This is the second in a 4-part series about financial stress and trying to recover from the recession. The first post is a crucial read so that you can get the background and intention of this series. If you haven’t read it yet, please click here to do so before continuing with this post. (It’s kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure series… you need to know what happened first before you can move on to the next adventure, lol.)
* * * * *
So, now that you’ve heard about my current mess, you’re probably wondering how the heck this happened so quickly, and why I haven’t been able to get out of this sooner. Like I said in my last post, when you’re financially unwell, life costs a lot more than it would otherwise. Not because prices have actually gone up (though, in a lot of respects, they have), but because of everything that’s attached to living paycheck to paycheck (or less). I’ve seen a couple articles out there that talk about this, and while they cite some of the examples I’m going to talk about, they don’t really go too far in depth. Here are some further examples of the “extras” you have to contend with as you try getting out of your financial hole as part of the working poor.
If you’re lucky enough to have your own housing, it’s probably not what it used to be or what you would prefer it to be. It is more thank likely a rental, either not in the best area, or not properly maintained. That means things need frequent repairs, which sometimes require you to be home for access/supervision. And if you’re lucky enough to have a job, that will probably require taking time off, because everything is done during business hours only. That means lost wages, which means a smaller paycheck, which makes rent a hassle.
Then there’s the big one: RENT. Regardless of where you live, if you don’t pay your rent on time (and if you’re really struggling, this is a common problem), you will be assessed a late fee. Period. That can be anywhere from a flat $50 fee, to 10% of your monthly rent. Even in Sacramento, where some of the most reasonable California rents still exist, that can be anywhere from $75 – $120 extra that you have to shell out, once you’re actually able to pay the rent. If you can’t pay your rent in full and have to break it up into more than one payment (I’ve had to do this a lot), you still have to come up with that late fee. It’s already hard enough to make the rent to begin with when you’re living paycheck to paycheck or have little to no income at all; adding an extra $75 a month works out to $900/year in fees alone. That could be another month’s rent, but timing… bad timing is a recurring theme in this kind of life.
When you get to the point I’m at right now, almost 2 whole months behind and nowhere to turn to get that money in quickly enough, you face The Notices. This can include the evil 3-Day Notice To Pay Or Quit, or the dreaded Unlawful Detainer. I will move heaven and Earth to avoid the latter, but I’ve gotten entirely too many of the former. And I hate them. I hate that I owe anything to begin with; I hate the unreasonable deadline (because most people who are in this situation aren’t usually doing it on purpose; so you’re already in dire straits and hurting, then this shit comes alont); I hate that it’s not always served to you at a reasonable time so that you have the full 3 days to figure out what to do; I hate that they come with this knock and look of judgment that is just more than you can take when you’ve already dealt with enough. I know they’re a necessary evil as a landlord, and I get that they have a business to run, but as a tenant who has full on PTSD because of these (I’ll get into that in the next post), I hate them.
If you’re lucky enough to find someone to help you or get an advance from your job (if they allow that), you’re safe – for a little bit. Part of that money was (hopefully) yours, so you’re still out of the money you earned, plus you’re now on the hook to repay either the person who helped you, or your job. Which means you’re already in a bigger hole because you still have to think about NEXT month’s rent, as well as what you owe your lender. And if you’ve ever tried making ends meet while having an advance be deducted from the paycheck you were already trying to stretch past its limit, this can become a very difficult way to live. You’re not taking home what you earned; you’re just working to repay a loan and putting yourself into the same (or worse) situation for the following month. It’s a very expensive, vicious cycle that is difficult to get out of.
This is another biggie. Some of the working poor might still have the vehicles they had before the Great Recession. Thing is, the recession started about 7 years ago, which means that if that car was already a couple years old, it might be facing some mechanical issues here and there. Or, perhaps someone bought a less expensive used car in order to avoid such a high monthly payment. However, if you’re already struggling, chances are you don’t have the best credit. And we all know that in this country, if you don’t have excellent credit, you cannot have nice things unless you pay…. (say it with me now!) double or triple. Those high interest rates, even on a clunker, will make a car payment as painful as rent. And if that clunker has issues, you can expect to spend most of your paycheck (and time) at the mechanic. If you’re working and you don’t have your car, or if it breaks down on you on the way, there go your hours. And then your paycheck, and so on and so forth.
If you no longer have your own car (I had to sell my car in 2008 in order to afford the higher deposit for the apartment I was forced to move into because I could no longer afford my good one), then you either have to walk or take public transportation. Most cities in the U.S. don’t have the stellar public transit systems that are in place in NYC, Boston, etc. Sacramento, try as it might, doesn’t have the best transit system to begin with, and is still dealing with a lot of the staff and route cuts that were put in place in 2008-2009 because of budget cuts. This is an extremely spread out area, and can be difficult to navigate in a timely fashion without a car. Some areas are completely inaccessible to transit, so that automatically cancels out any plans of getting a job in that area. Sometimes, there are routes that will get to outlying areas, but their run times are so limited that there’s no realistic way to get to work, work a full shift, and have time to make it to the last bus that will take you home.
Then there’s the issue of being able to afford riding transit to begin with. Here in Sac, a one-way fare on light rail or the bus is $2.50. If you’re on light rail, at least you have the option to milk a whole two hours out of that one ticket, so if you’re on a budget and you plan your route accordingly, you can save a lot. A daily pass is $6, and while it can seem like a good deal for a full day of traveling, sometimes it doesn’t work out. When times are as hard as they are now, I end up walking most places because the few dollars I do have, I cannot afford to part with. When every penny counts, $2.50 is a lot of money, and if that’s cutting into whatever budget there is for food, medicine, or whatever you actually need, it’s sometimes better just to walk. Take today’s trip to the 99 Cent Store. Had I not planned my shopping trip to the minute, I would have had to shell out another $2.50 just to get home, and that just wasn’t an option. Having a monthly or even semi-monthly pass is but a fleeting memory at this point, but at least they do exist (and they’re great – you buy one of those, you’re set on both bus and light rail all month. They just cost a lot). I thought I’d be able to get one for July, but rent… rent has to take precedence over everything else. Including getting places.
Incidentally, not being able to afford getting from point A to point B makes it really difficult to go out for job interviews. Basically, if it’s not within walking distance for me on the grid, I can’t agree to go to that interview right now because I just can’t afford the transit fare. I need a job to afford my pass, but I need a pass to get to an interview or a potential job. Another vicious little cycle.
When I scored a fantastic job last fall, everyone was really happy for me. At long last, I’d scored something that paid a decent wage, gave me just the right amount of hours to not overtax my body too quickly, and that offered benefits. It seemed all my prayers had been answered, and suddenly, everyone was telling me how nice it was that “it was all over.” Really? Because even with that job, I still had a mountain of past due utility bills and a rent bill so high, I was days away from an actual eviction notice. My work had just begun.
Newsflash #1: Just because you get a new job doesn’t mean all your past due bills magically disappear.
Because I knew my offer letter and hourly rate would be acceptable to my landlords, I developed a repayment plan that put me in the tightest, self-inflicted financial spot I’d put myself in. I basically agreed to give them all but $100 of every check for 3.5 months – or they could proceed with their court eviction process. Of course, I made it a point to keep this promise to pay, as it meant the difference between having a home and not, and for the first few months of this glorious job, I didn’t get to see a penny of what I made. Neither did a lot of my utility providers.
Newsflash #2: Just because you’ve made payment arrangements doesn’t mean you’re not still accruing and responsible for current charges.
We all know that when you can’t pay something on time, there’s a late fee assessed. When those fees and your balance get to a certain point, your service – whether it’s gas, electricity, phone, internet, whatever – is in danger of being disconnected. To avoid that sort of thing (because most – if not all – of those things are necessary to live at the pace of American life), you have to make payment arrangements. You do so in good faith, calculating figures and thinking that you’ll be able to make this work; and then the unexpected happens. You get sick; the car breaks down; your landlord showed up with a notice… one single thing out of place and it can turn everything upside down.
That happens to me constantly when it comes to my electric bill, and I’m at the final stages of what the electric company is willing to accept now. They’ve been great about working with me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still responsible for a huge bill. And since I’ve been struggling to pay this since before I moved to this location, I’m basically paying my current bill PLUS a percentage of the ginormous past due balance that is leftover from my old place. So, rather than just pay for my current charges, I have to tack on an extra $55 to take care of my past due balance commitment. That’s a LOT of money for me. Money that I’m absolutely responsible for, I’m not denying that; but it’s money that’s difficult to accumulate in a timely fashion because, naturally, everything is due around the same time of the month. I have the option of changing my due date – but only after I’ve paid my past due amount in full. Yet, I need that due date changed so that I can pay the past due amount without it affecting the almighty rent bill. Yet another vicious little cycle that keeps a lot of the working poor in the same stressful loop.
Why don’t you just put that on your credit card?
Because I don’t have one and don’t qualify for one. And even if I did, how would I pay the bill?
Speaking of credit cards, I wish companies wouldn’t penalize those of us who cannot pay with a credit card because we don’t have one. Yes, debit cards with major credit card logos can be used to pay some bills, but a lot of times, they aren’t accepted because they aren’t “real” credit cards. So, you have to either mail a check or drop off a payment at a pay center, which costs extra due to stamps or service fees, or even transportation fees, if you have to go to a specific office. Or, you pay with your debit card over the phone because you don’t have internet access, but are then assessed an extra $4.95 or higher because your only option was… the phone. I understand that online and plastic is the way most things are paid for now, and that even more advanced methods are in our future. But to charge people extra because they don’t have a certain kind of plastic is a little… shady. I won’t go on a rant about that part, but let’s just say that it’s another added expense that you have to deal with if you can’t do things the “normal” way because of lack of funds.
I have written about how to eat ridiculously well on a minuscule budget for almost seven years now. In that time I’ve learned a lot about myself, about shopping, and about food. I’ve honed survival skills I didn’t even realize I had already developed, and have discovered that food was my true muse all this time.
But despite my mad shopping skills and incredible restraint when faced with a store full of delicious products to play with, food is friggin’ expensive! And it’s just getting worse. Egg prices are now harder to follow than gas prices; staples are no longer reliably affordable; and produce is only getting more expensive, primarily because of this nasty little drought we’re dealing with here. My $25 Shopping Cart trips, which were once fun, easy rounds I could do in my sleep, are now these headache-inducing chores that involve a lot more decision making than in the past, depending on what store I’m in. Even tried and true stores like Trader Joe’s or the 99 Cent Store are no longer reliable in their pricing. I still know how to get the most out of TJ’s without going overboard, but it was sad to see that even the 99 Cent Store doesn’t keep things at $0.99 anymore. The eggs I bought today at my mother’s suggestion were $2.49, almost three times what I’d expected to pay. Still an absolute bargain compared to what’s going on at Safeway, where a dozen can range anywhere from $3.99 to $5.29, all within a few weeks.
But I have it SO easy compared to some. Last winter, a reader asked for some tips on what she could make with the items she had on hand. She lived in a motel room that didn’t have a real fridge or freezer. The freezer she had bought to help store food, she had to sell to keep paying for her room. For the first time since I’ve been writing about eating well on a budget, I didn’t know what to do. I freeze a lot of things and rely on being able to store meals I make for later use. I’d never thought about how to navigate around not having one, and I must say, it really made me think. I offered her whatever tips I could think of, sent her a little care package for Christmas with a note admitting to being stumped and to let me keep thinking of other ways to help, and keep praying that she’s found a way to make things a little easier for herself. I will never take my freezer for granted again.
Anyway, the point is that food is out of control in its pricing these days, and it’s only going to get worse. It’s something all of us need to consider, regardless of financial status. For those of us living on limited means, it’s extremely troubling. Not everyone is eligible for SNAP benefits (just because you can’t make ends meet in real life doesn’t mean what agencies see on paper isn’t “too much” to be eligible for assistance), and those who are don’t get as much as most people think. I’ve written a few posts about my own experiences on SNAP/CalFresh, so I won’t get too involved about that here. All I want to say is that I hope the stigma of being on these benefits will eventually go away. Yes, there is a small percentage of recipients who abuse the system, and they suck for doing so. But in general, no one should ever be made to feel ashamed of needing food with which to nourish themselves. We’ll talk more about shame and judgment that affects a lot of the working poor and unemployed in my next post.
If you (or your kids) get sick, you’re pretty much screwed
I don’t know how to put that one any more gently. Probably because I’m living proof of this right now, lol. Sure, I was given some feeble excuse to help justify the way I was let go, but when you look at the timing, it’s obvious to anyone that this went down because of my illness. Part of it is my fault, I guess – I’ve learned how to feign normalcy so well that even if I was up front with my employer about my condition PRIOR to being brought on as a permanent staff member, they never really got to see what it was really like. I worked sick most of December through March, but kept shaking it off whenever I was asked, always giving the same sunny response, “Oh, I’ll be fine in no time!” for fear of retaliation.
Because our sick days had also been restructured, the days I thought I would have available to use in 2015 were nowhere near the same as what I had available in 2014, so I had to be very careful about using them. IF I called in sick to begin with. I loved that job a lot, but I also knew that they had very little tolerance for things like being sick. But with my condition, there’s only so much faking I can do for so long. I was trying really hard to make it to the Memorial Day weekend without getting sick (our first 3-day weekend since the Christmas holidays), but I was completely burned out by the beginning of May. Had I been more confident that it would be okay to take a rest day in March or April without it adversely affecting my job, I would have done so and probably would have made it to Memorial Day. Alas, I got hit with the worst round of shingles I’d had in months (took me 4.5 weeks to recover from Round 44), and despite my efforts to work through that and take the fewest sick days possible, I was still let go. Just when I was getting ready to tackle the electric bill mountain. Just when I had a vet appointment scheduled for Stu so that he could get his senior kitty check up and I could keep up his health so he can be with me as long as possible. Just when I was going to have a chance to buy brand new clothes for the first time in 3-4 years (I love thrifting, but it’s nice to have something that is brand new to you every now and then). Just when I was finally starting to feel human again.
Now, this doesn’t mean that everyone who gets sick and has to take time off work will be let go. But if you’ve worked an hourly job (or even some salaried jobs) and you’ve had the misfortune of getting sick, you understand the panic. There’s a reason why there are so many sniffly people at McDonald’s or at the grocery store during flu season. There’s a reason moms and dads will show up to work exhausted, bleary-eyed and practically sick themselves because they had to stay up all night with their sick baby. There’s a reason why some of those parents can’t make it in for a couple of days when their kiddos do get sick.
That reason is fear.
Fear of retaliation, fear of getting your hours taken away, fear of not having that money on your paycheck come payday. At least here in California, as of July 1st, employers are required to give 3 paid sick days to employees who work 30 hours or more per week, but that was just put into place 5 days ago. And that’s only in one state (though I know there are others that have similar laws now). There is still a lot of work to be done in that department. We are all humans and humans get sick; no one should be penalized for one’s body not working at 100% at all times.
Then there’s the med situation. Meds cost money, even when you have a good insurance plan. I have two meds that I can’t be without at all (not to mention my inhalers, but I haven’t been able to afford one of those for about a year now). One of them will run out in a couple weeks, the other next month. If something good doesn’t happen soon, I’m not sure how I’m going to get them. I’ve applied for county aid, so hopefully that goes through before I need to refill.
But even when I was working, I often had to make the Meds or Rent? choice. Rent always won, of course. And that’s too bad, because my health is just as important as paying rent, if not more so. I know a lot of people go through this every month, my own mom included. And the worst part is that when you can’t afford your meds, you either don’t take them or you take them wrong so that they last longer, which only succeeds in doing one thing: making your condition worse. In the past, not being able to refill things like my asthma inhalers have cost me thousands in ER bills, because I knew I could get a breathing treatment there – and possibly a sample or two of a rescue inhaler. In fact, for those who have always wondered what the “mountains of debt on my credit report” are, that’s what it is: a LOT of ER bills that are far too high for me to pay, but that I knew I had to accrue unless I wanted to die of an asthma attack.
Fortunately, we’re making great strides in getting to a better healthcare system in the U.S., but there’s still a lot of work to be done. I look forward to the day when the Meds or Rent? choice is no longer a factor in anyone’s life.
* * * * *
Well, then. That was a lot.
And there is so much more that I could get into (like the dental care dilemma, or how quickly TP and other hygiene-related materials disappear and how hard it is to replenish themwhen you’re broke), but I’ve been writing all day and desperately need to eat so I can take my meds. Plus, you have a lot to catch up on! : )
Seriously, though, I hope this helps offer some insight into how challenging it can be to live on extremely limited means. Again, this isn’t about being whiny, or being all Woe Is Me, I’m Such A Victim, though I know it will appear that way to some and there’s nothing I can do to change that for them. But for those who are willing to keep an open mind and heart, and for those of you who were nodding in agreement this entire time because you’re in the same boat, I hope this helps. For the former, I hope it helps bring a deeper understanding of those who are struggling. Like I said earlier, it’s easy to assume that everyone’s experiences are the same just by virtue of living in the same place with the same culture. But it’s not, and there are a lot of us who go through life trying really hard to fake it, so no one can see our pain.
For the latter, those who get where I’m coming from because you’re there yourself, I feel you. I understand you. And you’re not alone. It’s not an easy road, and I will never sugar coat it as such. But one thing I have learned, something I’ve forced myself to keep in the forefront of my mind everyday, is that you are strong enough. WE are strong enough. And that’s something you should never forget.
Next up: Talking seriously about what this kind of financial stress and fear will do to one’s mental and emotional health. It’s not pretty, but we should never admit defeat!