I grew up poor. I mean, not so poor that we didn’t always have food or a place to live. I guess I should word that differently. I grew up poor-ish. I’ll explain later. Basically, this post is to talk about the very real trauma of being without money. I honestly think it should be classified that way. Trauma. It’s really something you never forget.
I’m currently extremely fortunate to live a financially stable life. I have it better than a lot of people and I never forget that. But, I also never forget that it could all go away. That terrifies me. Consequently, I’m a massive cheapskate, but, when you’ve grown up a certain way, you’ll always remember what it’s like to have nothing.
A little about my family.
I’m one of 6 kids, (the youngest, along with my twin). My mom worked a bit before I was born but for all my life she’s been a stay at home mom while my dad worked. He delivered real estate magazines, which we dubbed, “the routes.” An okish living, but it was not secure. For one, it counted as self-employed for some reason. Don’t know why, he had a boss and such, but that meant he had to pay his own taxes and the job didn’t come with health insurance, so, we just didn’t have it. That meant going to the doctor was only in rare and dire circumstances and you knew you had to be careful and not take physical risks that could wind you up with a broken bone and bankrupt your family.
My twin got appendicitis in her teen years and it nearly destroyed us, but, they paid it off. I’m still not sure how. I think they may have refinanced the house or something? I should really ask. I just know it was a big deal. My mom had her gallbladder out a few years later and that was likewise…rough.
When I was 12 I was playing red rover at school and ended up hurting my back. My parents decided I was being dramatic and didn’t take me in. I remember I couldn’t stand up straight for weeks from the pain. Likely, this was probably more due to the fact that we had no health insurance and they hoped the problem would magically go away. It did, and it didn’t. I’ve had recurring scapular problems to this very day from that stupid incident. Guess what? Now I’M too cheap to go get it looked at! It’s amazing how reluctant I am to go to the doctor because I was raised to only go if you’re literally dying.
The routes were an interesting job. My dad was home a lot because he had to wait for the new shipment of magazines to arrive every month. So when dad was home it was bad. It meant no work and no money and it happened regularly. In fact, his boss was also quite often late to pay him on top of everything. But my dad was loyal and hardworking and put up with it all anyway. That said, him being home a lot lead to all of us having a fabulous relationship with our father. Often one of us would go with him (I was homeschooled after 6th grade), and we’d help him stuff magazines into their little holders and he’d buy us twinkies and chocolate milk and tell us how wonderful we were. It was our one on one time with him and it was pure magic.
Looking back, I think it was worth it to have that upbringing, because my childhood was wonderful. Yeah, it had its issues. A lot of them, whose doesn’t? But, I was happy. Still, we definitely lived simply. For instance, we had food, but there were times we needed a bit of help. I remember a few times we had to get food from a food charity. They had the name of the charity on all the labels and when friends would visit I’d turn the labels away in the cupboards so they couldn’t see them because I was so embarrassed.
We lived in a bus for a few weeks. Not in the cutesy fun, “tiny house” kind of way. My dad bought an old, smelly school bus, thinking the family could live in it while he built a kit house on some property he wanted to buy. Turns out that was a lot more complicated in terms of finances, permits, etc so we ended up parked in front of a family friend’s house for weeks while they scrambled to find a place to live. There were 7 of us all crammed in with the stinking old carpets I can still mentally smell to this day. My grandparents helped cosign for a house and, miraculously, we finally had a real home. Before that we had 8 people crammed into a 2 bedroom apartment (back when all 6 kids lived at home). So having a real house was a BIG deal. It had 4 bedrooms, 2 baths, a family room and living room and a huge yard! It was life changing, and I’ll always be grateful.
Still, money was tight. The house was affordable, but when you only work part time because you have a flaky boss it makes it hard to keep a family afloat. Especially a big family. I remember my dad asked us once, if we had any ideas of how to save money. I was probably about 8, and my brilliant idea was to use the leftover milk from our cereal to pour into our hot chocolate so we could save on milk! Yeah, I was a genius, right?
My dad’s idea, however, was a tad more extreme. He shut off the hot water heater. Like, completely. Then he went to a thrift store and got about five coffee makers. If you wanted hot water, you’d boil it with the coffee maker. Showers? Well, he got a bug sprayer from home depot, the pump kind you use in the garden. You’d fill the pump with the hot water from the coffee makers, mix in a little cold water, and into the shower you’d go. You could always hear the, “VWOOPA VWOOPA VWOOPA!!” through the wall when someone was pumping the fucking thing. You’d pump it about 6 times and get 10 seconds of spray at which point you’d have to pump it all over again. You’d be cold and shivering and only get a little of yourself wet at a time. Inevitably you’d run out too, so you had to prioritize what got washed first and hope you got everything in time.
Here’s what it looks like, basically. Though ours was gray.
T (my twin) used to trick me into pumping for her so she’d have this constant, luxurious (not really) spray and not have to pump at all. She always said she’d do the same for me, but the lying bitch was conveniently unavailable whenever it was my turn, and so a pumping I would go, all on my lonesome. I still fell for it every time, so she almost never had to pump her own shower. The turd!
I remember once, after being introduced to the terror that is the legend of Bloody Mary, I was pumping for her while she showered. I saw a spider drop down from the ceiling and screamed, booking it the hell out of there. Apparently she thought I must have seen Bloody Mary, herself, so she nearly had a heart attack through the ordeal. Good. She seriously owes me like, four years, of shower pumping.
Eventually we did get hot water again. It was years later and I think my mom got sick of dealing with it so my father grudgingly acquiesced. Heaven.
Another thing about being poor? Portion sizes. We got teeny tiny cups of milk. One a day, because my mom knew us kids were supposed to have it. Other than that, water, which is totally fine. My older sister, however, hated that we couldn’t have enough milk or juice or even second helpings (there wasn’t enough) so when she cooks she makes TONS. And they get milk and juice from ginormous glasses because she said she told herself back then that when she grew up she’d never want to feel deprived again. I remember we used to have microwave popcorn sometimes. We’d split two bags amongst 5 of us (my older siblings were getting married by now). I used to bite each kernel in half and save it so that it felt like I was getting two helpings instead of one. Ah, my brilliant little mind, right?
When I was in my late teens I got a job teaching piano to kids. I barely made any money. Maybe like, $40 bucks a month? My mom started making me buy my own toiletries. I mean, I get it. Totally. Still, not the funnest way to spend one’s earnings. One birthday I asked for shampoo, mouthwash and floss just so I wouldn’t have to buy it myself. And I was happy to get it too!
I found out, years later, that my dad used to lay awake at night crying, sometimes, trying to figure out how to take care of his family. But you know what? He always did. He always came through. Our bills were always paid. If we were hungry? Bread and butter. It was my mom’s constant saying, “If you’re still hungry eat bread and butter.” To this day I still love the stuff. Our tummies were full. Our house was warm. We were happy. And we were lucky. There are so many people out there who don’t have the support to make it work. Too many. They have it so much worse than I ever did. And it needs to end. Something has to change.
Because of our low income, I was extremely fortunate when it came to my college funding. I was able to get it paid for by the state and they even gave me extra for expenses! I saved every penny of that extra money and I paid for my own wisdom teeth to be removed, in cash. It felt amazing. The rest of that money? I opened a bank account and saved it. Every cent. It wasn’t a ton, or anything. Just like, 2 or 3 thousand (which can be a lot depending on your needs). T asked what I was saving it for. “My wedding!” I said. I wasn’t even dating anyone! But I decided that’s what I was going to do with it.
A year or so later, I met S at college. We dated, got engaged, and the wedding was on. I thought about spending all my savings for my wedding and making it nice. I mean, 2 thousand is nothing in terms of a wedding, but I really wanted to do a few things with it. It was my big day! At the time, I had a crappy blog back then, and I talked about the princess and the miser, fighting it out in my head. The miser won.
I went cheap with our wedding. Super cheap. T (who had a proper job), helped pay for the food. I think the whole cost was about $250 for the food and $100 for my dress material. My older sister made the dress because she’s amazing. By then, I had a part time job at a pet store and S had his own job. We were saving for our first apartment so we could move out of our respective parents’ after the wedding.
As a couple, even with jobs, we were poor. It took a lot of work to find an apartment we could afford, but we did it! So, everything was good to go. We got married. I hated the wedding, but, whatever. It was done. We moved into our shit apartment. We had two days off for our “honeymoon” which was spent at home because we couldn’t afford to go anywhere. S goes back to work, I go back to work. Our first day back from work as a married couple? I made him a special dinner. Don’t know what it was but I put out candles and shit and everything. He gives me this look. Then, he tells me the news.
He’s losing his job.
We’d been married 3 days.
I felt like I’d finally had the guts to untie my little boat from the safety of shore and suddenly I’d been swept out to sea. I remember going to my parents and crying, feeling like life had completely shit on us in our most vulnerable time of life.
Cue the next 5 months.
My part time job helped slow the financial wound that had been dealt us, but it was no match for our expenses. S searched high and low for something. Anything! He was overqualified for retail and underqualified for anything else. We were so fucking poor it was ridiculous. Somehow, we still had enough money to eat and pay our bills. But time was running out.
I remember I would literally look for loose change and when we found enough we’d treat ourselves by getting a meal at this absurdly cheap Chinese restaurant and splitting it. One time, for some special occasion, we went to a restaurant that we’d loved while we were dating. We decided to just splurge and split the meal. The waitress put our food on two separate plates for us and everything. We each got one tiny crab cake. One tiny splotch of mashed potatoes. One tiny pile of vegetables. It took us about 3 minutes to eat and it was so embarrassing. I declared there that someday we’d go back and order appetizers, drinks, main course AND dessert when things were better! Eventually we were able to make good on that, years later. It felt amazing.
During this 5 month period of hell, my oldest sibling gave me $200. I’ll never forget how kind that was of her, and we desperately needed it. You don’t forget when someone helps you. Never. A couple years later, when we actually had money again, I repaid her that $200 when SHE was in a jam. She cried. I was so grateful to be able to help her like she’d helped me.
Still, I’m jumping ahead.
So, back to the 5 months of hardly any money. Financial stress is an interesting way to start a marriage. It was awful. It was like some great horrid weight that was crushing us. We both knew, in the back of our minds, that we couldn’t afford to live in our apartment much longer. We didn’t talk about that, much. But what we did do? We went on walks. We listened to Styx on cd and worked out in our tiny 600 square foot apartment. We napped and cooked and played Dr. Mario for hours. It was the worst and simultaneously the best time in our marriage. I’d get up ungodly early, go to work for 4 hours and when I got home he’d cleaned the house, done laundry, and done his homework because he was doing online college during all this. The rest of the day was spent having fun or looking for loose change to save up for our next Chinese takeout.
By the time the 5 months was almost over, things were getting pretty dire. The company my uncle worked at, however, was hiring. S put in his resume. It got rejected. My uncle took it out of the reject pile, had S tweak it, and he brought it back to his boss again.
S got hired.
We had $68 dollars left in our bank account when he finally started that job. $68 fucking dollars. Yikes. From there, he kicked absolute ass. He started from literally the ground up. His job was sucking dust out of computers in various stores. He’d come home covered in dust and sneezing his poor little head off. And from there, his career skyrocketed because he was so damned determined to show the world exactly what he could do. I honestly stand in awe of him. He’s done so much, worked so hard. Too hard, even. But he saved us. And you know what? I did too. Because you know how we survived those 5 months on barely any income? It was my freaking college fund. The extra money I’d squirreled away, so determined to hang onto for my someday wedding? The one that I ended up cheaping out on instead? That money saved our asses. To my past self? Time traveling high five.
Growing up poor sucks. I’m not gonna pretend it didn’t. My currently screwed up back isn’t going to pretend it didn’t. But I’m proud of coming from nothing. I learned how to save, how to budget, how to appreciate things in life that aren’t from money. I got valuable time with my father that I will NEVER forget and never would have gotten had he worked a typical job. I started out my marriage learning to work with my husband. To spend only on what is necessary and to have fun and happiness with next to nothing. Guess what? It wasn’t the last time we were without his income, too. In 2020 we went 7 months on just my part time job and we kicked absolute ass at it. Yeah, we were prepared this time and had better savings, but we were ready for anything because we’d been through it all before.
So yes, poverty is traumatic. I’ll never forget the stress of it, and in this day with bonkers inflation, interest rates and an unstable job market, things are potentially more rocky than ever in this economy. I’m always half expectant for the rug to be pulled out from under me again. For that little boat of my financial safety to lose sight of shore. If it happens? I’m ready. In the meantime, I’m in a position to help the people in my life who need me. Just as my oldest sister helped me when I needed it. In the end, that’s all any of us can really count on, right? Each other? So be that person when you can. If you’ve never had to worry about where you’re going to live, what you’re going to eat? Count yourself lucky. Do something for those that are in that position, because I tell ya, it can happen to anyone and it can happen fast. So be that help for others. You have no idea how much it means.
As for me and S? We have stability at the moment. We’re fortunate. My needs are taken care of. More than they’ve ever been. I thank S for that. His back breaking efforts have given me healthcare, food, peace of mind and comfort that so many people don’t have. I don’t like saying I’m lucky. Because if you knew how hard that man worked, you could never call it luck. But I am fortunate, as is he, to have had that opportunity. So many people don’t get it, never do get that chance to prove themselves. To change their own lives. Remember that. It’s not fair and I hate it and I wish I could do more about it. In the meantime, I know if the shit hits the fan again, I have S. We’ll muddle through things like we have our entire marriage. We’ll scrimp and save and find joy in stupid little things like Dr. Mario and Styx cds and walks through our neighborhood. And if things ever get really bad? Guess we can always go buy a bug sprayer and a few used coffee pots! Then I’ll find T and make her finally pay back all the shower pumps she owes me…