There is too much month at the end of my money.
It’s not because I don’t work hard enough. I’m a single parent, and a full time freelance writer. I get to do what I love for a living, and for that I am immensely grateful. I’m also grateful that I get to do my job from home and be with my son, because there is no way I could afford childcare. I’m lucky that he is in a Head Start program, but it’s only half day, so that means he’s home with me for the majority of the day.
Now that summer is approaching, he’ll be home all day because it’s hard to find a summer camp that isn’t a bajillion dollars.
Childcare is expensive. If I had to work a more traditional job, paying for child care would eat up my entire paycheck. That is the reality for most parents nowadays, but especially poor parents. We work to pay someone else to take care of them, because if we didn’t work, we’d be living on the street.
My main focus at the end of each month is, “How much do I have to write to pay the rent?” Generally, it’s the same every month, but sometimes it could be more or less depending on my output. I have to make at least 75 percent of the rent by the 15th of every month to make sure that I’m on track.
For poor parents, keeping a roof over our heads is always priority number one. And since people are always moving into lower income neighborhoods (hello, gentrification) rents are higher, and landlords are not as flexible as they once were. If you’re late with the rent, they will charge you some sort of late fee, and then send you a paper threatening to evict you.
I once had someone tell me that you should always have at least one month’s rent saved in case of emergencies. Well, yes, that is lovely in theory, but for families like mine who literally live paycheck to paycheck, that is not really a viable option. One missed day of work could be the difference in making rent or keeping the lights on for another day.
That’s why keeping your child home if they’re sick is easier said than done. There are many parents who don’t have the luxury of keeping their kid home if they have the sniffles or a cold, and even that can be a challenge. Most companies only allot a certain number of sick/vacation days in a year. So yes, we should be able to stay home with our sick kids without risking our employment (which risks our housing, food security, etc), but it isn’t a cut/dry situation.
Backup childcare isn’t always a given, and rarely is it without some sort of cost. Not everyone can just drop their kids off with a family member or friend, or be able to suddenly afford a full day of daycare for their kid(s) at the last minute. One of my best friends almost lost her job because she was having so much trouble finding adequate childcare for her two kids. Luckily, she was able to work something out, but most people don’t have that kind of luck.
Then, there’s the guilt. We get almost everything on sale. I grew up poor too, and I learned how to bargain shop, but it’s not something I want to be teaching my four-year-old. I like to dress him in nice clothes, so that means that I buy all of his clothes from retailers like Target, and I buy everything else on sale. Stores like The Children’s Place often have amazing sales, and I can dress him for an entire season in one swoop. He grows like a weed, so clothes only fit but for so long, even if I buy them big.
The only good thing is that we live in Southern California, so I can stretch clothes. When he was growing out of all his jeans, but I was too poor to afford new ones, I just cuffed the bottoms. He needed a new jacket, and I was relieved that I could score one at half price. I had to ask a friend to drive me to the store in the pouring rain, but I made it happen.
Making it happen is pretty much the only way I can survive. I am always amazed when I pay all the bills that I pulled it off for yet another month. There are plenty of times when certain bills don’t get paid on time if I know I can hold out for an extra few days. My credit is in the toilet because that was a bill that I just had to let lapse. I don’t turn on the lights until dusk to conserve energy. My son already knows that if we’re not in a room, we turn off the lights. We bundled up for weeks so I could save money on the gas bill, until a cold snap forced me to turn on the heat.
If I didn’t receive SNAP benefits for food, I’d be up shit’s creek. Some people assume that families who receive these kinds of benefits (welfare, SNAP, medical insurance) are mooching off the system, sitting at home watching their big screen TVs and talking on the latest iPhone. WRONG. Most of us are hardworking people who are using the systems put in place for us that we’re also currently paying into. That’s why they exist, and to receive these benefits, you have to be able to prove that you are working, or are actively looking for work.
When you’re a poor parent, you never take money for granted. Having an extra ten bucks to treat my kid to some fries and an ice cream while he plays at McDonalds feels like we’re having a five-star meal sometimes. Being able to take an Uber if the bus is running late is a blessing. Having some extra money to buy myself some new clothes, because 90 percent of my wardrobe is older than my kid? It feels wrong, but sometimes I need to. Being able to buy my son new trains? It’s rare, but I know how much he loves it, so I try to make it happen for him.
It’s not going to get easier as he gets older; there will be lessons he’ll want to take, sports he may want to play, places we’ll want to visit. I know I will likely have to say, “not now” or “maybe next year.” I don’t like it, and I’ll work to give him everything I can, but being poor isn’t going to get easier anytime soon.