I keep seeing this thing posted on Facebook, and every time, I can’t help but think about what it was like for me to live hand to mouth for about fourteen years. My husband and I got married when we were both in our early twenties. We might as well have been children, for all the life experience we had.
Steve had even been married before, but naive doesn’t even come close to describing how inexperienced we were. We started out living in a house where room and board were provided as part of our salary. Neither one of us had ever owned a house before, and although we’d always lived in houses, we had no clue what kind of maintenance they required.
So when we had to move into a place of our own, we had no idea the responsibilities that came with buying a house. All we knew was that we couldn’t afford rent on a decent apartment, and that a house payment was about $150-$200 less per month, so we bought a house.
Not long after that, a high pressure salesman came into our house and swore we’d save enough money on utilities to pay for these windows he was selling. We believed him. He lied.
About a month later, after our ‘remorse clause’ time was up, I was fired from my job. Now we had one paycheck and it wasn’t enough to cover all of our expenses. It was too late to cancel the windows, and I was traumatized from being fired and depressed as hell, so we did our best.
Three months later, I was pregnant with our first child. We had health insurance, but we couldn’t begin to afford the co-pays, let alone the deductible. And then, I had complications. Life threatening complications.
All this time, we would go along, struggling to pay the bills and to keep us both clothed and fed, and there was never enough money to do everything. We had no idea how to budget, and our parents hadn’t done much to pass on any wisdom because they weren’t much better at budgeting than we were, they just made more money so it didn’t matter.
The story is long, because it spans over fourteen years, but the short[er] version is, we made some bad financial choices. We were on Medicaid and WIC because we made almost no money. Neither one of us had a college education, and Steve was the only income. I was on bedrest for all three of my pregnancies, and since the only jobs I was qualified for were minimum wage, I couldn’t afford daycare if I had worked.
We were poor. When Steve worked as a tow truck driver, we never knew from one week to the next if he was going to get a decent sized paycheck, so budgeting was impossible. Some weeks, we didn’t have enough to pay the bills, and other weeks, we’d have an average month’s worth of money.
It was either feast or famine, and mostly famine. Much of the time, the choice was literally, do I pay bills or do I buy food? My kids never went hungry, but eventually, we did lose our house to foreclosure.
So during the famine weeks, I prioritized buying food over paying debts. And during the ‘feast weeks’ we should have saved it for the dry times, but when there wasn’t enough money, we went without so much, that when we had a little extra, instead of saving it like we should have, we bought some of the things we’d needed but gone without.
There was this underlying sense of deprivation, desperation, this deeply irrational fear that if I didn’t buy something I wanted with the money, I’d never get another chance to have it.
It took me years to figure out how to control myself and ignore the desperation to have nice things, and even then, I could only go so long before I would be desperate again. The thing that finally kicked it was giving myself permission to splurge once in a while. I would go until I felt like I would explode, and then I’d spend $20 or $30 on something special, and more often than not, it was something for Steve or the kids.
It served the same purpose. I’d gotten something we wanted instead of a need. After a while, only getting the necessities feels like starvation. We never went hungry, but we went for years just buying the cheapest things we could find, which meant going without healthy food much of the time.
I remember my dad telling me stories about going to town with his parents and brother and sisters, and my grandma would give each of them a nickel or some small coin from her egg money, and every time, my dad would go buy some candy. Usually licorice, which is disgusting, or peanut clusters,but that was his thing. He could have gone without and saved it up for something that would have lasted longer, but he loved candy, and it was something special, a luxury that he almost never got.
He used to tell me how mortified he was to go to school with patches on his jeans. Kids were cruel to each other even in the 1950s. He would take his lunch to school, and a lot of time, it was a homemade biscuit or homemade bread, and in his day, that was a reason to be ashamed. Wealthy families bought their bread from the store.
The thing is, it hurts to see other people with nice things and to know that you can’t afford it. And when you get the chance, if it bothers you enough, you’re going to buy it, just so you can fit in.
After Steve and I were married, we would see friends our age, and they had nice cars, nice houses, and had more than enough money, and it felt like we always had second-hand stuff. We were always struggling, and I hated it.
We spent thirteen years never quite making ends meet, never quite having enough of what we needed, let alone the stuff we wanted. And sometimes, when I got the chance, I just bought stuff because I wanted it. It felt like buying candy after going without for far too long.
So when I see someone with a phone or a manicure, or tattoos in the checkout line and they’re using an EBT card, or WIC vouchers, I don’t think to myself that they don’t deserve it. I think about that desperate feeling of lack, the never having quite enough to meet your needs, and the uncontrollable urge that hits you after you’ve gone without for so long.
Sometimes, a tattoo represents hope. Sometimes cigarettes mean the difference between sanity and screaming until your throat bleeds. Sometimes a manicure means the difference between feeling hideously ugly and being pretty enough to love. And when you live in a constant state of stress, anxiety, and desperation, sometimes drugs and beer are the only escape you have from a reality that is too gray and stark and threadbare to be borne anymore.
Because as much as we like to pretend that we have control over our own lives, sometimes, things just don’t get better.
Sometimes, you’re trapped in a desperate life and there’s no way out.
Sometimes, pulling yourself up by the bootstraps means working your ass off at a job that pays less than a living wage, and struggling on, knowing deep down that it’s all you’re ever going to have.
There is more to being poor than laziness. There is more to a human being than a tattoo or manicure, and to stand and judge someone you’ve never met, who you will never see again, for using food stamps or welfare…well, that was me, and if I’d known what you were thinking, it would have broken my heart.