Making it, or not, on $460 per week

I read a lot of personal finance blogs, and one of the most interesting discussions in the past few weeks was over at Money Saving Mom. Crystal posted a letter from a woman whose husband was earning $460/week as a youth pastor. They had three kids and another baby on the way. The woman said “We want to save and budget better but don’t know how to on such a small amount. We do not have cable, or internet at home and the only thing we do that we do extra is eat out due to our crazy ministry schedule.” She asked, “is it possible for us to live on $460 a week?

Crystal (and folks posting the 200+ comments) had budget suggestions, and some people made a big deal about the restaurant meals, but others pointed out that, at some point, there’s nothing left to cut. This family needs more money coming in. The first approach to expanding their budget should be to apply for WIC coupons and SNAP (aka food stamps); the income eligibility level for a family of 6 is $3,249/month so they definitely qualify. After that, they can explore ways to earn more. (Crystal graciously suggested the letter writer read 168 Hours to find time to work at least a few hours per week). 

The letter got me thinking, though, about the financial choices we make. First, it seems this church set the salary for this youth pastor job in a range that implies a young single sort just out of seminary — or perhaps someone with a working spouse but no kids. Earning $460/week works ok if there’s only one of you, or if your spouse is also earning $500 or so a week, this is more of a middle-class income. Yet at some point this couple decided this was the right job for a single-income family with multiple kids, or else they had multiple kids while he was working for this salary. The letter doesn’t say why — the economy has obviously been awful, so maybe that’s the only job the family could find — but in a more questionable decision, the family seems to be treating his work as a 2-person job (if the whole family is stretched for time because of the crazy ministry schedule). As some comments pointed out, this is just not going to work.

So what to do? A few suggestions from readers:

  • Point out that the family is relying on public assistance and ask for a raise. While in general it’s not a good idea to frame raise requests in terms of one’s financial need, potentially church leaders would find this embarrassing enough that it would spur a change.
  • If a raise can’t happen (or they won’t ask), ask to reduce total hours, since this church clearly can’t afford a full-time youth pastor. Dad can use the rest of his time to do something more lucrative, and/or he can take care of the kids so mom can get a job that pays more than $460/week.
  • Ask for babysitting help from church members so mom can work at least part-time. 
  • Figure out ways to work from home/work flexibly a few hours per week (both parents!)

That last idea is in the news with a recent BusinessWeek feature on TaskRabbit and the distributed workforce. The author made some money ($50-100/day) though the work was pretty exhausting. People are quite interested in websites that offer gigs that anyone can do, but the more I study the free agent labor market the more I realize that the way to make it work is to do work that not everyone can do. In other words, if you’d like to mostly stay home with your kids, and you’re marrying someone who’s going to be earning a low wage, best to come up with a specialized skill and build a big network of clients before you need it. Then, someday, perhaps, you can earn $460/week working minutes per day. But I suspect these are the kinds of financial trains of thought many of us don’t pursue until the situation becomes more dire. 

What would you recommend to a family of 6 bringing in $460/week?

35 thoughts on “Making it, or not, on $460 per week

  1. I have to say I’m surprised that there are no comments yet. Maybe people are afraid to stir the pot?

    I’m not a pot stirrer by nature but I can’t help but be a little disturbed that a 2 able bodied adult household should be on gov’t assistance. We certainly don’t know the whole story and admittingly job market is hard but surely a/any job could be found to help supplement their income. If my family needed additional income, I would work anywhere to get that done whether or not I felt overqualified for the job.

    I believe that gov’t assistance should be used by people who really truly need the help until they can get back on their feet again. I shop at a grocery store where people will buy brand name junk food with their WIC card and then go jump in their brand new Escalade. Makes me so frustrated with the system….

    Couple described above need to sit down and determine what they need to bring in for income. They should be responsible for themselves. And if leaving the youth pastor job is required that should also be done. If this is a passion of his, he should volunteer in his free time. Wife could also work when husband is home with his children.

      1. @Gwen – yes, they hadn’t applied, and it wasn’t clear from the original article how they’d feel about it. But I think the point was that 3 kids and a pregnant woman do need to eat and eat well, and sometimes it takes a while to make financial changes. There’s help around to tide people over until those changes can be made.

        1. YES, for the sake of the children they need to be on WIC at the very least. It isn’t the children’s fault if the parents don’t believe the mother should work out of the home or cannot find work outside the home.

      1. @Cara

        I would also think that as well but I just had a recent occurrence at the grocery store. I saw a woman with a cart full of crap check out and hand her WIC card over to the cashier. I thought this would be for the head of lettuce and gallon of milk and she would pay for the rest in some other way. Nope! Everything came off that card.

        I *understand* that the WIC program is to feed woman and children healthy food but the reality is that there are ways around that system.

        1. Why does it matter? I mean, of course we’d love WIC to pay for healthy food and that’s its intended purpose, but why worry about someone else buying junk food? Maybe that’s the only way someone can get treats for their kids. I’m not going to begrudge my tax dollars paying for some Doritos and Coke.

          1. WIC covers:
            Milk
            Cereal
            food for breastfeeding mothers designed to support breastfeeding such as canned salmon
            Juice
            Lentils/Beans
            Peanut Butter
            Cheese
            One loaf of whole grain bread or tortilla a month
            A small amount of fresh fruit and vegetables and is for women with children up to age 5 or pregnant women who meet specific income requirements. (like less than $10 a month)
            Guys find me some junk food on a WIC program or someone in America who is using a card to buy WIC and I will eat my words. You guys do not know what you are talking about and it makes you look like an out-of-touch upper middle class stay at home mom to say this stuff about other women you see in the grocery store.
            Find me somewhere on here where there is junk food on the above list or any list of WIC foods.
            This idea that there are all these women buying junk food from WIC – ladies, you have been sold that idea by someone whose interest it is for you to be bashing your fellow mother rather than taking a hard look at the change that needs to happen in America… Don’t be anti intellectual. Get your facts straight before you start saying, “that lady on WIC is buying junk food” . This is ignorant. Blue collar women find most of your obsession with organic food ridiculous anyway- and much recent research suggests also that your obsession with labeling the mother who gives Hi C juice boxes and boxed mac and cheese to her kids — a bad mother– we find it absurd.. these judgements are unfounded – so be careful.
            What kind of woman criticizes a program designed to help women breastfeed… who among you finds on the above list “brand name junk food”

        2. I understand the sentiment but maintain that you have your facts confused. There is no card on which a person can buy under the WIC program.If the woman were using a card it could have been for food stamps or Tanif or whatever in your state but not WIC.
          Also in glass house one should not throw stones. I know few women in America who are really, truly in a position to judge what the type of food and/or budget of another woman in America, or her choices. We all live subsidized. There was an interesting Time article a few weeks ago to this effect … Some of us feel we’ve earned these subsidies maybe b/c we got lucky and married well or came from a two-parent household …. and others of us understand that it is a struggle for everyone … you wouldn’t begrudge the upper middle class stay-at-home white woman her husband’s paycheck, nor would you call it a handout and criticize the size of a house in analyzing a person’s mortgage tax deduction,which is a huge subsidy… huge. Yet you feel entitled to judge this woman’s use of subsidized food program and what she puts in her cart. First of all she isn’t on WIC and you are confusing your programs. And you are judging something you don’t have facts straight on. I could live on $460 a week but would prefer not to and I try not to judge others who I do not understand their specific reality. We don’t really support either affordable childcare in America as we did during ww II nor do we really have support for birth control yet we judge and judge. We all get free stuff from the gov. Most women in America who are firmly in the upper middle class are being carried by marriage and are still part of a system that we should be spending a lot more time criticizing rather than attacking another woman buying some junk food to get through the week.

          1. WIC in my state does use a card. I know this because a woman from our local WIC office came in and give a talk to one of my classes.
            ***
            WIC also has some small experiments (that offices have to apply to the government to do) going on that allow more lee-way in what is purchased. The ones our area is doing involve farmers markets though, not supermarkets. (They also have an experimental program giving cooking lessons.)
            ***
            What is more likely what happened in Gwen’s case is that her state uses the same integrated EBT (the card) for both WIC and either TANF or SNAP or both and she just saw the WIC logo on the card. WIC doesn’t have the same kind of stigma that the other two programs have for various reasons (there’s less moral hazard because it is targeted and in-kind and for the kids), so the logo isn’t hidden. So WIC paid for the milk and another program paid for everything else.
            ***
            There are a lot of reasons that low SES people eat more junk food than higher SES people even when they have access to the same supermarkets, and inability to cook because of time pressure and lack of skill/knowledge/practice is one of them. (Yes, there is actual research on the topic.) Junk food can also be addicting and is a cheap source of calories if you don’t have the time or know how to do things like make beans from scratch.

          2. @Nicole and Maggie – I wrote a column for USA Today 2 years ago on the link between food stamps and obesity. It’s not about what kinds of food people are buying — it’s about the payment cycle. Getting one payment per month leads to shopping once per month. That’s hard to portion over 30 days, so by the end of the month the pantry is bare. Mom doesn’t eat and feeds her kids instead. So she’s starving when she goes shopping when the transfer comes through. I hope no one ever takes a good look at my shopping cart when I go shopping when I’m hungry! This starve-binge cycle isn’t healthy for anyone. But I don’t think anyone’s doing an experiment with having 2x/month transfers instead: http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2010-04-20-column20_ST_N.htm

          3. Yes, there’s the feast and famine cycle (Justine Hastings has some new papers on that, IIRC), but there’s also what people are eating. I went to a talk last Spring in which the speaker reviewed that specific literature. One of the interesting things he said in the literature was that food deserts are much more rare than people think, but people with lower SES have a more limited portfolio of foods that they know how to cook/eat, so even when they shop at the same grocery store as higher SES folks, they can’t take advantage of the same seasonal sales on fresh produce, so they buy less produce.
            ***
            The obesity literature is enormous and growing (no pun intended), especially in the past 10 years or so. The SES-obesity link is multi-factor and hasn’t been nailed down yet. There’s a lot of money in studying it.

  2. I can’t really come up with any suggestions. Although I do not agree with the previous comment about food stamps. It seems like this is a pretty untenable situation for this family and it’s a little hard to see how a pregnant woman with three little kids is going to go hit the pavement in search of work. This seems like the exact situation that food stamps were created for. This family is in a pretty untenable situation (do they even have health care?) and I think it is better to err on the side of compassion rather than judgement.

  3. I’m sorry but being pregnant isn’t the same as being disabled. The majority of women work until the very end of their pregnancy. I did…I was exhausted but I did it.

    And the fact that they are still eating out which is a luxury in my opinion certainly decreases my amount of compassion for this family.

      1. As someone who recently went through an internal job search while visibly pregnant, it was definitely not very encouraging. (And I was already employed at my company and have lots of education/skills!).

  4. I am really surprised that they’re managing to eat out on such a small income. Eating out is crazy expensive for a family with several kids. If you just packed something simple like sandwiches, you wouldn’t have to spend a bunch of time doing prep and you could save a lot of money.

    I also think the suggestion to try to take on some other paid work is good. $460 just isn’t much to work with unless they have something like church -provided housing.

    1. @Kristen – I’m more amazed at the logistics. Taking my 3 kids out to dinner is so stressful you almost have to pay me to do it. I include eating at places with kids meals in that statement.

      But yes, $460/week is not going to leave a lot of wiggle room. I lived on $300/week back in my early 20s — but found life got much easier when I figured out how to expand that. And there was only one of me!

      1. I was thinking more along the lines of fast food drive-thrus (given that they’re probably in a hurry).

        But yes, I remember the days when a sit-down meal in a restaurant was more pain than pleasure. Now that my youngest is 6, though, those days are a distant memory!

  5. These sorts of stories infuriate me. As someone who was that wife (pre-kids, just out of college) I remember what it was like to try and live on $2500/month when I was unable to work a normal job because my husband’s ministry basically made it impossible. But- this was 9 years ago and we basically put our health insurance on our credit cards each month and when we finally stopped traveling for that job, I worked a summer as a tutor to pay it all off. Into the second year of it, I started writing freelance articles and working a little as a freelance copywriter. The skills I developed in writing the ministry marketing materials certainly paid off in the long run, but it still makes me mad to think of all the families out there trying to make it work on basically no money.
    I wish I could sit down with that woman and recommend 4 things: A) your husband’s job is not your job
    B) If the church won’t pay him a living wage, it cares more about the bottom line than people, no matter who you think you’re trying to help
    C) There is something beautiful about giving everything away to serve others. Make sure other people in organization (ie senior pastor) are doing the same thing. If ALL are in agreement, talk to church members about ways to pay for your child’s medical/dental/food costs while he is still working in that position.
    4) There are other ways to serve others while still feeding your family.

    Ugh!

    1. I agree with Calee…
      It is this couple’s responsibility to their family to look seriously at whether or not others are taking advantage of them.

      Wolves lurk among the flock!

      Often in sheeps clothing…

    2. @Calee – I think you’re on to something with B – paying a living wage is part of being a good institutional citizen in a community.

  6. It’s easy to “armchair QB” someone else’s financial life so I wasn’t going to comment on this. Especially since I feel like my own circumstances are so fortunate.

    But I think Calee got it exactly right – the church is getting 2 peoples’ worth of work from one not-very-well-paid person and in some ways I feel like it’s exploiting the goodness and need to serve others that these people have.

    I wonder if there are small administrative-type jobs the wife can take on through the church and get paid an hourly rate for? Or take in another kid for occasional babysitting (though she sounds like she’s got her hands full already!)?

    This is assuming she doesn’t have some other specialized skills she could use working from home like doing alterations, or something crafty that she could sell.

    I understand feeling like someone should be home with the kids, esp if the hubby is traveling a lot, but if they are sure about that, then I think he needs to step up and find a job that doesn’t leave them so stretched, and save his service for occasional volunteer work.

    Maybe his bosses will be responsive to his request for a raise, but he needs to really think about what he needs for his kids to live decently, including health insurance. A few hundred extra bucks won’t fix that.

    And yeah, the point of WIC is to make sure mamas and kids are getting enough to eat. They need to get on that if they qualify. I don’t think there’s any honor in refusing it if you truly are at that income level and not gaming the system.

  7. I have a friend who was in a similar situation- husband was a youth pastor and they had 2 kids (though they stopped at 2) The early years are hard, but in elementary school, her husband got a full-time job working nights and she worked days. Her employer paid for her MBA and she’s now a finance person. They have a nice home which they share with another former pastor who was injured in an accident and is now a paraplegic with recurrent pain- they help his wife care for him, so she’s not completely tied down. And she’s the guardian for her brother, who is in a psychiatric home for people with paranoid schizophrenia.

    I visited with her at the park tonight and some people are just admirable and hard-working. I hope this youth pastor’s family can make similarly appropriate decisions.

  8. Wow – this is a really tough one! I truly feel for that family and yet I do agree that they are not doing all they can to help themselves – i.e., speaking up to the church about the salary, finding a new job, having the wife work a little, etc.

    Like Gwen, I too have seen people who seem to be “milking” the system, and I can see how it might make one angry (it makes me feel that way sometimes too…) But, although I may not agree with all the choices that this family is making, (for example, maybe taking a break from having babies for a few years might be an idea?!?) I can’t see how we can punish the children for mistakes that the parents make.

    Unlike Cara, though, I don’t think that means we can’t judge the woman buying junk food on her food stamps or whatever program…To me, it just means that there is no perfect way to help people who are really struggling, and I’d rather they eat something that is less than stellar than eat nothing at all.

    And, as a last aside, I must admit to a pet peeve with the argument made above that we can’t judge b/c we are all subsidized. Sorry, but I think that’s a load of hooey. A upper middle class woman who is fortunate enough to stay home isn’t being subsidized by the government/the taxpayers. Sure, lots of things in life are based on luck, but so what? Similarly, the mortgage interest deduction was created to spur real estate growth and investment. Maybe it’s a law that should be changed, but it’s not the same thing as food stamps, which are social assistance. I think social assistance is an important good for a country to have, but when something is taxpayer funded, then those taxpayers are entitled to an opinion.

    I guess I just don’t like the idea that people who are more fortunate financially (or in any way) aren’t allowed to have an opinion about the lives of those who are less fortunate. Certainly, I believe we should all be empathetic, open-minded and even charitable, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t entitled to out own views without being made to feel guilty about our privilege.

    1. Wow! Funny that I’m now an upper middle class stay at home mother that married well and can’t wait to grab my husband’s paycheck every week.

      Couldn’t be further from the truth…although I do work hard in life and make sure that my family has what they need.

      Carry on Ms. Marcano. Enjoy your Doritos.

  9. Just a reminder to everyone to please play nice in the sandbox!

    I was thinking through my $1200/month budget the other day, trying to remember it. My rent was $580/month (a room in a shared house). I budgeted about $70 for my portion of utilities. Some months it was less. I spent $40/week on groceries, so about $160/month (I’ll say $200 for food figuring in some happy hours and such). $20/week for bus + metro pass so $80/month. I purchased temp health insurance after I aged off my parents’ plan so that was about $70/month. That totals $1000/month, so a wee bit of wiggle room for clothes, internet access at home, entertainment. But the good news is that I only actually made $1200 one month. The rest I had at least some freelance assignments, which created much more wiggle room. I really have no idea how this would work for 6 people.

    1. It really is the kids that make this budget seem next to impossible to me. I existed on ~$15-18k/year all through graduate school, in San Diego, which is a fairly expensive city (grad student stipend increased at some point… I can no longer remember the details). It was tight, but doable. BUT- That was 15 years ago now. I was just paying for myself. I had excellent health care provided by my program. And I had extreme job security. The thought of trying to feed and clothe growing kids on that budget depresses me… and drives me to donate to the local agencies that help out families in that situation. So I guess the only advice I’d add is to look into the local support network as a source of free or cheap kids’ clothes and toys, diapers, and even food. If the original letter writer has a problem taking government assistance (which I think is crazy- as @Nicoleandmaggie point out above, whatever anyone thinks of the parents’ decisions, it is completely unfair and counterproductive to penalize the children for them- poor nutrition and stress in the early years has BIG impact on brain development), at least look into charities.
      —————-
      Also, I just want to say- my parents were on food stamps when I was little. They were hard-working people who had perhaps made some suboptimal decisions and definitely had some bad luck. They were also young, doing the best they could, and were great parents. My father had a job, and my mother stayed home with me and my sister until I started school, both because at that time you were fired from your teaching job if you were pregnant and because she is amazing with young children and wanted to spend the time home with us. The government assistance ensured that I never knew hunger growing up, and my childhood was not scarred by stress and worry about money. Thanks in part to that, I grew up, went to a great college (on scholarship), got a PhD, and am now in one of the highest tax brackets. I happily pay my taxes and hope that they help some other little kid like I was. I completely reject the characterization of people on government assistance as lazy or incapable, and the fact that this has become such a common narrative in our country makes me profoundly sad, both for what it says about our society and for the counterproductive impact it is having on so many young children and their future potential. @Gwen, I am sure you are a nice person, and have worked hard for what you have. But I respectfully submit that you might want to rethink some of your assumptions about government assistance and its role in our society.

  10. I’m wondering if there is something left out of this equation, i.e. either a housing allowance or free housing. If that’s the case, then its possible that maybe this family is really subsisting on maybe $900 per week (not sure where they live, but I don’t think its unreasonable to expect that maybe their housing is worth $400-$500 per week). If that’s the case, then that is a game changer. $900 per week is still low for a family that size, but that’s way more than $460 per week. I’ve seen military people subsist on less but with more kids in the house, and I think the housing allowance was what allowed it.

    The other thing is, that these people are probably getting tax credits like the earned income credit, child tax credit, etc, plus they may be getting state tax credits. I’ve seen people who pay nothing into the system receive refunds that were around 25% of their salary. So its not unreasonable to think that this family may have received a refund of 6k or so. Possibly they need to put this refund to better use, like stock up on food, pay some expenses ahead, etc? Stop the bleeding, as my husband would say.

    My point is I don’t think we have the whole story, but in order to really make any good recommendations I think we need it.

  11. This man needs a new job, plain and simple. If his chuch ever runs a deficit, his position will be the first to go. There are ways he can serve others without putting his family in such a precarious position.

    1. @Bruce – I think you about summed it up. This guy needs to support four kids. I don’t think this position is quite going to do it.

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