“Poor” is such a subjective term. To those who are homeless or starving, someone living in Section 8 housing with a monthly food stamp allowance probably seems downright well-off. But by most people’s typical, comfortable American standards, my childhood after my parents’ divorce was — at the very least — financially disadvantaged. My mother and I moved into a cramped, dilapidated apartment with a tiny kitchenette, a bathroom, and just enough leftover space for one sofa bed that had seen better days. We received government assistance, I sported secondhand clothes, and to this day I can make a mean packet of ramen noodles.
But despite there being plenty of times as a kid when I was so embarrassed about our economic status (like paying at the grocery store with food stamps, which back then were actual paper “bills” you’d peel, very obviously, out of a book), I must admit that it taught me some truly valuable lessons that I carry with me to this day — and I hope to pass some of them on to my own kids.
1. Not everyone on welfare is “working the system.”
I want to clarify this right now because it’s a biggie. Sure, we’ve all heard stories of people who take advantage of government assistance because they’re lazy or faking a disability. But there are also people, like my mother and countless others, who use this type of assistance as a hand up, not a handout. When I would complain about having to use food stamps, my mom would squeeze my hand and assure me that she hated it too, that this was only temporary, that we would only use them until we could provide for ourselves — even if that meant only having the bare minimum. And she was true to her word, working two jobs and going to night school, pulling herself up by the proverbial bootstraps until the day we didn’t need to rely on anyone else for help.
2. You can do a lot with a little.
Saving money on everyday necessities is practically an art form when your dollars are limited. Yard sales and thrift stores can yield some pretty good-quality stuff if you check often enough. You can make some things more cheaply at home — laundry soap and fabric softener, for example — for less than you would pay at the store (when you don’t pay for convenience, it’s easier on your wallet). You figure out which stores offer double-coupon days, and every BOGO sale on bread or eggs or milk is on your radar.
3. Conservation is a must.
When the amount of usage means the difference between being able to pay your bill and getting your services disconnected, you learn to save that shit. I have filled a bathtub in anticipation of having our water shut off and had to make it last a few days until we could afford to pay it. I still pour barely enough milk on my cereal to dampen it. And candles are great if you think of them from a “cozy” standpoint instead of a “minimizing the electric bill” standpoint. “Just like a fancy spa,” my mom would say cheerily as I bathed by candlelight.
4. Perspective is everything.
Government cheese may manage to be both rubbery and pasty, but it tastes like a gourmet meal when your cabinets have been empty enough to echo and you finally get that box from the food pantry. Driving a clanking rust-bucket of a car with no air conditioning in the dead of summer sounds like it would suck, but when you’ve been walking everywhere or relying on public transportation, it’s awesome to have your own wheels.
5. It costs money to be poor.
I am admittedly no economist, but this is something that has baffled me since childhood. Say you overdraft your bank account by $20. The bank then charges you a $35 overdraft fee, on top of the negative balance — so once you do manage to scrape up $50 to deposit, you’re still $5 short. Same with utility disconnection: Though most of them require nothing more than the flip of a switch to reconnect critical services, they still charge you a hefty fee if, say, your electricity gets turned off. And forget about buying anything in bulk, which is typically cheaper in the long run. When the single item costs $3 and the multi-pack costs $10, and you’ve only got $5 to get you through the next week and a half, you don’t have a choice — even if buying it individually costs twice as much per ounce. I’ll never comprehend why people try to get extra money from people who don’t have it in the first place.
6. Comparing will only make you miserable.
This is a lesson that applies to every area of life — from your home to your marriage to your kid’s developmental rate. The grass is always greener somewhere, and no matter how good you have it, there’s always someone that’s got it better. When you constantly compare your status to that of others, you’re condemning yourself to feel perpetually unsatisfied and crappy.
7. People are so generous.
I’ll never forget the time one of my best friends told me her mom said she couldn’t spend the night anymore because there was never enough food in our house. It was like a slap in the face, but it was true. Not long afterward, we started to get random deliveries on our doorstep — sometimes groceries, sometimes meals, always anonymous. My mother was a bit embarrassed to be on the receiving end of such charity, but we were always so grateful for the help.
8. Simple things can mean a lot.
For my 7th birthday, in the pre-divorce years before we were poor, I had a party at McDonald’s and a table of presents and a trip to the park with a handful of friends. But you know which celebration will always stand out? The time a few years later when my mom — usually a stickler for buying only healthy items with our food stamps — let me buy two Lunchables: one for me, one for my cousin. We ate them outside our apartment, picnic-style. I was on top of the world and appreciated that more than any pricey party or expensive toy I’d ever received.
9. There are lots of ways to make money.
Plasma donation, paper routes, babysitting, poop scooping, selling upcycled garage sale finds — sometimes getting more cash flow means thinking out of the box, and it’s not always the most ideal job, but you take what you can get. There are lots of opportunities out there if you’re willing to get your hands dirty (or you know, sell bodily fluids).
10. “Luxuries” are an important part of life.
So often, I hear people who have never experienced poverty grouse about things like, “If they’re so poor, how come they can afford cigarettes/phones/coffee/fast food?” The best way I can explain it is this: There’s a reason that shopping is called “retail therapy” — sometimes it makes you feel better. When you’re poor, your entire life is lived under a weighted blanket of stress, of judgment, of never having enough or being good enough. It is human nature to want — no, need — the occasional splurge, no matter how destitute you are. Think about all the little luxuries in your life, and how deprived you’d feel if you had to cut them all out, all the time.
If I’d had the choice, of course, I wouldn’t have chosen even a day of poverty, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But spending part of my life in financial dire straits gave me a sense of empathy and perspective. It taught me how to make the best of whatever circumstance I’m given, how to take care of the things I have, how to be brutally budget-conscious. And it taught me to look for the silver linings in even the most foreboding clouds.
Kind of ironic how the things you learn from being poor are actually pretty priceless.
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