There is a certain resourcefulness that comes with living life as a poor person. You have to find ways to survive in a fairly unconventional manner, especially when it comes to procuring the necessities food, water, shelter, safety… you catch my drift. Here, people who grew up poor or experienced poverty in some way throughout their lives share the things that they bought or did because of their financial circumstances that a rich person would never know about.
Thanks to everyone who contributed! If you’d like to read more stories like this, check out the source link at the end of this article. Comments have been edited for clarity.
Growing up, my family had it’s moments of struggle. Our public transport system at the time had tickets which were simply hole-punched with the date and month, not the year. So we’d save them and store them neatly in envelopes marked by month and concession or full fare. After a few years of saving tickets we pretty much had free train and bus travel for the next 10 years… until they changed the ticketing system to electronically stamped tickets with bar codes.
My office only has a unisex bathroom so it has the facilities for men and women. Naturally there’s a tampon machine, and tampons are only 5 cents. Once a month I’ll work late, get a roll of nickels and fill up a grocery sack with tampons for my wife.
Extended stay housing or motels/hotels. When you can’t qualify to get an apartment because you don’t have proof of income, you end up wasting more money to stay for a week at extended day housing or a cheap motel. It sucks having no home/being a transient, I promise myself never to be in the same situation again.
I had to move out on my own when I was 17. I had no money at all and drove an old clunker Camry. I got a flat tire to match the flat spare in the trunk. I went to the Discount Tire on the East Side of Indianapolis, where I was living, to see if they could patch it.
When they got it on the rack, they said that belts were showing around the tire–in fact, all of the tires–and I would have to replace all four tires.
I thanked them, went outside, sat in my car and started crying. The manager came out and knocked on the window. He said that he had a set of tires that would fit my wheels that someone left when they got new tires. I told him thanks, but didn’t have any money. He told me not to worry about it and when I graduate, to come back and buy my tires from them.
Lots of school systems do free lunches for kids under 18 during the summer. When I was a kid I remember my dad taking us to get lunch at the school then go play disc golf, soccer, or do something else free and fun, it was a blast and I had no clue it was because we were poor.
Dollar theaters, and sometimes they have a free afternoon or evening show for kids with the purchase of a parent ticket. Many movies were seen by the three of us for $4 with a shared popcorn and coke.
My dad was amazing at making us feel rich on basically nothing.
A lot of people tend to point out that my dad was irresponsible for having children without being financially prepared. My mom left us when I was 6, little brother was 2. She had her own stuff to work out, but she wasn’t there to help out. My dad was an assistant teacher at the time, working to become a teacher, which was plenty to support us with her help, but alone and suddenly without any help he struggled. He ended up getting a second job, but we were still pretty poor for several years before he got his teaching position.
When I was child, Burger King ran a special kids meal where it was two mini Burgers that were attached to each other like a weird conjoined burger experiment. Sometimes we would go. My dinner was 1.5 of the mini burgers, my mom’s dinner was the half I didn’t eat and she would fill up on the free refills of soda.
The generic version of Spam is called Treet. You learn that sorta thing as a poor kid.
I have been both very poor and very comfortable. Here’s what I have noticed: when you are broke, you can’t plan ahead or shop sales or buy in bulk. Poor people wait to buy something until they absolutely need it, so they have to pay whatever the going price is at that moment. If ten-packs of paper towels are on sale for half price, that’s great, but you can only afford one roll anyway. In this way, poor people actually pay more than others for common staple goods.
Stuff on layaway. My mom would always go to this store that sold heavily discounted irregulars and put it on layaway for our new school clothes.
After selling plasma, I would walk to Wendys and eat the crackers and ketchup for dinner.
I was so poor once that I would go to Long John Silvers and order a water and crunchies (which used to be free) then sit there and watch the people that would dine in.
It was amazing how little they ate. And then they would leave without dumping their tray off in the trash.
Fries, hushpuppies, chicken, fish… all untouched. No, I didn’t eat a piece that was bitten off of.
I once saw a woman order a 2 piece fish and more for her kid, that ate 1 hushpuppy and a few fries, and then left the rest of it there. It was the best I had eaten in weeks.
Glad that’s behind me now.
I had a really odd childhood. Until age 9 my family would have been classed as upper middle class. Then my father left and my mum went off the rails.
From 9 to 18 we were dirt poor.
I remember being 10 years old and our weekly treat was to go to the Littlewoods cafe (I think they went bust) and they did a 99p 5 piece breakfast. We shared that among my mum, brother, sister, and me. One of us got the extra item; we’d take turns.
As an adult I have made sure my children will never know poverty because of excellent memories like that. Nothing motivates you more than memories of fighting over a solitary sausage.
Learning the times of the day when meat, bakery, fish, vegetable and other items are reduced to 75% at the local supermarket.
I’ve been learning for years, but it’s a good day when you find 400g of fresh mince for 99p, and you have warm filling food that you used to take for granted when living with parents.
One thing I’ve noticed about being poor is that you become almost vegetarian because meat just costs too much. Frozen or fresh.
Another thing would be buying the cheapest large container of yogurt, and mixing in jam for fruity yogurt. But that’s not about being poor, that’s just a good idea.
A buddy of mine went through a tough time a few years back, and I didn’t know about it until he told me about a year ago. One thing that stuck with me was that he made just enough money to survive. By survive, he meant literally enough money to pay rent, utilities and the cheapest, worst food he could buy. He couldn’t afford transportation. Not even the bus.
He told me about a span of a few months he went through where he literally only ate water, dry noodles and peanut butter. For a few months…
He worked at a restaurant and they cut his hours. He couldn’t find other work. His first big reality check was that he had to sell his car to make rent one month. The next month he started selling other “unnecessary items”…like his old TV, some old appliances and his nicer clothes.
He got to the point where he was doing his laundry with dish soap in his sink. He couldn’t afford deodorant, razors or any of the things we take for granted…so he’d steal them from the grocery store. He didn’t like to do it, but he had no choice. He never got caught.
When he told me all of this, I was floored. I wish he would have told me when it was happening. I would have helped any way I could. At that time, I was by no means living a fancy lifestyle, but I could have thrown him a $20 spot here and there to help him put some groceries in the house or some TP in the bathroom. Heck, just thinking about it makes me ill.
He’s still poor today, but he works full time and is happy…at least from what I see.
To anyone out there reading this who are in dire straights financially I HIGHLY suggest you contact your local United Way (call 2-1-1 on your phone) and get information about the resources in your area.
In my area, they have a huge database of charities that will 1. pay your bills 2. pay your rent 3. help you find work 4. get you cheap or free health care 5. a list of local food pantries as well as many other resources.
In addition, anyone facing joblessness or homelessness should definitely check to see if they can get S.N.A.P. or unemployment benefits.
If you are under 25 years old check out Job Corps.
I would also check out Union jobs, in my area the local pipe fitters union is hiring apprentices at $26 an hour. All you need is a High School Diploma or GED.
There are also charities that will give your pet free food and health care.
If there’s a need there is a resource for it.
There is no reason why anyone should go without food, healthcare, or shelter in the U.S. regardless of citizenship status.
At home surgery. I used a pair of needle nose pliers, a razor blade and some anti septic super glue to remove a cyst on my forehead. The secret is to cut it in a “cat’s eye” shape, quickly push the skin back after you pull the cyst out (don’t let it pop) and get the glue on fast. Burns like heck, but it bleeds a lot and you have to get it on quick to stop the bleeding.
Powdered milk. I once worked in a call centre and an old lady called almost in tears that cable went up by $1.50. Her line that she repeated more than once was that she couldn’t afford fresh milk and had to buy powdered milk. Unless it’s due to a lack of refrigeration available or some sort of allergy, only the very poor would buy powdered over fresh milk.
The first four years of my life were spent in abject poverty.
As a child, I would ask my Mom if we could get a candy bar. She would explain to me, at age 3, that we could get the candy bar, but if we did, it meant we couldn’t afford a 2 liter of Coca-Cola. She would phrase it like so, “If you get the candy bar, it’ll be gone in a few days, but if you get the Coca-Cola, we can have Coca-Cola for the whole week.”
Amazingly, I knew enough to understand that Coca-Coca for over a week was a better deal than two days of a candy bar.
As a side effect, I was regularly told “No” when I asked for things I wanted… mostly Lego sets or He-Man toys.
Around age 6, my father’s stake in a mineral prospecting company finally paid off. Turns out he had been putting every dime he had into it since before I was born. We went from surviving on mayonnaise sandwiches to having 2015’s equivalent of $10,300 per month in income. My little sister was around 2 or so at this time, and she was getting everything she wanted. For the first 6 years of my life, I had learned that asking for things I wanted would always end with a “No”, so I never asked for anything.
My parents weren’t able to put it together until my grandmother got very sick and came to live with us. The whole family was out shopping, and my grandmother knew I loved Legos, but I didn’t ask for a set of them. Meanwhile, my little sister had a Barbie doll and a My Little Pony in each hand.
She stopped and asked me, “Rathadin, you don’t want a Lego set?” “Mommy and Daddy always tell me no, Grandma. We can’t afford them.”
I have only a very vague memory of this, but before she died, my Grandmother told me this story and said that my Mom broke down in tears in the middle of the store, sobbing. My Dad had a look of defeated failure on his face (according to her). Apparently, it simply never occurred to them the reason I never asked for anything was because I had always been told no.
For Christmas, I got three Lego Technic sets.
I knew a guy that would go to a livestock feed store and buy antibiotics and some other meds there that were meant for farm animals when he got sick. There was another med he’d get at pet stores too. He’d just cut the pills into smaller pieces to try to guess what the proper mg amount was. It’s apparently wildly cheap for certain meds and doesn’t require a prescription or government oversight like it would at a normal pharmacy.
Growing up was interesting regarding money. My mom was a hoarder and I lived in a house with trash including animal waste everywhere with no heat or running hot water. I use to take jugs of water and put them on my front porch to warm up enough to bath with. The house was failing apart and the tub was actually sinking into the ground so we wouldn’t use it so I made a hole in the corner of my basement floor so it would drain.
The worst was winter the water never got warm because of the cold and my hair would be frozen since there was no heat. It took me a long time to figure out this wasn’t normal. What made everything worst was she was abusive and made us poor with her spending.
She made about 1,000 a week or more and would give it to charity so others saw her in a positive light ( they didn’t know about the house) once she even won the lottery and got 82,000 and gave it all away. All I asked was for a trailer so we had someplace to get warm or shower but she saw nothing wrong with our life. There would also be days she gave our food money away and I wouldn’t be able to eat if there was no school. My mother is a horrible person and we have no contact anymore. On the awesome side, I have four kids and a three level house with 4 bathrooms… Guess who showers all the time with hot water now!
About a year ago, I was addicted to alcohol, 4000 km from home, dropped out of school and living in my 20 year old car. I got so used to eating microwaved potatoes that I considered walking into a 7/11 and pocketing a handful of mayo packets while pretending to buy a hot dog, a special treat.
I grew up distinctly middle class and generally did not want for much. My recent experience has really put into perspective the difficulties experienced by people who are or have been in similar situations to myself, but bare the burden of direct responsibility to kids and family.
Things have gotten a lot better since I’ve accepted the help of other people. Seriously, even relatively tiny gestures of kindness will go a long way with someone who is literally struggling for survival. Never underestimate the impact you can have upon another person’s life. I’d probably be dead by now if it weren’t for the unconditional love and support of friends, family, and random strangers.
Instead, I’m 25, relatively healthy again, and back in school trying to finish off my engineering degree.
If you’ve taken the time to read this then thank you, it means a lot!
Oh gosh. Bags of frozen veggies and a couple packs of ramen can make a family meal. I used to buy these awful frozen chicken discs wrapped in bacon – they were terrible – filled with gristle and just nasty. Eating those with rice and frozen corn was a real treat.
I ate kraft dinner (mac and cheese) every day for about 2-3 years because that was all I could cook while my mom worked. (I could have made spaghetti-os, but I hated those), That for dinner, and one of those cheap 99 cent pack donuts from the grocery store for breakfast. Lunch was Bologna sandwich and an apple. Finally, when I was about 10 or 11, I started teaching myself how to cook from my mom’s old cook books so my meals got a lot better. All carbs, and cheap fats – scalloped potatoes, rice and cheap meats.
My local bus service used to have paper transfers. So you’d pay your fare, get the paper transfer that was good for an hour, and then you’d use it for the next bus. But if you were only going to the station, you’d get a paper transfer anyway, then hang around the station for an extra 5 minutes to see if anyone needed it. Conversely, you’d wait around for people getting off the bus, to see if you could score someones transfer. This only worked if you weren’t switching buses, but I got quite a few free rides this way (and gave many a transfer away)
Going without meds, living in constant pain because you can’t afford a prescription. I remember laying in my bed at night, and my mom would be sobbing in her bed from pain, because she couldn’t afford the meds that would treat her rheumatoid arthritis or anything but generic Tylenol for her pain. I guess that’s not really buying anything, but while we’re down memory lane..
Saving your birthday money from your grandma and aunts and uncles so you can pay for a babysitting course that lets you babysit at 12. Getting a babysitting job at 12, and babysitting every day from 3 until 7 or 8, to earn some money. Giving that money to your dad so he can pay his phone bill and put gas in his car. Getting a real job at 14, working at a fast food joint so you got to eat dirt cheap. Still giving your dad money, but this time knowing it is going to the casino or the bar (but still doing it anyway).
Being poor was awful 0/10 do not recommend.
In university I used to buy a 10-20lbs bags of potatoes, freeze dried chives, and gravy mix in bulk (not the supermarket packs which are $1 for 2 cups of gravy, restaurant sized packs that make 8 liters)
That was often dinner, usually at the end of the month when money got tight. Sometimes I had even saved enough that I could have mashed potatoes made with some sort of dairy, or bacon grease.
I also had a cheap tub of protein power for weight lifters, it was gross. But I would blend it up, usually with water hold my nose and gulp it down. It was actual protein, and slightly more healthy then a week long diet of potatoes.
Rotten bananas, stale bread, gray meat, and anything else the grocery is about to toss in the garbage. Giant bags of rice, beans, grain, or flour. Canned vegetables. Dried milk.
You can get new car parts from the junk yard for virtually nothing, with added discounts if you remove them from the junkers yourself. I had a 12-yr-old car in college and when it blew a tire, I went to the junk yard and found a decent set of tires. Bought all 4 for $70, which reduced my food budget to $16 for the next two weeks. Some lady in the grocery store saw me with a calculator trying to figure out how much ramen I could buy with $16 and handed me a $20. It made me cry. (I’m glad I’m not poor anymore. But I’ll always remember that lady.)
My father and sister and I would spend all Sunday picking up cans to be recycled at the lake. So while all the other families were enjoying their cookout, we would scavenge through garbage cans. We did this because our father would take us to Mcdonalds afterwards. So after a whole day we would trade the aluminum in for a few bucks. My father would order a Big Mac (back when it was a dollar) and a small coffee. My sister and I would share the burger, she getting the part with 2 pieces of bun because she was older and I ate the solo. My father sat there and had multiple refills on his coffee. We spent many Sundays like that.
Back when my Dad had just left us (he’s not absent or anything, they just separated) my mom and I fell on harder times than usual.
We went from a house with 5 kids and 2 parents to a tiny duplex for just her and I. I remember we would go to the dollar tree and every now and I then I’d be able to get a toy. Do you guys remember the little “for boy” and “for girl” bags they had?
It was like 5 toys for the price of one. That was like winning the lottery, man. I was so happy with those things and my mom would get them for me just to see me smile. However soon after we sort of pulled out of the worst bit, but we had a few little dips here and there. Food was never an issue but we had cable turned off sometimes and things like that. I remember one day my mom came home and said she had a surprise for me. My child self had the audacity to ask “Is it from the dollar tree?” With a condescending tone.
To this day I have no clue why I asked that because I felt immediately crappy once her face had that look of embarrassment. I am 18 now and was about 12 then. I’ve since said sorry and she had no clue why I cried saying it. People…take what your parents give you and thank them for every little gift. They love it and they might not have the money but they’re sure as heck going to find a way to give you the world the best way that they can.
My mom used to take me to the shopping mall to look for new school clothes. I’d point out 5 outfits I like (one for each school day), and then we’d leave to go to the fabric store where she’d buy remnants in similar colors and styles and then sew outfits that looked just like the things I pointed out in the store. Maybe it was my young eyes, but I honestly thought they looked just like what was in the store, minus the label (this was the 80’s, labels were big and prominent).
Mean kids who wore the name brand stuff immediately picked on me for having ‘fake’ or ‘wanna-be’ clothes, but I never told my mom because I knew she did her best for me and even at a young age I felt like I shouldn’t be a burden.