the audit

A McDonald’s own-goal on wages

Accidentally exposing the fallacy of its own personal-finance advice to workers
July 16, 2013

In her book Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, Helaine Olen writes about how the personal-finance industry, in arguing that we can solve our money problems if we just watch our pennies, has sold everyone a pipe dream.

The personal-finance complex (very much including the financial press) merely elides the real, and growing, money problems facing the middle- and working-class: Risk has been shifted onto individuals while pay has stagnated or fallen. Those problems are systemic and their solution is political.

McDonald’s and Visa give us a classic example of what she’s talking about with a personal-finance website aimed at helping the fast-food giant’s employees balance their meager budgets. In a pull-quote at the top of its Practical Money Skills Budget Journal it says this:

Knowing where your money goes and how to budget it is the key to your financial freedom.

Common sense, no? But it’s not actually true—not for many people. Because for that to be the case, you have to actually make enough money to pay your bills.

And so the real key to financial freedom for McDonald’s workers—and for so many others—is to make a lot more than seven or eight bucks an hour. Fifteen an hour sounds about right, but it’s worth remembering that even the lowest paid McDonald’s workers made, in real terms, $10.67 an hour in 1968. Since then government policies have allowed low-end wages to fall dramatically while giving most of the gains to the very richest.

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As ThinkProgress writes, McDonald’s own sample budget “actually underscores exactly how hard it is for a low-paid fast food worker to get by.” Here it is

Note that the theoretical McDonald’s employee has two jobs. The first job nets her $1,105 and the second nets her $955. If she makes $8 an hour at both, she’d be working 70 hours a week. If she makes $9 an hour, she’d be working 62 hours. If she’s unfortunate enough to make $7.25 an hour, she’d be working 77 hours a week.

That’s how you make ends meet on a McJob—but only if you have extraordinarily low expenses.

As ThinkProgress’s Annie-Rose Strasser points out, McDonald’s assumes that its theoretical worker pays just $20 a month for health insurance and nothing for heat. It also assumes a rent payment of $600 a month. You can find that in the hinterlands, but the average apartment nationally goes for about $1,050. And good luck if you’re in a big city.

Noticeably missing from the budget list: The earned income tax credits, food stamps, housing subsidies, and the like that subsidize your $4 Extra Value Meal and pad the pockets of McDonald’s executives and shareholders.

It’s hard to imagine how this made it past the flacks at McDonald’s. Then again, maybe it’s not. These numbers are so tiny to the office drones making five or ten times them that amount that they’re almost unreal.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.