“An elephant for a nickel is only a deal if you need an elephant and you have the nickel.” I have heard my husband recite this ancient phrase a thousand times to our children, and even to me. You see, we’re broke AF, and no matter how hard we try, we are simply unable to save money — to create that emergency fund, that “cushion” we all hear so much about.
We acknowledge that we fall under the working-poor category, and we also know that we work damn hard for what little we do have. However, there are people who seem to think that being poor is a sign of laziness and fiscal irresponsibility that all we really need to do is pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and save some damn money.
In the classic American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch famously said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Well, let me tell you about my point of view. Come walk in my skin.
In our family, there is a never-ending discussion about the difference between needs and wants. What my family considers a need is vastly different from what many middle-class and affluent families would. For example, internet usage is not a need; it is a want. Starbucks, Fitbits, buttery leggings, smartphones —those are all wants, not needs. If it is something that cannot sustain life, then it does not count as a need, plain and simple.
My husband and I work close to 100 hours a week between us in order to afford safe, warm shelter, nutritious food, medicine, clothing, and transportation. Those are needs. Everything else comes squarely last.
Date night for us looks like cuddling on the couch after the kids go to bed. Holiday gifts look like my husband and I asking for one or two things we desperately need like underwear or work pants, then wrapping them up so that the kids won’t realize we can’t afford to do Christmas properly. Birthday parties look like “vintage” backyard soirees because it is way cheaper to toss some hot dogs on the grill and invite friends and family over to our house for a couple of hours. I call my wardrobe a “capsule” wardrobe because the truth is that I cannot afford to buy more than the three pairs of pants I own.
We simply cannot save money that we do not have. At every single turn, we try our hardest to find ways to cut costs. It helps that we are always reminding ourselves that we don’t need an elephant. But then, it helps that we also don’t have that nickel.
For years, we have rushed to get an appointment that will let us stand in a line outside of a charity building where we then pour over our finances with a total stranger so that we can apply for fuel assistance in the winter. There have been times when rubbing together two nickels was so hard that we literally had to dip into our children’s piggy banks so that we could buy enough food to make it to payday — even though we are currently teaching our kids how to save money. Talk about a painful irony.
Yes, we feel shame. Of course, we do. Who wouldn’t? Being poor feels demoralizing in a country where people live by the myth that if you just try hard enough then you will prosper. But when we are holding down three jobs, and have cut back absolutely everything there is to cut back, and are still struggling to keep our heads above water, I have to seriously question the myth of the American Dream. The American Dream does not feel tangible to me.
We’re poor. It is our reality. But we are doing much better than a lot of families. We have a safe place to live that is warm and cozy and feels like a happy house. And although my kids do not know the luxury of vacations or Disney attractions, we take great pains to upcycle everything that comes into our house — from scrap wood to paper grocery bags — into amazing art projects to make sure they get to have some creative fun and make memories. Last year, we used scavenged wood from the local dump to create a Pinterest-worthy tree house for the kids. It cost us nothing.
We are broke, but resourceful. We can find solutions to nearly all our problems everywhere we look, but we still haven’t found that damn money tree. Because just like the pachyderm nickel, you gotta have one before you can save it.