Living hand to mouth
Stabroek News
April 3, 2003

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Two young working women describe how they scrape by on their salaries

The income tax relief in last week’s budget which will give each worker an extra $400 from the end of this month has been dismissed as “nothing” by some workers contemplating where the next meal would come from.

Thousands of workers continue to take home less than $25,000 per month to take care of entire families and many depend on remittances to keep afloat. The income tax threshold was eyed as the one hope that would provide “a little more cash” every month.

But after six years of clamouring for a meaningful rise in the threshold, the government increased the threshold by only $2000 a month, from $18,000, yielding a tax saving of $400 per month. To make it worse, only moments before Finance Minister Saisnarine Kowlessar had also announced a 10% tax on all local landline and cellular calls. That means, even a modest local bill of $2000 per month would attract a phone tax of $200; half of the benefit of the increase in the non-taxable income threshold.

Stabroek News interviewed two single female professionals, one with dependants and the other without, to see how they managed their incomes, which are substantially higher than the minimum wage of $21,000 per month. Both are young with good prospects ahead of them but for now they often have to skip meals just to make ends meet.

Roxanne (not her real name), is 25 years old, and is a first year university student, with responsibility for a younger sister, and part responsibility for an older sister and her daughter. She makes $65,000 before taxes per month. But after NIS, PAYE, credit union dues and medical dues, she actually takes home $43,818, not including the extra $400.

She pays $13,000 in rent as a sublease; her part of the light bill is $4000; and she has a commitment of $3000 to Courts for an item she purchased and pays $2000 for cooking gas. Her other fixed monthly costs include $1000 for her little sister’s lessons and $2400 in transportation costs to the university.

The Bare Necessities

As soon as she gets her salary, Roxanne goes to the market and purchases her month’s supply of groceries, which includes six gallons of rice, 10 lbs of flour, 10 lbs of sugar and milk. This bill amounts to $11,000. With her rent and other bills her basic needs use up $36,400 of her salary, leaving $7418.

Roxanne has not yet approached the market to purchase vegetables, or the butcher to get her meat. Nor has she even considered the occasional photocopying cost associated with going to university.

She says she places a ceiling on the amount of chicken she purchases per month - 10 lbs, valued at about $1400. After this runs out she substitutes soya chunks, a vegetable protein substitute.

She cannot enter the work environment without deodorant and other such personal effects. So she spends about $2000 per month on herself and her little sister. Roxanne is then left with $4018 to go to work six days a week and to buy greens from the market to cook for 30 days.

“The last five days before payday I cannot afford to go to classes as I do not have any money left on me”, Roxanne said. She does not have money to secure lecture notes available as photocopies.

Roxanne is young and outgoing but is forced to cut out luxuries. She cannot splurge when she receives her salary, as it would mean tougher choices for her as the days progress after payday.

“Some days I have sugar but there is no Kool Aid in the house to make a drink. Imagine I make $43,000 and cannot even afford Kool Aid? I cannot even buy myself a soft drink? I sometimes long for a piece of KFC (fried chicken) and soda but I cannot afford it.”

Roxanne says she needs new working clothes as her last outfit was purchased exactly a year ago. But she cannot afford to buy any and will have to wait until her father sends her some money from overseas for her birthday. She says her sister has been crying out for new clothes to go to church but she could not help out.

“I do not even have money to take a taxi if I get sick and go to the hospital,” Roxanne said. She also does not have a penny in the bank.

She also pointed out that on special occasions, she has to starve herself to be able to buy a small gift for loved ones and cannot afford to spend even $500 once per month on a ticket to go to a nightclub.

“I can’t even buy a pair of shoes. I really have to budget for it.”

Her situation is depressing and she would sometimes find herself crying because of her circumstances and the constant battle to make ends meet.

Going home each day after a hard day’s work to rice and stew is also very depressing. She notes that she cannot even afford a bottle of Sunny Delight (just about $750), or dishwashing liquid to do the dishes but has to use salt soap.

Personal purchases such as undergarments and others have to be put off “because no one sees these garments”.

Even if her sisters were not there with her, she sees no big difference in her living standards and fears she would be worse off if she was to work all day, study and then go home and cook and do home chores.

But despite her situation, she thanks God as she recognises that she is better off than many others who earn far less. “Once I have salt, rice, sugar and flour in the house, I am okay. I deal with the situation as best as I can”, Roxanne says. She is also proud of her achievements, having managed to own today a sofa set, a television set, a bed, a wardrobe and a microwave.

Roxanne says the extra $400 means nothing. Already she purchases a phone card only when she can afford it.


Michelle, (also not her real name) is no different, except she has no added responsibilities. She is also unmarried and is a University of Guyana first year student. Her gross income is $43,000 per month and her take-home pay is $31,000 after deductions for credit union dues and payments.

She pays $7500 rent, $2500 for electricity, $2000 in phone bills, $5000 in groceries, $5000 to the bank for a retail loan for a television set, $3000 in transportation to attend university classes, $2000 in a box-hand, and $1000 on personal effects. That is a total of $28,000. This leaves Michelle with $3000 at hand to take her through the month in transportation to work, to purchase vegetables, or to buy a soft drink or snack.

“Had it not been for my mother or my friends, I would not survive. Some months I practically live on nothing,” Michelle said, noting that at least three times per week she goes without a meal.

She said she often has to seek alternative forms of transportation to get to work other than public transport and sometimes her friends have to pay her passage to the university.

Michelle says she keeps to herself and would go into bouts of depression instead of asking for help. She says she would prefer to stay at home hungry and direct her attention to a good book or if she is hungry and at work, would surf the Internet to change her thoughts.

She says her most healthy meal is her lunch, as she tries to eat something nutritious. She goes without breakfast and is often forced to go without dinner. A rich snack for her is a burger, which she cannot afford more than once a week.

Michelle says she has not gone to the doctor since she suffered from dehydration and a poor diet because she has no money to go for the tests that would be required. Because of her poor diet, a common cold stays on with her for long periods.

“I have to save up money for things others could just go and pick up.” She says despite the salary not being adequate to meet her needs, she still has to work as there is no other means of income.

Now, can you contemplate what it is like to live on the minimum wage of $21,000 a month?

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