As some of you know, until the last couple of years, I was poor as shit. The first 18 years, I was a kid and couldn't do anything about it. The next 17, I was still a kid and wouldn't do anything about it. I take full responsibility for that, and I don't point a finger at anyone for the way I lived. I dug my own hole.
But along the way, a few miracles happened (including landing a job that doesn't suck), and I've finally found myself living the way I always pictured a normal person would: bills paid, groceries in the fridge and two gold-plated nude statues of myself standing proudly in my front yard.
But as anybody who's been through the poverty gauntlet can tell you, it changes a person. And it doesn't go away just because you're no longer fighting hobos for their moonshine. For instance ...
#5. You Develop a Taste for Shitty Food
When You're Poor ...
Shockingly, when you're buying food based entirely on 1) how long it keeps and 2) how cheap it is, you wind up with shitty food. When I was growing up, we knew that the first of each month was grocery day. That's the day that our food stamps came in. Nowadays (in the U.S., anyway) it's all done on an ATM-type of plastic called a link card that gets reloaded with "food only" money on the first of every month. But the idea is still the same: new month, new food. So when our food money arrived, to avoid multiple trips to the grocery store and burning shitloads of gas that we couldn't afford, we bought our entire month's worth of groceries all at once and stored it like fucking squirrels. When you do that, you need shit that won't spoil.
Like assloads of beer.
Forget about fresh produce or fresh baked goods or fresh anything. Canned vegetables are as cheap as a gang tattoo, and every poor person I knew (including myself) had them as a staple of their diet. Fruit was the same way. Canned peaches could be split between three kids for half the cost of fresh ones, and at the end you had the extra surprise of pure, liquefied sugar to push you into full-blown hyperglycemia.
If it wasn't canned, it was frozen. TV dinners, pot pies, chicken nuggets ... meals that can be frozen forever, and preparation isn't more complicated than "Remove from box. Nuke. Eat." Because of that, by week two, half of everything we bought would be freezer burned. Just like with the canned food, you grow up thinking that this is the way it's supposed to taste. It's not that you grow to like it, necessarily, but you do grow to expect it.
Once You Escape ...
To this day, my kids won't eat fresh green beans. There's such a huge difference in texture and taste compared to the canned version that they're honestly like two different foods. None of us will eat homemade macaroni and cheese. If it doesn't come out of a box, it tastes weird. And the list is a mile long. We've eaten these things for so long, we've grown to prefer them to the fresh version.
"Awesome, seafood night! Is it someone's birthday?"
People who have never been poor love to point out overweight people in the ghetto and sarcastically exclaim, "Yeah, it really looks like she's starving!" And they have no idea that the reason many of them have weight problems is because everything they're putting into their bodies is dirt-cheap, processed bullshit. Grab a TV dinner and look at the nutritional information.
Fresh food is expensive and takes forever to prepare. It goes bad quickly, so it requires multiple trips to the grocery store per week, which is something most impoverished people can't do. And since all of those time-saving frozen meals are high in salt and fat, they take up residence in the expanding asses of the people who can't afford anything else.
When you finally get to the point where you can afford those grocery trips and fresh ingredients and have the time to prepare them, your taste buds freak the fuck out. They're not used to it. Vegetables are supposed to be squishy, aren't they? Is chicken supposed to have this texture?
"And who put all that green shit on my plate?"
No, it's not like you're eating food for the first time, staring at asparagus in wide-eyed bewilderment, not knowing whether to put it in your mouth or rub it on your skin until it absorbs right into your body. But a lot of this new stuff sucks by comparison because it's not what you've been trained to eat -- the flavors and textures are all wrong, and there's a real temptation to keep eating the same shit until it stops your heart at age 43.
#4. Extra Money Has to Be Spent Right Goddamn Now!
When You're Poor ...
Every poor person I knew got a big check one time a year in the form of their tax return. They made just enough money to file taxes, and made little enough to claim "earned income credit," which is a tax credit that can dramatically boost your return. For my ex-wife and I, it meant getting around $5,000 at the end of January. And just like many poor people, we'd be broke within days of cashing that check, our living room sporting a new TV. Or we'd replace our old computers and all of our furniture. There's a reason many poor people blow through that money instead of saving it for future bills.
When you live in poverty, you're used to your bank account revolving very tightly around a balance of zero. Your work money comes in and goes right back out to bills, leaving you breaking even each month (if you're lucky). That's the life you've gotten used to. It's normal for you.
Put down the calculator, asshole, it equals zero. It always equals zero.
When a windfall check is dropped in your lap, you don't know how to handle it. Instead of thinking, "This will cover our rent and bills for half a year," you immediately jump to all the things you've been meaning to get, but couldn't afford on your regular income. If you don't buy it right now, you know that the money will slowly bleed away to everyday life over the course of the next few months, leaving you with nothing to show for it. Don't misunderstand me here, it's never a "greed" thing. It's a panic thing. "We have to spend this before it disappears."
Once You Escape ...
Have you heard those stories about lottery winners who are bankrupt within a year or two, despite winning millions? That's because they can't turn that off. They can't shake the idea that the money is perishable.
And I'm not going to lie, if I had an unexpected check show up right now, I'd drop all of that fucker right into a new car and a computer for my kids. But for the most part, I've kept my head clear where those rare pockets of money are involved. My truck broke down last week, and for the first time, I was able to get it fixed without having to call my friends for a loan. The reason is because I've learned to manage that money a little better and not spend it in a blind panic when I fall into some.
OK, maybe I redecorated my living room, but I needed a new chair.
That's the key, though. When you don't have the extra cash, you don't know how to handle it when you do get some. When you escape that level of poverty, and you find yourself having extra money for the first time, you eventually learn how to manage it. I can watch people play guitar all day and get the basic idea. But unless you put one in my hands and make me start strumming, I'm never going to learn how to play the damn thing. Like anything else, it takes practice, and the poor never get the chance.
A similar problem is ...
#3. You Want to Go Overboard on Gift-Giving
When You're Poor ...
Even if you're not poor, you can already guess this part. You don't get many gifts, and the presents you do receive usually aren't as cool as what your friends are getting. And fuck all that "Christmas and birthdays are about being with good friends and family" noise. You don't have to be a spoiled shithead to like presents. That's half the fun of being a kid on those days. It doesn't make you a materialistic asshole; it just makes you a normal kid.
But what a lot of parents don't realize is that when they're openly worrying about bills within earshot of their children, the kids worry, too. When they hit a certain age, they start to make sacrifices on the family's behalf, and they feel guilt for the rare small luxuries they're allowed. I remember going shopping toward the end of our poverty streak, and I told my kids to pick out new bedspreads so we could get rid of their old, ugly ones. My oldest son looked around for a second and then said, "Thanks, dad, but I don't really need one."
"I can just cover up with some leaves. I'll be fine."
I made it a point after that to keep the adult problems in the adult world. They have enough stress just growing up. They don't need to worry about things that are beyond their control. Not for several more years, anyway. But being the provider of the household, it makes you feel like a failure. And like anything else, that makes you want to overcompensate.
Once You Escape ...
So, for the last two years, we've gone overboard on gifts on the holidays. I remember all the years that we couldn't afford to give them even a quarter of the things they asked for, and I swore I would make that right. So we spent about double what a normal person would consider reasonable. And then went back to buy more.
We will not rest until you are buried under the crushing weight of our generosity.
After we exhausted our bank account, my fiance and I looked at the number of boxes around the tree and pointed out that it didn't look like all that much. So we waited until our next check and went back for more.
We overcompensated so much in the other direction that we damn near drove ourselves back into the poorhouse. I think pretty much anyone who escapes poverty goes through this for a short time. If not with gifts, then with other showy forms of spending -- fancy clothes or new furniture or a car you can't afford. It's like you're trying to rub it in the face of your past self. "Eat shit, poverty!"
And strangely, when you're not going over the top on stupid shit, you have the opposite problem ...