A week in St. Clair County, Illinois, on a $17,400 salary

In the St. Louis metropolitan area, 489,817 households struggle to have adequate income to meet basic living expenses like housing, food, transportation, health care, child care, taxes and miscellaneous expenses.

This number includes Jerri*, a single mom with two kids in St. Clair County, Illinois, who works full time but still does not make enough to meet her family’s basic needs. As a graduate of Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis’ financial empowerment classes, Jerri is working on building habits that will allow her to grow her savings. This month, we’re following Jerri as she tracks her spending over one week to shed some light on the tough financial decisions our neighbors in need must make, day in and day out.

A week in Jerri’s shoes

Occupation: Full-time cook
Industry: Hospitality
Age: 33
Location: St. Clair County, Illinois
Salary: $17,400

Paycheck amount (monthly): $1,450 (gross)

Monthly expenses
Rent: $412
Food: $75 (I spend this in addition to the SNAP benefits we receive)
Life Insurance: $124

Phone: $128
Car Loan Payment: $225
Car Insurance: $74

Gas for Car: $160

Household items & needs for children: $50-100
Utilities: $142
Water: $54

Haircuts: $60
Savings: I’m currently working on spending wisely, and my next step is minimizing weekly costs so I can find opportunities to save.

Day One – Sunday

We start our week on Sundays. I wake up and prepare breakfast. Depending on the day, breakfast is cereal and milk or a hot breakfast, like eggs and waffles or oatmeal. After breakfast, we sort clothes and prepare for our weekly trip to the laundromat. After getting quarters and washing and drying all our clothes, towels, comforters, etc., we spend $36 on laundry. One day, I’ll be able to have my own washer and dryer to save on time and money spent at the laundromat.

Once laundry is done, we fill up our gas tank and head home to put clothes away and eat lunch. Usually, this is something I prepare from the groceries I’ve already purchased, like a sandwich with chips and a snack on the side. Then, it’s free time for the family. As the kids play a game, I prepare homemade Philly cheesesteaks for dinner, which ends up happening shortly after 5 p.m. After dinner, we work together to prepare for the week. Every outfit the boys need for school is picked out, ironed and hung up to help make the mornings manageable. For me, it’s pretty simple because my work attire is a uniform. I wear scrubs and a black apron, so I make sure my uniforms for the week are set.

Today’s Expenditures:

Laundry                 $36.00

Gas                        $15.00

Dinner                    $20.00

Total                      $71.00

Day two – Monday

It’s go time! School life and work life are in full effect. I get up at 4:45 a.m. to get myself ready for the work day, then I get the boys up to start their morning routine. Breakfast is typically the same: either cold cereal and milk or oatmeal. Once everyone is showered and dressed, we head out. I drop the boys off at school, and then I head to work. Lunch for the boys is covered at school, so that’s an expense I don’t have to carry. Since I work in food service, my lunch is sometimes free or very low cost. Today, I have a salad, which is free for me. When my older child gets out of school, I leave to pick him up and bring him back to work with me, so he doesn’t have to stay home alone. After work, I pick up my other child, and we head home. First things first: The boys work on homework. While they are doing that, I prepare some Lunchables to hold them over until dinner. For dinner, I make spaghetti and garlic bread (items purchased from the last grocery store visit).

Today’s Expenditures



Day three – Tuesday

Today is much like Monday—same as the rest of our school and work days. We have a very tight budget and not much wiggle room. This morning, one child wants cereal and the other wants Pop-Tarts. I don’t have to spend anything extra for breakfast because I bought breakfast, lunch, snacks and some dinner items during my last grocery trip. The boys are covered for lunch at school, but today, I want something different than what we have at work. I go to McDonald’s and purchase a sandwich and fries for $2.50 from the dollar menu. After work and school, the boys and I go through our usual routine with homework and snacks. For dinner, we’re having leftovers!

Today’s Expenditures:

Lunch                      $2.50

Total                       $2.50

Day four – Wednesday

Today is a usual day but a money saving day. We eat breakfast at home. Lunch is covered for us all. Our after school snacks are homemade sandwiches. For dinner, I’m baking chicken purchased when shopping for weekly groceries, along with green beans, macaroni and garlic bread. (We like garlic bread.)

Today’s Expenditures


Day five – Thursday

Today is a typical week day, except it’s already time to put more gas in the car. I don’t have a long commute to work (approximately 16 minutes each way), but I make the drive at least four times each day to accommodate my kids’ schedules, so I end up using a lot of gas. I thought what I’d put in on Sunday would get me through the rest of the week, but I’m on “E” again. I go ahead and fill up, so I don’t have to worry about it later on.

Today’s Expenditures:

Gas                         $35.00

Total                      $35.00


Day six – Friday

Once the boys are done with school and I’m home from work, it’s the weekend, and we’re all excited! The boys had a good week in school. My work week wasn’t stressful, but my legs and feet are tired. As a result of a childhood injury, I have screws in my ankles. On top of being on my feet all week at work, the pain intensifies whenever the weather changes, and I’m really feeling it this week. However, my job means I’m able to provide a good and stable home for my boys, so it’s a pain I can bear.

I’m trying to be mindful of my spending, but tonight I’m REALLY not in the mood to cook and I don’t have anything quick to fix at home. So, I go to the grocery store to buy a couple of frozen pizzas. They are on sale at Walmart for $4.88 each. I get two and a soda. Saturdays are usually our fun days, and I let the boys decide how we spend that day while I silently hope and pray it’s something I can afford.

Today’s Expenditures:

Dinner                     $11.13

Total                       $11.13

Day seven – Saturday

Saturday Fun Day!!! We’re sleeping in today—well, at least that is my goal. Since there’s no rush to get to school or work, the day starts off slow as the boys get up and watch television. Our lazy breakfast consists of cereal and milk. I’m running low on milk, so I add it to my grocery list. I typically grocery shop once a month when I receive SNAP benefits, but I may have to make a trip a bit earlier than anticipated.

Even though it’s fun day, it’s also cleanup day for us. The boys help me spend most of the morning cleaning and straightening up our rooms, bathroom, kitchen and living room.

It’s supposed to be nice outside today; however, the boys want to go to Monkey Joe’s. So, that’s where we go. We’ve been pretty good saving money this week, but I know I still have to be careful for an outing like this. Ultimately, it’s a good day – beautiful outside, and the boys had fun. I had fun, and I don’t end up spending as much money as I thought. It’s time for bed because we start our week over tomorrow.

Today’s Expenditures:

Fun Day at Monkey Joe’s                    $38.00

Total                                                      $38.00


This week’s Expenditures:

Laundry                                                  $36.00

Gas                                                          $50.00

Eating out:                                                $2.50

Groceries                                                $31.13

Fun day at Monkey Joe’s                     $38.00

This week’s total                                $157.63

The holiday season can be especially tough for people like Jerri who have trouble making ends meet, let alone buying gifts for the kids. Thankfully, Jerri and her family are pending adoption through United Way’s 100 Neediest Cases Program, so she will have some help making the holidays brighter for her and her children.

*Jerri’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

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James Taylor
James Taylor