Matt Stokes is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, and TV producer in New Orleans. His first novel, Generation Why, is a humorous look at the difficulties of college graduates in the 2010s who don't know what to do with their lives. The book came out in 2012 and is available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter @mattstokes9.
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Like almost everyone else I know, I went through a period after college where I had a very difficult time being self-sufficient. It didn't feel that way at the time, and I think most people who get into this situation agree; we all feel like grown-ups, breathing the freedom of financial autonomy.
But I was anything but mature when it came to money. I spent more money than I made, went deep into debt, racked up insufficient funds fees, and received countless calls from bill collectors demanding I pay them. All of this happened without me ever realizing I was digging myself a hole, because you never feel it when it's happening, because you're not paying attention.
Eventually I was able to focus, plan, and develop the discipline to get out of debt, pay my bills, save money, and stop living paycheck to paycheck. But not everybody is so fortunate, and I have many friends and family members who do the kinds of things I detail below. What follows are six things I did because I was poor, and doing these six things made me poorer.
6. Buying only $10 of gas at a time
When you have only $50, a week until your next paycheck, and an empty tank of gas, it just feels right to buy a small amount of gas. Feels better, that's for sure, because you still have lots of money in your pocket. You'll have to return to the gas station four more times that week, of course, but at least it won't seem like you're spending much.
Forget fuel efficiency; this type of thinking speaks to a mind-set incapable of planning ahead, oblivious to how much it costs to drive a car and live your life. It's similar to never buying groceries for a week, instead spending $7 a day for fast food and then $12 at the store for that night's dinner and drinks. It feels better than planning a week's worth of meals and spending accordingly one time at the grocery, but it costs far more in the long run and leaves you broke again and again before your paycheck.
5. Buying things with store credit cards
Many people get into trouble with retail credit card debt, and I'm lucky to have mostly avoided this trap, with one notable exception. When I first moved into my own apartment, I wanted a large, state-of-the-art HDTV for all my viewing needs. Because I couldn't afford one, Best Buy was more than happy to swoop in and offer me financing on a $2,000 behemoth. This felt great; I drove home that day with a great TV and wouldn't have to pay until the end of the month, and then only $50 or so every month after that…. for the next decade of my life. Making matters worse was that this happened just before the price of HDTVs plummeted; I was still making payments by the time similar TVs started going for under $500.
4. Never checking my bank account
When you're poor you become used to hovering near a zero balance in your checking account. It's just a fact of life, and you live in perpetual intimidation of the negative. So you'd think this would lead me to diligently check my account several times a day to make sure I had a positive balance, but this fear instead had the effect of making me avoid checking my bank account altogether. I would go days without checking, lacking a clue about how much money I had. I held out on checking until I absolutely needed to, and then, oh, the joy at spotting a positive integer, even if it was under a dollar, because it meant I hadn't been accruing $35 NSF fees for days without realizing it. But mostly I would just let days go by without checking a balance, because seeing a negative balance would mean I'd have to think about money, and that would ruin my night.
To be this scared and intimidated by the bank account should be motivation to, you know, get your act together. Instead I just became depressed and decided to do nothing at all. I was a gold mine for my bank; banks make huge profits on overdraft fees and programs, but the whole system doesn't work without unmotivated, apathetic people like me.
Rent-A-Center and its brood are a wholesale plague on our instant-gratification society. Even ignoring these businesses' shady collection practices, rent-to-own stores are, philosophically, a very bleak idea. They promote the thought that nothing is so cheap and unimportant that it can't be leased. And because I thought it'd be really awesome to stay up late into the night reading on a cushy swivel chair, but lacked the several hundred dollars on hand to buy it, I thought nothing of paying $40 a month to borrow it. Forget that after a while I'd paid enough total to have bought the chair brand-new; or that I ended up hardly ever using it. (Another symptom of the poor and short-sighted: a lack of motivation to do something simple like return a chair that you don't own to save gobs of money.) These rent-to-own schemes are a scourge because they make people like me think we're not good enough to own things like recliners or Nintendo Wiis. By making us focus on the small things, we become distracted from thinking of big-picture financial things, like saving money to buy a house.
2. Telling myself it always works out
The thing is, when things got really bad for me financially, they usually did work out. I always paid my bills, even if they were late. I had my cable and Internet service cut off several times, but I never lost my power because, come on, I wasn't some lowlife who couldn't afford his electricity bill. No, things never really felt that bad. I was used to never having money and never having a sense of where I would be financially the next month; this was just how things were supposed to be.
Things always worked out, sure, but I was only in my mid-20s. I hadn't really had time to put that to the test; catastrophe could have struck at any time, and the fact that it hadn't happened yet didn't mean it couldn't. “It always works out, somehow” is really the worst thing I could have told myself; it's a refrain of the lazy and the depressed, an excuse to hold off on dealing with our problems for at least another day.
1. Payday loans
The items on this list all have something in common: They're behaviors enabled by an unwillingness to look ahead, to organize your life in a meaningful way, to even connect Future You with Present You. They allow you to punt away your problems. Payday loans creep on this tendency in the worst way.
The idea of payday loans actually sounds pretty useful: Lend cash to people who prove they're employed and can repay the loan on their next payday for a fee, usually about $50. But that's rarely how these transactions end up going. Inevitably, payday loan customers are on a fixed income and won't magically have an extra lump sum of cash appear in two weeks to pay off the loan and fee, so the payday loan store lets you “renew” your loan, meaning you pay a fee ($50 for me) to extend the deadline another two weeks. Once you get into this cycle, you can find yourself renewing loans indefinitely. Getting a paycheck and heading to the payday loan store to hand over $50 just becomes a fact of life, and what's tragic for those who get caught up in it is that with this $50 they're buying… nothing. (For this reason, payday lending is legally questionable and not as widespread in the 15 states where triple-digit interest rates are illegal.) And I understood what was going on as it was happening, was aware of how much money I was wasting because I lacked the discipline to gather $400 to pay off the loan. I knew I was losing thousands of dollars in the long run, but I would defend it to myself by saying, “Yeah, but it doesn't feel like that.”
We make it easy for poor people to get poorer, sure; but ultimately the fault lies with every person who lacks the motivation to make a budget and stick to it, to get a sense of how much money it takes to live the way you want to live, and to then organize your habits accordingly. I lived this way, and it was my own fault; I did it not because I wanted a lot, but because I just didn't care.