Losing the Financial Forest for the Budget Trees

It’s no secret that, on paper, I’m a financial challenge.

I’m a highly-educated, highly-degreed single person working in a non-profit and living in Chicago. A visual representation of this fact could look very much like this.

Real life and consequences of my choices dictate that money is going to be an on-going conversation for me at every point in every day.  In no way do I feel like I am the only one dealing with this. I *am* the picture of the modern middle class.  We’re all feeling the weight.  In fact, I think that might be the mark of adulthood in this era: if you don’t know what it feels like to financially owe, are you even alive?

And while I have accepted this as part of life now, there are days that I lose all perspective on what’s happening with my bank accounts and I truly start to panic.  The reality of the situation is that about 6 months ago, I had a real come-to-Jesus with myself about my finances at this point in my life.  Up to that point, like a ostrich sticking my head in the sand, I chose to be blissfully ignorant.  Life was most definitely happier.  But it wasn’t real.

So I owned up to reality, set an aggressive budget to start paying off debt while also aggressively saving for retirement while also saving for a rainy day.  It’s been amazing to realize that I can live like this.  A huge majority of the money I bring in every month goes away before I even realize it’s been there at all: to savings, to credit card payoff, to loans, to retirement.  Which means that I live on about $10 a day when all is said and done.  And lo and behold, balances are heading in the right directions (usually) and sometimes I can admit that it’s a beautiful thing.  But there are days that I forget that.

And I only have $10.  And then I start to panic as I can feel the cortisol drown my body.  I’m in full fight-or-flight in a scenario I’ve made.

What this is is the stress of being poor.  The real upside for me is that, when I remember, I can recall that I’m actually not poor-poor.  Things are heading in the right direction.  But I’m in-the-moment poor…I’m my-own-budget poor, and that’s still incredibly stressful.  And often completely defeating.

Perhaps the only value I bring to this discussion is that I can report on the emotional toll that being poor takes, only because I do have the luxury of time and a “safety net” of my own to allow me the moments to reflect and wherewithal to write it down.

Being poor sucks.

My big takeaway from all of this. It sucks out every ounce of energy not devoted to something else.  It makes you feel like a complete failure.  It makes you feel really irresponsible.  Every day I ask myself how I got here.  What made me choose this reality for myself? And that’s the true luxury–because I know I have chosen this, in large part, and I know I can make a change tomorrow that would mean something different to me.  And so many poor people don’t have that luxury…they are survivors of circumstance only. Another time and another place, I could actually be scrambling on $10 a day.  And let me tell you…$10 goes almost nowhere.  Nowhere.  I usually last about 2 days before falling behind (and I have a strategy to get myself back on track).  Yesterday I spent $11 on toilet paper.

This, I think, is the conundrum of the true, sinking middle class.  The truth here is that I’m not poor.  But I feel poor all the time.  And that is stressful enough to make me look for all of the vices I can find to ease that stress.  And it makes me feel guilty because if I was truly poor, things would be way worse. 

Karl Marx thought the opiate of the people was religion (and I still think he’s right there for sure).  But it’s not the only opiate.  I think one of the opiates today is this utter guilt felt by the middle class for talking about how difficult their lives are becoming.  They/We/I don’t want to think I’m poor.  That’s stressful and taboo.  So I’ll just drown myself in YouTube videos about aggressive budgeting and adopt a “fix it” attitude and the lifestyle of a Nepalese lama living in the high mountains (they don’t worry about DSL prices either).

My opiate today is thinking things could be way worse.  “Is this living,” I ask myself as I survey the $10 I put into savings last month.  It’s certainly how I have to live…I don’t think I’ve truly found alive.

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