Saturday, September 24, 2011

Working poor

Like many Americans, our family has been affected by the recession. My husband’s employer cut wages, then cut hours, and suddenly his income was no longer adequate enough to support us. He tried to find a second job, but most of the jobs in his field are under hiring freezes. I tried to find work – even part-time at a fast food place would bring in enough money to cover the food bill and electricity. But since we live in a heavily ethnic area, even fast food jobs were requiring a second language.

My husband swallowed his pride and applied for food stamps, only to discover that he made too much to qualify. When he asked how much was too much, he was told “You make $700/year too much.”

 So our family has entered the ranks of the working poor. Wikipedia defines the working poor as “those… who maintain regular employment but remain in relative poverty due to low levels of pay and dependent expenses”. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 6.4 million working poor in 2000. That number increased in 2010 to 21 million. Applications for food stamps increased over 50% in the last year.

How do you survive if you are one of the working poor? From experience, I can give you several ideas to relieve financial pressure in your household.

Review – and trim – your expenses. Do you really need 400 cable channels? Or, for that matter, do you really need cable at all? Most television shows can be watched online. If your family has a landline phone and cell phones, can you do away with the landline?

Think about your mode of transportation. The average American household has two vehicles - two car payments, two gas tanks to fill, two vehicles to insure and maintain – it’s a lot of money that could be used elsewhere. Is it feasible for your household to downgrade to a one car family? Take into consideration alternate methods – is there a bus system in your area? Do you work close enough to work to bike there instead of driving?

Consider your diet. Take a good luck at your food budget and habits. Do you buy expensive name-brand items? Most generics are just as tasty for less money. Do you need to be buying a $4 cup of coffee on your way to work every day, or can you make something just as tasty at home, in a reusable cup, for a fraction of the cost? Packed lunches are easy to prepare, and don’t have to be boring – google ideas for fun lunch ideas and save yourself the cost of eating out during the work day.

If you have a family member who is unemployed and handy in the kitchen, consider learning how to make foods from scratch. Meals will cost less to prepare and usually taste better.  An added benefit? Most home-cooked meals are healthier. If you have children, have them help with the cooking. Even a three year old can shred cheese, and five year olds love to help with mixing and egg cracking. This also allows you to spend some quality time with your children, and teach them skills that will help them all their lives.

Make your yard work for you. Can you carve out a chunk of your backyard for a garden? You’ll be amazed at how much produce you can get from a small plot. Tomatoes, corn, green beans, peas, zucchini, cucumbers, lettuce, strawberries, sunflowers, fresh herbs – all can be grown in most backyards with minimum fuss and at little to no cost. There are many groups that offer free seeds to struggling families, and gardening tools can be found on the cheap at garage sales and thrift stores.

Dig up a three foot by five foot section of the lawn and let the kids have their own “spaghetti garden”. Plant tomatoes, basil, oregano, onions, and garlic – and then, in the fall, they can help to make homemade spaghetti sauce. The sauce can be canned or frozen for long-term storage, and the children will feel like they made a real contribution to the family.

Watch your utility usage. Turn off lights when you leave a room. Keep the heater set low in the winter, and compensate for the colder temps with long-sleeved clothes. In summer, set the air conditioner a degree or two higher – chances are, you won’t notice a difference, but your budget will notice a change in price. And make it a family challenge to see who can take the shortest shower to cut down on the water bill.

Our family may be the working poor – but that doesn’t mean we have to BE poor, or that we have to feel downtrodden or shameful. All it takes to thrive during this recession is creativity. Think outside the box!

Friday, September 2, 2011

this moment...

A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. 
A simple, special, extraordinary moment. 
A moment to pause, savor and remember.