For several years, I've been a fairly invisible member of the one-paycheck-away-from-disaster class. As a writer with a down and dirty day job, I've lived dangerously, with no health insurance, no benefits, and precarious hours. I've gone without many American trappings, like protein, root canals, and Netflix. I've flipped my sofa cushions looking for spare change to put a gallon of gas in my car, and gotten downright giddy over a five-dollar bill found in the dryer. Until now, I've harbored something close to shame over my one-ply lifestyle, but no more. I have found a higher calling.
Since the recession hit, and the tsunami of poverty has claimed some of my previously well-off friends, they are now coming to me for advice like I'm the Suzy Orman of the down-and-out. Suddenly, I'm the one who's cool -- the one who knows how to make do with little or nothing.
I'm more than happy to share my expertise -- and not in that snotty tone they once used when berating me for my lack of name brand lipstick, a 401K, or fashionable shoes. The first lesson of poverty, after all, is empathy. Once you've crossed a certain line -- when you're not just reusing vacuum bags and disposable coffee filters (which can be passed off as environmentally friendly, not desperate) -- but clipping coupons for spongy white bread and generic shampoo, it's hard to be judgmental about somebody else's paycheck-to-paycheck existence.
So when they ask me how to make their fancy cars run on empty, I don't laugh. I tell them straight-up that this is something only older, tougher, more constitutionally American cars can do. I suggest they trade their fancy ass Volvo for a car that's accustomed to running on willpower rather than a computer chip -- like a nice Ford Grenada or Dodge Aries.
If I have to be late on a bill, they ask me, should it be the credit card or electricity? Of course it should be the utility bill, I tell them in a way I hope doesn't sound condescending. The utility company's late charges are less than credit card interest, and besides, you're going to have to pay down the balance on the credit card in order to charge the electricity.
And no, I explain patiently, you never go to the sliding-fee dental place when you need a root canal. They'll just want to pull your tooth, and when your nerves are on fire and your face is swollen to the size of a football, prettiness won't matter to your anymore and you're going to say yes. Just keep popping the antibiotics and pain meds until you get a tax refund or manage to sell your family heirlooms on Craigslist.
My nouveau poor friends are amazed to discover that the $30 towels they once bought from upscale retailers really aren't any more absorbent than $9 towels from Walmart -- and that they actually can get a good night's sleep on mere 400 thread count sheets. After some lost pride and false starts, many of them have become downright bubbly about two-for-one shoe sales and Sunday coupon clipping. And even though it's gauche, there's something sweet about their new found enthusiasm for $8 t-shirts and homemade lattes. As their de facto mentor, it's gratifying to see my friends taking pride in, and even bragging about, their fledgling Target prowess and E-Bay bargains. I never felt as valued or as part of the conversation when they were discussing vacation homes or profits from flipping real estate.
I still expect my newly poor friends to rebel when I explain that old-school poor people don't sign up for the biggest cable TV package, change their oil every 3000 miles, or buy a new coat every season. I'm sure there will be some hand-wringing and despair over lost seasons of The L Word and having to wear the year before last's fashions, but I'm sure they'll come around.
Broke is the new cool, and being in fashion has never been as easy.