Over 45 million Americans lived in poverty as of 2013, according to the Census Bureau, and I have never been one of them. There’s a big difference between poverty and what I’ll call, for want of a better term, sort of poor, which is essentially temporary financial embarrassment. The former means that you live with food insecurity, exploitation, chronic fear and danger; the latter means short-term anxiety and, hopefully, long-term empathy. I’m trying my hardest never to forget what it was like to not be absolutely sure that the rent money would be there when I needed it. In the meantime, I’m writing down a few things a learned while I was less well off than I am now.
First, a little background. For three years, my husband and I were sort of poor. How did that happen? Well, I got laid off, like many of us did over the past few years, and then I decided to go freelance. It took a while to build things up to the point where I made as much money as I did working full-time for an employer. Just prior to that, Adam went back to school. I’ll always be grateful that he didn’t look at me like I was nuts when, a few short months after he embarked on the education phase of a new career, I told him I wanted to start my own business.
Without getting into numbers, being sort of poor meant that we were living, in New York, on what amounted to one salary — and that salary was a normal salary, not a normal-for-the-city salary. (I make that distinction, because The New York Times often runs pieces featuring “middle class” folks who moan about not being able to pay private school tuition on a quarter of a million dollars a year. Those were not our circumstances. We survived on what would have been a nice middle-class salary for, say, Pittsburgh, not Brooklyn.)
In practical terms, it meant that we could pay the rent and the grocery bill and our health insurance and our other expenses, as long as nothing ever went wrong. We couldn’t go on vacations or out to dinner or buy a lot of stuff, which didn’t bother us much — neither of us is what you’d call spendy under the best of financial circumstances. The problem, of course, was that something always went wrong.
Which is the first lesson I learned, while we were sort of poor:
1. Something always goes wrong.
For example, about two years ago, my back went out. After several specialists and X-rays, it was determined that physical therapy was the best course of treatment. Fortunately, I was still on COBRA at the time, so I had physical therapy appointments included in my coverage. Unfortunately, I need two of those per week, to the tune of $30 in copays each time, and my PT office was an hour away and took an hour to complete. That meant that each session cost me around $150-$200, between the copay and the lost wages. Good times.
2. Being poor is expensive.
I did not bounce a check during our temporary poorness, a fact of which I’m inordinately proud, but I did go into cash reserve a few times, and I had to charge some things, like the aforementioned PT and occasionally, groceries. I could add up what all that cost me, but it’s too depressing and I don’t wanna. Let’s just say this: I spent a lot more than a rich person would have on the same services, and not through lack of planning or the inability to save. There was just no way to avoid it, at times. We’re lucky that we lived in a place where we didn’t have to have a car, or we might have found ourselves in an even worse situation.
3. No one wants to hear about it.
Listening to people complain about money is like listening to them talk about their weight or the dream they had last night. It’s just not very interesting to anyone but the person who’s speaking. Not to mention, in the last couple of years, everyone’s had their own problems. Still, it’s hard not to talk about it. When you don’t have money, it’s hard to think about anything else. Every thought, every brain cell, is focused on how to scrounge up what you need to survive and avoid running up bills you can’t pay.
4. Being poor is bad for your health.
During the past three years, I’ve had insomnia, weight fluctuations, heart palpitations, panic attacks, depression, and anxiety. I also wore the enamel off my teeth by grinding them while I was sleeping, and at various times, I probably drank too much. I put away massive pots of coffee, trying to stay awake after nights of not sleeping. I quit my gym membership, and tried exercising at home, with limited success. Not to mention, when you’re on a budget, you’re not eating the finest organic produce and sprouted grain bread. And, of course, being poor is stressful; stress is bad for your health.
5. It’s hard to get by without luxuries … or vices.
How many times have you heard someone say, “I don’t want to give that homeless guy money. He’ll just drink it away.”? After three years of fake poverty, I can tell you that I will never say that again. I would prefer that the homeless have access to services that will enable them and every person on earth to have a warm, clean home, a healthy lifestyle, and whatever therapy they might need so as to avoid behaviors that harm them. In the meantime, if that guy wants to drink up my dollar, he can go ahead. Look that one up under “Business, Nunya.”
By the same token, people love to pick on anyone who says they’re broke, but is wearing lipstick or clothing without huge cartoon hobo patches. I went a long time without buying anything when we were skint, and then every so often I’d have a sort of consumerist breakdown and drop $50 at Sephora and feel like the worst person on earth. I’m sure there are folks who are perpetually responsible in our position, but I don’t think they’d be much fun at parties.
6. Appreciate your friends and family.
One of the things that separates the temporarily financially embarrassed from the truly poor is a personal social safety net. Adam and I were lucky, in that we had family members who would send us larger-than-normal birthday checks or float us loans when we needed them, and we were also fortunate enough to have friends who did things like give us furniture and recommend us for apartments when we found out that we were getting kicked out of our place. (Not for anything we did, I hasten to add. See earlier re: something always goes wrong.)
Without our people, I don’t know how we could have made things work. Certainly, the whole experience was humbling and awe-inspiring in equal measure. Adam and I are not people who enjoy asking for help, and we were continually amazed at how many folks came forward to offer help before we could even ask.
7. Ask for help.
This was perhaps the best personal lesson. It was hard for us. It’s hard for almost everyone. But there are no people on the earth who can do everything by themselves 100 percent of the time.
8. Remember that everyone needs help.
Along the lines of the empathy I mentioned earlier, I’ll never look down on anyone who needs assistance, financial or otherwise, whether it comes from family or the government. Whenever a politician starts talking about the takers and the givers, remember that most of us are both at one point or another in our lives — if we’re lucky.
9. Dream big, but don’t get bummed out if you can’t do your dream job right now.
The whole Do What You Love dealie is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it’s pretty much geared solely toward privileged middle-class people with access to education and leisure time. If you’re not Doing What You Love right now, don’t let it drag you down. It took 10 years of work for me to get to a point where I could freelance, which is what I always wanted to do, and then maybe two years of that to figure out what I was good at and what I wanted to spend the bulk of my time working on. And then I had to figure out how to earn enough money at it. DWYL is a fine goal, but it ignores not only whole groups of less-privileged people, but also a fundamental fact about work: namely, that sometimes, it’s going to suck, even if you love nearly everything about your job. There will always be paperwork to do and meetings to endure, no matter how successful you become.
10. It’s important to care.
There were days when I was adding up numbers and trying to make my finances come out right and everywhere I turned, there was another article about how the U.S. is now an oligarchy and pensions are being cut and there’s no hope of having what our parents had at our age. The instinct was often to give up, lie down, roll over, and take a nap.
Instead, we have to keep fighting and voting and writing and working and trying. And while we do that, we have to remember that we’re all on this bus together, and that it’s a terminal route. Empathy, compassion, refusal to judge one another — those are the best weapons against a world that tries to make us believe that the people who have things, deserve them, and the people who don’t, don’t. I’ll try to remember. Will you?