I grew up in the middle class, and, aside from the time where my dad lost his job and we had a hard time making ends meet for a few years, the only time I was what I would consider “poor” was when I was in college, did a year of AmeriCorps work, and moved back home for six months until I found a full-time job. I was hoping that was going to be my happy ending, but it wasn’t. Four years later, after the Great Recession hit full force, I was laid off from my county government job, moved halfway across the country to be with my fiancé, and was constantly trying to find work that would pay me a decent wage.
So far, it’s been almost five years since I relocated. I have a bachelor’s degree, student loan debt (but less than most people), and live with my wife and her unemployed mother in a 100-year-old house that is in constant need of repairs. Here are the things that my wife and I have thought about while we still struggle to make ends meet after we had both been flush.
1. Budget, budget, budget.
Obviously, it’s a smart idea to be conscious about how much you spend so that you don’t overdraft your account. But when you are in the middle class and somewhat flush on a regular basis, it’s easy to get careless. But at least you still have some wiggle room. SURPRISE! That was then, this is now. Now, if you end a week with $100 left over after all the bills are paid, groceries are bought, and cars have gas in their tanks, you either feel lucky or you start to worry that you missed something. Which brings me to my next point…
2. Your stress level never goes down.
When you are constantly trying to figure out a monthly or even weekly budget, and you regularly have just enough to get through to the next paycheck, you are more than thankful when you still have money left over. But don’t you dare try and go out to have a good time, oh NO. Because, just when you think you have it all figured out and you can start to plan ahead, an appliance breaks. Or a car starts making strange noises. Or the toilet starts to leak. Or any number of others things happen that you weren’t planning on, and now, all of a sudden, your budget when from tight to strangulating.
3. Discounts become your saving grace.
Forget going to any upscale shopping center or boutique, even if it’s just to browse like you used to. It’s not that you could really justify the expense of Whole Foods before, but now even Costco is out of your price range. Places such as Aldi, TJMaxx/Marshall’s, and any place that allows you to get away with spending a pittance on necessities becomes very familiar to you in no time at all.
4. Job searching becomes a nightmare.
While having the internet and an electronic copy of your resume’ at your fingertips makes it sound as though looking for work should be a breeze, it’s really not, especially if your employment background is specialized. Go get trained for a new career, you suggest? Hey, great idea, why didn’t I think of that?! Except I did, and I have no money to pay for any kind of education that will get me into a field that is hiring. Plus, why should I go into a field that I’m not passionate about? Just to collect a paycheck and be miserable? Yeah, no, that’s not how things work. Speaking of which…
5. People say stupid/offensive things about your situation.
I’ve heard everything from insulting the poor to telling minimum wage earners to quit complaining. I’m not just talking about news pundits; I mean relatives, or even friends from college. When I got a job that I knew I would absolutely loathe because it was in retail and people treat you like shit there, all I got from multiple friends was, “Well, at least you have a job.” Oh yeah, sure. I’m just jumping for joy about being someone’s verbal punching bag, having my employment status threatened because I didn’t offer someone my soul AND the moon at a discount. Not only that, but making 1/3 of what I was making only a year before is cause for busting out the Champaign. If it’s so great, you wanna trade your situation for mine? Didn’t think so! Then there are relatives of mine that say they “hate paying taxes so the unemployed can sit around on their couches doing nothing all day long.” I’m sorry, what was that? You think we WANT to be broke as a joke with nothing to do, constantly stressing (see #2 above) over where our next paycheck will come from, or if it will come, looking for work that isn’t there? No, you’re right, we’ve got it made. Everyone else should be poor. I feel so sorry for that six figure income you have to deal with.
6. The feeling of guilt you have when you buy something for yourself.
Two years ago, my wife and I went to a nearby outlet mall to buy some simple necessities. Think socks, underwear, and maybe a work shirt or two. Between the two of us, we spent maybe $100, maybe. Then she had a sad look on her face as we drove back and said, “I feel bad for buying all of this, because we’ll probably need it for something else later. But…we both needed what we bought today as well!” The saddest part was that I was thinking the same thing, and yet, we paid a lot less than we could have if we went to a regular mall or shopping center. We used to shop just for fun, or even browse and dream. Now, we feel lucky if we can just shop for necessities without worry. Makes me wonder how many other people of my generation have these thoughts.
7. Your sense of personal pride goes out the window.
Ever have a moment where you felt like you were mooching off your friends? It might have been in college, when they ordered pizza and you didn’t have a dime to spare until your folks sent you some kind of care package. Translate that into adult life, now. You want to go out with friends, but bills are due. Tell them you can’t go out, right? Well, that’s easier said than done if you haven’t seen them in years and you finally have a weekend off from that spite-ridden retail job of yours (there IS a God!). So you meet them at a restaurant. Nothing fancy, just a place to catch up on old times and good people. Then, the check comes. You start to reach for your credit card, knowing you can afford to at least pay the tip, if nothing else, but then are told, no, “this is on us because we know you guys are in a tight spot.” While you’d love to tell them that you can handle it, you know, deep down, any help is appreciated, and you really are in a tight spot with no end in sight.
8. You feel as though you can’t complain.
I know I’m not the only poor person out there. In fact, I know lots of people have it much worse than I do. I know of a lot of people who have played by the rules of the game, even when they didn’t know if the rules had changed, and some who went so far as to find a new career path in order to make ends meet. But I don’t know of anyone else who has fallen on such hard times repeatedly, with a college degree, that had their career get off to a great start only to have it derailed by forces outside of their control, continue following the advice of their workforce peers and still not have things get any better.
I’m not giving up (mostly because I can’t), and I’m not looking for a handout. I’m looking for a break or a hand up.