Being Broke Ruined My Relationships

By Tracey Lloyd

I wasn’t always broke. If anything, I was squarely middle class growing up, which increased to upper middle class when I graduated from business school and started making real money. Six-figure money. You-don’t-have-to-deny-yourself-anything money.

Then it all disappeared.

I had to quit my job because of a bout with severe depression, and the government didn’t agree that I qualified for Social Security disability. I was left with a lawyer to file an appeal and the remainder of my retirement accounts. A year later, still unable to work and still waiting for Social Security, I had no money left.

After selling some family jewelry and pinning my hopes on a few PowerBall tickets, I applied for public assistance. The Welfare. And food stamps, which are now called SNAP, as though having a cute-sounding name will erase the sting of not being able to support oneself. My roommate reminded me that these benefits are for people who need help, and I needed help so I was entitled to get them.

The application process was relatively easy. The after effects were not.

I’ve kept many secrets in my life, but the secret of being on welfare was so big that my friends and family will learn about it for the first time by reading this essay. I told my roommate, one friend, and my Dad, but nobody else in my life knew what was going on. As it happened, I was coming out of a deep depression when my welfare payments started and I didn’t have the heart for another big reveal about my life. So I decided to stay mum about being on public assistance.

Trying to hide my financial situation while maintaining some semblance of a social life was difficult. My therapist insisted that I take part in outside activities to spur my depression recovery — but almost every social activity requires money. And I had so little to spend — probably $100 a month after covering the shortfall in my food budget provided by SNAP — that I was afraid to spend it.

When my friends called me to do something, possibly a movie or a dinner, I immediately thought of the few dollars sitting in my wallet. Could I spend $16 on a movie? What if I needed tampons? What if my cat needed litter? Would I still be able to pay for those necessities? Oftentimes I declined, citing my waning depression as a reason to stay home. Other times I decided to go out, counting my money in my head throughout the entire outing.

At a dinner with my cousins, I spent the whole meal obsessively totaling the cost of my entree and cocktail to make sure I had enough money to spend. Then I worried that they’d want to split the bill evenly and that I’d have to defray the cost of others’ appetizers and desserts. When I had a job and money, I never worried about covering the cost of my meal. I was the person who usually paid extra just to make sure there was enough money. With my new fiduciary position, I became that annoying friend who tallied her food costs and complained about paying a cent more. I used to make fun of those people for being cheap, for being killjoys. Now I realize that they probably needed to watch their pennies.

But my fall from financial security to financial doldrums caused more than annoyance at dinner; it actively strained many important relationships in my life.

Even during my three-year depression, my relationship with one friend remained strong. I’d meet up with her for drinks, spend the weekend at her beach house, and just generally spend a lot of time with her. When I ended up having money concerns, I didn’t divulge exactly what my situation was, but I did vaguely confess to her that I was low on cash. Generously, she’d offer to pay for my drinks or my dinners or even my train tickets to the shore. At times, I’d accept her offer. Other times, my guilt overwhelmed me and I declined her support and whatever fun accompanied it.

Over time, my bestie’s all-expenses-paid invitations dwindled. She’d cultivated some new friendships while I’d been languishing alone at home. Not that I expect anyone to curtail their fun just because I’m not around — but it stung to see her spending time with these new friends, checked in to all of our favorite places on Facebook, experiencing the joy that I could no longer have because I couldn’t afford it. I told myself that she needed friends who weren’t dependents, people who wouldn’t need to discuss the gauche concept of money every time they did something. I should probably have given my best friend more credit than that and actually come clean to her, but it was hard to see past my own situation.

My love life, too, was hampered by my newfound financial situation. It was hard to reconcile my status with the fact that I was raised to pay my own way when dating. While the issues this led to didn’t pose great hardships, they represented a complete reversal of the life I’d previously lived. I’ve been unable to order another cocktail because I didn’t have the money in my budget, and had to eat something I really didn’t want because it was inexpensive. Moreover, it soon became distractingly hard not to focus on money while dating; when one date ended up paying for my meal and drink, which I hadn’t expected, I became enthralled with the idea of having $30 to spend on something else.

One guy I dated, at least, confessed his own bout with the welfare office, so I shared mine and we went on cheap or free outings. But this transparency, this ability to live openly, was an exception.

I sometimes wonder why it’s been so difficult for me to share my financial situation. I suppose that if my friends or family had talked about their money concerns, it would have been easier for me to open up. But the fact is, there’s rarely room to talk about the realities of welfare in any conversation among working people.

Some years ago, one of my closest friends was low on cash, not because she’d lost her job, but because she’d chosen to pursue an artistic life. My other friends, tired of listening to her talk about money, or remind us that she often couldn’t go out with us for financial reasons, sometimes didn’t invite her along. I think about this now; I don’t want to be isolated from a group because of where I stand on the economic ladder.

At times, I’ve also secretly felt that my penniless is my fault, not the fault of my disease. You don’t realize how many aspects of life, from self-esteem to relationships, are affected by money — until you’ve had your own change in financial status.

Thankfully I’ve now received Social Security and am feeling flush–for a while. To assuage my guilt, I’ve planned to treat everyone who paid for me when I was broke.

I feel much more comfortable being the generous one.

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