Saturday, September 1, 2012

Poverty isn't fun

I've been following Hobo Mama's low-spend month, and I do enjoy seeing the ways she's been able to cut back on spending.  At the same time, my mind is sort of blown because even with her cutbacks, she's still spending more than we do.  Even so, she is feeling the pinch.  A lot of things that never occurred to her as "money" things, like her social life, are affected by her attempt to be frugal.

 Her conclusion: "In regard to making budgeting a way of life: I used to be 100% behind this, and it makes so much sense/cents, as Melissa puts it. But I will say that we had a window of time where money was coming in and we didn't have to worry about it (we thought…), and it was so much fun. And it sort of ruptured my whole constructed idea that being poor was better in some way; because being not poor was … a lot of fun. Really, just so much better in every way. We never went overboard on spending (as in, we never went yacht shopping or browsed Tiffany's or the like), but I loved not caring about the little things, or how much we were spending on groceries, or things like that. And going back to caring about the nickel-and-dime stuff kind of stinks. There, I said it."

No, being on a tight budget is not fun.  Being poor is not fun.  Being frugal can be really smart, and you really will be thankful later.  But it does pinch, and sometimes you want to yell, like Meg in Little Women, "I am so tired of being poor!"

I've never been poor.  Like, real poor people.  As in, people who are poorer than me.  That's the definition of poor.  (Am I right?)  But I've definitely, at various times in my life, felt the pinch of not having as much as we wanted or needed.  And even when we have had enough, there's immense pressure to be frugal so as to save as much as we can for the next lean patch.  I don't know about you, but I myself am not foreseeing sunshine on the horizon for our economy.  I think it will get worse before it gets better.

Anyway, here's a list of implications of poverty that might not occur to everyone.  Again, I'm not talking about homeless-people poverty, but standard, everyday, not having as much as those around you have.  Even a poor person in America is very blessed by global standards.  That doesn't mean it's easy getting by on less.  (Note: I have not experienced all of these, but people I know have.)

Poverty means not being able to go out with your family for a fun day on the town, without wondering if there is any free fun activity to be had.

Poverty means not being able to join your friends when they go out to eat, and sometimes choosing not to have friends over because you can't afford to feed them.

Poverty means feeling guilty going to others' houses because you can't reciprocate.

Poverty means feeling embarrassed when your friends or acquaintances assume you have more money than you do, and you don't want to let on how poor you are.

Poverty means wearing clothes that don't fit because you can't afford to buy new ones just because you gained or lost weight.

Poverty means being that person who snatches up every bite of free food at an office party, and hopes no one thinks you're a pig.

Poverty means eating more than you even want when it's free, because you know you'll be hungry later.

Poverty means choosing things that are less healthy, but higher in calories.

Poverty means not being able to buy gifts for people who have bought gifts for you.

Poverty means having to beg someone who's lent you money to give you some more time ... and being embarrassed telling them why you don't have it.

Poverty means showing up to work in ratty shoes for so long that someone gives you a free pair ... and you wonder if they think you're really poor instead of just ... kinda poor.

Poverty means not being able to give your children everything they ask for, even those things you would like for them to have.

Poverty means staying at home when you're going stir-crazy, because you can't afford the gas.

Poverty means feeling superior about how frugal you are ... when you know that the second you have enough money, you'll stop doing half the frugal things you do.

Poverty means not being able to keep in touch as much as you like, because you can't afford a good phone or internet plan.

Poverty means seeing someone in need, or being hit up for money by a charity, and desperately wanting to give while knowing that you can't.

Poverty means doing all the work yourself, from washing the dishes to washing the car, and not being able to just shrug and say, "Well, I'm in a tough spot of my life right now!" and buy paper plates.

Poverty means that if you have the opportunity to do some overtime, no matter when, you take it.

Poverty means that when you have a baby, you can't afford to take extra time off, and neither can your husband.

Poverty means going to work sick because you're out of sick days and can't afford to take it unpaid.

Poverty means sometimes walking around with poor health that you can''t afford to fix.  Even if you have insurance, what if you need therapy, supplements, chiropractic, or a special diet?

Poverty means not being able to choose where you give birth.

Poverty means knowing that a single catastrophe -- an uncovered medical expense, a car breakdown -- will ruin you, but being unable to plan ahead for it by socking something away because there is nothing left to spare.

Poverty means you are always, every moment of every day, thinking about money.  How to save money, how to spend what you do have, how to make more, and what you would do if you had more.  Plus that constant, constant hum of resisting the siren song of all the things you wanted to spend money on that day -- thanks to ubiquitous advertising.

We are so blessed to have a steady income that actually, for a change, provides for all our needs.  All the same, if $1,000 fell from the sky, we could really put it through its paces.  That's life when you try to raise a family on one income.  I'm not sorry about our choices.  But if I had the choice to be rich or poor, I'd choose rich (though my biggest luxury would be being able to afford to give so much away). 

And now that we're doing so well, all I can think is that I will never be cavalier about someone else's poverty.  Poverty hurts.  It hurts families the most.  It's important that, rich or less-rich, we all understand what it must be like to be poor, that is, poorer than us.


The Sojourner said...

"Poverty means feeling superior about how frugal you are ... when you know that the second you have enough money, you'll stop doing half the frugal things you do."

I burst out laughing when I came to that line.

I have many other thoughts, but most of them involve me feeling superior about how frugal I am.

Lauren Wayne said...

Ah, thanks for your response. So much here to resonate with.

First of all, love that you quoted Meg from Little Women. Exactly.

And the line The Sojourner found so hilarious is the one I've been wrestling with lately as well. In fact, I almost wrote a whole post on being not-poor (during that brief period we were feeling flush) about how I felt like I now was kicked out of the group I self-identified with: the penny pinchers and the frugalistas, you know? And yet, the more I wasn't part of the group, the happier I was to leave those habits behind. Relearning and reinstituting them has been a chore.

I'll add a couple others to your list:

Poverty means having to make a choice between prenatal care and a birth attendant vs. going it alone because the insurance premiums will skyrocket if you tack on maternity coverage.

Poverty means sighing at Big Lots over the fact that you can't afford socks to replace the ones that have holes in them — the ones you've already darned till they're falling apart.

Poverty means living off a stockpile of boxes of expired gourmet pasta you bought for 59 cents each, and bringing that same pasta to every potluck you're invited to and hoping no one notices.

Poverty means having the pastor force a grocery gift card on you, despite your protests.

Poverty means crying when you're turned down for health insurance benefits for your baby because he needs a surgery you can't afford — then crying again when the hospital volunteers to foot the bill.

Money's such a tricky subject, isn't it? And we use it so much to define and separate ourselves from people, competing to be the most extreme in either direction, poking fun at the people in the comfortable middle. Every time I write about money, I feel vulnerable, because I know (a) it's taboo (it was drilled into me from a young age that you never ask anyone — even your parents — questions about money) and (b) someone will judge me for whatever I say, from whichever side.

So I just want to commend you for writing about this topic so honestly, and sharing your own perspective. Thank you for adding to the conversation.

Anonymous said...

To me poverty means eating out of dumpsters and being really grateful that friends believe in me enough to let me couch surf so I don't have to sleep under a bridge.

This makes it VERY challenging to be the working parent in my current (much, much, much easier) reality, because my husband grew up with money and his "normal" looks CRAZY lavish to me. But it also means I am not cavalier about anyone else's poverty without having to remind myself not to be. At times, when it hits me, I am wildly grateful for having my own bed. I am beyond grateful that I have enough to have a family, feed and house my family, and not have to surrender my kids for adoption because I can't feed them.

In a way, it's a real blessing to have been that poor...and no longer be. It would not be a blessing if there had been no way out.

Now, back to work for me....

: )

Sheila said...

It is taboo, and yet this frustrates me, because people's solution seems to be to assume you have roughly the same amount of money as they do. So they invite you places you can't afford or give you a ton of advice you can't implement ... and you have to say, awkwardly, that you can't afford that. It's less embarrassing if you just say you're trying to be frugal. Even if you really ARE poor, it's still not a lie if you say you're trying to be frugal!

Money even affects how many children you can have. I always say the second cost us very little extra, but for people with more expensive insurance or medical complications, it really is a big deciding factor.

I shouldn't have written this post, though. Dwelling on all the downsides of not having as much money as I would like just makes me feel depressed and deprived. Really, I am very blessed, both to have as much as we do now (which is really sufficient for all our NEEDS) and to have so very many things money can't buy.

Sheila said...

Thank you, Momsomniac. I needed a bucket of cold water emptied over my head. Here I am grousing, "Oh, woe is me," when really, I don't actually know what real poverty is like. We are so fortunate that what looks like poverty is really only complainy comparing.

You have GOT to write your story someday. I'm serious.

Anonymous said...

Great blog. Very apt descriptions of poverty. Here are a few more:

Poverty means no dental plan so you have to figure out how to cure your own gum disease with diet, meditation-visualizing healing, and using plant based solutions (ie oil of oregano, natural antibiotic).

Poverty means lying that you went on holiday because everyone else you know did. So you make something up and smile "Yeah it was fun".

Poverty means getting very, very good at repairing, washing, and fixing other people's old stuff bought at thrift stores. You give the illusion of wealth, sort of, if no one looks too closely.

Poverty means praying to God every single night to deliver you into a world where you could choose where you live, have new things, and enjoy holidays. Dear God: Please make me rich...that's the mantra.
Rich IS better. And money DOES buy happiness. The rest is urban myth.

Sheila said...

I think psychologists have figured out a number beyond which money no longer buys happiness. In short, $10 to a starving person buys instant happiness. They were hungry, now they're not, so their happiness is automatically improved. But if you are comfortably middle-class, even a huge raise doesn't actually make you happier. You are glad for a short time to get something new, but within six months you adjust and return to your previous happiness level.

It makes sense to me. I don't want to be rich. I would like to be just rich enough not to have to *worry* so much about money. For me that means debt paid off and land of our own, because that's what we're saving for. I think if we had that, we wouldn't constantly be wishing for more. At least, I *hope* we wouldn't!

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