$30: the daily cost of life


What is the cost of living?

It’s a frightening concept when truly considered. “Without [x] you will die.” And [x] is not food, or water, oxygen or air but, instead, a number, an abstraction, a disembodied quantity.

Allow me to embody it.

In the US, people have trouble spending less than $30 per day, even in households that generate less than half of that in wages. 1 And what do they spend it on?

More than half goes towards a place to stay plus the requisite gas-phone-electric; a fiver for transportation; a bit more than that on food. Then between $2 in healthcare, a buck-fifty’s worth of clothes and the same on education there just isn’t that much left.

Cost of life in US

But they could spend smarter! (you may, with great indignation, claim.)

Perhaps, but even those who generate double the income don’t spend that much more: they spend 3 additional dollars on the house and a couple of extra bucks on the car; an additional dollar goes towards a retirement plan.

3,000 pennies.

And the number holds firm through recent history. In 1984, households generating $5 per person per day in income spent $30 per person to get by; households with quadruple the income spent just $32.2

300 dimes.

By this measure almost 30 million US families (1 out of every 4) don’t generate enough income to live. They accumulate debt; they scrounge and beg; they live silently desperately restlessly hungry for another nickel or penny or dime. They need a dollar and a quarter every hour; 2 cents per every person per every minute.

Yes, that ticket to live: its cost is $30 (and it expires at midnight.)

And awful how far we fall short.


  1. To be precise, households that generate between $8.50 and $17 in income per person per day spend $32.75 per person per day; sourced from the 2008 consumer expenditure survey. []
  2. All dollar figures inflation adjusted. []
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