Living Without Margin (or, The Cost of Poverty)

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.

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I WAS a True Scotsman

As an agnostic who professed Christianity for most of my life, I often encounter the “No True Scotsman” argument from well-meaning Christians.  Basically, they insist that if I have in fact fallen away from the faith, my faith must not have been genuine.  Unfortunately, this belief, which is likely grounded in fear (if I was a true Christian and yet fell away, how could they be sure of their own or anyone else’s faith?) is simply baseless, and in my increasing irritation at its repetition, I almost feel like calling it slander. Read More »

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Christian Revisionism and Religious Morality

I think one of the underlying themes that drives Christian revisionist history (the attempt by Christian conservatism to assert that the Founding Fathers were all Christians and founded America exclusively on explicitly Christian principles) is the belief that religion and morality are inseparable — that one’s religion determines one’s morality. The understanding, of course, is that Christianity is the only route to a valid ethical foundation, and that atheism or neutrality in religion necessarily entails a lack of any moral basis at best (and at worst requires inverting “Christian” morality so that evil is lauded and good condemned). Read More »

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Guns and Related Issues

As I’ve been posting and sharing a variety of gun-related status updates, images, etc. on Facebook lately, I thought it might be helpful to elucidate what exactly is my personal position on guns, gun ownership, gun rights, and so forth. Read More »

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Agnosticism: If there is a God….

Sometimes I still catch myself wondering if I might be wrong after all, if perhaps the conservatives and fundamentalists are right, if perhaps there is a God and he is a stern God and he will throw my ass in eternal torment for daring to question his existence.  After all, whatever does not proceed from faith is sin, and if I’m questioning him with logic and reason, I obviously don’t have faith, since faith is the conviction of things not seen.

Then I have to take a step back, breathe, and remind myself of the basic tenets of my agnosticism. Read More »

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“Intolerant” of Chick-Fil-A?

Why are we so angry with Chick-Fil-A? Are we just being “intolerant” of the personal religious views of their founder?

It wasn’t enough that they interfere with the private lives of their employees and strongly suggest that marital problems may be grounds for termination.
It wasn’t enough that they publicly condemn homosexuality for “inviting God’s judgment” by being “prideful, arrogant,” and “shak[ing] our fist at Him”.
It wasn’t enough that they donate money to organizations that attack equality, including a known “hate group” that lobbied in support of executing gays.
Now they are blatantly and illegally defying the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, defending their actions with catchphrases representative of a very small, conservative sector of Christianity that has absolutely no right to interfere in the secular business arena. Chick-Fil-A is a for-profit corporation operating in the public sector, and as such, absolutely cannot use “religion” to defend their illegal discriminatory activity.

We are, indeed, intolerant. We will not tolerate religion forcing its way into the public sector in a way that impedes the public’s ability to do business. We will not tolerate organizations openly scorning the laws by which they are bound to operate. And WE WILL NOT stand by while the rights of defenseless women, families, and minorities are laughed at, ridiculed, trampled, and condemned. Not in our country. Not on our watch.

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Those Lazy Welfare Bums!

Conservatives like to complain about how people on “welfare” (government assistance programs) are living on taxpayer money without having to give an ounce of effort. Some of the programs typically targeted include food stamps, government-sponsored healthcare (Medicare/Medicaid), and unemployment insurance. I’m going to take a look at what those programs actually comprise in my home state of Oklahoma.  (This post will not cover the complex issue of government-sponsored housing options, which in my area have pretty reasonable income guidelines but also incredibly long wait periods due to a lack of available properties.) Read More »

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Why I will never spank my child(ren)

One person can smoke a single cigarette once and develop lung cancer. Another person can smoke a pack a day for fifty years and never suffer from the slightest tumor. Everybody is built differently. This does not mean that smoking is harmless or should be encouraged, and to argue otherwise is to prove oneself either stupidly ignorant or willfully biased in favor of a disproven and groundless claim. Read More »

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When sources like this one compare Planned Parenthood’s abortion statistics to Hitler’s genocide in WWII, I can’t help but think of a much greater holocaust that goes unreported by the media and often even unnoticed by those it most affects. Note: We will assume, for the sake of this discussion, that life begins at the moment of conception. My views on this subject will be discussed in a forthcoming post.
Read More »

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Minced Oaths

Warning: boring entry.  I’m primarily posting this for my personal amusement.

A few years ago, having been raised my whole life to believe that “minced oaths” (gosh, heck, darn, etc.) were just as bad as “actual oaths” (God, hell, damn, etc.), I decided to take a microscope to the whole interjection issue and uncover the definition and origin of as many interjections as I could think of, to determine which ones were “acceptable” and which ones were not, and why.  Since then (and a good while before my entire religion began to collapse), I decided that words are just words, noting that the third commandment is a directive on lifestyle, not word choice (another person’s explanation here).  However, I recently ran across my old “minced oaths” research, and thought I’d post it here … mainly for laughs. Read More »

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