What Being Poor Is Like

It’s worth revisiting this piece now and then.

Being Poor, by John Scalzi

Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.

Being poor is getting angry at your kids for asking for all the crap they see on TV.

Being poor is having to keep buying $800 cars because they’re what you can afford, and then having the cars break down on you, because there’s not an $800 car in America that’s worth a damn.

Being poor is hoping the toothache goes away.

Being poor is knowing your kid goes to friends’ houses but never has friends over to yours.

Being poor is going to the restroom before you get in the school lunch line so your friends will be ahead of you and won’t hear you say “I get free lunch” when you get to the cashier.

Being poor is living next to the freeway.

Being poor is coming back to the car with your children in the back seat, clutching that box of Raisin Bran you just bought and trying to think of a way to make the kids understand that the box has to last.

Being poor is wondering if your well-off sibling is lying when he says he doesn’t mind when you ask for help.

Being poor is off-brand toys.

Being poor is a heater (or air conditioner) in only one room of the house.

Being poor is knowing you can’t leave $5 on the coffee table when your friends are around.

Being poor is hoping your kids don’t have a growth spurt.

Being poor is stealing meat from the store, frying it up before your mom gets home and then telling her she doesn’t have make dinner tonight because you’re not hungry anyway.

Being poor is Goodwill underwear.

Being poor is not enough space for everyone who lives with you.

Being poor is feeling the glued soles tear off your supermarket shoes when you run around the playground.

Being poor is your kid’s school being the one with the 15-year-old textbooks and no air conditioning.

Being poor is thinking $8 an hour is a really good deal.

Being poor is relying on people who don’t give a damn about you.

Being poor is an overnight shift under florescent lights.

Being poor is finding the letter your mom wrote to your dad, begging him for the child support.

Being poor is a bathtub you have to empty into the toilet.

Being poor is stopping the car to take a lamp from a stranger’s trash. 


Being poor is making lunch for your kid when a cockroach skitters over the bread, and you looking over to see if your kid saw.


Being poor is believing a GED actually makes a goddamned difference.

Being poor is people angry at you just for walking around in the mall.

Being poor is not taking the job because you can’t find someone you trust to watch your kids.

Being poor is the police busting into the apartment right next to yours.

Being poor is not talking to that girl because she’ll probably just laugh at your clothes.

Being poor is hoping you’ll be invited for dinner.

Being poor is a sidewalk with lots of brown glass on it.

Being poor is people thinking they know something about you by the way you talk.

Being poor is needing that 35-cent raise.

Being poor is your kid’s teacher assuming you don’t have any books in your home.

Being poor is six dollars short on the utility bill and no way to close the gap.

Being poor is crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor.

Being poor is knowing you work as hard as anyone, anywhere.

Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually stupid.

Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually lazy.

Being poor is a six-hour wait in an emergency room with a sick child asleep on your lap.

Being poor is never buying anything someone else hasn’t bought first.

Being poor is picking the 10 cent ramen instead of the 12 cent ramen because that’s two extra packages for every dollar.

Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.

Being poor is getting tired of people wanting you to be grateful.

Being poor is knowing you’re being judged.

Being poor is a box of crayons and a $1 coloring book from a community center Santa.

Being poor is checking the coin return slot of every soda machine you go by.

Being poor is deciding that it’s all right to base a relationship on shelter.

Being poor is knowing you really shouldn’t spend that buck on a Lotto ticket.

Being poor is hoping the register lady will spot you the dime.

Being poor is feeling helpless when your child makes the same mistakes you did, and won’t listen to you beg them against doing so.

Being poor is a cough that doesn’t go away.

Being poor is making sure you don’t spill on the couch, just in case you have to give it back before the lease is up.

Being poor is a $200 paycheck advance from a company that takes $250 when the paycheck comes in.

Being poor is four years of night classes for an Associates of Art degree.

Being poor is a lumpy futon bed.

Being poor is knowing where the shelter is.

Being poor is people who have never been poor wondering why you choose to be so.

Being poor is knowing how hard it is to stop being poor.

Being poor is seeing how few options you have.

Being poor is running in place.

Being poor is people wondering why you didn’t leave.


 * * *

A powerful book I recommend is “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich. If you’ve never worked dead-end jobs and struggled to get by, it is eye-opening. If you have, and have managed to break out of that life, it will provoke a kind of melancholy nostalgia. If you’re still dealing with being nickel-and-dimed, you will get angry…but, wait, you probably can’t afford to buy the book so you could read it. Never mind. Maybe the public library has it.

I know how that goes.

Here’s some “being poor” observations:

Being poor is knowing all the staff folks at the public library by name, because you can’t afford to buy books.

Being poor is buying most of your kitchen utensils, furniture and clothing from a thrift store.

Being poor is hoping you don’t get sick or have a car accident.

Being poor is hoping your pet(s) won’t need to go see the vet.

Being poor is hoping nothing important breaks.

Being poor means riding on bald tires.

Being poor means that delivery pizzas, ibuprofin, eyeliner, desserts, batteries, pantyhose, tampons, toilet paper, basic cable, chocolate, soap, razors, pet food and hair care products are luxuries.

Being poor means living without cable TV, or not having a TV at all.

Being poor means darning holes in your socks and underwear.

Being poor means re-using teabags.

Being poor is not having a savings account…or a checking account.

Being poor means having four or five crappy part-time jobs with no benefits, some of which are paid “under the table.”

Being poor means turning bottles and jars upside down to get the last drop, or adding water to the shampoo or face soap to eke out a few more uses.

Being poor means “re-gifting” and making homemade presents and cards.

Being poor means you can’t afford the supplies to make homemade presents or cards.

Being poor means not being able to be with your family on Christmas Day.

Being poor means that when you feel sick, you panic, because you have no medical insurance.

Being poor means you never buy “Dry Clean Only” items.

Being poor means knowing a hundred different recipes for rice, pasta and potatoes.

Being poor means knowing which food items in the grocery store are the cheap brands.

Being poor is having nightmares about unwanted pregnancies when you haven’t even had sex in months.

Being poor means being scared to go outside when it is wet or icy, because if you fall and hurt yourself, you can’t afford to do anything about it.

Being poor is cutting your own hair with nail clippers.

Being poor means you examine pennies and hope one is a rare coin.

Being poor means paying the minimum on your bills.

Being poor means not paying your bills and having utilities cut off.

Being poor means getting non-stop calls from creditors until the phone is cut off.

Being poor means “the ugly frames” at the optometrist.

Being poor means ignoring that three of your teeth are sore and sensitive, and trying to scrape plaque off your teeth with a paperclip because you can’t afford to go to the dentist.

Being poor means not wearing make-up unless you have to, because you can’t afford to buy more when it runs out.

Being poor means not going out, not dating, not even considering meeting new people, because you can’t afford to go anywhere or do anything and you’re too depressed to even try to be sociable.

Being poor is wanting to volunteer to help others, but being unable to afford the cost of gasoline or the time away from job hunting. 

Being poor means you can’t afford to adopt that abandoned cat in your neighborhood.

Being poor means waiting for three hours at a government office just to be treated like crap by someone who doesn’t care that you can’t afford to buy food.

Being poor means that a hole in a t-shirt means your available wardrobe has just been decimated.

Being poor means that you consider swiping toilet paper rolls from businesses, but instead buy something for a dollar at McDonald’s so you can grab more napkins than you are entitled to. 

Being poor means that you don’t recover from the last ten economic disasters before new ones happen.

Being poor means just sitting and staring into space for long periods of time because you’re so hungry or sick that you keep spacing out, and don’t have the energy to do anything.

Being poor means eating food that is bad for you, and then overhearing people complaining that fat people can’t really be poor because they aren’t visibly starving to death.

Being poor means not having a working phone.

Being poor means duct-taping your shoes together.

Being poor means considering selling plasma.

Being poor means that you don’t have any pens in the house that haven’t run out of ink, and can’t afford to buy a $1 notebook in the drugstore.

Being poor means that you are expected to give up every nice thing you were ever given or bought before you were poor, just so people don’t treat you badly for not looking as poor as you are. Yet.

Being poor is to be considered lazy or addicted to something or stupid or unmotivated, because surely you wouldn’t be poor if you weren’t those things.

Being poor is skipping meals.

Being poor is dreading “having a talk about finances” because that means more bills won’t get paid.

Being poor is avoiding the neighbors so they won’t catch on that you are as poor as you are.

Being poor is wishing you could just cease to exist, because everything costs money you don’t have and can’t earn, and you’re very tired and depressed and worn out, but you’re also too poor to pay for a funeral.

Being poor is considering watching the news on the TV to be a high point of entertainment.

Being poor is being thankful you’re not much of a drinker, because you couldn’t afford a beer even if you wanted one.

Being poor is being sick of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee, Michelina’s, Buddig wafer-thin cold cuts, grocery store processed cheese, and ramen.

Being poor is considering any brand other than store brand soda to be a luxury.

Being poor is wishing for pet supermarket, grocery store and drugstore gift cards.

Being poor is parking your car so people don’t see the dented side when you go to a job interview.

Being poor is having to borrow pantyhose for a job interview and praying you don’t snag them.

Being poor is giving into the temptation to eat cheap comfort food until you gain weight.

Being poor means going without prescription medicine and not telling anyone when you have a fainting spell or are nauseated for five days straight or when your headache or ache or pain doesn’t go away promptly.

Being poor is being thrilled to get a new toothbrush and toothpaste in your Christmas stocking.

Being poor is not having the energy to do chores on a regular basis because you feel so bad and are so tired and it will only get dirty or disorganized all over again.

Being poor is what happens to other people…until it happens to you.

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