When a majority of your paycheck goes towards rent or an unexpected or emergency expense, “healthy” foods are often out of reach. With processed and fast food priced much lower than fresh produce and unprocessed food — not to mention 6% of the population living in food deserts making healthier options more inaccessible — low-paid workers and families are forced to make difficult food decisions.

A doctor’s visit can be a financial burden for most. Health care is vital for a person’s well-being and economic security, but medical expenses drive millions into poverty. 

In addition to dealing with rent, utilities, and other bills, students working low-paid jobs are also faced with rising tuition costs.

Where we live is at the very core of our daily lives. With a massive shortage of affordable housing, workers and families are placed in a difficult position of having to spend a large portion of their paycheck on rent. When families spend too much on housing, they have insufficient resources for other basic needs.

In addition to having to worry about basic expenses, when workers and families are hit with unexpected costs like a medical emergency, car repairs—or in the case of some child care providers, a COVID scare that results in closing down their business—the effects can be disastrous. Families living paycheck to paycheck, an unforeseen medical bill or flat tire can force parents to have to forgo certain basic necessities for the month—which could mean missing a rent payment or going without food.

In partnership with Make It Work Nevada and MI Oakland Forward, we asked 10 people to document their day-to-day expenses and to “show us the receipts” — AKA the true costs of living in our country today, and the challenges of making ends meet as a low-paid worker. These are their stories and receipts.

These are their stories and receipts.

Poverty is not a personal failing, but rather a policy choice made by lawmakers and others in power.

The minimum wage falls far short of what it takes to live above the poverty line. Limited public benefits are often designed to be difficult for families to navigate. Workers are forced to dedicate a large portion of their income to rent that keeps rising.

These are all the result of policy choices keeping families in poverty. And women of color, who are over-represented in low-paid jobs, bear the brunt.

“This is a grocery bill that I have at least twice a month so me and my family can eat healthier but all the healthy foods cost so much more than the junk food which I find crazy. Seems like they want us to eat unhealthy food.”

QuaVeionta, restaurant worker, Michigan

“I was back on one month for rent so I had to pay $1340. I had to look for new clients to make money so I could pay for rent and something for the house like groceries. On top of that, I don’t have EBT* to help, so I use cash for food.”

Maria, tipped worker, Nevada 

*Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) is an electronic system that allows individuals and families who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to purchase foods at retailers using the program’s benefits.

Lee is a two-time cancer survivor and works as a child care provider. She has to prioritize her health during the pandemic in order to be safe while working with children. “This is a doctor’s bill. It is important that I maintain my health while working with kids. Especially during the pandemic I make it my obligation to get annual check ups for me and my family.” 

Lee, child care provider, Michigan 

“This is my college tuition bill for the university I am attending. I am taking 3 classes and two labs at this college this semester (along with one at a community college) and the total is almost $4,000 dollars. Paying for university is very difficult and not straightforward since tuition prices change every year and depending on what classes and what my major standing is and what “year” (Freshman/Sophomore/Junior/Senior) I’m in for school, the price changes. On top of this my school raised their tuition 4.2% this year which is one of the highest tuition increases in the state.”

Cassandra, restaurant worker, Michigan

After being evicted earlier in the year, Markeshia was able to find housing for her and her family. Here is her account of what being evicted was like:

“There was nothing else I could do. At that moment, my back was against the wall. I have my momma and she had COVID in the mix of the [eviction]. We were in one room that was small and she was throwing up, mind you I had recently gotten over it. My kids had [COVID], but it wasn’t too bad. My mother got it the worst. She was throwing up, balled up, and was burning up. She went through the tough symptoms since she was older. I had my mother with COVID, us being put out. She already had COVID when we were [evicted] so was barely moving along trying to keep herself up in the midst of her having pain and stuff like that. And then having her in the room with all the symptoms. It was a lot on my plate.”

Markeshia, hospitality worker, Nevada

“First week of the month which means rent is due. Where I live nothing comes included in rent: water, sewer, and even school fees are all not included in the cost of rent. I live in a three bedroom trailer with my sister near my university. Even with rent being so high it is still remarkably cheaper than if I were to live on campus. This week I spent the rest of my savings on the rent bill.”

Cassandra, restaurant worker, Michigan

“This is my rent receipt for this month. This means I have a place to call home during this month. It’s important to me because during this pandemic people are without jobs and places to live. I’m grateful even during a severe surgery that I was able to pay my rent and have a place to call home.”

Donna, part-time child care provider, Michigan

“My son had a dentist appointment and he had to get work done on his mouth. He had to get two teeth pulled in the front because they had cavities in them and he had to get a couple of fillings in the back. So our insurance, they covered most of it. We had to pay 300 out of pocket. What they don’t cover is him being put to sleep.  So we were out of pocket 1,800. And he has surgery next week. So, that was kind of stressful and they would say to apply for medicaid. Well, we got denied. I’m like, I already knew that was going to happen anyway but we were denied the medicaid so we were paying 1,800 out of pocket for his mouth.”

Angel, child care provider, Michigan

“I’m living paycheck-to-paycheck and it’s rough being a single mom. I lost three people in two weeks. So I’ve had to spend money on help for funeral attire and food. Also, my son is growing so I had to buy another pair of shoes.”

Sherricka, care worker, Nevada

“My check engine light came on in my car. I had to have the timing chain and gears replaced. I was so happy that I had the extended warranty but those repairs would’ve been up to $1,700. I was so happy to not have had to pay the full price. Then the check engine light came on again and the transmission needed to be serviced but I would be taking that in later because I could not handle anymore expenses”

Tameka, care worker, Nevada

“During the month of August, I had to close my daycare because there was a COVID scare and I have to do a deep cleaning. It was very stressful having to close my daycare”

Brandy, child care provider, Nevada

“My son recently got out of braces a few months back and he has been having issues with his retainer. At first, it was broken then it got lost. Then the [dentist office] said it needed to be replaced either way. That was $400 we weren’t planning on spending. But he just got out of his braces, so we want him to maintain his straight teeth. That was an unbudgeted expense that had to be taken care of.”

Tameka, care worker, Nevada