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McDonald's finance guide 'insulting' to low-wage workers

Image: McDonald's worker
The Practical Money Skills Budget Journal was created for McDonald's in 2008 by Wealth Watchers International in coordination with Visa. Print copies were given to employees.M. Spencer Green / AP

Amid a movement of fast-food workers pressing for a higher minimum wage, a financial planning guide for McDonald's workers has landed with a thud.

Suggested monthly expenses include $20 for health care; $600 for rent; and $150 payment for a car (that apparently needs no gas.) Unfortunately the budget doesn't have an allowance for food.

"It doesn't speak to the realities of low-wage workers in the food industry," said Teo Reyes, the program director for Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a non-profit that seeks to improving working conditions for restaurant workers.

"I think it would be commendable if it was also part of a movement to increase wages," Reyes said. "At this point is seems to be disingenuous and insulting."

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The Practical Money Skills Budget Journal was created for McDonald's in 2008 by Wealth Watchers International in coordination with Visa. Print copies were given to employees and the online version of the guide remains available online at Visa's McDonald's mini-site. A spokesman for Visa declined to comment on the record for this story.

"In an effort to provide free, comprehensive money management tools, McDonald's first used the Wealth Watchers International budgeting journal when this financial literacy program launched in 2008," McDonald's USA said in a statement to CNBC. "As part of this program, several resources were developed including a sample budgeting guide, an instructional video and a web resource center that had additional tools and information. 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."

The sample budget includes lines for monthly income from a first job ($1,105) and a second job ($955.) If that was one person with two jobs, he would either be working more than 60 hours a week at minimum wage, or making more than $12 an hour if it was only a 40-hour work week.

The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 per hour since 2009.

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In a telephone call and series of emails with CNBC, Alice Wood, founder of Wealth Watchers® International, explained how the numbers for the McDonald's guide were developed.

"In one of our generic budgeting samples that was created in 2008 we used actual information that was gathered from interviews with a number of minimum wage employees. The line used for income from a second job can mean the person was working two jobs, or there may have been another person in the household bringing in a second income. The figures used were after all withholdings including taxes and health insurance premiums. I don't recall the number of hours the person worked but it was based on the actual minimum wage in 2008. Heat was included in the rent for more than one of the people interviewed so it wasn't included as a line item in the budget. The health insurance expense should have actually said 'health care expenses' and that figure was based on a co-payment for a doctor's visit," she wrote in an email to CNBC.

"The budgeting sample shows two incomes but it doesn't necessarily mean that someone is working two jobs. It could also mean that another person is contributing to the family income," she elaborated in another email. "The income is after all withholding including health insurance premiums. Some companies cover more than others so it's a little hard to be completely accurate in this regard as far as what part of the premium is covered by the employer and what part of the premium is covered by the employee. It could be that some employees actually have no health insurance coverage so they don't have any expense for health insurance ... but they could definitely have health care expenses. There just isn't a one-size fits all budget for minimum wage employees ... or any employee for that matter. That's why we leave a blank page for people to use that will fit their individual circumstances. Everyone can benefit from having a handle on their finances and that includes knowing what's coming in and what's going out."

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Wood said even doctors and lawyers spend more money than they make and all types of people can use financial help.

"When it comes to minimum wage workers, no two people are likely to be the same. Some live at home and have no expenses. They are simply working for spending money. Others work a minimum wage job to supplement their family's income. And some employees actually do work two minimum wage jobs to support themselves. We also found that many young people do have roommates and have shared living expenses," she said.

It's true that minimum-wage earners don't all come in one size, said Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University whose research has focused on the low-wage labor market.

"And we know in fact that only about 20 percent of the people who earn the minimum wage live in poor households," he said. Some are younger workers or people bringing in a second-income to a household. A third category, he said, is the poor, single-earners.

"Maybe the people who wrote this were looking at the average. They maybe were not seeking the bottom third," said Holzer.

By CNBC's Amy Langfield. Follow her on Twitter @AmyLangfield.