On being poor.

Yesterday I was having a really rough day. I called my best friend and we started talking about growing up poor. Not in a whiny, woe-is-me sort of way. We just rehashed some tough financial spots in our lives and commented on how we were really, truly blessed despite those times.

Perhaps I should put the word poor in quotes. We were both occasionally poor, not consistently poor. There were a lot of tight spots but there were never any true catastrophes.

I remember the first time I felt stressed about my parents’ financial situation. I was three. It sort of became a big issue for me that my kids wouldn’t ever have to worry about their parents’  bank balance. I decided that I would rather not have kids than have kids stressed about money when they’re toddlers.

It feels a bit… insensitive? or maybe just annoying? to hear someone say “Look, I got a brand new iPad!” and then continued in the conversation to complain making a $5000 mortgage payment. Really? You have a monthly bill for $5000 that you at one point were able to pay with no problem? What’s THAT like? I literally have no concept.

I also distinctly remember the first time I heard the phrase “broke at a higher level”. My mom, sibling and I were walking to the library, a weekly tradition, and one of the houses on the way was still being lived in but it was completely neglected. It was an average sized house but at the time it seemed pretty big and very nice. My parents and the four of us kids lived in an 800 square foot duplex about a half mile away.

I asked my mom why the lawn hadn’t been mowed in months and the house was in such disrepair – after all, it was your average, middle class neighborhood and the house itself was more than twice as big as ours. My mom explained to me that the people who lived there were probably broke even though they had a much higher level of income. I thought to myself, “How much does it cost to mow your front yard?”

My dad was laid off from work numerous times while I was in high school and college. He didn’t have a $5000 mortgage due every month but there were five kids in the house that he had to feed, clothe, educate… I can’t imagine the level of stress that goes along with that scenario. He worked two or three jobs until I was in junior high, I think, and did everything he could to make sure that we were taken care of. My mom somehow figured out how to feed all five of her kids for something like $400 a month. I don’t really know how my parents managed to keep it together – family finances were never disclosed in actual amounts – but they did a damn good job with the little they had.

So I’m sure those of you reading this whose childhoods were more financially strenuous than my own are probably sniffing in condescension at my “complaining” about being “poor”. The fact of the matter is, even homeless people in the States are extremely well off. I don’t know a single American who ever watched someone die of starvation – a very real possibility for the billion people who will go to bed hungry tonight.

At the end of the day, people with brand new, 4000 square foot homes have no more right to complain than the kid who grows up in the projects. But the former should accept that even their version of “broke” isn’t the same as 95% of the rest of the country. Our perceptions of being broke are all based on what we’ve experienced. If you can read this at all, you live much better than most of the world’s population.

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