Living simply versus being poor…are they different?

Last night I was lounging with the Spousal Unit and found myself engaged in an interesting twitter conversation that provides the inspiration for today’s post. I was talking with a fellow blogger who made a few statements that really made me stop and think, but ultimately ponder the question is there a difference between choosing a lifestyle of simplicity where one’s income may be at or below the poverty level versus simply being poor. Now the blogger in question didn’t think there was a difference but based off 15 years of primarily working with low income folks combined with my own financial journey, I think there is a difference.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, it’s become almost chic to live a simple lifestyle. At first glance it appeared many folks were living beyond their means, yet at the same time it’s become common knowledge that for many the fact that while companies posted record profits in the years leading up to the Great Recession, for many folks their wages remained stagnant while at the same time health insurance costs rose. (Don’t forget I am old enough to remember a time when your employer sponsored coverage was a reasonable sum like oh $100 a month for the family compared to the last job I had that was charging $700 a month for a family plan) The result is that while there were some that were truly living a materialistic lifestyle and wildly spending, many were using credit cards and home equity loans to supplement the wages they didn’t earn.

But those days are gone; most of us realize that despite the lack of adequate wages and benefits, we have to reduce our standard of living if nothing else to have a nest egg for a possible rainy day. I know when I lost my job in 2007, we started cutting out things we truly didn’t need, changed the way we shopped and made different choices that allowed us to weather our family income dropping to the lowest point ever.

Yet even the toughest economic days that the Spousal Unit and I have faced in almost 14 years of marriage are nothing compared to what I faced as a poor young adult or growing up on the edge of poverty. I believe this is because when the economic shit started flying, we were already firmly entrenched in a middle class lifestyle that provided a level of social capital that is often unavailable when you are living at or below the poverty level.

I see it all the time in my work, unexpected things like a high electric bill, a need for a costly prescription or my personal favorite car repairs or worse complete car failure tend to push economically fragile folks over the edge. Year after year I have families that come the holidays they have to apply for assistance or right now we are working to ensure that kids in our community have access to school supplies come this fall. I know some would say well why don’t these folks plan better? After all the holidays and the start of the school year come every year, surely they can save and plan. Can they? The ability to salt away a few cents is highly dependant on having a few bucks leftover after bills are paid and for most folks living at or below the poverty level, there is never enough cash leftover. Instead these same financially vulnerable people often fall prey to predatory financial services like Rent a Center (this is often how the poor are able to obtain things like computers and televisions since at $15-20 a week with the item made available immediately versus saving for months, most see this as the way to go despite the fact financially it’s a horrible choice) or the payday loan places where for a post dated check you can access a few hundred dollars to get the car repaired or get Little Johnny’s medicine.

One of the hardest reasons it’s hard for the poor in my opinion to catch a break financially is because shit always happens. You live paycheck to paycheck, no bonus, no raise, and shit happens all the while the cost of living gets higher. Often poverty means not having access to a good credit rating which frankly dictates the rates you get on a credit card, whether you even get a credit card or on a larger scale where you live. Poor credit or lack of credit has a direct impact on the types of housing available to you; this in turn impacts the level of community services available to you. I know when I lived in some sketchy parts of Chicago 16-17 years ago, the libraries were poor, public transit was poor…you get the picture. Yet when I was able to move into better areas, the services were better and this was well before a global economic meltdown. Hell, now even my solidly middle class town in Maine is fighting to keep our library strong since if the town money counters had their way these services would be cut.

Compare all this to planned simplicity when you start off with middle class sensibilities. If you are already living in a solidly middle class or above area, you often can choose to unplug the cable because you know your library has free films and plethora of books that are recent and that there will be enriching activities for the family. You can choose to be car free or as we are car light with one car because your town is walkable with services you can access. In living simply when its planned simplicity you most likely can choose to and actually afford a spare freezer so that you can shop in bulk via a stock up store or farm so that your groceries cost less versus having to shop at the nearest store either because you lack transportation, can’t afford the gas to get to stores that offer better price deals. Many simply living gurus talks about the value of shopping the sales and buying in bulk, all nice things if you can afford it but for those truly struggling they often don’t have the same choices that someone whose income maybe similar but because they started off middle class and therefore have social capital they have more choices.

Even the world of work looks different when you are poor; in my early adult years I worked at jobs where I had no autonomy. Job started at the time specified by employer, ended when they specified and very few exceptions were made. Compare this to the types of work available to the middle class (even those whose incomes may be low) they work at jobs that offer the autonomy to work from home (saves of the childcare of needed) bring kids to work, etc. If you have to take off on short notice, you often are not worried that you will be fired.

Ultimately all these issues will impact how one is able to parent, if you are struggling to keep your head above water financially and dodging the latest financial crisis you love your babies as much as anyone else but poverty and struggle impact you. The fact remains you are less available or likely to be the parent volunteering in class, I have stated on this blog before my own challenges since the 5 yo started school. I have volunteered this school year but not nearly as much as I would like because even with a flexible schedule that I more or less have control over, most of what is required by the schools only works for parents who have no daytime employment. While I can control whether I write a grant report at midnight versus 9 am, I can’t control if I need to meet with a funder or colleagues at 10am. Yet I know I have it better than many, like a dear acquaintance whose girl is friends with our girl, she is a single Mom who works as a waitress at one of the most popular breakfast spots in town, yet her schedule gives her little time to ever do more than drop off or pick up her girl. As she recently shared with me, after she gets paid she basically has less than $20 a month yet her earnings are far more than government assistance would be which rarely pays enough for anyone to actually live. Unless they have one of the mythical Section 8 vouchers which with waiting lists across the country at record levels, good luck with that one.
So in closing having lived the struggle of poverty, seeing it daily with the population I work with both here in Maine and back in my hometown of Chicago, I think that when one chooses to live simply its not the same as being poor. In part because one plans to live simply they are able to make choices and decisions so they are better prepared to handle the unexpected. In many cases they have access to social capital to better weather the storms that crop up.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this…sorry for a lengthy post, but it’s a topic I am passionate about.

Frugality on hold

It’s been a while since I have talked money, partially because I have not been riding the frugality train as hard as I had been in the past. Things have started to look up with regards to income, of course that’s the life of a freelancer. Some years the Spousal Unit has had a great yearas a freelance writer and editor and then there are years like the past few where things have been tighter than…use your imagination.

Seriously though, I realized that while the past year we survived, we put a lot of things off that needed to be taken care of and recently have been playing catch up. The man and I broke down and got much-needed eyeglasses, truthfully he needed them more than me since I wear contacts but I always like to have a pair of recent glasses around for those days when my eyes are not feeling like wearing contacts.

While I have enjoyed thrift store shopping the fact is there are some items I am just not buying used, so we have been playing catch up with personal items. I must admit though my single biggest splurge was the Tony Lama boots I bought clocking in at $260 with tax. There was a part of me that felt guilty about buying em, but I will be honest I have been wanting a pair of cowboy boots for quite a while, last pair I had lasted a good 5-6 years and they were no name ones. I also have not bought a pair of decent shoes in years and that is not an exaggeration. I used to be a die-hard Dansko wearer, last pair I bought was 4 years ago and they are still going strong with my oldest pair at 12 years still in rotation.

One of the reasons I had not bought shoes aside from not having any extra cash is that I am big believer in you get what you pay for as far as footwear. Yeah, you can go to Payless and get a pair of $20 kicks but my own experience doing so is generally they either fall apart or have my feet hurting. Thankfully my old shoes have lasted and definitely have some life in them but sometimes you want something just because….in this case I have been through financial hell and back in recent years and while there is a temporary lull, I just needed something for me.

Now that we are getting adjusted to having a little more breathing room in the budget, we have no plans to go hog wild but I admit the past few weeks have been nice. I am reminded that having extra cash is nice, sometimes it allows you freedom. This past weekend, we took the girl child to see Nemo on Ice, it wasn’t planned but it came up and she really wanted to go. Just a few months ago, we would have had to say sorry sweetie instead we were able to go and while I found the show boring and all the extras they were selling to be quite costly ($10 for cotton candy? Come on now), I was one again reminded that sometimes life is meant to be enjoyed and money can help that happen.

So its time to get back on the frugality wagon as we prepare for tax season, and some travel plans. How are your attempts at frugality coming for this year? What are you doing in this area? Are you making the most of deals, steals, sales and coupons?