For some unknown reason, many people enjoy judging how others spend their money. Particularly when the person spending money is poor, others like to make comments. “Why would you have a smartphone if you can barely pay rent?” “How can you spend money on organic veggies if you’re using food stamps?” “If you can afford x then you can definitely afford y”.
What’s fascinating to me about this is that there are often complex reasons that people choose to spend their money the way they do. People have different priorities, purchases can mean different things to different people, and often something that looks frivolous may serve an important role to the person who buys it. It seems to me to be yet another example of individuals assuming that everyone else views the world and interacts with the world in the same way that they do, and then becoming upset when others act differently from them.
Unfortunately however, this kind of judgment does actually have negative consequences. It leads to campaigns to take away food stamps and support programs, verbal harassment, and serious anxiety and emotional tolls on those who do spend their money in different ways due to the necessity of constantly defending their choices. Those who live in poverty already have to make difficult decisions about how to spend their money, but putting their choices constantly under the scrutiny of all of society is generally a horrible way to ensure that they can make decisions which will positively impact their lives. Most studies have found that shame is a bad motivator, and because individuals require different things (unheard of, right?), expecting all people with lower incomes to follow the same set of societally enforced guidelines is deeply unhelpful.
Let’s not even get into the fact that oftentimes large purchases were made before someone fell into poverty, or were a gift.
Now I’m sure some people out there are shaking their heads and thinking “Yeah, but everyone needs food and shelter, so shouldn’t those things always come first? Shouldn’t you always make sure your money goes to those things and then prioritize other stuff?” Yes, it’s true that everyone needs food and shelter, but not everyone is privileged enough that these are their only basic needs. Some people have chronic illnesses, disabilities, children, or other extenuating circumstances that could put their safety at risk if they are not attended to. Additionally, life is not just about surviving, and when those who live in poverty manage to have the money to do something that helps them thrive, we should not disdain them for it.
As per usual, I will use myself as an example because I like to talk about me (and because I am the most readily available subject). I currently am living in poverty. I make a ridiculously low wage ($11,000/yr) and don’t get benefits. I am lucky in that I have a fair amount of savings, but I do have student loans as well and at this point in my life I’m fully independent. However I go out to eat on a regular basis. Sometimes really nice restaurants. I spend probably half of my money on food.
I very often have this pointed out to me as a way that I could cut costs and live in a more stable fashion. I’ve gotten the side eye from family members who think I’m being stupid or irresponsible. People tell me all the time “why don’t you just cook at home? It’s cheaper and better for you!” To that I laugh. One of the symptoms of my eating disorder is that I really hate cooking and having food in my home. It sends my anxiety through the roof, particularly when I have perishables around. If I have to spend more than about 15 minutes on cooking, I just won’t do it and when I try I often end up a crying mess, purging, cutting, or all three.
Because of this, the only foods that I feel comfortable having in my home (e.g. which I don’t feel leave me vulnerable to hurting myself) are those which are quick to prepare and will keep for a long time. Essentially this is ramen noodles, mac and cheese, and soup. When I eat at home, that is the extent of my diet and when I have attempted to change it, very bad things have happened. Eating this diet is not healthy. It’s not really safe for me to eat this day in and day out, especially considering my history of restriction. Going out to eat is the only reprieve I have from this. It’s not a get out of jail free card from my eating disorder, but it makes things easier. It gives me access to more variety, to balanced meals, to some joy in my food.
Spending money on eating out is for me spending money on my own health. I cannot simply choose to eat and cook at home and be healthy. So when others look at me and act as if I am being frivolous with my money by eating out, what they miss is that the money I spend is spent on something truly important. It could even be a matter of life and death (yes, eating disorders do kill and frequently). What they miss is that they have no comprehension of the complicated balancing act of pros and cons that go into my purchasing decisions.
Everyone has an entire life that goes into every action that they make. You don’t see everything they’re weighing when you see the final outcome that is the decision to spend money. So unless you have a great deal of knowledge about the life of whoever you feel the need to “help”, leave it alone.