One of the most common lies about people living in poverty is that the issue is caused by their poor money skills. The lie goes something like this: whenever they get extra money, from a tax return or a windfall, they blow it on something they don’t need instead of paying their bills.
And the reality is, people believe the lie because it is partially true.
In the fall of 2004, my husband was a full time college student with a work study job on campus. I was a medical records clerk at a large ophthalmology and optometry practice. I made $10 an hour.
We didn’t have health insurance and we were paying our bills, but god help us if something unexpected came up. I bought most of my clothes at Goodwill, except the scrubs I had to have for work. We bought most of his clothes at 50% off sales.
We rarely ate out and we did all the things that you’re supposed to do to work your way out of poverty. We were never coffee people, so it’s not like we were buying $3 lattes. But between his school expenses, my student loan payments and keeping a roof over our heads, there wasn’t a lot of money for fun.
Our money windfall, if you want to call it that, started on a Wednesday night when he picked me up from work. He picked me up at 5:30 and had to be to class at 7. We had just enough time to go home, grab dinner and see each other for a few minutes before he had to leave.
But all that got screwed up because a teenager who was unfamiliar with the area roads, decided to do 55 mph in a 35 mph zone and rear end us as we were turning into our driveway.
He did about $6,000 in damage to our car and sent me to the emergency room. The medical bills, for treatment and physical therapy, ended up being about $12,000. And our insurance company suggested we get a lawyer, because the insurance wouldn’t cover things like missed work even though I was missing work to go to the doctor for injuries caused by the accident.
We found an attorney willing to work on contingency, meaning he only got paid after we got a settlement from the other driver’s insurance company. He did an excellent job and after he was paid, the car was fixed and all the bills were paid, we had about $5,000 in unexpected cash.
All the financial gurus will tell you that we should have spent that on paying ahead our bills or saving for an emergency.
But what they don’t tell you is that after six months of physical therapy and years of working 40 hours or more just to scrape by, you sometimes need a break.
So we split the difference. We put about half the money into an emergency fund, paid our rent for a couple months and then meticulously planned a vacation to New Orleans.
We drove to our bed and breakfast in the French Quarter to save on travel expenses. We ate one meal on the road each direction, despite the ten-hour drive. We contacted the tourism bureau to find the best discounts on activities, food and lodging.
In all, we spent less than $2,500 on a five-day vacation. It was the first one we’d had since we got married in 1996.
So the lie about poverty is that we were wasteful and poor money managers.
The truth is that , for us, that vacation was the reward for the pain of the accident and a decade of barely scraping by.
The Truth About Poverty Purchases
The financial gurus who want to shame poor people for making “frivolous” purchases have likely never lived in poverty. They also want you to believe that if someone is poor they are not allowed to relax or need entertainment. And they sure as hell shouldn’t need a vacation.
After all, they’ll tell you, it’s laziness that causes poverty.
Everyone I personally know who lives or has lived in poverty has worked long hours, often at multiple jobs, just to survive. So when they get a chance to relax they take it.
Person living in poverty has a game system or plays computer games? It is likely their sole form of relaxation.
When we were super poor, and in the days before Netflix and other anti-cable options, we tried getting rid of our cable. We found that within a month we spent more on gas to get to the video store and video rentals than we had been paying for cable.
Whether they are single adults, or a family, people need time to relax, even if it’s just a couple hours in the evening in front of the television or a computer screen. Now, it’s even more important for people to have a computer and internet because it is literally the way people learn and connect with the world.
Someone who’s poor has a smart phone?
Good. It may be the only internet access they have, and there are so many things you literally can’t do without it. Right now, for example, try getting a vaccine appointment without internet access. You can’t.
Stop Assuming the Poor Can’t Manage Their Money
If you’ve never had to negotiate with your electricity provider to take a smaller payment so that you can use the rest of the money to pay your water bill, don’t assume people who are poor are bad at managing their money.
Winter was always the worst when we were very poor. Your heating bill would skyrocket even though your income didn’t change.
Then you add in the holidays and the expectation that you would somehow have money for gifts? It was stressful and difficult.
To deal with the gift issue, we got in the habit of buying gifts from our family all year long when we caught things on sale. People who aren’t poor generally don’t do that. And buying a Christmas gift in February is not a sign of poor money management.
There were years when we would be in tears opening the electric bill knowing that we would likely not get it caught up until we got our income tax return.
And yes, we knew we could have adjusted our withholding so we got smaller tax returns and had more money through the year, but the reality is there would always be something that we needed to buy.
If we made it through from payday to payday with $20 left over, we were doing well and likely hadn’t replaced the shoes or jeans or car tires or whatever that needed to be done.
Most of the people I know or knew who lived in poverty simply did not make enough money to meet their basic needs. Full stop. No caveats.
It’s never been about how well people manage their money. It’s about how little of it they have.
So stop shaming the poor when they use unexpected cash to splurge on something like a vacation. It’s one of the few times they get to relax and feel like normal people.
At least it was for us.