We are a two full-time working parents, paycheck to paycheck family. We are fortunate that our expenses are usually covered, but there is little for extras, savings, or earmarked trips and special purchases. Our budget is tight and sometimes it’s hard to hear about the cool things friends are doing, either with other friends or with their kids. We can’t always take part in those things, even though we’d enjoy it.
Sometimes I feel like Phoebe in the Friends episode “The One with Five Steaks and an Eggplant.” I want to go to a fancy restaurant or to the Hootie and the Blowfish concert to celebrate Ross’ birthday, but I can’t because the money struggle is too real. It’s real for a lot of people. We shouldn’t feel shamed when we have to make decisions based on a lack of money nor should we judge others’ budgets if they are less than ours.
Having grown up in poverty, I feel rich now even though I’m definitely not. I have a dependable car. I have health insurance. I have plenty of food. I have a roof over my head. I have a job I love which allows and encourages me to take care of my mental health. There is usually enough to pay the bills each month. None of this means I am financially secure, but even though there is no emergency cash or college saving plans for my kids, I know I have it pretty good compared to those who struggle the way my family did when I was a child. I know this is why I am sensitive to those who have tight budgets.
We had to get a new car every year as a kid because all my parents could afford was one shitty car after another, most of which shit the bed in a year’s time in our front lawn or at an inconvenient spot along the highway. I breathe a sigh of relief each time my minivan’s engine starts. I have no reason to doubt it will, but it’s hard to shake that worry. Transportation is a huge key to holding down employment. It’s also what allows me to get my kids to and from doctor’s appointments, school, and their activities. A car that starts reduces stress and gives the day the potential to run smoothly.
I bring this up because I am pretty sure most people take for granted the things in life that make our days flow. As parents, kids have a pretty good way of fucking up our plans, and money can either make our lives easier or harder. When there is little money to spare or a negative supply of it, life can feel impossible. We are constantly being forced to sacrifice not just luxuries, but necessary purchases. The kids need new shoes and pants? Well, pants can wait because the weather is getting warmer and soon they will be in shorts. The dryer is making a strange noise and the sink is leaking? Let’s put fewer clothes at a time in the dryer and ride it out; a leaking sink will cause more damage.
Or perhaps someone has to choose between the risk of riding out a child’s cough or an expensive doctor’s appointment. People weigh the penalty of a late mortgage payment against the interest of a late credit card bill—a credit card that was used to pay for the new battery for the car that gets them to a minimum wage job that doesn’t cover the cost of living expenses. And it’s not a matter of choosing between organic food or not, it’s can we afford any food this week?
I am generous to a fault sometimes. I tip very well. I think of others more than myself. But I also know there are things I can’t afford. And sometimes that makes me look cheap or uncaring. I hate that.
I turn away school fundraisers—my kids’ included. I don’t give extra at the checkout to benefit a cause. I rarely chip in to group gifts or donate to GoFundMe accounts. I probably spend less on your kid’s birthday than you spend on mine when birthday parties are held. And I decline outings with friends. It’s not that I don’t want to give and do more; it’s just not in the budget.
I cook at home way more than we eat out. We borrow more books than we buy. Movies at home with microwave popcorn are a must; the theater is just too expensive. The kids get excited about thrift stores and yard sales because they love to get stuff, and they have learned that used stuff is just as exciting as new. We don’t do vacations unless they are trips to see extended family members. The kids want to go to Disney, Legoland, and big amusement parks. They also know those are expensive trips that we can’t afford. I don’t make promises, but I tell them we can save our money and make a plan.
I am not ashamed of any of this. I am proud that my family’s needs are met at the moment. Sure, a lot of stuff is old (please hang on, dryer), but it works. And yes, there are lists of wants—from wishing I could donate more to people and places to purchasing frivolous desires. The budget is too tight and some months are scary. Sometimes the struggle to cover all of the expenses makes us and many families hold our breath and hope or pray that something unexpected doesn’t come up. We are stressed to the max.
I am proud when our needs are not met too. I work hard. I try to prioritize where money goes and often it doesn’t go far. I shouldn’t feel judged or shamed when I admit that the budget is tight. Money doesn’t make you happier, but it sure can make your day to day living easier. You don’t have to understand the struggle to respect that fact that many people do.