I have ducked out of the pediatrician’s office, ashamed, after discovering the co-pay is due at that moment, not when a bill arrives. I've used a credit card to buy three days of groceries at the end of the month and felt like a failure.
I've been short on money, but never poor in that hopeless way of not having somewhere to turn. That is a whole other kind of poverty, where there isn’t a light ahead that things will get better. I’ve never wanted to ask for help but have always had someone to ask – my parents – when the bank lost the paycheck I deposited.
Middle class Americans often have little experience with those at the bottom of the economic ladder. We live around people with similar earnings, generally. Same goes for social groupings, school, and co-workers. Even if you have used government programs like WIC or SNAP, you likely had some kind of income coming into your household.
I quit my full-time job before my first child was born. On paper, we would be fine on one salary in a perfect month where nothing went wrong. That kid is 10 now and I don’t think we’ve ever had such a month. Before the kid was a year old, I had to cash out my retirement savings account just to get us through.
I felt like a failure, like I couldn’t talk to anyone about the stress since it was my own fault and like I couldn’t breathe when I’d try to pay the bills.
I've used the internet at the public library to avoid the expense of connecting at home. We already had no cable, no cell phone, no latte habit. I’d already given up spending money on my favorite frivolous items, shoes and books, when I stopped bringing in the bacon.
Though it was a stressful time, I never worried about losing my home. There was always enough to eat, though maybe not the fresh fish I craved. I knew the situation was temporary – I was highly employable and wasn’t stuck in this pit of poor forever.
My friend Mary lives in Eastern Canada. When I asked her about how financial struggles had impacted how she views money, she had a ready answer and clearly had thought about the question before.
“The first year after Bob started the business, we were in dire financial straits. I've always been really good with money and done lots of saving and was and still am very frugal, but last spring we were at the bottom of our business line of credit and had to use our personal line of credit to pay for car repairs. I was turning down play dates if they cost any money (to go to the pool, etc.), I switched to glasses instead of contacts because they're cheaper, and we just didn't spend anything extra at all if possible.
"It brought me to two realizations: the very clichéd thought that we still had everything – healthy kids, a home, and a loving extended family, etc. and the more revelatory thought that maybe I had been a bit of a miser previously. I'm more generous with what we do have now and I'm very aware of how money can affect relationships if it is too important.”
Another friend shares, “I'm a freelance writer and editor, which means that in this crazy economy sometimes I have way too much work and sometimes I have not enough work. When I book a job or two that inevitably means that I have to book more child care and sometimes housecleaning help for the duration of the job. I grew up in extremely tight financial circumstances and my mother never had any help at all, so I've internalized the idea that it's spoiled, even selfish, bordering on immoral, to have help. It feels somehow like boasting to the universe that I have enough money and that I'm waving my hand to have people do my bidding. But there's the reality that if I book a big job, I can't do the job without child care and housekeeping help. So I hire the help but feel terrible about it.”
As she speaks, I’m reminded of when an editor questioned an assumption in an essay I wrote, about gaining weight as you age. I didn’t even realize I’d internalized a certain message based on my upbringing, much like how you should not pay someone to watch your children or clean your house.
My friend continues, trying to work through her own thought process. “The boys love their sitter and loves when she comes to 'play.' I love, and my husband loves, the clean house that we don't have to spend the entire Saturday mopping and dusting. The sitter and housekeeper presumably want to work and make money too and are happy about it. Part of the problem, of course, is that domestic workers are routinely underpaid, but I do pay a fair wage, so that isn't the problem here. It's more that I internalized, in my childhood, that spending money equals bad. But money isn't moral or immoral in and of itself. It's what you do with it that matters.
"It was a huge revelation and relief to realize that spending money can be a neutral-to-positive thing rather than a negative. We should aim to spend our money in a way that does good in the world.”
Money, like so many things, is fraught with baggage and emotion. I try to emphasize to my own children that working hard, not what you get for it, is what is important. On the other hand, my husband very much wants them to know you can make choices about your field and can choose something that will pay the bills. That’s from his background of a big family with very little money.
Here’s how my views on money have changed, thanks to years of plenty and years of empty. Money is a way to put your priorities in action. For me, that means a 10 percent tithe, plus other charitable giving to organizations in my community that I care about: schools, food bank, or the women’s shelter.
It also means talking about money choices with my kids, something my parents never did. When we planned ahead for a big trip, I was a bit of a broken record about renting a DVD instead of going to the theater. I won’t scrimp on cheap toilet paper, but I’ve got no problem eating a tremendous amount of rice and shopping for groceries only on sale.
When the elementary school does fundraisers for the animal shelter, I explain to my sons why I don’t contribute: with finite funds, my money goes to people rather than animals. They don’t entirely understand (or agree) but I keep trying. They have too much, something I’m frequently torn about. I'm working to be more open about what I earn for various types of work and what that money is used for. All I can hope is that they understand the power of the dollar, not like Batman’s millions, but in choices and responsibilities.