The poverty line

9 Feb

I am now about to talk about some things that may make some of you uncomfortable, or make you think you should take some helpful action.

You should not. You should let this play out, because this is such a good experience.

I have mentioned before our family’s rather strict budget. We made a commitment almost a year ago to forego certain luxuries (read: all of them) so that one half of our leadership could pursue his rock’n’roll dreams, essentially living on my salary alone. We are thrilled to have taken that chance and see it take off — it’s like The Little Drum Shop That Could. It is not, however, The Little Drum Shop That Could Make Us Rich. Rather, it’s a grand experiment in finding personal fulfillment through professional fulfillment. And he has. And our little house is a fun place to live because we are all so very happy in our day jobs.

So. I make a pretty good wage. As soon as I get paid, I immediately pay all our bills, trying to put a little money away, and bankroll what’s left for groceries, gas and Vivian’s activities. We share one car that’s paid for, and we live super close to work and school so there’s lots of walking and biking.

Some of the “luxuries” we’ve given up include new clothes or shoes — our generous families and birthdays and Christmas have allowed us to keep from looking like hobos. My mother slips me cash every couple of months for a haircut and dye. But we haven’t bought anything in the way of new furniture or appliances or art since we moved to Stillwater a year ago. We rarely eat out. But again, this is a fun little family. We love to watch movies and funny TV shows together while playing tug of war with the puppy. We eat dinner together every night. We go to the library, we take walks, we read and play games. We hug a lot. We don’t NEED much money to be happy. Sure, there are lots of things we WANT, and sometimes it’s really hard to deny Vivian things that seem reasonable for her to possess. But for the most part, this life is far from unbearable just because money is tight.

A lot of people go through a “broke” phase, and if they’re lucky, they experience it when they’re young and single or recently married. I was never the most financially responsible, and lived beyond my means for years when I should have been roughing it (kind of like I am now). I always made excuses for why I spent more than I earned, especially once I took on two children not of my own making and eventually their girlfriends. While it was awesome to be the house everyone gravitated toward, it was pretty pricey to keep them all fed (to use one example of how I justified my overspending).

So I’m going through my broke phase later than most of my peers. I have handled it pretty well so far, I think, with a sense of humor. I remind myself of the payoff, and what it was like when we were both working at a place that didn’t make us happy, how hard it was to get out of bed in the morning. I also remind myself that we really have it better than so many people in the world. Having a warm house and food on the table has always been my consolation.

That took an interesting turn this week. For whatever reason, some extra bills came due and by the time I’d paid everything, I had only a little bit of cash left for the month. By Monday of this week, our cupboards were pretty bare. The next payday was a week away, and it was obvious that we weren’t going to have enough food to last us until then.

Don’t get me wrong. I have savings that I could dip in to, and my parents would never let me starve. But we set goals, dammit, and two of them were Don’t Spend More Than What You Have and Don’t Let Vivian Know How Tight Things Really Are.

My menu from last night’s entry was true — the best I was going to be able to do was boxed mac and cheese several nights. At that rate, things were going to get ugly. Then Ol’Boy came through with this text from the drum shop — “I have $20 to contribute to groceries.”

Hot damn.

Flash forward to Wal-Mart, later that night. I have a 20 in my back pocket, a snow storm bearing down and a family of three to feed for the next six days.

These are humbling times. I think by the time I got close to checking out, I had about $40 worth of groceries in my cart and had to whittle it down by half. I also had to decide whether to buy healthier, more expensive food or cheaper, less nutritious fare.

93 percent lean ground beef is $3.36 a pound. A pound that’s 27 percent fat is $2.68 a pound. I could get a loaf of generic white bread for $1.18, whereas our usual 100 percent whole wheat loaf was $2.28.

A jar of pickles for our hamburgers (we happened to already have four buns at home) was almost $2, so that seemed too luxurious and that went back.

Baking potatoes were 88 cents a pound. Three of those would be a meal, and probably ring up just shy of $3 — one for each of us.

Vivian loves Ramen noodles, and at just 18 cents a pack, that’s four lunches or dinners for her for under $1.

The big box of Lucky Charms we all eat for breakfast was almost $4, plus we would need more milk — another $2 at least. Too much of a hit for breakfast when the $1.98 package of 12 tortillas could be heated up and buttered for breakfast.

I spend about 30 minutes in there, putting stuff into my cart and taking it out, trying to stretch $20 as far as possible. It was stressful and humbling. I was glad this wasn’t my life every day, but for a lot of people, that’s the reality.

Tonight for dinner Vivian had beef ravioli (92 cents a can) and Billy and I had hot dogs (88 cents for eight dogs and $1 for eight white buns). During the snow storm we’ll have leftover popcorn and hot chocolate. There’s salad in there and peanut butter and ham and enough bread to keep us in sandwiches through the weekend.

But I know there are other folks out there right now who live like this every week, paycheck to paycheck. I pray tonight that they have heat and that their kids have enough to eat. I hope that one day when we’re more financially solvent, I’ll be able to spend more time and money helping people who truly need it, and this week’s lesson inspired me to focus my efforts on hunger.

Not having enough money to feed my family was terrifying. Something worked out — something always seems to work out — but what if it hadn’t?

My total rang up to $2o.52. I had to have the cashier take the potatoes off.



One Response to “The poverty line”

  1. Jaclyn February 10, 2011 at 2:20 am #

    I feel as though this blog post could win awards.

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