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Being Poor-ish Revisited: Reader Questions
Edit Alert: During the process of this article, some people more knowledgeable than me on one of the questions popped up - I’ve edited the article a bit to include their help.
I am not a good judge of what articles people are going to like at all. So it is that a number of my posts that I was sure were works of unbelievable and lasting genius got minimal hits, while my article about Q-tips and a quasi-whiny essay about the lifestyle of the poor are my most-shared pieces by a pretty wide margin.
One nice thing about all this is I now have a surplus of questions about being poor-adjacent, questions that I can answer in what’s shaping up to be my easiest article ever. So once more into the poverty breach go we!
You mentioned cash reserves and said you’d revisit it, but never did. What’s the deal?
I would like to formally apologize to Nick for forgetting this; I know it bothered you a great deal. This is worse because normally Nick proofreads my articles for me and this is exactly the kind of thing he would have caught.
Most people with adequate-or-better incomes and a modicum of wisdom accumulate a cash reserve, sometimes slangily referred to as an “Oh shit fund”. The idea is that you have a not-small but usually-not-huge amount of liquid cash to cover somewhere between a few or several months of expenses. This allows you to survive in situations like losing a job or sustaining an injury from which you must recover. Not surprisingly, most poor people don’t have this.
The primary purpose of a cash reserve is to weather storms, but it also provides a certain amount of flexibility - if you needed to buy your way out of a lease, it’s there. If you were miserable in your job, you could potentially quit and live off the reserves for a while while you found a better situation. If you saw a good deal on a vehicle, you could buy it and take your time selling the car it replaced. You might choose not to do any of these things, but the option is there.
On the other hand, having no cash reserve is a sometimes minor but always real impediment to doing any of the things mentioned. If I see a blazing hot deal on a Honda Accord on Craigslist, there’s no way for me to sell my current car fast enough to buy it - buying it and selling the car to replenish the fund isn’t an option. I can’t break a lease and sometimes can’t afford to move when my lease is up, since I’d have to at minimum wait for the security deposit to come back, and that happens on a long enough time-frame that it’s no help in paying for the new place.
Most relevant here is the lack of flexibility in job-finding. If I get let go from my job for any reason, I’m potentially in serious trouble unless I can get unemployment at juiced Covid rates. (More on this later!). But I absolutely can’t leave my job voluntarily unless I can line up another job to start almost immediately after this one - there’s no unemployment for quitters, and I just don’t have enough funds to weather more than about a week of unemployment.
I’m suspicious that this particular lack of situational grease has a not-insignificant negative effect on the upwards mobility of the lower class. It wouldn’t be a huge effect, since with some planning you can still figure out how to transition with a minimal gap, but it’s definitely a bit riskier to abandon a low-paying but secure position for a position with better prospects but less known stability.
You mentioned poor people skills like fixing cars - couldn’t you market those to make some money on the side?
Not easily. Poor people skills like fixing cars, appliance repair and Craigslist purchasing are absolutely essential to the family-on-an-extreme-budget experience, but they don’t translate very well to making more money, usually.
To give you an extreme example of why, the other day I stopped into a mattress store and found that mattresses sometimes cost upwards of $2500; armed with this knowledge and a dreamer’s heart, I spent the drive home thinking that a person could make a fair amount of money buying budget mattresses at wholesale prices and selling them delivery-included from Craigslist. When I got home I discovered that there were a dozen people doing this already - it’s an established, competitive space.
Take that situation and multiply it by 100, and you’ve got an idea of how competitive the mobile mechanic market is, or how packed the handy-man space is. There’s a ton of people who solicit gig work on the internet as a part or full time job. In the mechanic space most are former shop mechanics, and a lot have certifications.
While chances are good that I’m much better at mechanic work than you, there’s a big difference between someone who has done a lot of his own mechanic work and someone who has spent any significant amount of time doing it for a living. Even when we take training out of the equation, a full-time mechanic picks up more experience in a few weeks than I’ll have my entire life; that’s a lot of skill I just can’t compete with, and customers reasonably expect a level of service approaching if not quite reaching that of a full-service shop.
One of my friends is every bit as good at me at fixing cars, but much superior to me at handy-man work. He purchased a house that was stripped to the studs inside, with the intent of saving money by doing most of the work on the interior himself. He was mostly successful in this - he installed bathtubs, hung drywall and remedied a lot of the plumbing issues himself. He can do a lot of things we can’t and learned a whole lot more during the job, but there were still a lot of things he hired out; there’s just too much to know without having done it as a full-time job at some point.
With all that said it’s not as if it’s impossible to make extra money these ways - certainly some people do - but it’s a lot harder than you’d expect. And that’s before we talk about what it means to come home from a full-time job and spend the rest of your waking hours doing hard labor fixing an engine; people can and often do burn out trying to to burn the candle at both ends in this way.
Why don’t you move to a cheaper rural area instead of living in a city?
This is a fair question. I’m not sure I have a perfect answer for this, but the answers I do have all revolve around risk.
I’ve mentioned that not having large amounts of cash is a limiting factor in terms of what you can safely do as a poor-ish person. That’s true here - if I had the money to make that kind of move at all, I’d almost certainly use it up in the process. So I’d have to have a job waiting that was sufficient to support me and mine. But if that job dried up or I managed to get myself fired somehow, there would be hell to pay.
I mentioned in the previous article that I have a wealth of friends. I know a former photographer with a family and struggles of his own who has never once failed to immediately drive to wherever I was when I had a car breakdown or similar problem he could help with. I haven’t talked to him in about a year, but if I called him right now needing help, he’d be over in a half hour. If I was in the hospital, I know a dozen people who would bring my wife and kids food to try and lessen the load. The guy I mentioned above, the one who was rebuilding his house from the boards up? He would take a bullet for me, no question.
So to the extent things go wrong here in my hometown I have some recourse in the form of a lot of humans who would stake an awful lot to get me out of trouble. I’m not wealthy, but I am beloved. In the new town, I lose a lot of that by virtue of distance; I cut off a lot of my support structure as soon as I move away from it.
There are some questions I don’t know the answer to here. How good are rural jobs? Do they pay well enough that I end up better off once I take into account the lower cost of living? How easy to get are they? My understanding is rural areas are depressed economically compared to cities, but I don’t really know how much.
If I knew the answers to these questions better, it might help. But I spend a lot of my life in pseudo-terror of things going wrong, so the answers would have to be pretty good for me to move away from the people who care enough about me to help me dig myself out when I fall into a pit.
With all that said, I actually think we will see a lot more people taking advantage of this kind of move in the near future, mainly because remote work is becoming more and more common. I’ve already noticed on multiple occasions that if I was able to get a job doing remote database work from a company out of a high-dollar eastern city (like NYC or DC) I’d earn tens of thousands of dollars a year more than the same work pays here. That would make me very comfortable in Phoenix, but it would basically make me the king of Greensburg, Kentucky; I’m not sure I wouldn’t consider a move of that sort if I already had the kind of stable remote work that would make it safe to do so.
This doesn’t seem a lot like I understand poverty in terms of the numbers you cited. Why can’t you get by on what seems like a lot?
The first person to ask this was from Spain, and stated that the income I brought in would be sufficient to have a pretty good life in any Spanish city besides Madrid. They were confused as to why it wasn’t the same in a major American metropolis. I don’t know much about Spain, but I think the question generalizes to any smaller, cheaper place - Lincoln, Nebraska, say, or Farmington, New Mexico.
Cost of living certainly varies a lot place to place; I tried to give the examples I knew, but they aren’t going to generalize everywhere. The easy way to get around this is to ignore the numbers and focus in on the situations - is your electric company thinking about turning off your power? If your car broke down, could you fix it? Are you able to live securely in a safe place? If not, you are more or less in the kind of situation I’ve often been in, no matter the abstract dollar amounts involved.
Edited to add:
I know virtually nothing about Spain, but in case you want a real answer for Spain specifically, an internet person I know named Cassander explained to me that the basic cause of this is that because the US is richer than Spain, the quality of our good is higher and the the cost of labor similarly so; if I buy a can opener or rent a house, I’m forced to buy or rent something at a higher quality level. This is more true of can openers than renting, because the floor is “lower” on renting. But since the quality of a rental is in some ways determined by the people the rental forces you to live near, you are more or less forced to spend more for a certain minimum level of safety.
Also note the provision above that my income would be sufficient any place but Madrid; another person in the conversation pointed out in terms of metropolitan population the US has ten Madrids, and that Phoenix is one of them.
I am decidedly domestic and basically never leave the country, so thanks to those who helped me on this one!
This is going to sound a bit mean, but how much of this is your fault? It seems like a lot of this could be your fault.
Be nice to this hypothetical blunt person. In reality nobody asked me this; most people are very polite. But I could tell a lot of people were dancing around it, or holding their tongues while asking other related questions.
I don’t think this is an unfair thing to ask in any way, although I’m sure there are people who would take offense at it. The reality is I’ve made a lot of choices in my life, some good and some bad. I can’t pretend that I have no role in where I am or how I’ve lived.
Here’s some stuff to consider:
I got married at 22, which is very young by a lot of standards. We almost immediately had kids. This immediately limited the kinds of risks I could take, and was the result of decisions I made knowingly and voluntarily.
I didn’t start doing any kind of higher education until my mid-to-late 20’s, and didn’t take a lot of classes at any one time after that. I could have done more school sooner, but I was working difficult jobs and was too lazy to put out more energy.
I’m unwilling to uproot my family and move. My kids and wife are very plugged in where we live now, and I don’t want to take that from them.
Since my wife got pregnant, we’ve been a one-income family. We probably could have done better financially if we both worked, but we didn’t want to leave our kids in the hands of the kind of caretakers we could have afforded.
I have a lot of things I can do at a low-to-medium level, but very few things I’m expert in. In a society that rewards specialization and doesn’t care about versatility at all, this was a poor choice to make and a little bit of focus would have gone a long way to improving my lot.
So there’s a lot of this that’s absolutely my fault and I don’t want to downplay that - I’m not to be pitied here. I’m writing this because I think it’s interesting, but don’t take it to be whining - I had an awful lot to do with my own outcomes.
Can I get you a job interview?
One very nice person asked this, and the answer is something like “Yes, but…”. Besides being very, very good at Excel, knowing a little SQL, writing fairly well in a variety of professional styles and being an all-round good guy, I’m not particularly marketable. I have most but not all of a bachelors degree in a business-related discipline from a school that is technically accredited but won’t turn any heads. And I can’t/won’t move from the Phoenix area.
With those kinds of restrictions ruling out most good-paying jobs, I’m probably pretty hard to help in this sense. But if you do find yourself possessor of anything that would fit, I’m far from too proud to turn down the help and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s it! Thanks for all the attention on the article - my stats page says I had a lot of new visitors, so I know a lot of you were sharing the article. If there’s something I didn’t cover you’d like to know, feel free to email - I’m still small enough that I’m able to answer my emails, and I’ve enjoyed the back and forth a great deal. These two articles will hopefully be the last time I talk about my personal situation, but I hope you had fun with it and I’m glad so many of you found it interesting. If there’s something I didn’t cover you’d like to know, feel free to email - I’m still small enough that I’m able to answer my emails, and I’ve enjoyed the back and forth a great deal.