The suburb we live in is nice. It’s just a stone’s throw from downtown Minneapolis, and as I drive to work in the morning, I see the lovely jagged skyline hovering on the horizon, like Oz. Our city is diverse, in some regards: There are million-dollar homes, mid-century ranch houses and, tucked here and there, Section 8 apartments. My children attend school with the offspring of Fortune 500 CEOs and also with children of welfare recipients. All different races and cultures and religions are represented in the hallways, and thankfully, in the friendships my kids have cultivated over the years.
We are somewhere in the gray area between the two. We are the family who lives paycheck-to-paycheck.
No, we aren’t destitute. We are fortunate in so many ways I can’t begin to list them here. But there’s a definite disparity between our lifestyle and the lifestyles many of our neighbors have. We used to be better-off, but like so many others, life happened and we found ourselves dropping a few rungs on the ol’ economic ladder. I got here by way of an unexpected, financially devastating divorce but there are a million other routes to the land of the lower-middle class: layoffs, illness, recessions and sometimes, just plain bad luck. Those of us who know how the other half live carry things with us from our former lives, the vestiges of a recent, more comfortable past. I cook with the remnants of a Calphalon cookware set, there are old but well-maintained Coach purses in my closet and the sample size Aveda products in my bathroom remind me of the days I could afford pampering salon visits. Back in the more affluent days I learned that quality costs more. In these days, the days of less, I have learned there are ways to find quality on the cheap (the Frye boots I bought in the parking lot of a grocery store via Craigslist are example #1).
Parenting at any income level is a trip. But doing it while also struggling financially is…interesting, to say the least. The following are nine surprising benefits of being a broke-ass parent:
1. Helicopter parenting? Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Most parents who live paycheck-to-paycheck have to leave the house in order to get them. A lot of us work at least 40 hours a week; some of us hold down one or two extra jobs. Thank God for Infinite Campus, and teachers who will email, and kids who can get themselves up and to the bus stop on their own (obviously my kids are older; this doesn’t apply to those of you with littles). We are too busy and most likely too stressed to micromanage our children, and therefore, our parenting style is more akin to a submarine than a helicopter. And that’s not all bad.
2. You are an inspiration to your children, and also a cautionary tale.
I’d like to think that my kids have learned a thing or two watching me rebuild our lives from scratch. I know for a fact that they have gleaned a very important life lesson, too: Always have a Plan B, a skill, a backup plan. I had been a stay-at-home mom for a dozen years when the proverbial shit hit the fan, and while I am eternally grateful for those years, it came back to bite me in the hindquarters. I didn’t have a degree, I didn’t have a marketable skill, I didn’t have something, anything to fall back on as far as supporting myself and my family. Trust me when I say my daughter, who is a sophomore in college now, will have her degree and hopefully a foothold in her profession of choice before (if) she decides to have children. And my boys? I think they now know what it means to truly take care of a family.
3. Laughter is free.
I remember watching Roseanne and Dan Conner on television back in the day and wondering how they could be so jolly in the face of mounting debt, bills and raising teenagers. Now I know. If you can’t laugh, you cry. And crying makes your eyes puffy. While I tend to think that Advil and coffee are truly the best medicine, believe me, laughter is right up there.
4. Your kids learn the value of hard work.
Not to say that children from all income levels can’t learn this invaluable life lesson, but our kids see it close-up. Whether it’s been mowing lawns, babysitting, or working full-time in the summers and part-time during the school year to save money for college, my kids have worked from the time they were able. They know that I am severely limited in how much money I can spend on anything above the necessities, and they are OK with that. They work to earn the money for that bike or that phone or even that Thrasher hoodie. And therefore, they appreciate them all the more.
5. The word ‘luxury’ means something entirely different to us.
What’s a luxury? A two-week long stay in a Hawaiian bungalow? A fully-loaded Mercedes SUV? A brand new state-of-the art kitchen? For my family, luxuries are things like braces, drivers licenses, family vacations, and during really tough times, freaking paper towels. I almost cried when Costco began selling the select-a-size kind, people. Oh yeah, and I do consider Costco a luxury, too. But there’s no denying that the $50 membership pays for itself in gasoline savings alone, never mind the cheap produce and milk. Someday, hopefully, we’ll get a taste of those other kinds of luxuries, and when we do, you can bet we will really, truly enjoy them.
Show me a paycheck-to-paycheck family, and I’ll show you some of the most creative people on the planet. We can perform miracles with a pound of ground beef and a box of pasta, stretch that bottle of shampoo so hard it cries, and make some kick-ass lemonade from life’s lemons. An offer of a weekend at a friend’s cabin becomes a fantastical summer adventure, garage sales and thrift stores hold bounties of outfits and furnishings, and—OMG—what we can do with a few clearance end-caps at Target.
You will also be amazed at how creative you get with your finances. You learn which bills need to be paid right away and which ones will let you slide a little. You figure out ways to make money on the side. Watch a friend’s dog while they’re away, do those market research interview groups, or sell unneeded/unused goodies on Craigslist. Where there’s a poor will, there’s a creative way.
7. You experience gratitude.
Again, this isn’t something exclusive to those of us with less, but learning about it firsthand is pretty awesome. A few years ago, we were in a dire financial spot: It was the middle of December, and after the rent and utilities had been paid, I had nothing left for Christmas. Nothing. A few days before the 25th, we heard a knock on the door. There stood a man I’d never seen before, and have never seen since. He had with him an entire holiday feast and what seemed like endless armloads of presents. I remember after he left, the kids and I stood in the middle of all the bags in our little rented living room and they held me as I sobbed. I will never, ever forget that night and neither will my children.
8. You learn about priorities.
A huge chunk of my income goes toward rent. I could live somewhere cheaper, I suppose, but since I make just enough money to not qualify for any sort of assistance, it would mean moving out of our school district. And any broke-ass parent can tell you, one of the biggest bargains on earth is a high-quality free public school education. Ours is one of the top in our state, and to me, that’s worth shelling out the money to live in the district (the busing is essential, too). I might regret this later, when I’m 95 and still working, but any leg up I can give my kids is worth it right now. My children and their futures are my number one priority. Here’s hoping one of them has a spare bedroom for mom one day—with cable, please.
9. You find out how valuable love is.
The Beatles told us money can’t buy it, and they were right. There are nights I can’t sleep, when I toss and turn and worry about tomorrow and next month and next year. There are pangs of guilt over what my kids have missed out on and what I could have done differently to avoid us having to go through these tough times. But there is one thing we’ve never been short of, and that’s love. We spend time together as a family, we have a crazy huge nest egg of inside jokes. and we are rich with warm, happy memories.
Sure, I miss the days when I slept soundly and had disposable income, when I drove a car that wasn’t held together with duct tape and prayers, when I didn’t hold my breath during those few seconds between swiping my debit card and getting the approval. But life wasn’t perfect back then. It never is, you know. The key is to appreciate the good no matter where you fall on the income bracket. And also: If you don’t like where you are, you figure out how to change it. I’m doing both of those things, and while it’s proving to be an arduous journey, I’m learning to enjoy the scenery along the way.