My 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?