Updated on 04.11.07

Nickel and Dimed: Selling in Minnesota

Trent Hamm

Nickel and DimedThis 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.

This portion of the book finds Barbara in Minneapolis, working at a Wal-Mart in the women’s clothing section. I found this section the least enjoyable in the book, because the class biases that Barbara largely kept in check here come shining through over and over again.

As I’ve mentioned before, there is a link between one’s personal appearance and one’s financial situation. I’m not talking about the need to wear a $2,000 pair of jeans; I’m referring more to the mere appearance of cleanliness and appropriate decorum in public. Barbara spends much of her time in this chapter commenting on the fact that many of the inexpensive clothing items at Wal-Mart are cheaply made and designed to (poorly) fit overweight people.

She even comments on the real cause of this, that inexpensive food is often loaded with empty calories and that there is a direct connection between food cost and nutritional quality. An individual must choose a point on this spectrum that they’re comfortable with, but the fact of the matter is that many people’s choices on this spectrum are limited by a severe cap on the cost.

She’s also critical of the behavior of the working class, commenting on the fact that many working class people allow their children to run amok in Wal-Mart, but here she’s quick to realize that this has a root cause, too: many working class people, especially those with children, have little or no time in which they’re not working, either at their employment or at the task of managing children, and Wal-Mart offers something of a respite from this drudgery. In short, the working class often uses Wal-Mart as a place to escape, if only for a little while, and not feel as though they are looked down upon. Where do you go to escape? I generally don’t go to Wal-Mart, but I do recognize that everyone needs an escape from the drudgery of life on occasion.

I guess I was disappointed by Barbara in that she allowed her upper-crust values to slip out here and blur her perspective on the Wal-Mart shoppers. The simple fact of the matter is that classism exists in America and the author of this book, even though she means well, is as guilty of this bias as anyone else.

Tomorrow, I’ll sum up my thoughts on Nickel and Dimed and give my recommendation on whether to buy it or not.

You can jump quickly to the other parts of this review of Nickel and Dimed using these links:
Serving in Florida
Scrubbing in Maine
Selling in Minnesota
Buy or Don’t Buy?

Nickel and Dimed is the third of fifty-two books in The Simple Dollar’s series 52 Personal Finance Books in 52 Weeks.

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  1. dimes says:

    No moron should EVER buy this book. Don’t give a blasted dime to that elitist prig. If you read between the lines, this woman has been in academia way too long and doesn’t even follow through when leaving these jobs.
    She’s a horrible person, and everyone in awe of her “shocking expose” needs to be whacked upside the head with a telephone book.

    (but don’t think I’m in any way biased ;-))

  2. 1PennyGirl says:

    I was forced to read this garbage in my literature class. The professor thought it was a profound statement about the poor. Ya, right! I was outraged by her attitude and the fact that she didn’t recognize the vicious cycles that occur when you are poor. I came from a family of 7 whose household income was only $20k (in 2005!). Try digging out of that hole without a reliable car and the $2k in “emergency funds” that the spoiled woman had. I agree with Dimes, Miss Barbie has been in academia way too long.

  3. Ozma says:

    It’s clear 1PennyGirl didn’t read this book, but merely got the gist of it from a classmate. Ms Ehrenreich is very humble about the fact that she has a safety net while her co-workers have nothing, and speaks very well on their behalf. The book is ABOUT the “vicious cycles that occur when you are poor”. To those who may never have been poor, this is important information and might well seem profound.

    How these reviewers totally missed the point of the book is beyond me. I guess our educational system is worse than I thought.

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