Mel and I were sitting on the sofa discussing the budget. It was after 9 p.m. on a weekday.
The kids were in bed. We do this at least once a week. Sometimes more. We were trying to figure out how we came up short last month.
“We spent a lot on groceries. I think it’s formula. Ever since I stopped breastfeeding, we’ve been really spending a lot on food,” Mel said.
“Why is that crap so expensive?” I asked.
I seem to be asking that question a lot. Why is that… so expensive? Sometimes it’s new tires. Sometimes it’s the internet. Most of the time it’s food. I never have a good answer, though. Things cost what they cost. We shop around a lot online for good deals. We buy things on sale. Sometimes I feel like we work as hard to make ends meet as we work to make money.
So rather than keep asking why the world was the way it was, I asked a different question.
“Are we poor?”
Mel was in jeans a t-shirt, her hair pulled back. She leaned into the sofa, looked me in the eyes, and said, “I don’t know…” she paused for a moment. “I don’t think so.”
“How do we know?” I asked.
And as she thought about my question, I thought about my childhood. I don’t remember feeling poor until my father left. It was then that things got rough.
We went from buying shoes at department stores, to buying them at outlets and used clothing stores. Everything suddenly had to last, and we often went grocery shopping at the Mormon Church’s Bishop’s Store House (a food store for those in need).
I can still remember my mother slouched over the kitchen table, bills spread out, her forehead cradled in her left hand, her right hand holding a calculator. It was then that I remember wondering, for the first time, if we were poor.
And even then, I wasn’t sure. We always seemed to have what we needed. I never went hungry. But I could tell that my mother was struggling, and I knew that things were different than they were when my father was still around.
The Feeling of Being Poor
I remember asking myself that question a lot as a child, “Am I poor?” But I never thought I’d ask it as an adult. I always assumed that I’d know.
“I don’t feel poor,” Mel said. “We have to stick to our budget, but we usually make ends meet.”
“I feel poor,” I said. “Sometimes.”
I work in education, which means I have a white-collar education, but earn a blue-collar wage. While writing this essay, I looked up what the income level is for middle class in Oregon, and realized that I am in the lower middle. But it doesn’t seem to take into account family size.
We have three children, and although they appear happy, it seems like we are constantly reworking our budget to find new ways to make ends meet. We accept a lot of hand-me-downs from friends, and we are grateful for them. At my children’s school, we qualify for reduced lunch, which is both a blessing and a curse. It helps us financially, but it makes me feel like I still need help.
“If we were really well off, we wouldn’t need help with lunch for the kids, or to pinch pennies like we do,” I said. “I have to assume wealthy people don’t have to worry about holding on to clothing, or couponing, like we do. I think we are good at living within our means, and that’s great, but I often wish we could give the kids more. I suppose what I’m trying to say is, I wish we didn’t have to worry so much about groceries.”
“Are you saying you wish we made more money?” Mel said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I suppose I am.”
Mel let out a breath. Then she said, “Most of the people we know that make more money always say that they just end up finding more ways to spend it.”
“That sounds like a horrible problem,” I said.
Mel laughed. “It’s true. They end up in a bigger house, or with a nicer car, and the bills stack up, and suddenly they are trying to figure out how to pay for food. I’m not saying we are rich or anything, but I think this is what living within your means looks like. I mean, we’d budget and look for deals regardless.”
“I feel poor,” I said. “Sometimes.”
I thought about what Mel said for a minute, and at first, I didn’t like it. I suppose those years without a father really made me think that if I had more money, we wouldn’t have so many problems. And I think in some ways, that’s very true.
But honestly, I don’t know how much my mother made back then or how it compared to other families. I don’t know if we were poor, but I suspect we were. What I do know, though, is that we always had what we needed. And I suppose that’s the way things are now, with Mel. Our kids are always fed. They have clothing, and our bills are paid. We struggle sometimes. We often move money around. Sometimes we have to search out ways to make more money, or we have to go without this or that, but it’s never anything critical.
At least not yet.
“So you think we are doing okay?” I said.
Mel nodded. “Yes. I think so.”
When he’s not saying insane things to his kid, Clint Edwards’s work has been featured on Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. He’s the author of the new book This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.