“You can’t fall off the floor” is a classic anonymous quote, and it’s also said it takes us the first two years of our lives to learn this. What’s probably missed is there is a floor: we generally assume it’s there but someone has to build it. I know the ground was here first, and we all spend time there, however civilized people spend more time on floors than on the ground. Which means someone has to build a floor that we can’t fall through, unless we want to give up on civilization.
As Pope Francis said recently, charitable programs to help the poor are temporary measures. If we’re going to figure out how society should work, setting a personal minimum for basic living seems like a good start. How much does an ordinary person need to live a frugal lifestyle and be a productive member of society? What is the economic floor for one of the “virtuous poor”? A day, week or month is probably too short a time period, since a lot of work is seasonal an expenses vary as well, so let’s ask the question of how much an ordinary person needs per year to have a basic life, no frills. After all, it’s something every hard working person is entitled to, right?
I know that any number of government and private agencies have data and have figured this out, but who trusts the government these days? Private enterprises who might study this have with strong biases as well: to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Any study we might find can reflect a bias in favor of the person who paid for it, particularly if they have a solution to sell. So let’s figure it out ourselves without assuming a particular solution, something liberals, conservatives and everyone in between can agree to. It shouldn’t be too hard to work out what’s basic and what isn’t, and when we do, we’ll know what’s essential and what’s not. The only problem with this essay is that this is better off done in a bar or a Sunday School class.
I’m a musician, so I can only count to four. I also know that expenses vary greatly from one part of the U.S.A. to another, as well as around the world, so I’m going to try to work out an equation, a framework numbers can be plugged into that would provide a good number for any given locality. After all, a fast food restaurant recently tried to work this out for its people with numbers, but left off a key area or two. I’m going to try to cover the all key areas, and come up with a formula that will work; the numbers are your contribution in this team effort. If I mess up, I’m sure someone will tell me, and we’ll adjust things.
I’m also assuming things won’t change much: the economy, government, world peace, moral standards, taxes, laws. Yes, a social revolution might be a good idea, rewriting laws to make things more just is overdue, human virtue is seriously undervalued, but global shifts of human existence are extremely difficult to rely on. It doesn’t matter if some expenses of life are unjust and shouldn’t be there, like taxes, but we can’t assume they’re going away, so practicality means we account for them.
One thing that can’t be quantified well is time, especially the perception of time. Out of 168 hours in the week, an average of 56 need to be spent sleeping and 40 working on the job. Working more than 40 should be optional, whether someone has 1,2, or 3 jobs. If it takes you an hour, one way, to go to work, then even though you’re getting paid for 8 hours a day, work takes up 10. This is important because a perception that there isn’t enough time to do something right leads almost anyone to making decisions that aren’t frugal or farsighted. More time means you can do more life needs yourself, like growing a garden, rather than paying for produce.
Discipline is also important: we can’t just do stuff because we want to and and it makes us feel good. If sin was boring and didn’t feel good we’d all be saints, but there’s enough free, harmless things to enjoy in life, so we need to adjust our desires so they can be met there. Only if someone can come off the economic floor can we talk about satisfying impulses (provided they aren’t sinful).
Idle time can be the Devil’s workshop, but very few people seem to be wired to work at something from awakening to going to sleep every day. Down time is an essential part of anyone’s mental health, as long as basic things get done. Other than sleep and work, we only have 72 hours per week available, and any transportation to work or personal maintenance like cooking and/or cleaning has to come out of that. An hour or two of idle time daily doesn’t seem out of place, nor does a Holy Day of rest that’s truly rest.
Sharing is something I’ll deal with later, right now it’s just one person calculation: requiring roommates or particular kinds of interaction can open doors to trouble, since some people can be hard to live with, and that can be costly.
So, let’s figure out what one person with a standard High School education and no long term debt to pay off needs to be a virtuous poor person, working 40 hours per week at 1, 2 or more jobs: let’s build the economic floor. Now for the formula:
Housing We have to live somewhere. Homeless people don’t have a normal life, and if it’s someone’s goal to be one, they’re not playing with a full deck. We’ll figure that out if we ever get around to fixing mental health care. A virtuous poor person should have a place to live, so let’s call that basic to everything.
All right, a simple residence with kitchen area, bathroom area and living/sleeping area. Without a kitchen, it’s not possible to eat a healthy diet and take advantage of the best prices on food since you can’t store anything in a fridge or heat it on a hot place/microwave/stove. Sure, if you can visit a farmer’s market everyday and eat all your food raw, that might be acceptable, but difficult if you don’t have the time. This also assumes the good weather to get out every day, and all the basics of life are available every day.
A place without a bathroom isn’t worth considering a dwelling, unless you’re in the mountains and your nearest neighbor is miles away. Sure, it’s best if you have a living room and separate bedroom, but not completely essential if you’re being frugal. Outdoor space is nice, but if you’re near a park, that will do, after all that’s how folks in other countries live. You could make an argument for the necessity of a yard to plant a vegetable garden, which would be very frugal, but a lot of people have to do without one.
Security: a residence should have good locks. Guns cost too much to buy and keep up, not to mention time and supervised practice on the range to maintain the skills to use them. So it’s good locks without panic room hardware, good enough to deter a thief or intruder. Otherwise you should rely on the police, which you pay for though taxes. Issues about public law enforcement are in another formula.
Owning is better than renting, but not essential. Let’s assume renting is basic for now, since the virtuous poor can usually only afford that.
Food There are dietary norms that are pretty widely accepted, so take what you should be eating for one day and multiply is by 365. Basic shopping should be at a standard grocery store with a good produce department. It’s best if one knows who to cook, because gathering ingredients and cooking from scratch is a lot cheaper than ready made food (better for you as well), and let’s not include convenience food in the equation because it’s overpriced. This is why a residence needs a kitchen, and why I won’t back off that. A microwave and fridge might be minimum, but I’m not sure about that. We can call that a little grey area in this project, agree to disagree if necessary.
It’s thought one alcoholic drink per day is good for one’s health, so I wouldn’t insist folks be teetotalers. Nothing smokeable falls into the category as good for your health. Hey, water’s free and good enough in most places; no need to buy the bottled stuff unless you’re living in the Third World with a First World body.
By the way, you need cooking ware, dishes, glasses and such, one set. Disposable isn’t frugal. Kitchen ware breaks and wears out, so there’s an ongoing expense.
Transportation If you can’t get to work, it’s a huge problem. Best is if you can walk to work and shopping, but almost nobody can do that. Public transport is next best, since cars are expensive to own and maintain, but there’s only a few places that’s possible. So it’s a car, complete with parking, fuel, insurance and maintenance. Should be a model that requires little care, although regular oil changes and similar stuff is more frugal in the long run.
Carpooling is a wonderful idea, provided you can work something out with your co-workers who live near you. I think it’s a stretch to assume it’s universally possible since some work schedules are hopelessly chaotic, and many, many people don’t know their neighbors. Community building is a good thing and should be encouraged, but I don’t think we can mandate that: your neighbors might be untrustworthy. So let’s not assume that in our equation. Carpooling doesn’t mean you have no transportation costs, and you frequently need a car even if you don’t drive it to work to take advantage of the best shopping anyway.
Note on Maintenance: cars and residences have any number of things that need to be maintained, because fixing them only when they fall apart is not frugal. Preventive maintenance is frugal and should be part of any basic budget.
Utilities You gotta have heat and cooling technology of some sort as well, even if that’s only a fan. Thermostat discipline is a very good thing, so let’s assume that in the calculus. Electric, water, sewage and phone (landline or cell) bills are unavoidable, and trash pickup may be as well. Taking your trash to the strip mall to put it in business dumpsters is illegal, and I’m not advocating illegal activity as part of a basic living. Cable or satellite TV isn’t basic unless there are no broadcast channels around.
An internet connection of some sort is getting to be basic, and here’s why I think the argument can be made: in addition to entertainment (much of which is free), you can find almost any information needed for living, and informed people make better choices, which means they can spend their money wisely. A smart phone you can go online with could be a basic, but I’m not going to die on this hill. This is place of a cable/satellite service and a newspaper.
Housekeeping. You gotta keep yourself and your space clean, or else it’s a health risk for you and your neighbors. Even if you make all your own organic cleansers, there’s some money involved for supplies. Any level of personal hygiene requires money, but makeup isn’t necessary unless you have a job with a high personal appearance standard.
Wardrobe Unless there’s a nudist community in a warm area you can live and work in, clothes are necessary. Let’s say fresh clothes to last a week, not including any work garb, and the costs of washing them once a week. Drying is basic if there’s no place for clotheslines, but dry cleaning isn’t unless you have a job with high appearance standards. Doesn’t seem likely since I can’t think of any minimum wage jobs that require formal dress.
Taxes Yes, poor people pay all kinds of taxes even if it isn’t income tax. Sales tax, property tax (since you almost have to own a car), school levy, and some local taxes absolutely everyone except homeless people pays. So let’s allow for them in all this, because we’re talking about working people in society and not people who have to live on assistance no matter what.
Health Preventative medicine is more frugal, so one visit to the GP and one to the dentist yearly and any tests they want to run. Vaccinations and treatment for seasonal bugs, broken limbs, work related injuries the employers don’t pay. Allowance for a couple of more GP visits to take care of seasonable bugs,and something for vaccines. As you get older, you have to take more pills, so age is factor in basic cost of living, and prescriptions should be covered on a sliding scale.
There are many ways to exercise that don’t require a health club or special equipment, so no money for exercise equipment. Someone should be able to walk for exercise in a serviceable pair of shoes.
Cosmetic surgery: absolutely not, except for reconstruction. The possibilities of free self image reconstruction should be talked about more. Body art is pure recreational expense, only for when you come off the economic floor.
A simple funeral, probably cremation, needs to be accounted for. We all die sometime, and a little dignity is necessary.
Insurance You have to have it: health, liability on your car, disaster. Too many bad things beyond your control can happen to you, and if you’re saving for retirement it can suck that money up quickly. It must be accounted for. By the way, retirement is a basic need, whether through Social Security or otherwise.
Debt I don’t see an easy way to calculate that on a average. Almost everyone has some, but it’s best to have none. However the “virtuous poor” usually can’t pay for everything they need up front; this has changed in my lifetime. Very few employers will pay for training, and someone who wants to improve will have to invest in some sort. Buying a car or house will put you in debt, certainly. So although frugality means paying for as much as possible up front, it doesn’t seem possible today. Let’s say an average car payment per month and leave it at that for a minimum, and agree that this needs to be worked out better. No going into debt for impulse spending.
Saving is a wonderful idea, to be encouraged for certain. If only interest rates on savings weren’t so bad it would be more appealing, and some instruments that pay better are unreasonable gambles.
Sex Aha, I got your attention! Social interaction can cost money: special clothes, jewelry, body modification and art, makeup, food and drink, music. Sex has two potential results that will definitely result in avoidable costs: pregnancy and venereal disease. So I’ll say it’s not a basic need and not include it in my calculus: the costs really aren’t as necessary as food and housing. It’s better to wait until we get off the economic floor to invest in it. There’s motivation to work harder!
Of course, looking for love in all the wrong places is sinful anyway. Spending money to sin definitely isn’t frugal.
By the way, looking for sex isn’t the same as finding a spouse. Finding a spouse is a very good idea and very frugal, but that’s not really the point of the industries that make us more sexually attractive. Like happiness, good spouses are more reliably found when they’re not sought after.
Spouse/children/extended family When I was growing up, they said two could live as cheaply as one. Don’t know if that’s true any longer, but 2 to 1.5 should be all right, .5 for every household member beyond that, but that’s not absolute. Larger groups of people can do many things more economically, so families should be kept together. There is less margin for error about minimum acceptable residence and diets for children than for adults.
The old model of one spouse doing all the outside work and the other staying home with the children seems to be most cost effective: hiring decent child care isn’t really frugal. That means a stay at home parent deserves the same status and needs the same basic income as someone working. Making single poor people work while they hire someone to care for their kids seems a precarious situation at best, although that gets us into consequences beyond what a personal budget can account for.
School expenses are basic and unavoidable, as are transportation costs and should be accounted for. Extracurricular activities should be limited: they do serve a purpose and benefit the kids, but extreme focus on anything (or high cost) is disruptive to all. I’m more inclined to be lenient here, but there is grey area.
Of course, if you can’t afford a family, you shouldn’t have one. I know this sounds inhuman, however in talking about being virtuous poor we have assume self-discipline, and context for sharing space and resources is covered above.
Recreation Vacations away from home cost money, but time off is necessary. The standard of 50 weeks work and 2 weeks vacation seems to be a consensus, so it’s Stay-cations and Day trips like my childhood, no overnights in hotels or campgrounds. No one has the right to get away.
A TV and Internet connection should be basic: recreational money can be used on decks of cards and board games, as well as apps for the smart phone.
Other Have I missed anything? A little mad money, all right, but maybe enough for 2 small treats, like a trip to a movie, a week. Well, this is only a start and there’s grey area.
Another view If we personally would be unwilling or unable to live to a particular standard, is it ethical to make someone else live that way? I’m not talking about what we’d consider comfortable or ideal or undignified, I’m talking about what we would consider impossible and get agreement from any random, reasonably intelligent stranger.
The dignity of all human life says we need to provide some minimum standard for everyone. Where that standard lies is needs to be worked out. So why not get organized and do it? When we do, then we can answer the questions about which programs and systems are serving us best with a clear head. Of course, we should be able to fail: being human means taking risks and sometimes we inevitably fail.
Success isn’t a basic human right (why do we seem to try to teach kids this?) The price of failure at life shouldn’t be squalor, abandonment, and death because any one person’s squalor, abandonment, or death hurts others. Absolute failure can be toxic for everyone. One bad apple can spoil a bunch, only in human society it’s considered totalitarian to remove them completely.
Otherwise, we all should go back to living on the ground, like a documentary of people in the wild. We should be living the life of Darwinian equity, back to the caves, where the strong take what they need and the weak die unlamented, and where there are no social standards or virtue, no crime or punishment, no responsibility to anyone else, not even to parents, children, friends or lovers. It should be no problem to kill someone in order to eat one meal. Social Darwinism is always an option, but I wouldn’t go as far as call it Civilization or Christianity.