Sunday, March 21, 2010

Afraid to Look Poor

I was going through my boy’s closet/ drawers this morning trying to help them find something suitable for church. Most of their clothes are play clothes and therefore have that play clothes “look” (IE holes in the knees, frayed cuffs, ground in stains). Usually I don’t care what the boys look like when we are just home. But recently while picking up animal feed, we made a side trip to the grocery store and ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for a really long time. I squirmed during our quick conversation realizing how we must have looked to her: dirty faced kids with ripped up jeans and tennis shoes stained with something questionably undesirable. I ended our talking and purchased our milk in record time so as not to accidentally run into anyone else. Why did what we looked like to my friend bother me? I knew that we had just come from the farm. What was I trying to prove?

MSN Money had an article on its website recently that spotlighted the question of what it means to “look poor”. The author notes that for some people wanting to appear rich is a matter of two thought patterns: the first is “racing to keep ahead of the Joneses”; the other is the “fear of seeming to be broke”. The latter has some big bad feelings of embarrassment, apprehension and acts of self dishonesty attached. Trying not to look poor can lead us to spend money that we don’t have just so we don’t give the impression of being what we dread most: a frazzled, anxiety-laden financial disaster.

“Well, that’s not me”, I said to myself. But how many times have I paid for high dollar sports pictures of my kids in their team uniform when I could just have easily taken the same picture in my back yard. Was it because I didn’t want the other parents to notice that I wasn’t having pictures taken? When was the last time I bought a pair of shoes because everyone else was wearing them and could see me wearing them, too (Clogs)? How does hanging the laundry outside to dry look to my neighbors? Do my clothes flapping in the wind look like the dryer is broken and we can’t afford to get it repaired or that we don’t even own a dryer? Does having less somehow make me feel like less of a person? Could the fear of what others think of me cause me to act in ways that might be financially irresponsible? Where does this fear come from? Somewhere my lifestyle fantasy had changed from the “yearning to be rich” to the “fear of looking poor”.

MP Dunleavy, the author of the MSN Money article “Are You Afraid to Look Poor”, quotes Miriam Tatzel, a social psychologist at Empire State College in New York as stating that there is a deep anxiety of being stigmatized for being poor. To quell the imposing anxieties of appearing poor could cause me to fall into a terrible cycle of overspending. Dr. Tatzel offers a couple of ways to combat the fear of looking poor.

The first is an obvious behavior that I have preached from my own mouth when counseling my children. I need to spend time with people who share my same values. If I spend time with people who pity me because I choose not to buy a 16 oz double-caramel-latte-with-soy-milk-hold-the-whipped-cream, then I need to change my associations. (Maybe I should pity them because I have $5 more dollars in my pocket than they do!) Instead perhaps I should initiate a brown bag group where we share recipes and frugal tips during our lunch break. As Dr. Tatzel describes, I need to “change the pressures that you expose yourself to.”

The second recommendation is to not listen to those small voices that tell me people are really going to think less of me if my car is not a luxury car or if my clothes are not designer clothes. Those are attitudes coming from inside me that I need to push away from my thinking. Instead, I need to congratulate myself on the fact that I drive 10-year old SUV that has a rip in the seat and the interior lights don’t always work but fits my family of 6 and keeps us safe in our Montana winters. And most importantly, it’s paid for. I should look at my bank account instead of my clothes closet filled with thrift store items that fit great for mere dollars.
Yes, I might look poor. But so does the millionaire next door.

In the mean time, though, I think I'll drop by the thrift store tomorrow to see what they have in boys sizes 12 and 14 just so the kids have something to wear to church that doesn't look like we just wrestled a pig into the shed. We can be farmers without looking (or smelling) like farmers.

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