A Yelp employee publicly complained to the CEO that she couldn't afford to buy groceries - I tried living on her salary to see how true that is

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13095951_10154122357434648_4042530068299905687_n Kathleen Elkins/Business Insider Living on an $8.15-an-hour salary in Manhattan for a month was trickier than I imagined.

Earlier this year, a Yelp employee publicly complained to the CEO that she couldn't afford to buy groceries , thanks to the combination of an $8.15-an-hour after-tax salary and living in the notoriously expensive San Francisco Bay Area.

Hours later, she was fired, which sparked a lively dialogue.

She saw "an outpouring of support, including donations to her personal PayPal account," Business Insider's Matt Weinberger reported . She also received a cacophony of criticism, including a brutal response from one millennial that went viral.

But Talia Jane (not her full name) certainly isn't the only one having trouble making ends meet.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 4% of all hourly paid workers (about three million people) earn the before-tax $7.25-per-hour federal minimum wage or less.

More startling, Pew Research Center found that 30% of hourly workers (about 20.6 million people) are " near-minimum-wage " workers - those who make more than the minimum wage in their state but less than $10.10 an hour.

Many states and cities have set their own, higher minimums. For instance, the before-tax minimum wage in San Francisco is $12.25 an hour, and will be $15 an hour by July 2015 . In New York City, it's $9 an hour , slated to climb to $15 an hour .

Is it really that hard to make ends meet with a "near-minimum-wage" or otherwise limited salary? To find out, I decided to simulate living on Jane's salary for 30 days. I didn't quit my job - I put the overflow in savings, which sets my situation apart from Jane's immediately. I'm also based in New York City rather than San Francisco, but considering the two cities trade off the title of "most expensive in the US" depending on the list you're reading, I felt comfortable with the comparison.

Note that my experience has to be and has been different from hers, and it was worlds away from the millions of Americans who live on minimum or nearly minimum wage day in and day out. Even with the advantages that come with higher pay, including benefits and a safety net of savings, it was difficult. I can't imagine what it must be like to have a consistently limited income. After only a month living on $8.15 an hour, I can say: It's just as hard as it sounds.

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A Yelp employee publicly complained to the CEO that she couldn't afford to buy groceries - I tried living on her salary to see how true that is

I withdrew $150 at the start of the month

Jane didn't specify how much she was making before taxes. She does say she brought home $8.15 an hour after taxes and that her bi-weekly paycheck read $733.24. That works out to a 45-hour work week.

A $733 bi-weekly paycheck means $1,466 for the month. Let's break down my fixed costs:

• Rent and utilities: $1,250

• Cell phone: $40

• Internet: $26

My fixed costs are as minimal as it gets — I'm still on my parents' health insurance plan, I don't have a car, my company covers a nice chunk of my cell phone bill, and I walk to work, which means no monthly MetroCard or Citibike pass. If it weren't for egregious Manhattan rent prices, I'd be doing pretty well.

After taking my fixed costs ($1,316) out of my "new salary," I was left with exactly $150 for the month. On March 27, I headed to Wells Fargo and withdrew my spending money in cash, which would have to carry me through late April.

A Yelp employee publicly complained to the CEO that she couldn't afford to buy groceries - I tried living on her salary to see how true that is

Initially, I thought the minimum wage challenge would be a breeze

I honestly thought the month-long challenge would be a walk in the park. Would it be fun? Absolutely not. But doable? Absolutely.

After all, I completed the Elon Musk Challenge in January, spending just $60 on food for the month — and that was without getting to eat office snacks. Thanks to a generously stocked Business Insider kitchen, I figured I could spend even less on food, leaving over $90 for the rest of my expenses, which I assumed would be things like transportation and laundry.

Spoiler alert: There are always unforeseeable expenses.

A Yelp employee publicly complained to the CEO that she couldn't afford to buy groceries - I tried living on her salary to see how true that is

After a week and a half, I was severely over budget

A $150 monthly budget left me with $5 a day. My "strategy" was simply to spend as little as possible every day, which I did for the first week and a half — in fact, I was $22 under budget after 10 days, having only spent $28 ($22 on groceries and $6 on public transportation).

Everything was going according to plan ... until my best friend's 24th birthday party.

Sure, it's more than possible to do meaningful birthday gifts on the cheap — I went with a framed picture ($7.61 for the frame and $0.29 for the photo print) — but birthday events in New York City aren't cheap. Brunch, and the bowling that followed, set me back $80 ($88 if you include the gift) — over half my monthly budget.

Could I have said no to my best friend's birthday brunch and bowl? In theory, yes. In practice, no. And technically, I could afford it at the time — I would just have to stretch $34 for the next two and half weeks.

A Yelp employee publicly complained to the CEO that she couldn't afford to buy groceries - I tried living on her salary to see how true that is

After the birthday event, my mindset shifted significantly

When I was down to my last $34, my mindset changed completely. What started as "a walk in the park" became a highly stressful challenge. I'm a budget-conscious individual as is, but money consumed my thoughts in a way it never had before: Should I pay the $2.75 to take the subway ... or do I make the three-mile trek on foot? Do I buy this peanut butter, or assemble a makeshift lunch out of office snacks? What's my excuse this time for not being able to make it to that dinner with friends at the restaurant around the corner?

Even knowing I had the safety net of my savings should things go horribly wrong — a privilege many people don't have — I couldn't stop thinking, and stressing, about money.

I checked my wallet compulsively. I tallied up my bills and coins at least once a day. I scrutinized even the smallest of purchases. I started envisioning what the money spent on certain "wants" could buy me. For instance, a $2 Vitamin water is nearly equivalent to a subway ride — a few of those would end up getting me to the airport and back later that month for a flight out of LaGuardia.

A Yelp employee publicly complained to the CEO that she couldn't afford to buy groceries - I tried living on her salary to see how true that is

At the end of the month, I was $6 'in debt'

Two and a half weeks of subsisting on office food and politely declining social events later, my wallet was completely empty and my credit card had a small charge on it.

Here's where my money went:

The birthday: $88. There's always something — an inconsistent or unexpected expense that sets you back. This month it was a birthday. Next month, it could be a flight home or wedding.

Laundry: $8. Full disclosure: I drop my laundry off at a wash and fold, rather than doing it myself at a laundromat. The time I save is worth the extra couple of bucks — besides, had I bought detergent and hit up the Laundromat last month, it would have cost about the same. I got away with one trip to the cleaners (normally, it's two per month), solely to wash the bare necessities.

Transportation: $17. It cost me $11 to get to LaGuardia Airport and back (for a flight home that I booked in December) and $5.50 to get to Staten Island and back (for a half marathon I had signed up for in early March). Besides those two journeys outside of Manhattan, I walked everywhere.

Groceries: $43. I stuck with the cheap basics — pasta, eggs, and peanut butter — splurged a few times for kale when I was feeling nutritionally deprived, and ate a lot of office snacks.

You'll notice that I only spent across four categories. I would typically spend across eight or 10, but when you're living on so little, some expenses are completely out of the question: cabbing, shopping, dining out, and drinking, to name a few.

A Yelp employee publicly complained to the CEO that she couldn't afford to buy groceries - I tried living on her salary to see how true that is

I finished the month with substantial savings — but even more takeaways

While stressful, I did save a ton of money last month, simply because my actual salary is more than minimum wage — but what I learned was far more valuable than the couple hundred extra bucks in my savings account:

Going cash-only forces you stay on budget

If you're trying to stick to a tight or specific budget, cash in king. Simply withdraw a predetermined amount of money for the week (or month) and commit to spending just that amount — leave your credit cards at home if you'll be tempted to swipe them.

I also always knew exactly how much money I had remaining for the month — I watched my $150 physically dwindle, which was a helpful (and alarming) reminder that I had to keep my spending in check.

Life happens — and there will always be unexpected costs

These unexpected costs aren't necessarily emergencies, and they aren't even completely unexpected (I knew it was my best friend's birthday) — but they aren't consistent, like rent or cable, and they can wreck your budget.

I failed to plan for the biggest, most significant unexpected expense, but I learned from the birthday mishap and planned ahead for other necessities I would face throughout the month. For example, I knew I had to get to the airport the third week of April — as soon as I realized that, I immediately put the necessary fare ($11) on my MetroCard so I wouldn't even have the chance to spend that travel money elsewhere.

Moving forward, I can use this strategy for the bigger, unexpected costs. I'll never be able to plan everything to a tee, but I can look at each month from a big picture standpoint, anticipate certain inconsistent costs, and set aside an appropriate chunk of money to accommodate those costs.

A Yelp employee publicly complained to the CEO that she couldn't afford to buy groceries - I tried living on her salary to see how true that is

It's more than possible to find cheap or free entertainment, but it takes more effort

The month would have passed painfully slowly if I didn't do anything in my spare time, so I committed to finding free things to do around the city. There's plenty to do, but going out and actually doing them takes more effort that I realized. It's much easier to head to happy hour after work or meet up with friends at a restaurant, than it is to rally a group to go to MoMa on Friday afternoons for "pay as you wish" admittance.

That being said, after putting in the research to find a free New York activity and going out and actually doing it, it was 100% worth the time and effort. Just because wining and dining is the most popular way to socialize, doesn't mean it's the only way to socialize.

There is a lot of pressure to spend in social settings

It is incredibly easy to spend money in any city — that's obvious. What became more obvious was how much social pressure there is to spend. It's straight up awkward to show up at a restaurant or bar and sip on a glass of free water while everyone else is ordering beer and appetizers — it was even more awkward explaining why I wasn't participating: "I can't afford it."

It turns out, I'm not the only one who has felt awkward or embarrassed in this situation. As Veronica Dagher of the Wall Street Journal reported, "Many people would rather struggle to pay off a large credit-card bill than utter the phrase 'I can't afford it.'"

I realized how peer pressure can easily persuade you to spend money that you don't have and how your friends and family can unintentionally wreck your budget. For this reason, I tended to say no to most social gatherings. I did say yes to a few things, and it was equally valuable to learn that it's OK to show up, socialize, not spend any money, and focus on the company around you, rather than the consumables.

A Yelp employee publicly complained to the CEO that she couldn't afford to buy groceries - I tried living on her salary to see how true that is

If I were truly living on a limited income, I would have to make some adjustments

Sure, I only ended up $6 in debt, but my costs were as minimal as you can get in one month. Keep in mind that I could get away without buying certain essentials (shampoo, toothpaste, and razors, to name a few); I was lucky enough to be able to walk most places, but that wouldn't be possible in the winter months; and while I got away with my one big cost, it was relatively small in the grand scheme of things. I didn't have a medical emergency to deal with and I didn't have to fly or train anywhere on a whim.

Even if I did manage to break even each month, I'd be living paycheck to paycheck and not setting aside anything for retirement or other savings goals.

To make it work, I'd certainly have to make some lifestyle changes, big and small. For starters, I'd probably buy detergent and find a laundromat. I'd have to move out of my tiny Manhattan apartment for something tinier (or in a more affordable location), and I'd find a part-time job or start a side hustle.

My challenge had a timer on it — after 30 days, it beeped, and I went back to buying vegetables and Vitamin water; I restocked on shampoo and signed up for a few road races; perhaps most refreshing, money no longer consumed my every waking moment.

For those living on, or near, minimum wage, the timer never goes off. The stress never settles.

Unless I'm consistently living on a limited income, I'll never know what it truly feels like. After all, a simulation is simply an imitation of a real-world process — it's not real-world.

To answer the original questions I started with: Was it doable? Barely. Was it easy? Absolutely not.

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