Last time I found myself in a high-end grocery store, I remember looking at the prices of everything and thinking “who the hell would buy a $7 chocolate bar?” Yesterday, I got my answer. And it was a pretty surprising one! It opened my eyes to a truth I’ve struggled for years to acknowledge.
I have a friend who is struggling with homelessness right now. She was in my house, staying for a spell while she looked for a permanent place to live. I watched her unpack her few belongings.
And there it was. Inside her purse was a large, rather expensive, luxury-brand $7 chocolate bar. She held it up and twiddled it back and forth in her hands, letting the silver foil catch the light.
“Sweetie, I’m homeless,” she said, very matter-of-fact. “You’d better believe I’m getting the good stuff.”
And boy was she making a great point.
This woman is struggling with a problem a lot of us will relate to: the skyrocketing cost of rent.
She lives in one of the most expensive cities in America. She’s older, in poor health, and works 3-4 jobs at (or near) minimum wage.
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in her city is $1,700. Boomer personal finance experts often say that housing costs should take up no more than 30% of a person’s income. For that to be true, she’d need to make $5,600 every month, or $140 per hour for a standard workweek. But she only gets paid $13.50 to $18 per hour, depending on the job. As a result, she strains her arthritic body working way more than 40 hours.
Even without any other information, that incredible gap makes it clear why finding stable housing has been so hard for her.
How you react says a lot about you
Fundamentally, I think there’s two ways that a person might react to hearing me describe my friend’s situation. You either take it, or try to poke holes in it.
Do you accept it?
Some people accept this story without questioning it. They feel an immediate swelling of empathy for a hard situation, or outrage at a preventable injustice.
These people think the world is a (mostly) unjust place. They can accept the veracity of a story about a nice old lady falling into homelessness, because it fits into their narrative conception of how the world works.
Do you reject it?
Other people can’t stop themselves from questioning it.
“Wait, why does this woman live in such an expensive city? Why is she still working minimum wage jobs? Why didn’t she invest in her own housing when she was younger and prices were lower? Couldn’t she cut costs by living with roommates? What does a studio apartment cost? Is she also getting social security, food stamps, or other kinds of assistance?”
I honestly think those people aren’t trying to be cruel or ignorant. They’re hunting for a reason to reject the information. And they want to reject it because they feel deeply disturbed at the idea that the world could be so illogically harsh and unforgiving.
These people think the world is a (mostly) just place. Their understanding—consciously or subconsciously—is that people tend to get what they deserve. If you show a person like this evidence of an injustice, they usually question the circumstances of the injustice. Because it’s easier to discount one story than to reconceptualize the entire framework by which you understand the world.
Everything is relative
I used to be a lot more like the Questioners. But a combination of time, maturity, life experience, and deliberate effort have changed me. That why I resist the temptation to judge her for this one, tiny choice.
My friend’s financial struggles are vast. She’s trying to afford a scarce, necessary expense that would eat up over a hundred hours of paid labor every month.
So in the grand scheme of things, a $7 chocolate bar becomes a pretty affordable consolation.
Does it set her back from her financial goals by $7? Yes. Logically speaking, that’s half an hour of labor for a few hundred calories of bittersweet emulsified bean paste. Probably a bad choice! But buying it gave her a boost of energy, morale, and a sense of control that was worth far more than she paid for it.
And that’s what makes it a potentially wise investment.
The “lipstick index”
When times are tough, or the outlook is dark, fewer people make big purchases. They read the papers! They’re wise enough not to run out and buy that car, house, pony, or diamond-encrusted bidet they’ve had their eyes on.
But they might find something cheaper that could still give them the same rush of pleasure and control.
Leonard Lauder, of Estee Lauder, coined the phrase the “lipstick index” to describe the inverse correlation between the strength of the economy and the sale of cheap cosmetic items such as lipstick. Sales of lipstick doubled in the months following the attacks on September 11, and nail polish has seen an enormous boom during the weak economic growth of the past few years.
Everybody’s got their thing: a small indulgence that they could do without, but also can’t.
Even if you’re too broke or too ~*smugly minimalist*~ to run out and buy stuff, imagine you’ve had a really terrible day. Aren’t you more likely to pour one more glass of wine? Or luxuriate a few extra minutes in the shower? Or let the dishes sit in the sink until tomorrow?
These are important acts of self-care. And they’re far from unproductive—they’re absolutely vital to our happiness and mental health.
Okay, fine—small luxuries can sink you
I’ve heard too many financial gurus scold people for buying small luxuries. And it’s true that you have to keep any eye on such things and make disciplined decisions about what those things are. (As a former marketing professional, I can assure you that we work hard to plant the phrase “I’ve earned this” into your brain. Learn to ignore us if you haven’t already.)
The poster child is probably “the latte factor.” People would be richer if they stopped buying coffees everyday! Wow, what a breakthrough observation! It’s a well-meaning piece of advice that’s also usually completely off-base advice. We slow-roasted it here.
Okay, fine, you’re right: buying a $7 chocolate bar won’t make you any richer. The happiness it brings is probably pretty fleeting. Plus, spending money isn’t the only way you can feel better about yourself and your situation. There are lots of free things you can do to improve your mental health. (We collected our favorites into this list.)
But it’s a stale take, and I think it’s been made enough.
Small luxuries can also save you
When money is very tight, it can feel like drowning. You’re in a panic to survive so powerful it eclipses every other thought. If you’ve been drowning fro a while, you can’t see the light anymore, leaving you with no sense of direction, unable to move towards safety.
Poor people have to make a ton of compromises just to surive. They may not be working in the job or the career they want, or living where they want, or with whom they want. They may not be able to make the choices they wish they could. And what’s life, if not a long collection of choices?
Being able to spend your money the way you want to is one of the most essential freedoms of living in a modern capitalist society. And it erodes your sense of self and autonomy to feel those decisions being made for you.
Seen in this light, buying something you don’t need is an act of personal definition. It can even be an act of defiance against your current situation.
Choices, choices, choices
“Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”– Anna Lappé
To torture this metaphor… If every dollar spent is a vote, the ballots of wealthy people have dozens of choices of names. Poor people have that one dude who sucks but has been County Comptroller for so many years that no one opposes him. So how am I gonna be mad at them for writing in “ur mom?” It’s not gonna change anything either way, and at least this way you get the catharsis of rejecting the premise that so compromises your options.
Life is long. Sometimes it gets scary and hard. Money is a constant throughout it: it comes into and out of your life, in greater or lesser ratios, every single day.
If you find yourself in a position where a $7 chocolate bar can give you the emotional strength and sense of self you need to plunge ahead into the storm, you have my full-throated blessing to do so without guilt, self-flagellation, or feelings of failure. It’s a helluva lot cheaper than therapy.
If you found this take refreshing, we have others you might enjoy! On homelessness…
- Ask the Bitches: How Do I Stop Myself from Judging Homeless People?
- Leaving Home Before 18: A Practical Guide for Cast-Offs, Runaways, and Everybody in Between
On motivation and mental health….
- How Mental Health Affects Your Finances
- Take a Break: The Importance of Rest and Relaxation
- Ask the Bitches: How Can I Absolve Myself of Financial Guilt Over My Pricey PS4?
- Don’t Spend Money on Shit You Don’t Like, Fool
- Our Master List of 100% Free Mental Health Self-Care Tactics
And if you especially enjoy food-themed meditations on systemic poverty… Well, I’d say that’s weird, but we actually have several more of them? Don’t know what to say about that. Writing about injustice makes us hungry, y’all!
- On Financial Discipline, Generational Poverty, and Marshmallows
- Making Decisions Under Stress: The Siren Song of Chocolate Cake
- On Emergency Fund Remorse… and Bacon