I was walking the dogs with my wife. It was a warm day for March, which means spring cleaning and moves when you’re living in an apartment complex. Whether because of a move or just switching out the old for the new, a neighbor had put a coffee table and a small dinner table by the trash to be picked up on Wednesday.
It was like it was Black Friday at Walmart. I inconspicuously looked around to see if anyone was watching, and pulled Bowser over with me to take a look. The coffee table was a wreck, but the dining table was salvageable. It wasn’t anything special and was fairly beat up. Legs didn’t seem wobbly, though the top was scratched up pretty badly.
I was just thinking about where I could put it and what I could cover it with, when two things occurred to me. One, any number of my well-to-do co-workers would be giving me a scandalized look for salvaging an old scratched up table. Two, I had no need for the table, and yet I still felt like I should bring it home.
Two years ago, I would have brought that table home in a heartbeat. Don’t have a use for it yet? I will eventually. I may have a dining table now, but how long with that last? Anything that can be salvaged should, and shouldn’t be thrown away until it’s collapsing underneath me.
Within the past two years, I went from living in my father’s basement with my wife, going to school full-time and working two jobs to my wife and I living in a nice townhouse while I work at a full-time salary job with benefits. But while I may technically be better off now than I was two years ago, I’m starting to experience financial growing pains.
Spending guilt and guilty spending
Whenever I go shopping, anything I buy results in an overwhelming feeling of guilt. I could be shopping for a new fan because it’s 90-degree weather and it’s cheaper than cranking the air conditioning, and still feel guilt. It doesn’t matter the need – when you’re poor, any amount of money spent is taking away from bills and food. When you get out of that cycle, the feeling doesn’t change. The guilt is so ingrained it’s hard to shake, no matter how much justifying and negotiating I do with myself.
There’s also guilt over buying higher quality items. In a lot of cases, such as clothing, more expensive items are often more durable. But when you’re poor, you can’t justify spending $40+ on jeans when you have an overdue electric bill. On the other hand, you need clothes. So instead, you go to the discount rack at Walmart and buy the cheapest pair you can find. It may not fit correctly, and it may only last a few months, but you buy them because you have work tomorrow and you have no other choice.
This isn’t a lack of insight though. When you’re poor, you also know how long every item you buy is going to last. You know these jeans will only last you so long, but you just don’t have the overhead to buy the jeans that will last you the year. You end up paying more in the long run, but you simply have no other choice.
This spending guilt can be detrimental in other ways as well. My spending guilt quickly transformed into guilty spending. Telling myself that spending isn’t a bad thing, shopping adrenaline can quickly get away with me. It becomes an all or nothing switch. Because I’m so used to being able to afford nothing but immediate necessities, it because hard to decipher what is legitimate spending and what is spending for the sake of spending.
Debt is a way of life
Debt is another place where the poor get the short end of the stick. When you’re below the poverty line, you’ll inevitable be late on payments. Often really, really late. Even shut-off late. People get there in different ways, but many, many people classified as poor have debt and credit score issues.
In my case, thanks to a run-in with being bipolar with a credit card, student loans and medical bills, my debt was insurmountable for years. I barely had enough to keep my utilities up and running, and sometimes not even that. The creditors got so bad, I would never answer a phone number I didn’t know.
Nowadays, I have the means to begin paying off my debts. But thanks to a history of bad financial planning habits, I wouldn’t know where to begin. This ignoring debt and letting it build has become an unhealthy rite of passage – even more recent debts like recent medical bills and student loan payments build up not because I don’t necessarily have the means, but because my debt to salary ratio is still so high it’s overwhelming. The first time I paid my co-pay for my doctors office the same day in years I had dual feelings of pride and shock.
This is no easy feeling to tackle, but can be done. The Consumerist has a great article from a reader who got out of debt using a few tips from the site. They may not work for everyone, but they’re a great place to start. Getting out of debt isn’t just a financial struggle, it’s an emotional one as well.
Thinking about the future
The final and hardest of all growing pains is thinking about the future. When I was still in school and working, I wasn’t thinking about how I could pay off my student loans. I was thinking of how I can keep the electricity from being turned off. I wasn’t thinking about a retirement plan, I was thinking about how I can feed myself, my wife and my pets. When you’re poor, your priorities are in the present.
Part of it is human nature, and part of it is bad experiences- but the hardest feeling to shake when you’ve been below the poverty line at some point is the feeling of impending doom. That at any moment, the other foot will drop. When you’re poor, it often does. Whether it’s losing your job or your car breaking down, there will always be the inevitable next problem, and you just hope the next one isn’t the one that makes you lose your home.
A certain amount of self-preservation can be healthy- for example, saving for a rainy day- but when it becomes so ingrained it becomes hard to both enjoy the present and plan for the future.
Saving is the best example of this. It sounds counter-intuitive, but when you’re poor, you don’t save money. You don’t have a lot of extra income, so any windfalls go towards a backlog of needs. But this spending becomes habitual. Though I don’t usually spend a lot on things I won’t eventually need, rather than saving the money for a rainy day when I might have a more pressing need, I spend it on something that could probably wait.
Spending isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s when it becomes compulsive that it becomes a problem. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking that if I don’t spend it now, it’s going to slowly dwindle away on food or bills, so best to take advantage of it now. This isn’t something I do consciously. It’s healthy to be able to spend the money on necessities and wants every once in a while, but in these cases the spending easily gets out of control to the point where saving seems to be impossible.
For those of you like me, Meghan Young Krogh has written a great article on saving. There are great tips and tricks that can get you started, no matter your financial status.
Never in my short adult life had I ever been financially stable. I’ve struggled with mental illness, my support system moving a state away, and scratching and clawing my way through a degree and into my current job. I’ve sacrificed eating so my pets could, I’ve guzzled caffeine shots to pull all-nighters between school and work, and I’ve had to work around not having an internet connection while working on a degree in web design. I worked twice as hard and twice as long those years when I was under the poverty line compared to today. I did so because of some misguided idea that if I work hard enough and long enough, I can become financially stable and achieve happiness. Now that I’m “there,” I’ve quickly found the biggest hurdle to getting my finances under control is going to be myself.