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The fear of looking poor

The fear of looking poor

You stare at the signup sheet for the potluck at work, and notice that most people have signed up for more than one item. Do you do as instructed and sign up for a single item, or do you feel like others will probably think badly of you if you don’t sign up for multiple items as well?

These kinds of things happen all the time. There are so many opportunities to feel judged: How much we contribute to cards passed around the office or money collected for charity, what we order or don’t order in restaurants (Do people know that we order water because we like it, or do they think we can’t afford a soft drink? and why does it matter?), whether or not we use coupons (Is it a “real” treat if you use a buy-one-get-one-free coupon to take someone else to lunch? Do the people in line behind us in the grocery store think we can’t make ends meet without coupons?), where we live (What will people think when they come over?), what we drive, etc.

For me, it’s easier to do what I really want to do when I have the money to do otherwise. I’m less concerned about what others think. If I want to drive an old car because I like it, I don’t care so much if others think I should buy something else. Or at least, I get irritated at them if they don’t respect my choice.

But when I really had very little money coming in (there were a few years not that long ago when I made $4,000 or less per year) I was more concerned about what people thought. Should I see about getting reduced lunches for my son? (Yes, I should have. Did I? No.) I got water and free crackers along with my $1 lunch at a fastfood restaurant because that was all I could afford. And even though water & crackers are things that I like, I felt that people thought less of me for getting them. (Especially when I used my debit card to buy the $1 lunch. I would say “debit” loudly when asked if that was debit or credit, because I wanted strangers to know that I did indeed have at least a dollar in my bank account.) I suspect that people without much money are actually less likely to use visible money saving devices.

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So I wonder, what does the fear of looking poor (or worse, cheap) cost us? Both emotionally and monetarily?

View Comments (16)
  • You raise an excellent point about how we react to social circumstances. In my view humans are hard-wired (and nurtured) to feel accepted and appreciated. That leads to all kinds of emotional and monetary situations (as you allude in your post) where we make irrational decisions. Decisions which allow us to feel accepted, compete with the Jones’, feel more secure … but eventually not the best decision either monetarily or emotionally.

    Awareness about your behavior and a sincere desire to change your conditioned responses is the best way to break this cycle.

  • Very interesting. I’ve definitely been in uncomfortable situations like that. Just recently I chose to NOT participate in the office charity fund raiser that “everyone” was doing. I didn’t want to break my budget and on top of that I didn’t support the organization they had chosen. I suppose I was the “weird guy” for a bit, but it actually felt good to say no.

  • I think it’s difficult to admit to yourself that a certain choice is all you can afford, let alone let anyone else know that.

    The other way to look at it is, do you really think less of people if they pick the less expensive option? If you’re anything like me, you don’t really pay attention to other people that much. They probably don’t pay attention to you either.

  • When I was in school my family qualified for free lunch. Every day I got my coupon before school started and at lunch time got my lunch. I was a transfer from a small school that didn’t have hot lunch. After a while it got around that I would trade or give away the things I didn’t like. (No wasting of food for me!) All the football players would rush up to me and just about fight each other over some of things. I wasn’t ashamed at all that kids knew my food was free.

    A few years ago I was talking to a co-worker and she said she was eligible for free lunch but she would go hungry rather than have anyone know that her family couldn’t afford to pay. I still just think that is sad that a child would feel that way and make a decision to avoid ridicule whether real or imagined.

  • I try to hide behind my keyboard as much as possible. Other than going to work, medical appointments, and applying for jobs, I don’t get out much. My co-workers don’t have money wither, so we all know we’re all poor.

  • For me it comes out in some ways. I was raised by an ex-waitress, so if I’m out with friends, I’m the one who checks that the tip is correct and makes it up (without saying so) if it’s short.

    But just because one HAS money doesn’t mean one WANTS to spend it. The folks in my last office initially thought money was tight for me because I wasn’t interested in going out for drinks, brought my lunch, etc. Then they heard me talking on the phone with husband about the a new car purchase (bought with savings) and they didn’t know what to think. :)

  • This is a great post! I grapple with this a lot myself. I’ve come full circle with it, but when I quit my “day” job, I feel like I’ll circle back around to where I started. I grew up really poor and I was always worried about looking poor. I spent my entire young adulthood proving to myself that I wasn’t poor anymore (nice clothes, expensive car, you get the picture). All of a sudden after I started making more money, I lost the need to prove to myself and eveyone around me that I wasn’t poor. I often get a chuckle out of it when people assume that I am.

  • I would rather be labeled as “poor” because I bring my lunch to work, I live in a modest home and I drive a car that is older but bought with cash than live paycheck to paycheck trying to create the impression that I am rich. I am 60 y/o, female and my goal is to have $1.5M in investments when I retire in 5 years. I am going to make it assuming that my health stays good. I work with a woman who is my age. She is filing bankruptcy because she got swallowed up by credit card debt keeping up appearances. I think the way to look at the original question asked is to reply with another question – “Will the people who judge you by your appearance be there to help if you get into financial trouble trying to impress them?”. Obviously the answer is “No”, so they can take a trip down South and I don’t mean Florida.

  • I frankly don’t care what others think. I’d rather be labeled as poor or cheap than try to please or impress others — I couldn’t accept or like myself if I did that. And I can walk away from others, but not from me, so I have to live in a way that will make it easy for me to live with me. :)

  • Fortunately, I have friends who are not averse to saving money. (Well, most of them anyway.) If we have coupons we use them and share them. The best time ever was when we went in a big group for dinner at a restaurant and one person brought a stack of coupons preprinted from the restaurant’s website for the whole group to use.

  • I’m sure there are costs for being perceived as poor or cheap. But they seem to be pretty much the same costs as being perceived as not joining the herd. If you want to live in a counter-culture way (which frugality is, right now), you have to be prepared to be a bit of an outsider. On the other hand, by living according to your values, it’s easier to find and spend time with others who share your values, so you’ll find new people to be an “insider” with.

    I agree with your point about being more worried about “looking poor” when I was indeed broke and in debt. Now that we have some assets, we find a lot of value in “looking poor”. We park our 12-yo sedan in a sea of new SUVs — who worried about it being stolen? It gets dinged — oh well! We live in a modest home with hand-me-down furnishings, used bicycles, and (mostly) older electronics. We share hand-me-down clothes with the neighbors and wear casual high-quality clothes for years — rock on! We’re not “keeping up with the Joneses” — we ARE our own Joneses.

  • I used to worry about it when I was younger and less educated in the ways of frugality. Now I am not worried about it. I like to make a game out of situations to at least make it fun. I buy most of my clothes and the family clothes at GoodWill, Salvation Army and garage sales. We do not look ratty or poor. We do have a very rusty van that we have had for 15 years that looks absolutely awful…but it runs and it was free ! My husband and I like to pretend we are rich and still keep it just to put other people off ! I will admit that I do not feel great about my carpeting because it is old and needs replacing. It just cannot be done right now. I figure if my friends judge me based on that…they aren’t really my friends !

  • All these joneses references make me have to tell you all that my high school quote was “Forget the Joneses.” It wasn’t a popular quote! But it sums up my feelings about life.

    Interesting topic.

    While I can afford to dress nicely, I prefer to wear second-hand clothes. If I’m at home working, I wear really worn out and outdated clothes, because I know I’m going to spill paint on them or get dirt ground into them, etc. I am pretty confident that people judge based upon clothing. I’ve gotten used to mostly being ignored, but when I do occassionally step out dressed to the nines I get a completely different reaction from people. I think its really weird actually, because people judge you based on such superficial things.

    I actually prefer to look poor. It just feels more comfortable to me to be ignored. I also think it keeps away the type of people who would take advantage of you.

    In fact, someone that I used to have a lot of respect for once laughed at the concept of “live simply so that others simply may live” and I realized they weren’t the kind of friend I thought they were.

  • blunt, with all due respect, I get the impression that many of the things you expressed are things that you feel, subconsciously, or otherwise towards others. Do you personally think people who use coupons cannot make ends meet? That people order water because they cannot afford a drink? These thoughts would not have occurred to me. But, these are the kinds of things that you think about, or they would not occur to you either.

    I would suggest that for some reason, you look at saving as a negative choice. As if one should aspire to waste money. I would submit that saving is a lifestyle choice for anyone, of any means, who aspires to gain and maintain wealth. Most people who become rich got there not by waste, but by saving.

    I do not mean this as an insult, but as an attempt to offer a stranger something to consider.

    Honestly, you should never be embarrassed about saving money. Never. Saving is a way of life and it will bring you closer to your financial goals. I am actually very proud of my ability to save.

    My wife and I really started saving seriously three years ago. It turned out to be quite contagious to all aspects of our life.

    We use coupons when we shop and always pick the store, which after comparison, offers the greatest savings. My wife often triumphantly announces how much we saved. It has become a game where we always try to beat our high score (our biggest savings).

    I used to have a beverage every night on the train, but now, I cannot bring myself to spend the money. I bring lunch everyday and I am disappointed if I occasionally forget the food at home. I just can no longer see spending money on having a stranger prepare my food. Additionally, we have cancelled almost all of our web, magazine and mail subscriptions (does anyone need magazines?). We use transit checks and take advantage of other pre-tax options.

    Surprises still happen where money is needed. We just had an unexpected roof emergency. We compared multiple estimates and then went with the best deal for our money. We did not do a patch job either, we had them replace it. Maybe we spent a little more today, but it will save us money over the long term.

    We have not given anything up. We still live well, travel, go out and enjoy other indulgences, but we do it smartly with planning.

    The changes we made in spending felt obvious. Why were we wasting money? Because we had not learned what an amazing feeling it was to save money. We were gaining and it felt refreshing. Whether you are rich, poor, or somewhere in between, the feeling one gets from saving money is exactly the same. It feels great!

    So how did we do it? Simple. We tracked our expenses in a budget. Just by seeing how we spent money, it became obvious where we could save. For example, our dining out expenses are down 17% so far this year and our grocery bill is down 14% this year to date.

    Good luck bluntmoney, it sounds like you have been through a lot and I wish you the best.

  • Cavemanus, no, those things you mentioned aren’t things that I feel or believe about others. (I’ll write more about this in a later post though.) I think that people who use coupons are wise, and I use them myself whenever they apply to something that I intended to buy anyway. I assume that people usually order water because they like it (or maybe because they dislike the other alternatives.) They are comments that I’ve heard other people make, though. The thought about the potluck was a recent thought. The point was that spending time wondering what people might think of me as I sign up for a single item (when almost everyone else has chosen to bring multiple items) could have ended up with me spending more money than I felt comfortable with, out of fear.

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