"If I go to bed before the hunger hits then half a bagel is enough"
May 16, 2018 10:54 PM   Subscribe

Everyone I’ve ever talked to who has been poor and is not anymore has the same story of the moment they realized they weren’t poor anymore: grocery shopping.

Writer Erynn Brook laid out the difference between being poor and being broke in a Twitter thread and received a lot of confirmatory responses.
posted by Johnny Wallflower (92 comments total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
 
Pastry counter at Whole Foods, a store I’d go into to eat samples on my way to the more affordable grocery store. I was looking at the cute mini desserts and suddenly realized that with my new job I could afford them, I could buy myself a treat and it would be okay. The realization was so overwhelming that I ran out of the store and began to cry.

I didn’t know how common this was until now, thank you for posting.
posted by lepus at 11:16 PM on May 16 [98 favorites]


The classic account of being really broke, and hungry: George Orwell’s first book Down and Out in Paris and London (1933).

p.s. Most people feel they don't have enough money; it's interesting to see where you’d rank on the Global Rich List.
posted by LeLiLo at 11:23 PM on May 16 [25 favorites]


I liked this a lot. For me I think there is a generational part as well. I've lived in a room in a trailer that had a giant hole in the floor that was covered with a sheet of particle board and was excited for payday so I could split a case of Mileaukees Best because I worked for the local movie theater and went to college and made like $300 a month. Even then I wasn't poor because I knew that my parents could cover any emergency if something terrible happened. They aren't rich but have run three small business including a farm after my mom retired from the army. I have yet to be poor but this is America so it's only 1 accident away.
I realized I wasn't broke after not doing the math at a grocery store as well. This was I'm sure much easier than the move from poor to broke.
I dont think the world has to be this way. We can do better.
posted by Uncle at 12:02 AM on May 17 [8 favorites]


When you’re broke you worry about how you would pay for an emergency. You get scared. You decide to plan better. You hide a $20 in your winter coat pocket because it’ll be a nice surprise next year when it gets cold and you don’t have mittens.

No you don't. I mean it's always a delight to find money in your laundry, but you never do it on purpose. Otherwise you loot that 20 long before winter.
posted by adept256 at 12:23 AM on May 17 [39 favorites]


I remember my sister and I lying awake at night (sharing a bed for warmth to keep the heating bills down in the drafty, poorly insulated rental house) talking and fantasizing about the food we'd buy if we ever had the money. Bananas. Maple syrup. Crackers. Pot roast vegetables. Oranges.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:26 AM on May 17 [33 favorites]


So I grew up in shitty working class precarity. Single mom, bad apartments, no savings, etc. Lots of worrying about food prices and getting meat "off a truck" at the first of the month and food stamps.

My Husband grew up in actual DICKENSIAN POVERTY - no indoor toilet, gas stoves, oranges for Christmas, etc. He has vivid memories of digging up beans and potatoes and raising rabbits for meat on kitchen scraps.

And he always said "I knew I wasn't poor when I stopped looking at the prices at the grocery store".
posted by The Whelk at 1:09 AM on May 17 [58 favorites]


For our family, it was always fresh fruit. Being able to buy fresh fruit has always been a luxury. We knew when things were getting rough when fruit would disappear from the dinner table.

To this day, if someone offers me a fresh orange, I always say yes and thank you. Oranges signify wealth in my mind.
posted by Fizz at 1:10 AM on May 17 [22 favorites]


I really like her distinction between poor and broke. When she first mentioned there was one, I thought broke would be the worse of the two. But no. Broke is having no cash or reserves, but access to credit which becomes debt which could be paid off by some future means. Broke imagines a future. Poor is having no cash, no reserves, no credit, no nothing, only the pennies you can scrounge week to week through low paying work or begging. Like she said, with poor, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. There is only tunnel.

And I'm with her on the grocery-defining-moment. Mine was a punnet of out of season blueberries, because I could. Those blueberries represented the sweet glowing prospect of an end to my financial fears.
posted by Thella at 1:47 AM on May 17 [15 favorites]


From MeFi's own jscalzi:
- Being Poor
- “Being Poor,” Ten Years On
- How I Knew I’d Made It

From the first link, the one that really hit me when I first read it:
"Being poor is discovering that that letter from Duke University, naming you as one of three advanced students in your class invited to test out of HS early into their scholarship program, is just so much firestarter because the $300 it costs to take the test may as well be $3 million."
Followed by:
Despair is finally realizing, at nearly 36 and with a barely-afforded AA in English from a community college, just where you could have been by now had you had $300, and what that missed opportunity has truly cost you.
posted by nnethercote at 2:14 AM on May 17 [85 favorites]


The thing that surprised me most when I was first not-poor is that you suddenly get freed of having to think about money every single minute of the fucking day. You don't need to be doing that constant mental balancing act of rent vs. food vs. shoes vs. bills, or have to plan months ahead to save the money to travel to go see your family at Christmas or whatever. The sheer amount of mental energy that gets freed up is not to be underestimated.
posted by pipeski at 2:59 AM on May 17 [55 favorites]


^ For real.^

I mean, I was THRILLED the first time I got to leave the country on a trip. But I was still battling that constant old feeling of "oh god, am I sure I can afford this". I still do the old poor math when I buy things, and the guilt when I do buy them. It's hard to shake.
posted by Kitteh at 3:17 AM on May 17 [8 favorites]


The transition for me was no longer feeling anxious at the checkout line. When I was growing up and went grocery shopping with my mom, she only had exact cash. I don’t know if she totted up the running total in her head but the point of paying was always a Moment of Truth: would we have to decide what item to apologetically ask to take off the bill or would we nonchalantly pay the total as if that was the plan all along.
posted by like_neon at 5:00 AM on May 17 [7 favorites]


For me, I was shopping with my brother and he told his wife not to buy orange juice because it was too expensive. I thought to myself, "don't be silly, you can afford ORANGE JUICE," and I realized that I had mentally changed at some point to be able to think that.
posted by tofu_crouton at 5:01 AM on May 17 [12 favorites]


Oranges signify wealth in my mind.

Yes, forever. I always buy them at Christmas and my family always looks at me weird and when I see them on sale I buy them and gorge on them, because they are expensive and luxurious but not Actually Food so you can’t really justify them if you’re juggling numbers.
posted by corb at 5:20 AM on May 17 [14 favorites]


This winter I was horrified to discover my local Walmart sells blueberries entirely out of season - in fact, all winter long.

I defiantly bought a pint every week until it didn’t feel subversive and dangerous anymore.
posted by annathea at 5:29 AM on May 17 [14 favorites]


I'm the same as you Kitteh, always doing the poor math in the back of my head with every purchase, and always aiming to buy exactly what's needed, no more no less, despite being a couple of years out from having to. I can avoid thinking about it if I buy groceries on payday, any other time I have the fear/shame. Going into my local store comes with the memories of the times I had to walk my kids out of there with no food because the transaction on my card (which would run my account to zero) was too small. Fun.
posted by threecheesetrees at 5:49 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I can agonize for hours over any potential purchase because my brain is not trained very well for "well, you have some discretionary income so it's okay". And again, even when the purchase does get made, I still agonize.
posted by Kitteh at 5:52 AM on May 17 [5 favorites]


I don't think I was ever poor but I could definitely see it from where I was. I'm mostly over the grocery story math but every once and a while it hits me and I get a pit in my stomach to be buying something "I shouldn't have". I keep a running tally of these in my head and when it hits another number in my head I make donations to the food bank equal or greater to what I spent because no one should have to do hunger math.

I never really realized that this was guilt until this thread, so (sincerely) thank you, all. I'm glad I understand it now but I'm not sure I'll ever get over it. I'll just keep making those food bank donations.
posted by Defective_Monk at 5:56 AM on May 17 [11 favorites]


No one moment for me on the grocery front, just a pleasant transition from 'need to know the exact money' to 'rounding to the nearest pound' to 'eh, that'll be about forty quid altogether'.

The big one for me, was what I now know from this website is the Sam Vimes economic theory (which I didn't know about when this happened). I bought a pair of 75 pound boots (AND i lied about them being on sale to everyone except my partner, who encouraged me to buy them) and I felt like I was going to be sick on my way out of the shop. I think they are six now, and they still look perfect.
posted by threetwentytwo at 6:03 AM on May 17 [20 favorites]


A huge one for me was realizing I could buy drinks at a restaurant or bar. Sure it's a fucking 1000% markup on the liquor in that drink but it's not a big deal any more.
posted by idiopath at 6:04 AM on May 17 [5 favorites]


I saw this thread yesterday and it aligns so very much with my experiences. Going to the grocery store and not leaving things behind that I needed or wanted was something I dreamed about for years--there was a point where for about a year (around 2004/5) I had a grocery budget of $20/month (Cdn). I'd never really been very stable, financially, and I didn't think things would ever get better. They did, a little, but not enough to get me out (I went from skipping meals every day to only having to skip meals one week a month to make rent). I used to put my change in little plastic baggies that were calculated down to the penny to buy certain things. This bag was exactly enough to buy three packets of ramen, this bag was enough for a bottle of pop and a bag of chips (junk food still and always my big vice, the thing I do in times of stress instead of drinking or smoking). I remember, too, how lonely it was. Partners walking out on me because they saw my poverty as a choice, as thought anyone would choose that, friends also walking about because they needed people in their lives who could "keep up" and who "wouldn't be so negative"--I started policing my language around money, stopped talking about my situation for a long time because people acted like it was contagious, like I was trying to bring them down to where I was instead of trying to claw my way up to where they were, but that meant also that I basically stopped trying to get help. I remember every time someone told me I wasn't worth loving because of how little I had. And it wasn't just once or twice I heard it.

I got out because I was lucky. Someone who had power saw that I had potential and that I was struggling, and they reached out a hand and gave me a job at 3x the largest salary I'd ever had in my entire life. I worked hard to earn that salary--I worked so hard--but I didn't get the opportunity because I worked for it, or because I was more qualified or deserving or whatever than some other person. I got it because somebody knew me and was in a position to help. The result of the opportunity was mostly hard work (I paid off $54k in debt in about two years, and in another year and a half I'd saved $30k more and brought my standard of living up into the middle class), but the opportunity itself didn't come from hard work. It was luck, and I feel like that's an important thing to understand. My friends think I worked hard and made good choices and that finally paid off, but that's nonsense. I got lucky, and that's the whole of it.

Most of my friends have been middle or upper-middle class their entire lives, and whenever I've tried to explain to them what it felt like, and how amazing it felt to walk into a grocery store and not feel intense anxiety they look at me like I've got three heads, but my god it's so, so satisfying.

I read somewhere that if you can climb out of poverty you are statistically more likely to fall back into than not for the first five years; if you can last those five years, then the statistics shift and you become more likely to stay out than to fall back in. I celebrated my five years on January 7 of this year. It still feels special to go to the grocery store and walk out with whatever I want.
posted by Fish Sauce at 6:04 AM on May 17 [121 favorites]


Oh, and the occasional cab ride is actually worth it. Realizing that was huge.
posted by idiopath at 6:05 AM on May 17 [9 favorites]


I grew up poor, and as the writer said, ignorant about how to prepare a proper meal. (Growing up, fruit and vegetables always came out of cans, because cans don't spoil, right?) Fresh vegetables? Fresh fruit? Meat that isn't hamburger? Even after I finally got a job (and made more money as a junior programmer than my parents ever had after decades of factory work), I ate crap for the next ten years because I couldn't lose the "you can't afford good stuff" mind set.
posted by SPrintF at 6:09 AM on May 17 [9 favorites]


We were poor, but we never went hungry. Fortunately, we lived in the country - there was meat to be had in those woods.
posted by bradth27 at 6:21 AM on May 17 [7 favorites]


Until I went to University, I don' t think it had registered that other people actually bought potatoes in shops. That was a real shock.
posted by threetwentytwo at 6:25 AM on May 17 [3 favorites]


The Timehop app just reminded me that 8 years ago today a rep from HRSDC (Human Resources and Skills Development Canada--now changed to Employment and Social Development Canada, the agency responsible for administering federal student loans) accused me of deliberately "maintaining a low income" in order to avoid paying back my student loans, and that I "had to be hiding money somewhere" because nobody could possibly live on what I was claiming as income.
posted by Fish Sauce at 6:30 AM on May 17 [29 favorites]


When I was a kid my family didn't have much money (not much income plus a surplus of kids). In retrospect, using the article's terms, there were definitely broke periods, but we were never capital-P-Poor. There was always food, always shelter, lots of stability; I did not have it rough.

These days I'm definitely middle class, but I could relate to parts of the article. I, too, vividly remember when I stopped having to calculate grocery prices and could instead just buy pretty much whatever I needed. Some habits stick, though -- I still watch unit prices like a hawk, and I can never bring myself to buy expensive cuts of meat.

The other thing, that I literally noticed just the other day, is that now I can casually afford to buy overpriced food at events. When I was a kid that was always impossible, something we just didn't do, and so I just never considered getting any over the following decades. The other week I was at a street event, I was hungry but kind of bummed that I wouldn't be able to eat until after, then realized that no, an $8 hotdog was completely within my budget.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:36 AM on May 17 [11 favorites]


Reading that thread, I realized that I'd never really been poor. Broke-ass broke and one bad day away from being poor, but not actually poor. Creditors blowing up my phone over 90+ day late credit card payments, choosing between utilities to let slide a month, and driving on expired plates (and then getting whacked with that ticket) for months and months because paying the fees was too much.

But... I can't recall a time when I couldn't afford / secure food. I've always had a place to live, and a car to get to work. (Even though some of those cars were pretty damn iffy.)

Thanks to many lucky breaks (and some hard work and good choices, but still), I'm far from broke or poor now. Just bought a house and can pay out of pocket to do the work to spruce it up. This is a good reminder I need to do more for folks who are legit broke/poor because I can.
posted by jzb at 6:47 AM on May 17 [6 favorites]


I love this distinction of broke-vs-poor. I have never been poor. I was raised in a well-above average income household, and all throughout my life I've had the luxury of knowing that my parents provided a safety net to catch all but the most severe of falls. But, at times my wife and I have been broke (not even jzb's "one bad day away from being poor," but more like 1-2 months from it). It truly is a different perspective, as even in the worst moments I was still able to think about and plan for the future, and I never had the feelings of true despair and helplessness.

Most people go through at least some periods being broke, or at least a penny-pinching necessity that gets close to such. But it's easy to confuse the poor as merely being broke if you haven't ever been poor, and it's therefore easy to get into a pattern of wondering why the poor don't just "bootstrap" themselves out of their poverty with the same thrifty patterns that help the broke weather the storm. That distinction goes a long way toward helping prevent such a blinkered worldview.
posted by mystyk at 6:48 AM on May 17 [20 favorites]


FTA: You hide a $20 in your winter coat pocket because it’ll be a nice surprise next year when it gets cold and you don’t have mittens.

adept256> No you don't. I mean it's always a delight to find money in your laundry, but you never do it on purpose. Otherwise you loot that 20 long before winter.

I think this illustrates the difference between broke and just-above-broke. The last time I had to worry about being broke, I started hiding a $20 in between my phone and its case, and another one in an obscure corner pocket of my wallet, as an emergency fund. I had 3-4 other places with hidden $20s, put there over a period of months, since I couldn't afford to stash $100+ all at once. All but the two stashes I mentioned were eventually disbanded as unnecessary, but the two were upgraded about 2 years ago into $100s. After the first few months, I've never had the desire to raid those funds, but a large part of that is because I stopped having the need to -- and because of that, I've often gone weeks at a time without even remembering that the money is there.

When you're broke, stashing money feels like a good idea, but the likelihood of it staying there for very long is slim because you're still likely to need it. When you're just above broke, though, you can keep that money there and feel good about the way in which you've prepared for the bumps in life. And when you've fully pulled out of being broke, as my current position is, you run the risk of forgetting what it was like to need that money so desperately. Threads like this, with comments such as yours, help remind me, and for that I thank you.
posted by mystyk at 7:05 AM on May 17 [17 favorites]


I was poor years ago, but didn't really realize it until a co-worker started crying because she couldn't pay her electric bill and was afraid her power would be turned off during the hottest part of the year. I tried to comfort her then stopped to ask, "What color was the notice?" She had it in her purse and showed it to me. It was blue. "Chrissakes," I said, relieved. "You don't have to pay a blue notice. You're going to get a brown notice and a white postcard before they actually shut you off. You still have like three weeks."

Realizing I had that level of knowledge of the utility shutoff process was my wakeup call that I was poor.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:10 AM on May 17 [81 favorites]


I'm listening to the radio, and they're reporting on the what's going on in Malaysia. The police have raided the former Prime Minister's house and seized some handbags. I thought perhaps they contained some documents, some evidence. But it was the handbags themselves, because they are each worth $200,000, and were evidence of embezzlement or money laundering.

That's what reminds me that while I can afford groceries now, there are orders of magnitude of wealth I cannot fathom. 200k for a frikkin handbag. Sheesh.
posted by adept256 at 7:11 AM on May 17 [6 favorites]


As noted above, my own moment like this was about filling up my gas tank and not checking to see how much it cost, just sliding the card into the slot, pumping and going. I asked my wife about her moment (she had grown up low income as well) and it was: groceries.

I've also noted elsewhere that being rich (or at the very least, well off) is the closest an American can come to living in a socialist utopia, in that all the essentials of life -- food, housing, medical care and education -- are paid for and high quality, and money becomes an issue for wants rather than needs.
posted by jscalzi at 7:12 AM on May 17 [24 favorites]


I saw this thread early this morning and woke up my wife to read it to her. She was a nutritionist with WIC for years and it resonated with her - parents literally unable to afford decent food for their kids without that govt. assistance, and the guidance on how to prep and cook food.

What hit me was that kids *know* how tough things are, no matter how parents try to conceal it. I can't say I grew up poor, but I was raised by a single mother who never graduated HS due to illnesses, so she never had great jobs. And by age 10 or so, I was keenly aware that we didn't have the things my friends had, and couldn't do what they did - music lessons, skiing weekends, vacations to Florida, etc.

The little things stick with you. I still remember my school offering a summer soccer camp, $70 for two weeks. (It's been almost 40 years and I remember the price.) I was maybe 11. All my friends were going. My mom asked me if I wanted to go, and I desperately did, but I told her "no" because even then I knew that was a lot of money. And then I remember just bad-mouthing the camp to my friends to cover for me being too poor to go. This stuff warps kids into thinking they're not worthy, and I still feel it today.

I have two kids now. Every time they express an interest in something and it has any merit at all, it's theirs. I don't even think about it. And this reminds me how fortunate I am now.
posted by martin q blank at 7:14 AM on May 17 [61 favorites]


The moment when it really sank in that I actually had a real job and wasn't a sort-of-broke grad student any more, was when I was in Kroger and reaching for the cheapest toilet paper and realized no wait a minute I can get The Good Stuff. Happiest butt ever.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:29 AM on May 17 [9 favorites]


I feel like we should all talk this out over Ramen noodles and $2.89 Winking Owl wine.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:29 AM on May 17 [11 favorites]


I'd say for me that it was getting coffee at a coffee shop, instead of getting the cheapest generic coffee for my coffee maker and sometimes using "scrounged" paper towels when I couldn't afford filters, which was often. I couldn't believe that I was sitting at a nice little table at the nice little cafe with my cafe au lait, mixing the coffee and milk together like some fancy lad. When I was poor, I might have started going to AA meetings decades before I actually did if I knew that they had free coffee and didn't lean on you to throw a dollar in the basket if you didn't have it.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:37 AM on May 17 [9 favorites]


I had a uncle who was born in the 1920s in rural England. It wasn't until I heard the stories other elderly relatives told at his funeral that I realised just how rough his early life had been. As a child, for example, one of his chores had been to salvage discarded half-rotten fruit and veg from the rubbish pile at a local market and take it home for his family to eat.

I also learned at the funeral that - once again as a child - he would sometimes earn a few pence from a nearby farmer by offering to return an escaped cow to its field. The farmer knew damn well that it was usually my uncle who'd let the cow out in the first place, but as long as it didn't happen too often he'd play along because he knew how badly the family needed that cash.
posted by Paul Slade at 7:42 AM on May 17 [20 favorites]


Poor - my sisters and I have a "cherry pie filling on molded flour tortillas from the food bank" story that we all cry/laugh about.

Broke - eating a plain baked potato before going out so that I didn't need to order anything at lunch with my friends, because I still wanted to be around them, but no WAY was $14 dollars going to make sense in the budget.

Now - Still put items back on the shelf because ummm, financial insecurity has long lasting effects.
posted by lextex at 7:42 AM on May 17 [7 favorites]


I had a great uncle who was born in the 1920s in rural England.

In my case it was my paternal grandparents who were born in the 1910s in the Canadian and US Midwest (Manitoba & North Dakota).

I still know which weeds are edible (purslane and dandelions, for instance) and how to choose and cook them according to growth stage (dandelions before flowering and early in the spring, after flowering but still in spring, etc.), in addition to a gajillion different ways to cook and serve potatoes, thanks to my grandparents. My grandmother in particular always told me to choose potatoes over ramen any day, heh.

For me too, it was being able to buy groceries without doing addition and/or having to set things aside due to a few pennies being over budget. But the biggest emotional hit was one day – just a few months ago, in fact – putting 60 euros on my office restaurant badge without blinking. I saw "62.10" (or whatever) on the receipt and thought, oh my goodness, I don't worry about money any more.
posted by fraula at 7:50 AM on May 17 [8 favorites]


Sitting in a home economics / life management class in college as a scholarship and grants newlywed. The professor asked what we would give up if we ran short of cash before the end of the month.

Other students: buying clothes, makeup, going out to eat.
Me: buy less food.

Yeah, group projects meeting at nice restaurants that I could not afford was not fun.

But paying off a house in four years and four months was sweet.
posted by TrishaU at 7:55 AM on May 17 [5 favorites]


It's really funny that this is posted today. Last night I didn't really eat dinner, partly because depression and partly because its the one of the last days before payday and there wasn't much to eat. I'd had a sandwich earlier in the day (that was the last of the bread), so I gave the last of the eggs to my best friend who hadn't eaten yet that day. I ate a spoon full of peanut butter, a few slices of lunch meat, and just hung out in bed until I fell asleep. but then around 1 am my best friend wakes me up, our other roommate brought home 2 takeout containers of food from the islamic center, and offered us one. The look on my bffs face was precious, he was so excited to be able to bring this to me. So i take a few bites of chicken, and some bites of peas and rice, and fall black asleep. The rest of it is with me at work today. Much better than just eating a can of tuna.


p.s. Most people feel they don't have enough money; it's interesting to see where you’d rank on the Global Rich List.
posted by LeLiLo at 2:23 AM on May 17 [11 favorites +] [!]


Yeah I know I have more money than most people in Africa. That didn't stop my water from being shut off last month. A lot of people just look at the dollar amount on a paycheck and go from there. (Though that doesnt seem to be the case in this thread, and I'm so grateful to all of you for the nuance in here). Here's what affects me more than the dollar amount I make:

· Having no family, no friends, etc, that could be financial support network. This is not an understatement. If I cannot come up with the money myself, then there is no money.
·I live in a food desert. More than 10% of people in my city live in a food desert.
·I do not have a car. I have to rely on my city's sub-adequate public transit. So, then there's a conundrum: do I only get enough groceries for 5 days or so, and just take the bus back from the grocery store, or spend an extra $11-18 on an uber back, and get groceries for 2 weeks. Keep in mind that the bulkier an item is, the cheaper it is per ounce. So, saving money on the bus means spending more money on groceries for less food. Not having a car also means that everything takes more time. My 1 hour therapy appointment could take 3 hours, if the bus is running late or my appointment runs over. Same for grocery shopping.
·Lack of extra time means lack of ways to make extra money.
·I have 0 access to credit, or loans of any kind. I am denied all sorts of services because of my poor credit.
·And, of course, as everyone knows it costs more money to be poor. having to buy cheap clothes, cheap shoes, etc., means buying them more frequently

All that being said (and I could say more), I'm still better off than I was 3 years ago. I was homeless, living in a family member's shed. But now? Now I'm doing okay. I pretty much only have money to spend on groceries, but after a lifetime of food insecurity, I don't mind my all disposable income meaning I can get ginger ale and yogurt. I can make dinner for my sisters and nephews once a week. I spent $30 on seeds to grow a vegetable garden. I go to therapy. These are things I never was able to do.
posted by FirstMateKate at 7:58 AM on May 17 [55 favorites]


This is making me feel really bad about how self-indulgent and wasteful my grocery shopping is.
posted by thelonius at 8:00 AM on May 17 [8 favorites]


Oh man. All this stuff resonates with me so hard. I am looking for work and pretty damn broke at the moment, but I am gutted all over again remembering what it was really like when I was a single teenage parent and genuinely poor. (And this was before the social safety net was completely shredded to subsidise the wealthy!)

There's a deep soul weariness you get when you think it's never going to get any better no matter how hard you work and how much you do without. It's obscene that as a society we allow so many people to suffer so needlessly.
posted by Space Kitty at 8:01 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]


Huh. I've never been actually poor, though for 2 years living in Northern California on the lowest legal wage allowed by my H-1B visa and my wife not being able to legally work, we where hovering around the poverty line. Food was expensive, we'd go to the cheaper supermarkets, buy the cheaper tomatoes, etc.
I remember coming back to live in Chile (much cheaper than NorCal) and suddenly not doing mental arithmetic at the supermarket, not looking for the bargains, just picking what looked good.
It felt so good to be firmly middle class again.
posted by signal at 8:08 AM on May 17 [4 favorites]


Edit: seven years and four months to pay off the house.
I remember generic Mac and Cheese, five for a dollar and homemade baked beans as a regular choice for our meals, since we no longer qualified for student housing meals with our grants and work-study.
But we both had parents to help out. That's more than some of our friends, who never did get farther along.
posted by TrishaU at 8:25 AM on May 17 [1 favorite]


@Paul Slade, I grew up in the worst parts of Manchester as a child and in the 60s my mother used to go to the fruit and veg market at closing time to dig through the cast offs before the bin men turned up. She was known and some kindly market workers used to steer her towards the good stuff.

I used to get dragged along if I was at home, I was not old enough to be left at home but was more than old enough to know exactly what was going on. I can still feel the shame and humiliation today. Really, if anyone thinks their parents were embarrassing ...
posted by epo at 8:31 AM on May 17 [3 favorites]


I come from a family that was just terrible with money my entire life. My sister and I were told to never answer the phone because it might be debt collectors. Hushed serious talks between parents after we kids went to bed. I mean, we had food to eat but I suspect my parents went a long way to make sure we didn't suspect anything.
posted by Kitteh at 8:36 AM on May 17 [1 favorite]


I don't think anybody should feel bad about their grocery shopping, because the whole point is that actual poverty leads to these decisions becoming totally dysfunctional. People are supposed to eat fruits and vegetables. This is the ideal state of the human diet. But when you grow up without those things, it's much harder to integrate them into your eating as an adult, when you spent many of your younger years with limited access to fresh food. And even just as far as prices, that constant awareness of your bank balance isn't healthy frugality, it's an exhausting obsession that makes it incredibly hard to keep a normal budget for me as an adult, because I have a permanent association between money and a nauseating level of anxiety. I have the insurance and the money now to see doctors, but I don't do basic primary care because I have a core revulsion to strangers touching me that I probably would not associate with a regular doctor if I'd ever had one when I was young.

None of this is virtue; it's survival, and nobody should have to live like that. I've spent my adulthood broke but not poor, but being poor as a child and adolescent and the first few years after high school has made everything 10x more difficult since.
posted by Sequence at 8:45 AM on May 17 [17 favorites]


And people like Jamie Oliver come out with all the ways that poor people can eat more healthily - and hey! lentils are cheap! And never bother recognising that some of us didn't grow up with foods like that and if you fuck it up, then there's no more food in the cupboard- that's it- you've gotta eat it no matter how horrible/too spicy/ tastes like mush it is.

I've only really learnt to cook beyond spaghetti bolognese in the last four/five years, and part of that is because- as has happened a few times in my experiments- if i mess it up too badly to eat like whatever the hell that fish in potatoey goop was supposed to be- there's pasta and sauce in the cupboard, or a packet of ham and some eggs, always.
posted by threetwentytwo at 8:58 AM on May 17 [11 favorites]


Yeah we definitely were too poor to have much decent food in the house when I was a kid and now, married, 37, with a good dual income, a home, one child and another on the way - I still have these mental blocks about what I can and can't buy for myself at the grocery store. For example - berries. My daughter loves them. The standard price for a double flat of raspberries (Western Canada) is $7. A pound of strawberries or 2 if you're lucky - usually about $5. Small flat of blackberries - 5. Slightly larger flat of blueberries - 5. We have all of those in our fridge right now, and we can afford them, but even though I am freaking pregnant I cannot allow myself to eat them. It's just too extravagant. Another thing I have an issue with is tartar sauce. You make tartar sauce with relish and mayo. You don't buy it. That would cost - 3 or 4 dollars! No way, too extravagant, can't do it. I realize how silly these limitations I impose are, but I can't seem to push past them.
posted by kitcat at 9:12 AM on May 17 [12 favorites]


To those who used to be poor and feel guilty now, please don’t. You’ve done nothing to earn guilt now.

To those who have not been poor, and can afford charity: please donate to a food bank on behalf of those who have been, so that someone poor can eat a meal they can’t afford.
posted by crysflame at 9:26 AM on May 17 [25 favorites]


I too have never been truly poor, but when I was a kid, we were broke. My parents hid it well and it's almost certain they took the worst of it so we wouldn't notice it as much. But groceries were absolutely the big signal to my brother and I that my parents had moved up a tax bracket or two after Mom got her degree and received a promotion.

-Fresh fruit instead of canned, also more variety instead of just Red Delicious apples + bananas.
-Refrigerated fruit juice in the carton/jug, instead of making juice from frozen concentrate.
-Having other cheese besides a massive block of off-brand Velveeta
-NAME BRAND foods instead of the store's "Best Value" brand or Shasta...my God, when Mom would bring home actual Tropicana OJ and Heinz Ketchup and Pillsbury Biscuits and *real* Lucky Charms and Pepsi, we couldn't believe it. We had the food that was in TV commercials!
-Convenience foods, even little things like bagged baby carrots instead of Dad cutting up bigger carrots into carrot sticks. Bisquick. Prepared salad mix. Hamburger Helper.
-Purchasing hot dog buns instead of just using bread slices.
-BACON with breakfast on weekends. I still remember going to a friend's house for a sleepover and being astonished they served bacon and pancakes with real maple syrup in the morning. Were they rich??

And we were astonishingly lucky, and privileged. We were (are) white and all of us were in good health and both of my parents were free of expensive addictions or destructive habits and were (usually) employed and the employers offered benefits and we had lots of family nearby to provide free childcare or help over a rough patch. And my mom had the stars align so she could do evening/weekend college and get her degree and promotion, and that was what pulled the whole family up a few levels. (Access to affordable education for women helps families, folks!)

If you took away any one of those things, it'd be a major struggle. Take away two or three and I have no doubt we'd have easily slid into actual poverty.
posted by castlebravo at 9:34 AM on May 17 [12 favorites]


I feel like we should all talk this out over Ramen noodles and $2.89 Winking Owl wine.

Ideally while discussing the creation of some kind of National Universal SNAP system and funding of local small hold farms and greenbelts so no one ever feels embrassed food shopping or doesn’t have access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and grains.
posted by The Whelk at 9:39 AM on May 17 [9 favorites]


The last few years I've ebbed and flowed between broke and poor. Poor is putting back packages of ramen when you realize you've gone over your limit at the register. Poor is getting really creative with rice. Poor is asking AskMe how to squeeze the most out of your tiny food budget.

Broke? It's more of the same, but with a slightly fuller belly, a little less panic, and a sparkle of optimismin your eye.
posted by item at 10:01 AM on May 17 [4 favorites]


I'm doing fine now (and married to Kitteh, above), but the notion of I can buy anything I want in the grocery store still gives me the vapors. Just to hear somebody say it makes me shudder. I check out the $/100g notations next to the prices on the shelves. I tell people I pressure cook my own beans and make my own soy milk and yogurt because it's healthier and Preservatives and such, but it's really because it's cheaper.

Being poor means never forgetting you were poor.

Being no longer poor is having a spider that rides on your shoulder, made up of reused straws and spent ketchup packets, constantly whispering you will be poor again.
posted by Shepherd at 10:02 AM on May 17 [26 favorites]


One of my clearest memories from childhood is going grocery shopping with my parents. The local store had a rack of items that were heavily discounted because they were damaged or about to expire. That was the focus of our weekly trips. I never went hungry going up, but I wonder if that was because they sometimes did. Everyone in my family is doing much better now, and part of me wants to share this article with my parents, but I'm not sure how they would take it. They are stoical people and don't like to talk about that period in our lives.
posted by a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich at 10:16 AM on May 17 [6 favorites]


We were on food stamps for a while, after my dad left and while my mom was working to get her GED. She caught me one morning on the floor of the kitchen with her cookbooks. "What are you doing?" she asked. "Looking at all the pretty pictures of food" I answered.

She loaded me and my baby sister up and went down and hollered at the welfare office for a while. I don't know if it made a difference in her allotment though.

She's long passed, and there are lots of things from my childhood that I never got to process with her as an adult.

My mom was always on the thin side of a healthy weight (not necessarily unhealthy, but very thin). The partyline was that the rest of her family were all fat slobs and she didn't want to be like them (lots of dysfunctions in the family, obvs).

That one scene in Erin Brockovich, where she takes her kids out to lunch and lies to them that she already had lunch - that was an eye-opener for me.
posted by vignettist at 10:24 AM on May 17 [13 favorites]


I remember poor really well, and the surprise of not poor. And now I've come full circle back to poor. It's called growing old in the USA. My building is being sold and I can't afford the security deposit to rent a new place. Let alone what the rent would be (at least double what I'm paying now) in this place once the building sells.
posted by evilDoug at 10:26 AM on May 17 [8 favorites]


Now - Still put items back on the shelf because ummm, financial insecurity has long lasting effects.

I am well known (and occaisionally teased) in my social circles because one of my most common weekly errands is returning things to the store. I always have buyer's remorse. Yesterday I returned a package of unused plastic forks (that had been purchased for a party) to Target for $1.67. I probably wasted more in gas going there than I got back. But I didn't need them.
posted by vignettist at 10:29 AM on May 17 [8 favorites]


I am broke, not poor, because I do have access to credit and - in the absolute worst case scenario - friends who could feed and shelter me. But if it weren't for SNAP ("food stamps," for non-USians) I'd probably eat ramen every day because I'd feel guilty spending money on anything else. I bought a MANGO yesterday. Psychologically, it feels like I bought lobster. Never ever criticize what a poor/broke person eats because that is likely their only luxury.

I do the math on absolutely everything that SNAP doesn't cover. Cat food, cat litter, toilet paper. How much does it cost per pound, per sheet? What if I have a coupon for this one, is it still more expensive than that one, per unit? It's not raining, should I walk a mile or spend $2 on the bus?

Like I said, I'm broke so I can still see a light at the end of the tunnel, but I have no way of knowing how long the tunnel is, so I'm paranoid about spending money now. I was never a spendthrift, but I miss the days of buying name brand [whatever] without thinking about it.
posted by AFABulous at 10:53 AM on May 17 [7 favorites]


So, then there's a conundrum: do I only get enough groceries for 5 days or so, and just take the bus back from the grocery store, or spend an extra $11-18 on an uber back, and get groceries for 2 weeks. Keep in mind that the bulkier an item is, the cheaper it is per ounce. So, saving money on the bus means spending more money on groceries for less food.

I've been without a car since the beginning of February and I am quickly learning a lot about the difficulties of grocery shopping. I'm convinced that part of the reason there's an obesity epidemic in poor neighborhoods is that carbs are cheaper and lighter. It's much easier to carry loaves of bread and boxes of pasta than it is produce.

It is criminal that you cannot pay for grocery delivery with SNAP. The cheapest grocery store that delivers doesn't even take credit cards. It's criminal that some stores don't even take SNAP (or WIC) at all and you may not know it until you get there.
posted by AFABulous at 11:10 AM on May 17 [12 favorites]


one of my most common weekly errands is returning things to the store

My mom always, always saved receipts in case anything needed to be returned and would double-check them once we were home to make sure that the cashier didn't scan something twice, or enter the wrong item/price, and this was for the discount grocery store/pharmacy. I remember feeling embarrassed at having to return to the store and stand in the line for the customer service counter when she found an error, because we'd wait to take care of it until we were returning to the store the following week, which meant that we'd be going through the checkout line just minutes after everyone (I felt) saw us making a fuss because someone had accidentally charged us for two bottles of shampoo instead of one, or whatever.

I don't remember a specific instance of it, but realizing that I had stopped saving and checking receipts for every single transaction was a big indicator that my life had changed in a significant way. So is buying things at Target or (heaven forbid) a corner drugstore in a pinch - that's something that we never, ever did and it took me a long time not to feel like it was the height of carelessness to pay twice as much for toothpaste in the middle of the week because I'd forgotten to get it at the store where I could be sure it would cost less.
posted by Anita Bath at 11:10 AM on May 17 [4 favorites]


My dad was ashamed of his father because he would run out into the street anytime he saw a horse had passed and bring the horse manure back to put in the family's backyard vegetable garden. I've seen the tall and narrow city house where they lived and the backyard would have been the size of a decent living room, so with a vegetable garden there would have been no room for any grass, or anything else below the tall walls of the row houses. He grew up in the depression. And at the same time my mother's father was blind and the only bread winner in her family so she grew up poor also.

During my early childhood, we ate stale white bread and canned stewed tomato casserole, with a slice of process cheez food on top. Whatever was on your plate you had to eat, so some of the cheap pork that we ate was actually just pork fat and gristle. To this day I assume you have to eat cartilage, and gnaw away at it until it becomes a size and shape that you can swallow. I don't feel like there is anything wrong with that, if I can get it small enough to go down, then it's food. One of our treats was bread and dripping. Another one was sugar bandy - a slice of bread with a teaspoon of white sugar clinging to the margarine. Gone meat was dredged in vinegar. Back then the chicken wing was the cheapest cut on the chicken, so a package of putrid chicken wings marinated in vinegar for twenty minutes or so was an inexpensive dish. You could do that with gone pork too. Gone melons - once they had slimy bits - were inexpensive, and brown bananas, what most people would use for banana bread was another extremely cheap fruit. When I was a kid apples were mackintosh apples. By the pound they were as cheap as potatoes, or cheaper. Quebec is apple growing country. I remember learning to take the seeds out of our apples when I ate the cores, because although they had a nice strong nutty flavour, if you ate more than a few of them they were poisonous. I didn't much like apple cores though. They scratched when you swallowed them.

Once a year my mother would take all three of us kids out to the Sally Anne down on rue St. Jacques and buy us a year's worth of clothing. Or rather, she brought me and my elder sister along because she couldn't leave us alone at home. She would buy my oldest sister a year's worth of clothing. We younger two wore my oldest sisters hand-me-downs, along with the hand-me-downs from our cousins. The cheapest clothing she could purchase was the stained stuff, or stuff that was damaged and she could mend. There was one t-shirt that got passed down through the three of us in turn which had blatant a purple grape-juice stain on the front. I knew it was grape juice - my mother explained that the reason we had never had grape juice was that it stained, like that.

We never got clothes bought new at K-Mart. My mother was harsh when she talked about what bad quality it was and how over priced and how it wouldn't last one kid, let alone three.

Our school required us to have gym shoes after that time we got evacuated from the gym, in a foot and a half of snow, in bare feet. These were not always available second hand, but you could get tennis shoes with canvas tops reasonably cheaply, so she invested in these. I remember seeing my toes poking through the holes in the canvas when they got worn out.

My parents were up front about it; my dad was even assertive. "We are poor," he would say. At Christmas I felt a little cheated when some of the toys in our stockings were cereal box premiums that my Mum had put aside. Shreddies went on special regularly and had the Disney movie toys - little Love Bugs and little Aristocats. But I understood that we didn't get the toys from the boxes when we ate the cereal. We were poor. When I was eight my mother made us dolls houses out of cardboard moving boxes, with hand decorated wall paper inside, construction paper wall to wall carpeting, and open-and-close shutters held on and coloured by being wrapped in green duct tape my dad had brought home from work. We had three bookcases in the living room. My dad's book case was the brick-and-board. The other two were grey metal utility shelves like people put in the garage. My mother also made a toy chest out of moving boxes, to store our games and puzzles in, which she covered in plastic contact paper.

We ate a lot of Post brand cereal, Baker's brand cooking chocolate, Maxwell House brand coffee, Jello brand pudding and jelly, and a lot of Minute Rice and Minute Tapioca. This is because my father worked for the factory that made those things. He himself roasted the coffee that was made into Maxwell House Instant Coffee. A white cardboard box with cardboard handles came home from General Foods every month, packed with those items which were much enjoyed by various family members.

When I was eleven my parents broke up and my mum and my sisters and I moved into a shared apartment in the Plateau. I think I was fourteen when my mother read a report about what the minimum a family of four needed for groceries, per week. The amount was $42 dollars. After that we each got $10.50 to buy our own groceries.

But that was when I discovered the discount bookstore on Milton street that had a big rack out front for paperback books where every book cost 10c!!! At that point I was broke, not poor. I could have spent my entire $10.50 on bus fare and groceries. But I didn't. It cost twenty-cents a day to take the bus to school and back. That was two books. I dropped out of school. Ramen noodles, at that time only available in a little Asian grocery store where the proprietor spoke neither French nor English were $12c a packet. They didn't have any English or French instructions on them, but it was easy to figure out how to prepare them. Three packets a day added up to $36c a day. That meant it was actually possible to buy groceries for $2.52 per week!! I got lots and lots of books. I think I owned and ended up reading all the classic murder mysteries. Clearly, at this time I was broke, not poor because I could make these choices.

My mother was no longer able to work, so the household was being maintained on $100 a month. My father was paying child support of $30 per child, but had unilaterally raised it to $100 by then. We were sometimes still charging rent to roommate "friends" of my mothers, and my eldest sister was at Harvard - she had to go Ivy League, they had the best scholarships and couldn't have afforded to go without a complete scholarship that included student residence and a meal plan. When she was at school she didn't get the $10.50, only when she was home during the summer. So at that point we were spending more than was coming in, but my mother had some savings - enough, in fact that she bought a house cash down, on the same street where my father had been born in the front bedroom and lived as a little boy. But since expenditures exceeded income we were spending as little as possible - still broke, not poor, - and the house my mother bought lacked heat and water when the pipes froze and the plaster fell off the walls when it froze, and the wiring was at best extremely dangerous, and at worst non-functional. But we only lacked plumbing during the really cold part of the year, and my mother cunningly got the gas company to disconnect the gas - and then reconnected it herself after the meter was taken away, so there was free heat from a heater on the ground floor.

Broke, not poor. My father chipped in money to send me to Adult Ed night school - and then soon to also send my elder sister to Adult Ed so we could work on getting our high school education. My father took us on a vacation to England, one year. My mother's friends rented a cottage in Rawden over the winter, and we all went skiing there. The cottage was equipped with multiple pairs of skis, enough that we could all get out and romp in the snow.

Various friends would drop off garbage bags of used clothes periodically - it was known that we wanted this kind of largess and appreciated it.

Eventually once we had left home my sister, interested in family history, asked to take a look at the family accounts from our childhood. My parents of course kept accounts scrupulously. Every receipt was totaled, every penny accounted for, and everything paid case to avoid the cost of writing cheques. They kept these accounts the entire time they were married.

It turned out we had never been poor. My father had a good union job, with seniority. A healthy chunk of his wages were saved out of every pay cheque. We could have got all our clothes and shoes from K-Mart and still had plenty to save. My parents spent more on my mother's coin collection than on the entire family's clothes. My father would buy Glen Livit and Lochan Ora on the rare occasion he wanted a drink. My mother never experienced an interruption or any restraint in her daily consumption of cigarettes and liquor.

But my parents had grown up with chicken wings dredged in vinegar, and backyard gardens being the only source of fresh greens and second hand clothes that got passed on, so they felt poor. My father had only two definitions. Either you were rich like the Bronfmans or you were poor. He had to work for a living, so we were poor. And of course, in his time, he was right, because if he had stopped being able to work where would we have been?

He could and did raise the support money whenever he thought we needed it - and bought us a huge fancy TV and gave us money to buy clothes for my cousins wedding, and paid for books - hundreds of dollars worth of books, and my high school classes and a great number of other incidentals, like coming over to see us and taking us all out to nice restaurants, but we didn't need more food money - if we had needed more, I wouldn't have been able to buy those 10c books. My mother might have had to go on working instead of staying home and drinking, but she didn't have to. We were never poor. These things happened by choice.

And growing up like that means that I have never been poor. I have been a single mother on social assistance - I have been a young married with babies and our sole breadwinner on unemployment. And I have never been poor because I have always been able to cut our budget way, way down to rock bottom so that there was some leeway, so that I was only broke, no matter how little was coming in. I don't remember being ashamed of being poor when I was young. I remember coveting material things, but that is different. I think one reason why I never felt poor is because I understood that it was a choice. But I am pretty sure that for all they drank Lochan Ora and went on trips to England and paid cash down for houses, my parents always felt poor because they really had grown up that way.
posted by Jane the Brown at 11:24 AM on May 17 [38 favorites]


I grew up not having any understanding of this. I've been broke, but never genuinely poor; thanks, Mom & Dad. I knew a young person in my life grew up poor when I learned she'd never had fresh green beans. When we had a celebratory meal at a friend's with a tablecloth and china and wineglasses, but not super-fancy versions, and she took pictures because it was super-fancy.
posted by theora55 at 11:33 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]


I remember poor really well, and the surprise of not poor. And now I've come full circle back to poor. It's called growing old in the USA.

This. I never feel safe, because that other shoe could drop any second, without reason or warning.

I was just remembering the days of only being able to get one kind of soap at a time, so you might have to be flexible about what kind to use on dishes, clothes, skin, and hair. Baking soda for deodorant, cornstarch for powder. Somebody gives you a case of odd-sized coffee filters, and you don't have to swipe TP from public restrooms this time.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:36 AM on May 17 [6 favorites]


I am well known (and occaisionally teased) in my social circles because one of my most common weekly errands is returning things to the store. I always have buyer's remorse. Yesterday I returned a package of unused plastic forks (that had been purchased for a party) to Target for $1.67. I probably wasted more in gas going there than I got back. But I didn't need them.

I had a childhood mystery solved a few years back in that I remembered getting a plastic knock-off Barbie kitchen with a ton of accessories the year I was 9, just after my dad died, and I remembered playing with it on Christmas morning, and some surrounding drama with my 14-year-old sister and her gift (a stereo), but the toy disappeared after that and I had no idea what had happened to it. A few years ago I was talking to my sis about money things, and how strange our relationship with money is after growing up in poverty, and she mentioned the year she made our mother take our Christmas gifts back (to the flea market where she got them) because she was worried our mother had spent too much money on them.

As a parent now, I can't ever imagine returning a kid's Christmas gifts, or letting that decision rest on one of my children, but there you go. I don't return things much, but for years I would come home from shopping and proudly tell my husband how little I spent--sometimes fudging downward a little bit. The moment he said to me "You know, I don't care how much you spent," was huge. Shit stays with you forever.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:38 AM on May 17 [16 favorites]


I remember every time someone told me I wasn't worth loving because of how little I had. And it wasn't just once or twice I heard it.

Jesus, Fish Sauce, have all my hugs. There are lots of poignant stories in this thread but that brought tears to my eyes.

I was broke, not poor, for a few years after I left home at eighteen, and I've never forgotten. We are now very comfortable, due to luck, and we give lots of money to food banks. When Safeway asks if I want to add a charitable donation to my bill I always say yes. I give money to panhandlers without hesitation (Mrs. W. teases me that it's cheaper for us to take a cab the eight blocks from our hotel in Victoria to a restaurant because we inevitably have several chances to give money away if we walk). I'm especially happy to give money to street musicians, and go out of my way to do so.

We both have worked in food service so we've always been good tippers, but now I consider tipping to be a transfer payment. My minimum tip is twenty bucks, going to 50% on checks above forty dollars.

I hope I don't sound like I'm virtue-signaling. We are so fucking grateful to be where we are, and most of our other donations are to causes working to eliminate income inequality. I still feel guilty about spending money on myself sometimes. jscalzi's comment that being well-off is the closest an American can come to living in a socialist utopia is absolutely correct.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 12:37 PM on May 17 [12 favorites]


For me it hit when I was able to actually buy things when going “shopping” with friends instead of pretending I just didn’t find anything I liked.

but not super-fancy versions, and she took pictures because it was super-fancy.

This is my fear now. It was when I started my career after college where I learned that I was the weird one who parents didn’t pay for their college or has never been to Disney anything. I fear that I’m going to do something that gives away that I grew up poor (but not as bad as some for sure, only food insecure the day before payday, have family to lean on, though they were also poor so not a ton of help). But I also feel an incredible amount of shame when I drive around in my new car with my professional clothes and I see people struggling. Like I’m ashamed I made it out and they didn’t.
posted by LizBoBiz at 1:13 PM on May 17 [6 favorites]


Ideally while discussing the creation of some kind of National Universal SNAP system and funding of local small hold farms and greenbelts so no one ever feels embrassed food shopping or doesn’t have access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and grains.

So like, a lot of wine then.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:49 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]


For anyone on SNAP, more farmer's markets are taking it now. You can download an excel file (wtf) of locations by clicking on the US map in the right column of this page. I see a geocoding project in my future.

And I can't mention this site enough for helping me to find all kinds of public and private assistance programs. My utility bill is essentially zero, my DSL internet is $10/month, and my cell phone is free. (Thanks Obama!) If you qualify for SNAP, you can automatically qualify for a bunch of other stuff. If you have medical bills, make sure to tell the billing office that you're on SNAP.
posted by AFABulous at 2:10 PM on May 17 [13 favorites]


My family was solid middle class but with four kids going to college money was tight and my parents were frugal. Cut to several years later, when I was home for a visit and noticed with surprise and delight that my parents had started buying the good tomatoes.
posted by emd3737 at 3:04 PM on May 17 [6 favorites]


This is why it always comes off as feeble when some famous person takes the SNAP for a week challenge. They're just getting a teeny glimpse of broke and poor is still way off beyond their ken.
posted by Gnella at 3:22 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


I grew up like this though I'm so old there were programs that helped back then. Since that I've been on my own and lived the poor student life a lot but I never had kids. I can't imagine how bad it'd be living like this and feeling like you failed (or are continually failing) your kids.
posted by aleph at 3:32 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


That reminds me GOOD AND CHEAP is a free PDF in English and Spanish for cooking on a SNAP budget and also a good, solid cook book for basics.
posted by The Whelk at 3:34 PM on May 17 [8 favorites]


I had a uncle who was born in the 1920s in rural England.

I grew up in the worst parts of Manchester


A man who grew up in Glasgow in the 1930s told me how, as a kid, he and his friends used to throw rocks at the railway locomotives, because the engineers would get mad and throw lumps of coal back at them. Free coal!
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 3:39 PM on May 17 [11 favorites]


I knew I wasn't broke anymore when I could buy the tampons that are the most comfortable for me, instead of always getting whatever was on sale.
posted by shiny blue object at 3:43 PM on May 17 [8 favorites]


A third-generation AT+T employee once told me that during the Depression, the supervisor would send a crew of men out to count every telephone pole in the district. When they came back with their report the next day, he would express skepticism about the accuracy of their numbers, and send them back out to count them again. Everyone knew it was play-acting, but everyone played along because they all knew that money was scarce and jobs were scarce. Keeping everyone employed and busy had value far beyond the company's bottom line.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 4:14 PM on May 17 [16 favorites]


kitcat’s post held a mirror up to my own blueberry confession, above: I bought blueberries all winter and only ate them two or three times. In my head, they’re a treasure, for the kids. As much as I love fresh berries I leave them for the babies.

(We are in the middle of putting in our garden. I am planting berry bushes).
posted by annathea at 4:17 PM on May 17 [9 favorites]


My parents were very frugal. We were never poor, Im sure sometimes we were broke, but my folks never let on. Most evenings we had one of two meals: lentils and rice or black beans and rice, but we always had a green salad with dinner. They were able to help my siblings and I pay for college, and own their house outright.

I remember when the house was finally paid off, and my dad could quit the job he could no longer stand, and he is now self employed.

Now that my brothers and I are grown and relatively self-sufficient, whenever I visit, I find that they are treating themselves. A pair of leather boots that aren’t entirely necessary but are beautiful and high quality. Fancier, frillier foods like dried mango and quinoa. A painting on the wall.

I don’t know that they have much in the way of retirement, except what my mother will get when she retires, and she plans to keep teaching until she’s 70.

The amount of unnecessary things we had was very limited. We wore hand me downs, and didn’t have cool plastic toys or expensive cereals.

I think they did very well on very limited funds, and I admire them immensely. I am very fortunate.

I’ve mentioned in a previous thread that diy back to the land yuppie shit pisses me off, because I grew up sewing my Halloween costumes not for quirky authenticity, but because store bought ones were expensive. We made our own jam because our trees made peaches and that’s one less thing to buy. We chopped wood because holy shit is it so much cheaper to buy a logging truck full of logs every few years then buy it by the precut cord.

I’m currently perpetually broke, in the way that a healthy 20-something with a support system can chose to be. I often am counting pennies at checkout, but only because I want to grab a beer with a friend later. I also have always worked at restaurants that offer a shift meal, and being a cook means I can make a big healthy shift meal, stretch it into two meals, and add things like meat and fresh greens without worrying about cost.
posted by Grandysaur at 6:00 PM on May 17 [6 favorites]


It's true. I grew up going-to-bed-hungry poor, children's aid got called because I was so thin and never brought lunches to school kind of poor, and I stayed poor for a lot of years.

I remember eating the worst, most disgusting desperation food. Expired food, rotten food, food out of garbage bins, raw ingredients that weren't sufficient to make a meal. I remember stealing from grocery stores (sorry not sorry) and asking diner waitresses if I could eat the leftovers off the plates other patrons had left behind.

I remember later getting jobs places where I could get some free food and surviving mostly on that.

I lived hand to mouth like that until I was in my late 20s. It's not perpetual, sometimes you have money and buy a bunch of groceries or some takeout or you have a period of time where things are going well and you eat every day but the fear is always there.

But I remember one time I came home with a bunch of groceries and I opened the fridge and there wasn't enough room in the fridge for all the food I had bought and I realised that I had enough food, and I always had enough food, and whenever I didn't I could always buy more. And I realised I wasn't a poor person anymore.

It was like all of a sudden I was safe.
posted by windykites at 7:58 PM on May 17 [14 favorites]


I've been broke, definitely, but not poor. I earned $0 last year and had both SNAP and Medicaid. On the other hand my mom and her husband loaned me about $50K so I could live comfortably.

In terms of understanding my own income level I think a lot about my "splurge boundaries," as an analog for financial security.

When I was broke, in college, and a couple times in San Francisco, my SB was about 50 cents. If the gum ball machine looked like it had something cool in it I'd totally splash out.

Then the SB became $1 then $5 then $10 and so on. It's at about $100 now. I think about what it would be like to have an SB of $500 or even $5000.
posted by bendy at 8:24 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]


And, Jane the Brown that is an incredibly fascinating, beautifly-written story!
posted by bendy at 8:26 PM on May 17


I was one of those people who kept a running total while grocery shopping because I never had much money and never wanted to come up short.

I remember the moment I stopped being poor. In 1986 I was behind a woman with three kids who came up about $2 short. I saw her face turn red and the tears slip down her cheeks as she tore through her purse trying to dig out enough change to cover it. She decided to put back the gallon of milk and get a quart instead. I said no, please get the gallon and I'll pay for it.

I never felt poor again.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:29 PM on May 17 [14 favorites]


Wow, this thread hits home. I grew up poor and for many years now, I've not been. But yeah, with food, it doesn't really leave you. Even though I don't have to worry about how much the bill will be at checkout I still eat very cheaply - myself, because you just never know if you have to go back there. When it comes to buying food/cooking for people I love it's totally a polar opposite, fuck it, I'll take the eppoisses and not think. I guess it's the easiest way for me to show love and care, even if they don't "get it." It really struck me by reading the stories here how being food poor makes you somehow come up with the same strategies, as if there was a guide that we all got, even though nobody gave it to me then. Not being hungry when going out with friends, hiding from the school cafeteria during lunch hour because I didn't have anything to eat, avoiding food shopping with my mother because the shame of holding up the grocery line because we had to put food back, etc. My friend's daughter is 11 and has never touched a piece of fruit even though there are berries and luxuries like apricots and plums, she has no idea how lucky she is of course. Berries or apricots were a birthday food for me.
posted by perrouno at 8:01 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]


Oh, and not being able to say no to free food, even if I'm full or watching my weight. At one job, they had free pastries ffor Friday coffee hour. It was a constant struggle not to take more than I wanted *right then.* And SO many times I found myself going back to the lounge when everyone had gone, to quietly wrap up the leftovers to rake home.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:11 AM on May 18 [6 favorites]


It's much easier to carry loaves of bread and boxes of pasta than it is produce.

And they aren't as easily damaged as produce. Rice isn't lightweight like bread or pasta, but it can fit in the bottom of a backpack and you don't have to worry about it getting bruised on the way home. Bread that's partially squished will still make sandwiches; tomatoes that got slammed hard against a door (because some asshole in the parking lot thought it would be funny to try to knock you over with his car door) aren't usable for anything but sauce, and you'd have to make that today.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:12 PM on May 18 [5 favorites]


Part of why I’m overweight/obese is I’m too afraid to spend money on fresh fruits and veg. Why? I “know” it will be better in the long run. Now, to get my heart and brain in sync... I even started using a grocery delivery service sometimes so I can get them in the house without fear.
posted by beckybakeroo at 7:00 PM on May 19


I don't know that I necessarily grew up poor, but my parents are not great with money, even (especially) after divorce. And there were definitely times where dinner was... lean. But these were rare. The things that stick with me, I think:

- that strange year of 4th grade with a libertarian classroom, complete with currency and a Friday auction where kids can bring in something tangible to sell for funny money, and never having anything to sell
- having to bring an angry letter to school explaining that your family's too poor to buy boxed cereal, and that you don't have any cereal boxes to bring for the planned art project the teacher requested
- being thankful the lunch card you were given was only a green 'reduced lunch' card instead of the red 'free lunch' card
- not pursuing Eagle Scout because you really don't want to have the family finances talk the required 'Family Life' merit badge demands
- having to empty my bank account to buy mom a new air conditioner for the house the summer after graduating high school
- calling up grandma / grandpa to ask to help settle unpaid college bills, or be denied commencement
- discovering a sherrif's sale notice on the kitchen counter, filed over unpaid property taxes
- going over how make a household budget with your parent, and how to price shop for things like car insurance
- discovering said house was refinanced into an interest only HELOC, and that when the principal repayments come due the mortgage is likely going to default anyways
- putting together a paperwork filing system for your other parent, even though you're fairly confident it will not be used

I've more or less come to peace with forking over a few thousand every year to the parents. I've come to discover that before the divorce, this was a role my grandparents played at Christmas time. And they never really saved up much for retirement beyond social security and a random pension dad qualified for.
posted by pwnguin at 7:38 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]


It took me years to realize that a rich person who meets a smart, capable person working in a service role does not think to themselves, "This person deserves better. I should help them move up in the world." Rather, they are more likely to think, "So lofty am I in this world, that even those who serve me are exceptional people. It is good to be me. This is as it should be."
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:55 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]


I had fits and starts of being "poor" in my 20's in Melbourne, but honestly, the worst it got was only being able to afford a $1.50 7-Eleven hot dog (those things were boss when slathered with as many free condiments as they could hold) every second day rather than every day. One time I had to have the last of the jam on some fried flour. But I always managed to have enough tobacco, even if it meant scrounging cigarettes from fancy sand-filled ashtrays at the back of buildings in town. Smoking was a good way to ignore being hungry.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:52 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]


honestly, the worst it got was only being able to afford a $1.50 7-Eleven hot dog (those things were boss when slathered with as many free condiments as they could hold) every second day rather than every day.

I had almost forgotten the two-for-a-dolla hot dogs and toppings bar from the Uni-Mart down the street from the building where most of my university classes were. That was lunch any time I wasn't able to pack my baloney sandwiches. Oh, the taste and texture of filling up on those translucent, soggy pickle slices! Half the time the dogs were cold in the middle because they hadn't been on the rollers long enough.

I would bring my own water bottle to refill, and read the used newspapers that were always lying around. I got pretty good at the New York Times crossword. It was from one of those newspapers, while eating one of those sad, cold Uni-dogs, that I read about the death of Vincent Price. It sticks in my mind because the general bleakness of the day seemed appropriate.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:05 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]


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