Thursday, February 18, 2010

Taking Stock

I spent a little time yesterday going online and typing in the search descriptions "Surviving poverty" and "Becoming poor." I have been looking for a book along the lines of one of the Dummie titles - "How to be Poor, For Dummies" but haven't come across one. Yes, I need a guidebook for helping me get through this stretch of life.

My short research session was productive. Not in terms of providing me with any great new ideas for living on a very small income - I seem to be limping along here on my own fairly decently. But more productive in terms of changing my mindset.

For one thing, although we are probably what would be defined as poor, we are still not below that level of poverty where it would be impossible to be surviving right now. Granted, there is no extra money for anything much beyond the necessities but we are not homeless. We have never had to resort to eating bread soaked in milk which was one of the meals suggested for eating when there isn't any food in the pantry. Yuck!

I had the recent luxury of reading the classic tale of Madame Bovary in the comfort of a warm bed. Now I could still have read Madame Bovary as a homeless person, but the experience would not have been as pleasant.

Living in this Mecca of upper-middle class suburbia, poverty has always been hidden. And as a formerly financially comfortable middle-class mom, I am floundering to some extent into having been forced into a way of life that is unknown and challenging. Even more so when dealing with all of this alone. But in reading some of the encounters I came across, I am now more aware of the widespread nature of financial difficulties facing many good folks across the nation. Many whom are struggling because of job-loss circumstances.

It is interesting that I am finding many connections between grief and financial stress. I could come up with a long list but for now will just mention how both can make you feel invisible, inferior and like a second class citizen. There is also the factor of being in a down position and needing to ask for help. Living in a country based on self-sufficiency it can seem impossible to suddenly be thrust into a position where you have to speak up for yourself. The sad part is that when you do, you're looked down on. The stigma of being poor carries with it so much shame. To have to hold your head up when someone is looking at you with contempt and as if you were contagious is indescribable. My short foray into this world had shown me that few people have sympathy for those hard on their luck. "They got what they deserved because of their bad choices or lifestyle" seems to be the prevailing attitude. Or "If they had worked harder they wouldn't be in this mess." What I am really seeing is that underneath our layers of clothing, all of us are pretty much the same. We don't want a free ride and we want to work and contribute. We want a better life for our children and along the way we want to experience love and a little happiness.

It is absolutely crummy to not be able to travel anywhere or go out to eat. And there is a great deal of worry involved with juggling bills around and not having anything set aside for emergencies, much less figuring out how two kids will go to college in a couple of years. I'm not even going to bring up health insurance and medical worries here on top of everything else. But what I was left with after my research session was that most of those who related their stories of struggle went on to overcome them. They never forgot the hardship but their lives improved. No doubt ours will become substantially better as soon as I start working again. In the mean time, I am going to choose to view my circumstances as "Our Frugal Period" rather that one including the words " poor, impoverished or poverty."

It's okay. There are a lot of us out there right now being frugal.

I am grateful:

1. For a safe place to live.
2. For the safe, picturesque and pleasant community that surrounds our home.
3. For clam chowder soup.
4. That spring is on its way - Easter stuff is now up in the stores!
5. For all the sales and bargains I come across that make being frugal easier.


  1. "of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed." ~ Melville

    your list of what you are grateful for far exceeds what some have. it is far less than what a lot have. no matter what we have or do not have we always look over the fence and wish.

    i've been, let's call it, "not well off" for a long time. even when i was married to my first husband who made 6 figures, it was his money and i was given an allowance to spend on the groceries, our children, and most certainly on myself. i had to keep receipts so he could "look them over." i had to make "presentations" so he could enjoy his control.

    just because you are married and have money doesn't mean you "have" money. i was far happier being poor with my Dragon but alas, i was with my Dragon. you are alone with your love 4 hours away. i'm sorry you are so down about your situation. there are knacks for getting by. jelly on saltines and chocolate milk is filling for those days when you really only have enough for one big meal. scrambled eggs on toast is nice especially if you have it with soup. mac and cheese, such a luxury and if you can add paprika, it spices it up.

    i hope you make it. feeding kids makes the above recipes harder but my kids and i made it after the divorce from their dad. we were so relieved to be free from the fear. i made up an elaborate con that we were bohemian artists who lived for the experience while planning for a future that could come only if we could truly appreciate jelly on saltines. the future did come. in the form of a Dragon who paid their way to college and protected us from harm.

    i will keep you in my thoughts. i know these times are hard but you and your boys will become very close through it. and that is the blessing behind this tough time. i think.

  2. During our poorest/most frugal years, my brother and I used to eat lots of lettuce sandwiches on toast, fried potatoes, and ramen noodles. On Saturdays, my mother would give me a dollar or two before she and my dad left for work, and I would take my brother to the supermarket (I was 14 and he was 5 or 6), where we would figure out how many packs of ramen we could get at 19 cents each. We found a brand of cookies made in Mexico that were 25 cents a pack, and sometimes we would get those for dessert. Or, we would buy the small bag of M&Ms, and I would divide them up at home, one for him, one for me, and so on.

    One thing that's both a blessing and a curse is that people tend to assume your circumstances are the same as theirs. It can feel like you have "POOR PERSON" tattooed across your forehead, but if you don't look actively poor, most people will have no clue. The flip side of that is that then they won't always believe you when you try to explain that you can't afford something. I remember a very embarrassing incident when I tried to tell a teacher that I couldn't go on the year-end class trip because it was too expensive, and he just looked at me and said, "It's not any more expensive than it was at the beginning of the year." My mother had to call him later and explain that our circumstances had changed since then, which I'm sure wasn't any more fun for her than it had been for me.

  3. Reading your post made me think of a different time in our countries history when poverty was the norm. They called it The Great Depression. How appropriate. I would imagine that anyone growing up in those depression years would be pretty elderly now. That got me to thinking how their experience, recollections and knowledge could be a great resource for the multitudes of families finding themselves in your position. They too still had their homes for the most part but had to resort to extreme measures to feed and clothe their families. I would really enjoy having a conversation with someone who lived during that time to see what light they could shine on the current situation. At least back then, everyone was in the same boat. Currently we have the haves and have nots. I wonder if it was easier when everyone was on equal terms? I think the worst part of the current situation is that most people in it feel a sense of aloneness. Like they are perhaps the only ones going through this even though there are thousands or more in the same situation. Perhaps if we were joined in a common situation we might draw strength from one another.

  4. On a lighter and far less serious note, everytime I post a comment I can't help but wonder to myself who the heck thinks up those words we type into the box? Can you believe they PAY someone to do that??? It just really strikes me as bizarre.

  5. I keep hoping you will hear about a job opportunity soon. In the meantime you seem to be adapting in the healthiest way possible to your current situation. This post speaks so much of your compassion. It is not just your struggle, but those who struggle along side you. It appears that searching this topic gave you good perspective. I work with many clients who live below the poverty level, and I am always amazed at how they stretch what they have. I give them a lot of credit for maintaining the dignity they have. It cannot be easy to seek help knowing how so many people judge them.

    I am very fortunate to have what I have. Yet I understand the need to be frugal. This past week I realized that I ran out of money for the first time in quite a while. Since Michael died I have been really bad at keeping up with the bills. When I received notes from the bank I realized that the lifestyle we enjoyed with two incomes has definitely come to an end. It in no way compares to the challenges that some of you are currently facing, but it is a reminder to not be wasteful in my spending.

    I hope things turn around soon for you and your boys.

  6. wNs - The Melville quote was great. I should buckle down and get to reading Moby- Dick. I have always loved eating saltines with butter. Scrambled egg sandwiches have also been a favorite. Right now we are doing okay since I have found a grocery store where I can snap up 99 cent meat deals (a package of ground turkey or 4 turkey burgers for 99 cents. You can't beat that).

    I find the love story of your Dragon very inspiring and hopeful. Even in the darkest of days, love and hope can be reborn and come again.

    Vanessa - Are your memories of going to the store with your brother happy ones or are they tinged with sadness because of being poor?

    It is funny that whenever I have gone somewhere for assistance, it is first assumed that I am a social worker or coming there to volunteer. Interesting about first impressions. When this happens I try not to feel so bad about it because I figure I am helping people realize that being down on your luck can happen to any of us, at any time. Even those of us who look like middle-class soccer moms who work as social workers.

    Kelly - I do believe the Great Depression was more of a shared experience as was the hardship that was encountered during WWII. I used to laugh at older people who saved all their old jars and rubber bands. Now I understand that mindset and I know that I will probably live the rest of my life with a frugal outlook. Like my husband's death, this experience has deeply impacted me.

    Dan - The job search is proving challenging for me. I am not sure how to present myself and navigate the cyber world. I am going to seek assistance with a community based career center that helps people for a nominal charge. They gave me a hand with updating my resume last year. I am finding it tough to be a poor, only parent and maintain the high energy and hopefulness needed to job search. But I have to do this and I know I'll eventually find employment - I can't allow myself to think otherwise!

    In regard to your realizations of having to cut back - I have learned a great deal from the art of being frugal. I just wish I didn't have to be grieving at the same time! What I guess I am saying is that the lessons I've gained from this frugal lifestyle have been worth some of the struggle and that maybe you'll find valuable insight too.

  7. Hm ... I think at this point, they're mostly neutral memories, neither happy nor sad, even though at the time I hated being poor and felt as if it would never end. I wonder sometimes how much of those years my brother remembers, but we really don't have much of a relationship (he went with my mother in the divorce and we never lived together after he was 9 or 10) and I don't feel comfortable asking him. He was so much younger than me that I imagine he saw it all from a very different perspective, though.

  8. Hi ... have you ever heard of The Tightwad Gazette, a series of books by Amy Dacyczyn (it's pronounced "decision")? In the 1990s, she was really at the forefront of the thrift movement, and advocates it as a healthy lifestyle (for oneself, for one's family, and for the planet), regardless of the size of a person's income. She's semi-retired now, but her books are a fabulous source of ideas. Many of those things, I'd imagine, you're already doing because you seem so practical by nature. But since you said you're going to try to re-frame this part of your life as living frugally (rather than being "poor"), her upbeat and creative attitude might inspire you a bit! :)

    Here's a recent interview with Amy:

    Big hugs ...

  9. Vanessa - Even though at the time you hated the situation, I felt some good vibes coming out of what you described - the togetherness with your brother, being creative and thrifty, sharing the M&Ms. I am sorry though, to know that you and he are not close. I struggle with that aspect between my siblings pretty much every day. Our estrangement tears my heart. Perhaps one day in the future I can figure out how to heal that wound and maybe repair some of the distance.

    CCC - I know of Amy and have one of her books. I am definitely going to listen to her interview. I'm on a search for any and all new hints I can pick up for living frugally. Thank you for the recommendation.