It's been a while since I've accepted an item off of the McDonald's dollar menu as dinner — or since I've had to scavenge my house to find enough change to buy gas.
But even though it's been years since I've scraped off dry, rotting candy from dimes in the bottom of my purse to see if a cashier will accept them, I still find myself complaining a lot about money. That's probably not a surprise if you've been following along with my column each week.
I complain because money is stressful. Because our society makes it feel like you'll never have enough to succeed. Because it's hard enough to make it through the month, let alone actually plan for the future.
But as I've earned more money in recent years, I've also earned more privilege. I've allowed myself the privilege to complain differently about money — to think differently about money. Rather than venting to friends about eating brown iceberg lettuce for the third meal in a row, I complain about how difficult it will be to buy a new car or a house someday.
With more money, I've given myself the privilege to stop eating food from the drive-through or convenience stores, and to switch to a vegetarian diet. I can go out multiple times a week and not worry too much about what I spend. I can drive everywhere I go, even if it's a few blocks away.
It's only been a few years since I've lived this way, though. Living in a house with friends in college, I worked three jobs to barely afford rent, tuition and living expenses. I worked far more than 40 hours a week and all of my jobs paid more than minimum wage, averaging about $10 an hour. My rent was only $325 each month. And I still struggled to afford anything other than $1 McDonald's chicken sandwiches.
When I decided to try to live on minimum wage for one week, I thought I'd be returning to my college life — making a bag of lettuce last five days or putting off laundry for more than two weeks. But I learned life is much different on Iowa's minimum wage of $7.25. Even at full-time, I've never made that little money in my life.
Politicians in recent years have taken the "live the wage" challenge, where they live on the federal minimum wage — the same as Iowa's — for one week. At $7.25 an hour, after the average expenses, that leaves about $77 to spend on transportation, food and other necessities in one week. And I totally get how eye roll-inducing the concept is — politicians at Capitol Hill pretending they know what it's like to struggle to afford basic needs for one week.
Like most stories I've seen, my week on minimum wage barely scratched the surface of what it's really like to live on $7.25. My week was a choice between wants and needs — not between necessity and survival. And even so, I still failed to make it through the week.
At the beginning of the week, I took out $77 in cash, to make sure I could keep track of my spending. It was already the end of the month, so my budget felt tight anyway, and I didn't give much thought to how difficult the challenge would be.
But I was already struggling to make compromises the first day. I forgot I planned to get drinks and food with friends after work, and didn't feel like I could cancel. I reluctantly settled for the cheapest beer they had. I chose to not order food, but luckily my friends ordered pizza, which came with a free appetizer. Somehow I pulled off a free dinner.
But the next day, my weekly allowance was pretty much gone. I had to buy groceries, which could usually take up the whole $77, especially with the amount of produce I eat. I kept my shopping list to the basics, choosing non-organic bananas and carrots rather than the organic kale and zucchini I normally buy, and picking rice and beans from the bulk section. I managed to walk away with a $30 shopping cart.
And I had to buy gas, which I tried to limit to $15 for the week, but that didn't quite work out. I ended up putting another $5 in the tank a few days later.
Making the rest of the money last a week included not buying coffee or drinks, eating the same food for every meal, not letting leftovers go to waste and saying "no" a lot. I turned down meals out with friends. I turned down driving a half-hour to see my family. I turned down giving friends rides to work. Meals were smaller. Snacks were non-existent. Entertainment was limited to watching shows at home. I walked to appointments when I could.
Again, my week was more of a choice between extreme comfort and relative comfort. I didn't starve. I didn't choose food over medicine. I didn't have children or dependents to worry about. I barely peeked through the blinds of life in poverty. According to a recent United Ways of Iowa report, 47 percent of Davenport households cannot afford basic needs. That makes sense when you learn 57 percent of Iowa jobs pay less than $15 per hour.
I've interviewed and met so many people throughout the Quad-Cities making serious life choices with every paycheck they earn. Throughout the week, I knew I could push big purchases to later in the month. I had thoughts like, "Well, I can't buy those new shoes this week, but after this challenge is over, I'm definitely going back to that store."
I learned I can do better things with the money I do have. I can appreciate it more. I can be more supportive of friends and family without every aspect of my relationships being somehow tied to money.
My week was stressful. It was depressing. I was less productive. I took less time for myself. But the entire week, I knew I had an out. I knew I was getting paid Friday and would soon have enough to pay off bills and still feel comfortable. Because of this, my week was possible — life still felt possible.