Several years ago I moved to a new city, unemployed, without much of a support network nearby and no health insurance. It took me a few months of job searching to realize this was going to be a longer process, which meant I’d need a temporary job in the mean time. I was lucky in that I was living with boyfriend who was able to cover much of the costs of housing and food for awhile. I found a temp agency and worked a few jobs, earning enough to keep gas in my car, and barely make my payments.
Desperate for a more work and steady money, I turned, as I always do in times of need, to the retail industry. I worked retail in high school and college, rather than wait tables – which meant at age 24 no one was going to train me to do that. My job was part time in an upscale women’s clothing store. I started out that job in the red, as I needed to buy their clothes to wear to work – all possible through my great discount, which I only received if I used their credit card. I made roughly $9/hour, which with regular hours actually turned out better than the temp work. It was never enough – at least not to get ahead. I spent a lot of time reminding myself I was actually making more than minimum wage. But my above average hourly wage wasn’t enough to keep me going on my own. How were others fairing with less?
After asking for more and more hours, and seeing instead hours disappearing, I wound up with a second retail job within nine months of starting, all the while searching for a salaried job in my field. I made enough to get from one month to the next. I was never able to put money away. I spent days off cleaning my apartment, and reading books at the bookstore without buying them. The job search started to pay off, sort of. I found two office jobs, in my field. Finally! Both were, again, hourly and part time, which meant I had to continue with two jobs. There was still no health insurance. I bought a plan that was so expensive to go to the doctor it was out of the question. I change car insurance copies in an attempt to save $20/month. The grants that paid both of my positions disappearing or not being renewed was a constant fear. What would happen if I lost these positions?
It was during this time the stock market crashed, the housing bubble burst, and people weren’t spending much money. Would there be an opening in retail if I had to go back? That wasn’t likely at the time. I knew a lot of friends from the store I’d worked at looking for other jobs to make up for cut hours, desperate to stay afloat and ahead of the curve. I never thought that would be me, with a college degree, and plenty of great experience, trying to make ends meet and squeeze everything I could out of a small paycheck. Was this really how we were all supposed to live? Hoping for more hours, checking out the pay at the store next door, and taking on second or third jobs just to get by is not how anyone should have to live.
I remember being asked for a doctor’s note because I was out sick for three days with a debilitating migraine while working retail. I went back to work without it, prepared to be fired, and told my boss I couldn’t give her a doctor’s note because I couldn’t afford to go to a doctor. I couldn’t afford to see a doctor in the first place to get medicine that would have prevented my absence, nor would I have the money to pay to fill the prescription. I didn’t get fired. I was told I should buy health insurance, with the assumption I could afford such an expense.
That was not how I thought I’d be living at that age. It has made me grateful for what I have now, including money in the bank, health insurance, and a steady paycheck. It put me behind on savings, retirement investments, and any other preparation for my future, which I will be paying for in the years to come. A real living wage could have made all the difference in my early adult life, and today. I may not feel so far behind, and I may have been able to do more than just barely scrape by then.
*Photo Credit: By bgottsab via Creative Commons license.