11.15.2008

"Poor" is the New "Cool"

<--- The Faces of Success

Friends who never understood why we unplug appliances or used only cold water tell me they have no money. "Maybe we'll qualify for food stamps," they say. "We don't know how we're going to pay our bills next month."

When you've been homeless, twice, with kids, you tend to look down on people who say they're poor. "Sure," you think to yourself. "You think you're poor but you still go on vacations. You run out and buy things on a whim." That's not really poor.

Did I just admit I'm a poor snob? I find it's so easy to think these non-compassionate-type thoughts when you've had it rough before. People complain about being poor so often now that it's almost like bragging. I hear it at the grocery store, at the bookstore, at the quilting shop, all places people go to consume. If you're so poor, why are you here shopping?

I am sorry. It doesn't matter if I've been poorer. This isn't a contest I want to win. If you're worried about how you're going to pay your bills, even if you have more than I've ever owned, you're still hurting. I'll listen. I'll do my best not to judge you.

My desk at Habitat for Humanity is right by the front door so I see the hard-working people who own our houses when they come in to make their mortgage payments. I see the people who want to get in line to buy one of our homes. They are nothing like the people I see whining about being poor. We're rich compared to them, even when we're homeless. I got back on my feet, and so will my friends, and so will the people saying they're poor while shopping for fabric.

When my kids were in school, they qualified for free lunches even when we were what I thought was rich. At one point, I stopped applying for them. It just felt wrong. I read that there's been a tremendous surge in applications for free and reduced-price school lunches, but that almost all the applications are turned down. People may lose a job, but they still make way too much to qualify. Do you think those people who make too much money for reduced-price lunches stop saying they're so poor?

If I could tell my friends who are financially hurting one thing, I'd say, "You'll get through it." I'd also tell them to do a bunch of things to save money. Even if it's a little bit, it feels good to feel in control. Here's a few ideas, just of the top of my head:

1. Have a ZDD competition with your family. Whoever has the most Zero Dollar Days, where they spend nothing the whole day (not including bills), wins something. Zero Driving Days are another thing you can do, and see how many you can do within a month. If you do this with your family, it doesn't feel restrictive. It feels like a game. Okay, maybe that proves how weird I am.

2. Use cold water whenever possible: laundry, washing, everything. Since we have electric water heating, this saves us a lot.

3. Unplug everything when not in use. This sounds stupid, but I tried it one month. I unplugged all Charlie's cell phone chargers, all our coffee maker, microwave, TV, everything which was plugged in all the time. It was the same month I used cold water whenever possible. Our bill went from over $150 to under $50.

4. Remember $100 you don't spend is $130 or more you don't have to earn. You have to pay tax, social security, and so on for every dollar you make. So, depending on your tax bracket, you can save a lot by not spending.

5. Eat cheap. Okay, we fail miserably compared to Cheyenneh and Quinn. They budgeted $50 a week when they lived in Astoria, and they stuck to it. In Hawaii, she says they spend about $75 to $100 but it lasts almost two weeks. We spend half that much on coffee (and cream, and honey) alone. But we stopped buying meat, and packaged and processed food. We cut enough from our food expenses to feed Cheyenneh and Quinn and have money left over. The more we make at home, the more we save. The healthier, the better. I could write a book about this. I wish Cheyenneh would.

6. Combine errands to save gas. Who doesn't do this already? Walk if you can - then you get health benefits, too. And while you're at it -- do you really need whatever it is you have to go get? It's fun for me to see how many meals I can make with whatever's in the refrigerator. I've gone three weeks sometimes on what I'd consider "nothing in the fridge."

7. Sell everything you haven't used for six months (three months if you're Cheyenneh) on CraigsList and put the profits in the bank or on your credit card debt; pay that credit card down!

8. Don't be all stingy and cheap with family and friends. Nobody likes a cheapskate. Since everybody thinks they're poor now, you aren't going to get invited somewhere again if you keep making other people pay. Pay your share, do pot luck or don't go.

9. Charlie says there are very few things in life he needs. One of those things is coffee, but he has a point. "Most people on the planet live off less than $2 a day," he says. "And they're probably not whining about it." Figure out what you're going to do tomorrow, next month, and next year to get where you want to go. Try www.mint.com for free budgeting and tracking expenses.

10. Do all the normal things: turn down (or off) heating, A/C, lights; run the dishwasher and washing machine only when full and only on the minimal cycle; check your phones (we're cell-only on minimal plan); use what you have or do without (meaning why buy tupperware when empty peanut butter jars will do?); visit the library; take a walk; and enjoy what you have. Especially enjoy the people in your life: they're worth more than money.

It's depressing to sit around and think of your situation, so get moving. The more you do, the better you'll feel, and the more your friends won't be thinking what I'm thinking when you're whining.