frugality, NYC

on being “poor” & “broke”

I’ve recently taken to temporarily muting certain people on Twitter, not because they are racist or rude or politically offensive but because they are financially tone-deaf. I think we all know these people (I was once one of them): the sort who humble-brags about how oh-so-expensive that [insert non-necessary food/service/luxury here] was and how oh-so-tortured they feel about having spent so much money. Or a different sort: those who whine about how broke they are after they pay their credit card bills, how financially strained they feel after a particularly expensive night out, how put-upon they are by high gas/drink/cigarette/manicure/insurance prices. These people use words like “poor” and “broke” with complete abandon, and with some regularity I run out of patience and mute them for a little while. Because, just like some people bristle at the use of the phrase “I’m starving!” by anyone not literally starving, I cannot abide by those who use such specific financial terms to describe what can, at worst, be characterized as high-class problems.

I admit that this is an attitude I’ve developed over the past year, ever since I began living on the edge of society: homeless technically for a while even if it didn’t much feel like it, now in a situation one stop above an SRO and one stop below an official roommate situation. I pay my rent weekly, and even though it’s very cheap by NYC standards ($135/week), there are more than a few weeks during which I had to choose between buying food and paying my rent. This week, I sold every book and pawned every piece of jewelry I owned to make rent — and still only had $2 left over to last five days. And I was still hungry, not like you are when you skip lunch but the way you are when you don’t have money to buy food and are scrounging change to get a meal-replacement bar and hope that if you drink a lot of water you’ll be full enough to be able to sleep without feeling too deprived.

It upsets me when people who are anything but poor or broke use those words to describe how they feel financially. These are people who generally don’t — as far as I can tell — know what it’s like to get evicted or have their car repossessed or be charged NSF fees on a weekly basis or go to bed even just a tiny bit hungry not just occasionally but as a matter of course. I get asked a lot how I’ve lost 45 pounds since moving to New York City. Everyone thinks I’m joking when I say it’s because I can’t afford to eat more. I’m not joking. (I’m also not complaining. I chose this life, and I’m making do. Besides, I think everyone should know what it’s like to go to bed hungry at some point in their lives, and I’d rather it be now than when I was a child.)

I just wish people would realize how ridiculous they sound. It’s something similar to people who get injured complaining about being in so much pain – and then thinking they can relate to what I go through on a daily basis with my fibromyalgia. I’m sorry, but being in chronic pain is about as similar to breaking an arm as pneumonia is to a sneeze. Related, yes, but completely different impacts on one’s psychological and physical states. I can understand how people who drop $200 on a dinner or otherwise splurge on a night out can feel as though they are “poor” or “broke” because they spent a lot of money. But I do take offense when they use those words, as it insults every single person who actually IS poor and/or broke with no hope or expectation of non-poorness or non-brokeness in the near future. It’s sure easy to have a bank account with a balance in the double digits if you know your paycheck’s getting direct-deposited this or next Friday. It’s not so simple when your balance is $11 and your rent is due in three days and you have to figure out what to sell and/or start calculating how many bottles and cans you’ll have to return (at five cents each) to turn that $11 into $135 (it’s too depressing, but that would be 2,480 cans and bottles – think about that for a second, how many bags of recyclables that would be). Being “broke” is easy when you know its end-date. It’s something entirely different if the “end date” is “infinity.”

As I said, I’m not (necessarily) complaining; that is, I am complaining about the way other people talk about their finances, but I’m not complaining about the state I’m in. I’ve put myself in this position in hopes of long-term success, and (as evidenced by my book project) I’ve been able to come to terms with being impoverished and put a positive spin on it. I don’t feel deprived (just hungry, sometimes) and I don’t feel scared (much), but hot buttons are pushed when I see other people talking as though they are in the position I’m in, when they are really about 5,000% more financially secure than I’ve been in my entire lifetime (much less the past year).

I’m not sure what my point is. I just know that this is something I’ve been increasingly attuned to, and it’s something that I encounter every day. Maybe by venting here I’ll be less annoyed by it on my Twitter feed. Maybe not. Either way, it’s out in the open. Just watch what you say. You never know who might be (unintentionally) hurt by things you think are funny or flippant.

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2 thoughts on “on being “poor” & “broke””

  1. Inventories help me with this kind of stuff. I can’t control other people, but I can work on my own reactions to them. One thing I keep coming back to is that I must extend the tolerance, understanding, and forgiveness to others that I wish to have extended to me. God knows I have plenty of my own flaws to work on. This was shown to me very clearly after being around a family member who is constantly complaining about how X person was doing Y wrong, using a lot of “should” and “should not” statements. I don’t want to be like him, so I have to work on myself and take the focus off him.

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    1. I agree, to some extent. But I also see this as more along the lines of doing social justice work – speaking up about biases people have that they don’t even realize they are projecting – than I do a resentment I have that’s preventing my spiritual growth. At the end of the day, I’m quite fulfilled and happy despite my financial straits. Others’ attitudes toward money aren’t making me feel jealous of them or angry that they have so much to complain about while I have so little (I’ve come to terms with that). What I’m trying to point out is, I guess, a class-based observation along the lines of Peggy MacIntosh’s invisible knapsack (about invisible white privilege). My complaints aren’t that other people aren’t sensitive to my suffering (I don’t expect them to be) but, rather, that they are using language to describe a phenomenon that they really aren’t experiencing and shouldn’t claim to be living through. (Just as I believe – on a social justice level – that white people don’t know what it’s like to truly experience institutional and cultural racism in the same way, say, an African-American man does. Pointing that out doesn’t affect my serenity or my program… but it just might help things change in a miniscule way. I suppose I see all of these things as falling under the “courage to change the things I can” part of the serenity prayer?)

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