The McBudget vs. EPI's Basic Family Budget

Chuck Sheketoff

If you’re wondering what a “Happy Meal” costs, by all means go to McDonald’s. But if what you want to know is the cost of a realistic family budget, don’t go to a place that sells burgers. Go see economists.

In a supposed effort to help its employees better manage their money, McDonald’s partnered with Visa, Inc. in developing a Practical Money Skills Budget Journal, which provides a “sample budget.” This McBudget is stunning in terms of what it leaves out and what it acknowledges.

For example, the sample McBudget makes no allowances for food, child care, gas or other transportation costs other than car payments and insurance, and assumes a measly $20 in monthly health care costs.

Contrast the sample McBudget to the recently released Basic Family Budget Calculator, put together by economists at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The Basic Family Budget Calculator measures the income a family needs to secure a safe and decent — yet modest — living standard in communities all across the country.

The Family Budget Calculator shows expenses for housing, food, child care, transportation, health care, other necessities and taxes — just the basics — that families in different communities face. The calculator expressly does not include savings for retirement, for a “rainy day” or for college.

Unlike the official poverty threshold, which is the same statewide and nationwide among the lower 48 states, the Family Budget Calculator provides estimates that vary by area. For Oregon, the calculator provides figures for the metropolitan areas of Bend, Corvallis, Eugene-Springfield, Medford-Ashland, Portland and Salem, as well as for rural Oregon in general.

OCPP has put together a summary of the Oregon basic family budget numbers for a few of the different family sizes. Go to the calculator to see all the options.

The Basic Family Budget Calculator confirms that the federal poverty level is really a measure of serious economic deprivation, rather than a measure of what it takes to be economically secure. The Basic Family Budget Calculator shows that to achieve a secure, yet modest, living standard, families today need income that is at least two-and-a-half times the federal poverty line. Indeed, the Basic Family Budget shows why many families in the middle class are struggling to stay afloat.

So if you’re looking for the price of a “Happy Meal,” and want a few quick laughs, go to McDonald’s and check out their sample McBudget.

But if you want to understand the not-so-happy economic reality that many families are facing, check out EPI’s Basic Family Budget Calculator.

Oregon Center for Public PolicyChuck Sheketoff is the executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy. You can sign up to receive email notification of OCPP materials at

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