Living on minimum wage: Lessons learned about life and money

Homeless in KL
A woman sleeping on a pavement in Kuala Lumpur, oblivious to pedestrians hurrying on with their lives.

In an effort to curb my spending, I decided to live on RM900 a month for a few months. RM900 is the amount agreed upon as minimum wage in Peninsular Malaysia. In East Malaysia it is at RM800. I also wanted to “feel” how it would be to live on minimum wage, which works out to RM30 per day. Unlike other minimum wage earners who have to feed families, pay bills and other expenses, I would only use this amount for food, transportation and other miscellaneous expenses. On paper, RM30 per day for food and transport seemed reasonable enough. But as with some economic theories, what looks good on paper rarely translates well into practical life.

The Minimum Wages Order 2012 that was finally enforced on January 1, 2013 was not enthusiastically welcomed by all employers. Many complained that their businesses would be affected by the higher cost of wages. If these employers thought that RM900 was going to make their employees feel rich, they had better think again. I could hardly make ends meet for food and transportation with RM900. How in the world were some minimum wage earners making ends meet with less than RM900 or now with even RM900?

Malaysia is not the land of the cheap. RM900 carries different value in various parts of the country. For example, RM900 might go a long way in rural parts of some states such as Perlis and Perak but, in states with a high cost of living like Johor (especially the Johor Bahru area), the Klang Valley and Selangor; RM900 does not carry much weight unless one plans to live on rice and kicap for most of the month – which a lot of minimum wage earners and their families do.

In urban areas like Kuala Lumpur, if the household income is RM3,000 or below and the family has three children, the family is considered part of the urban poor. So where do minimum wage earners fit into this scenario? What about the hardcore poor? One thing is for certain: In a two-parent minimum wage family, one or both parents need to hold two jobs or more to make ends meet in order to put food on the table and send children to school.

Hunger, I discovered from personal experience, must be a constant companion of minimum wage earners especially for those with many children. For me personally there were days (not too many, thank God) when I really had to stretch my money and that meant going to bed with just a glass of milk or Nestum – both which can be considered luxuries for the hardcore poor. If your stomach is half empty or empty, it is best to sleep early. If you stay up late with a half empty stomach, the hunger pangs can drive you nuts. There is no worse noise than to hear your stomach growling in protest. What should one do when faced with such a thing?

One security guard’s advice was to drink lots of water. “The water fills you up and temporarily makes you forget you are hungry,” he told me. If that does not work then it’s time to try plan B which is to sleep away the hunger pangs. Because when you are asleep, no hunger pangs can disturb you. But don’t be surprised if most of your dreams are about food. This is bad because you will wake up feeling hungrier than ever.

The rise of petrol prices does affect the poor despite what the experts say. A rise in 10 to 20 cents does make a difference to the minimum wage earner. For example the friendly mak cik who sells kuih near the LRT station in my area used to sell three curry puffs for RM1. After the recent hike in petrol price, she now sells two curry puffs for RM1. The middle class have been complaining about the rise in prices after this recent petrol hike. Imagine how much worse it must be for the minimum wage earner?

Public transport is not much of a help if you are a minimum wage earner. If you happen to live in an area which is constantly plied by buses, then consider yourself lucky. If not, be prepared to wait for long hours for busses that are never on time or very over crowded. The LRTs are fast, efficient and reasonably well priced. But getting to the stations will be a problem if the feeder buses are not efficient.

If you decide to walk whether to cut the cost of having to take a taxi (especially if the distance is not too far) or if you’re tired of waiting for the bus, you may find that Malaysian roads are not pedestrian friendly. From my experience, pavements are usually not well maintained. And even if they are, they tend not to be pedestrian friendly as I discovered when I tried walking from the Kelana Jaya LRT station to my home in SS7 which is a good 40-minute walk. Initially there was a well maintained pedestrian pavement which runs alongside the LDP highway. After walking for about 15 to 20 minutes, the pavement suddenly ends and you find yourself walking on the road with cars buzzing along the highway! And the pavements are never covered.

The only stretch of pedestrian pavement that is covered that I have come across leads from the Bukit Nanas Monorail station to the Dang Wangi LRT station. And sometimes when there are pavements, these are more often than not taken over by motorcycles as parking spaces, or in certain cases by restaurants that place chairs and tables on the pavements.

I also learned that it was far easier to keep up with the Jones’ than to admit that you are falling short in cash and therefore can’t eat in the same fancy restaurant as them. I am not a psychologist but I think it is part of our “don’t want to lose face” culture. A lot more people are willing to be in debt to camouflage the fact that their income can’t keep up with their expenses. Is it any wonder that personal debt in Malaysia is at worrying levels?

Another lesson that I learned is that if one puts one’s mind to it, one can really cut down on unnecessary expenses and live really frugally. When you are used to certain luxuries in life, and these are suddenly taken from you, it can be really hard to adjust to this new fact. For some, this will take some time while; for others, they may never get used to this life. They sink into depression or become very bitter or envious or all three. I would be lying if I said that I got used to it. I missed my little luxuries. But I also realised that a lot of things that I used to buy were based on impulse. I see it, I like it and I must have it – now. Because of my minimum wage experiment I was forced to defer buying some things until my experiment was over. And during those months, I realised that I did not really need items I previously desired; I could make do with what I have now.

More needs to be done to help minimum wage earners

The three months minimum wage experiment has opened my eyes to the hardships faced by minimum wage earners. Many of them bravely go on with their lives. They work hard – often holding more than one job – and raise their children the best that they can. There is no safety net for them. The Government must do more to help these people. The 1Malaysia clinics and 1Malaysia shops are small steps in this direction but much more needs to be done.

Many of them can’t even afford to pay rent for proper houses and therefore live in squatter areas. These areas have their own social problems. When even middle class families are having trouble buying houses, how are these minimum wage earners ever going to have a house of their own? It’s important that more affordable houses be built for these people.

Although I no longer have to live within RM900 a month, I try to keep my daily expenses up to RM30 per day whenever possible. I now am conscious of packing lunch to work whenever I can and try to limit my dependence on the ever tempting credit card. Although I can afford to take taxis now, I still try to take buses as often as I can. To take the frustration out of the long waiting time, I always carry a book with me so that I can read while waiting for the bus.

And every day I give thanks for what I have. I might not be rolling in money as I was when I had a full time job but, still, I am in a far better financial shape than those on minimum wage.

Source: BusinessCircle