Urban Ministries of Durham, North Carolina, has created an online game, SPENThttp://playspent.org/, that forces players to make the same hard choices that the working poor and the homeless have to make every day.

It’s not as much a game as it is a simulation exercise in poverty that every legal professional who represents the working poor, the underemployed, and the unemployed should try. (Heck, maybe even legal professionals who don’t represent them should play it, for an empathy check.) Maybe that client who calls every day asking about his disability check, who shows up at your office wearing clothes the GoodWill wouldn’t accept, or who asks you for a ride or bus fare to court will seem more real, and less like someone you can never imagine yourself being.

I accepted SPENT’s challenge to make it through the month (which is sometimes hard even with a regular paycheck), and was told to do something that I know many of my readers, especially new paralegal graduates, are trying to do right now: find a job.

Find a Job, Any Job

In all caps, the game warns me, “YOU’RE RUNNING OUT OF MONEY FAST,” and that it’s time to get any job. I understand that, I’ve had to find any job before. My choices? Restaurant server, warehouse worker, or temp. I’ve actually been two out of the three in my life. I try restaurant worker, thinking I’ll get take-home cash every day in the form of tips. The available job at a casual restaurant pays $2.13 an hour plus tips (about $8 per hour total) and has variable hours.

Crap. I have to buy khakis and an oxford shirt for work. I think I’ll cheat by getting them at GoodWill. The game doesn’t care. My weekly net pay is $262. (I blanche. In real life, I’d be headed for the nearest bankruptcy attorney.)

I get the job. Yay. Not so much. I’m asked if I want to pay $275 for health insurance. My monthly prescriptions cost more than that, so I opt in, and immediately regret my choice. It won’t matter if I can get my medications if I can’t eat.

Next, I have to find a place to live. My car is not listed as an option, but I am given the choice of housing in a 10 to 50 mile radius from work. I’m a city girl whose commute has never been greater than five miles, so I reluctantly pick 10, which turns out to be only $20 more per month than housing 20 miles away.

But the total cost is $846 per month. I’m no math whiz, but I’m almost certain that I’m more than just a little underfunded to live whereever the heck this is. I can’t afford to live 50 miles away from work either. I know, I checked.

This is not the beloved board game of my youth, LIFE. This is a grim reminder that I only have $154 to live on for the rest of the month, and it’s just Day 3.

Too Proud to Beg

My new apartment is too small for my stuff. I can afford stuff? None of my options are thrilling, but I reject all that cost money, like renting a storage unit. It’s yard sale time. I make $150 – but I think I must’ve sold anything I had that had real value to net that much from a rinky-dink yard sale. Like the microwave and the TV.

So now I have no microwave and TV, and the landlord raises the rent by $150. I’m proud, in real life and in this game. I’m not asking a friend for help. I’m too tired to look for somewhere else to live. I give the landlord the yard sale money, but what about next month?

I’m beginning to sense that my chances of scoring a lottery windfall, or even a birthday check from my mom, are less than zero. My work schedule is reduced, and now I’m bringing home $75 less a week. (I am seriously bummed. I was an outstanding waitress back in the day.)

Up in the left hand corner of the game is an opt-out button that says, “I can’t do this.” Personally, in real life, I don’t think I have much of a choice. You don’t just get to quit and go back to what is beginning to look like a really cushy job in a law office, so I don’t. Now I have to choose between paying the gas bill or the electric bill. Um, electric?

Bad choice. I have no heat, hot water or way to cook. I have to pay a $200 deposit to get the gas turned back on.

Now SPENT gets deeply personal. I have to choose between sending my child to a birthday party, with or without a $10 gift, or not at all. I have $54 left in my checking account, and I’m only on freakin’ Day 8 of this month. We’ll both stay home – and not watch TV.

But this game that’s not a game, and that I recollect living as a single mom, wants more money: $15 for my already heartbroken child’s school trip to the natural history museum. I’m drowning in guilt from the birthday party disaster, so I pay up.

This Is Not Milton Bradley’s LIFE

Holy shit crap. Now my dog is sick and needs $400 for treatment. My other options are putting her to sleep or letting her suffer. My checkbook balance is $157. I genuinely feel weepy, but I don’t have the money, I just don’t. I’m not given the option of charging it.

So obviously my next hard choice, now that I’m deeply in a funk and worried sick over my dog, is to ignore my mounting credit card bills, even though I’ve been living off them for months. I don’t need the game to tell me if I don’t stay current on the monthly payments, I’ll have a harder time finding another job, and I sure won’t be a candidate for future loans.

I continue to play SPENT, and it’s not fun. To be honest, it’s a complete and total downer, and it made my stomach clench repeatedly.  I’m not going to share my choices or how it turned out, because I want you to play for yourself. This is no board game with a cute car full of pink and blue kids you can lose under the couch instead of feeding. It’s the life that many of our clients live. If it reminds us how easy it is to end up in a place where we don’t have enough money to fund our most basic needs, and that we need to be careful not to judge even the most difficult of clients, then it’s been time well spent.

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