Could You Live on Minimum Wage?

SPENT is a game to show how live is for those living on minimum wageI was recently introduced to an online game called SPENT whose purpose is to educate people about what life is like for the 4.4 million Americans whose income is at or below the Federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour.

SPENT was created in 2011 by the Urban Ministries of Durham to paint a picture of life at the bottom of the wage scale. To play, visit the SPENT website at

The game starts with the premise that you lost your job, burned through your savings and lost your house. Now you are starting from scratch (well, you still have a car) with the choice of three jobs: waiting tables, warehouse, or administrative temp. The object of the game is to see if you can make it through the month without going broke. If you run out of cash, you have three one-time options of stealing from your kid’s piggy bank, donating plasma, or getting a payday loan.

Throughout the month you are forced to make difficult choices. For instance, do you take the health insurance offered by your new employer, even though it is nearly 20% of your net pay? For housing, you choose how far your commute is going to be.The closer to your job, the higher rents tend to be, but further uses more gas. It turns out that on average, for every dollar a working family saves on housing, they spend an additional 77 cents on transportation. (source:

The game makes certain assumptions based on statistical data from the U.S. Census. In the game, you are apparently a single parent with a car, a school-age child and some sort of pet.

Some of the decisions you have to make are a matter of choosing between what’s best for your wallet or your appearances. There are several different dilemmas in the game where you have to choose between being stingy or taking a financial hit, such as when coworkers are pitching in to a fund to help pay for another coworker who has been out sick for an extended time. I’ve always chosen to pitch in because, as the saying goes: there go I but for the grace of God. I would hope that my coworkers would do the same for me if I was in that situation.

Other choices along that vein include your child not wanting to appear poor. Do you buy the name brand sneakers for your kid so they fit in, or do you get the $10 pair from the thrift shop. At one point, your kid demands lunch money so others won’t find out they are getting free lunch. If you don’t, your kid simply won’t eat. Apparently, that is an actual thing. There are kids in this country who would rather go hungry than appear poor. Sorry kid, I got free lunch in elementary school and it didn’t kill me.

Problems with the Game and Why It Isn’t an Accurate Reflection of Life on Minimum Wage

The catch to this game is that your name is apparently Murphy. Everything that can go wrong does. You’re in a car accident, you need a root canal, your kid needs new sneakers, and your  hours are cut, along with a host of other issues. While this does a good job of showing the dilemmas that minimum wage workers face, it is extremely unlikely that one would face all of these. or even a large fraction of the total, in a single month.

I like that donating plasma is an option, but just once? I donate twice per week for over $200 per month. That’s a big difference from the $25 option.

Also, the game doesn’t give you enough options for lifestyle. Earning minimum wage as a single parent is a lot different from earning minimum wage with no kids. Geographic region and city size are going to have a big impact on opportunities and expenses. And even if you live in the game close enough to work to bike, it won’t let you get rid of the car.

Unrealistic charges

Also, some of the charges just aren’t realistic. When you are in an accident in the game, you are faced with the decision of paying a $500 deductible to pay for the damage to the other car or drive away and hope nobody saw.  I’ve been in a few accidents, with three different insurance companies, over the past 15 years I’ve had my license. Never once have I been hit with a deductible to pay for damage to the other vehicle.

If your bank balance goes below $50, your bank charges you a $5 surcharge. The game claims that this is why so many people living on minimum wage and other working poor skip banks and go to check cashing stores.

In my experience, this is not the case. Instead, most people who don’t have a banking account aren’t ABLE to open a new account after a previous account over-drafted and they didn’t have the money to get back in the black. If a bank closes your account for unpaid over-drafts, you are put on a list circulated to other banks. And it is almost impossible to open a new checking account once that happens.

Besides, check cashing costs $3 or more. Monthly service fees that I’ve seen have mostly been in the range of $5-7. That’s much less than shelling out $3 every week. And the situation used in the game of a minimum balance? Those are more common on interest-bearing checking accounts. Non-interest-bearing accounts don’t usually have minimum balances. And contrary to the source they used for this one, free-checking is not dead. There are still options.

US Bank has no monthly balance requirement and waives the monthly fee if you set up an automatic payment of $25 into a linked savings account. There is no requirement that the money stays in the savings account, however. Chase waives their maintenance fee if you have a direct deposit for at least $400 per month. Granted, not all employers offer direct deposit.

Research has shown that the best way of beating the cycle of poverty is to get an education. Hopefully all of this can be avoided by just pursuing an online mba program to begin with.

Do you know how to survive on minimum wage? How did you do in the game?

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36 thoughts on “Could You Live on Minimum Wage?

  1. Thanks for sharing the SPENT website Edward! I will definitely be using that app in an upcoming class with the college group I teach at our church. We talk a lot about ambition, drive and marketing yourself when I get off topic…getting a job that makes more than minimum wage is great motivation. I appreciated your thoughts on the good and the bad of the simulation.

  2. Interesting game. I think it is possible to live on minimum wage, but there are a lot of requirements. You’ve got to find a place with a low cost of living, live relatively close to work, and be without dependents. If you can pull those three off, your life style won’t be great, but you’ll manage.

  3. I have moved more times than I can count in the past so if I had to take a minimum wage job, I would move to a place that is really cheap. Being a minimum wage worker in New York is virtually impossible. A small diner in the middle of nowhere would probably hire you for minimum wage and a $400 rent nearby is feasible. Then you just have to cross fingers so that big problems don’t happen. I lived on minimum wage and less as a student but had really cheap housing so it was fine.
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  4. I played that game about ten times trying to beat it but could not….it is run by the guy you call Murphy…..we have gotten by for long times on low pay, park the car, sell something, get a second and sometimes third job….pickup returns, sell scrap metal….you will get by even with five children to feed….I am not saying it will be fun or easy…well we made it fun….than when you are old like me you will learn to live within your means and enjoy life…..even on low retirement funds and a part time hardware job, still selling scrap metal and picking up returns as well….

    • As one person on Facebook put it, if you shirk all responsibilities and act like a jerk, you can win the game with a thousand bucks in the bank. 🙂
      As you demonstrate, it is possible in real life. If the game were accurate, welfare would be a lot larger than it is. But the game does serve the purpose of showing that it is hard.

  5. This was awesome Edward. I posted this a few years ago on my blog too and I barely made it thru the month. I had to say no to a lot events but I was broke! I totally think it’s time to do another post in this again.

    • I noticed the game doesn’t specify how old the child is, which would influence a lot of those decisions about events. I wouldn’t have a problem leaving a teen or junior high schooler home for an evening while I went out to a free concert.

  6. Thanks for sharing this Edward. I choose to be a server, something I did in real life for a number of years. I thought the same thing you did. It really doesn’t seem realistic.
    As a server I made far more on average than minimum wage, closer to $16-$30 per hour depending on the time of year or economic situation.
    However, it does highlight struggles than many people do face. I made some tough decisions, I drove away from the accident because I only had $200. I really thought I’d get arrested or something. I made it to the end with $145, but it said that rent was due.
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    • Food service is the one job I have managed to avoid, although I did work one summer in a convenience store that had it’s own delicatessen.

      I guess how much you make as a server depends largely on the place you are working. I’m not sure how the Waffle House here in town even stays open. I’ve been in there more than once where I was the only customer when I walked in and still the only customer when I walked out half an hour later.

  7. Interesting post.

    I did live on the equivalent of minimum wage for a year. It wasn’t easy, but it was doable. BUT…my house and car were paid off (though I still had to set aside $445 a month to cover insurance and property taxes). And I did have a savings cushion, which helped pay for the nasty little surprises.

    In the Murphy’s Law department, it never rains but it pours. In my experience, it’s objectively true that EVERYTHING goes expensively wrong at once.

    My associate editor earned more in three hours of waiting tables at Applebee’s than our employer paid her in an entire week of applying her master’s degree and considerable talents to our office’s work. And one semester while I was teaching adjunct for sub-minimum pay after the Great Layoff, I met a student who told me that the previous year he’d earned $90,000 waiting tables at an upscale restaurant.

    If you’re physically strong, have a good business sense, and don’t mind dealing with other people’s mess, you can earn $120 a day cleaning house around here. Giving yourself a two-week vacation, that comes to 30 grand, almost all of it under the table. Clean two houses a day and you can double that.

  8. I made less than minimum wage working a part time job when I was in college. It sure made me realize that I needed to study hard and do everything I could to get a decent paying job after graduation. The time I put into that job sure didn’t earn much of anything and it scared me. I couldn’t imagine being paid so little in the real world and having to deal with student loan debt once I was on my own. This sounds like a good game for high school and college students to try out.

    • I think it sounds like a brilliant game to get a grasp of real life problems. Most children leave school without an idea of how to balance the monthly income and expenditure, having spent their life relying on parents.

      • I know what you mean. I have to go to the dentist soon for the first time as an adult an I’m realizing that I have no clue how much services like that cost because that was something I didn’t have to think about as a kid.

    • My brother makes minimum wage, and it is very frustrating.
      I think the biggest problem is that those jobs are almost always dead end. He has coworkers who have been there for over a decade that make the same as he does.

  9. The UK is currently going through a huge change right now with millions of people having their benefits cut.

    I like the idea of the game because you can start from nothing. Unfortunately, for many people it’s not a game but instead their real life scenario.

    People living on benefits and low income are being squeezed hard. I think i’ll give the game a shot!

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  12. Great review. I will check out the game when I have a bit more time. It reminds me of the book Nickel and Dimed where the author goes undercover and works a number of minimum wage jobs and has to get by. I think lots of it depends on your location. We live in a pretty poor area. All of our schools are Title I, meaning that 60% or more of kids are on free or reduced lunch, so I don’t think free lunch is a stigma here. Although if you are in high school and all your friends go to Subway or Sonic, that would be an issue. A single mom on minimum wage would qualify for Medicaid most likely, so that would help with medical costs. It could be done, but it would be tough and would require some very hard choices.
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  16. I played this game a few months ago and remember thinking a lot of the same things. It was interesting but at the same time really unrealistic….because you are right minimum wage with kids and without kids is different. Regions are different. Also in real life 80% of people have family or churches that are willing to help them out when things get rough. Is it ideal? No but it’s a possibility.
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    • Good point about outside resources to fall back on. During our bad time, we didn’t qualify for food stamps by $20 but we still had Thanksgiving for to the kindness of strangers on craigslist.

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