Driving down the highway recently, I saw a car on the shoulder with a blown out tire. I’ve had a tire blow out on me in the middle of the freeway before, so I’m inclined towards sympathy. As I got closer, however, I noticed that the blown out tire was actually the spare.
Entirely subconsciously, I found myself making a lot of assumptions about the situation. “They probably rode around on that spare tire for too long!” I said to myself, my sympathy all but evaporated. “What a chump!”
The truth of the matter, of course, is that I have no idea what that person’s circumstances were, but I do know from personal experience that there’s often a very compelling reason why someone might do something that seems to conflict with common sense: money. Or, more likely, the lack thereof.
It’s hard to appreciate what it feels like to live on a razor thin budget or no income at all unless you’ve been there yourself. I don’t presume to speak for everyone who’s struggled financially, but if you’ve never been broke it can be hard to understand why someone who’s just getting by behaves the way they do. In fact, there are certain truths about being broke you’d be hard-pressed to understand unless you’ve experienced them for yourself.
You can’t just fix something
Everyone knows you can’t just keep riding around on your spare tire. But sometimes you might not have a choice in the matter. Headlight out? Nothing you can do about it. Pain in your chest? Just have to wait and see if it goes away.
Life is full of preventable catastrophes, but when you’re broke you have to prioritize. It doesn’t matter that the catastrophe will almost always be more expensive than what it costs to prevent the catastrophe. The little money you have is for today’s problems. You’ll just have to deal with tomorrow when it gets here.
Is that really the best way to manage these problems? Not really. But when times are tough, it’s almost impossible to see beyond the challenges right in front of you.
It’s incredibly difficult to change your habits
It’s easy to tell someone who’s struggling with money how they should overhaul their finances to make ends meet. Actually making those kinds of changes, however, isn’t easy at all.
Someone who’s struggling financially usually knows that they need to “spend smart” in order to get by. But when it comes time to open their wallet, they often find themselves shopping and living very similarly to how they did when they had ample resources. Dropping down into emergency rationing isn’t something that happens with the flip of a switch. It takes work.
So when you see someone who claims to be broke, but is still spending money like they aren’t, don’t assume they’re lying or they’re stupid. They’re probably adjusting. Offer support. Offer guidance. Just keep the judgment to yourself.
It’s humiliating to ask for help
It shouldn’t be. It really shouldn’t be. But asking for help is one of the hardest things to do. No matter how kind and understanding the people in your support system may be, it’s still painful to admit that you need help.
When you see someone struggling financially, feel free to offer whatever support you have to offer, but understand that they may say no. It isn’t because they don’t appreciate what you’re doing. You can make your charity as palatable as possible, but it’s still charity, and that can be a bitter pill for people to swallow.
You don’t feel like you’re allowed to have fun
If you’ve ever invited an unemployed friend out and said, “Don’t worry – drinks are on me!” and they still refused, it’s probably not because they were busy.
When you’re broke, it’s hard to justify doing anything that’s purely fun. Your energy (you tell yourself) must be spent exclusively on solving your problems, or suffering for your failure to solve those problems. Fun feels inexcusable.
Of course you should have fun when you’re broke. You should strive to maintain as many positive habits as possible. But it’s hard to think that way when you’re caught in a cycle of worry and shame.
Your financial status feels like a reflection of your self-worth
When you’re falling behind on your bills, and you can’t spend any money on your friends, and you don’t even think you can afford to leave the house most days, it starts to wreak havoc on your self-esteem. We’re already generally inclined to think that money is a measure of success (it isn’t, FYI), so when we have none it can be devastating.
Your money obviously doesn’t define you, but it’s easy to feel that way. When you live in a society that places so much emphasis on wealth and status, having no money can be almost dehumanizing.
If you know someone who’s struggling financially, they may not want your help or your charity, but it’s important to let them know that your opinion of them hasn’t changed. Their personal value remains as high as ever, no matter what their bank account says.
You don’t want to be given anything, because you can’t reciprocate
The holidays are an especially brutal time of the year if you’re broke. Because you can’t give gifts in the way that you’re accustomed, you’re inclined to ask people to just not give you anything.
Yes, there are plenty of ways to “give” that don’t cost money. But giving (as much as it shouldn’t) often comes with a little mental scale balancing. And that’s not necessarily as sinister as it sounds. Most of us just want to give back in proportion to what we receive.
There’s really no solution here. You should keep in mind, however, that in certain hands a generous gift might feel less like a blessing and more like a debt that can’t be repaid.
Money is all you think about
Everyone thinks about money. We think about how much more we ought to be paid. We think about how much other people have (and how they invariably don’t deserve it).
It’s even worse when you’re broke. Your money is always at the front of your mind. It makes it difficult to fully invest in anything else. It’s not productive, but it’s hard to shake. The more you’re able to focus on the things you can control and the less time you spend worrying about money, the better off you’ll be. But that’s often easier said than done.
Ignoring your problems feels like your only option
“What can I do about it? I’m broke.”
When your money is tight (or nonexistent) you start feeling very defeated very quickly. Every solution to every problem seems like it requires money that you don’t have, so eventually you just assume that there actually is no solution – to any problem. That’s not true – there’s almost always something you can do – but it’s a genuine feeling. It’s not a symptom of laziness or ignorance. It’s a sign of defeat.
Giving up is the worst thing you can do, but almost everyone who struggles financially at some point feels like that’s the best option. If you see someone you care about on the verge of quitting, don’t let them. They’re not going to appreciate it at the time. They might even resent you. But that moment of defeat is a critical point. If you can help them keep moving, you can help them avoid a lot of the long-term damage that’s done when we start ignoring problems. And when things do finally turn around, they’ll be grateful that the path ahead isn’t quite as steep as it might have been.