30 Days Premiere: Frugal Is As Frugal Does
What would you choose to do if you could live someone else’s life for thirty days? Maybe you’d be Donald Trump and wipe your rear-end with gold-plated toilet paper. Perhaps you would choose to be the President of the United States and play with your toy airplanes in the Oval Office. Maybe some of you would even opt to go on tour and sing about a showgirl named Lola like you’ve done for the last thirty years – hey, whatever floats your boat. I’d probably choose to be Angelina Jolie and spend the entire thirty days admiring myself in the mirror, taking periodic breaks to go play with my “friend” Brad. Social causes? Hey, I only have 30 days. I’d leave the goodwill stuff to the real Angelina and just worry about looking hawt. Or maybe I’d just be my cat and do nothing all day but sleep and eat. And occasionally bite the head off a chipmunk.
The point is - most of us would choose a life of luxury, right? Enter Morgan Spurlock. You may remember the red-headed mustached man from his documentary, Supersize Me, where he tested the effects of fast food on the human body by spending a month on a diet of three large meals a day from McDonalds. Fueled by the success of his film, he decided to continue his social experiment by taking people out of their comfort zone and giving them the opportunity to gain a new perspective on life.
In this premiere episode of the series, Morgan decides to be the first guinea pig and see if he and his fiancée, Alex can make a living working jobs that pay minimum wage. While they are not exactly wealthy, Morgan says they have been living the good life. We get a glimpse of the couple preparing for their trip to the Oscars. Alex dons a pair of earrings that she claims cost more than her college education. While it is likely they are on loan, like most Oscar jewelry, it still sets the stage for the sharp contrast their new living conditions will provide.
Fresh from the red carpet, Alex and Morgan embark on their new mission, Adventures in Poverty. Will they be able to make ends meet? Morgan is concerned because he is very bad with money. Alex teases him that he doesn’t even notice when a twenty-dollar bill falls out of his pocket and asks him when was the last time he made a budget for living. He laughs. “Budget for…living? Uh, the last time was, uh, ….”, and drinks from his coffee mug. I’m sure many childless middle/upper class singles share his cluelessness. Especially those who have a successful film under their belt.
Morgan explains the three rules of this experiment:
1) They will both work minimum wage jobs.
2) They will each begin with the equivalent of one week’s worth of minimum wage pay. This equates to $206, or $178.47 after taxes. Ouch.
3) They have to freeze their credit cards and accounts and leave all their money behind. They empty their wallets into a box and Morgan retains only his driver’s license and ACLU membership card.
Home Sweet Hovel
Columbus, Ohio is chosen as the city in which Morgan and Alex will pursue their minimum-wage lifestyle. The state of Ohio was chosen because it mirrors the conditions across the rest of the country. Ohio lost 250,000 jobs in the last four years and contains three of the poorest cities in the nation, Cleveland, Toledo, and Cincinnati. Additionally, the fact that Ohio was so hotly contested in the last presidential election makes it a state of interest for the liberal-minded Spurlock. They spend the first night at the home of Morgan’s friend, Jim, and prepare to set off on their own the following day.
Morgan and Alex begin Day One of their adventure by looking in the rental section of the local newspaper. They have $356 and must find a place to live. They make a few calls and are on their way, purchasing a bus pass for transportation. Their balance is already down to $313 after this initial purchase. They hope to find an apartment under $400 a month and walk around town looking at a number of places that are, let’s say, less than stellar. They finally locate what is to become their home for the next thirty days. A charming hole in a place called “The Bottoms”. The rent is $325 per month. The landlord shows them around and explains that a homeless person was recently living there, but no worries - the locks have been changed. He also mentions that the apartment downstairs was a crack house. On the bright side, the hospital is nearby. Alex and Morgan exchange worried glances, and Alex says that is good information, in case they get shot in the head. They joke, but there is some truth in that statement. As Alex worries that maybe it is not safe, the landlord notes that a crack house is not necessarily indicative of violence, just drugs. Oh right, I forgot – crack addicts are lovely people, really. They just get a bad rap. My apologies to any crackwhores who may be reading this recap. You rock.
Drug addicts and possible decapitations aside, the apartment does have something going for it – other than the hospital, that is. The landlord agrees to let them pay the deposit in installments. Whether or not he would do the same for a couple without a camera crew following them is questionable, but for Morgan and Alex, this is a dealmaker. After making a partial payment to their landlord, they move in their belongings, which appear to consist of sleeping bags and minor necessities. Very minor. They are in good spirits, in spite of the fact that their apartment is freezing. Ohio is certainly not known for its balmy weather. Morgan notes that they need to make approximately $1000 during the month, and he is optimistic that they can make that happen.
Would You Like Fries With That?
Now that they have secured a place to live, Alex and Morgan set out on Day Two to find jobs. Alex, a vegan chef, says she really did not want to work in a fast food establishment, but she may not have an option. She finds a job busing tables and washing dishes while Morgan gets work at a temp agency. Morgan’s pay will be $7.00 an hour, which is more than minimum wage. It dawns on me that he is in violation of rule number one, but I guess that after two days in this world, he realizes they can’t afford to insist on getting paid no more than minimum wage. The couple reunites with hugs and kisses, pleased to have found jobs. I just have to mention that someone who is truly impoverished or living on the streets would be less likely to find work so quickly, as they would probably not have the clean clothes, enthusiasm, and people skills that these two exhibit when approaching their potential employers. These two are incredibly lucky because they know what they come from and what they’ll be returning to.
They stop by the market on the way home to buy food. Morgan tells Alex that he has eaten nothing today except for the free pickles that they were giving out at one of the delicatessens he stopped at. It dawns on him that typically, if he was hungry, he would have stopped and bought something during the day. Having to deprive himself is something he’ll have to get used to, while hunger is a fact that many people face every day. They get home and eat dinner on the floor, since they have no furniture.
Day Three marks the start of their minimum wage careers. Morgan gets up at 5:15 and wakes up Alex before he leaves so that she can lock the door behind him. She heads off to work shortly afterwards, choosing to walk rather than take the bus so that she can save the $1.35 that each bus ride costs. She arrives at the coffeehouse and is briefed on her duties. As she washes dishes she tells her coworker that she is reliving memories from her first job, when she was a dishwasher at age fourteen.
Meanwhile, Morgan stands in the cold and awaits the bus that will transport him to the temp agency. He notes that having to depend on a bus just makes the workday seem even longer. At the agency he acquaints himself with his fellow workers and receives his assignment for the day. Several of the men ride together in a car that drops them off at their respective assignments. One of his car mates, Gerald, explains that he is making less per hour today than he did when he started his first job at General Motors in 1976. Wow, that is harsh.
A bit of info:
The minimum wage was established in 1938 to ensure that the average worker could maintain the bare minimum standard of living. However, since the wage has not been raised since 1997 and the cost of living has increased drastically, the law no longer does what it was meant to do. Morgan notes that Senator Ted Kennedy has introduced a bill to increase the minimum wage every year since then, but Congress has failed to pass it. Opponents to the bill argue that an increase in minimum wage would hurt businesses and force them to lay off workers. Dr. Tim Kane of The Heritage Foundation feels it would be a shock to the economy and that labor regulations and taxes should be lowered instead. While Congress has failed to raise the wage over the last seven years, they have accepted their own cost of living increases to the tune of $27,000. I hope some of them are watching this.
As Alex scrubs and cleans dishes at the coffeehouse, Morgan sands drywall and hammers nails at a construction site. At the end of the day he collects his paycheck - $45.26 for an eleven-hour workday. He arrives home to greet a miserable Alex who walked the half-hour home from work with a measly $3.50 in tips in her pocket. She won’t get a real paycheck until next week. They put their money in a tin can that serves as their bank.
Bug Off, Would Ya?
Morgan tries to talk to Alex about her day as she attempts to get warm by holding her hands over the stove. She tells him that it was wet, steamy, and gross, and that she is done talking about it. When he says he loves her, she replies, “Good. Don’t touch me.” She is grouchy, she says, from being cold from the moment they arrived in Columbus. When they wake up to find their apartment infested with ants and other insects, things don’t look any better. I start to wonder if their relationship will survive the thirty days.
The Kindness of Strangers
It is Day Five and the lack of furniture is starting to bother Alex. Luckily, Columbus has a large number of charitable organizations, and Morgan learns of a church-run store that provides basic necessities for the poor. They arrive at the store and are greeted by Steve Rodgers, its founder. He shows them the back room where volunteers work happily to organize the many donations that are brought it. The store is brightly lit and filled with furniture, clothing, toys, and other household items. A cherubic, rosy-faced grandma serves free coffee, cookies and cake. Alex cries when Steve presents her with a set of matching dishes in a shopping bag. She is overwhelmed with the kindness and generosity of people, even those who don’t have much themselves. A truck delivers the furniture and belongings to their apartment, and it appears that having a legitimate place to sit has lifted Alex’s spirits, at least temporarily.
No Pain, No Gain
On Day Nine, Morgan changes professions. He is no longer working at the construction site, but rather at a landscaping job. While the work is much more difficult, the pay is higher, and he can’t turn it down. By the end of the day he is experiencing a lot of pain in his wrist. As he and Alex eat dinner, they discuss the possibility of going to a doctor. Morgan can’t see how he could possibly go to the doctor since they don’t have the money, much less any insurance or credit cards – plus, he can’t afford to miss work. Alex worries that he could get worse and won’t be able to work at all. The grim reality of the situation begins to settle in.
Morgan plugs along at work, but after another day of physical labor, he decides to seek medical attention. He goes to the free clinic, which is full of people waiting in line. At some point, a young woman in a white coat comes out and tells the crowd that they’ll only be able to see twenty more people that day, and anyone who is seriously ill should go to the emergency room. Morgan, person number 35, realizes he is out of luck. He takes a moment to speak to some of the employees of the clinic about the state of affairs. Morgan asks one gentleman how he feels about the idea that in the US, we have “sick care” rather than “health care”. The man agrees, saying that if one were to have a heart attack, one could go to the emergency room and have open-heart surgery. However, if you are seeking some sort of preventive medical care – well, too bad.
Morgan sits down with a man and woman who have both been diagnosed with diabetes, and asks them what they would do if they couldn’t come to the free clinic. The man thinks for a moment and then answers, “I don’t know. I guess I would just kill myself. There’s nothing I can do.” He chuckles as he says it, but there is an undeniably sad ring of truth to what he is saying. The woman sits beside him and looks away grimly, saying nothing.
The next morning, we find Morgan and Alex at the emergency room. Alex has a bad urinary tract infection and is in a lot of pain. It turns out that living next to a hospital has come in handy after all. After getting her prescription filled at the pharmacy, Alex is relieved to find out the medicine only costs $24, but can’t deny the fact that it is a full day’s wages. She goes home to crawl into bed as Morgan goes to work, trying to work through his wrist pain. Arriving home at the end of the day, he learns from Alex that they are required to pay a deposit of $110 to the electric company in the next ten days. Morgan is shocked at this news, guessing that the location of their apartment in a low-income area is driving the need for the deposit. He has never before been asked for a deposit for electricity.
After washing the dirt off his arms, he sees that his wrist is more swollen than ever and has begun to change color. The couple makes their second trip to the emergency room in the same day, where Morgan receives an Ace bandage and an ice pack. The staff instructs him not to go to work the next day, and he says how scary that is when you are living paycheck to paycheck.
Work, Work, and More Work
Around Day Fifteen, Morgan realizes they’ll never make it with him only working one job, so he takes on a second full-time job. Over the course of a few days, he makes pizzas, washes dishes, does landscaping, and makes boxes, spending an average of sixteen hours a day away from home. Alex continues to not feel well, suffering from headaches but unable to go for a new prescription due to a lack of funds.
Morgan is driven to work every day by a fellow temp agency employee – a 22 year-old fellow by the name of Alfred. Alfred is the proud father of four children. Morgan is baffled as he tries to imagine feeding five other people on one paycheck at his current rate. A few days later he is chatting on the phone with his brother and complaining about how difficult everything is. When his brother says he should see how it is with kids, a plan is born. Morgan’s brother agrees to bring his children to stay with Morgan and Alex so that they can see how truly hard it is when you are also trying to support children.
Where is the Easter Bunny When You Need Him?
As the couple becomes excited for the kids’ visit, Morgan worries about how to deal with the fact that Easter is coming up that weekend. He recalls that his mother always delivered on Easter, even when they had little money. While Alex resists the Easter basket idea, Morgan is determined. When they go to the food market, he slips four boxes of candy into the shopping cart and she looks at him questioningly. Tensions rise when Alex insists that Morgan put two of the four boxes back. They arrive at the register and must return a few items, coming up short on cash without enough to pay their bill.
Curious as to how he’ll entertain the kids without any money, Morgan goes to the library to research the free attractions that Columbus has to offer. He nearly falls out laughing at the ridiculousness of some of the suggestions, like asking your local bank to give you a tour. The other library-goers glare at him. He continues to laugh as he reads the other suggestions, and while it seems a bit heartless, it also reminds me of the kind of laughter you might get caught up in when you’ve stayed up all night working to finish your college paper and then realize at the last minute that your printer is out of ink. The stress and fatigue is taking its toll on him.
Morgan and Alex go to a Salvation Army store to buy a few additional blankets for the kids. Alex says she doesn’t know what they would do if they had kids, because even with them both working full-time, they couldn’t possibly afford to pay someone to look after their children. The cost of childcare can be as much as $10,000 a year for one child – basically an entire year’s salary for someone working minimum wage. The stress and pressure that this puts on a family is brutal, and it is no wonder that the divorce rate in families that make less than $25,000 a year is more than twice the rate of families making over $50,000.
Morgan talks with Marcus, a homeless minimum-wage earner who works hard to support his family. Marcus says that the additional strain and drama put on the family by their financial hardships can make it difficult to stay sane and maintain loving relationships within the family. Single, working mothers are especially hit hard by these hardships and their children often end up paying the price. Ohio Senator CJ Prentiss quotes the statistics that one in five children in the state of Ohio go to bed hungry. Alcoholism and gambling are just a few of the stress-related problems that plague these impoverished families.
Kids Bring Out the Best in People
Morgan’s niece and nephew, Caitlin (age 17) and Austin (age 14) arrive on Day 23. They bring some much-needed excitement to Casa Spurlock and Morgan decides not to work on the weekend so he can spend some time with them. He and Alex take them to the Dollar Cinema, where they purchase tickets to see The Incredibles. Inside the theater, they splurge on drinks, spending somewhere in the neighborhood of twelve dollars, a veritable fortune compared to what they have become accustomed to spending. Alex’s eyes bug out a little as Morgan buys the kids the largest size sodas, but she says nothing. Matters are made worse when they stop by a store afterwards and Austin gets his heart set on having one of the sticky buns that are on display. I’m not sure if he fully understands what Uncle Morgan’s little television experiment is really about, or if he is just incapable of understanding that buying a little junk food can actually break the bank.
The total cost of the treats comes to $1.20 - not a big deal, really - but it really get under Alex’s skin. She hotly reminds Morgan that she has been walking to work just to save them $2.50 a day, and he blows money here and there. They bicker about his little expenditures like sodas and newspapers. Apparently, he even bought a lottery ticket. Now how ironic would it have been if he had won the lottery during this 30 days? I guess it says something about the true desire that people living on so little money have to escape their circumstances. Even during the short time Morgan has been living this way, he couldn’t resist the pull of the lottery ticket. Many low-income people play the lottery on a regular basis. While the little slips of paper usually end up being meaningless, I would imagine that some folks see it as their only way out of the paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle, and keep praying for a miracle as they shell out dollar after dollar for their chance at the American dream.
It’s Day 25 and the kids have left, returning home to gorge themselves on chips and television, I’m sure. Morgan notes that between the things they had to buy in preparation for the kids’ arrival and the money they spent on living expenses for the weekend, they probably spent $80. Alex comments sadly that the apartment is a little lonely without Caitlin and Austin. Today is her thirtieth birthday and it doesn’t look like she’ll be having the extravagant party she had previously hoped for. Morgan says he simply must take Alex out for her birthday. Being cooped up at home is starting to get to them. Imagine how it would be if there wasn’t a clear-cut end in sight.
Painting the Town (in the) Red
The couple takes a bus into town and contemplate going to the conservatory. They find out that the price of admission is $6.50 and decide that it is too much. Morgan offers to wait while Alex goes in and she doesn’t want to do it without him. They decide to spend the day at the park instead and save their money for dinner in a restaurant. They play on the swings and eat in what appears to be an Ethiopian restaurant. They are enjoying each other’s company and Morgan expresses his gratitude that Alex agreed to go through this experience with him. I can’t imagine how much harder this would be for them without each other for support and comfort.
After dinner, they wait in the cold for the bus for 40 minutes before a passerby informs them that the buses stopped running at 6 pm. Their rare good mood begins to deflate as they realize they’ll have to spend most of Alex’s emergency $20 on a cab ride to get home. Fifteen dollars later, they arrive home tired and depressed.
The last few days pass in the same manner as the ones that preceded them. Morgan and Alex work their tails off to get as much money as they can for their tin can bank. On their next to last day, they stop by the hospital to pick up their bills. As anyone that has ever looked closely at a medical bill can attest to, the charges are beyond outrageous. Between the two of them, they have racked up over one thousand dollars in medical bills. Neither of them had anything especially complicated or serious done. There were no stitches or ambulances involved. However, the simple act of walking into the emergency room resulted in a $551 charge on Morgan’s bill. The charge for his Ace bandage was $40. What this all amounts to is that a life without health insurance is crippling. Morgan and Alex will return to their real lives and probably just write a check for their bills. But for someone for whom this is reality, it would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to pay off this debt.
On Day 30, the couple sits at the table and tallies up their finances, counting the money they’ve saved and adding up what they still owe for utilities and rent. The result is that thanks to the medical bills, they are in debt to the tune of three months’ pay. The harsh truth is that although they lived in a very cheap apartment, never turned down a job, and got all of their belongings from a free store, it was impossible to get by and not acquire a large debt – even for two healthy, young, educated, non-minority individuals. As they pack up their meager belongings and leave their apartment for the last time, they are both very sad to know that so many others have to go on living this way.
Wishing I could change the world (and look like Angelina). firstname.lastname@example.org