Poverty as a Life Phase

The XFP (as I have renamed him) and I, with our children, made up a basically middle-class household of four. We certainly had to watch where our money was going, but we could generally cover our own expenses. On the sliding scale that Denver Public Schools uses for preschool and kindergarten tuition, we were the third step down from the top (monthly income $5,964 to $6,758 for a full-day preschool tuition charge of $390).

Well, things have changed for me. As the head of a three-person household, I am objectively fairly poor (strictly as a measure of income). Remember that sliding scale? Well, we have slid right off the bottom of it. No tuition, no registration fee, no bills of any kind. Poor enough to get reduced-price lunch at school, not poor enough for food stamps. I will probably rent a one-bedroom apartment, because that’s what I can comfortably afford; the boys can have the bedroom and I will be sleeping in the living room.

I grew up in a comfortably middle-class suburban family, but I can remember my father waxing nostalgic about the efficiency apartment he and my mother used to cram into when they were teenagers, how they used to have lawn chairs for furniture. Looking back, this is one of the best things I learned from my parents: that being broke is a life stage to be passed through.

Now, maybe I already went through my broke-young-person phase once, but I’m not afraid to go back. Being willing to accept this phase in my life makes it much easier to cope. Easier to accept help. Easier to stop buying things when I run out of money. If I didn’t accept that this was just a temporary phase that I need to live in right now, I might want to pretend that nothing had changed, that I didn’t really need to adjust my budget or let people help me, and the short- and long-term result would be financial misery.

The interesting thing is how non-terrible this phase is so far. I have enough money for a nice and safe, if small, apartment; healthy food; and occasional treats. I will be honest: When my marriage was failing, I was frightened of this outcome–having to sell my house, sleep in the living room and sign up my kids for reduced lunch. Now that it’s here, eh, it’s not so bad. 

I’ve lived a life of pretty exceptional privilege so far and am fortunate enough that I have had the chance to develop the skills and resources I’ll need to work my way up financially. Soon enough I’ll get more work hours, maybe a better job. I’ll get my feet under myself. And some day when my boys are much bigger, we’ll talk about that apartment we used to live in, where we used to curl up on Mommy’s bed in the living room to watch a movie.

Were there times in your life when you were “poor”? How do you look back on them?

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About frugalparagon

I'm a part-time librarian and mom to two small boys. I blog about striving for the long-term goal of financial independence while running a tight ship at home.

15 responses to “Poverty as a Life Phase”

  1. Grandma FP says :

    Check out a day bed-they like more comfortable than a futon, but can double as a couch. Sounds like a good house-warming present.

  2. JTL says :

    M. and I still talk fondly about our “starving student” grocery shopping trips in London, where we stocked up on Economy Kidney Beans and the cheapest available cereal – corn flakes. (I don’t think either of us has eaten cornflakes in the 13 years since we’ve been back, though!) We sometimes splurged on the Economy Chocolate Digestive Biscuits and doled them out to ourselves – one each per evening. Those treats are important! Sounds like you’ve got a good attitude about it – good luck with the apartment search!

  3. ChooseBetterLife says :

    Such a wonderful attitude, and I have a hunch you’re right about the wonderful memories you’re making. When the 2008 whaterver-you-want-to-call-it financial mess hit, many of my friends lost their jobs but became happier and closer with their families, so they’re all grateful for the change.

    Just curious- since the boys are only there part of the time, why not have them in the living room? That way you’d be able to keep some of your stuff in your room and off limits if needed. Plus, there’d be more incentive for them to help clean up and make their bed if it was their living room too. Do they still make the beds where one mattress is like a bottom drawer and rolls away under the top one?

    • frugalparagon says :

      I thought about putting them in the living room, but I quite often want to use the kitchen after they are asleep.

      They do still make those–they’re called trundles. I’m thinking of getting them one as a safer alternative to a bunk bed.

      • Leah says :

        Yes to a trundle. My brother had one growing up, and it was great. He actually had a bunk trundle, so he could fit three people. For the first many years, we didn’t put a mattress on top but instead had toys in there. Because there was no mattress, the sides were plenty high so that we could play up there and not fall out. It was a great way to maximize room space.

  4. joon says :

    Love it 🙂 You are acknowledging your financial facts, while also seeing your abundance: a safe home, health and experience to climb ladders in the workforce, the incredible gifts offered by your region’s governments and agencies during transitions. What a balanced perspective. Also loved your note re: that which we fear often turns out to not be so bad after all, and may in fact be even better than what we’re leaving behind! Congrats, and keep on truckin’.

  5. Mrs PoP says :

    I love your attitude, especially because I can totally imagine many other people acknowledging that their own poverty was a phase and choosing to not modify lifestyle and live on credit confident that future income increases would take care of itself.

    Plus, you can think about the stories your boys will get to use to woo future FP’s later in life. They’ll wax poetically about their mom sacrificing for them sleeping in the living room the same way Mr PoP still whips out the “There were sometimes 7 of us living in a single-wide…” It’s true, but very far in his past.

    • frugalparagon says :

      My parents only lived in a single-wide before I was born :-). I definitely think there’s something to be said for experiencing more than one way to live, if that makes sense. Gives you some experience to tap into when the need arises!

  6. Leah says :

    Definitely have gone through poor times. I think that 1) knowing my life will improve and 2) being okay/optimistic is really helpful. That’s what kept me from poverty. I think it’s hard for those raised in poverty to see an escape route, whereas those of us who are generally middle class but live poor for awhile can envision another life.

    Having no wi-fi at home meant my apartment was always clean, and I read a lot of books. I went to the library for both internet and entertainment. I did a lot of walking and running because shopping and paying admissions fees was too much. I cooked at home, because that’s what I had to do.

    It’s not so bad, and sometimes I wish I could force myself to live at that level now to save even more. I miss the free time I had when I wasn’t spending money to “save time.”

    • frugalparagon says :

      I haven’t been brave enough to cancel my home wi-fi yet. I do make just about enough money writing trivia questions (using my wi-fi, see) to pay for it. When I am able to move, I should be able to get home internet for $10 because I have kids in the school lunch program!

  7. David says :

    We were never poor starting off but with kids at 22 and student loan debt, we were never exactly comfortable and fell into that income range just above where any public assistance kicks in. It can be a phase and it sure can teach you a lot.

    To be honest, we still wasted a ton of money back then. Our lifestyle now probably looks poorer on the surface than it did back then despite having 3 kids, double the income, and half the debt load. Read about any developing country or even historical norms in this country or Europe from as little as 80 years ago and you realize just how things and standards have changed.

    I’m glad you’re finding out this phase isn’t that bad. For apartment ideas, I’d read about Japanese living arrangements. They fit families into some seriously small spaces.

    • frugalparagon says :

      I think becoming more frugal with experience can be another common trajectory, too! It takes time to figure out how you want to live.

      Good tip on the Japanese living spaces, thanks! I know you guys also live in a space that is small by American standards but downright palatial by historical standards.

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