[The Green Room] Saving Money Is Hard, Being Poor Is Harder

woman sitting at table with laptop looking at letter.

[The Green Room] Saving Money Is Hard, Being Poor Is Harder

Fiscal responsibility is learned behavior. If your parents were broke, you’re going to have to learn from someone else.

Published May 31, 2016

My wife and I sat down with our financial planner recently. At the outset of the meeting, he asked us what our goals were and then laughed at us mercilessly for the next hour.

Obviously, as parents of four small children, spending money liberally is a necessity. I marvel at how easy it has become to spend money rapidly. Our nation’s economy is cradled on making people part with their income — and damn we’re amazing at it.

America consistently praises consumer culture. There’s PayPal, Venmo, GoogleWallet, ApplePay and Square making spending a graceful, fluid act. Payments are even possible through Facebook. Thanks to Amazon, we don’t even need to enter a store to buy anything these days. People are literally spending their income at work and arriving home with their opioid-producing packages waiting for them at their doors.

Let me restate – there is nothing more American than spending money. Conversely, saving money is so reprehensible, it’s anti-American. Unless, you’re so good at saving money you get paid to tell other people how it’s done (I see you Dr. Boyce Watkins).

Consumerism has no shame. Everywhere you look, people are brandishing their money. Whether in lines wrapped around the corner for the release of iPhones, PlayStations or Beyoncé tickets (read: shiny s**t). It’s like a race to see who can go broke the quickest. Why wait for a package to arrive at home? Where’s the competitive spirit in that?

Consumer is the perfect word…makes me think of PacMan mindlessly running around gobbling up pellets. Nom, nom, nom – instant gratification. Merchants have become hip to this video game phenomenon. On a recent trip to the gas station, I ran inside to get a bottle of water. When the cashier rang up my water, I swear the register made a chime that I’d last heard when collecting a ring in Sonic the Hedgehog. Spending money is nostalgic!

Advertisers work very hard to get people to spend their money, incentivizing reckless shopping sprees with slogans like “The more you spend, the more you save.” Consumers eat that s**t right up…thinking a deep discount means more money in their pockets. One should never have to turn their pockets out to save money.

Breaking it down simply, the only way to save money is not spending it. If you had a dollar and were offered a $1.00 soda (or, based on where you’re from and if you like to identify beverages inaccurately, pop) for half off, you could buy that soda for $0.50 thinking it was a deal. Or you could drink some water and still have that dollar — and you wouldn’t be so thirsty.

What’s the point of having making money if you don’t spend it? Ummm…perhaps not having to worry about money all the damn time? Seriously, how many of our decisions are controlled by finances? Where you purchase groceries? Where your kids go to school? Where you plan to buy/bought your home? Dinner and a movie or Netflix and Chill?

Remember that financial planner I mentioned? He was kind enough to provide me with a budget tool aptly titled, “Where Does Your Money Go?” Below is a snapshot of the line items:


• Mortgage

• Auto

• Student Loan

• Credit Card


• Life

• Auto

• Health

• Homeowners


• Federal

• State

• City

• Real Estate


• Electric

• Telephone

• Water

• Gas

Variable Expenses:

• Food

• Child Care

• Church

• Cable TV

Did you notice how there were four full sections before getting to food? I’m guessing my financial planner thinks eating, and safely occupying my children while my wife and I are working, is something that’s likely to change. For most middle-class families, budgeting amounts to strategically managing debt. You go to school, get a job, pay your bills and hope that Sallie Mae or Wells Fargo don’t come calling.

My wife and I are firmly middle-class — both HBCU grads, gainfully employed and generally frugal. We live in a good public school district in the suburbs, not the best, certainly not the worst. We drive modest vehicles, a family sedan (paid off) and a minivan (not nearly paid off). We cook dinner at home most nights (four out of seven), order pizza or dine at family chain-restaurants on the weekends. We shop at Target. We are broke AF.

How did this happen? Didn’t we do everything right? Nah…

There’s a playbook. Keep your income high and your debt low. Can’t buy something with cash, don’t pay for it on credit. Before you pay your bills, pay yourself first. Have 15% of your earnings deducted automatically from your check and placed into savings. Any money you can’t see – you can’t spend. Max out your annual contributions to your ROTH IRA and get life insurance. Does your job have a 401(k)? Get that s**t. Do they match? Max that b***h. Create an emergency fund, six months of your earnings put away in — say it with me — SAVINGS!

The alternative, of course, is to think you’ve done everything you were supposed to do and then wake up one day in need of a water heater in the dead of winter or A/C in the middle of the summer. Trust and believe, s**t will go down and life gets in the way. Adulting is hard.

But at least you ain’t poor. When you are poor, there are countless obstacles in the way of saving money: layoffs, docked hours, late fees, seasonal hiring, payday loans, overdraft fees, insurance premiums, over-policing, traffic tickets, crime and punishment. There’s a certain level of risk inherent in being poor that people with means do not factor into understanding the plight of the impoverished.

The Ferguson Uprising is the perfect case study for this scenario. We all know Mike Brown was murdered in cold blood in the broad daylight of summer, unarmed yet shot to death by a police officer who stalked him on his way home. His death kept people protesting in the streets through the winter and shined a light on the injustices faced by the poor.

Helmed by Attorney General Loretta Lynch (a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.), the Justice Department launched a federal investigation into the shooting death of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. While Wilson was cleared of all charges, the investigation uncovered a pattern of racial bias by Ferguson Police. What does this have to do with saving money? Wait for it…

The report by the Justice Department revealed that the practices employed by the city of Ferguson were predatory towards the Black working poor. The city actually employed the police to aggressively target its Black residents, issuing arbitrary fines or citations, knowing they would have to miss work in order to pay said fines and when they either failed to show up to pay or were incapable of paying, they were jailed and then charged for their stay. As the late Amy Winehouse crooned, “What kind of f**ckery is this?”

Poverty is no joke. When you’re not being persecuted, you’re being prosecuted — or worse yet, poisoned. Nothing is more parasitic, more pathetic, nor more pernicious than preying upon poor, innocent families. Yet, these are the lengths public officials are willing to go to save as little as $100 per day — the same public officials whom scorn and sneer when poor people loot for resources they otherwise could not afford. #FlintLivesMatter

Saving money is particularly hard for the working poor. Statistics state that 51% of Black Americans and 60% of Latino Americans earn less than $15 per hour – that’s $30K annually before taxes. And that’s before factoring in rent, utilities and food.

Let’s say you make $30K and your take home is $800 bi-weekly. First thought: where are you living? A $100K mortgage payment comes with a $700 monthly expense. But in order to be eligible to purchase a home you first have to demonstrate savings and a strong credit history. If you barely make enough to cover your living expenses, how the f**k is one supposed to a) save money and b) establish credit? What kind of home can you buy for $100K anyways?

The lack of options available to the poor are shameful, income inequality is steadily widening and cuts to welfare and public assistance are routinely part of the rhetoric. It’s enough to make one lose their cool.

The good news is it’s never too late to make a change. Talk to someone about financial literacy, find a wealth-building seminar at your local library, Google savings tips on YouTube, download an app to track spending. STOP EATING OUT. Try it for a week, then a month, ‘til it gets good to you – then keep going. It’s OK to treat oneself every now and then, but at least make it memorable — like a trip to Accra.

Whether you are civically engaged in the fight for 15 or disciplined enough to put 15% of your earnings away automatically, there is always a place to start saving or shaving expenses. Go back to the budget above and take a look at those variable expenses, determine the difference between needs and desires, tighten the belt, watch your money pile up…oh, and stay away from shiny s**t.

Written by Russ Green

(Photo: JumpStock/Getty Images)


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