News: CJ Exclusives

“Nickel and Dimed” Thesis Quartered

UNC-CH student writes about living on little, paying his bills

Last summer, as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was assigning Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America to all incoming freshmen, UNC-CH sophomore Matthew Pulley was experiencing, for the first time, living on his own, with only a small income to sustain him.

Rather than feeling lied to about the American Dream, Pulley left his experience puzzled about Ehrenreich’s published difficulties. In fact, as he writes in the October 2003 Carolina Review, he has “a hard time seeing how [Ehrenreich] could have failed, other than the fact that she set herself up for failure from the start.”

Pulley writes that he “unknowingly participated” in the Ehrenreich experiment in that over the summer, he “got a job, found an apartment, and at age 19, lived independent of my parents for the first time.”

Like Ehrenreich, he writes, his experience lasted about three months, but unlike her, “I had neither a significant savings nor a ‘permanent home’ to fall back on… failure was NOT an option for me.”

Also unlike Ehrenreich, he writes he “could not afford to take the lowest-paying job offered to me.” He had completed only one year of college, as opposed to Ehrenreich’s three. And as he was also attending UNC-CH part-time during the summer, he had to pay for tuition and books — a large expense not faced by Ehrenreich.

As Pulley explained in a December 2003 followup piece in Carolina Review, he worked 14 weeks as a lab technician. Although that job “could be considered specialized,” he writes that his brother “makes more money per hour as a pizza delivery boy” so he doesn’t think working as a lab technician “gave me too much of an advantage on the income level.”

Overall, Pulley reports that he earned $2,854. From that he paid out $1,200 in rent for his one-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Carrboro, $550 for food, $420 for his car, $150 in utilities, and $450 in tuition and books. This left him with $84 left over. He writes that “I had more than enough to get by,” and also that he could have chosen to save more by adding a roommate.

He did have some advantages, however. For one, he had a $30 membership to Sam’s Club that his parents had purchased. Also, he had a “willingness to eat Cheerios and PB&J” and not “eat every meal in a restaurant,” because “food is not at all expensive if you’re actually willing to cook for yourself and brown bag your own lunch.”

Pulley found that “even living on my own as a part-time worker, earning less than the average $243 per week Ehrenreich boasted, and living in housing considerably over the 30 percent of my income that is claimed ‘affordable,’ I managed to get by AND put myself through summer school.”

To him this was instructive. “This is part of the American Dream, putting in long hours and hard work for a chance for a better tomorrow.”

Jon Sanders is assistant editor of Carolina Journal.