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A Week In New Jersey On $3,500 A Year

Photo: Courtesy of Shein.
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Today: a focus group participant who makes $3,500 per year and spends some of their money this week on a T-shirt.
Occupation: Surveyor/Pollster/Focus Group Participant
Industry: Medical/Tech
Age: 32
Location: New Jersey
Salary: ~$3,500 (varies as I do not work full-time, but this is an estimate. I was laid off about a year ago and am ineligible for unemployment benefits).
Net Worth: -$127,500 ($1.20 in checking, $3.08 in savings, minus debt).
Debt: $127,500 in student loans.
Paycheck Amount (varies): $65-$400 (I don't get paid regularly, just whenever I complete a job).
Pronouns: They/he

Monthly Expenses
Rent: $0 (I live at home with my mother and younger brother at the moment and have never made enough money to support myself, even when I worked full-time. I'm grateful that my mother doesn't expect rent from me. My parents are pretty traditional (Caribbean) in the sense that they don't expect any of their children to pay rent while living at home, but in exchange for not paying rent, I am expected to help with other bills. Our rent for a two-bedroom with a den, including heat/hot water is $1,300.
Utilities: ~$250 (This is our total bills and I contribute what I can to this every month).
Phone: $0 (I have a free, unlimited plan paid for by Lifeline, a federal smartphone progam).
Internet: $115
Sling TV: $40
Was there an expectation for you to attend higher education? Did you participate in any form of higher education? If yes, how did you pay for it?
Absolutely. Education was extremely important in my family because my parents never had the opportunity to pursue any formal or higher education. Being a first-generation college grad came with the added stress of very high expectations and pressure to succeed. I have three degrees: one undergraduate degree, two graduate degrees, and some certificates, all of which were paid for by grants, scholarships, and loans.
Growing up, what kind of conversations did you have about money? Did your parent/guardian(s) educate you about finances?
I remember the topic of money always being tense and stressful. My parents were and still are hardworking immigrants who believe every thought/task/action should and can be monetized, meaning that the concepts of hobbies, special interests, and taking rest were foreign. My childhood was ripe with talks about how we were going to pay for basic living expenses and the general fear of never being able to make ends meet. I wouldn't say my parents really educated me about finances in a responsible way because they didn't know how. Everything I know about money now I taught myself.
What was your first job and why did you get it?
My first job was in college while I was pursuing an undergraduate degree. I worked at an art gallery on campus for about $9.25/hour. I mainly got it because I was looking for practical work experience in my chosen field (fine art/art history). It quickly became my family's second income as I still lived at home because living on campus was way too expensive.
Did you worry about money growing up?
Every. Single. Day. I remember vividly having mini-meltdowns and panic attacks thinking I would leave the house in the morning for school and come back and our lights would be turned off, or we'd discover that we didn't have enough money for food and have to find alternative means of supporting ourselves that way. I worried about the cost of everything all the time because it could just be gone in an instant if anything went awry. Money used to (and still does) give me nightmares.
Do you worry about money now?
All the time. I cannot recall a single time in my life over the past two decades where money hasn't been an issue.
At what age did you become financially responsible for yourself and do you have a financial safety net?
Aside from living at home, I would say around the age of 19 or 20 when pursuing my undergraduate degree. I do live with my parents, but beyond that, I have no financial safety net to speak of.
Do you or have you ever received passive or inherited income? If yes, please explain.

Day One

6:45 a.m. — My cat, H., wakes me up and I roll out of bed to feed him. I hang out with my mom while she gets ready for work. I decide to go back to bed for a bit after she leaves to play some games on my phone and decompress.
8:30 a.m. — I do a morning workout in my bedroom and after a quick shower, head to the kitchen to make breakfast. I'm an iced coffee addict and my mom knows this, so she always makes sure to have some decaf pods on deck. I make myself two over-easy eggs and grab a slice of toast to begin a long, grueling session of job applications. I lost my job as a project manager at a non-profit back in October 2022 and haven't been able to find another job since. I've probably applied to over 225 positions and only had five interviews. As I sit in front of my computer filling out applications and writing cover letters, an intense sense of fatigue hits and I decide to open up my Steam deck and play some video games.
1 p.m. — My mom asks if I've seen the latest lottery numbers. I comment that I haven't and she proceeds to tell me that she's won a couple bucks, $82 to be exact, and I congratulate her. She's played the lottery for most of my life and truly believes that one day we'll hit it big. After talking to her, I feel pretty depressed and decide to log into one of my focus group accounts to see if there were any surveys I can do. I score about $13 on a medical study and another $5 for a tech survey.
4 p.m. — I log into Tumblr and YouTube and check in on my mutuals to cheer myself up. I've been trying to get a gaming YouTube channel off the ground for a little while now and while the stats are okay, I'm not really making any revenue from it, so I treat it as a hobby for now. I post on my blog and read some articles on Juxtapoz when I got an email back from a big tech company about being chosen for a new study. Payout? $350. I immediately respond back, sign my NDA, and dream of all the art supplies and books I can buy when my mom calls me to talk about bills she's struggling to pay. I offer to cover some of them once this study concludes and I get paid.
8:30 p.m. — I've been in a very rough place since last October, but I try my best to keep up with my routines so that I don't fall into a complete slump. Tonight, I do a face mask and use this medical-grade serum for a dermatology study I'm participating in. It stinks but seems to be working, and I can't wait for the final check-in to be over by the end of this week so I can get paid. I also realize that I haven't eaten anything since this morning's iced coffee, eggs, and toast, so I make a potato in the air fryer. My phone pings with a notification and I see that the Wawa app has sent me a free hoagie deal, no purchase necessary, and I decide to redeem it before the end of the week, that is, if I can shake this depression cloud and find the strength to leave the house.
11:30 p.m. — I can't sleep, so I log into one of my focus group forums and fill out some surveys. I ended up making about $0.98. I get an email about a $26 check clearing from a study I did a few weeks ago and decide to do a bit of shopping. I find a pair of Bluetooth headphones for $2.50 on SHEIN that I plan to use to get back into running and hiking for stress relief. I also get H. a pack of catnip balls on clearance for $0.45. $2.95
Daily Total: $2.95

Day Two

7 a.m. — I didn't sleep well last night so I feel totally dead this morning. I get up to feed H. and steal some cuddles from him when I get an email from the Department of Education regarding student loans. I feel like I'm going to be sick to my stomach, that is until I actually read the full email and see that my deferment is effective until 2025! I could scream with joy. If it weren't for this, I'd be responsible for paying $1,125 a month. I get up and do a quick workout.
10:30 a.m. — Fresh from a post-workout shower, I make myself a coffee protein shake and sign into my dermatology study to answer the weekly questionnaire, which consists of a video update and a pretty lengthy Q&A with a study moderator. I do some laundry with this portable washer I bought on Amazon during the pandemic. Our apartment doesn't have laundry set up and the nearest laundromat is three miles away, which wouldn't be a problem to get to if I was driving. However, I lost my car right around the same time I lost my job all those months ago, so it's to the kitchen I go to sort and wash.
12:00 p.m. — While filling out job applications, I stumbled upon an ad for the Air Force and after watching some videos and reading a couple of articles, I decide to send in an inquiry for a recruiter to get back to me. I never thought I'd be considering a life/career in the military, but with how dire things are looking right now for me it might be my only out. I also decided to get a new Rogue hood and some hiking socks from TEMU using some leftover funds on a couple of virtual gift cards I got a few weeks ago for doing surveys. It's $2.10 but I use gift cards.
3:45 p.m. — It's upload day. I try to keep myself on a schedule for my YouTube channel and social media, but sometimes I'm on such a low ebb that I take weeks to update. I have a bit of a creative spark right now so I ride the wave and create a couple of shorts and schedule them for upload throughout the week.
5 p.m. — My mom comes home with a huge bag of fresh veggies from her coworker's garden. There are eggplants, peppers, basil, rosemary, spinach, and tomatoes galore. We meal prep a majority of it and freeze the rest for later. It's been a while since I've had a fresh vegetable, as my budget doesn't really allow for much fresh produce, or food, for that matter. I'm definitely getting by on the kindness of strangers more than I like to admit. Things are just so expensive around here. I have a delicious meal of sauteed eggplants, brown rice, and spinach.
9 p.m. — I'm up playing some video games when I notice an email come through from one of my focus groups. I log in and find that my responses for a survey I thought I'd get paid for weren't exactly what the panel was looking for. I'm compensated $75 for my time, but had I been approved, I would've banked about $225. They say payment will be in the form of a check mailed in the next eight to ten weeks, which comes just in time for the Sling TV bill. I log/update my budgeting spreadsheet and go to sleep.
Daily Total: $0

Day Three

7:30 a.m. — I've been up for the past hour watching Air Force TikToks and feel inspired to do a military-style workout. I find an old backpack in my closet, fill it with light weights, and I'm off for a run and aerobics training at a nearby park. I wish I lived in a more picturesque area so that I could have something nice to look at while I'm out here, but it is what it is. When I get back, my mom has already fed H., so I take a shower and afterward chase him around the house a bit for some playtime.
10 a.m. — I'm listening to one of my favorite conspiracy/mystery podcasts when, in quick succession, I receive a flurry of rejection emails via LinkedIn from various companies I've applied to in the last couple of weeks. This totally puts a damper on my spirits and I truly don't know what else I could be doing differently to at least get to the interview stage. I also noticed that a lot of the rejection emails aren't even rejections, but notices to let me know that the position I applied for no longer exists "due to changes in the needs of our department at XYZ company." I log out of everything and take a long depression nap.
2 p.m. — I hear back from the Air Force recruiter and have a great conversation with them about enlisting, job placement, basic training, etc. While I'm happy with the answers I got from them, I plan to take some time to think and plan before I decide whether or not I want to make a commitment. I conclude that I'll give myself one last month to land a job and get back on my feet. If it doesn't work out, I'm launching myself headfirst into military life and not looking back. I'm feeling hungry and grab some leftovers from last night's dinner.
6 p.m. — My little brother asks if I'll accompany him on an apartment tour tomorrow and I agree. He's the most successful one out of all my siblings and he's ready to move into his own place. I can't lie — there's a pang of jealousy that hits when he starts sending me pictures of all the beautiful apartments he's interested in, but I am genuinely happy that he finds my input useful and seeks my guidance, despite my situation. We make a gameplan for visiting a couple of places.
10 p.m. — I get a notification from my bank that a $25 check from a tech study I did a few weeks ago has cleared as well as an email that this video game that I have saved from my wishlist on Steam is on sale. I buy it for $5. I figure I could use some cheering up and am genuinely excited to play tomorrow. $5
Daily Total: $5

Day Four

8 a.m. — My muscles are aching and I decide that it probably isn't a good idea to push myself to do another run, so instead I practice some yoga with one of my favorite instructors on YouTube. H. is dramatically laid out in front of my bedroom door, waiting to be fed and get belly rubs. I open up the cabinet that I keep his food in and notice that he's running low on everything, so I guess a shopping trip is in order. I write out my list and budget about $10-$15 for the trip. Then, I make myself an iced coffee protein shake.
11 a.m. — I walk to the nearest Dollar Tree and I swear this place makes me feel rich. It's one of the only stores I'm able to shop in without getting anxious since (most) things are $1.25 and I can easily calculate my total on my phone as I'm walking down the aisles to make sure I'm on budget. I get everything H. needs, including some treats, and decide to splurge a bit and get myself a pint of M&M ice cream and turkey sausage. $10.20
3 p.m. — It's apartment hunting time! My brother and I check out three places and I do my best to get over the sticker shock of the market. I used to be a real estate agent, so I understand that the rental market in the tri-state is super volatile, but hearing him nonchalantly say that $1,700 for a one-bedroom is fine makes me secretly sick to my stomach. I know that it's only because I've never been able to afford to rent a place, even when I worked full-time, so that's why I'm having such a visceral reaction, but I do manage to encourage him to consider some other apartments in the area that are slightly cheaper, just so he doesn't fall in over his head trying to keep up with the rising cost of living. On our way back home, we stop by Dunkin' and I offer to pay, but he treats me to a strawberry frosted donut (my favorite) and an English muffin breakfast sandwich.
6 p.m. — H. is particularly clingy this evening, so I decided to create a makeshift bubble blower and hang out on the porch with him. This seems to do the trick and for the first time in a while, I have a genuine smile on my face as I watch him swat bubbles and run around. Then, I get a notification from his vet about his medications and booster shots, which will run me about $220. I email them back about my situation and they agree to a payment plan, which I'm eternally grateful for. We get him scheduled for sometime in the fall and, by then, I hope to either have enough saved up for the visit, or to be working full-time again. Fingers crossed.
10 p.m. — The new game I bought on Steam last night has me hooked so I play for a bit and then go to sleep.
Daily Total: $10.20

Day Five

6:30 a.m. — I get up and go downstairs to spend some time with my mom.
9 a.m. — I'm feeling jittery and angsty following my workout and decide to skip the iced coffee and have some homemade lemonade with breakfast. I have oatmeal and a couple of turkey sausages. I get a notification from my focus group message board about submitting the final video update and doing the Q&A for the dermatology study and I am so happy that I don't have to use that stinky serum anymore! In the end, I'm compensated $425 and get entered into a raffle to win an additional $100. I should receive the payment sometime next month, which will be one of my highest payouts to date. I update my budgeting spreadsheet to make sure I'll be able to help with certain bills, like utilities and internet.
1 p.m. — I get a phone call from a medical study group about testing out a new medication for insomnia and find out that it'll be conducted over a five-week period and the compensation is $1,100! I really have to work to contain my excitement and asked the recruiter to send over more details, as well as the screening survey, which pays $10 upon completion. If I'm able to get this, I just might be able to put something down on a cheap car so I can do Doordash and Instacart again.
3:30 p.m. — Welp, I just reviewed the details of the medical study for the insomnia medication and I'm out — the side effects include possible hair loss, heart palpitations, migraines, blurred vision, nausea, skin rash, and hallucinations. Yeah, no dice. I reach out to the medical study group and tell them that I'm no longer interested. They still pay me the $10 for the screening survey, though, which they'll mail in the form of a Visa gift card in a few weeks. I thank them for their time and immediately get back on LinkedIn to fill out job applications. This is getting ridiculous.
6 p.m. — My mom wants to make a Wawa run and I accompany her, just to get some fresh air. When we get there, I remember my mobile app reward and redeem my free hoagie deal and grab a pack of trail mix. While on the line to checkout, I get an email about my subscription for Pixlr Premium, the software I use for my social media images and YouTube video edits, going through, which means: no trail mix. I can't believe I forgot that I have this payment, but with all the stress and anxiety I've been having, it's really no surprise that it was an oversight. I put the trail mix back on the shelf and head home. $5.97
9:30 p.m. — Another night, another round of surveys. I manage to make about $17, which I cash out promptly. I do some research to see if there are any other, higher paying panels I can get on and discover a website where you can sign up to be an eJuror. Compensation varies from $50-$125 for every virtual trial you get approved to be on, so I sign up and hope for the best.
Daily Total: $5.97

Day Six

6:30 a.m. — Even though it's the weekend, it really is impossible for me to sleep in. H. is (surprisingly) sleeping in and I decide to use this quiet time to write in my journal for a bit.
8:30 a.m. — My mom and I decide to get some fresh air and head to our favorite park, which is about a 20-minute drive away. We walk and talk and look at the ducks. While driving back home she suggests we hit the Starbucks drive-through, which she offers to pay for, but I can't stand the idea of her spending her hard-earned money on buying me food, since Starbucks seems like an indulgence and not a necessity, so I use my last few bucks to try a cold honey citrus mint tea and a petite vanilla bean scone, both of which are just okay. $4.65
1 p.m. — I've been doing so many surveys my eyes are crossing. I manage to make $12 and apply for a focus group panel to try out some body wash and cologne. Hopefully, I hear back from them soon since the payout is unexpectedly high for the kind of product: $235 and a $50 gift card for the screening survey. I also log in to check the rewards center for another medical focus group panel I'm on and see that there's $7 waiting for me to cash out. My wardrobe could use some new pieces, so I head over to SHEIN and buy a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, and a pair of cool, patterned socks with avocados on them. I feel terrible having to rely on fast fashion to get by right now, but make a promise to myself that once I'm in a better position, I'll decrease my consumption. $6.62
10 p.m. — It's time for bed. But, I do have time to do one more survey before I go to sleep. I get compensated a whole $3.30 for it. It sure beats doom-scrolling Instagram for free.
Daily Total: $11.27

Day Seven

8 a.m. — I do a quick weightlifting session in my room, shower, and prepare some turkey sausage, toast, and lemon water — we're out of eggs and coffee. While it isn't satisfying, there have been worse days, and I'm just grateful for the meal I was able to make despite everything. I notice that my mutuals are pretty active on social media and YouTube today, so I create a quick gaming video and upload it.
11 a.m. — I don't like checking mail throughout the week, mostly because there's never any good news, but also because #depression. I gather all that's accumulated so far and rip through them on my bed. Bills, bills, debt collector, bills, a discount on eyeglasses, some mega sale at Costco, bills...and then, a check! This medical survey on arthritis medications I did almost two months ago, finally came through to the sweet tune of $35. I quickly make the mobile deposit and balance my budgeting spreadsheet.

5 p.m. — I'm on YouTube, doom-scrolling through food shorts, when I come across a video on takoyaki and other Korean street food. Convinced that I can also try my hand at it, I search for takoyaki pans and find one for $5 on AliExpress. Alternatively, there's another one on Amazon for $8. I have no business on these websites, nor do I have any business being confident about making takoyaki, but do I bookmark it and find recipes for later? Absolutely.

9:30 p.m. — I get a notification that a gift card for $15 has just been approved and I decide to get my mom some flowers. It's been a while since she's been able to afford them and I think it'll be a nice surprise to brighten up her day a bit. There's a flower shop that is walking distance from my house that I can go to in the afternoon and I hope that I'll have enough money to get a small bouquet of sunflowers. It'll also give me a chance to see if there are any help wanted signs around.

Daily Total: $0
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