‘Broke all the time’

How a carpenter and coder in the US manages his monthly costs.

WYMW - US
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What’s your money worth? A new series from the front line of the cost-of-living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Aman Kidane (a pseudonym to protect his identity)

Age: 42

Occupation: Carpenter and coding student

Lives with: Alone

Lives in: One-bedroom apartment in New Orleans, Louisiana, US

July income: $1,840 ($1,600 in financial aid for studies and $240 from selling old furniture). The median income for one person in Louisiana is $4,143 per month before taxes.

Total expenses for the month: $1,687

A photo of Aman plucking dead leaves off a hot pepper plant in Amber's backyard.
Aman plucks dead leaves off a hot pepper plant in Amber's backyard. The couple grows what produce they can to save money [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]
Aman plucks dead leaves off a hot pepper plant in Amber's backyard. The couple grows what produce they can to save money [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

When Aman Kidane’s power got cut off one morning in mid-July, it caught him by surprise.

He was not at home when it happened. Since early this year, Aman regularly sublets his apartment to make ends meet. So when the power went out, he was staying a few blocks away at the home of his partner, Amber, also a pseudonym, a 29-year-old teacher who works with first-graders with autism.

If it were just him, he would have opened the windows to stay cool, kept the refrigerator closed, and argued with the power company at his leisure. But that week, he had people staying in his apartment in exchange for grocery money and he could not leave them in the dark.

This was the first time his power had been cut.

“Usually, I don’t pay it until I get a text saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to cut this off tomorrow if you don’t pay.’ So generally, I’ll go like two months, three months without paying. But this time, they didn’t send me a courtesy text, and they ended up cutting it off, so I had to pay the back balance, which was like $250."

Juggling payments for rent and electricity has become an increasingly familiar source of anxiety for Aman over the last year as costs rise. Inflation reached 9.1 percent in June, the highest rate in 40 years.

US inflation
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Aman lives in income-restricted artists’ housing, which he qualifies for because he earns well below the area’s median income and because he paints. He pays about $720 per month for his apartment, below the median rate of $1,082 for the metro area, and says that affordable housing in New Orleans is otherwise tough to come by. If he’s more than 15 days late on rent, he risks eviction.

Tall, with an easy laugh, he sits next to his partner’s enormous seven-year-old bulldog in her living room.

Aman, who immigrated from Eritrea about 39 years ago, says that in his life, he has prioritised meaningful relationships, community-building and interesting work rather than capital, but this means he is often financially strapped. Through the height of the pandemic, he and Amber organised full-time with a housing justice group, delivering hot meals and hygiene items to people experiencing homelessness around downtown New Orleans nightly. Before that, he worked at an antique store repairing furniture. The store shuttered with the outbreak of the COVID pandemic.

Aman survived the pandemic on monthly unemployment benefits — a total of $1,916 — until July last year, when the pandemic supplement ended and the monthly payments dropped to $716, not enough to live on.

Tired of “being broke all the time” and wanting to find more stable work, he began a remote coding course, something he had considered for years. As a student, he started receiving monthly financial aid and the unemployment benefits stopped.

But increasingly, between his spare income and the rising cost of living, he finds it difficult to keep up. To make ends meet lately, he picks up odd jobs like building shelves or catering gigs, or he refurbishes and sells discarded furniture. “Sometimes the trash gods are really good to me,” he says.

But despite the side hustles and scrimping, since last summer, Aman has been finding it tougher to cover basic expenses. Along with electricity, the cost of groceries, car parts, gasoline and lumber have soared. Now, if he is caught up on rent, he may fall behind on the electricity bill. And any unexpected emergency threatens to send him spinning.

Over the course of a month, from July 5 to August 5, Aman Kidane collaborated with reporter Delaney Nolan to track his expenses. Here are the ones that tested his finances the most.

Expenses over one month

A photo of a dog between Amber and Aman.
Aman, Amber and her dog usually stay at Amber's house while Aman sublets his apartment for the extra income, something he is not meant to do [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]
Aman, Amber and her dog usually stay at Amber's house while Aman sublets his apartment for the extra income, something he is not meant to do [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

Summer vacation

Aman and Amber planned to visit her family in Colorado and recharge at her family’s small, internet-free cabin in the Rocky Mountains. But as July approached, they realised they would not be able to afford it. Though they found cheap flights, they would then have to rent a car in Denver — that would be very expensive due to high petrol prices.

“A lot of our summer plans changed because of finances,” Aman recalls, as the dog napped next to him on the couch.

They were sorry to miss Colorado, as both he and Amber felt it would have been good for their mental health. They are still dealing with the lingering effects of pandemic stress. Amber, as a teacher, had to navigate shifting protocols and the risk of illness, and the work they did organising alongside those with acute needs during the pandemic threatened to leave them suffering from burnout.

“We did go on one trip,” says Aman. Instead of flying to the Rocky Mountains, they drove about 150km (93 miles) to Mississippi for a weekend in a beach town. “And we did more camping than hotels,” Aman says.

July 2021: $20 for petrol to drive 150km (93 miles)
July 2022: $29

A photo of Aman checking the brake fluid in a truck.
Aman checks the brake fluid on his truck, which broke down this summer. He hasn't been able to afford to fix the truck as the cost of automobile parts has risen sharply in the last year [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

Fixing the truck

Aman was on his way to pick up some free furniture that he planned to turn around and sell, when his truck, a dinged 1996 Chevy pick-up, died.

“It sputters, goes weak, it dies. I tried to restart it and it didn’t start. Fortunately, we were able to coast downhill until we reached the apartment … it happened the weekend before I started back up with school, so I don’t need it right now, but even if I did, I don’t have the money or the time to fix it myself.”

The price of vehicle parts has risen 14 percent from July 2021 to July 2022. Even if Aman fixed the truck himself, the necessary part — he suspects a failed fuel pump — is too expensive.

The truck now sits parked outside Amber’s home, gathering dust.

Last year: $135* for a new fuel pump
This year: $154

WYMW - CPI
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Beer

Aman and Amber will maybe once a month go to karaoke night at a local bar. Aman is not a huge karaoke fan, but it is free, and close, and their friends are there, so he and Amber duet on a Diana Ross song, Aman's voice breaking into laughter on the highest notes.

Though drink prices have stayed the same, they still try to cut costs on their rare night out.

“We go out and we’ll get one drink each. Maybe two. We just haven’t been drinking much. Whereas before, well, I wouldn’t even count,” says Aman. He says he rarely eats out any more, either. He “used to love getting Ethiopian food” from a favourite restaurant. “Now it’s a rare, special occasion kind of thing.”

He says that the majority of his income these days goes to rent and bills — phone and electricity — “and the rest,” about $700 a month, “is to live off of. Gas. Food. Cigarettes.”

For that reason, his precious free time is often spent trying to find other ways to make extra income. “When I’m not in school, generally, I’m building furniture and trying to sell that on Facebook Marketplace.”

Last year: $10.50 for three beers at the tavern
This year: $3.50 for one beer

A photo of Aman looking through a refrigerator.
Aman looks through the refrigerator at Amber's house. As the cost of eating out has gone up 9 percent in the last year, he and Amber now almost always cook at home [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

Yoghurt

Aman heads to the kitchen, where a vase of pink flowers sits on the table. He opens the refrigerator and pulls out a tub of yoghurt.

He says he used to go to the nearby Robert’s, a small local chain, for quick grocery runs. But prices there have risen so steeply that now, though it is miles further and he does not have his truck, he makes a weekly trip by bike to Whole Foods, a supermarket chain owned by Amazon where prices have stayed lower. He turns the white tub of yoghurt in his hands. “It’s five or six bucks at Whole Foods for this, and at Robert’s, it’s nine bucks.”

As grocery prices rise and his budget tightens, he also does more meal planning, deciding in advance what he willl eat for the week and how to stretch his groceries. “Before it would be like, ‘Oh, I’m in the mood to eat this.’” But now he is swayed by his budget rather than his craving. Since Aman receives food assistance, he has also started going to the Farmer’s Market, which has a price match programme — for every dollar he spends from his food assistance money, the market will provide a dollar as well, doubling what he can spend there. Amber and Aman also grow some produce, like peppers and eggplant, in small concrete planters in the backyard.

Until recently, Aman and Amber also supplemented their groceries by shoplifting. Amber adds that when prices make life stressful, there is a small but real joy to be had in bringing home a $30 steak to share for free.

Then they got caught.

“I ended up taking the charge,” Aman explains, “so it doesn’t show up on Amber’s record.” Aman received a 10-day suspended jail sentence.

Last year: $7.40* for a tub of yoghurt
This year: $8.79  

A person holding a packet of Cinnamon Toasters cereal.
Aman goes to the local dollar store in order to get some staples, like spices, cereal, and cookies [Courtesy of Aman Kidane]

Electricity

Aman walks onto the porch, which is filled with clutter — an old end table, a broken shelf — from the free furniture he picked up.

“One of the things I really liked about my place when I first moved in three years ago,” he recalls, “is my energy bill was like, $30-40 a month. It’s efficient. Then, last year, I noticed it was around $50ish. This year, it’s been $60-70. So it’s pretty much doubled for me in the past three years.”

He holds up his phone screen, which displays the cut-off notice he received in July.

Entergy, the sole electricity provider in Orleans Parish, increased charges and rates this year after the catastrophic and deadly blackouts that followed Hurricane Ida in August 2021, despite reporting record profits for shareholders. The cost of electricity in the region has risen 20.7 percent since last year, faster than average in the United States.

“I have no cushion,” Aman says. For now, it means his lifestyle is spartan. In November, he graduated from his coding course. He just needs to hold on, he says, until he gets a job. Then it willl all be worth it.

September 2021 electricity bill 2021: $53.81
September 2022 electricity bill: $65.54

A photo of someone at a self checkout.
Aman pays for his groceries using food assistance money [Courtesy of Aman Kidane]

Five quick questions for Aman

1. What's one thing you had to forgo this month? Vacation. It’s a cute little cabin. River in the mountains. Zero chance of getting Wi-Fi. But it would have cost way too much.

2. Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month? Rent. I’m not sure I even spent on anything outside of rent and bills and groceries. I didn’t make any major purchases.

3. When finances get tough, what advice do you have? Be born rich? I guess just … burn it all down? Something a little more doable … live within your means. And then live even lower than that.

4. What’s your biggest money worry? Not being able to cover rent definitely would keep me up. Mainly because finding another place like that [with low rent] is not possible. I wouldn’t be able to find anything comparable for the price range. Everything is planned around making sure I have rent.

5. What is the saving hack you are proudest of? I guess I don’t have a savings hack, since I have zero savings. You should just try to plan out what fixed bills are going to come every month.

*Last year’s prices are estimates calculated using data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index.

Reporting for this story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera