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No One Should Have to Choose between Paying the Mortgage and Eating

By Samuel Weinstock on 07/18/2016 @ 03:00 PM

Tags: Data and Research

Editor’s Note: To continue our blog series sharing the stories of young workers across the country who we’ve interviewed as part of our Financial Security at Work Initiative, we’re highlighting Robert*, who lives in a suburb of Houston and is struggling to make ends meet on a regular basis.

Every day, Robert has to think about financial survival for himself and his mother, whom he lives with and supports financially. He works part-time as a griller at a breakfast fast food restaurant, but he doesn’t always have enough for food on his own kitchen table. Even when Robert is able to stretch his income across all of his bills, he and his mother have to cut back on some things. “Usually it’s food,” he says. “Eating less—it’s kind of good for you, kind of bad.” Robert’s precarious financial position means that food isn’t the only necessity that he can’t always take for granted. He relies on a water pump outside of his house, but he can’t always keep the lights on inside. “One time during the summer, they cut off our lights because we just couldn’t pay it,” Robert says. “It was one of the worst times in my life.” He says that he didn’t realize how much he needed lights in the house until they went out. Spending money on entertainment is out of the question. “You really don’t need it,” he says.

Robert describes being able to scrape by with occasional cuts in food and utilities, but says that, despite his constant uncertainty about how much money he’ll have left over, he absolutely cannot skip the mortgage payment for the small house that he and his mother occupy. He knows that missing payments could lead to eviction, and he’s willing to go hungry to avoid that, if he has to. “It would just suck getting kicked out after so long...paying,” he says.

In terms of improving his financial situation, Robert says that his main focus is earning more income. He views his expenses as having a clear hierarchy of priorities, with the mortgage at the top. He always pays it first, and then other bills, such as the electricity, if he can. “It was pretty simple,” he explains. “You just say, ‘Hey, not going to pay for the phone bill [and] cut this on food, and we’ll have enough for next month.’ It’s pretty simple. It wasn’t like, ‘Dang, got to bust out the calculator.’”

To make purchases, Robert and his mom share a prepaid card. He noted that one problem with such a system, however, is that his pay varies week to week, so that the amount he would have to spend would be inconsistent. He also says that it can be hard to plan out his expenses exactly. “I can actually have my money set out for what I should spend my money on […] but sometimes […] I want a snack or something, and you end up [with] not enough.”

With regards to benefits at work, Robert doesn’t get much from his employer by way of help with his finances. He knows that direct deposit is available, because a little TV in the restaurant’s back room plays an advertisement for the service over and over again. Robert says that he trusts direct deposit, simply because the service (and the advertisement for it) comes from the company’s corporate office. Nevertheless, he doesn’t use direct deposit, because he wants to have cash in his hands at the end of the week. “Something about cash feels really good,” he says. “I know I have it.” And, for Robert, having physical cash is central to managing his finances. “When I have the cash, I can see how much money I have left,” Robert says. “In the bank account, not really.”

*Name has been changed

CFED’s Financial Security at Work Initiative, sponsored by the Prudential Foundation, explores the current state of workplace-based financial wellness programs and envision how the workplace can be strengthen as a platform for financial security in the future. To learn more about the project, check out:

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