Tuesday, January 24, 2012


"To this day, my kids won't eat fresh green beans."

Po Folks
I did a series of several posts about lessons my mom and her sisters learned from the Great Depression of the 20th century. They picked up a lot of very good habits and learned patterns that its good for everybody to learn whatever their economic situation, and I fear things are going to get a lot worse soon, so its good to learn before you have to.

However, not everyone who endures a tough economic situation learns good lessons from it; many do very poorly. At Cracked Magazine online, they have a piece about 5 stupid habits you can pick up by being poor.

The first lesson is that you develop a taste for bad food. The writer claims:
Shockingly, when you're buying food based entirely on 1) how long it keeps and 2) how cheap it is, you wind up with $%@&#y food. When I was growing up, we knew that the first of each month was grocery day. That's the day that our food stamps came in. Nowadays (in the U.S., anyway) it's all done on an ATM-type of plastic called a link card that gets reloaded with "food only" money on the first of every month. But the idea is still the same: new month, new food. So when our food money arrived, to avoid multiple trips to the grocery store and burning shitloads of gas that we couldn't afford, we bought our entire month's worth of groceries all at once and stored it like (@#$ing squirrels. When you do that, you need shit that won't spoil.
Now, there's something to that. Fresh vegetables are more expensive than frozen or canned, much of the time. If you can't get to the market regularly, you can't get stuff that will not last a long time.

But here's the thing, when I was growing up we always bought almost all our food once a month, too. The difference is that mom was a cook and was home to make food, so she bought supplies like flour and made things from scratch. But too many people never learned how to do this, and when you're poor, what you can afford is usually pretty awful.

Plus, unless you know what you're doing, cooking from scratch can result in some pretty bad food, with a big focus on beans and gravy and fried foods. And let's face it, being poor is depressing, so its hard to have the energy to get up and make food that takes an hour or more to prepare. And not a few people are poor because they're basically lazy to begin with, so just opening a can is easier than making something fresh.

The second bad habit he brings up is that you spend any extra money you get right away. This I didn't ever see, and I think its a problem of personality and outlook more than poverty. My parents were in debt a lot. It wasn't gargantuan, crushing debt, but it was bad for them, and when they got extra money, it went to paying down credit cards and paying off bills. We'd have to go to the doctor, but the doctor had to put up with paying off bills 5 or 10 bucks a month. Its not much, but its a steady trickle, and that beats going to a collection agency.

So I didn't see this lesson either, but I do see it in people who are wealthy and in people who are poor. Not because of their financial situation, but because they are inclined to spend money when they have it.

Another lesson is that you become a bean counter. And this one is absolutely true, if you have a shred of responsibility.
Remember that time you were cleaning out your wallet and found an extra $5 bill stuffed inside one of the pockets? Poor people are laughing their asses off right now because I might as well be asking if they remember the time they found an extra minotaur in the kitchen. When you're living check to check, there is no amount of money that isn't accounted for, right down to the last penny. You don't have "about 70 bucks" in the bank. You have $68.17.

You think in exact numbers because, at any given point, you have to know if swiping the debit card for gas will put you into overdraft territory. You have to be able to figure on the spot how much you can spend versus how much you need to survive until the next payday, and even the numbers after the decimal point are important. The simplest miscalculation could mean the difference between an actual dinner or a bowl of McDonald's ketchup packets at the end of the week.
I remember once getting money to buy a pair of pants at the store, and I found some I liked. When I tried them on in the fitting room, I found a five dollar bill in the pocket. It felt like Christmas; I'd never had that much money at one time for myself in my life. I didn't know what to do with it. I think I blew it all in the arcade, actually. But it was like that moment in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where he finds a buck in the drain on the street. Now all my dreams can come true!

You really do get very very careful about counting every last penny. My mom collects coins, down to the penny. After a while she has enough to buy something, and she does. I hate pennies and tend to toss them aside, even though I'm poor because it takes a metric ton to buy a candy bar and they're just inefficient any more. But I still am very careful with my money. Its rare (and infuriating) when I overdraw or run out of cash because I keep a running total in my head. I've learned to estimate totals as I buy things with a level of accuracy that really surprises me.

To this day, when shopping, my mom uses a calculator to add up what she's spending along the way. Its never 100% precise, partly because we forget sometimes and partly because produce is weighed and you estimate, but she's usually within five bucks of the proper price.

I'm never as precise as my mom is, because I've never had a family desperately depending on the last cent in m y bank account, and I've always had my folks or, now, my brothers to fall back on in case things go wrong. But its a habit you learn.

The last lesson he writes about at Cracked is that you spend with the short term in mind. He doesn't mean you buy lousy throw away stuff, he means that you cannot afford more than what you need. This is the problem with places like Costco, for example. Yes, I can buy 97 rolls of toilet paper for little more than twice what that pack of 6 costs, but I can only afford the smaller package. Yes, its cheaper per unit to buy in bulk, but you have to have the money to buy that extra amount. And when you're poor you barely can afford what you're getting.

So you don't buy extra and stock up. You don't buy the mega family pack, you buy the I can afford this pack. You don't buy extra clothes for fashion or season or to have more variety, you get what you need and no more. That's the fact of life when you're poor: you can only get what you can buy.

That means that if there's any disaster (the clothes wear out, you run out of toilet paper, etc) then you're caught short: you don't have an emergency supply anywhere. And that's rough on poor people because you're certainly no more lucky than anyone else. So charities and food banks and such are a huge help. And those Salvation Army stores with hideous clothes and goofy, tacky stuff are a Godsend to the poor: yes, that blouse is out of style but its better than no blouse.

And honestly some of those habits are actually good to learn, even if they're a bit hard. Do you really need 2 closets full of clothes? Do you really need to buy the gargantupack of paper towels? Is that really the best use of your money? Most people can save money, if they look closely at their lifestyle. And most people would be shocked how cheaply they can live, if only they tried.

Here's the number one lesson everyone should know about growing up poor: its not the horror some make it out to be. It isn't the end of the world, it isn't some soul-grinding misery that people seem to portray it as so often. When you're a kid in this environment, you really don't know any better. That's just how things are. In America, being poor is not all that bad; even if things go their worst, there's places to go to survive and get food and help. Its not like if dad loses his job he has to sell a bunch of kids for medical experiments or we die in the streets.

I'm all for helping people get themselves out of poverty, but the "War on Poverty" makes it seem like being poor is the worst possible situation you can find yourself in. You know what? I'd take my poverty youth over growing up like Paris Hilton or Snooki any day.


Philip said...

If it's any kind of food for thought, I bought your recent e-book with change I saved up. Took it all to one of those coin-counting machines and exchanged for an amazon gift certificate.

Christopher R Taylor said...

Thank you very much, I appreciate it and I hope you enjoy the book!