A Lesson on Being Poor in the 21st Century

Confessions: Being broke in today's world

Posted Jul 18, 2011

I am writing this entry in a coffee shop a few blocks away from my new apartment. It's not because I really like the coffee here or the iced tea is particularly refreshing; it's because I don't have Internet at home. And the reason I don't have Internet at home is that I am poor.

This is a recent phenomenon for me. Being poor, that is. Let me tell you, it's not fun; there are no bohemians running about in my apartment, contracting tuberculosis or AIDS and singing merrily about how many minutes there are in the year. Being poor in 2011 means living without Internet, a table, a sofa, chairs and ultimately, a large amount of happiness.

I am currently living in an apartment that I can't really afford. I thought it would be a good idea to find the apartment of my dreams (which coincidentally happens to be outside of a realistic price range) and furnish it sometime within the next five to ten years. Thus far, I have splurged on a mattress and some pots and pans. Prior to that, I had been sleeping on the hardwood floor. I've been told, it's supposed to be good for your back. You know what else is good for your back? A bed.

When I walk past shop windows that sell clothes, shoes, home decorations, or anything else I desperately covet, I feel instantly defeated. It's always "I'll buy this in three years, in 17 years, in

30 years... Can I put this sandwich on layaway?"

According to this shopping schedule I will soon be the proud owners of a sofa in 3 years, a dining room table set in 4 years and a lobster dinner in 7 years. In the meantime, a mattress and a Costco-size bag of elbow macaroni will have to suffice.

Despite my current financial paralysis, I still remain relatively unscathed. In fact, my boyfriend has said that I am "terrible at being a poor person."

It probably has to do with the fact that I often complain about my dire circumstances while drinking a Starbucks latte ($4) and reading the Sunday edition of the New York Times ($6) after a movie ($12), right before a nice sushi dinner ($50). Yep, I spend nearly $75, while trying to figure out a better way to budget my finances. A little too ironic, I really do think.

But this kind of fiscal irresponsibility is not something that I face alone. My cavalier and nonchalant attitude stems from a middle class upbringing, in which I have always had everything I've needed and many things I've wanted.

In fact, according to a 2010 Demos report, Generation Y or the Millennials may be the first generation to end up financially worse off than our parents. In addition to a foundering economy, it is our reckless abandon for instant gratification, personified by our get-it-now, pay-for-it-later consumer mentality.

A recent survey released by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling indicated that only 58 percent of Millennials pay their bills on time. Moreover, a MetLife poll found that about 70 percent of Gen Y-ers did not have a cash safety net and 43 percent were accruing more debt than they could afford.

I am the quintessential Millennial.

Which is shocking, considering I grew up hearing stories about my parents' poverty-stricken origin in the United States. My mother came to America in the 1970s with less than $200 in her pocket and a very limited command of the English language. At her first nursing job, she was paid something like $2/hour. When my parents were students living in Berkeley, they shopped for abandoned clothing and art supplies on local street corners.

Instead of feeling humbled by how hard they struggled and how far they have come since then, my American sense of entitlement is evident as I tried to twist their logic around and convince them why I needed a $200 pair of jeans. ("Forever 21 uses slave labor-- I'm trying to help poor people, like you guys, out!")

It seems being poor today is considerably different from what it was like during my parents' generation. First of all, the Internet and media glorify consumerism and excess. Television shows, commercials and websites devoted to luxury lifestyle and how the wealthy live are ubiquitous. Before, we didn't know what we were missing-- but nowadays, we are exposed to every minute detail. We now want things that we never knew existed, such as a toaster that writes messages on our toast or a gold-coated backpack.

I'm not going to say there are any advantages of being poor, because in my opinion, there aren't. For some reason, you're hungry all the time (or in my case, always talking about lobster) and jealous of just about everyone (especially that homeless guy who seems so obliviously content in his poverty).

Moreover, moving downward from one class to another is particularly difficult, especially when it seems like your friends and peers are all moving upwards. They sit on beautiful tufted $1,500 tweed couches, while you lounge in the cardboard box that your microwave came in.

However, for the first time in my life, I am beginning to empathize with my parents. Only in recent weeks have I realized that I will never "need" a $200 pair of jeans. My priorities have changed drastically from clothes shopping to finding ways to supplement my income.

Doing something nice for myself today means having to sacrifice something else later in the week. I am also begrudgingly coming to terms with the fact that money, does in fact, not grow on trees, at least not in my backyard. In fact, I don't even have a backyard.

And while these lessons aren't exactly fun, they are the reasons I am finally keeping track of my expenses, balancing my checkbook and foregoing that venti latte ($4) for a tall iced tea ($1.50).

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