The Privilege of Pretending

PretendingMy heart started to hammer as I unloaded my grocery cart items onto the conveyer belt and I started to mentally run the numbers. We might not make it under our $200 grocery budget for the month. How could this be? What was different? Did I buy too much fresh produce? Should I put something back? For a short month, this budget dilemma seemed unexpected and unexplainable. Rice, eggs, apples, cereal, almond milk, black beans, Roma tomatoes, the list goes on. After eyeing everything in the cart, I realized that any extra trips to the store in the next week would, in fact, push us over our budget. Then, as I watched the family in front of me quietly swipe their SNAP card through the card reader and then thought about my own impending bill, another thought popped into my head: So what?

Something really inexplicable has been happening as of late. More and more people are talking about being poor. Gwyneth Paltrow and her SNAP Challenge. Tim Ferriss* and his calls to  practice poverty. Even bloggers, like yours truly, get so married to their budgets that busting them seems like end-of-days music should start playing in the background as spreadsheets are filled.

I have no qualms about this kind of conversation. I’m on board with simplifying. In fact, I admire people who can eschew life’s excesses and really drill down their consumption to the bare minimum. In many ways, that is exactly what the impetus behind this blog is: more purposeful living. But make no mistake about it. There’s privilege in being able to pretend. 

If — or it actually seems like when — I go over my grocery budget this month, nothing major will happen. I may end up pulling some money over from our discretionary spending to cover the cost. I could use some of my side hustle money to cover it. That little bit of padding I keep in my checking account? I could use that, too. I could also dip into our regular savings account or even our emergency fund. Or I could pick up a shift or two of substitute teaching or sell more clutter. In short, we would be fine.

We wouldn’t be just a little fine. We would be really fine. In fact, it seems that for the past three months, the universe is trying to underscore just how fine we would be. Right before we left for a vacation in December, we were in a hit-and-run accident that forced us to test out our new insurance and pay a $250 deductible. Then, our furnace broke down in January. Last week, our shed blew apart after only two years of existence during a microburst of sorts that also tore apart our neighbors’ roofs and siding. All things considered, even the accident was a nuisance, not a catastrophe. Granted it is awful to have to take money out of an emergency fund once. It adds insult to injury to make it seem like a monthly routine. But we’re just fine. We might be a little more motivated to side hustle, Mr. P might get less ice cream from the grocery store, and I might wait another month for a haircut.  But really. We are fine.

There’s a great deal of power in pretending to be poor. It helps you identify your true values. It emphasizes just how many wants life is cluttered with. It should make you a more conscious consumer who is less prone to mindless excess. It might even make you more empathetic, or, at the very least, sympathetic to the hardships of others. But pretending to be poor and living in poverty are two markedly different things.

I have never been poor. I remember crying at night when I would overhear my mom and dad talking about possibly losing his business. This would happen at least a handful of times throughout my twenty-five-plus years of living with my parents. But even as a child, I knew we could sell our house. My dad could probably get another job. My mom still worked. As I got older, I worked, and I knew I could chip in for more. We would be fine. Would it be unpleasant? Of course. It would be utterly heartbreaking for him to lose the thing he built from the ground up. But we could survive.

While I may not have ever been poor, I do know what poverty looks like. I stare into its face on an almost daily basis. Sometimes it has dark eyes that look like melted chocolate. Other times, it has green eyes so bright they shine. Many of my students live in poverty. These are not just down-on-your-luck temporary situations. These are the realities** that these teens have awoken to for their entire lives.

At the start of the year, one student had so little to eat at home that she tried to negotiate good behavior and completed assignments in exchange for bags of pretzels or other snacks she saw in my desk drawer. After quickly translating a permission slip into a passable attempt at Spanish that would allow me to reward her positive behavior with either school supplies or a snack of her choosing, I am now able to offer her food on a daily basis. It isn’t always a reward, though, because it’s hard to behave when she is so focused on a next meal. Sometimes she is so hungry that she can barely stay awake. Other times, she’s irritable from babysitting siblings all hours of the day and giving them the majority of her food. That is poverty. Everything else I do when I stand in the grocery line and obsess over my budget, that’s just pretending.

It is well within your right to pretend to be poor. I sincerely hope those efforts place you in touch with your values, help you pay off your debt, pad your bank accounts, and put you farther away from true poverty with every mindful decision. I also hope you realize what a privilege it is to be in that situation, one in which poverty is just a matter of pretending.

* Tim Ferriss the stoic, not Tim Ferriss the consumer – they make for two markedly different podcasting personas.

** And it’s not just my students. In fact, poverty is much less widespread in my district than it is throughout the country. According to the National Center for Child in Poverty, 41% of children ages 12-17 live in low-income families.

So Tell Me…Do you find value in practicing poverty? Do these statistics on child hunger surprise you?

Disease Called Debt
The Privilege of Pretending

35 thoughts on “The Privilege of Pretending

  1. Wow, such a powerful post. Thank you. This is totally where my head has been lately — thinking both about whether our current definition of “frugal” is actually even frugal in a real sense (like, say, compared to the great depression sense of frugal, or before there were even widespread options to buy stuff — though I’d say your grocery budget qualifies as pretty darn frugal!), and whether a ton of us are really just frugality tourists. But I love how you put it — it’s a privilege to pretend.

    1. I definitely think our quality of life is better due to frugality. But I absolutely needed a personal wake-up call. This isn’t to undermine the hard work and effort of my husband and me (and other bloggers who are way more frugal and more hardcore with savings/investing). But sometimes I have to take a step back and realize how fortunate I am – debt or no debt, mortgage or no mortgage. Your point about frugality tourism is such a compelling one. I’ll be thinking about this all day!

  2. It truly is eye-opening to realize the privilege we have to be able to go over budget or pay a deductible and be fine. There are many who simply can’t go over budget because there isn’t any money to move from anywhere else. Unexpected events like a car accident can cause an avalanche of financial woes. While I’m thankful that I’ve never been in that position, I do know some people who have and it’s a very difficult trap to escape.

    Thank you for the reminder!

    1. You’re dead on, Chuck. It’s entirely cyclic for many people. To realize that I’m in a position to step outside of the cycle is really empowering. It’s definitely not something I even want to take for granted.

  3. Thanks so much for writing about this. It’s actually something I think about a lot. I’d say that the majority of pf bloggers are pretty privileged (myself definitely included), and sometimes it feels really weird for me to be spending so much of my time reading posts on how to save a little money on x, y, and z, when really there are much more important money-related issues in the world.

    Side note: I don’t know if you listen to This American Life, but there have been some really good episodes about education and poverty recently that I bet you would find interesting if you haven’t already heard them. The one that jumps to mind right now is this one:
    There’s also a two-parter on Harper High School in Chicago, which was AMAZINGLY DONE. Oh, and I also remember one on the de facto segregation of schools in Missouri.

    1. So glad you chimed in, Sarah. I definitely don’t want to knock bloggers (myself included!) for writing about small savings wins. And I sometimes think that I can’t give proper voice to big issues. But when I watch the inequities that my students experience, I realize that I’m silly to stay silent.

      This American Life is one of my favorites. The segregation episodes were crazy powerful. I’m going to double check that I’ve listened to all the other ones you mentioned. Thank you for that! Also, Freakonomics Radio (podcast) is running some really interesting episodes about the “supply and demand” of education. They’re much shorter, too.

  4. Do you read Shakespeare’s sister? I think as an educator, you might really enjoy it.

    I’ve recently come to the belief that schools can only be as good as the social services that they provide to parents. Kids really need their parents, but very low income parents can really only provide so much for their kids. Of course, if you view school as a social services arena that certainly has implications for how middle/upper income students should utilize the services.

    I also believe that one of the greatest blessings of having abundance is the ability to share it with those who are in need. Whether its buying groceries, asking a family to a meal, or hiring a friend who lost her job, its important to remember that frugality and wealth itself is not an end of its own.

    1. This comment is most excellent, Hannah! I make it a point to purchase one item from our food pantry’s wish list with every trip to the grocery store. I don’t factor that into our gifting budget, either, because I see value in helping out monetarily as well. Thanks for sharing both of those links. Very important!

  5. My husband brought up one of those stories about watching someone buy filet mignon with food stamps and drive away a brand new Cadillac. It made me mad, because how many struggling people did he not notice putting something back because they just couldn’t afford that bag of apples or package of chicken legs?

    And it’s not like Jon’s hardhearted, most of the time. He taught school briefly, and knows how important school breakfasts and lunches were to his students’ well being. But he still buys these narratives about people gaming the system. Yes, some people game the system, but it’s a small minority.

    1. I struggle a lot with that. I think these examples come to mind so freely that it seems like it happens more often than it does. Similarly, I know there are some families in the country (perhaps even in my school) who take advantage of the free and reduced lunch program. But that doesn’t mean I think we should stop offering it. Could assistance programs be more effective? No question about it.

  6. You’re so right in all the ways! I often get caught up in the discussion we’re all having of saving a dollar here or there or upping our retirement contributions or paying down our mortgages fast and I think “Here we are, in our little bubble of privilege, trying to maximize an already great financial life.” I have never had to worry about what would happen if I lost everything. Mr. T and I both have upper middle class parents that would cover us. We’ve never had to have them do so, but having that family financial safety net is not something to take for granted. If we didn’t have that, our decisions may be drastically different even if we made the same amount. We’ve never had to worry about putting food on the table. If we ever had, that would change us.

    1. I agree. I definitely get so caught up in my little bubble that I tend to lose sight of the bigger picture. It’s part of why I always buy something for the food pantry when I grocery shop. It helps me remember that it’s never just about me.

  7. Wow this is amazing. When it comes down to it, life is about balance and you need to determine what item will give you the highest happiness & return. For me, eating healthy and good food bring happiness to my life. Eating ramen noodle for every meal just to save money does not. It’s a privilege to be able to pretend that you’re poor but do not overdoing it that you start living in poverty for the sake of saving.

    1. Balance is really important, and so is prioritizing happiness. Where I feel most fortunate is I could eat ramen if I wanted to, but then I could always revert back.

  8. It is definitely a privilege, one I am grateful for, and that’s one of the reasons I was so impressed with your student (from the latte factor lesson) talking about people who think they don’t have enough to give to charity but spending extra on their latte. Linking the privilege with the savings is something I don’t think about that often, but I would love it if some of the “savings challenges” I see blogged about included giving to those less fortunate as part of the plan.

  9. Penny, this is s very moving post. And since reading it, I realized student loan debt is also a privilege. Poor people lack finances, but they also often lack role models. How many poor students know how to find grants or loans? How many know how to fill out an entrance application? I wonder how many truly poor people have debt. No one is giving them loans, credit cards or mortgages.

  10. This is incredibly powerful, Penny. I am always in awe when I read your posts on these matters. I can’t deny that growing up in middle class has always allowed for privilege. I have no idea what it feels like to be irritable because all I am thinking about is the next meal. It makes me heartbroken to know that the basic necessities of food, shelter, water are tested for a vast majority. When I volunteer at the local Boys & Girls club I come right after snack time. I know sometimes people haven’t eaten, or still need to eat. I let it run over for as long as they need, because I recognize that may be their one sustainable meal for the day. Thank you for this, Penny.

  11. I couldn’t agree more with everything you said–and the importance of this message. Acknowledging and expressing gratitude for the many blessings and advantages that we have in no way earned goes a long way toward fueling both frugality and generosity. We are in such a privileged position to be able to live below our means, and our mission trips to truly impoverished areas (both domestic and international) has convicted about the privilege of pretending.

    1. Kalie, I’m glad you chimed in, especially with your mission trip experiences. That’s an incredibly powerful perspective for sure. It says a lot about us if we can choose to live below our means. I’m not even sure what that phrase would mean for someone who is truly impoverished.

  12. I don’t have to pretend, ever. I grew up poor. My mom grew up impoverished. So did my cousins. For a while there, during college, I fought it off myself.

    Poverty isn’t some abstract notion that I’d have to pretend to practice my financial chops and I’ve written about it a few times, years back (one here:

    I think there’s value in the privileged taking that trip in someone else’s shoes, it makes for more compassion, I think there’s also value in realizing that there’s a limit to what pretending can tell you. That until you’ve lived through it, you’ll likely not truly understand living with fear in your bones because you don’t have a safety net. There is no other job, there is no other opportunity, there is no one to borrow money from, you have you and you’d better not get sick, get hurt or in any way lose what few assets you do have.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing this, and I’m so glad you posted that link. I watched my mom fight it with every ounce of her being. Her mother could never totally escape it. But I’ve always been fortunate to not worry about my next meal.

  13. Wow, I literally just talked to my neighbor today and thought about this exact thing. She’s often telling me ways in which she’s saved money on groceries or accomplished a financial feat of some kind when it comes to her kids’ clothes and school supplies. And while she loves it when we swap stories of frugal finds, I often think to myself, “For me, this game of frugalness is a means to an end, for her, it’s a necessity.” My neighbor lives in a house under the rent assistance program because she’s a single mother with kids that need her at home. While we downsized to one car and decided to have Mr. FI ride the bus to save money, riding the bus was and is her only option of transportation because she can’t afford to have a car. While we participate in a community garden to save money on produce and have a better line of sight to where our food is coming from, she grows veggies in pots in her backyard to have more food each month for her kids. Mr. FI and I may “play poor,”* but we’re very aware of how fortunate we are to be able to do so. I’m so glad you shared this post and I hope other people in the FIRE community take the time to think about this concept, too.

    *Speaking of “playing poor,” my neighbor actually thinks we’re poor BECAUSE OF the way we live. Granted, she hasn’t been in our house to see the updated kitchen…but from our talks alone, she has deduced that we’re living paycheck to paycheck. Woops. Pretty eye-opening to how our pretending looks rather real to the outside world.

    1. What a powerful story. Good for you guys for frugal-izing so effectively. Even better that you can keep this perspective. As I said in my post, I’ve never had to worry about my next meal or anything like that…but your neighbor’s story reminds me so much of my grandma. Widowed mother, never learned how to drive, took three buses to work in a factory, and raised three little kiddos on her own in the 1950s. She watched me clip coupons and scrimp and save, and she would always remind me that it was OK to enjoy my money a bit too.

  14. Yes, yes, yes. I love this post. We may live a frugal life by modern rich-American standards, but make no mistake about it: most of us are rich and live lives of luxury. I came across this piece written by an economist discussing “playing at being poor,” and I enjoyed some of the notes on the “simple living” days that are often forgotten: “…the period being celebrated also featured incredibly long work days outdoors, no matter the weather; meager food; little medicine; and a fraction of our life expectancy, not to mention extremely high infant and child mortality. Life on the farm was not filled with peaceful days of moderately hard work and freshly prepared meals. Cooking was a nightmare, food was scarce, heating was poor, and disease was rampant. The ‘live simply’ crowd can’t have its cake and eat it too: we can’t all live local, simple, and slow and have the quality of life and longevity we have now.”

  15. Anon says:

    Hey. I’m poor. Actually, ridiculously poor. I make the decision every day to pay bills or feed my children. My children keep winning. I pay the minimum on my cards and utilities. I keep afloat, but no more. One bad month will kill us. I’m looking for a way to get ahead, at least a little, but haven’t found anything so far.

    1. I needed to re-read this today, too. I have so much privilege in my life. I try hard to not lose sight of that when things are good or bad or in between.

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