This week, The Simple Dollar is conducting a detailed review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. This title is a bit of an unusual choice for a review of personal finance books, as it details an educated and affluent woman’s attempt to get by while working at low-income jobs. Can we learn anything from this noble experiment? Let’s find out.
During the first leg of the book, Barbara spends a month working as a waitress at two different restaurants in Key West, Florida. The experience of waitressing from Barbara’s eyes amounted to a lot of work for not much pay; the places she worked at targeted working class, student, and lower middle class diners, meaning that the tips were low and some of the patrons were quite demanding.
The most obvious principle that is exposed here is that education is the most valuable investment you can make in yourself. Most of Barbara’s coworkers had made choices in their lives that had excluded educational opportunities – they weren’t the “desperate single mother trying to make ends meet” type at all. Often, her coworkers were single who simply chose not to even try to better themselves; the high points of their existence were merely to have shelter from the rain, enough food to eat, and the opportunity to “party.”
At first, this seems like a self-motivation issue – they’re not bothering to better themselves. However, most of the other people in the book simply do not see further education as an option. They’re perfectly happy to keep running the treadmill that is their lives and, for the most part, this makes them content on a daily basis.
What makes this even more worrisome is the fact that minimum wage is not a livable wage. Barbara’s coworkers often find themselves either working two jobs, living in housing provided by others, or living in their cars. There is simply not enough money to maintain housing in an urban setting while working forty hours a week at minimum wage (it is possible in rural settings, but even then it’s not easy).
This brings up a real question worth pondering for anyone in any income bracket: what is the value of a way of life? Is it worth working eighty hours a week merely to keep a roof over your head? Is it worth working that much to “get ahead,” no matter what your job is? What does your life amount to if you spend almost all of your time working or resting, with no time left to enjoy life? I work much more than forty hours a week, but much of that time is extremely flexible around the constraints of my life; if I had to work as much as I do within a constrained timeframe, it simply would not be worth the life experiences I would be giving up.
Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the next section of the book, in which Barbara works as a maid in Maine and learns some valuable lessons about the true worth of unskilled physical labor and the service industry.
Nickel and Dimed is the third of fifty-two books in The Simple Dollar’s series 52 Personal Finance Books in 52 Weeks.