The less money you have, the more time you spend at the grocery store. This might sound counterintuitive, but when you have only $12 in your pocket, you have to consider each purchase carefully. This sort of deliberation takes time.
When I was at my poorest, I gave a lot of thought to toilet paper. You get the best deal when you buy jumbo packs but I could never afford to lay out that much cash all at once. I bought toilet paper like it was on an installment plan, in four packs, or sometimes, a single roll at a time.
If funds were really tight, I made do with paper towels or fast-food napkins until I could buy the real deal on payday. They were a little scratchy but my son didn’t mind. He was only in first grade and kids that age are just happy to have something to wipe their bottoms with.
When I was little, sometimes I went grocery shopping with my grandma. She’d flip through the newspaper and clip coupons before we climbed into her Buick Park Avenue and drove to three stores to get the best prices. I couldn’t do that as a single mom. I worked long days for a little more than minimum wage at my receptionist job and by the time I picked my son up from after-school care he was hungry for dinner. Making trips to multiple stores on the way home wouldn’t be fair. It was worth paying a little bit more to get all my groceries in one place. Plus, gas costs money. If the other stores were more than a mile or two away, that had to be factored in, too.
I rarely made a grocery list in advance. The poor don’t have the luxury of deciding salmon sounds perfect for dinner tonight. I had to wait until I got to the store to figure out what was on sale. There was always a cart in the back filled with dented cans and boxes of Hamburger Helper with tears in the cardboard. This was the area with the lowest prices so I started there.
It makes sense to stock up when you see a hot deal, but you can’t do that when you only have $12 to last till Friday. Missing out on sales cost me more in the long run, but when you’re living paycheck to paycheck, there isn’t a long run. There’s only a now.
Next, I walked each aisle carefully, hunting for yellow clearance stickers. The yellow stickers meant an item was marked down because it was close to the expiration date. I didn’t mind feeding my child canned goods after they had technically expired. Not if I could use the money I saved to buy something else.
I learned to be careful about buying marked-down meat, though. Sometimes I got home to discover the bottom was gray and green. I’d rather make my son expired tomato soup with food bank macaroni for dinner than serve him a funky-smelling rib-eye.
Many people buy more than just food at the grocery store and we were no different. We also bought toothpaste, dish soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, conditioner and deodorant. It was tough when I saw these products go on sale. It makes sense to stock up when you see a hot deal, but you can’t do that when you only have $12 to last till Friday. Missing out on sales cost me more in the long run, but when you’re living paycheck to paycheck, there isn’t a long run. There’s only a now.
The inability to stock up meant I was constantly running low on everything. When I ran out of deodorant and couldn’t afford another tube until payday, I’d improvise by smearing baking soda underneath my arms. It was messy and gritty and needed to be reapplied frequently or I’d end up smelling and sweating anyway. I’d trot off to work with a box of Arm & Hammer in my purse and smuggle it into the bathroom to reapply it behind a closed stall door a few times a day. Afterward, I shook out my blouse and brushed the excess into the sink before heading back to my desk with the requisite receptionist smile.
I’d come home from work exhausted and build a fire since the house we rented didn’t have anything but a wood stove for heat. It was inconvenient but this was the price of cheap rent.
Firewood is like toilet paper. It’s cheaper if you buy it in bulk. To get the best price, you need to buy a whole cord and get someone to deliver it in a pickup truck but I’d long since realized being poor means never getting the best price. Being poor means living in the moment and buying the smallest quantities of everything while the rich family stuffs packs of meat into their freezers.
I bought my firewood the same place I bought everything else ― at the grocery store. The little bundles were outrageously expensive but I didn’t have a choice. I made them last by limiting our fires to the evenings. In the mornings, we showered and dressed in the cold.
When I hear people talk about poverty, sooner or later the subject always turns to the way poor people eat. Someone gets indignant because they’ve seen poor people eating McDonald’s or buying candy at the grocery store. What they don’t understand is that sometimes McDonald’s is cheaper than groceries, especially when you live in a motel or a car or can’t use your oven because they turned off your electricity. Or maybe you’re just too exhausted to cook because you work three jobs.
And yes, sometimes I bought my son treats.
So many people love to sit in judgment of the poor, but unless you’ve had to buy four days worth of groceries with the change you found between your couch cushions and car seats like I have, you’ll never understand what it’s like to have to make these kinds of decisions.
I bought cookies so he could take them to his class on his birthday and bought chocolate bunnies so he’d have something fun in his Easter basket. I bought candy bars when he’d earned a reward because it was cheaper than bowling or going to the movies.
There are hundreds of reasons poor people buy candy or other treats for their children ― or themselves ― and those reasons, frankly, are none of your business. They don’t owe you an explanation just because you happen to be standing behind them at the grocery store.
So many people love to sit in judgment of the poor, but unless you’ve had to buy four days worth of groceries with the change you found between your couch cushions and car seats like I have, you’ll never understand what it’s like to have to make these kinds of decisions. And if you don’t understand, you’re not in a position to judge. You should just listen.
Poverty changes a person. You learn to fear the phone, the knock on the door, the colored envelopes in the mailbox or the tiniest indication that something might be wrong with your car. You wake up in the middle of the night feeling like your heart is trying to escape this life by beating its way out of your chest. But poverty can also teach you lessons about compassion, empathy, wisdom and generosity. The people who’ve experienced it have important things to say.
Today I’m a freelance writer. I’ll never be rich, but I have the luxury of a full refrigerator and a drawer full of extra toothpaste and deodorant I bought on sale. I have electric heat and a jumbo pack of toilet paper sitting on a shelf next to my washer and dryer. Most importantly, I understand my good fortune doesn’t make me better or worse than anybody else.
Maybe that means I am rich after all.
Tamara Gane is a freelance writer in Seattle. In addition to HuffPost Personal, she has bylines in The Washington Post, The Independent, Ozy, Fodor’s Travel, Healthline and more. Follow her on Twitter at @tamaragane.