The Dollar Menu For Rent and Gas: McDonald’s Budget Advice for Employees Falls Short

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A week after one of its franchisees was hit with a lawsuit alleging low-paid workers were forced to accept their pay on fee-laden prepaid cards, McDonald’s is again in the crosshairs of worker advocacy groups over what one calls a “laughably inaccurate” online tool that’s supposed to teach company employees how to make and stick to a budget. 

The “Practical Money Skills Budget Journal,” part of a McDonald’s employee microsite created by the fast food chain and Visa, is catching more heat than a stack of Big Macs.

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In theory, of course, teaching employees how to budget and manage their money is laudable. Adding up your income and then subtracting the sum total of your expenses is a good skill to have and a good habit to get into. Likewise, jotting down everything you spend over the course of a week can help you keep track of where and how you’re spending.

So what’s the problem? “Basically every facet of this budget is unachievable,” says, a branch of liberal think tank the Center for American Progress.

For starters, it suggests holding down a second job.

Even presuming a second source of income, however, the budget is far from realistic. Together, the two hypothetical jobs net a combined $2,060 in monthly  income — which advocates say most fast-food workers will never see. Fast Food Forward points out that someone working a 40-hour week to earn that amount would need net (after taxes) almost $13 an hour, but ThinkProgress says the average McD’s worker only makes $8.25 an hour, before taxes.

At that average pay rate, an employee would have to work 70-plus-hour weeks to net $2,060 a month. Meanwhile, according to Fast Food Forward, low-wage fast food workers work only around 24 hours of work a week, so it would take almost 12 weeks to earn that “monthly” take-home pay.

There are plenty of other places in the sample budget where the numbers just don’t add up. For example, the sample budget allotted $0 for heat and $40 for electricity. While some people do have heat and hot water bundled into their rent payment, those projections are unrealistically low (even if you’re not home much because you’re working two jobs).

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The budget also sets aside $20 a month for health insurance. McDonald’s did not respond to a question asking if it offers workers a $20-per-month insurance option. But a 2010 CNN article said that, at that time, the company’s cheapest individual health insurance was $14 a week — or roughly $56 a month — and called the coverage “pretty terrible.”

Helaine Olen, author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, pointed out on Twitter, “It also appears that McDonalds is urging employees to avoid luxury items like children. No category for them in their sample budget.” While some McDonald’s workers are kids themselves, this material is meant for parents, too. Guides on the microsite cover topics like kids’ allowances and back-to-school budgeting.

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“The samples that are on this site are generic examples and are intended to help provide a general outline of what an individual budget may look like,” McDonald’s said in a statement.

It’s nice that McDonald’s wants to teach its employees how to keep track of their expenses and live within their means. But the advice is ultimately impossible to follow if it lowballs the costs of living and inflates the amount of income many of its employees can realistically expect to earn.