On Being Poor

This past year I spent $60,000 and I’m down to nothing.

In 2008 I purchased a home with a job from which I was laid off within a month of buying the house. I ended up finding another job and held on to the house until 2014 and sold it on a strange whim. All of a sudden I had $80,000 dollars and an idea. I thought I would use $20,000 to pay off debts and $40,000 save for retirement or another home purchase and $20,000 to start a business on a hunch that I could sell news the way iTunes sells music. I paid off the debt, saved $5,500 in my IRA and the rest I ended up spending on business travel, co-working space, lawyers and consultants.

After a year of hard work I was left with a great website and internet technology and nothing in the bank. During that year I down-sized from a beautiful modern place near the beach with a view of the ocean to a small apartment with four-roommates and lowered my expenses to as little as possible and spent the money primarily on the business. I did find a part-time contracting gig for a start-up to keep me going so that I spent mostly savings on the business instead of living expenses but after a year and a half, I literally had nothing.

I am lucky, I ended-up with nothing by choice. I felt that working on an idea that might help our news organizations make money and ensure our liberty of the press that is essential for a healthy democracy is important enough that it was ok to risk it all. I knew before I began that having a start-up requires sacrifice, dedication, perseverance and more sacrifice.

Here I am, a man with a wonderful and beautiful girlfriend that’s ready for marriage, an education that could fetch me six-figures and I have to walk instead of driving to see her because if I don’t conserve, I may not be able to afford to drive to a meeting with mentors next week.

I have to say, that poverty is embarrassing and debilitating no matter how you got there. If this had not happened by choice, I can’t imagine how I feel as I am lucky to have a way out. I’m smart, have good connections and middle class parents and most importantly an education. But if I had none of those things which is more than 60% of this country.. I can only imagine the depression I would feel.

As I write this, a cup of coffee at a shop is a luxury I allow myself only in presence of a mentor or a business lunch to not appear broke. Even there, I usually try to find the loose change as to not touch my rent, insurance, phone and gas budget.

Having no money, I feel basically as an outcast which is a change for a social butterfly who is used to having good dinners, going to concerts and going on vacations. Dinners and galla invitations are deleted from facebook and email. Excuses are made for why I can’t make it to weekend events or lunches.  If I do go out,  it is very hard to watch those few dollars leave and it is embarrassing to have friends petty pay for me or choose the cheapest thing on the menu. It’s strange because this is on-purpose, I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing but the feeling of being judged because I’m clearly wasting my time and money and life because I am stretching the last dollars to build a dream and dreams are clearly for people not like us. My friends are all small business owners or professionals. Many have forgotten the sacrifice it took to get to where they are and as professionals they have no idea that this is what it takes. And even though I know that, and shouldn’t care, I still feel crappy. Every single thing is more difficult but it is this way on purpose in a way, if this was easy, others would have been able to do it. It’s why Everest was scaled by so few, why it takes hard work and dedication to get to Olympics. I understand that. But what makes me truly sad, is the shame our society makes people feel about lack of money, lack of spending. Almost everything we do, requires exchange of money and it is so easy to feel ostracized.

The reason for this post was because I received an invite to a professional event. It sounds like my presence is wanted but the $20 is impossible. I have offered to do photography at events like that in exchange for free entrance, but asking feels demoralizing when you have nothing, that service is not cheap and I feel like I am groveling for $20.  It’s this shame that I am poor, I can’t afford things, I don’t provide society enough value to be paid enough to afford things that others can.

It’s sad, but it’s true.. What’s nice for me is that this is temporary (I hope) but for so many, it is not. I am ok eating Ramen and frozen veggies, but I don’t have a child who has to eat Ramen and frozen veggies. I’m ok with fixing my shoes for $5 instead of buying a new pair and going an extra three months without a hair cut, but what about that child that goes to school with shoes that are painful being a size too small and hair unkempt and shirts worn out and you being the parent that can’t do anything about it?

I remember my neighbors back when I had the house. Slim was a 55-year-old ex-Crypt.  6’7″ and 180 lb; lean and tall, great for basketball. He served his time after killing two gang members who were about to shoot him. Had he been white, he would have been let go via self-defense, but being a gang-member in a racist Sacramento he was given several years in Federal prison. He got out, had kids moved to San Diego and made decent money working on the army base until a work accident left him unable to work. No education means he could only do physical labor and with his wife as the sole bread-winner they were strapped for cash. They didn’t pay the water bill in order to afford food and bus fare to work. They had to go to a store to buy water and the kids smelled with hair dirty and knotted in the middle of the hot summer. Sweet kids. Jr would fist bump me anytime we passed the street and he’d ride the skateboard with his sisters down the steep hill our homes were on. Slim had tears in his eyes telling me what was going on. At the time I was $40k in debt and was on an equally painful budget but I felt like crap not being able to help. Although I still should have. I think of him, and his kids and all the other people who are like me, but no way to get out from this poverty.

At some point, most of us end up having to live with the shame and stress of poverty when the only shame should be, that this is how the vast majority of Americans live “richest, most powerful country on earth”.


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