the shame of being newly poor (or, why I canceled our plans today)

When I started crying, it wasn’t to try and get out of the ticket. When I couldn’t keep the sobbing inside, I tried to quiet myself with tissues and breathing before the cop got back to my window.

“I’m gonna let you go with a warning,” he said. I think he said something about $150 and points (expired registration since March, not inspected). I’m not sure what else, though, because I didn’t hear anything after “warning;” my tears and laughter of relief were too loud. “I’m sure you can’t afford it,” he said. “No, I can’t,” I said, not trying to hide my crying anymore, “Thank you.”

That was Saturday. Today is Monday.

Today, I canceled plans with a friend who is here from out of state. This is our only afternoon to meet up and I haven’t yet explained why I decided I can’t go.

Being “newly poor” is teaching me more than I ever imagined. As a politically and socially progressive person, I’ve always understood poverty to be a challenging way of life. I’ve never believed that breaking free of the cycle of poverty is just a case of a great big tug on the ol’ bootstraps. I understood, intellectually, that trying to make ends meet with the regular expenses of living—let alone health care or transportation or childcare costs—would be a serious strain on anyone’s mental health and that it must feel hopeless at times.

Writing about being actually and truly poor leads me to want to be clear: my former husband is generous and supportive. He provides more than the minimum required to care for his children, and, because he believes my financial stability impacts the lives of our daughters, he supports me as well. It’s important to mention this because despite his generosity, I am living without enough money.

The other issue I feel compelled to mention at any time that I discuss living in “poverty” is that it’s nearly impossible to be open about how bad it is without feeling like I am, a) asking for someone to bail me out, or, b) making irresponsible and ridiculous choices that are putting me in this awful situation. Both “a” and “b” are not true.

Growing up, I thought we didn’t have much. My parents never showed what our financial status was in the same ways my peers’ families did. We didn’t have a housekeeper or housecleaners that kept things clean. We always had a many-years-old car (and, just one). My mother took us to (the horror!) second hand clothing stores. My friends had the hottest new clothes (Izod then Benetton, for example, at the time it started mattering to me), more than one car, and people came in to clean their homes.

Looking into the fridge now I always think, “What will our protein be for the next few days?” Protein and fresh vegetables are my top priorities for food. We’ve been without milk for several days because I haven’t had money for gas and I knew we could make do without milk for a little while so I didn’t want to “waste” the gas on a trip to the market.

On Friday, a friend and I were going to get together. I said Starbucks was my only option because I had money left on my Starbucks card. I said she’d have to pick me up (the car was on “E” and I had no cash at all and literally nothing available in the bank). She wasn’t into getting coffee, so she offered to pay my way. This is what it comes down to when finances are so tight: tell the truth (not enough money to go out) and friends offer to pay.

I get a sick feeling deep in my gut. I want to vomit or cry or lie and pretend I can do whatever I want. The option of telling the truth always leads to offers of paying my way. That isn’t what I want. That is what I don’t want. Lying, however, is worse.

Sometimes, I’ll take my friend up on the offer. I let my friend pay for our appetizers and drinks on Friday and I found loose singles in my desk and bedside table and purse so I chipped in $4 for the tip. I should have saved that $4 for gas.

How can I (a competent, intelligent, well-educated, talented woman) be in such a desperate situation? This is the question I assume people will ask, or, worse, I assume they will think it.

In an effort to help my friends who have no experience living in real poverty—several pages of thoughts about defining “real poverty” must be omitted here to stay focused—understand, let me explain.

There’s rent, childcare, phone, an Internet connection, food (I receive $380 in foodstamps each month which, of course, doesn’t cover all the food I need for me and my two daughters), car insurance, gas, some clothes (my daughter who is nine hasn’t grown a lot, thankfully), library fees (an example of where I hear voices protesting, “don’t be late and you won’t have the fee!”), postage, birthday gifts, electricity, coffee (a luxury I choose to continue to allow myself), sunblock, city-issued trash bags, prescription medications, bug spray, kitty litter, cat food, diapers, dishwasher and laundry soap, shampoo, tampons, highway tolls, business expenses (PO Box, paper, printer ink, web space), oil for the car, coolant for the car, washer fluid for the car, vacuum cleaner belts, Tylenol, parking, car inspection, car registration. This list is not exhaustive.

In addition to support from my former husband, I receive the foodstamps money, and I own my own business. I have only two active clients and sporadicly other clients with small jobs who, when I am busy and they pay quickly, make it possible for me to just make it each month.

This month, two checks I was expecting from my work didn’t arrive as quickly as I expected. There were a variety of other reasons for the temporary crisis, but, when the rent came due on the first, I found myself with around $700 in the bank (rent is $950). Thankfully, my landlord doesn’t deposit my check immediately (as of this writing, he still hasn’t) and I was able to deposit a check that came in so the rent check will clear. I have $957.12 in my personal bank account. Remember, rent is $950.

I have $57 left on my foodstamps card, so I’ll get milk and a few other items. I’ll be at my parents’ summer place where the garden is (finally!) exploding into usable food, so we’ll be able to eat well this week. My new foodstamps money comes in on the 10th.

I borrowed $50 from my former husband to get gas (so I can get up to be with my daughters at my parents’ summer place and get us back home again) and so I can get kitty litter. I was going to put off the kitty litter again, but on this last scooping it became clear we’ll all be happier if I just get some.

Last week was my birthday. I returned art supplies (that I probably shouldn’t’ve bought in the first place) so I could go out for brunch with my daughters. I got a gift card for my birthday so I bought back the supplies, but, it didn’t cover everything so I effectively paid for brunch plus some art supplies. Brunch and art supplies are two things that I can’t afford but I chose to spend money on anyway. I sometimes make mistakes like this. It’s very, very difficult to get into the proper mindset where I am fully connected with the reality that I simply can not afford these things.

Right now, there are two checks from in my business account that should clear soon. Foodstamps comes in on the 10th. I was just told someone wants to buy one of my paintings. My daughters have clothing, childcare, good and healthy food, and are living happy and contented lives. I’m using the limits of not having acces to “just the right materials” as an artistic challenge again, where I’m painting based on what I have rather than on what I’d like to paint.

If my car doesn’t break down, if my temporary crown (the one that broke last week) holds a while longer (the tooth is shattered so the crown must stay put), if we have no unexpected emergencies, and if I get even more realistic about what I can’t do socially (gas and parking alone are expenses I need to cut back on) and artistically, we will be okay.

All of this was written because I needed to cancel plans to meet up with my old friend and I couldn’t find the words to explain why. I knew if I said “I can’t afford it” she would have said they’d pay. I knew we could’ve done something that “costed nothing” but parking costs and gas costs and it’s silly to think that we wouldn’t find ourselves wanting to stop “just for a cup of coffee” or something like that. I didn’t want anyone to pay my way. I try really hard to let people do that, but it’s one of the most horrible feelings in the world to me. It’s almost worse than the shame I feel when I realize I might not have money for food.

After the cop let me go, I drove just a bit until I came to a rest stop. I couldn’t keep driving because I was crying too hard. Most of the time, I know everything is going to be okay. Most of the time, I know that things are just as they are. I do my billable work. I find time for myself (painting and friends). I use most of my energy being with and caring for my daughters. I save wherever I can. I’ve learned pretty well the answer to the question, “Do I really need this?” is almost always “no.” I can’t let the knowledge of how close to the edge of financial devastation we are destroy my life today. I can’t pretend I can afford things, but I also need to live my life right now rather than in a frenzy of fear.

Writing about this, knowing I am about to hit “publish” and share the link with Facebook and friends has a loud chorus of voices demanding I explain how it could be so bad. Surely I’m doing something wrong, making bad choices. Surely there’s something I’m not doing that would make my situation more secure. Writing this and sharing it is my way of saying, “This is how it is. I won’t defend every bit of it against attacks. I’m not perfect, but I’m kicking a lot of ass and it’s pretty humiliating at times. I need to recognize that I am okay, my children are okay, and we are doing the best we can with the very little we have.” Thank all things holy, we have more than so many people when it comes to the intangibles. We have love and peace and joy in our lives and those things don’t cost us a single penny.

(We caught the moment when a caterpillar shed its skin for the last time, becoming a chrysalis:)

30 thoughts on “the shame of being newly poor (or, why I canceled our plans today)

  1. {{{hugs}}} Think about it this way, if you say you can’t afford it and you aren’t going because of that, and they do offer to pay you are allowing them to feel good for helping you out, even just a little bit.

    And thank you for sharing this. You are brave to do so.

    • Thank you, sweet friend. Yes, I realize there is a gift to others in my receiving from them. That’s why I try to suck it up and accept my friends’ generosity. It’s just one of the hardest things to do. But, yeah. Thanks.

  2. Dude. I know the feeling. I was a single mother for years, and then a single-divorced mother. Let people help you! I had people offer to help fix my car or even one guy gave me $300 on my birthday (a co-worker, not a boyfriend) so I could file bankruptcy and stop my wages for being garnished for not being able to pay a credit card bill for fixing my crappy car that broke down twice and then I went into the hospital and had to quit my second job. I was working 7 days a week as a secretary and a Burger King cook/cashier just before the dookey hit the fan. Just pay it forward another time. You will be a better more relaxed mother if you let your friends help you out once in a while and that will directly benefit your kids! You don’t have to justify yourself to anyone, if so, send them my way and I’ll yack at them until they run away screaming. ;-) And you KNOW I can yack it up!

      • What do you use for art supplies? Cuz I’m betting you could get some off of Freecycle. I got some Grumbachers (sp?) pastels at a yard sale for $1.00 once. Never used. Also, have you looked at the Hour Exchange or any of those groups? Bartering. One lady I knew donated an hour and got a massage. Rob just started a job and people gave him cans and bottles for gas money at work the first week. And food banks, we’ve had to go in the past once in a while (if you are embarrassed, remember your neighbors may be there too, that’s what they are for and can help stretch your food budget TREMENDOUSLY). And GA if you have kids, rent assistance, etc. It’s a Depression, not a Recession, I don’t care what they call it! My Grandma Micue, a French lady, used to feed the hobos and took in laundry and borders. My Grandfather Crowley was paid in chickens once up in The County and he was a school principal! I know how to make soap, beer, chokecherry syrup, treat mild illnesses with herbs, some gardening stuff, and I am a super bargain hunter when I have to be. So if any of you are interested maybe I’ll blog about that stuff. Cuz I do know what it’s like to not have gas money. My theory is unless someone is dying or very ill, there’s a workaround and I still am a little nutty and panicky at times, but it’s normal to be afraid, healthy, in fact, as long as you are gentle with yourself. How can you be expected to be a Miracle Worker and a functioning human being without some support and knowing there’s relief there in the form of assistance? Okay off my soapbox! Mimi Marie will go blog now.

  3. I am going through the exact same thing right now, also refusing to do things I would like to with my kids because that 10 or 20 bucks would be better served for gas or food. It’s been so long I’ve run out of worry. To remedy this, I’m living every moment in the present and trying to enjoy that moment for what it is, and refuse to think of what the future may bear.

    • “I’ve run out of worry…” That’s almost how I feel, but there’s this weird “YOU SHOULD BE TERRIFIED” feeling I’ve got as if, if I’m not completely paralyzed by what bad could happen, then I must not be taking it seriously enough. Thanks for the reminder that, yes, living in the now is what matters.

  4. One of my FB friends shared the link to your post. I know all too well what you’re going through, hon. (I hope it’s ok to call you that). I’m a second-time college student and my husband was unemployed for two years… his UI ran out in January of this year. I had been under the impression that I knew what being broke was like, but the time between his last UI payment and July 16th was the most soul-crushing six months I’ve ever experienced.

    I am lucky in that we don’t have children. I cannot imagine how hard it must be for you. I hope that your circumstances change soon, at least enough so that you can catch your breath.

    Posting this was so very brave.

    • Thank you for saying it was brave to post this. It’s definitely a risky thing to do, but I did it once before (went public with this private stuff) and was overwhelmed with people’s empathy.

      Thank you for reading it and commenting here (and on FB!). Your 6 months sound like the kind of thing that I mean to bring out into the light, y’know? So many people go through it but are so filled with shame and fear it only gets worse because it stays in the darkness… Thanks, again.

  5. Thank you for sharing such a deeply personal and inspiring reflection. We all struggle in some way, and I truly believe being honest about the challenges you face takes great courage and can make an impact far beyond what you may envision. I wish all the best for your family and hope that you reach a point where you are comfortable and secure.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting. Honesty does require courage, thank you. Once I realized that speaking out t about difficult things actually helped other people in ways I could never predict, I found it an easier thing to do. Not easy, but easier.

  6. I also feel like I know these feelings. Am working through a trial home loan modification for our small 2 BR, 1 bath house so my kids can stay in the house they’ve been in for ten years. They’re 13 and 14, and I can’t imagine much worse than having to uproot them at this point in their lives. It’s been hit and miss for several years now, since my mom died and I basically fell apart, lost my job, etc., etc.. It IS hard to ask for help! My mom raised me to be independent. But I have learned that people want to help; they generally just don’t know what to do. I also do the “I can’t afford it,” but sometimes you just want to feel a small semblance of your more secure life. Take care, and hang in there. I’m 51, and I can tell you I believe it will get better.

    Sending love and support,


    • Sometimes feeling like I can still afford it (by going out and spending money I shouldn’t really spend, or letting a friend pay) is what I want to do.

      It’s definitely true that my friends, and (I believe) other people) don’t know how to respond to my new-poverty. I’m hoping to write more and share at least my own experience of how I best like my friends to respond, thinking that might be similar to others and their friends might better understand… Thank you.

  7. I think many of us have been in your situation at one time or another. Sometimes, you will need to move past that “pride” (or whatever it is) to sustain your life, not just your livelihood. Five years ago, my husband lost his job. We’ve almost always lived from paycheck to paycheck, and his was more than half of our income. I made too much money (HA!) for food stamps, etc., and I shared what we were going through with a friend. As if she could read my mind, she asked if I wanted to borrow money. I told her I would think about it, then I accepted her offer, telling her that I hoped I wouldn’t need it, but eventually I did. That she trusted me to pay her back (which I did, a little at a time) was great; that I accepted the money was almost a miracle for me, a woman of “pride.” Sometimes you have to do what you have to do, such as not isolate yourself from your friends. A true friend will understand, and you can always invite her to your house for a homemade cup of coffee over conversation. And remember this: You will move past this temporary bump in your road, and things will improve. Thanks for posting this…I know it took courage. Take care, Jane

    • I’m hoping to have the chance to share the stories of other people as well as mine. So many people don’t understand what this is like.

      As for friends, it’s true. Even the most casual friends, if I tell them about my situation, want to help when it comes to things like going out socially. So far I haven’t found friends, though, who *really* get it on the level of realizing that them paying for things isn’t a solution that feels easily okay.

      Thank you for your kind words. :-)

  8. I came by your blog by accident. I felt I was reading a version of my own story. It is a hard adjustment knowing that there is no room in the budget for extras. Or begging off plans with friends because, well, the tab always comes and it’s more important to get groceries. It would be more tolerable if it seemed that things would get better, but all indications point to a tighter future. I do feel a little better knowing we’re not alone. Thanks for sharing.

    • Oh, you are so welcome. Your comment makes me feel also less alone. And, yes, it’s going to get worse for us in a lot of ways before it gets better, mostly because I am slowly learning just how tight things are. Thank you for commenting (and reading).

  9. Pingback: Hard Times and Why Telling Your Business Matters | Black Girl in Maine

  10. My thesis subject was about a guy who lived poor out of choice. I think he had post traumatic stress disorder from the war, including that within his family. He lived on park benches or under bushes and wrote during the day.

    Part One

    Where to sit still

    And slam the door

    Against fear of tomorrow?

    Brute black rain

    Pummels my brainpaths

    Unleashes areas of despair

    In my once sunlit memory.

    Nothing but blows and kicks

    Greet the friendly eye of thought

    Which bloodied muddied shakes the dust

    To all humanity

    And discovers terror the totem of truth.

    Within tiny blue eggs

    In abandoned nest

    Within derelict tenements

    And battered souls

    Of battered souls

    Of wrecked hopes

    The shades of incinerated history

    Hums my song, hums all the wrong.

    Slug, table football, borrowed beer

    Furtive lust – these the knowing sneer,

    Plans dressed in torn overalls

    Share cynical cigarettes in Cecil Square.

    Time’s mutilated beggars (harvest

    Of Chance, Folly, or Slogan?) hold vigil

    Over custom’s empty ceremonial tin cup:

    I look at Harare, my hair stands on end.


  11. Even though my husband and I both work we still struggle with everyday expenses. I cancelled going to my departments Christmas party because I couldn’t afford it. I told them I wasn’t feeling good. Some people have no idea how hard it is and some refuse to see it and think that most people who are in poverty are stupid and lazy. I am so sick of reading comments about how getting an education and getting a better job will make things better. That might be true for some but not all. My father a smart man went to Electronics Institute in Kansas City. He received an associates degree. He applied to several places that would pay enough for him to be the only bread winner in our family. He got rejection letter after rejection letter stating that though impressive he was overqualified. What it came down to he was smarter than they were and they wanted someone they could make into their monkey. My dad did find a job repairing electronic devises with a man that paid him 4.25 an hour this was in the 90’s. He wanted more but he could not find anyone to hire him that was willing to pay him more. So he settled for the minimum wage job just to pay bills and rent. My mother applied for food stamps and cash assistance. To see the tears in her eyes and the embarrassment she felt when we were in the check out line in stores. To see the cruel stares of people behind her when they saw her take out the paper stamps to pay for our food. It was sad. She found work too and even then we still couldn’t afford to be off assistance for a while. It took 6 years after my dad graduated to find a job that paid him 9.00 an hour that is what brought us to Kansas. Minimum wage now is a joke. It needs to be raised to keep up with COL. People don’t seem to understand that not all minimum wage jobs are fast food. There are people with college educations making minimum wage or just a little over like I am. Some families have no choice but to take those kinds of jobs educated or not because bills don’t pay themselves. Food doesn’t magically appear in the kitchen. Gas doesn’t just refill itself and cars don’t last forever. I am also sick of hearing well if you can’t afford children you shouldn’t have them. They make it sound like a privilege for just the elite. They don’t realize that even though it is a struggle kids are a joy for some people who can’t afford anything else. Also it costs gas to go and get that “free” birth control. It cost money to see a doctor to get a prescription for any hormonal birth control if your a woman. There are some that just refuse to see that and are more comfortable in believing the myth instead of thinking for themselves.

    • I had no idea, and I still think I have no real concept, of the expenses involved in living life. It’s obscene that employers get away with paying so little. Investing in their workers only makes sense to me.

      I’m also embarrassed by how much negative judgment I had against people who are poor — judging their choices from within the context of my own. “How can they choose ___ when ___ is obviously the better choice?” It’s insane how much I thought I knew better.

      If I see someone in line in front of me using their EBT card, I almost always say something like, “Isn’t the help great?” so people can know it’s not something to be ashamed of.

      It sounds like you know a lot more than I do about life trying to get by on not enough money. One thing people don’t do is give credit to poor people for the life skills required to survive.

      • You are so encouraging. People like you are who get it really help in making others not feel so alone. We were on assistance for a little while but are now off. If there were more people like you then the poor wouldn’t be so demonized. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • Oh, I’ve written about it quite a bit. What I mean is that I was raised in privilege, but in the last five years I was “poor” enough to go on food stamps, get MaineCare, etc.

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