Saturday, February 19, 2011


Spent is not a reflection of  how I am feeling these days. Nor is it an analysis of my purchasing habits.

No, Spent is a computer exercise in poverty created by Urban Ministries of Durham. I first learned about it on Nola Akiwowo's blog at Feeding America. It is a thoughtful and provocative tool to raise awareness of what the Great Recession has done to the lives of so many Americans.

Its premise is that you have lost your job and your home. Your savings are gone and you are down to your last $1000.  Spent challenges you to making it through one month without running out of money.

If you choose to play, you are guided through a series of choices, starting with finding a low-income job as a waitress, a warehouse worker, or an office temp. (I flunked the speed test so could not get a temp job, taking instead the $9/hour warehouse job.) From there, the choices come thick and fast. Do you pay your car insurance this month or not? Do you allow your child to play sports when it will cost $50? Do you go to a free concert with friends if the babysitter is going to cost $30?

As you make each choice, your balance account fluctuates and you are given a fact about what your choice represents in the real world. (Opt not to go to the free concert to save money on babysitting? Be aware that "everyone needs a break but not everyone can afford" one and that may be a contributing factor to higher levels of stress among low-income families.)

I have taken the Spent challenge four times. Each time I have "won" in that I made it to the end of the month with money left over. But when you "succeed" by reaching month's end, the program reminds you that rent is now due.

I have yet to finish the exercise with enough money to pay the next month's rent.

Spent is not a fun or easy romp. I found myself getting a knot in my stomach as I agonized over which utility bill to pay. I chose to pay the electric, so my gas was shut off, which meant I could no longer fix economical meals at home. I lost my job in one round because I took a pamphlet from a union organizer in the company parking lot. In another, I chose not to renew my car registration, hoping I would not be stopped by law enforcement before I pulled together enough funds, including late reinstatement fees, to be legal again. I accepted a coat from a neighbor because mine was worn out. I refused to let my children opt out of the free lunch program, even though that meant they might not eat because of the stigma of getting free lunches.

After I finished (forget "won"), I went to the kitchen for a glass of water. I stood for a long time looking into the backyard, grateful for what Warren and I have. Finances are always tight around here, but we are blessed with so much relative to so many others. Spent reminded me of that.

My friend Sharon has been blogging about her No Spend February. Last week she had some unexpected expenses arise and speculated how to treat the hit to the dollars she had limited herself to spending this month. Sharon wrote:  

Even though I didn't expect some of these expenses, they are still misc. items that need to be counted.  I thought about this for quite a while.  If I counted them, it would make the rest of the month very hard, but isn't that the point of a challenge??  These types of expenses will crop up every month.  If I only had $750.00 a month to pay for food, gas etc. then I would have to make it work.  So, that is what I've decided to do.  Make it work.

I commented back: "We have all sat there, small scrap of paper at hand, noting expenses, prioritizing what we really need to get through to the next payday, the next whatever..."

Take the Spent challenge and see how you do.

Spent reminds us that millions of us are faced with economic choices that do not lead to better times, but are instead desperate attempts to keep the wolf from the door for just a day or two more. For far too many of us, the wolf is already inside the house and we are standing on chairs with a battered broom in hand, hoping to keep it from eating us alive.


Sharon said...

April, Wow, this sounds like a very intriguing experiment. Similarly to this, my son's eighth grade class had to attend a seminar called "Finance Park". Each child is given an "occupation", salary and a family as well as a list of bills that they had to cover for the month. Unfortunately, my son and I were not able to attend, thanks to the flu. (I was suppose to be a leader) "Spent" sounds very similar, so it might be something my son and I could do together.

If you read my post today, you will see that I failed my $750.00 challenge. However, I'm getting better. I can't imagine living on only $1,000.00 a month. You are right, we are blessed financially, even though some months are tight.

Terri said...

I've not played Spent, but I often think about this. For many years, I was a single mother raising my children on my own limited resources. Many of the small survival tricks I learned then are with me still.

Sharon said...

Thanks for your kind comment on my blog. You can be sure I'm going to get to the bottom of this health issue, one doctor at a time. I have a very low threshold for pain, so I won't let it go. Thank you so much for your concern. You are a dear friend!

Claire said...

This sounds like a really fascinating cahllenge.

My husband has just been laid off due to a 5% cut in staff at his company, due to the recession in ireland.

we are working very carefully with our pennies and i can relate to so much of what you have written about here.

what i have learnt most clearly in the last month is that one only really appreciates what you have, when it is under threat. perhaps this is why, the poor are so capable of enjoying the most simple of pleasures?

having grown up in africa, i saw this time and time again.

Claire said...

sorry for my crazy spelling and capital and small letter mix.

i am tired this evening and typing way too fast for my brain : )

Sarah said...
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Sarah said...

Sarah said...
Wow. Great post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with all of us. These issues are extremely challenging. If you would like to learn about some additional ways to help fight hunger, please feel free to visit our website. Again, great post!

Feeding America

Nola said...

Hi April! Thanks for linking back to my post, and what an amazing write-up. You're absolutely correct in that playing this game makes you really appreciate what we have. I speak to so many clients served by the Feeding America food bank network who share similar stories of just barely living paycheck to paycheck. They were middle-income earners or the working poor just getting by before the Great Recession, and now they have to turn to a pantry or shelter for help.

As I can tell by the comments of the readers in this blog, one has to always remember how close to home poverty can get. It could happen to anyone.