John Cheese on Being Poor

I am, once again, doing the kind of frantic budgeting in which having $50 left for a month’s worth of groceries is actually good news. What expenses can I cut? What do I absolutely have to spend money on? What will actually be possible without someone laughing hysterically at my income and credit history? The kind of crazy budgeting with margins so narrow that moving to Paganistan looking for better opportunities suddenly seems financially unfeasible because “Oh Gods, I’d have to buy a winter coat!”

Where the wealthy dine…

The worst part about being poor is that other people don’t seem to understand the concept. “Let’s go out to dinner!” You explain you don’t have the money. “Oh, well then let’s go to McDonald’s!” (cue facepalm) You, engulfed with a sense of panic, pay all of your bills and fill the fridge with groceries. Once all of that is taken care of you relax for a moment before anticipating the next round of bills. Just when you get to the point where you feel quite satisfied with yourself for once again managing to survive for another month, someone comes along and makes you feel like crap for not being able to hang out at a bar or go to the movies.

So much about being poor sucks. When your car breaks down and you have to pay people to take you to the grocery store. When friends pressure or surprise you into going places you can’t afford, because they can’t seem to remember you’re poor or think you’re just miserly and exaggerating. When you’re hesitant to spend $20 in gas to drive your clunker to the city, knowing that it could potentially break down and it will cost more to tow it home the farther from home you are, you lose friends. And even the awesome friends who are there for you and you really appreciate, will often make you feel like crap unintentionally. Being poor sucks.

When I worry about money, and get into the kind of obsessive budgeting in which I worry about whether I can afford the big slicing tomatoes rather than just a couple of puny Romas this month*, I read John Cheese.

Cheese knows what it’s like to be poor. He talks about how it sucks to be charged for using your own money. About how talking to a loan officer is the most degrading thing on earth when you are poor. But my favorite article of his is The 5 Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor:

Shockingly, when you’re buying food based entirely on 1) how long it keeps and 2) how cheap it is, you wind up with shitty food. When I was growing up, we knew that the first of each month was grocery day. That’s the day that our food stamps came in. Nowadays (in the U.S., anyway) it’s all done on an ATM-type of plastic called a link card that gets reloaded with “food only” money on the first of every month. But the idea is still the same: new month, new food. So when our food money arrived, to avoid multiple trips to the grocery store and burning shitloads of gas that we couldn’t afford, we bought our entire month’s worth of groceries all at once and stored it like fucking squirrels. When you do that, you need shit that won’t spoil.

I know some of my reader’s are dealing with a sucky economy, and some of you grew up poor. So poor that eating McDonald’s was “going out for a nice meal,” and getting your cousin’s hand-me-downs was almost as good as Christmas morning. You’ll probably enjoy the John Cheese articles I linked to above. And you’ll be amazed at this: Lēoht Sceadusawol pointed out to me this morning that Ryanair charged a woman hundreds of dollars to print out her boarding passes at the airport. While Hartsfield-Jackson here in Atlanta has complimentary terminals for most airlines, I now to get to add the worry that a flying mistake could cost me my rent.

Poverty sucks.

Of course, the good news is that YouTube is still free:

YouTube Preview Image

*When you’re poor certain foods come to represent wealth: fresh veggies, ice cream, decent cheese.

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • Guest

    I have been out of work – income free – for two years. My husbands income barely covers our bills. I had a social life before – shopping trips, restaurants, plays, days at parks and family reunions. We had parties here – hours of stimulating conversation and laughter around a fire in the yard. Now, none of the above. People don’t call me any more, I reek of poor I suppose. Invitations have stopped. I suppose others don’t believe me when I say I cannot attend there event because I have to use the gas money I have strategically and thoughtfully. I imagine I smell poor, and the soap that would remove the odor is not in this months budget. People who have never been where I am just don’t get it, and at times I resent their lack of understanding. 

  • sunfell

    Been there, done that. Poverty really does suck. It drags you down, corrodes your soul, compromises your health. There are foods that, today, I cannot eat- like ramen and ‘toast-chee’ crackers. Now, it’s because I’m allergic to wheat, but even before that diagnosis, I would not touch them because they reminded me of the times when those things were the only edible and affordable things I could purchase. I even had to stoop to donating plasma at one point, because after I’d made my rent, paid my utilities and other bills, I had nothing at all left for food. And the only food that was within reach was ‘poverty-food’. Worse, I could not get foodstamps because my pay was above their cut-off- by pennies. And since I had the good sense not to have kids, I was SOL.

    I learned how to cook good food- I made things stretch. And I was furious when a colleague repeatedly stole my lunches from the fridge- lunches that I had budgeted and carefully crafted. I guess poverty will do that to one- make them prey on their fellows.

    I am no longer poor. I clawed my way out of the low-pay, the beater car(s), the hand-to-mouth subsistence, the roach-infested apartment, the persistent depression. I moved away from mass mailings from fake ‘churches’ promising miracles, with creepy ‘notes’ carefully crafted to snare the desparate

  • http://twitter.com/Fernwise Fern Miller

    Not that our finances are great the rest of the year, but this is the time of year we end up with at least a month without income.  And today is my husband’s birthday.  I took him to a farm stand – he got 3/4 of a pound of grapes and a cantaloup as his birthday gifts.  

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    (Cheers for the name-drop. Shame it couldn’t be for something a bit more positive.)

    You have bee speaking about community recently. I feel that affluence and community will often go hand-in-hand.

    Allow me to demonstrate, with a  situation I have been in:

    My missus’ car (I can’t drive) breaks down. We have no cash to fix it, so instead of calling the mechanic (who already quoted £400 for the repair), I get a friend, who tinkers with cars in his spare time, to get it running again. (A trip to the scrapyard finds us the part for £35.)

    A couple weeks later, my friend is moving house. I go over and return the favour with a few hours of hard labour.

    Now, I didn’t go over because I felt I owed him, but because he’s a friend and that is what friends do – we help each other, when needed.

    I avoid living in overly urban areas (I may live in a town, but I still have a garden), so I can also apply this to food. My mother keeps chickens (free eggs), several friends grow their own vegetables, and so on.

    The ideal would be the community sharing of excess to minimise the load on the individual.

    Of course, it costs a lot of money to live low impact/without money.

  • Tori

    I grew up poor and it sucked. I still have the “save and squirrel away” attitude towards just about everything, even though I am currently making enough to pay bills and have fun. I’m trying to enjoy having money to spend, while still saving enough because I am not entirely sure how long it will last. Growing up poor and then getting out of it means you are constantly afraid of going back to not being able to afford things. Student loans and whenever I have children will probably be the cause of going back to that poverty. But I needed loans so I could go to school so I could get a decent job. And I believe having children shouldn’t be something I choose to do or not do based on income.

  • http://www.facebook.com/JediCass Daniel Castaneda

    I’ve been there Star, I know exactly how it is. I remember before me and my ex split, I was working a minimum wage job and had to support her and our son,she worked but she only made maybe 200 a month, so it was up to me to paid the bills. I even had to donate plasma twice a week so I could have money for the bus to get to work, and to pay for our electricity. Sometimes I would go without food because we needed that money for our son. Fortunatly my parents would often buy formula for us, but it a;ways felt degrading to ask my dad for it, even though I knew he did not mind. Luckily I got out of that rut, and while I am not rich, I have all that I need. I hope you do too.

  • Sunfell

    I’m still frugal enough to cheer when I spend less than I anticipate on something. And I still get nervous when my bank account gets below a certain amount. But after living check to check, and even being briefly homeless, I’ve educated myself and habituated myself to frugal living- even today. Yes, I do splurge from time to time- but I save even more. The best feeling in the world is having money left over after all the bills are paid. Even better is finally having savings. 

  • Varoom13

    Instead of complaining about what we don’t have or can’t afford why don’t we look at the positive side. I feel wonderful if I have enough money to pay the bills…basic bills here rent, phone and electric. If there’s money left for food this month I buy  stuff that I can turn into soups and stews which in turn I can freeze in portions for future use. If I don’t have money for food this month I still have the frozen stuff to live on. I feel fortunate to have been raised by “depression” parents. My son used to say I could make meals out of air lol You have to be creative but it can be done. It may not be as nutritious as it should be but you aren’t going to bed hungry either. This may sound really stupid to some people but when I had a child and myself to feed and $20 for a month of food…what I used to do before going into the store was to hold the money/checkbook in my hand and ask for a blessing that I could find enough to feed us and I always managed to find what we needed to get by, it never failed.  Also saying thank you to the Gods/Goddesses for what you do have doesn’t hurt either. Something that used to get me through also was to remember that no matter how rough I thought I had it…someone out there was in a worse position. 

  • Windweaver

    I know how you feel… My wife and I are trying to take care of our two Autistic sons, her developmentally disabled brother, and her 64 year old mother who is recovering from breast cancer. Neither of us can work a regular job because of that, and our only vehicle is down due to a serious brake problem. Because off the brake problem we haven’t been able to go to the flea market to sell the jewelry and leather work I do. We have a whole three dollars to get us through the next week and our kids start school tomorrow.

    I’m on the verge of skipping down the street chanting the words to Jabberwocky… With vorpal sword in hand…

    If anyone that reads this need any jewelry or leather stuff, feel free to go to Windweaver Creations website and have a look. http://windweavercreations.com 

    • Wolfecarolyn

      Your site is beautiful, your wands delicate and gorgeous.  You are very talented!  Bright Blessings!

  • Wolfecarolyn

    I also join with everyone here and really know how you feel. I currently am unemployed,  my husband’s income is the only income. We  live fairly frugally, watching our pennies! I  have been in my life, very poor, borderline homeless,  living in group houses and getting exploited. Living on mac and cheese for months and months.  Truly know how you feel. The gift that is happening in my life now is knowing people who have had a similar journey Instead of going out, we  do potluck, we sit  at each other houses and sing karaoke,(yes karaoke but it is so fun) laugh and have those wonderful conversations. No one says, let’s go out and eat- that’s not in the program and we all know it. Now  I also have a spiriitual community where they do pot luck after the service. It is a beautiful gathering of people who just enjoy each other’s company. I think it is very sad that your friends shame you into going out to  eat/drink/party. That makes it all about the money instead of all about the people you are with. Being poor  sucks, being around people who judge you because you are poor, means that  you need to get  into a community that appreciates you for who you are. Our commmunity also has  yardsales a lot, or we  have fun going through our closets and finding the good stuff we no longer can/want to wear and trade with each other. We haunt thrift stores. There are also communty  places that  are food cupboards that we contribute too or get help from. It is all about sharing and caring for each other. .  I am reminded of an old quote “If you do not like what you are hearing, change the conversation”
    I would ask you to get involved with people who care/share and will not tear you down!
    I wish you the best and brightest future.

  • WhiteBirch

    Oh god, so true it hurts.

    I hear people talk about being a “broke grad student” and laugh. When I was a grad student I lived better than I ever have before or since… and I lived on loans and worked less than 10 hours a week (a requirement of my program). Life felt downright luxurious compared to now. Of course, the problem now is that my student loan payments exceed my monthly income by a third… and I still can’t get decent work. 

  • hadiah

    First, how old are you?  Are you expecting to have what most people do not achieve until 45-55?  Next, how educated are you?  This determines your income.  Lastly, did you choose a profession that you know determines your income as being on the lower end?  Did you choose to do this as a swap because you want the freedom of being a Pagan writer?  If so…then realize. You swapped. 

    You do realize if you really wanted NOT to worry about money you could do that.  You could not call yourself Star Foster, and not write for Pagan zines or blogs and make much more money than you make now.  However, if you do not want to do this…then realize you CHOSE it….and get over it.  LOTS of Pagans write…they aren’t known by their names.  There are many more qualified and a LOT older Pagans that write older than you..yet YOU are who they read.

    Count your blessings, embrace the true wealth of your life and lifestyle…if you don’t you might not have it for long.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

       None of that is really any of your business. My background is in accounting and I don’t have any student loans.

      I didn’t choose this economy, and neither did anyone else who have commented on this article. YOU get over it.

    • Wolfecarolyn

      Hadiah,
      I do not understand your negativity about her situation. I am a Pagan, I am a writer, that has nothing to do with what she is talking about. She is a person who is going through a very challenging time. It is easy to say  you do not have to worry about money, it is easy to criticize, but to me that is most unhelpful! I hope no one ever  treats you the way you have treated Star on this forum.

  • Katie

    This is, unfortunately, the story of my life. On one hand I’m lucky in that I was able to get the things that most of my family won’t have- I’m the first person in two generations to be able to go to grad school. Unfortunately the economy tanked when I was in grad school- and trust me I’ve done everything I can to mitigate what’s happened to me because of that economy. But yeah, every day, or almost every day-it used to be every day- I lost friends because of my economic situation, and I still have ‘friends’ and a fair amount of strangers who have never seen what my budget looks like giving me helpful ‘tips’ about how I should spend less money- or even better I shouldn’t have gone to grad school in the first place. You’re right, I should have pulled out my crystal ball, or better yet, let me go get my Delorean out of storage so I can go back and undo that debt. Nothing beats the time that I went home and cried because someone told me that I should be looking for a job harder- on a week I put in 80 applications and feeler letters.

    That being said I think that the one area that I’m thankful for, as twisted as it sounds, is having grown up in a family a lot like Cheese’s. What they’re now calling cutesy names like urban homesteading and the survivalist movement we just called being rural poor as dirt. I’ve managed to survive with what little comforts I do have because I never knew any different; what the rest of the country is going through now is business as usual in the farming/rust belt I grew up in. I have the life skills to do it because it’s what we had to do, and I have enough sense to swalow whatever pride my masters may have given me to go back to living like that.

  • M.A.

    (Actually, even YouTube isn’t free if you can’t afford a computer and WiFi.)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/paganswithdisabilities/ Tara “Masery” Miller

      Computer use at the local library is free. Most libraries have headphones so you can listen to videos. That’s the good part.

      • M.A.

        That is true, but at least in my library there are usually lines of folks waiting to use computers, and it feels really selfish to sit there watching YouTube. 

        My point (obscurely made, I grant) is that while bare survival may be possible while poor, there are lots of fun little perks that make life enjoyable, and those tend to be out of the price range of poor people.  That cup of coffee, the occasional movie (even at matinee prices), and as Star points out, dinner with friends or a few drinks at the corner pub.  Things that used to be necessities become luxury — dentist visits, say, or new shoes because you’ve flat-out worn through the ones you’ve got.  And gods forbid an emergency should come up.

        Some responders above have made the excellent point that community is really important if you’re just almost making do — people to swap and share with, laugh with, maybe start a garden with.  Absolutely, people who won’t make you feel like doodoo ’cause you can’t afford to go out with them.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          It is depressing what people consider ‘essential’ nowadays.

          The essentials are shelter, water and food. Anything else is a luxury.

          • Wolfecarolyn

            So I am assuming that you do not feel that feeding the soul with good company, art, etc is essential. I am sure that you do not  need anything but food, shelter and water…

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

             Pretty much. Doesn’t mean I don’t want it.

            You can survive with the essentials I have listed. Just remember that survival isn’t living, it is existing.

            The essentials are what we need to survive. The luxuries are what adds the richness that make life worth living.

            I will let people argue over what is desirable.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/paganswithdisabilities/ Tara “Masery” Miller

     Hang in there Star and try to find as many unique rice and bean recipes as you can. That’s what I have to do.

  • Sophie Gale

    I feel for you younger folks wrestling with this economy.  I lost my job three years ago.  I had spent the worst part of a decade and a half in phone centers.  I was broken in body and spirit, and I would have killed myself before I picked up another headset.  Luckily I got on disability just as the unemployment insurance gave out.  I have gladly embraced voluntary poverty.   I haven’t owned a car in 25 years, no cable…a government program provides me with a cheap cell phone that I rarely use.  Like so many of you I spend three days grocery shopping when that SSI hits my bank account–but surprisingly I find that I am eating better at the end of the month than the week when I hit the grocery stores.  I run through my favorite junk food the first week and then get down to creative cooking.   There’s Ag programs to help seniors and folks with Link Cards shop at the Farmers Markets.  I have just started making my second batch of corn cob soup stock–which is the nectar of the Gods!  I rarely buy anything that comes in a can or a box.  I stock up on good day old bread and marked down meat and vegetables.

    Yes, I have to evaluate every dime I spend; I don’t have money for movies or concerts or meals out–but I have traded a “normal” middle class life for great freedom.  I volunteer for two non-profit organizations–I’m on the board for both, committees for both, and work with clients.  I can’t buy books anymore, but the library can usually get what I want.  I have hours to read.  I garden.   And I marvel at how happy I am!  I feel blessed.

  • kadiera

    I grew up that way – just over the line for free lunches and food stamps, but that extra little cash was eaten up by my father’s 40 minute drive to and from work. My mom had a degree in social work, but couldn’t get a job that would pay for daycare, so we stayed home. We ate pretty well – my grandparents (depression kids) had chickens and a huge garden, and butchered once a year, and that meat had to last all year – if we ran out in October, then meat was a rare treat until they butchered in January. We probably would have been a little better off if not for my parents’ credit card debt.

    Even now, when the only debt I have is my house (and being largely debt free was mostly an accident), with 2 well paid adults paying the bills in our home….I’m cautious. I over think every spending decision. This year is the first we’ve really been ahead of the bills, and it’s a really odd experience not to worry about where the money will come from for the next bill.


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