The Poorest Time of My Life

ramen noodles(Guest Post by Ashley, while J$ is in Cali)

Ironically, the poorest time in my life was not when I was making the least amount of money. My poorest time was when I was 23 and working full time in a call center. I was making $10 an hour, which wasn’t a lot, but I had lived on less.

I was living in a two bedroom apartment with a roommate and getting along just fine. And then I got pregnant. My boyfriend and I decided to move in together. Which was fine for a while, but he started to get freaked out by the whole of it. Eventually he moved out, leaving me in an apartment I could not afford alone. (This is not a blame game. He came around eventually and has been a very good father to our daughter. I had plenty of responsibility in the situation.)

So I was bringing home about $1,200 a month and rent alone was over $600. Plus all the other bills it takes to live, electric, car insurance, gas, phone, etc.

I had no extra money after I paid the bills. I remember clearly that I had a $20 grocery budget for the month. $20 a MONTH. $5 a week for groceries. And I was pregnant don’t forget. I ate Ramen noodles for lunch and pancakes for dinner. On the weekends I’d switch it up, pancakes for lunch and Ramen for dinner. Wohoo… watch out world! To save money I bought butter flavored syrup so I didn’t have to buy butter. I didn’t even have Mac and Cheese because I couldn’t afford milk.

And my belly was growing. I had bought some maternity clothes at the beginning of my pregnancy so I did have some clothes. But as I got bigger I started fitting into less and less. In the last trimester I had one pair of shorts that fit me. I couldn’t afford to go to the Laundromat so I washed them every night in the tub and then hung them up to dry.

That June, the AC in my car broke. I live in Phoenix. It would be about 110 degrees when I left work in the afternoon. I had a black car with black interior. Steamy! Driving in rush hour traffic with the windows down felt like sitting in an oven with blow dryers blowing in my face. By the time I got home I was absolutely drenched in sweat. I would take a shower, wash my clothes in the tub, and make myself some pancakes. Life was awesome let me tell you!

But of all that, the time I felt absolutely the worst was when everyone at work each chipped in .50 for donuts. I couldn’t spare .50 so I didn’t chip in. Then everyone around me ate their donuts. It was awful! I wanted a donut so fricken bad. I hadn’t had anything good to eat in weeks and they sat all around me with their fried sugar heaven. I died.

Looking back, I could have taken a donut. I’m sure no one would have cared. But I hadn’t chipped in so I didn’t. Looking back there were lots of things I could have done. For one, I could have told people I was struggling. I told no one. If I had told people I didn’t have money for food they might have given me some suggestions. I really didn’t know about couponing, or food banks, WIC, or anything like that. I could have expanded my diet if I had had more information. I probably did long term damage to myself by not eating properly during pregnancy. My daughter, thankfully, was born healthy, but what did my body sacrifice to make that happen?

Also, I could have moved. It was a large apartment complex. I’m sure I could have transferred my lease into a one bedroom, or even a studio. For some reason I was stuck on the idea that I had to have a two bedroom apartment since I was going to have a kid. But looking back, that was dumb. The money I would have saved on rent and electric would have been a huge relief to me.

I was also over paying for car insurance. The car was paid off yet I was carrying full coverage. Which I’m not against if the situation is right for you, but clearly, the situation was not right for me. Why was I carrying extra insurance when I couldn’t even feed myself?

Want to hear the weirdest part? I had money in the bank. Quite a bit of money actually. Over $10,000. But I didn’t touch it because that was for an emergency. Apparently I didn’t consider starvation and heat stroke an emergency. Maybe just knowing that money was there was enough to make me feel less desperate. Maybe that’s why I didn’t ask for help?

Strangely, once my daughter was born things started looking up. For one I stopped being stubborn about asking for help. I got a roommate which cut my bills in half and I started getting child support. I also used some public assistance programs for about a year while I went to school and got on my feet.

I guess there are some lessons to be learned from my story. I think the thing I learned the most was how little I can get by on. I also learned that you always have options. It’s pretty rare to be stuck in a situation where you truly have no options. And nothing lasts forever. It was a tough time, for sure. But it came to an end eventually.

EDITOR’S NOTE: When was the poorest time of YOUR life? How did you overcome it?

Guest Post by Ashley, who puts her life long passion for personal finance into words over at Money Talks. She spends her days trying to inspire you to make the most of your money. You can subscribe to her feed or follow her on twitter.

(Photo by VirtualErn)

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  1. Elizabeth April 27, 2011 at 8:26 AM

    Great story. It reminds me of how blessed I am to have what I have and reminds me that people all over the world live on less and are thankful as well.

  2. Emma April 27, 2011 at 8:51 AM

    First-time commenter. This hit home.

    I graduated with my Masters Degree in December 2008. As an aspiring high school teacher, graduating in December (2008!) is not a good idea (I accelerated through my program to save money on student loans).

    Over the next six months, while I was job searching, things got pretty desperate. I took a nanny job I found on Craigslist for $12 an hour, which I HATED. I took a low-paying part-time job in a charter school for violent, emotionally disturbed 6th graders…the reason the job was available was because two teachers had already left. I also worked for an online company called ChaCha, answering text questions for a dime per question. I ate ramen with an egg added for protein. I learned to coupon. I was never sure if I’d be able to pay my rent that month. I worked about 18 hours a day between get-by jobs and searching for a job.

    Just two years later, I’m teaching brilliant kids in one of the best, if not THE best district on the East Coast, grossing $75k a year between my teaching job and side gigs. I married my husband, a pathologist, and we paid cash for our wedding. We’re taking trips to Costa Rica, Aruba, and the Bahamas (all those trips are in the next six months!), and we’re completely debt free except for my student loans (and I’m enrolled in a loan forgiveness program). Oh, and I max my ROTH and save for a house.

    LIfe is good, and the (really) bad times are almost always temporary.

  3. Emily April 27, 2011 at 9:19 AM

    Whew… this hit home for me too.

    Poorest time of my life? Right now.

    OK… just kidding. Sort of. Poorest time of my life was less than a year ago. I’m slllloooowwwlllyyyyy starting to come out of it. My first year out of college was actually an internship – so I didn’t get paid much at all. Thankfully my church I work for paid the rent on the house my sister and I shared and she helped out with stuff as well. But then came my second year out of college, and I made some pretty major mistakes. I wasn’t an intern anymore so I got paid more, but my sister and I had to pay rent ourselves – which meant moving to a smaller place. The problem was, a few months before that my sister got laid off from her second job and was down to a part-time gig at Victoria’s Secret. She didn’t help with rent much. Or bills. Groceries and cell phone on occasion. Then the REAL problems started – I had 2 visits to the ER and things got crazy messed up with my insurance. For MONTHS I was paying off HUGE hospital bills that I couldn’t afford. I was always getting phone calls from collection agencies because I was behind on everything. There were a few months where my bank account was always in the red. To make this already long story short – the church I work at found out about what was going on, and after several meetings and tears they helped me to make the millions of phone calls to hospitals and insurance companies to get everything figured out. I’m now working on my last leg of paying it all off – but I wouldn’t have had this problem if I had just put my pride to the side and asked for help in the first place.

  4. MacroCheese April 27, 2011 at 9:50 AM

    Sometimes it seems like wants and needs have been blurred so much that they are almost indistinguishable.

    If we all focused a little more on the who’s in our life and not the what’s, there wouldn’t be much of a market for personal finance blogs! We’d all have more than enough to be happy.

  5. CrankyMommy April 27, 2011 at 10:16 AM

    Right now. I’m 32 years old and I have been STRUGGLING. I am going through an expensive divorce, my soon to be ex-husband is not paying child support for our two kids, and I’m under-employed, about to be unemployed during a 3 month furlough. I realized things were really bad when my grandmother sent me $25 to buy my daughter something for her birthday. I did buy her something – food and gas for the car so I can drive her to school! Not exactly what Great-Grandma had in mind :)

    So I swallowed my pride and did the unthinkable… I called my parents and asked for money. I explained the situation to my dad, explained my plan to get back on my feet (once the divorce is final I will start getting some small amount of support, I have multiple open applications for full-time, high paying jobs, I’m moving out of my apartment when my lease is up and in with a friend), and a check is in the mail. I am so blessed and grateful that they have the money to help me out – I know not everyone is lucky enough to have family who can help. Now I’m just sticking tightly to my budget and looking forward to the day that I can pay them back. Even though I’m not financially stable right now, I can already start paying them back by being a good daughter. I know that’s worth more than money to them.

  6. Ashley @ Money Talks April 27, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    Hi guys, thanks for your comments.

    @ Elizabeth: Yes, I think that all the time when I’m feeling poor for whatever reason. I always remind myself that I have everything I need and more.

    @ Emma: UG, at least I didn’t hate my job. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. Sounds like things are going great now. congrats!

    @ Emily: Why is it so hard to ask for help? I don’t know. I’m glad you are coming to the end of your struggle. It’s better on the other side. :)

    @ Macro Cheese: Yes the difference between needs and wants gets very blurred in todays society. I was living in denial and really didn’t sit down and think about what I wanted vs what I needed. I thought I needed a lot more than I did.

    @ Cranky Mommy: I’m sorry you are going through a rough time. It’s hard. Things will get better. You’ve asked for help, which is the hardest step I think. Good luck!

  7. Beth April 27, 2011 at 12:28 PM

    If anyone is in a situation like that, please, please, ask for help and assistance. Programs exist for reason – people don’t want others to suffer like that. If Ashley had been mine friend, I would have been so upset if she hadn’t told me what was going on so I could at least offer her a good dinner at my place once or twice a week and try to find her some help.

  8. Jenna April 27, 2011 at 2:10 PM

    I agree with @Elizabeth. It’s easy to complain about your own financial situation…until you hear about someone else struggling much harder than you were.

    My boyfriend and I are currently living on one income while he’s going back to school and looking for a new job. While we’re certainly eating better than ramen and pancakes, we have a strict budget for food and household expenses and have cut out or reduced much of our spending from our former two-income life. It’s been an important lesson in learning how to prioritize and manage our money. We now know that we can live like this, and thinking towards the day when he’s back in the workforce as well, it’s amazing to think how fast the student and car loans will be paid off if we continue with our current low-cost lifestyle even just for a short time after that! Since we were forced to change our spending habits, we might actually end up in a better financial place, since we would’ve had less incentive to cut those bottles of wine or dinners out if we had the extra money to spend.

  9. Donna Freedman April 27, 2011 at 2:15 PM

    Picture a 21-year-old single mom with a 1-year-old baby who can’t walk yet, struggling up to the fourth floor (no elevator) carrying said baby, the diaper bag from day care, a bag of groceries and my own lunchbag after a long day of work. Luckily, the slow cooker has been simmering Great Northern beans and a neckbone since that morning. We eat, I put the leftovers away for the next few days, I play with the baby, sing to the baby, bathe the baby, put the baby to bed and then hit the scrub-board to deal with yesterday’s diapers, which have been soaking all day.
    That was me. I had a “permanent part-time” job as a newsroom clerk at The Philadelphia Inquirer that paid rent, child care and my bus pass but not a whole lot of anything else. We lived mostly on beans, spaghetti, oatmeal, corn mush, the occasional chicken leg, and whatever fruits and vegetables were cheapest that week. I frequented a specific vendor because while I picked out a head of broccoli and two tangerines he would peel a banana and give it to my daughter. That was one less serving of fruit I had to buy.
    I also remember the weekly special at GNC: With the newspaper coupon you could get a container of yogurt for 9 cents. There was a deli that sold some fresh meat, and every couple of weeks I would buy a chicken leg to bake for my daughter. The counter guy used to joke: “Come on, live it up — buy two!” He never knew how hard it was for me to buy ONE.
    It was a good thing I knew how to live on less because I was doing it again in my late 40s, after leaving an awful marriage. On the bright side, this “research” enabled me to get my current gig at MSN Money, i.e., I knew how to be frugal. Things even out.
    P.S. I still eat a lot of slow-cooker beans.

  10. Jeremy April 27, 2011 at 2:29 PM

    Poorest time in your life was with $10,000 in the bank? Sounds like less of a poor time and more of a financial crunch down with overly conservative spending sprinkled with ignorant spending. I seriously applaud your willpower and personal restraint. I’m glad you didn’t ask for help; granted that is my own opinion. I personally would find it odd to request assistance without at least considering using your own resources first. For me, it would be hard to tell someone “I don’t have money for food” with a small savings like that.

    I do think you should have at least told someone about your situation, especially while carrying. You are a very strong woman. I’m a big fan of communication. The discussion in itself would have pushed you into a smaller apartment and cheaper insurance (maybe).

    I was kicked out of my house at the age of 15 (lets just say Master Sergeant in the military father), lived in my salvaged bought rebuilt car for about 6 months, drove with only my learners permit (no insurance), working full time at Taco Bell (no insurance). Obviously, I don’t condone any of this, but I didn’t think I had many options that I could accept. I wasn’t calling DHS. I wasn’t going to tell anyone at any shelters.

    I had food. I ate fast food 24/7. Either Taco Bell… or I’d use Taco Bell to trade with other fast food places. I’d park my car at different apartment complexes and use their laundry mats. I’d shower either at the high school (until I dropped out in my Junior year), shelters, the Y, or some friend’s parent’s houses (with some excuse).

    It was definitely a swift kick in the ass. Now, I’ll be going to grad school, commissioned as a 2LT, and then CPT upon completion.

    Thank you for your story. I’m glad things are working out for you now.

  11. fifi April 27, 2011 at 2:45 PM

    Poorest time

    The poorest time in my life was actually a very exciting time. I had just graduted college and spent all but $300 on a trip around Europe. I slept on my friend’s couch for a month, got a job through another friend and after a couple months, was out on my own. I would buy a sub sandwich, eat half one day and the other half the next day and those were my meals. I remember what a blessed site I saw one day, tombstone pizzas, buy 5 get them at a dollar each! I lived off pizza for many weeks.

    I think it was exciting because I was young and I was SUPPOSED to be in a transitional place. Now that I’m older and having financial troubles because of the housing crash and my own stupid decisions, it’s not so exciting. I’m doin my best to recover and hope to high heaven that I won’t have to update my poorest time story. I guess what you can take from Ashley’s story and from mine is always talk to people. Reach out and ask for help, guidance, and advice. Don’t depend on that help, but use it as extra time for you to get back on your feet.

  12. Ashley @ Money Talks April 27, 2011 at 3:34 PM

    @ Beth: I agree that anyone struggling should tell someone. and you are very sweet.

    @ Jenna: I agree that your new forced spending habits will probably pay off. The same thing happened to us when I became a stay at home mom. We had to cut back to make it happen and those habits have stayed with us. I think me quitting my job was the best thing to happen to us financially. weird.

    @ Donna: Ah! I lived on the third floor with a newborn and no elevator. It stinks!

    @Jeremy: I agree with you and the asking for help with money in the bank. I think that’s exactly why I didn’t. But you are right that I should at least let some people know so they could smack me around a bit. lol. I think I was in serious denial. Like my brian just couldn’t accept the situation. If someone had told me what to do I would have done it. I literally couldn’t think of it.

    @ fifi: It is kinda “fun” when you are young and free to kind of float around live on pizza and friend’s couches. It’s a different story when you are old and responsible. :(

  13. Tim April 27, 2011 at 5:36 PM

    My worst time was in college. I came from a working poor family. Both my parents were teachers so they made just enough that I didn’t qualify for financial aid but didnt make enough to actually help out any with school. I had to pay for college out of pocket, I would work through the summer and one semester and go to school the next semester. I could only afford to take classes one semester a year. I was managing ok this way until my car died at the beginning of a semester and it cost every cent I had to get it fixed including cashing out my tiny IRA. Living without motorized transportation in the South West is just not an option with the huge distances involved. I could not work and be a full time student at one of the toughest engineering schools, I was already spending 10-12 hrs a day on course work.

    At first I swallowed my pride and tried getting food stamps which sent the ladies there into a tirade.. “See here you are trying to better yourself and they wont even help you out while any (expletive! *shouting at everyone else in line*) can sit on the couch and dont even have to show they are trying to find a job!” Wow sorry I asked. Turns out any full time student needs to be working 20 hrs a week minimum first before they qualify for food stamps, if I was working that much I wouldnt need money… I tried finding a food bank, there was none in the area.

    After being without food for a week I broke down and pawned some very old sentimental tools that had been passed down 3 generations and after bills I had $50 to buy groceries to last for the next 3 months… I bought 50 lbs of pinto beans and 40 lbs of rice and some soy sauce. I already had a well stocked cupboard with spices otherwise I wouldn’t have lasted near as long as I did. I ate rice and beans for the next 90+ days and lived off of less than 50 cents a day. When the loose change I would find would be enough to buy a packet of Ramen it was a day of pure heaven. One day I found a dollar and was able to get a pack of hot dogs to cut up and cook with my rice and beans, OMG! when you are starving even a small piece of hot dog tastes like the best T Bone you’ve ever had. Whenever I would get low on gas I would have to drive 180 miles round trip into the city to donate plasma for gas money, which would not get me that much after the 1/3 a tank it cost to drive there.

    About a month and a half in I couldn’t take it any more and was dying for just a taste of anything. My kingdom for a soda! I kept my Grandfathers old 30.30 winchester in the toolbox of my truck and scrounging up anything left of value I could find to pawn I bought one box of ammo, 20 shots only to put some food on the table. I know exactly how you felt with the donuts. Everyone around me seemed to happy without a care in the world while I was secretly depressed any time they ate around me. Here I was a student at a prestigious engineering school having to sneak out and hunt my own dinner to survive. In five hunts I only got 3 rabbits which yielded very little meat, a 30.30 is not good for rabbits. I later decided that the energy spent was not worth it, another trip for plasma/gas money, and the effort to find them and dress and cook them after I was probably spending more calories than I was getting.

    Throughout all of this nobody knew. Nobody knew how horribly malnourished I was. I was a long distance runner and pretty thin to begin with but ended up growing a pot belly like you see in those African charity commercials and I guess they thought I was drinking a lot of beer or junk food.

    The worst part of all of this though is the life long damage to my body those 3 months of rough patch caused. Prior to all of this I had an iron constitution. I could literally eat anything. Friends used to challenge me to eat the oddest most unusual things they could find on the menus at ethnic restaurants. For a year afterwards I would get horribly sick eating anything except beans or rice. I could afford real food again but I couldnt eat it! After being on such a strict diet for so long I lost the ability to digest anything else. Even to this day 12 years later I really have to be careful with what I eat. If its something new or something I havent had in a while it could make me sick within an hr or two of eating it.

  14. Indian Thoughts April 28, 2011 at 2:27 AM

    I feel sad that you have gone through something like that at the most precious time of your life. But on the other hand, way you handled it made me very motivated. I would also have never asked for any help if GOD forbid I would have been in your situation and I completely understand when you say “Maybe just knowing that money was there was enough to make me feel less desperate”.

    I don’t wanna and probably don’t have great story of my poorest time but I want to really thank you and J. Money from core of my heart for this post.

    It gave me much needed motivation and hope to be optimistic again. I am writing a post on your post on my blog just because I got them compelling feeling after some many months now.

    Thanks once again and I hope and pray that you never ever have to face such problems again in your life.

  15. Sassy April 28, 2011 at 12:21 PM

    My poorest time was when I was living under HUD housing with a newborn. I was struggling to afford everything. I was 18 and had worked at a thrift store up until a couple days before I delivered. Once I had the baby, they said it was just a training program which was only available for one year. I didn’t have a job, Medicaid and food stamps claimed I made too much (ummmm really!?!? How?) and I was really struggling to make it.

  16. Anna April 28, 2011 at 4:55 PM

    I am currently twenty-three and I graduated at the peak of the unemployment crisis, so jobs for new graduates were (and still are) very hard to come by. Luckily I did get hired within a few months of graduation and now, almost two years later I am still there. Now, I am in a similar situation as you, in that after paying bills, I don’t have ANY money to spend on anything else, whether it is fun activities, or even something as silly as chipping in for donuts like in your story. What baffles me about your story is that you had $10,000 in the bank! I don’t understand how someone my age could have earned that kind of money to put aside. I don’t have an emergency fund or a car, and at this point, I can’t foresee myself ever having one, at this rate at least. But if I had $10,000 in the bank, at least I’d feel a sense of security, if I lost my job, I won’t be kicked out of my apartment. I surprised you didn’t chip into your emergency fund at such desperate times, I know I would have, especially if I was expecting a baby. I am hoping things will turn around real soon and I know it can always be worse.

  17. Ericaatgobankingrates April 29, 2011 at 3:52 PM

    Love this topic. Brought back great memories of poverty! I was living in London. Moved there on a whim and knew no one. I ran though all my money quickly and couldn’t get a job legally. Ended up cleaning houses (yes, under the table) but was still barely scraping by. I had just enough cash to pay for a meal’s worth of food: shredded potatoes, carrots, and onions bound together with an egg. Another starving student taught me to make it (he called it Russian pancake). Filled the belly but got disgusting after three days. I would look longingly at bakeries and cafes, dreaming of the day I could walk in and order ANYthing. Then my dad, out of the blue, sent me a letter and $20. First thing I did was get a sweet bun and a diet coke. Best meal I ever had.

  18. Liberty April 30, 2011 at 8:53 PM

    The poorest time of my life is always. I’ve never had a lot of money – I’ve gone years between owning cars. I’ve always shopped at Goodwill or Salvation Army and yard sales — and loved it. I’ve always taken public transportation. And I’ve always had fun in life. I’ve traveled the country because various companies I’ve worked for sent me for training. I attended an Opera Ball because I was on staff and got my ticket for the $300/plate dinner free. I’ve been comped tickets to various arts events because I’ve volunteered. I’ve traveled and played music professionally. I’ve traveled overseas. I have more fun creating things than buying things and have always been passionate about giving. I am joyfully in love with my husband of one year. Together we are not rich, but we are having fun and happy to have found each other. I was on food stamps for 4 months between jobs. I’ve used food pantry services on occasion. I’ve had to choose between groceries and medication. I’ve never felt poor. I watch the lives of the ‘rich’ on reality programs and I would never trade their life for mine. My only regret is not having enough money to start a foundation so I could give more money away to people in need.

  19. Jackie April 30, 2011 at 10:21 PM

    I think the hardest lesson I have learned is life is it is okay to ask for help when you need it. I also think we grow and learn during our times of struggle. I know I have learned alot and like you have learned how little you can actually live on and be okay.

  20. J. Money May 4, 2011 at 1:50 AM

    WOW. Some of you had it sooooo baddd!! And I’m sure others reading still do :( I appreciate you all sharing your stories like that – it takes a lot. Really really puts thing in perspective for ME too! Especially yours Tim – mannnnnn I can’t even fathom that! Shooting for your food?? Wow. I honestly don’t know what I would have done, that is harsh. Good for you for overcoming it though!!! It take a strong person to do that.

    Ashley — Very thought provoking article, thanks so much for guest posting for us!!! Really good discussions here :)

  21. Dmarie May 4, 2011 at 9:12 AM

    something about being young and hormonal that makes it hard to see all the options. It’s the low-money times that taught me to do so many of the things that now lessen my carbon footprint: like hanging laundry out to dry and cooking from scratch as opposed to buying packaged foods. Your iron-will about saving has surely served you well through the years, especially once you learned to spend some of the savings when really need be. What a great post…thanks for sharing and stimulating such an interesting lot of comments!