When Poor People Have Nice Things

is this guy worthy?

There’s a graphic circulating on some of my friends’ Facebook profiles that really gets on my nerves. I told myself I wouldn’t write about it, but I saw it again last night and I just can’t help myself. The graphic says, “Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford an iPhone like the person in front of me at the grocery store. The one paying with FOOD STAMPS!”

Anytime that picture (or something similar) is posted, it gets about 50 “likes” and a long string of comments from indignant people who have personally witnessed a poor person owning something of value. The rage is evident - how dare someone on food stamps have a smartphone! Why should they even be allowed to have a phone at all? Our tax dollars blah blah blah blah…..

Here’s the thing: We can all think of at least one person who games the system. After working as a therapist for almost 7 years, I can think of quite a few. But no one knows the life situation of every single person on the planet, no matter how much they think they do.

A good friend of mine got fired from her job just days after her husband was laid off. Both of them had iPhones on his parents’ plan, which cost them $50 a month total. Now what makes the most sense - breaking that contract at hundreds of dollars, or scrounging up the $50 a month in hopes that one or both of them would find another job soon? They didn’t have to sign up for assistance - they were both lucky to get jobs before their emergency fund was drained - but if they had, they would have been in the grocery checkout line with iPhones in their pockets.

I Speak From Experience

The only assistance I’ve ever personally used was Medicaid for my son at two different times during his life. But I will tell you - during both of those times, I had cable TV. I had internet access at home. This last time, I had an iPhone (gasp!). I also owned several items that could have been pawned or sold for a decent amount of money.

Was I living it up? No. Not even close. But as someone with two college degrees and tons of ambition, I also never planned to continue collecting that assistance forever. Why should I empty my house of all the things I bought with my own money, only have to buy them again when the crisis was over? That really doesn’t make sense.

Now, I could understand it if I had a Lamborghini or two in my garage. But when you’re used to a fairly middle class existence and something happens to you (no matter what it is), you assume that your situation will improve at some point. It’s not like the poverty police come take all your stuff in the middle of the night. You still own all the things you did before. If you had nice clothes, you’ll still have nice clothes. If your cousin bought you an expensive handbag last Christmas, you’ll still have that handbag. No one drops off a tattered, dirty wardrobe for you to put on before you leave your house.

I Know What You’re Thinking

I can just hear the comments now. “Well, I know someone who did X and Y,” or “I saw a lady buy Z at the mall.” I know. I’ve seen it too. That’s not the point.

The point is, some people are in situations that we know nothing about. Some people own nice things from a better time in their lives and choose to keep those things during a setback. And some people make choices after becoming poor that we wouldn’t personally make. Talking smack about those people on Facebook isn’t doing anything to eradicate poverty, or to change the fact that there is widespread abuse of our current system.

If you get upset when you see a poor person with nice things like smartphones, all I ask is that you consider this:

  • Maybe they just got laid off last month and they already owned the iPhone.
  • Maybe a family member pays the phone bill.
  • Maybe they’re picking up groceries for a disabled neighbor with the neighbor’s food stamp card.
  • Maybe the phone was a gift and it’s jailbroken on a prepaid plan.
  • Maybe you should worry less about what someone else has and more about yourself.

To many people, I could be considered “poor” right now (even though my bills are paid and I’m saving money). And guess what? I own several nice things. Some of you will judge me for that, and there’s nothing I can do about it. But I will continue to be disgusted when people criticize another person’s choices, especially when they can’t possibly know the full set of circumstances.

28 Responses to “When Poor People Have Nice Things”

  1. Melissa says:

    I'm totally with you! It drives me crazy when people judge others after only seeing a snapshot of their lives. Like, OK, I have an iPhone. (Who doesn't?) When I got it, I signed a three-year contract not just for the service, but for the data, which means that even if I wanted to sell the phone and get a cheaper dumbphone (and maybe net $50 on the sale), I'd still be stuck paying the $65 a month for my iPhone plan for the remainder of my contract, or spend the hundreds to buy it out, depending on how far into the contract I was. Now, I've never been in the position to need assistance, thankfully, but if I was, I wouldn't give up my iPhone because it just wouldn't make any financial sense to do it, not to mention the fact that I don't have a landline, so my cell phone becomes a necessity for communication and safety.

    And I think you're right that if you just fall on hard times, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to sell all your stuff at a loss to get you through, only to buy it all again at full price once you're on your feet again. Assistance is there to give someone a leg up when they need it, but I don't think you should have to be completely destitute before you collect it.

  2. bogofdebt says:

    I cannot agree with you more. Coming from a poor background I would sometimes get castoffs from people that were barely used/worn. They were nicer than anything we could afford but they were free. I remember that everytime I go to a store and see "a poor person with an iphone using food stamps". Because I don't know the story behind why they have the nifty stuff they shouldn't be able to afford. When I had no job, I scrounged up the money to keep my phone. Why? So I could get calls about a job interview. This was a wonderful post!

  3. Lisa says:

    I agree. We are just getting our finances back in order, and although we're lucky enough that we didn't need to go on assistance, it can happen to just about anyone and you don't know anyone's background story. Plus just because someone bought something nice, doesn't mean it was on a whim, perhaps they saved and bough it refurbished for a great deal.

  4. MaryMikell says:

    I wanted to go on and on but then realized Twitter only lets me have 140 characters (just like a stingy editor who won't let me populate my book with the entire contents of my mind!!) so I had to pop over here to tell you how much I love this post.

    As a newly-single mom about to receive (any day now, I hope!) foodstamps, I can't begin to tell you how much I love this post. I'm seriously considering shopping at 2am at Wally world for our groceries just to avoid the snide remarks.

    Yes, I have an iPhone. It's paid for by hubs' business plan. (he runs a family business). I would not be paying $70 a month for ANY phone ,but since it's free, I'll keep it.

    Yes, I have high-speed cable internet at home. Umm hi, freelance writer. I HAVE to have internet. I'm actually downgrading to a "lite' version that costs a bit less, and I'm compromising with the kids and getting rid of digital cable to save another $20 a month.

    Yes, we have pets. A lot of them. Four dogs, 4 cats, five guinea pigs, a rabbit, a bird and 3 turtles. We had all these long before my hubs decided to bail on me. If I could thin the herd I would, but who wants to volunteer to tell my 12 year old he has to give up the dog he rescued from the pound three years ago, or my 15 year old she can't keep the guinea pigs she cuddles with when she's sad about her dad leaving? And don't even try to take my dog, he's my warmth at night, my security blanket, and the only reason I get any sleep at all.
    Know anyone who wants a 7year old lab? (hub's dog, the one he left here with us?) Or a couple 12 year old cats who can't live indoors because they spray? I didn't think so.

    If it comes down to feeding our pets or feeding my kids… well I'll be making a trip to the shelter. In tears. And walking, because I will have sold my car, shut off our cable and any other non-essentials, stopped our phone service and hocked all my personal belongings before I will dump my responsibility to our pets on someone else.

    If people want to judge me for doing my best to hold together a household my ex decided was no longer worth his time and trouble, so be it. Meantime… I'm just gonna keep on moving forward and doing my best to give my kids a decent life.


  5. addvodka says:

    OMG.I love this post. SO TRUE!

    People need to just get over it. I especially love your last point -worry about yourself, because if anyone is THAT worried about what other people are doing, it's likely that they are just deflecting their shitty lives onto somebody else.

    To me, internet and a cell phone are necessities. especially if somebody has fallen on hard times and needs to find a job or look for prospects - how are you supposed to do that without an internet or phone? (also, I'm not saying somebody needs both a cell and a home phone, but having a phone with you if important).

    When I was little, my mom - a single mom, making VERY little money, getting no child support and trying to support a pre-divorce mortgage - bought a new car.

    It was worth it to her to be able to worry less about our safety, or about being stranded on the side of the road on her way to work because the car broke down (which would potentially cost her a job). We sacrificed in other areas but I'm sure it wasn't well received that we didn't have a ton of money but had a decent car.

  6. Tie the Money Knot says:

    There is simply no reason for people to be so judgemental on poor folks. I say that knowing that realistically, I have been guilty of being judgemental about people and their spending habits. For example, when I see people living in 1-bedroom apartments in low cost of living areas, yet driving $40,000 vehicles. That's hard for me to grasp.

    But, I think you're right in that we can't always judge. Cell phones are a good example, as you suggested. Plus, there could be other factors behind the purchase, include somebody else buying it for them. You never know, so it's good to be reminded that we should all be a bit less judgemental. After all, we can't always judge a book by its cover, right?

  7. Krystin says:

    Totally agree with you!
    People should learn to mind their own business and worry about their own lives.

    Reminds me of when my mom and I went shopping and someone made a comment about my mom parking in a handicap spot and how 'people like her should be arrested for breaking the law' because my mom looked 'normal'. I went off on the man about how my mom had COPD and it's a daily struggle to breathe 'normal' like he or I and that he should learn to not judge others based on what he 'sees'.
    Of course my mom was upset and the man?….I made him feel about 2 feet tall. I hope he learned not to judge based on what he thought was true.

    Social media has made us 'bullies' in a way that we don't have to say anything at the time, but can bully a person or a group later on and the gang can 'like' it.

  8. Quest says:

    Andrea, that is a good perspective. I've caught myself being judgmental but the truth is …. I know NOTHING about that person's life. I try to remember that. Sure, there are people who abuse the system but they don't carry a stamp on their forehead!

  9. @frugalportland says:

    This post really makes me uncomfortable — and it also makes me not want to have nice things ever, you know? Or at least not obviously nice things. I just got designer jeans at Goodwill, now I bet people will be judging me (while at the same time staring at my butt). Ugh.

  10. moneyaftergrad says:

    or maybe they stole Bridget's iPhone joking.. kind of, I really do miss the thing =(

    I know what you mean. I don't know about "poor" people owning valuable things, but I do see a lot of people buying what I know they can't afford. I just assume they do it with credit.

    I'm kind of an asshole though. If someone doesn't have nice things, I assume they have no money, and if they do have nice things, I just assume they bought it with debt.

  11. laurenwhitehead says:

    Amen. The assumptions made in those judgmental statements are crazy.

  12. Another Housewife says:

    I love this post because I often have to check myself, mostly out of jealousy. I sometimes find myself thinking how can they afford that when we can't. Um-maybe because we have four kids and spend our money going to sporting events, duh! The book 'A Girls Guide to Homelessness" really opened my eyes and my awareness of just how judgmental I have been. Now I try to extent grace and just mind my own business.

  13. shopping2saving says:

    I agree with Bridget. I usually just assume people buy things on credit, and that they are in debt. But in reality, we really have no idea what other people are going through.

    It's kind of like when people are really rude to me..like waitresses, sales reps, people in customer service, whatever. I used to think, what is that person's problem??? They are such a B***H! But now, I kinda just brush it off and tell myself that they are human, and they could be having a shitty day, or someone in their family may have died recently, or whatever. You really don't know what people go through… so we can't judge.

  14. Nick says:

    The way I usually fall on these things is not what people have but how they act. If you're on food stamps and buy an iPhone, whatever, to each his own. Maybe you're gaming the system rightfully or wrongfully, but that doesn't get a reaction out of me.

    It's when people complain that they don't have (or make) enough money and smoke 2 packs a day or buy every new gadget out there that makes me go "HEY! Maybe if you stopped wasting $25 per day on cigarettes (yes, they're actually $14.75 across from my office) you wouldn't have so many money problems!"

    My two cents. Keep the change.

  15. Lance@MoneyLife&More says:

    Now that I can post a comment… I really do try not to judge but after some of the stories i heard from my girlfriend's two years of being a cashier in a grocery store I know there are some cases of abuse. I do not judge based on just one instance though. You have to admit, there are people taking advantage somewhere.

  16. Financial Samurai says:

    Problem is snapshots in time verse the continuity of time.

  17. insomniaclabrat says:

    I had a really hard time with this sort of judgement when I was a teenager. I always felt like my parents didn't buy us everything we wanted because we didn't have enough money, so why should other people get nice things? I remember in school, we did a "Christmas basket" for a family in our city one year (I think it was through Salvation Army, but I could be wrong), and some of us got to go help deliver it.

    Anyway, leading up to the drop-off, our teacher told us about a million times to remember that even though we were helping this family out with presents for the kids and food for a few meals, they might have nice stuff. But even though they were struggling right now, they could have bought the stuff when they had more income, or it could have been a gift, etc. I don't know if I just trusted my teacher, or if my "don't judge others" upbringing finally came through at that point, but I finally got it.

    Sadly, some people from that class are the same people that share those judgmental pictures on Facebook. Obviously I'm human and I judge people all the time, but I don't share it on Facebook, and I don't presume to know everything about a stranger's financial situation. Unfortunately logic doesn't always go over very well with people once they get riled up about a topic…

  18. kim says:

    I remember several years ago we were really struggling, I had just had a 3rd child and the church was helping us as I had a difficult pregnancy. I have always been a very hard worker, but I just was too sick to work. My parents stepped in and bought us a really nice jogging stroller (I would rather have had the money.) Someone left a snide remark on our door about us taking help and then going out to buy an expensive stroller. I was crushed. But I also get irritated when I am at Wal-mart on the 1st and I have my 3 bananas, 2 oranges, 1/2 gallon of milk, 1 loaf of whole wheat bread and I am trying to stay in budget and I see carts full of crap convenience food, soda and chips all paid for by food stamps. I really feel we should give commodities and not a blanket card to get anything and everything. I like the WIC program because it forces people to get nutritious food.

    • Andrea says:

      I'll agree with you on that one to a point. After working with tons and tons of families who received food stamps, one of the things I learned is that (many times, but not always) the people have no idea how to buy or cook nutritious food because they've never personally done it. And a lot of times, their parents didn't either. I think it's ridiculous to hand someone hundreds of dollars each month to buy food without teaching them what to buy and what to do with it.

      I don't know that forbidden convenience foods is the answer - poor kids want Pop Tarts and Lunchables just like any other kid - but I think food stamp recipients should attend mandatory nutrition and/or cooking classes. Then the first few shopping trips should be taken with someone who is trained to help them make good purchase decisions AND will help them cook the first few times. I do think it's a good idea to set a limit on junk, like 75% of the money must be used for actual food, for example, but in a lot of cases I think simple education would go a long way. Of course I also think that way about parenting and cleaning, but that's a whole other post.

      • Frugal(er) says:

        I agree with the mandatory cooking classes. I worked at a grocery store for a summer once, and was shocked and horrified at what people spent their food stamps on. I always assumed that you could only buy healthy foods with them, but I was clearly mistaken. Everyone is allowed a little indulgence every now and then, but people should have the opportunity to learn about healthy foods and cooking too.

  19. Brilliant Finances says:

    By all of the comments I would say you have more to write about.

  20. Tanner says:

    Amen. I also think people who judge that quickly think that because you're on food stamps or what not, it means you must stop time and treat things as if it's the end of the world. So you got laid off? Omg, quick, sell every scrap, every item, every piece of your house for money, get rid of your collections and start slaving at the fast food chains! It isnt the end of the world. Some people pull through hard times and rebuild their lives. Some people don't and use the system because it's easier. But regardless, unless you know all the facts, judge all you want, but do it in silence. Stereotypes can lead to prejudice if you act upon it, which people do by snide comments, regards or backstabbing lines of chats they would otherwise not dare say in person.

  21. bluecollarworkman says:

    I just made 2 unicorns born by reading some of those other posts of yours :)

    I'm guilty of the judgements you mention. Partly becuase my wife and I have to forego some ltitle luxuries to get by and so when I see likewise poor people have these luxuries I get pissed. But instead of your list of questions/thoughts that we shoudl ask ourselves when we see someone poor with something nice, I think we shoudl only think about the last one in yoru list, "Maybe you should worry less about what someone else has and more about yourself." We just need to take care of ourselves. Let what other people are doing be their thing. What you're doing is your thing. It shoudl make life less stressful too, not having to think about what others are doing so much.

  22. femmefrugality says:

    I've decided I love you. I couldn't agree with this more. About the junk food on food stamps; it's not always a personal choice challenge, sometimes it's a budget challenge. If you have $200/month or more if you have a ton of kids (depending on which states economy you're receiving benefits from,) junk food goes a longer way to feed all those mouths than healthy food. You may want to buy everything to keep everyone healthy, but keeping them fed may be more important. This isn't for every case, but for some. The other thing is that maybe they've gotten their WIC benefits, so they have all their healthy stuff from another trip, and now they're doing the stuff to feed to their kids between soccer games and ballet practice. Should it be healthier? It could always be healthier. But it has to be realistic, too.

  23. Teinegurl says:

    *I also agree with another commenter that you may have gotten a few articles out of this one!*
    As a person that grew up with a single mom and now i'm a single mom. I have to say that to not have things that people consider luxuries makes for a very bleak life sometimes. I remember when the 1st colored ipods came out and EVERYONE had one but not me (well it sure felt that way) I saved up my money over time to be able to afford it for my birthday present to myself. I babysat and got a job to earn money of course by that time something else had come out to take over but knowing i had it was so rewarding to me. To other people it was "old" and i got teased but i didn't really care about it. Just like this past xmas my phone got me HTC smartphone has a xmas gift and pays my bill . Before that i had a really OLD flip phone but it didn't matter to me has longed as it worked.

  24. Teinegurl says:

    When I got divoreced i HAD to go on foodstamps for the first time in my life because i was working minimum wage and didn't make enough to put food on the table. I had to volunteer at the state office & work just to get the assistance but i'm happy to do those things. I don't know about other states but in HI you have to go to nuturtion classes if you have WIC. They tell you what you can buy and it's not junk. They give you recipes and work with you. Of course i see people who abuse the system and have things that i want but i'm PROUD to do things the right way and let me tell you i work hard to earn a living. I don't think people should have to justify themselves to anyone.

  25. Jessica says:

    This is a really thought-provoking post. I used to be one of the judgemental types, since whenever I went to the grocery store when I was younger my parents would point it out. As I became friends with people from a much poorer background and started going to church in a poverty-stricken neighborhood, I realized that I can't judge the person at the check out line. I have no idea what their story is, and what they own is none of my business.

  26. Frugal(er) says:

    Hear Hear! I hate those facebook things, and I hate the idea that if someone gets laid off, people seems to expect them to immediately wear nothing but rags and look sad all the time. When I was unemployed, I got up, got dressed and faced the day because it helped me stay sane!

    You never know how much someone paid for something or where they got it-so quit judging, people!

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