Remembering When I was Poor

I have to stop and think to remember when I stopped worrying about money. It was about four years after my second child was born, when my wife got a part-time but benefitted job with the San Diego Public Library.

At the time we had a small house and a small mortgage (by San Diego standards). Life was pretty cheap but we still had to think about every purchase. Anything costly — a piece of furniture, a night in a hotel, a modest home improvement — would set us back. We got a home equity credit card to help make ends meet.

But when Karen got her benefitted job, we stopped brooding over every purchase. Suddenly, it didn’t matter how much a gallon of milk cost or what the next utility bill was going to be.

I’ve thought of this after being part of a Marketplace broadcast that examined the reality of being rich and poor in San Diego. I spoke with a woman who lived in her car. A poor family of four told us of the daily task of deciding what they would choose to do without.

Despite the title of this post I’ve never been poor in any meaningful sense. But there have been times when I thought about money a lot, when I knew exactly what it cost every month to pay my phone and utility bills. Any time I saw those prices rise dramatically I’d study the bill, hoping the change was due to some reckoning error. I used to sell my blood plasma to earn a few extra bucks.

But it all came to an end for me. And maybe that’s typical of the young and middle class. The true poor can’t take vacations from being poor, and they can’t see a time when it will stop.

So I try to remember the humiliation of not having enough money. I try to remember the day, in my early 20s, when my parents gave me some cash to help pay my bills and I cried, because I was so ashamed.

Rich people may remember a time when they had less and it was romantic because they were young, but they’ve used their wiles and hard work since then to do better… or so they believe. Being poor is not a romance when it doesn’t go away.

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