It’s no secret around these parts that I’m hurting for money and terrified about what will happen when it runs out (current estimate: August 20). But I’m also a human being, and for a long time — since the days of my first marriage, when the two of us ate on a budget of $10 a week, which included a lot of ramen noodles and a bottle of Boone’s Farm wine — I’ve had this idea that just because I’m poor doesn’t mean I have to sit at home feeling sorry for myself.
Probably this was the genesis of my frugality, which has developed over the years into a keen sense of how to get by on less (or, lately, almost nothing) and how to have a lot of fun without spending too much money.
Notice that I said spending too much, not spending nothing.
Yes, despite my circumstances, I still see movies in movie theatres and I still eat in restaurants. I do not spend frivolously — I want desperately to see a film at the Ziegfeld in case the rumors of its imminent demise are true, but $17 for a film is ridiculous right now — and I definitely watch what I spend down to the penny. I rely heavily on Groupon and happy-hour deals and the use of my not-yet-expired student ID (which gets me into movies and some Broadway plays at highly reduced rates). I sometimes will buy myself clothes, usually at thrift stores for pennies on the original dollar, but in the case of upcoming job interviews I scope out clearance racks and regretfully shop at fast-fashion stores (despite knowing the human cost of the clothing).
In an average week, I spent about $75 on these sorts of things, a little more than $10 a day. When things are tight, it’s closer to $25. When something huge is happening — the sort of thing that I think I’ll regret forever for not-doing — it might be slightly more. But very rarely.
I’ve lost friendships and gotten criticism from people about spending my up-to-$75 a week on eating out and entertaining myself (keep in mind this figure includes every-other-weekend I spent with my children; have you tried spending a weekend with two boys for less than $75, lodging included?). These same people have criticized me for going on vacations while poor, even though the vacations were funded by renting my apartment out while I was gone, effectively costing me nothing.
Point one: Appearances are deceiving. I’ve been poor most of my life, since I was 14 and got a full-time job to help take care of myself. There hasn’t been one minute of my life when I haven’t been acutely aware of how much something costs. At least every third minute has been spent worrying about spending too much, about deciding to buy something for an already-good price but finding it for less after it’s too late to return. And at least every fifth minute has been spent planning how to work everything out. But I highly doubt that anyone who knows me (who doesn’t read this) would know how much time and anxiety is spent over the money I’m spending, will spend, or have spent. Just because it looks like I’m having a good time — and I do enjoy my life — it doesn’t mean I don’t think about what I’m doing before, after, and while I’m doing it.
Point two: Even poor people have a right to enjoy life. There’s a lot of chatter in the news, on the interwebs, even in conversations I’ve had about whether poor people have the “right” to have fun. Usually it’s couched in other words: whether they should be able to buy candy bars or birthday cakes with their food-stamp money, whether it’s okay to spend time at the beach or in the park or at the movies if you don’t have a job (whether or not you’re desperately looking for one), whether parents should want their kids to have nice things even if the family is poor. My own mother bounced checks and wore bras with holes in them so she could buy groceries and afford off-brand shoes that (being a teenager) I was embarrassed to wear to school, amongst classmates whose fathers were engineers and doctors and lawyers. She also went out once a week to a bar to drink, dance, and have fun.
I’m poor. Have been for a while, continue to be now, and will probably be even more so in the near future unless things rapidly take a turn for the better. I’ve worked hard to get a good education, working under the (false) premise that if I did all the right things I’d end up with a good job and be financially secure at some point. But I refuse to take my financial status and turn it into an excuse to sit at home and mope and what-have-you. I am not frivolous in my behavior, though I do understand that for people who don’t have the tools I do — bargain-hunting, bartering, knowing how to do almost everything freely or cheaply — it might seem as though I do. Look at Point One. Appearances aren’t what they seem.
And then look at Point Two, highly related to Point One. Maybe I should only spend $10 a week on dining out and entertainment, though that would likely get me a taco and one ride at Coney Island. But that’s not enough for me to keep my sanity, to continue to see that there is happiness in life. There has to be some sort of relief in the sort of existence I have. Writing helps, going to meetings helps, talking to people helps. But what also helps is getting out of the house and spending what little money I’ve set aside to do things “normal” people do. And by “normal” I mean people I’m friends with on Twitter and Facebook and IRL who talk about spending $200 on a coat or taking a vacation to Tahoe like it’s no big deal. Proportionally, I think I’m being pretty responsible. If I don’t get out and relax, for lack of a better word, this situation would be even more intolerable than it already is.
Why this is coming up now, I don’t know. I guess I was thinking about having used a Groupon for dinner last night and my student ID to see a movie, then realizing that checking in on Foursquare in all the places I go might give people the wrong impression. (Point One, folks.) Yep, I’m self-conscious about spending about $15 to eat dinner and see a movie or $8 on a manicure or $20 on a beauty-school haircut. I don’t know that will ever change. Somehow, writing about it, no matter how rambling, makes me feel a little better about people being able to see my side of the story. Maybe things will take a turn for even worse, and these recent days will seem as though I’d lived high on the hog. Perhaps they’ll take a turn for the better and these past few years will be the “struggling” ones a lot of people seem to have (but not entirely remember the stringency of). I don’t know the answer. I just know that I’m poor, but that I still need (and deserve) to have love and lightness where I can find it, even if it’s the cheap sort that other people just can’t comprehend my being able to find.