Monday, August 25, 2014

Live the Wage Challenge, days 2-3

DAY 2 (Saturday):
Hulu Plus: $7.99
Total spent: $7.99
Total remaining: $99.13

On Day 2 of the Live the Wage challenge I ran up against a slight snag. My to-do list said it was time for me to do my monthly giving, making contributions to various causes. (Some people do this once a year, usually in December, but we prefer to spread our donations out over the year.) However, the amount that we give in a typical month would eat up our entire budget for this challenge three times over. Obviously, if we were really living on minimum wage, we couldn't afford to give nearly this much—but cutting back on our giving didn't really seem in tune with the spirit of the challenge, which is meant to promote empathy with low-wage workers. By the same token, it didn't really seem right to put off my monthly giving until the challenge was over and keep these worthy causes waiting for their money. So I decided to go ahead and do my giving on schedule, but not count it toward my budget for the challenge.

On the other hand, I did count the $7.99 fee for our monthly subscription to Hulu Plus, which automatically renewed on Saturday. Normally I don't count this item as part of our expenses, since it comes out of my PayPal account, which is funded with survey reward points. However, I figured that was a resource not everyone would have, so I treated the $7.99 as if it had come out of my actual wallet. That was our only expense for Saturday, so we're now down to $99, or about 64 percent of our budget for the week.

DAY 3 (Sunday):
Starbucks: $4.76
Total spent: $4.76
Total remaining: $94.37

On Sunday, a new wrinkle arose in the Live the Wage challenge: my monthly utility bill arrived, with a balance of $64 due. Paying it right away, as I would normally do, would leave me with only $35 for the rest of the week, which wouldn't be impossible by any means, but it would certainly mean we'd have to watch our spending carefully for the next four days. Of course, the bill wasn't due until September 9, so I could have simply delayed paying it until the challenge is over, but that kind of felt like cheating.

To complicate matters further, I wasn't really sure whether I ought to count this expense against my $77-per-person budget at all. As I noted when I first introduced the challenge, it's not clear whether utilities are supposed to be counted as part of your housing expenses. I tried Googling "live the wage challenge utilities" and eventually turned up this article in Time that says the $77 budget is for "all their expenses, not counting utilities and rent." This was the most definite answer I could find to the question, so I went ahead and paid the bill but ignored the cost, just as I did with my monthly giving on Day 2.

The only other expense we had on Sunday was a trip to Starbucks. Yes, that's right, Starbucks—the very definition of a frivolous expense, the first thing most people would assume they needed to cut in order to get by on a strict budget. Financial guru David Bach has even coined the term "latte factor" to refer to all the little mindless spending habits that add up to big money over the course of a whole year. But for us, a trip to Starbucks isn't a mindless habit; it's a special occasion. Since our nearest Starbucks is about a mile and a half away, taking a walk there and back is a good way for the two of us to enjoy a pleasant late-summer day together—and by making the 3-mile round trip, and splitting a Double Chocolatey Chip Frappuccino rather than each getting our own, we take some of the curse off this highly caloric treat. And we also keep the expense of the whole excursion under $5, which may be high for a snack, but isn't bad at all for an entire Sunday outing. And since happiness economists say that most people get more enjoyment out of an occasional treat than they do out of a routine expense, spending $5 or $10 a month this way maximizes the happiness bang for our buck.

Moreover, in most cases, the $5 or so we spend at Starbucks doesn't even count toward our monthly budget. That's because I pay for it with my Starbucks card, which, like our Hulu Plus subscription, gets funded with survey points via my PayPal account. But once again, I decided that since most minimum-wage workers don't have this source of bonus income, I should count our Starbucks splurge against my limited budget. So the $4.76 we paid for our Grande Frappuccino was our sole expense for Sunday.

Tallying up our expenses over the first three days, we've now spent $59.63 of our $154 budget. If you break down our $154 budget to $22 per day, then our budget for the first three days was $66, which means we're now back on track and under budget after our high spending on Day 1. If the rest of the week goes like the past two days, we should have no trouble meeting our $154 goal for the week.

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