Money Advice Is Usually for Middle Class People, Not the Poor

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For the entirety of my working life, I’ve been poor. I currently make sandwiches for a living and my last job was making smoothies. Before that, it was washing dishes. Even though I went to college—following that myth that a degree is a career guarantee—some might say I was destined to be poor: I was a latchkey kid raised by a single, working-class mother who moved us all over California, jumping from apartment to apartment to trailer in the middle of the desert. My only source of nutrition was the free lunch program at school.

Now, I’m on Medicaid. Last year I worked as much as 60 hours a week split between two part-time food service jobs just to make ends meet. Alongside those jobs, I worked side gigs when I could get them. I made about $23,000. It sucks enormous chunks.

Sometime last year, I started frequently googling “why am I poor” and “how do I stop being poor.” Every result insisted the problem is I go out too much (I don’t go out, I’m too tired), I don’t have a savings account (I don’t have enough kick around cash to open a savings account), or I’m not planning my money right (I plan to pay my rent and then cry in a corner until my next paycheck, does that count?).

According to popular thinking, if you’re poor, it’s your fault and therefore your responsibility to fix things. It’s not your employer paying you less than a living wage. Or your local officials approving the building of luxury condos in your neighborhood. It’s not the skyrocketing cost of living. It’s not anti-union efforts across the country’s largest companies. No, dear sandwich maker. The reason you’re broke is because you decided to buy yourself a latte between 16-hour workdays. Shame on you.

Here’s the thing: Not only is it okay to spend on yourself, but for low-income people, it’s an entirely normal coping mechanism.

“Poor person brain” explained

If you’re among the 39.7 million Americans living in poverty or the millions more who struggle to make ends meet, the real reason you’re bad at saving or you feel you’re spending too much on non-essentials is something I call “poor person brain.”

Allow me to elaborate. “Poor person brain” is when you’re just about out of your mind stressed about how you don’t have enough to get by. Despite the fact that I currently have $45.90 in my bank account to last through next week, it’s not uncommon to treat myself to a burger after a particularly grueling week. It’s a habit that I see both as an egregious failure to save my money and as a necessary expenditure to find the will to keep grinding away.

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