Well, this is (probably) the last in the series and I'm posting much more quickly on the heels of the previous post than I did before, largely because I don't want that last post to be out there too long without me explaining why I did this. I feel like it sounds…kind of pitiful, oh woe-is-me, but it was definitely not intended to be. (Nobody has told me this…it's just what I think. I actually got a tremendous amount of positive feedback. It was wonderful.)
Anyway! Why did I write this little series containing an honest look at our financial life? Well, the idea first came to me as the Occupy Wall Street protests were just getting started and I was reading a lot of stories from average people that sounded a lot like mine. Then things started snowballing from there… We had a book club at work where we read Caitlin Shetterly's memoir Made for You and Me – it was so similar to our own story that many places had me in tears. I wept for them, for us, for all the people who were losing their homes, their savings, their sense of dignity and purpose. (It's an excellent book, by the way, read it if you can.) At the book club, perhaps a third of us had experienced situations not unlike hers where we found ourselves jobless and dependent on family and friends. There were young people who were experiencing it firsthand and older folks who were seeing their children go through this (and often housing them too). There was some talk on Twitter about how people don't talk about this kind of stuff and it seems that folks really appreciate when someone shares their honest story. So I decided to share! If it makes one person out there feel a little less alone in their situation, then I will be satisfied. It certainly made me feel less alone – thank you for all your tweets and comments and messages!
More than that, I hope I'm contributing in my own tiny way to a growing dialogue about what is happening in this country right now. In the grand scheme of the history of humankind, yes, we have it pretty good. Really excellent you could even say. Even compared to the majority of places on earth right now…we're doing fantastic. We are not in the midst of a civil war. I have plenty of access to fresh water. I have a roof over my head. I have heat, though we certainly keep it colder than I'd like in our house these days… I have enough to eat. I don't have to contend with wild animals, 16 hour workdays, brutal dictatorships, landmines or any number of other awful things. I have the luxury of sitting in my heated house, with my wireless internet and typing away on my laptop. I know. I get it. But in a country that tells you that if you work hard and get an education, you will be "successful?" When so many people are doing just that and…failing? (At least temporarily.) Knowing that I'm lucky compared to so many other people in the world may help me keep perspective, but it doesn't make paying the bills or rent or putting food on the table any easier.
And that's part of why I feel so frustrated.
I feel like I did everything right. I was told certain things growing up – if you're smart and work hard, you will be successful. I am smart. Smarter than the average bear, I'd say, if you don't mind. I took all those AP classes in high school, did the honors program during college and graduated with honors. Did well in grad school. I'm always learning new things of my own volition. I read. I consider myself relatively financially savvy. (But when you don't have anything to work with, it's hard to make some of those smart financial decisions. Have a nest egg! Right.) My smarts have allowed us to subsist on less than we might have otherwise. I credit my willingness to learn how to make stuff – clothes, dishwasher detergent, bread, granola – with saving us quite a bit of money over time. I use my brain to navigate the world of coupons, money-saving deals and government programs – and that last one is no small feat, trust me.
And I like to think I work pretty hard too, though of course I always feel like I could be working harder. I've always had a job (or two…or three) or have been looking (hard!) for one. I worked more hours in college than most people I know, but usually not at jobs that were any good for my future career. Money held me back there – I could never take those unpaid internships that many of my peers held in order to further my career-related skills because I couldn't afford to be not earning money for that length of time. (Or reducing my paid-work hours to the degree I would have had to in order to do both. I did eventually find one paid internship in college, but it was short-lived.) I consider myself very lucky just to have been able to attend college and grad school at all, trust me.
But if I'm smart and I've always worked hard…what gives? Am I just unlucky? Is there something wrong with the system? Is there something wrong with me? Was I lied to my whole life? How come, at a time in my life when I thought for sure I would have everything all figured out, do I feel like I have no idea what I'm doing or how I got here?
I can't, with any surety, answer those questions. I will say that I know I've made some bad decisions in my life and that I'm far from trying to blame my problems on anyone else in particular. For instance, I quit a job once because it was so horrible that when I pulled into the parking lot in the morning, I would start to cry. I didn't wait to find another one, even though that would have been the responsible thing, because I just had to get out of there now. As it turns out, I didn't find anything for a good long while. Should I have waited? Probably. And I know that I've purchased things I shouldn't have on credit just because I wanted them. Who hasn't? The drudgery of budgeting every penny can really wear you down and I truly believe that everyone needs a little treat every now and then. But how big a treat? Are we talking a latte or a PlayStation? My recent splurge was to order two scarves that I probably shouldn't have. But we couldn't afford gifts for Christmas and my birthday is coming up so I decided to spend the $20. Should I have done that? Financially, no. But it was good for my peace of mind and I'll just have to deal with the consequences. Another of my downfalls, not exactly a decision, is that I'm horribly socially awkward. OK, maybe not horribly, but I don't have that certain something that some people have that allows them to succeed in spite of their inherent idiocy. I always sort of assume that the fact that I'm not a blathering idiot will be clear to people, but that's not always the case and I have a really hard time advocating for myself when I think it should be apparent. (I really need to get over that…)
So why did I title these pieces "I am just like you?" Because I am. The regular, average "you" of middle-class America, if such a thing exists anymore. I walk down the street wearing decent clothes, a nice haircut and respectable looking shoes with my adorable toddler in tow. I carry a gorgeous handmade bag, that I bought years ago and saved for. I drive an ordinary older car. I accessorize in this wintry time with beautiful hand knit hats and scarves and mittens. You would never look twice at me. You wouldn't see me and think, "She's poor." You would see me and think…probably nothing at all. Or if you're a knitter, maybe, "Hey, that's a nice pair of mittens." But probably nothing at all. (You wouldn't see me and think, "She has money" either, but that's a different story.) I feel like I fit in with my friends, though I know some of them "have" substantially more than we do. It usually doesn't bother me until it comes to doing something with or for our similarly-aged children and I can't afford to do it. I know I'm not alone – I've talked with other mamas who are equally unable to send their children to expensive classes or daycares, much as we all might like to. But it doesn't make it any easier.
So what does the future hold?
I have no idea. Ideally, M will finish school and land a great job. I would love to work more but I would also love to spend as much time as possible with my kiddos. If it's a matter of paying the bills, and daycare doesn't eat up all my paycheck, I will have to accept that I may have to work more hours, if I can find something. If we can get by on less (which I think we can, because, well, we are) then I will continue working part-time and momming part-time. I know that we have family and friends that won't let us starve or be homeless and for that I am eternally grateful but I am always so hesitant to "take advantage" even though I know they are more than willing to help.
If we only could ask.
There are a number of great books to read about this issue. I prefer personal narrative types, like Caitlin Shetterly's memoir that I mentioned above, or Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch. (Or any of her other books, for that matter…) There are others that are slipping my mind at the moment. As someone said to me about the previous post, people don't really understand until they hear personal stories. Especially stories from friends. We never think it'll happen to us or to people we know. But it does. Every day.
This website has been making the rounds on Facebook recently and it's worth mentioning. It makes you take a hard look at poverty and what you need to do to make it through a fictional month. Our budget is really quite close to that in reality and the questions addressed are things I at least think about, if not actually deal with, on a daily basis. Take a look. It may be eye opening.
Then there's this post on Why You're Always Broke. This is exactly the kind of post that pisses me off. Yes, this may be why you're always broke if you're a twenty- or thirty-something with no kids and a decent job. It's not that the reasons given aren't valid – they totally are – but they are just so superficial. It barely scratches the surface of why people are broke. And it leads off with the tired old "Don't buy that morning latte" suggestion, which…really? We've all heard that a million times before. If you are in a situation where buying that morning latte is really all that's making you broke? You're not doing so bad. They are good suggestions and we practice every single one. But let's go deeper people!
I'll be doing a follow up post soon about ways that we save money…it will probably include things on that list! But I hope that I'll be including some more substantial things you can do as well. And it certainly won't be titled "Why We're Always Broke" because the answer to that has nothing to do with our coffee consumption and everything to do with our paltry income and our current inability to increase it.
To everyone who wrote to me and left comments or tweets – thank you for your support! And to those of you in the same or similar situations – hang in there! There's not a lot else we can do but be there for each other.