Recently, I simulated the lives of millions of Americans who earn minimum or nearly minimum wage and lived on an $8.15-an-hour salary for 30 days in New York City.
My experience was worlds away from the millions of Americans who live with limited income day in and day out — after all, I did have a safety net of savings and my challenge had a 30-day “timer” on it — but it gave me a small glimpse of what it’s like to make ends meet with limited income in an expensive city.
The most draining part of living on $8.15 an hour — which allowed me $150 of discretionary spending money for the month after meeting fixed costs like rent — was the mental fatigue and stress that comes with never knowing if you’ll be able to afford the next expense that arises.
I’m a budget-conscious person by nature, but money consumed my thoughts in a way it never had before: Should I pay the $2.75 to take the subway, or do I make the 3-mile trek on foot? Do I buy this peanut butter, or could I assemble a makeshift lunch out of office snacks? What’s my excuse this time for not being able to make it to that dinner with friends at the restaurant around the corner?
Even knowing I had the safety net of my savings should things go horribly wrong — a privilege many people don’t have — I couldn’t stop thinking and stressing about money.
I checked my wallet compulsively. I tallied up my bills and coins at least once a day. I scrutinized even the smallest of purchases. I started envisioning what the money spent on certain “wants” could buy me. For instance, a $2 Vitaminwater is nearly equivalent to a subway ride — a few of those would end up getting me to the airport and back later that month for a previously booked flight.
The mental fatigue was something I never could have predicted or prepared for. It’s something that I simply would not be able to understand without putting myself in the shoes of those living with limited income — and I still don’t fully understand it. After all, my challenge had a timer on it. After 30 days it beeped, and I went back to buying Vitaminwater and peanut butter; I rejoined my friends and coworkers at happy hour; and perhaps most refreshing, money no longer consumed my every waking moment.
For those living on or near minimum wage, the timer never goes off. The stress never settles.
Unless I’m consistently living on a limited income, I’ll never know what it truly feels like. After all, a simulation is simply an imitation of a real-world process — it’s not real world.
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