In the struggle, you eat struggle meals.
For a long time, the struggle meal for us was Hamburger Helper. We had boxes upon boxes of it in the cabinet. When the dollars in our family budget were nowhere to be seen, or hard to see, I would crack open a box, stirring together meat, spiral noodles, and powdered flavoring. Our new struggle meal became an amalgamation of frozen broccoli, pasta, and canned chicken or tuna. My mom made it for the first time two years ago, because that was all we had in the house. Two years later, I’ll be the first one to say that the stuff hits.
Every kid who lived the struggle had a go-to struggle meal, and for every family it was different. I know some kids who grew up on ramen, others who grew up on eggs and rice. It depended on the budget; it depended on the culture; but the commonality between all of us is that we all came from low-income, working class families.
Of course, there were times where we had a bit more money than usual and could treat ourselves to nice dinners out or a new video game. My sister and I never went without little spoils in our lives, but the spoils these days come from our own wallets.
In my core friend group, a lot of our outings revolved around going to places that our student MetroCards could take us, getting home before a certain hour, and spending no money at all. Or if we did we spent it frugally, bought our lunches and snacks before we headed onto our trip. Now that we’re mostly graduated from college and working, we still approach things with a budget mindset. We’ve come to understand our finances a little better, if not too well.
So having gone to a PWI university, having gone to an upper-middle class university, there was definitely culture shock.
It was the first time that I encountered 18-year-olds driving Audis, BMWs. They spent hundreds at the bar or on the bottles for their home parties. They dropped thousands on spring break trips to Punta Cana, Jamaica, London, Spain. They wore Sperrys and North Face rain jackets. They had the latest Mac laptops in rose gold and grey, paired with the latest iPhone. It was easy to feel like and be the sore thumb. I was the girl who used her school-sponsored laptop because she couldn’t afford to buy one herself, the girl who didn’t go anywhere during her spring break, the girl who worked two jobs in her last semester to make ends meet.
It was, and at times it still is, infuriating. Everyone walked around me so oblivious of their blessings, trapped deep in a “well every family has this” mentality. They looked at me like the anomaly. My poverty didn’t belong there. I remember once I told some friends that I found the PDF versions of some textbooks online, and I was called a pirate. Thinking back on it now, I imagine it was in jest, but at the time it bothered me. The bookstore was trying to get me to accept prices for a textbook that was, quite frankly, bullshit. I had no American Express card to swipe and keep moving, no parents to pay my monthly bill. Out of my guilt and embarrassment, I bought the textbooks and was in the hole for the next month until I worked enough to climb myself out of it; I should’ve just stayed with the PDFs.
Over time, as I grew closer to my college friends and understood their stories, I came to realize that every family has its secrets, its dark past. Some of them didn’t have much love or acceptance; others were pressured to do everything their parents asked of them in spite of their own personal character and morals. I was blessed with a mother who didn’t mind that I majored in Japanese and Creative Writing; all that mattered was that I was giving my goals my all and nothing less. In a pinch, if I ever needed anything, someone in my family, immediate and extended, would come to the rescue. There have been several times where my aunts came to my aid when I needed it most.
Still, I find myself incredibly envious of my friends who come from affluent homes, who have things and think, “well how come you don’t have these things?” I can’t even begin to describe the embarrassment of being the only one in a group who has to decline an outing, who has to ask a friend to spot them because payday is next week, or who has to cancel a trip because new bills have popped up.
During my recent trip to DC, a friend of mine and I were talking to each other. We were at the wharf; we had just finished our gelato and were heading back to the seafood market near the entrance. We were talking about our low-income upbringings and what we wanted for our future. He wanted financial stability for his family; I agreed. My mother did wonders for my sister and me. I want my family to grow the same way, with everything they need to be happy and healthy and a little more if I can. Even so, I want them to grow up knowing their privilege, to know that not everyone has money or that it’s not guaranteed to be forever.
I think there are still many a thing my affluent friends and I disagree on, but I’ve come to understand that privilege is tinting. You can only see but so much, depending on which side one’s looking. I’ve also come to learn to pick and choose my battles over certain topics, class being one of them.
In general, I’m not a money-oriented person. Over the past year, I’ve been forced to become that way, and I promise you I hate it. Know that I’m waiting for the moment where I settle into my career as a professional writer, living in an apartment with just enough natural light, and a pet. And in those days, I hope to be somewhere comfortable. Not too rich, not too poor.