About a year ago we began our slide into the lower economic class. It’s been a transition – one that has required a lot of adjustment as our lifestyle, living situation, daily routines, purchasing power, friendships and plans have all changed. Some adjustments have been easier than others – oddly the move from house to tents to travel trailer hasn’t been as hard as you might think, perhaps because it’s such a concrete, physical alteration to make. It’s just a matter of cutting back on possessions to fit the space and getting used to the tight quarters and inefficiencies in the matter of the cooking and bathing facilities. It’s different but it’s still a house. I bet I could live on the space station without too much trouble.
Likewise budgeting on a much reduced income has also been fairly straightforward. In fact, it may be easier than budgeting when you have some discretionary income – then you have to ponder what to spend it on, or whether to save or invest instead! Now it’s just a matter of trying to figure out how to split the 20 dollars that remain in the wallet between gas and food.
I have found other aspects of this transition much more difficult, namely the changes in friendships, daily routines and my own perception of myself. I am a half-baked member of the impoverished class. I don’t easily think of myself as ‘one of them’ but after a year I daresay I look and act the part – my clothes are worn and clearly from discount stores and my hair and skin haven’t seen the attention of a professional in ages. I caught sight of myself in a full length mirror the other day and saw a frumpy and frazzled middle-aged woman. Scary! I don’t eat out, or go on vacation. I don’t shop for fun and when I do shop for necessities it’s at places like the 99 cent store or Big Lots.
The most striking change has been gradual and pernicious. It is the impoverishment of my mind. Being poor affects what you think about, what you dream of and hope for. Just as you pull in and hoard your resources you also retract your mind, narrowing your focus on the basics and essentials of life. I can no longer conceive of things I once took for granted and it seems tempting fate to even begin to hope for things now outside my grasp. My focus has not only narrowed but has become foreshortened. It is hard to think beyond the ever difficult end of the current month/beginning of the next when the major bills become due. Long term planning isn’t longer than 2 or 3 months away.
And unexpected events throw you for a loop as did a recent generous gift from a blog reader/supporter. She sent us coupons for 2-for-1 admission to a theme park about 3 hours from here and a donation which she said we could use for tickets. She wanted my kids to have a fun event this summer. And the kids, who were present when I opened the envelope, were totally on board with the idea. But my ‘poor’ thinking cut in. I spent some time online looking at the theme park website, thinking about possible dates, wondering if the car was good for the trip down and back, but the niggling, ever present thought at the back of my mind was isn’t it terribly irresponsible to spend money (even gifted money) on fun? Two years ago we would have planned this trip with glee and expanded it with a night at a hotel to make the most of the day at the amusement park, or maybe two nights so we could spend a day in a nearby city where our old beloved pastor is now preaching to catch one of his sermons and visit a little. But now my tentative planning is overshadowed by anxiety at spending money on something that just isn’t a necessity. I even, ludicrously, worry that the kids will start to expect a lifestyle with visits to amusement parks. Will a day of extravagant fun make it harder than ever to wake up in the trailer the next morning? No, probably not. But this is what poverty does – it strips away joy, conjures up doubts and ladles on the guilt. This is the thinking of an impoverished mind.
Post-note – thanks to everyone for the replies! As always I appreciate the thoughts and suggestions. I really mentioned the amusement park gift to illustrate how deep the changes go – not just the place we live or the things we do without or the clothes we wear, but how poverty seeps in and makes internal changes as well. I know the stress gets to me, I see my tolerance and patience eroded, I feel my anxiety level go up, but I kind of thought/hoped my mind was stronger and more impervious! This situation showed me that I’m developing a new mindset, one less expansive, less open, less hopeful. It’s a little scary.