In the book, Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich conducted an experiment to relate to those who work minimum wage jobs to support themselves. She held three different positions throughout this process, each for one month in duration, over the course of three months. Barbara took a hiatus from her professional career to conduct an experiment.
She created a pressing situation where she desperately needed money to support herself in her extemporary and transient lifestyle. While the urgency of immediate employment has not been the case for me, it certainly is for many and causes people in desperate situations to take any job they can find.
Throughout the course of her experiment, Barbara faced many economic challenges: securing a job and paying for rent, gasoline and food. As a college student, I face similar financial pressures to Barbara. I have learned, from reading this book, from comparing my current circumstances to hers and from fretting over stretching the almighty dollar; I plan to avoid most if not all of the problems she journaled in her novel. Throughout the course of my working life thus far, I have struggled like Barbara did during her experiment.
However, with the financial knowledge I have acquired over the years, and with the noteworthy work ethic I possess, I plan to avoid the problems she experienced by having a college degree and getting a stable job in a flourishing geographic area in which I choose to reside. Unlike Barbara, when these problems arise for me, I will be prepared.
One of the many positions Barbara held during her experiment was in Key West, Florida, her hometown. As soon as she began her journey, problems arose. The first issue she encountered was finding a safe, affordable place to live on a very limited budget in a resort area. Barbara ends up at, “a cabin, more or less” and she describes it as “a converted mobile home” (Ehrenreich, 2011, p. 12). She struggled to find a job, but finally landed one as a server at Hearthside Restaurant.
Barbara explained in great detail the ins and outs of the food service industry which, I surmised to be the same no matter where one works. Serving the public has its’ challenges. Income is not based on wage, but rather the attraction to this type of job is the potential for unlimited income with tips. Both Barbara and I spend expend all our physical and mental energy in pursuit of some financial peace, but every day we leave exhausted.
Going from a professional office job with lucrative earning potential based on longevity to working in a stressful, unpredictable and physically demanding job, Barbara quickly learned that being a server was not an easy job. Living on a variable income was tough enough, but there was also a plethora of procedural expectations that she had to learn, “No refills on lemonade”, “even when this means flouting management rules — as to, for example, the number of croutons that can go on a salad (six)” and “There is a touch-screen computer-ordering system to master” (p. 17).
Of course, there was also at least one manager whose supervisory style added to Barbara’s stress. She stated, “I enter the first day through the kitchen, where a red-faced man is throwing frozen streaks against the wall and yelling” (p. 16). Based on Barbara’s documented experiences throughout her book as well as my own personal experiences, I know that although the food service industry provides unlimited income potential, the toll that a serving job takes on one’s body is very taxing both mentally and physically.
Nickel and Dimed depicted the differences between the economic lifestyles of educated professionals and those struggling to make ends meet through various odd jobs. Between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I lived at home and worked four different jobs to build my savings. I was primarily a nanny, dog-sitter and an employee at Applebee’s. I accepted random opportunities because the more money I earned this summer, the more at ease I would feel knowing my bank account balance was going up.
I was preparing for the arrival of my very expensive fall 2018 semester bill from Kent State that was going to drain over half of my bank account balance. Barbara and I shared similar experiences working wherever we could, whenever we could and for whoever we could for minimal pay in order to fund our basic needs on our own. In my case, these minimum wage jobs were only temporary, but for the sake of Barbara’s experiment this would have been a permanent lifetime choice.
My position at Applebee’s is most like the serving position that Barbara held in Key West, Florida. Both of us work in the food service industry, in a physically demanding role as a server, earning irregular, variable income, based on the customers’ satisfaction level of our performance. The difference, however is that I have a three-year history of success, earning an hourly wage plus consistently generous tips. Barbara’s food service career was not lucrative enough because it was so short-lived.
I have established a solid professional reputation with my superiors, I have learned, through experience how to be effective in my role, and for me, as a college student depending on low-paying unprofessional jobs as my only source of income, working as a server at Applebee’s has enabled me to pay tuition plus room and board for two years, without taking out any loans thus far.
My standard of living feels comfortable, considering my circumstances as a college student. My parents contribute a portion to the cost of my tuition, but I am covering a significant amount of my tuition plus all of my food, rent and gas on my own on a part-time server’s wage.
I think if Barbara had focused on giving her serving job more time, she could also experienced more financial success with adequate training. Her decision to relocate, leaving one position for the next created an urgent financial crisis that was unnecessary. She could have lengthened her experiment and established more of a foundation in one job, built up some capital and then moved on to the next job. There are definitely ups and downs to the position of being a server, but in my opinion, the lucrative paychecks make it worthwhile.
Barbara’s transient lifestyle was barely able to support her during her experiment. If she were able to have more time and apply for more jobs, she might have had a better outcome. This book is a convincing factor that if you have the time and resources to obtain a college degree within a field you love, you will be able to achieve financial success, career stability, happiness and comfort more easily, and your ability to earn a stable salary is increased substantially.
Barbara experienced these struggles to support the argument that it is hard to live in poverty, but it is not impossible. It is very taxing on both mind and body, but it is doable. This also does not have to be a lifestyle, but rather a transition period for someone who might be trying to further their education to get a better job.
- Ehrenreich, B. (2011) Nickel and Dimed. New York, New York: Picador