No, I Can’t Budget Out of Poverty
The elite just don’t get it
“Well, you know,” she said, “you just have to budget better.”
I sat in the back seat of a nearly-new SUV driven by a well-off, powerful woman with another well-off, old-family-blood woman riding shotgun, as the three of us headed to a networking event an hour away.
In silence, I listened to the two chit-chat most of the drive. They talked about an upcoming wedding, friends, and other smalltown gossip.
The conversation soon turned to Christmas shopping. They both had plans to visit Branson, Missouri, soon, a four-hour drive from where we lived.
The two talked about the stores, streets, different places they knew intimately and visited often. I couldn’t relate.
I had been to Branson three times in my life — only after large charges to credit cards or years spent saving up for a one-night stay at a hotel. We did it for my nephews so they could have some sort of vacation. They always wanted to go to the beach. The best we could do was a hotel waterpark.
After almost 30 minutes of silence, the driver — we’ll call her Kristy — asked me, “Do you visit Branson often?”
I felt embarrassed.
“Oh. No,” I said. “I don’t really have the money. You know, with my dad’s cancer, and caring for my nephews ….”
“It’s not like you have to stay the night,” she said.
Without a hotel room, there were still food costs, I thought. There’s gas money. The concern about adding additional miles on your aging car — and the fear of if your car will make the trip at all.
We were lucky if we Christmas shopped at the mall and not Walmart. It surprised me to learn there were people who went to the “big city” for shopping alone.
“I just really can’t afford it,” I said.
Then she said it: what I had heard people with money say before, time and time again.
“You just have to budget better.”
At the networking event, I tried to socialize. There were mayors and legislators and CEOs. Important people, I told myself. People I needed to meet if I wanted to go up in the world.
I stood among the two women I attended with and a mayor’s wife. After some short chit-chat, the conversation turned to shopping and hair styling.
“You know, you really can’t get a good pair of jeans for under $160,” our shotgun passenger said. Let’s call her Lindsey.
I stared down at my $9 jeans from Walmart. Could they tell the prices of my clothes? I felt so cheap.
Kristy talked about waiting for the brand-new 2020 vehicles to come out to purchase her newest car. I thought of my mother and her 1990s-era Explorer. She felt so lucky to have it. Despite its age and miles, it still ran great. That’s what mattered.
The mayor’s wife mentioned spending hundreds on facials, hair cuts, and hair dye and styling. She commuted an hour for the perfect stylist. It was a necessity to keep up perfect appearances.
I thought of Mom again, who treats herself with a $6 box of hair dye every now and then. She had never had her hair professionally dyed in her 59 years of life.
Could I, or my family, ever measure up to these people?
At the luncheon, Lindsey and I sat together. She planned to quit her job soon. She called it a “financial” decision. The $50,000 a year wasn’t enough, she said, even if $50,000 is big money in our area.
I wondered how she would have survived on my $18,000 salary.
When I mentioned I wanted to apply for the position, she said she had a friend in mind to take her place. It surprised me since Lindsey had warned me months before her plan to leave so I could be ready to replace her.
As we sat together, she questioned me, with a bit of hostility, “What do you even have a degree in?”
A bachelor’s in media communication, I said. I found her questions ironic. She had been my intern once at my old job. I once taught her.
She seemed taken back at first then added, “Well, have you considered doing something else?”
Something else? I already had over five years of experience in the field working full-time at a newspaper as a reporter, photographer, paginator, and editor.
“No, not really,” I said. “I mean, I went to school for six years … and I’ve been working at this for almost six years ….”
“You could be a teacher,” she said.
She didn’t want me to apply for the position, I knew. Her friend wanted it. Even as I told her I needed the job to help my family — a dying father, a disabled sister, and two minor nephews — she didn’t care.
“I don’t want to teach,” I said.
“You could always go be a — oh I don’t know — a bank teller,” she said.
I stared blankly. A bank teller?
The luncheon speaker took over and our conversation died. Later that night, Lindsey messaged me on Facebook with a job listing for a Coca Cola factory position.
“Hey lady!” She wrote. “Just saw this — I know you’ve got lots of family members to take care of, didn’t know if anyone in your family might be interested! Great pay. Just wanted to share!”
I knew she meant for the job to be for me.
I find teachers and bank tellers and factory workers all to be reputable jobs, many who probably make a lot more than I do, but I had my career choice down.
I almost didn’t apply for her position. She has family and influence in our small community. I came from a family of outsiders — California-transplants. In small-town culture, you need more than hard work, drive, and experience to land it big. Often, it’s about what’s in your blood.
When I didn’t get the job, I felt Lindsey’s words melt into my brain. Maybe I wasn’t good enough for a higher-paying position. Maybe I needed to stop trying so hard.
Maybe, I thought, poverty is just where I belong.
Too often, there is a divide between the elite and the poor. It’s not all about budgeting your money better. How can I budget what isn’t there?
After all, it’s pretty expensive to be poor.
Late fees, overdraft fees, reconnection fees can kill a budget. You may endure higher interest rates due to a low credit score. Being only able to afford minimum payments leads to higher costs paid overall in the end.
When you cannot afford to buy supplies in bulk, you pay more overall. Healthier food is also more expensive. A bad diet eventually leads to health problems which, again, costs money. Money which many of us don’t have.
Can’t afford basic dental care now? That will be pricy, and likely painful, dental care costs later.
Health care? My father’s cancer medication was $2,000 for a month's supply. We couldn’t afford it, though in the physical state he was in, I doubt it could have done much. He passed last Thursday. Love you, Dad.
“A really good pair of leather boots cost $50. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about $10. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford $50 had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in 10 years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent $100 on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.”
— Terry Pratchett, “Men at Arms: The Play”
Want to take care of your mental health? Good luck affording a therapist. Some sessions, without insurance, can cost hundreds. Some of us don’t make enough in a week to afford one appointment.
You need transportation to work, but can’t afford car insurance or to tag a vehicle. Public transportation? Hopefully you can afford the riding fare. But for many of us living in rural areas, we have limited or no access to any public transportation. How do you get to work now?
Lindsey might be right that a $160 pair of pants may be better quality. But when that’s almost your entire paycheck, you can’t afford a “good” pair. Instead, you resort to cheaper alternatives. And these alternatives often tear easier, wear out faster, and result in us buying more pants overtime — eventually reaching that $160 mark, or more.
The list goes on and on. Rental costs. Childcare costs.
There’s always the unexpected — vehicle wrecks, injury, sickness, appliances going out, utility issues.
Imagine if a family member dies without life insurance. We couldn’t afford a funeral for Dad and still had to pay $1,700 for a basic cremation. I don’t make that in a month. Without cash funds, it went on a credit card — a card I’ll slowly be paying off for years to come.
To afford to survive, the poor often get dragged into predatory loans and high-interest credit cards.
Even if you do everything right — get an education, stay out of trouble, get employed full-time — there is no guarantee you can work yourself out of poverty.
The advantages and disadvantages are everywhere.
Born into the “wrong” family, city, or neighborhood? Perhaps you’re part of a certain racial or social group. Sex, gender, race, disability, and sexual orientation impact your chances at success, all things which you cannot change by “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” or “budgeting.”
For example, many states still lack basic employment, housing or credit protections for LGBTQ persons. In my home state of Oklahoma, I can be fired or discriminated against at any time. Out of fear, I and my gay coworker hide our true selves. We’re among an estimated 113,000 LGBTQ adults in Oklahoma left vulnerable and concerned for our futures.
Expand discrimination protections. Raise the minimum wage. Support equal pay, affordable childcare, and paid sick and family leave.
Invest in education and infrastructure. Increase the availability of full-time employment. Help out your fellow man, for God’s sake.
The poor keep getting poorer and the rich richer.
It’s time to raise taxes on the top 1 percent.
After all, if our friendly neighborhood billionaires can’t afford that third yacht, maybe they just need to budget better.