan, replaces a whole host of other expenses, and enables literally dozens of ways to save or make small amounts of money. The digital divide is a real thing, and puts people without access at a significant economic disadvantage.

1. it replaces movie rentals, the theater and cable;
2. Spotify and Pandora replace music purchases;
3. you can use the library catalog to request books to your local branch--even if you wouldn't purchase books instead, this can save time and money spent travelling to the library;
4. buying and selling on craigslist and similar services (not to mention Freecycle) have almost 100% replaced paper classifieds, and can both save and earn you money;
5. efficient apartment searches are nearly impossible without consistent internet access, such that you'll wind up in worse and more expensive housing without it, especially in competitive rental markets;
5. ditto job searches, which also happen almost 100% online, plus freelance opportunities noted above;
6. the ability to stay on top of bills (using autopay, etc.) and your account balance(s) prevents late charges and fees, especially in low-income situations where bank accounts are frequently close to empty;
7. the internet simplifies and facilitates comparison shopping, even for brick-and-mortar-purchases such as groceries: sales fliers are usually online;
8. almost any type of self-investment with an eye toward greater employability (college classes, certifications, self-study) essentially requires home internet, even for courses which aren't online

If you can't walk to the library or a coffee shop and need to drive or take the bus, I imagine that you could come close to spending this much just getting to where the internet is--In Chicago, where I live, a round-trip bus fare is $4.50.
posted by pullayup at 2:22 PM on April 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

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