For the entirety of my working life, I’ve been poor. I currently make sandwiches for a living and my last job was making smoothies. Before that, it was washing dishes. Even though I went to college—following that myth that a degree is a career guarantee—some might say I was destined to be poor: I was a latchkey kid raised by a single, working-class mother who moved us all over California, jumping from apartment to apartment to trailer in the middle of the desert. My only source of nutrition was the free lunch program at school.
Now, I’m on Medicaid. Last year I worked as much as 60 hours a week split between two part-time food service jobs just to make ends meet. Alongside those jobs, I worked side gigs when I could get them. I made about $23,000. It sucks enormous chunks.
Sometime last year, I started frequently googling “why am I poor” and “how do I stop being poor.” Every result insisted the problem is I go out too much (I don’t go out, I’m too tired), I don’t have a savings account (I don’t have enough kick around cash to open a savings account), or I’m not planning my money right (I plan to pay my rent and then cry in a corner until my next paycheck, does that count?).
According to popular thinking, if you’re poor, it’s your fault and therefore your responsibility to fix things. It’s not your employer paying you less than a living wage. Or your local officials approving the building of luxury condos in your neighborhood. It’s not the skyrocketing cost of living. It’s not anti-union efforts across the country’s largest companies. No, dear sandwich maker. The reason you’re broke is because you decided to buy yourself a latte between 16-hour workdays. Shame on you.
Here’s the thing: Not only is it okay to spend on yourself, but for low-income people, it’s an entirely normal coping mechanism.
“Poor person brain” explained
If you’re among the 39.7 million Americans living in poverty or the millions more who struggle to make ends meet, the real reason you’re bad at saving or you feel you’re spending too much on non-essentials is something I call “poor person brain.”
Allow me to elaborate. “Poor person brain” is when you’re just about out of your mind stressed about how you don’t have enough to get by. Despite the fact that I currently have $45.90 in my bank account to last through next week, it’s not uncommon to treat myself to a burger after a particularly grueling week. It’s a habit that I see both as an egregious failure to save my money and as a necessary expenditure to find the will to keep grinding away.
Ne-Yo puts it best in his song “Time of Our Lives”:
I knew my rent was gon' be late bout a week ago
I worked my ass off, but I still can't pay it though
But I got just enough
To get off in this club
Have me a good time, before my time is up
Boy, those lyrics cut deep.
Why short-term thinking makes sense when you’re poor
I recently spoke with Linda Tirado, who wrote Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, which details her experiences with (and misconceptions about) low-income life. Trying to align with the standard expectation of how to interact with your money when you’re low income, she tells me, is useless: “You are adapting to your circumstances, thinking in the short term. It would be maladaptive for a low wage worker to set even middle class financial goals. It doesn’t make sense to maintain a savings account if you can’t pay your rent.” Lots of recent research on the topic backs her viewpoint.
As Tirado explains, "if you’re working low wages, the whole concept of saving and investing goes away because you don’t have the luxury of that long term; it’s hypothetical.”
I often ask myself: how come I’m working all the time, my body is breaking down, I’ve cut and tightened every way I can think of, and despite how much I’m sacrificing, I still can’t manage to make rent? It’s at this point that poor person brain blossoms: I’m still going to struggle whether or not I buy a bag of chips, so I might as well buy the chips. As Tirado puts it, “there’s no reason to put anything off for the long term if there is no long term that will be better than today.”
Buy the chips. Have you a good time, before your time is up. The immediate necessity for psychological survival negates the bogus narrative that you just have to work harder, and it’ll get better when you know it won’t.
The way I see it, being poor is like having cancer: You can’t bootstrap your way out of having cancer. You can seek medical assistance to fight the cancer (Medicaid). You can seek spiritual guidance to give you mental fortitude to power through the cancer (Jack In the Box two for $1 tacos, a manicure, seeing a movie). You can get surgery and radiation to remove the cancer (loans). But ultimately, you have still had cancer, there’s no guarantee it won’t come back, and your efforts to fight through it have permanently altered your genetic code and brain structure.
Most financial advice is for middle class people who make bad choices
I’m just going to say it: All the financial advice out there tells us the only way to resolve our financial pressures is by following specific guidelines because all that advice is founded on a homogenized perspective that appeals predominantly to a shrinking middle class.
If you’re not low income, you have more wiggle room to be less stringent about how you use your money. Maybe you buy a new iPhone every year. Maybe you take a vacation that temporarily puts you in credit card debt. Maybe you don’t have a separate savings account because staring at all those sweet, sweet zeroes in your checking account gets you hot. And so, the financial advice is geared toward the financially stable who make bad financial choices, like investing in bitcoin this year or getting bangs after a breakup.
Meanwhile, these guidelines reinforce negative stereotypes about low-income people and inspire heaps of criticism for those who inherently can’t follow them: You’re living in poverty because you sometimes buy snacks. You’re on the verge of eviction because you, minimum wage worker, simply aren’t trying hard enough. As if trying harder is what cures cancer.
And with that, maybe the best financial advice for those struggling is none at all. You know your finances better than anyone, because you’re constantly fighting against income that’s not commensurate with how much work you do. You know what you need to do to survive until next week. And you know the difference between buying to survive and splurging to purge what could be saved.
Go ahead, buy that bag of fries
Maybe the best thing we poor person brainers can do is embrace it. Embrace your financial woes, regain the autonomy that the status quo thinks we don’t deserve, if only to spite those who think we are less than for having less than. I’m poor and I like doing face masks to cheer myself up. I’m poor and I like to eat a meal I didn’t have to make when I’m too tired to keep going. Bite me.
If you’re poor, take a day off every few months and use it to heal and recharge. If a huge bag of McDonald’s fries is what’ll give you a mental tuneup to keep going, to push back, you go to McDonald’s, buy that unhealthy, greasy fast food, and you chow down on those bad boys with pride. You know how much money you have. You know how you’re spending it. Own your need to survive. Turn it into a decision to live for right now and laugh. Laugh loudly, with your mouth full of fries, at anyone who tries to criticize you for it.
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