Life at $6.50 an Hour

Karen Datko

I did not anticipate my fall from the middle class. It hit me like a cheap shot and nearly knocked me down.

Since then, my recovery from a near-poverty income has been a slow and sometimes painful process. It’s also taught me a lot about resiliency, community and thrift.

When you’re financially down and out, you find out who your friends are. And they can be people you don’t even know.

Here’s my story in a nutshell: I lost my managing editor’s job at a small Montana newspaper after the ownership changed hands.

Going home

After six months of unemployment and second-place finishes in the hunt for a new job in locations where I could afford to live on a newspaper income, I found another managing editor’s job in Western Pennsylvania, about 100 miles from the hometown I left at age 17.

Two weeks after my arrival, my living arrangements evaporated. My three dogs and I moved to a campground and lived in my van as I
worked six days a week and desperately searched for housing that would accept pets.

After two weeks of van living, my new boss told me I had to leave. People would find out that the ME lived in a campground and it would be “bad for business,” he said.

An immediate U-turn

The sales contract on my Montana house had fallen through, so I sold most of my belongings, drove back to my adopted hometown and joined the community of single women who work more than one job to keep a roof over their heads.

I am far from alone. The New York Times recently reported that 51 percent of U.S. women are living without a spouse. This has happened at a time when most households need two incomes to maintain a middle-class lifestyle.

That’s true even when you live in small-town Montana. Housing costs are lower here than in major cities—although steadily rising—but wages also are lower.

Holes in the education safety net

A good education is no guarantee that the floor won’t fall out from under you. I have a bachelor’s degree from an Ivy League school and a master’s degree in journalism from one of the best schools in the profession, as well as 30 years of work experience.

But a good attitude will make any situation manageable. I faced the facts—I’m single, 52, unemployed and living in a community with limited employment opportunities—and came up with a plan.

Spending fast

The first thing I did was to absolutely stop spending money on anything other than essentials like phone/Internet service, mortgage, utilities, car payment, gas and food. Whenever I think I might need something, I figure out how long I’d have to work to pay for it. That kills any urge to spend.

My combined bill for local service, unlimited long distance and DSL is about $80 a month. The water bill is $41. Heat this winter has been about $118 a month; my programmable thermostat never goes above 63. The mortgage, including escrow for homeowner’s insurance and property taxes, is $310. The car payment is $127.

Frugality kicks in

I became a much more careful shopper at the grocery store. I buy beans, lentils and rice in bulk.

I watch closely for bargains like two-for-ones and knocked-down meat prices. I don’t purchase convenience food like bagged salads. Why pay premium prices when I’m perfectly capable of tearing up lettuce leaves?

(Ironically, I utilize money-saving tips I read in Mary Hunt’s Everyday Cheapskate, a weekly newspaper column I added to my former newspaper’s Home page several years ago.)

Accepting help

I signed up for health services at the county clinic so I could be eligible for the sliding scale in case I need medical care.

I adjusted the timing of the dogs’ vaccinations, within medically acceptable parameters, so I could take all three in at once and take advantage of my veterinarian’s “herd” discount.

I allowed more prosperous friends to help me. Several sent me checks. A friend who had purchased my bicycle at my yard sale before I moved to Pennsylvania returned it and wouldn’t accept money. And she gave me a couch when she got a new one.

Another friend gave me an old bed, and another a dining room set. Yet another told several friends about my predicament and they gathered together food, beauty products, a microwave and a computer desk and chair. “We have way too much stuff,” she said.

The kindness of strangers

After a former newspaper colleague asked me to write about my new economic outlook for a personal finance website he edits, several strangers sent letters of encouragement and cash and hundreds of others sent emails of support to the site.

One single mother sent me a letter describing her efforts to raise her children in a high-cost area near Washington, D.C., including working full time and baking cookies for sale on the side. She enclosed $20, saying she’d made the extra money from an order she had on Christmas Eve morning. I could not turn her down.

“ … bravo to you and the many of us single women out there who are eking out a living, holding our heads high, and trying to save a little something for our futures,” she wrote.

Better than minimum

I also got two part-time $6.50-an-hour jobs, one at a discount department store and the other as a salad maker at a local steak house.

I formed a limited liability company to operate a pet-sitting business, caring for people’s pets in their homes when they’re away. When my work schedule proved too physically grueling, I cut back to one job, then traded it in for more hours at much better pay at a new retail giant that moved to the edge of town.

Stocking produce has undone the damage caused by years of a desk job and probably extended my life expectancy. I also have the time to commit to pet sitting, which is a growing business.

I also have a number of freelance writing and editing assignments that will add to my growing income.

My future looks brighter, but is not without concerns. I should be eligible for health insurance through my retail employer after a year on the job, resolving one major worry.

Saving saves the day

Fortunately, I’ve saved religiously over the years through IRAs and 401(k) plans. But the balance won’t be enough unless I can add to it.
A shortage of retirement money is another dilemma I have in common with many single, female baby boomers. The groundbreaking study, “Baby Boomer Women: Secure Futures or Not?” paints a bleak future for many women of my generation:

 “As of 2003, 7 percent of baby boomer women in married-couple households, 21 percent of women living in single-parent households, and 22 percent of women living alone were spending more than half of their income on housing. For these women, not only are their current budgets strained by their housing needs, but their ability to save for retirement and offset costs in the future is hampered, potentially exacerbating problems down the road.”

The study also said women who own their homes are at an advantage. I plan to keep mine.

I sometimes have bad days, but I’m generally optimistic. I have much to be thankful for.

I moved here to take the newspaper job almost six years ago, fulfilling a dream to return to Montana after leaving the state 20 years earlier for a job at a major metropolitan newspaper. I came back with the intent to stay and I’m happy with that decision. I consider the Pennsylvania job a mere blip on the radar screen of my life.
Breaking with constraints

My new life outside of journalism allowed me to volunteer for a U.S. Senate campaign, something a journalist cannot do. I can donate my skills and time to whatever cause I choose, sometimes with unexpected benefits. For instance, I wrote a press release for a local cowboy gathering and received a basket of frozen grass-fed Montana beef in return.

I’m touched daily by the generosity of others. The other day, a local farmer working during the winter in a southern Montana city delivered pots and pans, lamps, a TV and other items from a friend of mine who lives in that city. She’s downsizing her life now that her children are grown.

After dropping off the load, the farmer returned an hour later and handed me a bag of light bulbs he had just purchased, saying he noticed that the lamps didn’t come with bulbs. He quickly left when I asked if I could pay him.

Gaining new perspective

The other day, a friend asked me if I’m embarrassed when I run into politicians and school board subscribers I knew professionally during more financially successful times.

“No,” I said. “I think it’s the other way around, that they’re embarrassed for me.”

But that’s OK. I’m comfortable with myself.

Rather then living to work, I now work to live life to the fullest. 

 © 2007 Debt-Proof Living. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

 "Debt-Proof Living" was founded in 1992 by Mary Hunt.  What began as a newsletter to encourage and empower people to break free from the bondage of consumer debt has grown into a huge community of ordinary people who have achieved remarkable success in their quest to effectively manage their money and stay out of debt.  Today, "The Cheapskate Monthly" is read by close to 100,000 Cheapskates.  Click here to subscribe.