On Being Just Poor Enough

I spent this holiday season being poor.

I don’t mean poor to the point where I’m homeless, need to stand in line at the soup kitchen, or had to resort to giving my friends hand-drawn cards instead of real gifts. I don’t mean poor to desperation where I need to pawn off all my belongings and sell my body to the night.

… But I am poor enough that buying presents for people makes my gut ache when I looked at my credit card statement. Poor enough that my recent acceptance to one of my dream master’s programs was more, “Oh shit, how can I afford this?” instead of a celebration. Poor enough that I try to make all my leftovers stretch longer than they should. Poor enough that I’m living paycheck-to-paycheck and still search day and night for odd jobs. I just applied to work fast food a few days ago too… but of course upon seeing “MIT” on my resume they’ll toss it out. Why would an MIT grad want to work at Panda Express?

My naive young self spent the better of her 23 years viewing the 99% through a polarizing lens – either you were so poor you lived in the ghettos (or didn’t have a place to live at all) or you were alright. Middle class. Could afford whatever you wanted with a few hours of overtime.

But it’s not that simple. There’s a lot of individuals that are just poor enough that money is tight but not a scarcity — recent graduates whose luck ran out, single parents trying their best to make happy memories for their children, folks who are unemployed through no fault of their own but being at a downsizing company at the wrong time.

Or in my case, someone who graduated from a top-ten university and then decided to 1) pursue a career in a field that she liked, 2) is severely underpaid, and 3) lives in a city that traditionally doesn’t pay premium wages (unlike, say, San Francisco or New York).

You’d never guess, looking at my everyday living, that I was poor: I wear fancy clothes to work, I have high-end technology, I’m an intellectual woman who can easily discuss financial modeling, business strategy, and economic principles. I drive a car to work. I take classes at the local ballet company.

But all of those things are hard-earned. And always in the back of my mind, there are student loans, credit card debts, next month’s rent, trying to scrimp on electricity, and constantly looking everywhere to see where the next monetary opportunity may lie.


  1. says

    You are not alone!! I definitely feel your pain when I look at my statements as well. Good thing that I had a plan in place to get out of it by the end of January. Hopefully they won’t toss our your resume just because you have “MIT” on it… everyone has their own story, and it will just be too sad if they are judging what its on a piece of paper already.
    Hope you had a wonderful Christmas! :) All the best in the new year!

    • Vivian says

      Kudos on your debt-escape success :) Hopefully I’ll be able to get out soon as well – I have a plan in place to be debt-free by October 2014, but of course from time to time I screw up and buy something totally indulgent, haha.

  2. says

    Ohh I know what you mean. I have quite a bit of money in the bank saved up from my old job but it’s for the house my boyfriend and I want to eventually buy so I feel guilty whenever I have to dip into it (like I’m stealing money from my boyfriend haha even though, technically, it’s not even his). I miss having a full time job and not having to worry about things like that. I hear ya!

  3. says

    I’m still a dependent, but I’ve been thinking a lot about what will happen to me after I graduate. Like if I should take even more loans to pursue graduate school or look for a job in a field that has a really bad hiring rate. I don’t plan on changing my major anytime soon, but people keep telling me to switch because seeking employment as an undergrad BME is really tough.

    • Vivian says

      The grad school vs. job decision is so difficult… I know a lot of people who couldn’t make it into a highly enough ranked Ph.D program and had to take either poorly-paid or unrelated positions so they could buy more time (and savings). The hiring environment is just so shitty right now… I really wish you the best in whatever you decide. (Kudos, though, BME is a badass major!)

  4. says

    I worry about money A LOT. I was just buying at textbooks for next semester, made a payment on my student loans, and wishing I had been more frugal this holiday season when I looked at my accounts. I’m not graduated yet, but it’s hard for me to find jobs when I live in between two places. *HUGS* I feel your pain. Whenever I get down on the money thoughts, I just remind myself how blessed I am to have family and friends that love me.

  5. says

    Money is the bane of my life. I’m still at home (I’m in my last few years of secondary school) and I still worry about my money.

    I think, though, being poorer is better than being richer in terms of development. I mean, if you had lots and lots of money you could end up buying things for the sake of buying things, or just because you could. Whereas if you are poorer, you take longer to evaluate whether it is worth buying a certain product. You’re more likely to buy useful things that you like and will use often, or appreciate things like your ballet classes, because you know how much effort went into paying for them.

    Take care! xx

    • Vivian says

      I can agree – being poorer has led me to appreciate the value of a dollar a lot more, and to really think about my purchases before I make them. I was supported by my parents throughout college and even for a bit afterwards, so when they cut off their support… well, it was a bit of a shock! I had gotten used to spending a lot on things that I didn’t really need, but I definitely notice myself being more mindful now.

  6. says

    I feel for you and your purse! I know what you mean about Christmas shopping! My purse was practically crying when it was empty. My credit card statement was so high O_O

    It’s hard to find a decent job in the field you like but at least you have found it and are able to enjoy it :)

    Maybe you should try a budgeting app to help with expenses.

    Have a happy new year!

  7. says

    I understand this and can relate to it as well. I grew up very poor. I never realized how many corners we cut until I went to college. Because I grew up in it, even though I “have” money (from loans) I’m so careful. I always pick what’s cheapest, only buy things on sale, and never do extra things. I think growing up poor has shaped who I am a little. However, I also think it’s something that everyone should go through because anything can happen. I’m really grateful I have those skills, though. And, that I know how to save money. I think your goal of saving money this year is really smart.

    Have you heard about the 52 week money challenge? Each week you put away one more dollar. So, first week $1, second week $2, and so on. And by the end of the year you have $1,378 saved up. I think this might be a good way for you to save money because it’s pretty easy and not too taxing. Wishing you the best of luck!

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