In October 2013, I started a new job. I had spent the previous year working at Walmart, earning significantly less than my family actually needed to get by. We had managed to scrape through to the end of our 9-month lease and move out of our apartment without incurring any early termination fees (though the electric was cut off a few days before we finished getting all the furniture relocated and, unable to vacuum or turn on any lights, we ended up with a $500 cleaning bill). We spent two weeks camping in my sister’s backyard while we waited for a paycheck which enabled us to move into a pay-by-the-week extended stay hotel.
Living in a hotel sounds amazing, until you realize that your bedroom, living room, kitchen, and closet are all crammed together in a 15’x20′ room that really wasn’t intended for three people to do more than sleep. We lived there for six months, not counting Thanksgiving week, when my paycheck didn’t stretch far enough to cover the second week of rent and we spent the end of November sleeping on a friend’s couch.
Even run-down, crappy, infested (we caught a mouse in our room) hotels are expensive; I was making nearly half again what I earned at Walmart and we still had very little left over after paying ‘rent’ every other Friday. The rest of my check was eaten up by our phones, gas for the car, storage unit rental where all our furniture and most of our clothes and other possessions sat for half a year, laundry, and a little food when we could afford it (there were a couple weeks we actually lived on shoplifted groceries — lentils, canned chicken, and instant rice). A friend gave Anne a cello someone had given him. We loved it. We pawned it for gas and grocery money and couldn’t get it back. We were six months behind on our car payment and it was repossessed in February. This meant leaving for work an hour and a half earlier (and getting home an hour and a half later) so I could spend an hour waiting between buses — or walking a mile and a half between the hotel and the second bus stop — the same week Tulsa received its last snow of the winter, a solid week of near- or below-freezing weather.
Fortunately, this was also tax season. I had filed our taxes the DAY my W2s became available, and with my income and family size we qualified for a generous refund … which enabled us to do little more than redeem the car and drop a deposit on a new apartment. Still, it was a spacious apartment in a nice quiet part of town, which cost less in rent each month than that blasted hotel room had.
My family started the year 2014 at one of the lowest points (financially) we’ve ever experienced, but by March, things appeared to be looking up. Still, we had no margin for error; if bills came too close together (or we forgot to pay one), we suddenly had to scramble to decide which services we were going to keep active and what we could live without until the next paycheck. The car was repossessed again in the summer; after a couple weeks I was able to redeem it again — by making a down payment with the overtime-bloated paycheck that was supposed to get our rent back on schedule. Because our back payments were so high, the lienholder also increased all our future car payments by nearly 50% to pay off the remaining past due amount and compounded that with a warning that if a future payment is even a day late we’ll lose the car again.
We had a debit card for a PayPal account which used our bank as a backup funding source; sometimes we were able to use that card for emergency purchases even when PayPal and our checking account were empty, though it was with full knowledge that when PayPal tried to draft our checking account for that backup payment, we’d be slapped with NSF fees by the bank. It saved us from eviction once or twice, it kept gas in the car and food on the table, but it was hideously expensive.
In fact, being poor in general is expensive. I actually sat down tonight and calculated everything we spent in 2014 on late payments, NSF charges, a couple returned check fees, reconnect charges from the five times our internet was briefly interrupted, and filing fees from the several times we came dangerously close to eviction.
The total comes to over $3000 — a tenth of my gross earnings for the entire year.
And that doesn’t include the panic of trying to scramble together rent plus late charges plus filing fees before it’s too late and we’re homeless– again. It doesn’t include the time wasted — sleeping time, family time, relaxation time — adding hours to a normally brief commute because our car was repossessed– again. It doesn’t include the incredibledifficulty of taking a two-year-old anywhere, even just to get out of the house, without a car to put her carseat in. It doesn’t include the humiliation of having to let a prepaid phone plan expire over and over and over because we often can’t afford to pay for both phones with the same check. It doesn’t include the heartbreak of trying to explain to a frustrated child that she can’t watch her favorite show (which was working fine five minutes ago!) because we don’t have the $8 for Netflix until next week. It doesn’t include the crushing horror of watching, powerlessly, as a miscalculation causes a small charge to hit the bank a week too early … and then try again … and again … while repeat NSF fees hack chunks off the coming paycheck before it ever even arrives. It doesn’t include the fear that what we have in the pantry won’t last the remaining three days till we get paid, or the terror that that paycheck won’t even have any money remaining for groceries — or diapers! — by the time we make sure we don’t lose the house, the lights, or the car. It doesn’t include theembarrassment of feeling like every frivolous or non-bare-bones-crucial expenditure, no matter how small, has to be rationalized or defended or apologized for. And it doesn’t include the helpless anguish of sitting down after a 54-hour week, estimating the paycheck, looking over the bills, and realizing that it’s still not enough, that nothing is enough; screaming internally that there must be something I’m missing, must be somethingelse I can do, but I don’t even have the energy to keep doing what I’m doing.
It doesn’t include the despair of feeling that I’ve failed the wife and daughter who depend on me.
Being poor is expensive. Living without margin is costly, in far more than just money. With this year’s tax return, I set aside a significant portion to create, essentially, our own revolving line of credit — to enable us to finally become current on our bills, and to pay them when or before they’re due instead of desperately trying to catch everything up at the last minute.
If it works perfectly (and it probably won’t; I have high expectations for my plan, but nothing is perfect), if I don’t have to pay a single NSF fee or late charge in 2015, I will save as much money as if I’d gotten a dollar-and-a-half raise. And of course the emotional benefits will be immeasurable.