Are we rich or poor?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways we spend our money lately. And I came to wonder how we look to other people.

If you look at me in my casual, slightly worn-out clothes on my way to the grocery, and you notice the wind playing with the cloth bag in my hand, you’d think I don’t look very classy. You’d see old trainers on my feet, and maybe you’d catch a glimpse of my shopping list as I put it in my pocket – a shopping list that’s written on the back of a calendar sheet reading “GUST”. (When I tear off calendar sheets, I cut them into really small pieceds and then staple the little ones together to later use for notes… or shopping lists.) Judging by what you saw when I walked past you, you’d think I look like someone who counts the pennies in their hand. (Which I do.)

Let’s say you follow me to the store and watch me shop. You’d see me regularly check my shopping list and only take the items which go there. Those would be things like meat, fruit, white cheese, bread – and usually no potato chips, instant meals or pre-cooked food. In other words, I only buy meal ingredients, stuff that’s used for cooking and no junk or lazy food. Seeing that, you’d again think I look like someone who is… well… poor.

And it makes sense. I would understand why you’d think that. (By the way, your way of thinking is very important, so if you want to be rich, you have to think money.)

Because I too make assumptions about other people based on how they look – or shop. As I wait in line at the checkout, I like to observe fellow shoppers and look at what they put on the conveyor belt with great curiosity.

And there are certain patterns.

Single men buy beer plus pizza or meat – I imagine they would be really comfy in front of the TV, watching sports or maybe the news. Old people who are on a “fixed income” – state pension – usually only buy a few items, and usually those are cheap basics like bread, cheese, youghurt and veggies. Middle-aged women buy cooking ingredients along with some pre-cooked food, beer and meat, and also sugary food in shiny wrappers (like chips or waffles). Single young women buy cosmetics, juice and salads (with the occasional diet-chocolate bar).

I was thinking about these types of shoppers today and I realized – My God, I shop like a boring old person!

And much like you, the cashiers at the local store (who now recognize my face as I also started to recognize theirs) probably think I’m a poor person. The fact that I also walk or take the bus instead of driving a car would further convince you of my low social/financial status.

But on the other hand…

But on the other hand, if you happened to meet me and my husband at one of the bigger stores last week, you’d hear the following conversations:

ME: “Honey, where’s that damned mustard? Can’t see it anywhere.”
HIM: “I’m not sure. Do you think it’s on a shelf or in a cold display?”
ME: “No idea… hey, it’s stupid that we went in this big store just for a jar of mustard. Let’s get out of here and we’ll pick one up at the convenience store.”
HIM: “I have a better idea: why don’t you keep looking, and I’ll go check out the stuff in the gadgets area?” (The “gadgets” area is where the store sells stuff like night lamps, cooking pots, socks and other such… gadgets.)
ME: “grumpf grumble grumble oh all right but gumpf grumble grumble wanna go home have to pee grumble grumble stupid mustard grumble grumpf grumpf”

Ten seconds later.
HIM: “Hey little owl, come over here! Look at this!”
ME: “A TV set?”
HIM: “Yeah! Just like the one we wanted, it’s really cheap, and there’s only two of them left!”
We look at each other for a moment.
ME: “We were going to buy a small TV like this one second-hand.”
HIM: “Yeah, but so far we haven’t found a second-hand one. Plus this one will have at least two years warranty! But there’s only two left.”
ME: “Are you saying you want us to buy that TV, husband?”
HIM: “Yeah! Waddayasay?”

I said okay, we took the TV, paid cash, and took it to the car. He powered up the engine and put his seatbelt on.

HIM: “Hey honey, what did we actually went in for? Was it hot peppers?”
ME: “Hmmm… not sure. I think it was hot peppers.”
HIM: “Yeah.”
HIM: “Nope! We went in for mustard!”
ME: “Oh! Right.”
HIM: “We bought a TV instead.”
ME: “Yup.”
HIM: “Yeah. ‘n we paid cash.”

And on the third hand…

So I guess that if you look at the way we shop and dress when we go to the store, we’d look poor to you. If you look at how we rarely eat out – and when we do, it’s at the cheap Chinese restaurant we love so much – we’d look poor to you. And if you pass by the bus-stop, you’d see us there waiting for the bus, and again we’d look poor to you.

But at the same time, there’s all that stuff that you don’t see. We’re able to buy a TV on a whim. I was able to order a custom-made computer desk on a whim. We’re able to avoid buying cheap stuff and buy quality stuff instead. And we may not drive the car often but when we do, I feel so out of my league because it’s spacy and nice. Maybe we look poor to other people, but we don’t feel poor. We have no debt and we have a good amount in savings. We were able to equip our home with a lot of stuff we didn’t have before, and we paid cash for every single item.

I think we’re actually doing better than many other families who seem richer than us on the outside but on the inside, their finances are worse than ours.

Actually, this fenomenon is becoming pretty common. Many people who we know make less than us, seem richer than us. I see people who are unemployed or have low-paying jobs walk around with cell phones that cost five or ten times more than my old, trusty Nokia C1-01 (which belonged to my husband but he gave it to me when my old old trusty Nokia 2630 gave up). I see Nike-s on their feet. I see them order fansy drinks when we go out together. I see them arrive by cab as I get off the bus at the buss stop.

(By the way, I have a theory about Why the rich are rich and the fat are fat.)

At first I wondered why they did it. I mean, why did they buy nice clothes and nice phones and take cabs if their financial situation was bad? Didn’t they realize that their fancy cell-phones and shoes and drinks are effectively making them broke?

But then I thought – each person has different values. There are different things that make them happy. Maybe these people didn’t see any hope for bettering their situation, so they thought – what the hell, I’m never gonna be rich, so why think for the future? I’d be better off enjoying the present as much as I can.

I don’t know.

Everyone’s free to make a choice… but you also have to live with the consequences of that choice. My husband and I may not be living a “rich” life, but we definitely don’t feel poor, either. We are happy just being together and we don’t need many material things to enhance that experience. We’ve made our peace with certain choices (taking the bus, not eating out) and we’re absolutely fine with it -because pretty soon, we’re going to be parents! We’re expecting our baby girl in January, and New Year’s knocking on the door already, so we’ve decided to put our efforts towards bettering our financial future.

So what’s the final verdict – are we rich or poor? I don’t know. But as long as we’re able to get the things that are really important to us, I guess we’re doing okay.

And that’s good enough.

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8 thoughts on “Are we rich or poor?”

  1. wowed by the force – Your neighbor wasn’t living high on the hog off welfare, she was living off of her parents.

    The majority of people on welfare right now have not had good money management skills but neither do a lot of CONSUMERS who have jobs and aren’t on welfare. Our schools and parents do not teach good old fashion budgeting skills (start w/ the knowledge that it’s not what you make, it’s what you save) and too many people buy stuff they want but don’t need. Fortunately they still have jobs or they’d be on welfare too. Yes there are some abusers but there are plenty of oober rich people who are abusing the other end of the system evading taxes. Something is wrong when 500 of the richest people in this country have more cumulative wealth than one half of the rest of the population (that’s 149,000,000 people) cumulatively.

    You want to balance the budget? Start w/ the taxes corporations and the oober rich aren’t paying.

  2. Hi Rya!
    Again I see myself in your story :) Me and my husband also have passed such a period in our lives – seeming poorer than we really were. Even now, when I dare to say, our financial status is much better, I do not prefer to buy all these “image products”, by which others would recognize, that we are well in financial aspect.
    I remember one funny situation, when I had a birthday and my husband wanted to buy me a gold jewel. We were dressed casual, quite worn-out, as you say, and in the store nobody paid us any attention. But when my husband said “Well, when you like it so much, let’s just buy it” , and paid cash – Hop-la-la – everything changed. Suddenly we became the centre of the attention and all sellers wanted to offer us new and new products :-)
    Now I think the situation hasn’t changed much. Even we can afford much more expensive products – telephones, or car, or even new apartment, we do not actually buy them. Because we feel comfortable with ordinary commodities, we do not feel any necessity to buy expensive things, just to show that we can afford them. Just like you I still wonder why people, who apparently seem to have less money, continue to buy products that are over their budget. In my opinion, it is a way to convince themselves that their life will be better, providing they look like richer people. But, again in my opinion, it is a self-destructing way of thinking…

  3. @get smart – you are right that schools don’t teach personal finance (most schools, at least), but it’s not their job to do it. This is a responsibility that belongs to parents, not schools.

    Why don’t parents teach money skills to their kids? I think it’s because the majority of parents don’t HAVE any skills to teach.

  4. Hi Maya,

    Nice story :) People judge us by the way we look, and in many situations you can easily trick them to take you for something you’re not. For example, just throw on a white lab coat and everyone assumes you’re a doctor :) So you appearance can work towards your advantage… or not, as happened to you in the jewelry store.

    I don’t mind buying nice clothes or jewels or cell-phones, but I don’t want to do that until everything else in our lives is in order. And right now we have much bigger goals than demonstrating our financial status to strangers ;) Like I said, we all have a choice.

  5. People always judge us by the way we look. And what we look like depends only on us. There were times in my life when I was carrying several thousand levs in my jeans. And nobody knew because I was just like everyone. Seeming poor or like all other people is a good mask. If you look rich the people will expect you to do certain things or buy some things. When you look poor or normal they don’t expect much.
    For example I can afford to drive to work every day. It’s about 4 kilometers and driving to work is the same price as the bus ticket. But why do it? I’m already somewhat overweight. If I stop walking to work for 40 minutes everyday, I will become even more overweight? And why? Who will ever care if I go to work by car or walking? The co-workers? They know who I am and may figure my financial state anyway. The neighbours? Most of them are old people and I generally don’t care what they think about my financial state.

    Most people don’t realize this. They think that everyone is watching them and estimating them. And this is important for them. If you stop thinking about the oppinion of the others, you will have more choices. And of course then you will be able to become rich.

  6. Hi T.,

    It’s funny that you mention how people expect certain things from you when you are rich. It’s true. Particularly, they expect YOU to do certain things for THEM, like give them a free ride home, or pick up the tab more often, or lend them money. (I would gladly do all of those things if I were ten times richer than the other person, but I’m not that far ahead yet :)

    I’m not doing it on purpose. I dress casual because that’s what I can afford right now while working on improving my finances. I could buy more expensive clothes but like you said, what’s the point? I look decent enough, and I don’t care what others think. I care about buying a house, being able to raise three children, and spending more time with my husband. I also want us to be really rich some day so that our kids won’t face the stupid obstacles that we face in life.

    I don’t care if anyone “figures out” how much we have exactly. It’s not that much, anyway :) But I also don’t want to spend money just to impress others.

  7. So, extend this to someone who doesn’t have enough food on a regular basis. In my neighbourhood, which is poor, corner stores sell Ensure and Boost individually for about $2, right up in a big display near the counter. You find empty bottles of the stuff laying around on the sidewalk next to smashed beer bottles.

  8. @Carissa – there are no firm lines about where poor ends and rich begins. One man who is considered “poor” in one neighborhood could be considered “rich” in another neighborhood.

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