5 Things I Learned While Being Poor

I’ve spent nearly the entirety of my adult life with little to no money to my name. Most of the time, I barely made enough to get by. Any month that I didn’t have to worry about how I’d carefully ration out food to make the rent was a good month. Some may assume that being poor is like fighting: even if you win, there’s no prize, and you still limp away with injuries that linger for months. However, your experience is not a total loss if you come away learning an important lesson. With fighting, that lesson is to avoid doing so if you can. Being poor is much the same way, but I have managed to come away learning a few things. Things like…

#5. I’ve become better with money than banks.
A few years ago, I got my hands on my first debit card. It was sweet. It meant that I didn’t have to trek to the bank every time I had to make a withdrawal. A while later, I lost track of my spending and overdrew my account while buying lunch at work. I didn’t get my card declined, so the transaction proceeded while, myself being unaware, that five dollar salad had an extra forty dollars tacked onto it. It gets worse, I did the same thing for the next few days until I finally got a notice in the mail that my account was overdrawn. My total number of fees came out to $160. It was a disaster.

I responded by doing my budget. It was early enough in the month that I was still able to establish a strict regime designed to allow me to make the rent. I didn’t eat very well, but I managed to get by, and kept a closer eye on my checking account. I made a mistake, but I was still able to recover.

Conversely, about a month ago, JPMorgan posted a loss of about 2 billion dollars on “egregious mistakes” while trading, and expected to lose another 1 billion within the next couple quarters. Two billion is a pretty high number, I have difficulty comprehending anything in that quantity. I know that if I had that kind of money, I’d have no problems paying my utility bills for a while. In spite of the enormity of these losses, there was no shake-up in JPMorgan’s leadership, and there was no cause for their customers to be alarmed.

When you’re poor, the stakes are much higher. You can lose 1/10,000,000th of the money that JPMorgan lost, and it will impact your life for the foreseeable future, and face the possibility of not having anything to eat, or a place to live. How do I combat this? By being better with money than JPMorgan. Banks have a lot to learn from kitchen table economics. While the people who gamble with other people’s money can give in to recklessness, the general population practices more care with their money because they pretty much have to. For us, the consequences of mismanaging our money is far more dire.

#4. There are a million different ways to serve mac and cheese.
Some would have you believe that macaroni and cheese is a poor man’s food. And they would be right. I got sick of eating macaroni years ago. Once I got my income tax refund, I went to the supermarket, intent on taking home some healthy food. But when I got there, I still found myself gravitating towards the prepared foods aisle. When it came to anything that wasn’t macaroni, I had lost my imagination. And guess what I took home with me. That’s right, macaroni and cheese.

That’s when I realized something: I had developed Stockholm Syndrome. Towards a food item. I had somehow become a willing prisoner of inexpensive, high-sodium food that was easy to prepare.

You’d probably imagine that having the same thing to eat every single day would get boring, but it didn’t. What makes macaroni and cheese so great is that there’s many different ways to serve it to keep things exciting. Want some omega 3s? Mix some tuna in there. Throw some peas in there, too. That’s what’s called “hobo’s delight”.

Want something spicy in there? Sprinkle some crushed red peppers on top. Want it more vinegary? Get some Tabasco Sauce. If you like it tangy, mix in some olives. Green or black, it’s up to you. If you want it cheesier, allow a couple slices of real cheese to melt into the sauce. I’ve even served it on matzo crackers. Macaroni and cheese is truly the food where your imagination is the limit. Granted, most of the nutritional value will come from whatever you add to it, just keep that in mind when preparing it to make your macaroni really serve you. I thought I really hated macaroni, but I keep coming back. It’s cheap, easy to prepare, and only as exciting as you are.

#3. You don’t have to pay for entertainment.
Quick, what is the most valuable thing you own for entertainment? You may have answered your television set, a video game system, your own musical instrument, or what-have-you. But the most important thing you own for entertainment when you’re poor is also your most practical item; your computer.

Look at your computer for what it can do. You don’t need a DVD player, because most modern laptops come with one built in. You don’t need a video game system, because the internet gives you access to many thousands of freeware games. You don’t need a TV set, because you can simply watch YouTube, and many sites like Hulu allow you to watch shows on your own schedule, with fewer commercials than traditional broadcasting. Your computer can play music, and you can even make your own with music-making software. It’s too bad that you can’t record yourself and become an internet celebrity, except you actually can use most current laptops to record video. Have an opinion? Start your own website. If hosting fees are too high (which they can only be if you’re poor) and you don’t mind slightly limited options, you can just start a blog on a social networking site or find a free web host, which isn’t that hard. And I’m just going to stop right there. It goes on and on.

If I had more money, I’d buy more video games. But I don’t, and I can count the number of games I’ve purchased in the last six months on one finger (Cave Story 3D). But do I really have to purchase tons of expensive games? The thing about Cave Story is that I didn’t really have to pay for it anyway, it’s a PC freeware game, and enhancing the presentation only served to take away from the charm.

Yeah, the media hypes whatever first-person shooters and zombie games happen to be all the rage right this minute, but let’s get real: you don’t really need any of that.

#2. Car ownership is actually for suckers.
I can’t afford to get myself a car. And if I could, I’d instead be eating a little better (if I can overcome my macaroni addiction). So, I don’t have a car. When people hear this, they are quite surprised, saying things like, “You don’t have a car? How do you get around? Your life must be difficult.” And it is, but I don’t really need a car. If I had one, it wouldn’t really help me that much.

Here’s why: I live near the city. All of my needs are met within walking distance, and I could carry nearly anything home in a backpack. I have three supermarkets within walking distance, and there are numerous thrift and convenience stores. Once every few months, I go to the mall. When I do, I just take the bus. When you live in or near the city, owning a car is for suckers. You save a lot more money just by walking from one place to another.

And considering the expenses that come with car ownership, I’d really rather pass. Not only do I get monthly payments to the dealership to worry about, I’d have to worry about the rising costs of gas, and mandatory insurance? Considering that the 200 dollars I have to myself every month is earmarked for food, I pretty much have no choice. I don’t have a car, and for now, that’s just fine.

#1. Your survival is in the hands of dicks, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
When you’re poor, the words “survival” and “livelihood” are interchangeable. You already know that when you miss work for two days in a week, you have to make some major sacrifices. You’re only one missed paycheck away from your life changing for the worse. And nearly everything is conspiring to make it happen.

Nearly any boss and any company you work for is primarily concerned for the success of the company. You don’t really have a skill-set, so you’re easy to replace. The key to keeping your job is to become valuable to the company, which is done by working harder (which is something many younger people seem to have a problem with). This may not seem so bad, but you’ll realize pretty quick that any employer doesn’t care what happens to you, either outside of work or in the long run.

One boss I’ve worked for demonstrated this to a terrifying extreme: when he did layoffs, he would invariably list the reason for termination as “misconduct”, which legally dissolves any obligation the company would have to pay out unemployment. He was taken to court at least twice over this, but he shows no signs of stopping. It gets even worse, this places the former employee’s status as “do not rehire”, and their work history is effectively branded in a way that makes it much less likely that they’ll be hired anywhere else. A company can effectively ruin someone’s career and life, and the only mistake they ever had to make was trusting the company with it.

And it’s even worse when you have a job that involves contact with the general public. The justification for your “layoff” can easily come from any customer complaint, whether real or manufactured by the company itself. Criminal? Yes. Fraudulent? Yes. But you’re almost never in any position to fight back. And if you try, you won’t get anywhere. That’s the system for you.

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