Today is another post in the Money Diaries series, which is based off New York Magazine’s Sex Diaries. We’ve collected stories from real people about their spending habits over seven days, anonymized them, and posted them here.
Today’s entry is by a 25-year-old single mother. This woman’s spending is definitely troubling — she spends 8% of her take-home pay on self-described “bad habits,” including cigarettes and writing bad checks. But be careful: It’s easy to say, “Why don’t people just SPEND LESS??!” without understanding the full context of why they do what they do.
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6:45 a.m.: I call my bank to make sure that nothing unexpected has been withdrawn from my checking account. I breathe a sigh of relief. The balance is right where I left it: $2.24. I rouse my three-year-old, special needs daughter from sleep and take her to the bus stop.
8:26 a.m.: Am displeased to find I fell back asleep after taking my daughter down to catch her bus — I’m supposed to be at work at 9:00! I contemplate calling a cab, but know I can’t afford it, period. I get ready and run to the bus stop.
8:43 a.m.: Arrive at bus stop. I see the college kids waiting. I envy them, but there’s no time for expanding my mind when it’s imperative that I expand my bank account.
10 a.m.: Slam my hands on my keyboard when I realize I have forgotten my lunch.
12:15 p.m.: Spend $5.18 for a hefty serving of garlic chicken and rice on top of shredded cabbage. Yummy!
12:45 p.m.: Go to the convenience store and get a Coke and a pack of cigarettes ($0.85 for the Coke, $6.35 for the cheapest pack of cigarettes). Feeling guilty about spending money on cigarettes and Coke, I make a vow to quit both by payday. Unfortunately, this is about the thirtieth time I’ve made this vow.
6 p.m.: Get home and make the kiddo chicken nuggets and canned vegetables. Use the last of the milk, and hope that she’ll be okay drinking water for the following two nights.
12 p.m.: Use the loose change in my purse to buy a Coke ($0.85). Sit outside my office on a gorgeous Honolulu afternoon to drink my soda and eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I’m broke, but at least I’m broke in paradise.
12:30 p.m.: Call MOHELA and beg for another deferment on my student loans. They comply.
7 p.m.: Begin to panic at the fact that I only have one cigarette left. Go into the living room and beg mom to loan me a pack until I get paid on Thursday. She reluctantly agrees.
9 a.m.: Use one of the dollars to buy a Coke ($0.85).
12:15 p.m.: Use another bill to buy a Coke ($0.85).
5:07 p.m.: Grumble at the high price of food in Hawaii ($6.99 for a gallon of milk!). Write a bad check to cover the cost of food ($109.97). Wish I could go back to Missouri, where everything is cheaper. Also realize if I didn’t live with Mom, I’d starve.
7:45 p.m.: Beg Mom for another pack of smokes.
8:15 a.m.: PAYDAY! Thank God! It’s the first of the month, and it’s the “big” pay day because I also get my daughter’s social security and my childcare assistance. In total, I receive $1,381 on the first of each month.
8:45 a.m.: Get to the office and use the internet to pay bills and buy my daughter’s birthday presents from Amazon. Birthday presents: $71.50 Phone bill: $82.50 Student loan: $60 (this loan I couldn’t defer because I am delinquent in payments). Miss K: $25 (Post-dated check to a friend for babysitting for me last week). Old Navy online: $28.52 (two shirts for kiddo, three shirts for me).
12 p.m.: Go to used bookstore by my office and buy four books to read over the next two weeks ($21.43).
5:15 p.m.: Pay my daughter’s sitter $325 for partial month payment (total/month = $650).
5:30 p.m.: I shove my way through the clogged aisles of Wal-Mart to buy two jumbo packs of diapers and one value pack of baby wipes. At the checkout stand, daughter has screaming meltdown complete with hair pulling and punches to my face. Total for Wal-Mart: $37.53.
6:45 p.m.: Realize I forgot to buy smokes at Wal-Mart while waiting for the bus. Take one look at my screaming, crying child and decide to suck it up and buy them at the corner store were the cheapest brand is $8.96! Also buy monthly bus pass ($50).
7:30 p.m.: Pay Mom $350 for what remains of my portion of this month’s rent (total/month = $600). Am glad I contributed some of last pay period’s earnings to the rent.
8:30 p.m.: Count what remains of payday: $212.83, after subtracting the money to cover my bad check for groceries. Feel pretty proud until I realize that I have to buy the kid’s Halloween costume! Damn!
9:15 p.m.: Go down to corner store and buy six pack of Coke ($4.96).
12 p.m.: Take off work early to take kiddo to her neurology appointment. The half day off comes out of my pay because I have used all my vacation days for taking time off for various doctors’ appointments and illnesses.
1 p.m.: Am not pleased to learn that I did not pay for the last visit’s co-pay. Must shell out $28 to cover today’s visit and the visit we had six months ago.
2 p.m.: Frustrated that I have to take off work and pay co-pays only to hear doctors tell me they have no idea what’s causing my daughter’s delays.
3 p.m.: Stop for Jamba Juice ($4.37).
5:30 p.m.: Mom reminds me that I owe her two packs of cigarettes. Walk to Wal-Mart for three packs of cigarettes for me, one for Mom ($31.75).
8:15 p.m.: Bored. To entertain myself, I spend an hour texting my ex-boyfriend who moved to Louisiana a few months ago. I splurge for unlimited text messaging because it’s a fairly cheap form of entertainment. Wish I had the money to go visit friends on the mainland, especially this friend.
11 a.m.: It’s the last day of my daughter’s swimming lessons! They were worth the $96.
12 p.m.: Take kiddo to McDonald’s to celebrate her swimming achievements ($9.60 for her meal and mine). Wonder if it’s sad that I consider McDonald’s a luxury. Decide yes, that is very sad.
1:45 p.m.: Mom watches kiddo while I pick up her Halloween costume. She’s going to be a ladybug ($34.97).
10 p.m.: Talk Mom into babysitting my daughter while she sleeps so I can go out. Go to my favorite bar and talk some guys into buying me drinks. Even talk one guy into buying me a hot dog from the vendor outside the bar. Sweet.
1:15 a.m.: Buy cigarettes from the bar ($7) because I smoked the ones I brought.
2:30 a.m.: Take a cab home ($10.80). Worth the money to stay safe.
12 p.m.: Make my weekly calls to mainland friends (free minutes on the weekends!). Get irritated when a friend grumbles about her financial situation because she’s better off than I am. Try to remember that her problems seem just as big to her as mine do to me, but it doesn’t help.
7:15 p.m.: Congratulate myself on not spending any money today!
9 p.m.: Run down to the corner store for a six pack of Coke and a candy bar ($5.87).
10 p.m.: Feel bummed because I won’t have any money to spend on myself on my upcoming birthday. Hope kindly relatives send me cash in the mail this week!
Money spent on bills: $845.50
Money spent on kiddo: $183.00
Money spent on food: $130.03
Money spent on bad habits: $67.38
Money spent on transportation: $60.80
Money spent on me: $35.95
Money left over: $61.08 (this is what I must survive on until next pay day, eleven days away… think I can make it?).
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How would you try to help this person? Note from 10 years of doing this and learning about people’s money behaviors: “Helping” usually starts with (1) them wanting help, (2) you listening and understanding before rushing in with “solutions,” and (3) some way of sustaining the behavioral change.
So what would you do?[Update]: Please read comment #8 before you leave a comment.
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