Surviving the Holidays While Poor
While the holiday season is meant to be a joyful time, for many of us it is a time of great financial challenge and worry.
Throughout December, as Christmas and New Year’s Eve drew closer, I felt increasing anxiety about how I would pay for necessities—rent, food, utilities—as well as some modest gifts for my children.
I listened as neighbors, friends, clients and other acquaintances discussed their holiday plans and travails, including: securing tickets to the new Star Wars movie; upcoming vacations to warm, tropical locations; a new snowboard and other fantastic gifts for their kids; and lavish holiday parties. One neighbor lamented that her husband didn’t want the $1,300 kayak she had just purchased for Christmas.
I can only dream of these kinds of stresses. One person’s kayak is another person’s rent.
Despite working as a specialty baker, personal chef, pet sitter, and fitness instructor—including on nights and weekends—I fell about $600 short, or less than half of a kayak, of what I needed to make December’s rent. Thinking through how I could close that gap felt like watching the back and forth of a ping pong ball in my head, with one question ricocheting to another and another: If I cannot pay rent, where will we go? Should I consider a shelter? How many personal items do I need to sell and what do I have that’s of any value? Which utility bills do I need to postpone paying? When our food assistance (SNAP) runs out at the end of the month, how will we afford food? Should I go on a crowdfunding site to ask for help with my child’s medical expenses?
Mixed in with these questions was the sinking feeling that came with not knowing what I would tell my two children if I couldn’t afford any Christmas presents.
My experience felt surreal, like I inhabited an entirely different universe from those I interacted with in my daily life. But I also knew I was hardly alone. For example, at the top of an e-newsletter for one of my children’s schools was a “new policy” notice regarding students’ Apple Watches; just a few paragraphs below it was a “thank you” for donations that helped 50 school families like mine during the holiday season. I’m certain those families were as jarred by the juxtaposition as I was.
Within a few days of Christmas, providence presented itself to me in three unexpected forms: a last-minute pet sitting gig, a bonus from clients, and a generous gift from a church—none of whom knew of my predicament. These things, in addition to some extra baking orders for the holidays, secured just enough money to pay rent, all my utility bills, purchase food for December, and buy a few gifts for my kids.
The stress was gone—at least for a couple of weeks.
Now I’m worrying about this month, when my business income grinds to a near halt. I have also been informed that due to a computing error by human services, my monthly SNAP benefits will decrease by $125.
When people say that the holidays are stressful, I want to say, “Define stress.” For me and many others, the fullest meaning of peace and joy is simply this: not having to worry about how we will provide food, shelter, and heat for our loved ones.