Yesterday when I dropped off my four-year-old twins at school, I spoke to their teacher about a school trip. I had misunderstood the wording of a letter and thought it was optional as the cost was £14 per child. It wasn't optional and I had just been reminded to pay £28 for the tickets. The misunderstanding was cleared up; of course we would pay even if we'd have liked to spend the money on something else.
Then the teacher, who is the loveliest woman one could ever hope to meet and a great, great teacher, pulled me aside. With a look of worry that I might be embarrassed, she said, "Please don't take this the wrong way, but with what you've just told me, I was just wondering if you knew about the free school meals for families on low incomes?" I didn't take it the wrong way at all (and it turned out that as we receive working tax credits, we're not eligible), I just thought it was nice of her to bring it up. But what I left with was thoughts about this social stigma of being poor. Hundreds of thousands of middle class families juggle their limited income and are what I call 'Middle Class Poor'. So why this embarrassment?
I am not embarrassed... I am poor and I will speak openly about that to anyone who cares to listen.
We lived 'the good life' for many years. We had a nice life and bought anything we wanted, but in actual fact, we were not as well off as it seemed... as we made it seem. Because by 'the good life' I mean, of course, the life where you live in debt, spend every penny earned and then use the credit cards, loans and overdrafts when the pennies you earn run out! You probably know exactly the sort of life I mean... because most middle class families live exactly that life too.
My husband and I had a successful business, one that didn't make it through the economic crisis. My husband then got a nice, steady job and I got a very nicely paid job with flexibility in work hours, which is what you need when you have twin toddlers in preschool. My job turned out to not be as great as the pay cheque, so I left it after a year and a half.
But then, as my husband works shifts in a hotel and can't do the school run, what jobs are out there for a woman who needs to be at the school gates at 8.30am and 3.30pm? Not many...
Solution: Self-employment. I'd done it successfully before, I could do it again. But this meant a serious cut in income for us and living on a very tight budget until the business takes off.
So... when all the bills are paid, we have £200 a month to feed and clothe two adults, two four-year-olds and four dogs. No money for dinners out, the movies or holidays. And this is fine... I may have been a shopaholic once and I love nice things, but I'm also realistic and I decided to approach living on a budget like a great challenge... and be the best one at it!
Snobbery and 'keeping up appearances' isn't real and for those who do it, it is exhausting. So when someone in the midst of all this wealth worship admits to just being plain poor, relief is the expression in most people's faces rather than shock and horror. Because they too are struggling and it's nice to meet someone with whom you can truly identify, rather than being surrounded by people with whom you have nothing real in common. Here it's worth noting that those whose expression is shock and horror, they're not worth being friends with anyway!
In the past year there have been a couple of stories in the press about families just like mine that have lost everything in the economic crisis and who now live a life in poverty while "putting on a brave face and pretending nothing has changed". Why pretend? What is this stigma about being poor that leaves people thinking that they are less without money? Why do they need to pretend nothing has changed to continue to be the same people they were before?
For me, admitting to being poor is liberating! I have no appearances to keep up. I can be 100% real.
So... if you are also struggling making ends meet while meeting the needs of your family, you should try admitting your struggles to yourself and everyone else... I promise you, it will set you free (and as an added bonus, it will show you who your real friends are).
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