The Poor Woman's Financial Crisis

By Ali Liebegott

Originally published on Advocate.com October 21 2008 11:00 PM ET

“What’s the difference between a lesbian and a dyke? A dyke thinks she looks good with a $12 haircut.” The first time I heard that joke, I thought, Twelve dollars! I can’t pay more than $5! In fact, last month I cut my own hair to save a few bucks. I guess it didn’t turn out so well, because my girlfriend started calling me “Sideshow Bob.” Yesterday, when I suggested that I was going to give it another try, she screamed, “Nooooo!” Instead, we schlepped a giant laundry bag of old clothes to the secondhand store to raise enough money for a $12 haircut. We got $13.30 -- which was enough for the haircut but not a tip -- so I put on a hat and we took the cash to the grocery store to buy a pressurized can of cinnamon rolls and some tuna.

Back at home, we sat down on the bed (we don’t have a couch) with our dinner and watched the first presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama on an old black-and-white TV I got for free. But these are tough times. So tough, in fact, that I quit my teaching job six months ago because education funding cuts in the state of California made working at a grocery store a more secure job.

Here’s the sad part: Neither my girlfriend nor I have kids or expensive addictions. We both have master’s degrees and work full-time. We share a one-bedroom apartment with a dog and a cat -- we moved in together with lesbian speed because the cost of living is so high in San Francisco -- and barely make ends meet.

I don’t really believe in the myth of being poor but happy. At the poorest times in my life I wasn’t happy. I was just hungry. And the poorest times in my life can’t even compare to the poorest times of most people in the world. But I get why people romanticize poverty. I remember an argument my parents had when I was younger. My dad was fastidiously insisting he needed a certain kind of cooking bowl and my mother turned to me and said, “Your father doesn’t remember the days we were so poor we were making dinner in the coffeepot because we didn’t have a pan to cook in.” I love to imagine my parents as newlyweds, all jacked up on new love cooking dinner in the coffeepot.

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When the stock market fell more than 700 points recently, my girlfriend said, “Thank God we don’t have retirements and stocks to worry about losing.” I understand what she means. There’s something very soothing about the simplicity of doing what’s right in front of you: paying the rent, buying groceries, and when there’s a little extra for a treat like cinnamon rolls, whoopee! When you live paycheck to paycheck you only have so much to lose.

Yesterday was my first day off after working nine consecutive days for $13.48 an hour. I’m ignoring the piece of pink notebook paper on the refrigerator with the heading “People I Owe Money To.” My girlfriend deemed these our “pioneer months,” and it becomes perfectly clear why when I open the cupboard to find only dented cans of pinto beans and diced tomatoes. I started working at the grocery store because I get a discount on groceries and there’s an amazing free box filled with bruised organic watermelons, eggplant, apples, and bread. I easily take home $100 worth of bruised produce a month.

Every night when I come home from work, my girlfriend stops doing whatever it is she’s doing to meet me in the kitchen, where I spread out everything I got from the free box. “Let’s look at the booty,” I say to her. Sometimes we make entire meals consisting only of free items. One breakfast she made eggs, potatoes, and toast -- everything was free. She really loves a deal, and I adore the free box. It’s one of the ways that we’re really compatible.

In times of uncertainty -- whether it’s economic, psychological, emotional, or philosophical -- people often say that the only thing we can truly control is our attitudes. If that’s true, then I’m going to spend today walking my 14-year-old dog on a free beach and treasuring the fact that she’s still alive. Then I’m going to head to work five minutes before my shift starts and make a beeline for the free box