The Reality Of The Working Poor In America

by Elizabeth P.
Originally Published: 
A working couple looking at bills and paying them online
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty

I do not think people adequately understand the reality of working adults today, and I’d like to take a moment to explain why I think that. Let me start off by saying my husband and I are in our late 30’s/early 40’s. He is in education. I am in accounting. We live in Phoenix, Arizona and have an elementary-aged daughter. Together we make a combined $70,000 (gross) a year. Our take-home pay is $3,800 a month. We are well respected at our jobs, we work hard and have been there for more than a few years. We are good with money, we have one secured credit card with a $300 limit and we do not spend frivolously.

We are doing better than many. We know this, and we are grateful, but still, we are barely getting by. The only reason we are able to keep our heads above water is because my husband’s health insurance is 100% covered by the state. Additionally, we get a discount on our daughter’s after-school care because my husband works in the district she attends.

Let’s start with the basics — our needs. My husband’s mom helped us with a $3,500 down payment on our house. Our mortgage payment (including PMI and homeowners insurance) is $900 a month. Our house is about 1,800 square feet, was built in the 1940s and is not in the safest of neighborhoods. It was what we could afford. We know that the entire electrical system will need to be replaced soon.

Our utilities (electrical, natural gas, water/sewer/trash) total, on the average, $370 a month. Two years ago we bought a slightly used Honda CRV. Our car payment is $330 a month. Full coverage insurance is $115 a month. We have two unlimited phone lines with older model Androids through T-Mobile for $183 a month. We just recently decided we needed internet as my husband is back in school to pursue his bachelor’s degree. Cost for the internet is $60 a month. Our daughter attends swim, which is $90 a month. We put swim lessons in the needs column as we feel it’s a safety issue. Our grocery budget is $640 a month. Our fuel budget is $160 a month. Our school breakfast and lunch budget is $80 a month. My student loans are $150 a month. Our needs total $3,078 a month.

Now let’s talk about the “extras.” We give $35 a month to sponsor a child in Africa through Save the Children. We will never discontinue that. If we have any extra at all, we can afford to help one child get access to clean water, food, and an education. Our daughter has one extracurricular activity which costs $100 a month. We have two big dogs (both from rescues) that eat about $100 a month in food. Their health insurance is $65 a month. Our date night budget is $120 a month (two dates a month including date and sitter). Our extras total $420 a month.

Our needs and wants total $3,498 a month, leaving us with $302 extra a month, which we put into savings. But here is the thing. Our savings is not growing. We use it for “unexpected” expenses like new tires, windshield wipers, car maintenance, car registration, school pictures, after-school and school registration fees, school events, haircuts, medical and dental co-pays; replacing light bulbs, batteries, air filters, pillows, socks, underwear; and putting aside a little so our daughter can have a nice birthday, she can attend birthdays with a gift, and we can afford Christmas. Once a year we get our trees trimmed and our carpets cleaned. We frequently decline invites from our own friends because we can’t afford to attend their showers, birthday events, or weddings.

Until this year, our daughter did not have health insurance. Until last year, I did not have health insurance. We never go out to dinner, or eat take-out, or pick up dinner on the way home unless it’s a very special occasion. Every meal we eat, we cook from scratch and we try to be as nutritious as possible within our budget. Even our grocery budget reflects the necessities and the necessities only. We buy store brand. We don’t buy “junk food.” We don’t buy prepackaged convenience foods. We can’t afford to get wild salmon, seafood, even the nice fresh chicken or hummus or fancy bread. We buy coffee on sale and make it at home. We watch movies at the dollar theater or we rent them. Neither my husband nor I drink alcohol or soda.

We can’t afford to shop at Target, let alone anything more expensive than Target. 90% of our daughter’s clothes are secondhand. There is nothing left over for me or my husband. Nothing. I have two pairs of work pants I bought new. I have one pair of shoes (those I bought for $15 at Walmart). We each have one pair of pajamas. Neither my husband nor I own a single new shirt. I don’t think my husband owns a new pair of pants or a new pair of shoes. And again, we make a combined gross of $70,000 a year.

Going to concerts, seeing a play or a ballet or Disney on Ice (even the cheap seats), going on vacations for more than a day or two some place within driving distance, even things we “sort of” need like an oven hood, a microwave, a better washing machine, a working grill, etc. are out of the question. We can’t afford experiences like Disneyland or aquariums or art museums or even local children’s museums. We can’t afford to decorate our home with new furniture, art, comforters, etc. The only new sheets and blankets we have were gifted to us from our wedding registry. We buy our towels from the dollar store and they are crappy towels but that’s all we can afford. We bought our living room set second hand on OfferUp for $150 and daughter’s bedroom set came second hand from a former coworker for $150. Our own bedroom set was passed down to us from a close friend. How we dress, how we look and what we eat are very, very limited by what we can afford.

I get five days of paid vacation a year. Three of those days are allocated for our daughter’s special events (first day of school, last day of school and her holiday party). The only sick time I have is earned sick time that I am required by law to have. We don’t have the money to afford a second car. We don’t have a gym membership. We don’t have cable. We do not have the latest and greatest electronic devices. I have very short hair and do not have expensive salon visits. I never get my nails done.

None of this begins to address the emotional/mental toll it takes on all of us. We kill ourselves on the weekends cleaning, doing yard work, and meal-prepping so the weekdays go a little bit more smoothly. When you can’t take a vacation, you need your home life to run as smoothly as possible. We don’t have much quality time with our daughter because we are too busy running a house on a “shoestring” budget.

Sharing one car means we don’t get home until later on the weeknights which doesn’t give us enough time to decompress, eat dinner, give our daughter a bath, help her finish her homework, clean the kitchen and have a proper bedtime routine with a story or two so most nights something gets sacrificed. We pick and choose what that something is. Most nights my husband and I simply fall into bed exhausted, barely finding the energy to even talk about our day, let alone the time or the energy to read, or watch a television program, or have romantic adult time after our daughter is asleep. We are too busy managing our schedules and trying to make ends meet. We have no family close by and the level of burnout we are experiencing is unimaginable.

Again, this is what $70,000 a year looks like. Some would argue we should not have had a child. Some would argue we should not have bought our house (even though our house payment is less than our rent would be just about anywhere). Some would argue we don’t have to have dogs, or let our daughter have an extracurricular activity or donate to charity. Here is my response. If your combined take home pay is $70,000 a year, you should be able to afford all of those things as well as a second car, health insurance, child care. And you should be able to afford Target.

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