Friday, May 9, 2014

Why I Don't Judge People Who Buy Cheetos with Food Stamps

I made a recent and rare foray into online debate with complete strangers. The topic was welfare. By the time one of the participants inferred that I am a wealthy, clueless and hysterical liberal who knows nothing about how "these people" really are, I recognized the innate pointlessness of bickering with someone whose world view is fundamentally different from mine. Apparently, this gentleman gets really mad at welfare recipients who squander their limited, partially tax-funded resources on unhealthy food, booze, cigarettes, and expensive gadgets. I, on other hand, do not get mad. 

My lack of bitterness isn't because I don't pay taxes or care how small my annual contribution is*. Nor do I naively assume that only a few "bad apples" make costly choices while all the other "good" poor people live lives of irreproachable virtue. To me, getting mad about poor people spending money imprudently is like getting mad that shit floats downstream. Poverty is full of expensive traps and temptations that keep you broke. I know because I made lots of unfortunate financial decisions when I was poor - borrowing money at bad rates without a considered repayment plan, always choosing short-term cheap over long-term affordable, avoiding my debt out of shame, and indulging in stress-dulling creature comforts. Even when I was earning decent money in my late twenties, I had acquired so many debts and bad habits that I remained perennially broke. I'd probably still be that way, but I got really lucky around age 30 and stumbled into some opportunities to learn thrift and economy.

- First, I hitched myself to a guy who's good with money. Dan is especially talented at managing debt. (If he were the author, this is where he'd insert a Jew joke, because he's Jewish and thinks that's funny.) He convinced me to face my debt head on and not let it get worse.

- Shortly after we got married, I took a personal finance class offered free-of-charge by my employer. It literally changed my life. They taught me how to make a sensible budget and stick to it. Within days, Dan and I opened a savings account. I immediately began tracking my everyday spending, a habit I've kept up fairly consistently for the past six years. I don't need to be as obsessive about bookkeeping now because we're more financially stable. But that initial determination to live well within my means and pay down debt saved me during those slim years when Dan was finishing grad school.  

- For years, I'd been visiting a therapist who charged sliding scale rates for low income patients - he helped me make lots of smart choices that paved the way for good fortune (like snagging Dan). When I told him about my frugal fever, he recommended Amy Dacyczyn's Complete Tightwad Gazette. I checked out a copy from the public library and made it my bible. Especially now that I'm the house boss, I draw upon its lessons every day. Back then, it taught me to love canned tuna, bulk savings, and nylon net onion bags repurposed as scrub brushes. My favorite tip these days is keeping my house tidy and pleasant so I don't feel the need to go somewhere else and spend money. Even though I don't earn wages for my housework, my labor definitely transfers into money saved and that's pretty damned satisfying, too. 

If those three things hadn't happened, I'd probably still be eating takeout most nights a week, paying ATM fees, smoking a pack a day, buying toilet paper and cleaning supplies at the gas station, and wondering how my paycheck disappears so fast. I'll give myself some credit - for finding a clever mate, attending the optional finance class, reading the book, following the lessons. Conscious change requires initiative. But the fact remains I had to learn thrift and those learning opportunities came to me by luck. NOTE: Learning this stuff from your parents also qualifies as damned good luck.

If seeing a welfare recipient with a fancy cell phone makes your blood boil, probably none of this has moved you. After all, we're just talking about our feelings, right? That's what irks me about most online political arguments I see. Almost everyone is just spouting off their emotions, based on whatever anecdotal information they've absorbed. Few of us are arguing on the basis of research or data. We get excited when we happen across a more informed argument that supports our strong feelings, so we can point to that and say, "See!" All I can say for myself is that the anecdotes I've shared here come only from my personal experience. I suspect my story is relatable to some, but I don't venture to guess how life is for any other individual. So if your knowledge of "these people" is limited to what you've heard from others or what you've seen in a grocery store line, I'm not interested in your point of view. I'm more curious how you became a person who isn't poor or dependent. You can tell me all about that.

It's a matter of perspective. My anger is a limited resource and way more of my tax money pays for endless war, which bothers me more.

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