I 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 http://www.playspent.org
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: http://www.nhc.org/media/files/chp_affordablehousing_tod-challengesandoptions1.pdf).
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.
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?