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Tough life and tough choices

Online game lets you make financial and moral choices for a struggling but working single parent. What would you do?

By MSN Money Partner Apr 4, 2011 8:00PM

This post comes from Lynn Mucken at MSN Money.

 

"Fourteen million Americans are unemployed. Now imagine you're one of them. Your savings are gone, you've lost your house, you're a single parent and you're down to your last $1,000. Can you make it through the month?"

 

That is the opening page when you begin playing Spent, a online game conceived by national advertising agency McKinney to bring attention to the needy on behalf of Urban Ministries of Durham, N.C. Nearly 360,000 have played this game.

  

I am a semi-retired man and financially comfortable, but I tried to visualize myself as a single working mother with a 6-year-old daughter in order to get inside that person's head and make some of the choices. Here are my/her decisions and reasoning. Frankly, I was stunned by the choices I was making by the end.   

 

Day 1: Get a job. There are three choices: restaurant server at $2.13 an hour plus tips, a $9-an-hour job in a warehouse, and a $9-an-hour gig as an office temp. I immediately reject the office job, figuring it might not last a month and I do not have a car to haul myself across town for the next assignment. Heavy lifting has little appeal. I do like to schmooze, however, and I hardly ever drop a plate, so it's off to the restaurant. Now I'm making $1,280 a month. But wait a sec: Taxes knock that down to $1,048, a princely $262 a week.

 

The good news is that I get one free meal a day at the restaurant. I can survive on that for a while, especially since food bank pickups and the school's free-lunch program have cut our out-of-pocket grocery expenses to $8 a day. The better news is I'm working the lunch shift, so I can get my child off to school and be at home in the evenings. Reserve: $992.

·         How do your finances stack up?

Day 2: Get health insurance. This will cost me $275 a month. If it were just myself, I'd pass (other than the colds my 6-year-old brings home from school, I never get sick). But I can't take any chances with her health. So -- reluctantly -- I buy, knocking $69 off my weekly income, which now is $193. Reserve: $984.

 

Day 3: Find a place to live. I am being evicted from my house, so I go apartment hunting. A one-bedroom is cheaper the farther I get from downtown, where I took a job because I have no car and wanted to stay within the no-fare zone. In addition, spending an hour each way on a bus would create giant problems in taking and picking up my child from school. The rent closer to work is $850 (including utilities), but transportation costs are virtually nothing.

 

Still, that $850 is more than I bring home, but so is renting 20 miles out and paying more for transportation. Thinking of my child, I dig into my reserve, leaving me with just $126 until payday. Something will come up. 

 

Day 4: My apartment is too small for my stuff. Spent says my choices are rent a small storage unit for $45 a month, beg a friend to hold my stuff, or have a garage sale. Given my financial situation, this is a no-brainer; I opt for a sale.

 

This game is way too realistic. My disposable furniture is just that, disposable. I bring in only $150, hardly a life-saving figure. A dear friend, seeing that I'm desperate, agrees to store my extra stuff -- for a while, she makes clear. My reserve is now $268.

 

Day 5: The landlord raises the rent. I immediately think he's a bloodsucker, but he points out that property taxes, maintenance costs and utilities are exploding. I have no lease -- this place is not exactly high-end -- so he tells me, with empathy it seems, that I have to pay the extra $150 or leave. I can't tolerate the idea of looking for another apartment, and I figure maybe something better will develop in a month. Besides, I have a paycheck coming in soon. So I pay the extra $150. There goes the garage sale dough. Reserve: $110.

 

Day 6: The $15 field trip. A 6-year-old would not understand why everyone else gets to go to the science center while she stays in the classroom, so I pony up the money. I feel good about being a parent, but cruddy about being a broke parent. Reserve: $87.

 

Day 7: The $10 gift card. Spent is obviously not about easy choices. A friend sends my daughter a $10 gift card to a grocery chain, telling her to spend it on candy or ice cream. I pocket the card. We need the money for food, and besides, what she doesn't know…. Reserve: $89.

 

Day 8: The $150 gifted-child program. Of course, she's smart; she's my kid. And she deserves the best. But I don't have the $150 fee, so instead of signing up, I apply for a scholarship. How could they turn her down? Unfortunately, that means I lose a half-day's pay while meeting with the school counselor. Reserve $81 (keep remembering that $8 a day for food).

 

Day 9: I'm sick, and it's a workday. Never sick, huh? My head is pounding and I'm running a fever. All I want to do is get my daughter to school and go back to bed. Unfortunately, my job has no sick pay, and I cannot afford to miss work, so I trudge in and try not to breathe on anything or anyone. None of my co-workers seem surprised to see a zombie among them. We're all in the same leaky boat. Reserve: $73.

 

Day 10: Payday! Believe it, $174 ($193 minus the docked half day). It seems like a fortune. The reserve fund is back up to $239. And it is a whole 21 days until the rent is due again. We might make it.

 

Day 11: The ruined shirt. This game is heartless. I'm helping the cook wash dishes and bleach is spilled on my uniform shirt. It will cost $20 to replace it, or I can try to slide by with an ugly shirt. I can't take the chance of being fired, so I buy the shirt. Reserve: $211.

 

Day 12: Another decision. A co-worker is seriously ill. Everyone is being asked to contribute $20 to help her out, but I've known the woman for less than two weeks and I'm close to broke. Feeling like Scrooge, I lie and tell them I forgot my wallet. Reserve: $203.

 

Day 13: Mom needs help. My mother needs medication and hasn't the $100 to buy it.  She asks me for help. I want to say no, but then the memories of all the times she has helped me out flood back. I figure we can cut our food costs to $3 a day (basically milk). I send her the $100. Reserve: $100.

 

Day 14: An offer you can refuse. A union organizer approaches me and wants to talk. I just walk away. Sure, I would like more money, but I've heard horror stories of businesses finding some way to get rid of union activists. Besides, I don't plan on making restaurant work my life's profession; I have a college degree, you know. And I really, really need this job right now. Reserve: $97.

 

Day 15: Another tough choice. My daughter wants to play soccer with an after-school club. My insurance will pay for a well-child physical (it's time for it anyway) but the uniform and spikes will take almost all my available savings. I tell her she can do it next year. I hate myself and hate my life. Reserve: $94.

 

Day 16: Payday! A big $193 goes into the bank. I'm stunned by how happy I am about this. Optimism returns to our household. Reserve: $284.

 

Day 17: Wash day. I have put off laundry for two weeks and it can wait no longer. Four loads of washing and four loads of drying adds up to $8. If I had a car, I could take it to Mom's. Wash or reek; no choice here, but I'm stunned that I've reached the point of even thinking about not doing it. Reserve: $273.

·         Calculator: Do I have too much debt?

Day 18: The phone bill. My cell service is $75 a month, and now seems like a luxury. I guess I could walk away from the contract, but this is my lifeline these days, not only keeping me in contact with my daughter's school, but also with caring and supportive friends and relatives. I pay. Reserve: $195.

 

Day 19: The plate incident. I drop a tray of plates in the backroom of the restaurant, but believe I can hide the shattered evidence and not pay the $25 fine my boss would assess me. I look at my reserve, and the looming rent, and make a decision I would never have even considered a few months back. I shove the chards into the garbage and cover them with papers. I remember my father saying he was "as honest as a poor man can be." And I thought he was joking. Reserve: $192 (keep remembering the $3 for food).

 

Day 20: A night out? Friends want to take me to a free concert, but that means a baby sitter (how can they charge me $7 an hour? I did it for $2). I desperately want to resume a "real life," but there's no choice here. I stay home and watch "American Idol." Reserve: $189.

 

Day 21: A shattering experience. A neighborhood kid breaks my window with a ball, then runs away. My landlord doesn't buy my story -- and I don't blame him; after the plate incident, I'm not sure that "fraud" isn't spelled out on my forehead. Instead of spending $100 getting it fixed, I tape plastic over the window as a temporary measure. Cost $5. Reserve: $181.

 

Day 22: Another no-brainer. A neighbor stops by and offers me a used coat. Mine is in tatters. There is not a bit of false pride left, just gratitude. Reserve $178.

 

Day 23: This is getting easier. My best friend is getting married in another state. I know she would walk through flowing lava to come to my wedding, but there is no way I can spend the money to get there. Heck, there is no way I can afford a gift. I think she will understand. And it's payday again! Reserve: $368.

 

Day 24: The school calls. My daughter is great in language skills, but is struggling in math. A tutor is suggested, but that would cost $50. I decide to spend more time working with her. Reserve: $365.

 

Day 25: I have become a different person.  A neighbor needs help moving and has offered to pay me $50 to help. Unfortunately, the move will occur while my daughter is performing in a school play. That $50 now seems like all the money in the world, even though I now realize I have no chance of having enough to pay the rent. Shocking to me is that I give my daughter's emotions almost no thought. She will get over it. And this is a day and a half's pay. Reserve: $412.

 

Day 26: Paying the piper. My college loan is due. That's $250. I throw the bill into the garbage. Let them find me. Reserve: $409.

 

Day 27: Grandpa dies. I've always been very close to him, but he lived several states away. I can't afford to go to the service. I cry over this, but just a little. Life -- especially my life -- sucks. Reserve $406.

 

Day 28: The cat. I've kept the cat -- his food is part of that $3 daily bill -- and he's been a comfort to me and a companion to my daughter. But he's very sick and I can't afford the vet bill or medicines. The pound will euthanize him for $50. I smother him, put him in a plastic bag and hide him in the garbage bin. I do not think this is abnormal behavior. Reserve: $403.

 

Day 29: The credit card. The thing is useless now. I maxed it out trying to stay in my house and no one else will give me credit. Now they are howling for their money, or at least a minimum payment. I don't intend to stiff them, but I'm not paying. The rent is coming due. Reserve: $400.

 

Day 30: Win the lottery. The big pot is $183 million. Everyone at work is chipping in $10. I'm desperate, but not three days' worth of food desperate. Besides, the odds of winning the lottery are the same whether you play or not. I hope they don't win. Reserve: $397.

 

It's payday, another $193. I have $587 in the bank. The $1,000 rent is due tomorrow. I think back on my decisions: I will drop the health insurance. It was crazy to give Mom $100, or continue the phone service. Maybe I can talk to the landlord. 

 

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