Success Is Weird.
On Being Used-to-be-Poor.
I started off life pretty solidly middle class. My dad was a stockbroker when I was a kid. My mom was a mom.
They divorced, my dad remarried and had five more kids, and the legs under the middle class-ness in our family went wobbly.
Then, when I was fifteen, things fell apart in a big, splashy, made-for-TV-movie way.
That year my dad moved us to Las Vegas and then he went to prison. My step-mother got drunk and pretty much stayed that way for the next five years.
Suddenly I went from comfortably middle class to trying to figure out how to feed my brothers, my sister, and me with four frozen burritos and a can of corn.
I got married as soon as I possibly could. I had a baby. Then another one. I remember celebrating with my first husband the day in the early 90s when he landed a $6 an hour job.
Then I was a divorcee with two babies, one of them an autistic son who couldn’t be left in daycare.
All of that is to say that I’ve been poor. Very, very poor. (By first world standards, anyway.)
The kind of poor that makes it so you’re never far from the fear that you won’t be able to feed all the people who expect you to feed them.
The kind of poor where you go years without ever paying every bill, every month.
The kind of poor where you’ve lived so long in places that scare you that go immune to being scared.
The kind of poor where you seriously consider talking dirty to men on the telephone for a paycheck, because you can do it from home — and you would have done it, too, but your autistic kid never sleeps.
I have been that poor. And I’m not anymore. For a long time I’ve been part of the have-enough-but-not-much-more class. And this year, rather suddenly, I’m really not poor anymore.
This year I’ve found my way back to my early middle-class roots.
When I got married again, my new husband’s income was three times what mine was. (Which isn’t saying as much as maybe it sounds like it is. I really was very poor.)
That first month, and for years after, paying the bills was an event in our house.
When we got married, bills were still mostly paid by writing checks and sending them off in the mail. Every Thursday was our Money Day (yes, I did name this day.) I’d make a special dinner. We’d sit down with whatever bills needed to be paid and the checkbook. And we’d pay them.
All of them. Every week. Every month.
It was glorious. I still get a little thrill out of Money Day, after fourteen years.
It’s a wondrous thing, not being poor anymore. My partner is part of the never-been-poor-but-kind-of-feels-like-he-has class. He’ll never really feel the wonder.
You know what I’m talking about, right? My husband has always had enough, but not much more than that. He was born and raised in enough-but-not-much-more, and just stayed there.
He has a tendency to look around himself and see what he doesn’t have. (A newer car. A better house. Enough money to fly to Disneyland instead of driving there.)
Being able to pay the power bill on time EVERY MONTH doesn’t do it for him, the way it does for me.
He feels perceived lack in a way that only people who’ve never used a food bank or couch-surfed with two kids can. That’s the kind of privilege that makes it hard to appreciate your baseline.
The Used-to-be-Poor is kind of a weird place to be.
I’m afraid to trust that I won’t slip back into poverty. I’m not actually afraid going back into just-enough. That’s a good place to be. But somehow having more money has brought up a fear of falling all the way back to the kind of poor where we keep candles on hand for when the power is turned off.
Some days, success feels as fragile as a soap bubble. I’m afraid I’ll do something to pop it.
I’m teaching something that I’m passionate about. I’m helping people realize their dream. I’m a writer who was able to quit her day job. I’m doing something that lots of people want to do, so I get asked fairly often how I made it work.
The answer is this: while I have some fear now, I didn’t when I started my business. I wasn’t worried about failing, so I didn’t follow any rules. Every time I had an idea, I tried it. Every time something worked, I did it some more. Every time something fell flat, I stopped doing it. Every time someone smarter than me gave me advice, I followed it.
That’s pretty much still my business plan.
Maybe the biggest benefit of being part of the Used-to-be-Poor is that I think about my goals from the bottom up. Instead of worrying about reaching higher heights, I work hard to build a higher, sturdier floor.
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Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes, is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation, and is the original Ninja Writer.