On Being A Bit Poor…

For all the things that life can be, what it ultimately is, is relative. Whatever you are and whatever you have can only be measured by what somebody else is, what somebody else has. So, if you have £100 in your pocket, there’s somebody out there with £101, and there’s another with £99. Your position in life is determined, for better or worse, by these people either side of you and your situation.

In the last year, I moved properly into the realm of adulthood – I made a more concerted effort to pursue my journalism outside of the confines of a staff job, I moved into a place all by myself, I got an overdraft (my first in almost four years!). With that shift came a lot of rewards – I got to write for a national newspaper, speak on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour (and meet Jenni Murray, SCREAM) and crucially, perfect my stern invoice-chasing letter writing skills. I found that my own company is delightful, and that there is nothing better than eating fried plantains with your fingers, sitting in your vest and pants while watching Sex and the City on late night telly. I got to learn that pitching is often a soul-destroying exercise in rejection but that contrary to what the websites tell you, editors are *not* out to get you – if they like your idea, you’re in.

But there were also the opposite of rewards to be had. Chief among these was the stark and upsetting realisation that I, freelance writer and chronic Tweeter, am technically ‘poor’. As I said at the beginning of this essay, all things in life – including poverty – are a matter of relativity. For many people, the image conjured upon the utterance of the word ‘poor’ is one of intense deprivation; usually typified by hunger and destitution. But I am rarely hungry; or at least not for very long. And I live alone in a tiny flat in London of all places, an arrangement which suggests that I have more money than sense. Plus I have electricity, running water, and heating. I have an internet connection, a little netbook, a teeny radio and a television with Freeview, all of which are useful and necessary for my work. Plus I subscribe to William Morris’ idea that everything in your home should be either beautiful or useful, and so have acquired useless but gorgeous decorative bits and bobs too.

The happy accident of my place of birth affords me my various privileges: I have access to excellent healthcare which is free at the point of delivery thanks to the NHS. I am educated to degree level, having secured the credit of a student loan to fund it. I have clothes in my wardrobe – enough to legitimately pack some away as the seasons change – and food in my fridge. As a member of both my local library network and the British Library, I have access to a vast number of books and other diverting material. I have a bank account and that recently acquired overdraft. I even have two credit cards – one of which is paid off, thankfully – and an ISA (which… isn’t exactly full, but still). Sometimes, I buy magazines that have nothing to do with my work at all. How dare I call myself ‘poor’?

If only Monopoly money were real...

Simple: it’s all relative. I am poor by the standards of my friends, my colleagues, my peers. Next to many of the people I can reasonably compare myself with, I am woefully, painfully broke. I am wary of coming across like the author that ill-judged Daily Mail article that kept trying to make the term ‘nouveau pauvre’ happen. My biggest problem is not having to curb my Christmas spending; the writer, Charlotte Metcalfe, was forced to live on only £5oo a week and buy her wrapping accessories at Tesco, not VV Rouleaux. I do not lead an extravagant life, by the way. I am teetotal, I do not do drugs, I don’t smoke. I am not a huge clubber, nor am I a shopaholic forever seeking that designer item. Last year, I bought precisely two pairs of shoes. Clothes-wise, I bought virtually nothing, save things like tights and socks and underwear. I live quite a frugal existence as befits my earnings; I really do cut my coat according to my cloth. A quick glance at my receipts shows my biggest extravagances to have been food and transport fare, followed by books and newspapers – how thrilling!

Scrooge McDuck: Making it rain since 1947

It is oddly tiring trying to explain my position to people. I was invited out to drinks a few weeks back. I really, really wanted to go – I hadn’t seen this group of friends in yonks, and everyone knows that November and December are the twinkliest and most beautiful time in London – but I couldn’t afford it. I simply couldn’t – the transport fare would’ve maimed me, right before the cost of a single round finished me off. So I sent a text to say I couldn’t make it as I was too broke. I got a sympathetic one back – oh no, poor you, drinks on me. It felt wrong and embarrassing to say “Yeah, even so, I’m still too poor to attend. Plus, we’re both adults – I’d feel awkward having you pay for my drinks.” I was too poor to leave the house. I explained it as best and delicately as I could, but I got the feeling that he didn’t quite get how poor I was. Short of showing him my bank statements for the last  six months, I wasn’t sure how to.

You’re probably not boo-hooing into your cereal at my predicament. I don’t blame you – it’s not like I’m under house arrest. Am I expecting your sympathy for being in a career which does not provide a steady and sizeable income? No, not really. I chose to go into journalism and the economy ensured it would be in a freelance capacity (for now). And I’m not asking you to pay into a benevolent fund for poverty-stricken freelance journalists.

It’s pretty embarrassing to be writing all of this, to be honest. But I’ve spoken to a few people – most in situations similar to mine - and I know I’m not alone. We are among you. *ominous piano music* So please take this essay and read it when next a friend cries poverty. Allow us our dignity – it might be all we have left in the coffers. :-)

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6 responses

  1. Don’t be embarrassed.

    I’m 29 and still living at home, and I’m piss poor. I pay the utility bills and Sky TV/internet bill, then after my phone bill, car insurance etc, I’m brassic!!

    I doubt I’ll be leaving the family home unless a rich guy comes along. I refuse to leave London though, so unless something super cheap came up I think I’ll be at home till I’m 39!

    I’m not embarrassed though, although it can be annoying when people ask mindlessly ‘what do you spend your money on?’ but they don’t know me or what goes on at home, so I leave them to form their own conclusions…..

  2. This bit…”For all the things that life can be, what it ultimately is, is relative”…is poetic genius. Seriously. I want to quote it all over the place.

    But this bit…”Whatever you are and whatever you have can only be measured by what somebody else is, what somebody else has.” No, no, no. That gets everybody in trouble. Consumerism, one-up-manship, jealousy, body issues, mum-wars, debt, bitterness…. It’s hard to let go of comparing yourself to others & to ignore others when they do the same. But it’s the only way to be happy with what you have – which should be precisely what you need & no more (& I’m not saying functional stuff only. Mr Morris was right, beauty & usefulness are both equally valid).

    I’m not saying that in relation to you though – just wanted to pick up on it. It is hard when you find you can’t socialise because of money. The thing about being poor relative to someone else is, just because there are people worse off than you, it doesn’t stop your situation. If I break both my arms & you break one of yours, yours still hurts like hell – mine hurting MORE doesn’t make yours hurt LESS.

    I’m getting rambly, sorry. I need tea.xxx

  3. As you say, it’s all relative! I have a steady, well-paid job and I’m constantly scraping the pennies together by the end of the month. Some months I’ve actually been too poor to leave the house, having to get my (less well-paid) housemate to cover an extra week of groceries so we can eat. I think I find myself in this situation because with just rent and my substantial American student loans, half my paycheck disappears.

    But, despite London being an expensive place to live, it’s also full of wonderful free (well… forget the transport costs… shh) stuff that makes life worth living. I also consider myself lucky that my friends are, for the most part, amazing cooks and most of my socialising takes place in someone’s home.

  4. Good post. One that will resonate with creatives not from money. After giving up an OK job in TV, I lived at home for what felt like FOREVER while trying to get started as a screenwriter and it did feel isolating and embarrassing. I compensated by going on holiday courtesy of my VISA credit card.

    During the relative poverty of my twenties I read an article by/about Marsha Hunt who at that time had, I think, declared bankruptcy. She drew a distinction between being poor and being broke. It’s an important one that I always keep in mind when thinking about the vagaries of trying to make money from writing and the famine or feast existence of life as a screenwriter. On occasion one may be financially broke but emotionally, creatively, intellectually you are never poor… or something like that. Shame HSBC don’t tend to see things quite the same way.

  5. I can’t afford to cry in my cereal – salty, generic brand malties is not a good thing.

    But, I totally get this. Because I’m still a student, non-students generally tend to give me the ‘aw, poor you look’ and leave me alone.
    The problem for me is my other students. Some of them have different home situations, so get more money that me in grants and loans, or from their parents. I’m in that awkward middle ground, where my home life isn’t so I get the extra grants (what I get barely covers my rent), but not so great where I can ask my parents for extra money.
    Plus, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want to ask her parents for extra money, because I think it’s a bit selfish. Also, I hate people paying for stuff for me – I don’t know why, I just don’t like it.
    So I’m on a budget at the moment.
    First year, I disregarded it and totally blew my meagre savings trying to keep up with the Joneses.
    Second year, I was a complete miser and never left the house and ate the most horrendous things to save money (which is ridiculous, because if I’d died from the excessive bad taste of these things, it would have been pointless).
    This year, I think I’ve struck my balance, and my budget feels a lot more realistic and less punishing, which I think is really important.
    I think there are a lot of people who can relate to not being in poverty, but aren’t exactly rolling it either.

  6. I think for me the difference between being poor and being able to tick along nicely, albeit frugally, is your ability to withstand a financial emergency. Will having to pay the plumber to come out and fix the toilet be an annoyance or the thing that causes your finances to plummet over the side of a cliff like an Acme anvil, never to get back on the level?

    I have never earned above minimum wage, been a fee-paying student for years, gone freelance and lived on benefits so have lots of experience of being poor. I’ve been poor enough to take up fare evading as the only way to travel (miss you, bendy buses!) and brassic enough to steal food from Tesco. Now I’m just common or garden poor and after years of pretending I wasn’t, I own it now and refuse to do things like rounds, only socialising with people who understand my level of finances. And once I stopped being ashamed of my circumstances and realised that sometimes accepting a cup of tea or a drink makes other people feel less embarrassed and less judged, I’ve found it easier (although I am still terrified they’ll think I’m a scrounger…)

    The good news is it also gets easier the longer you’re poor. You learn all the subtle ways to save money, balance your books and forget what non own brand toilet roll feels like. It’s either the greatest incentive to earn more or reassuring if like me, you’re going to be poor for a long time!

    And at risk of sounding a bit odd, I quite like being poor. In many ways it simplifies life and makes me appreciate what I do have. And it means I can usually shame people at dinner parties with my teeny tiny carbon footprint when they start that one upmanship malarkey…

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