There’s a man I know.
He leans against the wall outside the Walgreen's where I shop almost every day. He might be in his sixties. I don’t know if he’s homeless or not. He has on the same outfit almost every time I see him. A blue baseball cap sits on top of his head. His brown shoes are old and scuffed.
The first time I saw him, he offered a near-toothless smile and told me to have a nice day. I smiled back and thanked him. He didn’t ask for anything, but as I was backing out of my parking spot, I noticed him behind me directing traffic so I could get out safely. It may have been what won me over, seeing him shout and flap his arms around trying to help me.
I worried I might insult him if I tried to offer him money the next time I saw him. It was just five dollars, but he accepted it with a grateful smile. I tried to make sure I had a little cash on hand whenever I stopped at Walgreen's after that. I didn't concern myself with what he spent the money on as long as it made him happy. As time went by, he greeted me with a great big hug every time we crossed paths.
He still helps me out of my parking space. “Be careful,” he says as he waves for me to back up. Sometimes I worry about him. Does he have a place to live and enough food? I know nothing personal about him except the one fact that’s the most personal of all.
That man used to be me.
I don’t remember my parents having a lot of money. When they were still together, they used to laugh about the Bisquick story. Apparently, right before I was born, they were so poor they had to eat nothing but Bisquick for an entire week. I’d laugh along with them even if I didn’t get the joke. While there wasn’t money for special things like skating lessons growing up, we had a home and ate a good dinner every night. I don’t remember hearing them argue about money. As I got older, I figured there wasn't much to argue over, anyway.
When I got married a year after high school, my husband and I lived in a studio apartment eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner. It was probably the time we were happiest as a couple. As time went by, we saved diligently and he made a series of good business decisions. By the time we divorced 16 years later, we were living in our 2500 square foot dream house in the woods with a saltwater pool, a three-car garage, and French doors going out to the patio that I’d insisted on. The irony isn’t lost on me that as we became more wealthy, the more miserable our relationship became. We eventually sold the house and split all the money we saved.
By then, I was 35 years old and knew nothing about managing money. My parents quickly spent any extra money we had until their wallets were empty. The only checking account I ever had was with my husband’s name on it. Not to mention that I was still grieving from the divorce and wasn’t thinking straight to begin with. Ironically, the only thing that made me feel better was shopping. Credit cards arrived at my new townhouse with only my name and a limit of up to $10,000. Sure, I made decent money working my medical transcription job, but I felt like I was sitting on top of a mountain of money just waiting to be spent.
Much of my money was donated to my new boyfriend. When I met him, he was living in a trailer park with a broken-down car and an eviction notice in his window. I ignored all the blazing red flags and dated him anyway, and he moved into my townhouse within the span of a few months. Later, I found out from one of his friends that he was using me for my money. By then, I was in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy with a baby girl. It felt too late to confront him, and I couldn't keep track of what I spent, anyway. The pile of money I sat on grew smaller and smaller, and the day came when I had my own eviction notice in the window of my townhouse.
The boyfriend and I got married after our daughter was born. We spent the next seven years as poor as you can possibly get. There were nights we went to bed hungry. At our lowest, we lived in a tiny motel on the worst side of town full of junkies and criminals. I was afraid to go outside, even to shop for food with what little money we had. There was a church nearby that had a food pantry, and we stopped there once a week for a grocery bag full of food. Sometimes they gave us other things like toilet paper and shampoo, things I used to buy all the time without looking at the price.
The worst part was the occasions I felt like I had to beg. I’d use my last few drops of fuel to make it to the gas station, then give one of the customers a sob story about how I couldn’t make it home. Sometimes they even filled up my whole tank. I felt like the lowest human being alive, bothering people for money while they went about their business. Even though we desperately needed the gas for work, I was ashamed of myself. I could only imagine what those people were thinking.
Still, there were kind people along the way. Sometimes I’d wind up short of money in the grocery line, and the person behind me would offer to put my things with theirs. A woman saw me counting out pennies at a McDonald’s and handed me twenty dollars. I felt embarrassed for accepting their help, but every one of them said the same thing:
“I’ve been there.”
It makes me wonder how many among us have “been there.” People we pass on the street could be hungry or exhausted from working two jobs or sick from no health insurance. Sometimes those people have to swallow every bit of their pride and ask for help. It’s hard. It makes them feel defeated because they worry you’ll think they’re a loser who can’t manage their lives. Maybe they missed a paycheck or two. Maybe they don’t get a paycheck at all.
Every person has a story, and it’s not always what you think. That’s why it’s important to help each other without judgment. Honestly, during my first marriage, I hardly ever gave people money because I worried about what they would spend it on like alcohol or drugs. I believed helping was enabling them not to get a job or stand up on their own. I’m ashamed of myself for thinking that way, but my experiences have taught me to do better. It doesn’t matter what the person you help spends it on. That’s not the point of giving.
I’ve also learned to be careful with money. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few years ago, never realizing before that I was likely manic when I went on all those shopping sprees after my divorce. Mental illness makes it harder to budget and plan, but I find that if I pause before spending I can make a thoughtful decision of whether to hand over my debit card for a purchase.
Today, I’m far from rich, but I’ve never felt more happy or peaceful in my life. I’d rather be happy with less money than miserable with more. Money can cause stress no matter what amount you have, and we can reduce that stress by being more responsible and also by giving freely to help someone who is going without. It helps them, but it also helps you, especially if you’ve “been there.”