As A Former Poor Person, Grocery Shopping Still Makes Me Anxious

Photo: Bee Bonnet / Shutterstock
As a Former Poor Person, Grocery Shopping Still Makes Me Anxious

Growing up just south of Detroit, Michigan in the 1980s, my girlfriends and I played a game called “MASH” that was supposed to predict what kind of house we’d live in. We’d dream about being “rich” or famous and many of our conversations revolved around how glamorous our future lives would be.

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Oddly, I never realized my family was on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. Yes, food was restricted to mealtimes only, and sometimes, there was “welfare cheese,” but everyone around me lived a similar life. Some kids were even poorer with no heat and worn-out clothes.

My family, however, always had a roof over our heads, heat, and new school clothes. (Dressing appropriately for school was a huge deal in my family, and we only wore those clothes to school.)

There was also this sense that college was a waste of money — especially for a girl. My grandfather had dropped out of school in the 10th grade and both my parents only graduated high school. (To be fair, this was normal in the 1970s.) Still, I studied hard and pushed myself to take the hardest classes I could and get good grades because college was my goal.

So when my dad made me take a typing class so I could get a good job as a secretary, I was furious. I wanted to be the boss, not the secretary. This is part of the reason why I moved by myself to California right before my junior year. I wanted possibilities and options, and I knew I had none in my hometown.

Being 16, I thought I had everything figured out. I did not.

College was expensive, and I worked two full-time jobs to support myself and pay for school. My family wasn’t in a position to help me financially, so I was 100% on my own and took out numerous loans that I’m still paying off 23 years later. I believed that one day, my degree would more than pay for my educational costs. *Spoiler* my degree is in diplomacy, and I write books.

During this time, I realized how low on the economic ladder I was. Yes, I am white and was afforded more opportunities than my BIPOC peers, but I struggled to succeed in college. My high school in Michigan had not prepared me for the rigors of higher education. I couldn’t write a coherent paper or do math beyond basic algebra, and my vocabulary lacked when compared to the students around me.

Like many poorer students, my schooling was utterly deficient when compared to wealthier kids.

My college admitted me because I was a first-generation student. That’s it. I checked a box for them, and I didn’t understand my disadvantage until I sat in my first college class and couldn’t follow the conversation. I was starting on second base while many of my classmates had already hit home runs.

Partway into my first semester sophomore year, I was told my scholarship would not be renewed.

Since I couldn’t pay the hefty bill, I had to withdraw the next day and figure out what I was going to do. I ended up taking the year off to work in a low-level retail job. Unfortunately, it barely covered my living expenses so I took another part-time job where I met my husband. During this time, I worked my ass off to only fall farther behind.

What does this have to do with grocery shopping?

If you’ve ever been poor, you know the soul-sucking fear of the checkout counter. You understand the cold sweat that beads along your hairline as you anxiously watch the tally creep higher on the register while mentally calculating the price of every remaining item in your cart. As your heart pounds, you decide which items to put back if necessary.

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You know what it’s like to ration one meal per day — with no meat because it’s too pricey.

You question why small bank accounts are charged monthly service fees while rich accounts aren’t, and you worry about how that $10 fee may make you overdraw your account — which means no groceries.

You understand how you must put your kid's food needs before your own, so sometimes you go to bed hungry.

You know what it’s like to wonder if your life will ever be easier.

These things don’t leave you — not even when you no longer have to worry about the cost of an apple and can buy name-brand items.

The reality is that being poor leaves a permanent mark on you.

You understand that everything can disappear in an instant and try to implement safeguards, but the fear of falling into poverty again always lurks in the background.

I’m fortunate that my husband and I were given numerous opportunities to pull ourselves up. Eventually, I did get my degree and, with the help of more loans, he was able to graduate from law school. We elected to take on a ton of debt to do it, and for years, we lived simply, under the burden of loan payments. Let me be clear, going into debt for school was our choice. No one forced it upon us.

We did, however, have a few breaks: Our house in San Francisco was basically gifted to us and by living in the city, we only needed one car. In addition, my in-laws, whom we lived with, often helped pay basic expenses.

But the thing that pushed us up and out of poverty had nothing to do with our accomplishments or abilities. It was my husband’s accident and the large settlement we received. It gave us room to breathe, and we were able to pay off medical bills and credit card debts and start a savings account.

My husband and I bought our first home — a lovely, big house in an upscale neighborhood — last year when I was 44. We had saved for years to be able to afford it and being a homeowner the last thing I thought we needed was to check off the “no longer poor” box.

Still, the lessons of poverty have stuck with me, and I’m an anxious mess at the grocery store. I worry about my debit card being declined or spending more than I budgeted, and I avoid buying pricey meat like steaks and stock up on nonperishables when they are on sale.

I’m frugal… or cheap depending on your point of view. Maybe it’s just my way, but I believe having been poor has a lot to do with it.

When I was a kid playing MASH, I believed my girlfriends and I could will ourselves into a “rich” lifestyle, and I didn’t understand how crushing poverty is in every single area of life and how difficult it is to climb out of it. I also didn’t realize how living in poverty never leaves you — even if you are lucky and can find a way out.

The truth is, I will always feel like a poor person masquerading as a wealthier one.

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Mia’s memoir Always Yours, Bee, about her husband’s accident and her subsequent spiral into mental illness, was selected by BookBub as one of “15 Powerful Memoirs to Read in 2021.” She is also the author of the women’s fiction series, The Waterford Novels.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.