“Playing Poor”

A couple of people recently have used the term “playing poor” to me.  As in, “your parents are letting you play poor right now, but you’re not actually poor.”  This was, by the way, NOT in response to my saying, “we’re/I’m poor.”  It was in fact, in response to my expressing horror that my boss didn’t think that an apartment that was infested with rats was grounds for a rent escrow suit.  Because apparently I grew up wealthy and that’s why I don’t think people should have to live with rats.

Look, my apartment has mice.  My last apartment had mice.  My city has a rat problem.  But I can’t bear the idea of rats being in my house.  (Don’t handle the mice well either.)  And I think of all of the ways that my privilege betrays me, the rats are the least of it.  It’s not like I’m horrified that my clients can’t afford cable.  And let’s remember that I was trying to help the lady with the rat problem, and I was not judging her for having rats, since they were clearly the landlord’s fault.  I’m not going to say, “poor people can deal with rats, they are used to it.”  That doesn’t seem right to me.

So lets get back to this idea of “playing poor”.  I don’t have debt, and yeah, my parents would never let me starve on the streets.  But good lord, I would rather starve on the streets before I ask my parents for financial help.  Does this mean I’m “playing poor” just because I choose to stay in and make dinner instead of going out with my friends?  I would, as a matter of pride, like it very much if my husband and I lived off of the money that we earn, day-to-day, by working hard.  It’s not very much.  Sure, we could supplement with our savings, but that would be stupid, because we can get by.  So who is anyone to tell me that I’m playing poor?

No, I’ve never been hungry.  I’ve never watched my family lose their house because they couldn’t pay the mortgage.  No, I’ve never had to choose between going to the doctor and my weekly grocery bill.  Yes, everything I have given up in the last six months is small luxuries that I don’t really need – new shoes, nice clothes, dinner out, ordering drinks in bars.  Yes, I’m not actually poor.  We have a really nice apartment, a car that works, and everything we need.

I used to say, “I’m poor,” but then a few well-meaning people set me straight.  What I meant to say, and what I choose to say now, is something like, “we don’t have a lot of money to spend,” or “we’re really trying to save”.  We’re not poor, but we’re not in a position to be frivolous.  And we’re not playing at anything.  This isn’t the food stamp challenge (which I do want to do) where we spend $25 on a week of groceries.  This is our life, our salaries, and how we choose to spend our money.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to ““Playing Poor”

  1. Interesting point! I’ve been saying “I’m poor” a lot recently, and this made me think. Honestly, I haven’t been bringing in much money; on that “How rich are you?” scale, I was definitely not in the top 10% but I was also well above the top 30%. We will soon be living in a nice house and it will be tough to pay that rent, but we made the decision to do it and we’ll make it work. I feel like we’re constantly scraping pennies from wherever we can find them, and I haven’t been to the doctor because we don’t have the money for the copay right now… but I have been paying for therapy, because WHOA do I need that right now. It’s interesting to me how we choose to prioritize whatever amount of money we have: we are very very slowly paying down our debt while living in a nice house, and we chose that over living in a cheap, not so nice place and paying down our debt faster. It’s tough not to judge other people, or feel resentful towards people who have so much more than we do, so much more EASILY than we do, but it really is the decision that we made. I try to think that everyone else has made their decision as consciously and conscientiously.

  2. Yes, to all of this. I feel like I’ve been accused of “playing poor” so many times, by people whose salaries are equal to or greater than mine. And, to be fair, I try not to explain any of my situation to them, because I know we all have our own sets of troubles and no one wants to hear about mine, but it can be frustrating to be “set straight” so often by people who really don’t know the inner workings of my life. Cutting out all the excess and living on my own was important to me, so I lived it and hoped not to be judged for it.

    Of course, my parents have helped me in big ways, but it was never just “financial support.” First, it was paying for my entire college education and not letting me take out any loans. Then, it was buying me a trip for my 23rd birthday, instead of just giving me the money when I knew I couldn’t afford it and my Brooklyn rent on my own. Now, it’s letting me live in their enormous basement apartment for only $300 a month. All these things have set me up to live the life I have, but it doesn’t mean I don’t work hard for a low salary and pay my own bills. There is real scrimping and saving happening at the same time, and the things my friends said (and still say) felt completely unwarranted.

    I think it all comes down to not judging anyone else’s lifestyle. Hard to do, but so important.

    • vadoporroesq

      I myself struggle greatly with the whole “not judging others”. I often fall into the trap of judging my peers who seem overly concerned with making money or providing a lot of material goods for their families, but at the end of the day, I’m not in their position and I don’t have to provide for my family.

      Also, I feel like people resent me a lot for taking low-paying jobs and being able to afford it because I don’t have debt and I do have the comfort of knowing that I will receive financial support from my parents in the future or if things get difficult. But I feel like the fact that I didn’t go for high-paying big firm jobs that I didn’t want and they do is better for everyone, isn’t it?

      I don’t resent any of my friends who live with their parents, because I feel like that is a high price to pay for not having to pay rent (although your parents seem not as crazy as mine). I offered to live with my folks during law school and they offered to pay my rent for an apartment instead (apparently I’m difficult to live with and they like not living with us). But Husband’s little sister lived with her folks for several years, for free, with meals provided, and now is purchasing a house. It seems like just as much of a head start to me as somebody who had a large trust fund or got a huge signing bonus, but nobody judges somebody that lives with their parents to save money as harshly as they judge a trustfund kid.

  3. I struggle with this sometimes. It’s not that I “play” poor exactly, but for the past 4 years+, I was living off of my grad assistant stipend; I was grateful for it (not many programs are as generous!), but it was still right at the poverty line for 1 person (now we live off what B makes, which is way below the average income on APW, just for an indication). I refused to take out loans, though all my classmates did. I think they assumed I was privately subsidized, LOL – no, just stubborn and cheap. 😉

    However, I always felt (feel?) slightly disingenuous when I would tell people I couldn’t afford whatever–meals out, hair cuts, clothes, etc.–because I wasn’t *completely* broke. When my father passed away (during my 1st year of grad school), I received a sum of money from life insurance (as did my 5 siblings), which paid off my car loan, my (small) student loan, and left me with a little bit for savings. It’s a weird thing, though – I’m thankful for the money, certainly… but would I rather have had my dad around? YES, no question. And I still tried not to touch my savings (though I did use it for wedding costs) while I still had an income, however meager.

    And though B and I have a tight budget right now (no cable, no meals out, homemade gifts for friends), it’s because we’re trying to save money. So sometimes it feels like we’re living without a lot of luxuries, but we’ve never gone hungry, we’ve never had our electricity turned off, we still own 2 cars, we still have netflix for pete’s sake. We’re not poor.

    “but we’re not in a position to be frivolous.”

    Exactly. (Oh, and even if you’re flat-broke I don’t think you “deserve” to live with rats! That’s crazytalk and nothing would improve if we all thought that way :-P).

    • vadoporroesq

      Netflix is cheaper than cable.

      The honest truth of my privilege is that I have almost every penny that I have for two reasons: the first is that my Dad fought tooth and nail for his job and suffered greatly while trying to get tenure, and then was belittled, devalued, and underpaid for years – but I went to college and graduate school for free. The second is that when my grandmother was in her late fifties, she died suddenly of a heart problem. And her death destroyed my mom emotionally, destroyed my father physically, and shattered my family before I was even born. So sure, I have a decent nest egg from the savings my grandfather set up for the children and grandchildren from her pension/life insurance/retirement savings, but at the end of the day, I have an emotionally devastated mom who never fully recovered, a father who overeats from depression and has a (thankfully finally managed) drinking problem, and a grandpa who was haunted the entire time I knew him. Money is nice, but it isn’t everything, and nobody understands that better than people who are in your position. My mom doesn’t have to worry about money, but I don’t think a day goes by when she wouldn’t give back everything she has to have her mom back.

  4. Erin S.

    I think this is an excellent point and something that a lot of 20-somethings deal with. I definitely have felt like I’ve “played poor” in some ways these months that I’ve been unemployed. When really, I had it much better than a lot of other people because I received unemployment which paid my rent, paid for groceries, the important bills, and once in a blue moon, a cheap dinner out with friends. It felt almost natural though because I’ve struggled to make ends meet on my low-salaried jobs for years. And I definitely struggle with some of the resentment that others do when I see people who have it easier than I do. And I wondered if it is because I’m just bad with money. But came to the conclusion that when you really don’t have enough money to make ends meet, it’s almost impossible to be good with it.

  5. I’ve never been accused of “playing poor,” but I have a good feeling I’d be offended if I was. I try to live within my means. Sure, sometimes I splurge a little, and then have to cut back in many other areas. Saving seems like an uphill battle right now, but we are trying to as hard as possible. It’s called being a responsible adult.

    If something financially traumatic happened, of course my parents would take us in. They wouldn’t want us to live on the streets.

    But at the same time, if I was financially irresponsible, and we blew all our savings living in luxury, my parents wouldn’t be exactly giving us a free handout. We’d have to do something to earn it.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with living at or below your means. I think that is a smart decision. What is not, is relying on your parents for handouts because you aren’t mature enough to value hard-earned money.

  6. Jo

    Agree–this would offend me.

    I try really hard to not say I’m poor because I know that I’m not (stupid social work background!) but I also know that we do without a bunch of typical luxuries because we choose to live fairly frugally.

  7. I’ve had people level the “playing poor” accusation at me (not in quite those words, but the same idea) and it really bothers me too. I don’t see anything wrong with buying $8 wines, cooking special meals at home, and forgoing cable even if our income would theoretically allow for expensive booze, weekly dinners out, and the premium HBO-Showtime package. I think people our age are expected to ramp up our consumerism as our income increases, and that’s not an assumption I agree with or one I want to live by.

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