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:)