Nickel and Dimed opens with Barbara Ehrenreich, a writer and journalist from Key West, Florida, at a lunch with her editor discussing pitches and article ideas. She’s often written about poverty, and at the moment the book opens, millions of Americans are about to leave welfare as the 1996 welfare reform legislation kicks in. She speculates what it would be like to actually try to live on the minimum wage, and says that some enterprising journalist should try to do it—not thinking that the editor will say it should be her.
As her book project takes shape, she plans to spend a month in each of three places—Key West, Portland, Maine, and Minneapolis—intending to see if she can reach the end of the month with enough money to pay the next month’s rent. If she can’t, she’ll quit and start over in the next place. Barbara grew up in a relatively comfortable environment, but all the previous generations of her family were working-class miners, and poverty has been close enough to her that she clings gratefully to her comfortable, flexible writing job. She recognizes that her task will hardly approximate the real-life experience of a poor person, since she is healthy, has no children in tow, and is only doing this experiment temporarily. She is trying merely to see if she can achieve an equilibrium between income and expenses.
Barbara starts in Key West. Her first goal is to find a place to live, no easy task given that she’ll have to stay close to a budget of $500 a month. She finally finds a decent-seeming trailer, though it’s a 45-minute commute on the highway from the city. Barbara is hoping to apply for hotel housekeeping jobs, since she remembers how tired waitressing made her as a teenager, and she figures she’s been “housekeeping” at home for years. She fills out dozens of applications from the help wanted ads, though soon realizes that these ads don’t necessarily mean there’s an opening—they’re how employers account for high turnover in the low-wage workforce. She also seems to be pushed towards the service jobs rather than housekeeping jobs, most likely since she is a white, native English speaker.
At one hotel, she is sent over to work at the accompanying restaurant, which she calls the “Hearthside.” It’s a sad-looking place, ruled over by a red-faced, snarling cook named Billy. Even with tips, she’s not making much more than minimum wage. Barbara quickly befriends Joan, the feminist hostess, and Gail, her coworker. She feels under-qualified and unskilled, slowly realizing that she’s only average in this world. She also learns more about the difficulties faced by her fellow employees, especially in housing—there are no secret economies for the poor, she realizes, and instead everyone is scrounging by in a near-emergency state, with some even sleeping in vans. As the tourist season ends, Barbara calculates that she won’t make it to the end of the month with her wages as they are, so she finds a second job at Jerry’s, a national fast-food chain. It’s a hectic environment with a moody manager, Joy, and she only lasts two days holding down both jobs—she then has to quit the Hearthside, since Jerry’s pays more. There, she befriends a teenaged Czech dishwasher named George. Meanwhile, she encounters constant suspicion and surveillance that she experiences from management. She also discovers that everyone at Jerry’s only manages to get by through having a second job. Finally, she begs the woman at the hotel attached to Jerry’s to give her housekeeping work. This, however, only lasts one day before she has a catastrophic shift at Jerry’s that night: George has been accused of stealing, she’s dealing with four highly demanding tables, and at one point Joy corners her to yell at her. She storms out—and her time in Key West ends.
Next, Barbara chooses Maine, since it’s white enough that she doesn’t think she’ll stick out as a low-wage worker. Though Portland seems to have a tight labor market, Barbara finds that it’s still a $6-7 an hour town. In addition, there are few rent options for less than $1,000 a month, and even the low-rent options are far out of town. She ends up staying in the Blue Haven Motel, which has low-cost apartments to rent by the week in the off-season. Barbara applies for multiple jobs, filling out a personality test for a housecleaning service called The Maids that seems to be meant to weed out anyone who’s freethinking and curious, though it’s an easy test to “psych out.”
She accepts the first two jobs she gets. One is as a dietary aide at a nursing home, where she’s assigned to serve meals at the Alzheimer’s unit, which she finds far easier than Jerry’s. The other is at The Maids, where she has an orientation that consists of a video showing the exact cleaning methods to be used. She’s sent off with a team to clean houses, which turns out to be highly aerobic work, especially since they’re only allotted a certain amount of time per house. Most of the women still don’t seem to have enough money to eat more than snacks.
Barbara prides herself on her ability to keep up with the younger women, though she realizes that she’s had the benefit of good health care and diet for decades. She also finds that housecleaning work creates unwanted intimacy with owners and a troublesome, highly unequal relationship between the owners and the cleaners. At the same time, her more mundane concerns include her own money issues. She tries to call around for food aid, but most places are only open during working hours—inconvenient for the working poor—and she finally gets a hardly nutritious dinner for $7.02. Her time at The Maids comes to a climax when Holly, a team leader, grows dizzy and faint and injures herself at one of the houses, but refuses to rest, since she doesn’t want to waste the manager Ted’s time and is afraid of losing her job. Ted seems to care for little other than money, but Barbara can tell how much his approval means to the others—probably because they get so little validation elsewhere.
Barbara’s final part of the experiment is in Minneapolis, where she interviews for a job at Wal-Mart, which has a similarly demeaning personality test and also requires a drug test—requiring Barbara to detox since she’s smoked marijuana recently, but also prompting her to think about how low-wage workers are viewed with suspicion and distrust. She also applies for a job at Menards, a hardware store, but declines it when it turns out she’ll have to work eleven hours straight on her feet. Barbara also struggles, once again, to find cheap housing—no affordable apartments have availability, so her only option is to stay at a motel in the city for an exorbitant $295 a week.
At Wal-Mart orientation, Barbara feels that she is meant to be inculcated into a kind of cult of Sam Walton, in which employees are “associates” and their bosses “servant leaders.” Nevertheless, her interviewer, Roberta, is careful not to mention wages until after assigning Barbara straightaway to orientation, meaning that there’s no time for a prospective employee to bargain or compare options. At Wal-Mart, she’s assigned to the ladies’ section, where she and her new friend and coworker Melissa measure their work in terms of carts filled and returned. She has to be careful about what the company calls “time theft,” and she jealously guards her two 15-minute breaks, since she’s exhausted by being on her feet all day.
She grows increasingly cranky and bitter and wonders how much such a job would change her personality. Barbara ends up moving into a Comfort Inn for $49.95 a night, a bit cheaper but still far from affordable, which means she’ll have to end her experiment early since she’ll never manage to equal income with expenses. She finally tries to stir up union feeling among her coworkers, though this is mainly a halfhearted effort that only has the effect of making her see how other employees are also struggling to survive on their Wal-Mart wages.
In the “Evaluation” section of the book, Barbara details the lessons she’s learned through her experiment. She’s realized how no job is truly “unskilled,” though low-wage workers are rarely, if ever, rewarded or congratulated for their effort. She goes through the cities she’s lived, showing that Portland was the only place where she was able to stay ahead of expenses—and there she was only able to do that by working seven days a week.
Barbara argues that society fails to see the desperation of low-wage workers because we’re used to thinking of poverty as linked to unemployment. The working poor, however, have to deal with rising rents and costs, even as the “labor shortage” taking place in all the cities where she lived put little upward pressure on wages. Barbara argues that employers have fought endlessly to prevent wage increases from happening. In the meantime, low-wage workers are made to feel shame and are constant targets of suspicion, while at the same time are becoming increasingly invisible to upper-class people, who share few of their spaces and so rarely interact with them.
In the Afterword, Barbara briefly explains what has changed since the book’s publication, six years earlier—there’s been a living wage campaign, but at the same time costs have risen and public services have been cut. Barbara ends by detailing a few things readers can do to help, from volunteering to supporting government candidates, but argues that changing the economic culture of the United States will take far longer.