How does McDonald’s sample budget for employees reflect consumer ideology?

McDonald’s created a sample budget for its employees to help them do better financial planning.  The budget is so absurd in its assumptions and serves as such ready proof that Mickey Dee’s doesn’t pay its workers enough that you would almost swear it was satire—something Jonathan Swift might conjure.

Other articles have pointed out the almost mocking lack of reality in a budget that starts off by depending on a second job that pays 85% of what you’re getting for flipping burgers for 40 hours a week—that is, if you’re lucky enough to have a full-time job at Mickey Dee’s.

What I find interesting is the degree to which the McDonald’s sample budget for employees reflects the ideology of consumerism.

We start with the fact that the second most expensive line item is the car payment. Note that McDonald’s is not talking about what one of its full-time employees might spend on operating the car each month—insurance, gas, maintenance. No, this line item of $150 is for paying the loan you took to buy your car. Not only does McDonald’s assumes that everyone has a car, but it also assumes that you borrow money to buy it, as opposed to running your car into the ground. These are two of the major tenets of American consumerism: 1) drive a car and 2) borrow to get what you want before you can afford it.

The budget offers the possibility that the monthly housing payment is a mortgage. Where can you get a house with a $600 mortgage (which must also include real estate taxes)?  McDonald’s knows that very few of its employees can afford a mortgage, but the possibility of being able to have a house sets a goal for the employee: home ownership, which is another tenant of American consumerism.

Note that the budget assumes that the employee will be completely middle class: have health insurance, cable TV service and a car. Of course the numbers they put down are phony: What health insurance plan is a mere $20 a month? How many people pay nothing for heating?  The $600 a month for rent or a mortgage payment must have seemed quaint to McDonald’s employees in San Francisco and New York.

But this low-balling of virtually every line item enables McDonald’s to give people the magnificent sum of $800 a month for the line item in bold: Monthly Spending Money. That’s $800, or $27 per day, that the employee can spend every month on him or herself. It’s called disposable income and it’s the lifeblood of consumer culture. Movies, clothes, vacations, gambling, jewelry, HBO, restaurants—all is possible with the $800 a month, at least on a small scale.

Except for three things:

  1. That $800 has to cover food.
  2. It also has to cover car maintenance and gasoline
  3. It also has to cover the difference between the low-ball estimates of the other line items and what they will really cost.

Nowhere does the budget let us know that Monthly Spending Money includes food, gas and car maintenance. Let’s hope that the employees who use this budget don’t buy season’s tickets to the Lakers before they figure out that they also have to pay for food with that $800 a month of spending money they get.

By constructing a budget that assumes a typical employee could live a consumer-driven life, McDonald’s not only asserts the consumer ideology, it also attempts to hide the fact that their jobs make it impossible for employees to live the American dream reflected in the budget.  McDonalds has fooled no one, though, as witnessed by the excoriation it has gotten from the mainstream news media.

The McDonald’s sample budget for its employees is new evidence that we need to raise the minimum wage and not marginally, but by a lot. After the initial jolt to the economy, a minimum wage of $15 an hour would drive up all wages and lead to more consumer spending.  It would give the McDonald’s workers twice as much money each month, which means they might not have to work a second job, or if they did, they could have some real spending money. Of course that would mean that McDonald’s executives and shareholders would have less money to plow into the stock market or expensive art.

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