I’m going to get specific here about something that makes a lot of people uncomfortable: money. Specifically, about being poor vs. not being poor, and how emotionally debilitating walking the line between those points can be.
Yesterday I spent nearly $1000 — I caught up on the utilities bill (two months, an accident because I forgot the pay last month…yeah, that’s me), the internet bill, a payment on a debt, and about $100 for groceries. Also a $15 hair cut (buzz cuts are cheap to maintain, fortunately! Not many women are as lucky as I am!).
That’s not a small amount of money, but it’s not very much either. For some people that is a car payment. I’m lucky that I can cover most of my basic bills for about $1500/month, and I know it.
The thing that marks this as important to me personally is that the majority of my life, I’ve never had that much in the bank at one time in order to pay the bills with. A few years here and there, but rarely. As much as I whined about paying those bills, there was a sense of pure astonishment at being able to do so all at the same time and with having money left over.
Being poor isn’t just about poverty, it’s about walking the line between poor and not-quite-poor, of being one catastrophic event away from destitution. For many of us it is about “getting by”, and the old “robbing Peter to pay Paul”, and deciding whether to spend that $10 on vitamins OR ground beef OR two bags of coffee. It’s about paying bills and having $75 left in the bank to pay for gas and groceries and going to the movies…scratch that, because it is not enough for all three. The much-anticipated trip to the new movie is cancelled first. Then visits to friends’ houses and all other social events are cancelled because the gas funds have to go to getting to work and back. The trip to the store is stressful and leads to a panic attack/crying jag because the bill came to $63.75 instead of $50, but there is no way to pare down the cart without planning to go hungry. But in the end, you aren’t homeless, and you do have food in the house.
That is all depressing and stressful in ways that are impossible to really explain to anyone who hasn’t been there. People think poor=immature or poor=stupid or poor=irresponsible, which is a nice and easy way to absolve themselves of actually having any compassion for people doing without. I’ll be the first to say that I’ve been, at times, immature and stupid and irresponsible, but I’ve always worked hard and almost never been without a job. People don’t want to understand that even with two people working their asses off, just paying the bills can be a trauma.
I’m talking about situations where literally there is less than $20 left to deal with emergencies like getting sick, car repairs, and clothing replacement (only done under duress, because why buy a new bra when the two you have are functional? Why by new shoes if your work flats aren’t falling apart?). I have hoarded ten dollar bills knowing that I was coming down with a cold and would need Nyquil, while knowing that was the most I could afford.
I lived for many years without a bank account. People thought I was crazy but it wasn’t that hard, even if it did limit my purchasing power (no debit card to use on Amazon or to rent a car or buy plane tickets…not that I was traveling anyway). There is no point in a bank account if you have, at most, a few dollars left at the end of the week. Especially with the ever-looming threat of overdrafting by mistake, which costs a ridiculous amount of money.
I can’t even begin to explain how amazing it is to know that I can go buy groceries and not sit at the check out in a cold sweat, hoping I did all the math right.
And yes, of course, it’s easy to check your balance online now. That was not the case even five years ago (much less 15), and given that there were times I did not have any kind of personal internet connection (too expensive), then you understand why someone who is so bad at math as I am might panic. Counting cold, hard cash is a lot less stressful. And honestly? I still break out in a cold sweat, even when I know I have three times the amount of the grocery bill in reserve. That fear has become a habit.
I’m pretty terrible at personal money management, and that’s a personality flaw that I’ve worked hard to improve but isn’t changing much, I’m afraid. At this point I’m just so flat out terrified of being “on the razor’s edge” again that I’m a miser. Oh I go out to dinner with friends more, and took my cat to the vet ($200 for a cold! OMG! Cat! Noooo!), and bought new eye glasses. But I’m not buying that new mattress set or clothes or jewelry or a car (nope nope nope) or… a lot of stuff. Like going to the dentist. I’m used to putting those kinds of things aside and as much as I know it’s probably a bad idea (my back really needs a new mattress) old habits are hard to break. I don’t have to borrow from friends and family to keep the lights on or pay the vet bill, and the the everlasting joy of that statement means I’m not bothered by a bad tooth.
I haven’t had a credit card in my name since, I think, 2001? Or so. There-abouts. There was a day when I had AmEx, Chase VISA, Texaco and Shell cards. I don’t miss that day, not ever. Because when you’re on the edge, credit is an easy out. I can honestly say that about 90% of my credit card purchases were “legitimate” in that I did not buy designer handbags or trips to exotic locales. I bought gas, and food, and work clothes, and occasionally a movie or a dinner out. The regular things that middle-class people aren’t supposed to worry about buying every once in a while. But I couldn’t afford to, and I never got ahead, so I got in debt. I paid those debts off years after I cut up the cards, and I’m never going down that road again. (Yes, I took out student loans, but I consider them more of an investment.) Going without a full cart of groceries or Olive Garden on the weekends was frustrating, but not worth the credit nightmare.
Quite frankly I don’t care what my credit score is. I’m sure it’s not great, but oh well. I’ve had such bad credit in the past, and been so poor, that no part of my life plans or self-worth rests on my credit rating. If you have a job, you can: rent an apartment, buy a car, open a bank account, etc. etc. Good credit makes all of that easier, but I’ve done those things without it. The thing is, if you’re poor, it doesn’t matter anyway. What good does credit rating do for buying a car when you know you can’t make the monthly payment on it? Sell your grandmother’s ruby and diamond ring and pay cash.
People look at me as an educated, white, middle-class middle-aged woman, and so I think they are surprised when they find out about my attitude regarding money and credit. They expect someone like me to have a savings. I did, once. Got up to $5,000+, I was so proud. Then Husband’s truck broke and required over $4,000 to fix. We had the money, that was unusual. Then we didn’t have the money, and that was totally normal.
I guess the point I’m making is that being poor isn’t just a financial status, it’s a mentality — it’s a psychological state of constantly being on guard against poverty, of assuming that a lack of money is a very normal way to live. I finally got to the point where I never expected to have enough money to pay the bills, because I never did, not consistently (the few well-paying jobs I had rarely lasted long, for one reason or another. I’ll just say I was never fired and I almost never quit). It’s easier to assume the worst when that’s the way you’ve been living for nearly 20 years…and was, for me, a critical component of my childhood.
So paying all those bills with money I actually have in the bank and still having some left over is a profound shock to my system. I’m used to money running out as opposed to simply being spent. I really love how this feels, and would like to believe it will continue for a long time. I’m trying to believe that. I’m trying really hard.