Salary Shaming: Is Broke the New Single?

The dark side of the American Dream is that if we don’t achieve the greatness we feel, by birth, is ours for the taking, we’ve failed.

When I was in my 20s, being single made me the outsider.

 I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Wherever you live, surely there is a Park Slope: a neighborhood known for being child-friendly, where the sidewalks are choked with strollers, everyone seems to own a purebred Golden Retriever and all the guys with hot butts turn out to be carrying an Ergo when you catch up with them.

 It was awful. One time, I wanted to go to my local diner, but it was brunch time and there was a line. The host asked, “How many? One? Stand over here,” and went on to the next people in line -- a couple.

 "No!” they both shrieked. “Give her a seat!”

 “But she can sit at the counter,” he told them.

 I took the emotional bullet. “Sit,” I told them, heroically accepting my individual-serving place in this family-style world. “Sit in good health.”

 When I Was Single, I Felt Shame

Those were the days I’d lie in bed, nursing a well-earned Sunday morning hangover, and listen to the mom across the back alleyway say things like, “Well, I suggest you change your attitude if you actually want dessert.” I’d weep into my mismatched sheets because dang it, that was adorable.

Rather than being femininist-ly happy to be alone, footloose and fancy free, I yearned for a boyfriend, a husband, domestic bliss. Worse, I felt shame. Shame that I apparently didn’t deserve a table when I could just sit at the counter. Apologies for not having a plus-one. Mortification at running into an ex with hotsy-totsy Miss Thing while I felt like plain old Thing.

I’d ask myself: “What am I doing wrong? How can I change? Am I the only lonely one?”

Of course, once you’re with a boyfriend, you may still identify with your formerly single self, like that nice couple that tried to give me their two-top. But it’s hard to forget that lingering shame.

And I’ve Been Feeling It Again Lately

Even though now I’ve got the husband, the kids, and I’m the one saying, “I suggest you put those shoes on your feet if you expect to go to the playground,” suddenly I feel a new shame.

Shame at my lack of having enough money for all the things my family needs–and wants. “Will it always be like this?” I ask. “What am I doing wrong? How can I change? Am I the only broke one?”

I’ve moved far from Park Slope, across the country to San Francisco, only to find that the whole city is basically a huge, 7×7 mile Park Slope. At 40, my life changed in the blink of an eye: I married and had two kids in the past five years, and ended up 3,000 miles from where I started, both physically and emotionally.

Our first kid was born in 2008, just as the economy was dipping into its current slough. Within weeks of coming home from the hospital, my husband was laid off from his videogame production job. As he approaches his 50s, he’s not considered an experienced asset, just an older guy who won’t work 70-hour weeks and doesn’t have an undergrad degree in gaming technology because that didn’t exist when he was in school.

Unable to land a new gig, he became the stay-at-home parent as I went off to be a marketing copywriter. We limped along on a reduced income. When I got laid off a year and a half later, we “celebrated” with a carefree, nap-time nooner, which resulted in Kid Number Two. (Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t get pregnant while breastfeeding. Or after the age of 40.)

Powered by unemployment, COBRA health insurance and freelance/consultant gigs, we trimmed down and soldiered forth again. I was not-so-secretly delighted to be having a second kid, and I thought for sure solid work would show up soon. It always had.

This time it didn’t.

Where We Are Now

Promising temp-to-perm positions petered out for my husband. Asking for raises lost me clients as a freelance writer. Unemployment ran out. And now, with two kids in preschool, our “trimming down” is more like a Brazilian bikini wax. We live in a transitional neighborhood that’s headed upward, and as our landlords raise the rent, we’re being priced out of our own home, unsure where we can go next.

In the meantime, the joy of spending time with friends is poisoned by my inability to reciprocate. Other people my age own houses with matching furniture; even if I were able to organize and clean our tiny rental apartment, it’s still a tiny rental apartment.

My friends are also struggling, like moms who have put plans to return to work on the shelf because there is no work. “Available nanny” ads flood the neighborhood email lists. But we’re worse off than our friends, since getting by on one income is better than getting by on undependable freelance income. My friends don’t care how my home looks, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling embarrassed, just as I felt miserable not having a plus-one for the 10,000 weddings I attended at 27.

We struggle month to month, borrowing from my retired parents when we can’t make ends meet. We sometimes have to make excuses to the utility companies. My friends’ complaints are things like, “We’re so behind on saving for college/retirement,” “I pass out when I pay the preschool bill,” and “the one thing I won’t give up is my cleaning lady!”

When they say that, all I hear is: “We’re saving. We pay all our bills. We have a cleaning lady!” It’s like hearing a romantically entangled friend complain about the sunburn she got on her weekend away with her sexy boyfriend.

 I Feel Like I Have to Lie About How We Struggle

On weekends, when we have my step-kids, we no longer fit in our small SUV, so my husband has to take the bus and meet up with us for family outings. (Oh, sure, public transportation is great: A 20-minute trip across the city on the 49 only takes two hours.)

I’m embarrassed to invite people over to watch a soccer game, because our TV is a hand-me-down and our couch literally has springs poking through. I recently saved up some money for a fundraiser at our synagogue only to find that my friends had quietly paid for our family already. I wanted to cry. With gratitude, sure, but mostly with embarrassment.

This isn’t about envy. My friends are fantastic, admirable people who earn their money working hard and appreciating everything they have. This is about shame. Right now, the kids don’t notice they go to a co-op, where I work extra shifts to bring the price even lower, while their friends have nannies or go to day schools that cost more than our rent. Right now, they think the thrift store is better than Target. Right now, they don’t know that their “break” from dance class is because I can’t pay.

But they’re going to start noticing in the next couple of years. And I worry that I’ll feel shame for them, too.

 How I Reconciled Myself Then, and Now

At a certain point when I was single, I realized I couldn’t force someone to fall in love with me, but I could do more than just feel ashamed. I created index cards with annoying moments from past relationships, to remind myself that the wrong guy is worse than no guy. I took classes and went to events, like pub trivia night and karaoke night, to ensure I’d have evenings out that didn’t have to be romantic.

Lo and behold, the shame faded, and when the time was right, there was Mr. Right. But at the core of it all, I had to forgive myself–being single didn’t make me a bad person, and feeling bad about it didn’t make me a bad feminist.

Similarly, if I’m broke, I can’t force someone to give me a great job, but there’s a lot more we can do than wallow in the power-sapping, paralyzing shame. First, we have to forgive ourselves: Being broke isn’t a moral failing.

 So we’re doing what we can. I haunt a weekly email list detailing free and cheap activities around the Bay. I joined Freecycle so I could replace my busted printer. I figured out a babysitting swap. I started haunting “frugal mom” extreme-couponing sites, because those people are hilarious/nuts but also have some good ideas.

And I started joking about it. Because you’re only as sick as your secrets.

Is it easy? No. Two weeks ago I dropped everything and missed a deadline to complete an edit test for a potential job, while on vacation, and rushed back home for an interview that went really, really well … only to hear that the company decided not to hire anyone after all. I was in a cold, emotionless funk for about four days. But I had people depending on me, so I pulled up my big-girl bloomers and got back to work.

Where That Leaves Me

I keep in mind that I am better off than a lot of people. And typing “how to be happily single” and “how to be happily broke” both get oodles of Google results. That helps, because it means I’m not alone.

John Steinbeck said, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The dark side of the American Dream is that if we don’t achieve the greatness we feel, by birth, is ours for the taking, we’ve failed. It’s a handy motivational tool, but it’s also too simplistic: Your bank account is not the sum total of your worth. Neither is the object on the fourth finger of your left hand.

I’m more than my brokeness, just like I was more than my singleness way back when.

It may not buy me dinner, but that knowledge will at least allow me the emotional space to plan for the future, so it’s not always like this. And should I always remain in the same non-relationship with wealth, well, there are people who are more money-lonely than I am. I can handle it.

Reprinted with permssion from LearnVest. LearnVest Editor’s Note: If You’re in This Situation … 

Struggling to make ends meet is sensitive on many levels, both emotional and, obviously, financial.

One of the hardest parts is the feeling of isolation that often accompanies a money situation you don’t feel good about. If you’re looking for a supportive community, you can interact with other LearnVest members in LV Discussions (where you can comment anonymously if you’d like). Consider joining a Meetup group for unemployed people, where you can talk about your situation without fear of shame, attend fun free events in your city, network and find resources to help.

LearnVest CFP® Sophia Bera says, “If you think you might really be suffering from depression, check with your health insurance company to see what mental health coverage is available–talking to a therapist could be helpful in this type of long term unemployment situation. If the cost of therapy is forbidding, group therapy can be more affordable.”  

If you’re in a similar boat as this author, sign up for LearnVest’s Build Your Career Bootcamp to figure out what’s most important to you in a job, learn networking techniques and figure out if grad school is for you. In the meantime, if you’re trying to make ends meet on a reduced income, check out Cut Your Costs Bootcamp, which will walk you through every expense in your home, from cutting down on the cost of your beauty cabinet to renegotiating your cable bill. You can find more of LearnVest’s resources on job hunting here, and stories about making extra money in a side job here.