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.