In honour of my last summer in Missoula, I have been going out to many restaurants that I previously haven’t found the time or money or company to enjoy, so I get a fuller picture (and tummy!) of this town I’ve called home for four years before I leave. So far, I’ve enjoyed wine and tapas at The Silk Road, sampled delicious, tender buffalo at The Red Bird, had the best Italian soda and pizza of my life at Biga Pizza, had good pho and a promising fortune cookie at Vietnam Noodle, and sampled delicious sandwiches on “Bird Man” bread at The Catalyst Café. In order to do this experiment, I have fastidiously budgeted my food money, scrimped and pinched, and supplemented by income with plasma donations and selling my possessions. I am happy to be doing this, as I’m a big foodie, and I can think of no better memory to leave with of Missoula than one of mouthwatering masterpieces.
But not everybody is keen on this experiment of mine. A certain person has told me I am being irresponsible by dining out so much, when I am unemployed and have so little money. I was utterly flabbergasted at first when the person told me this, for about half a second. And then I remembered what happened during my last period of unemployment, when I didn’t have any money saved up and was depending upon the food bank and other resources to eat. It was a friend’s birthday party coming up, and we wanted to buy her a tasty dinner, so we each bought something with our money, such as a discounted rack of lamb, a red velvet cake, and a take-and-bake pizza (On EBT you are not allowed to buy hot foods) What I remember most vividly, apart from the deliciousness of dinner, is the dirty looks my friends and I got for using the cards to buy such fancy foods. Nobody said anything, but we could practically feel their eyes drilling us on the back of our necks.
When even *I* notice someone is giving the stink-eye, that’s bad. I can never know what was going on in their heads, but I am going to take a wild guess that it had to do with using EBT cards to purchase such extravagant goods as rack of lamb and cake. My “friend’s” objection to me going out and eating at restaurants is another manifestation of that attitude, this idea that the life of a poor person should be that of virtuous poverty, with no extravagance, even on birthdays. Society smiles upon those who are frugal, and yet constantly bombards our world with advertising which encourages us to “spoil ourselves”, saying we “deserve” that hot tub, that purse, that laptop. In the case of the EBT cards, it is further aggravated by the notion that that’s “my” money, in the form of taxes, being used to buy lamb and cake, and that it should be spent only on practical things like beans and rice. In my case now, my restaurant habit doesn’t involve “anyone’s” money other than my own, but it is still open to scrutiny, even though I currently don’t receive any public assistance. The fact that I otherwise have to scrimp and pinch means that it magically becomes the business of other people on how I use my money.
It’s all so contradictory. In order to be a good poor person, I can never celebrate, reward myself, or enjoy special treats. But billions of dollars are poured into marketing a lifestyle of rewards, celebration, and treats towards the middle class. You’r expected to participate in these things to appear middle class, but if you do, then you are worthy of scrutiny and criticism. The one that gets me the most is when I am accused, either through a straw (w0)man argument or direct confrontation, of being a spendthrift who doesn’t know how to manage my money. How do you think I manage to do this eat-out experiment? Throwing money willy-nilly at the waitstaff and demanding steaks and lobster in return? I assure you, after four years of living a student’s life of ups and downs and stretching budgets so I can eat, pay for internet and printing to do homework, and pay off debts whenever something unexpected happened, I know how to manage my money to its full potential. Most poor people learn about this through trial and error. Instead of attacking individual people’s spending habits, it would be much more beneficial to look at the larger cultural expectations surrounding money and how you spend it, the predatory industries of advertising and loaning which depend on people needing and/or wanting to spend more than they have, and how that contributes to a lot more economic hurt and lost dollars than red velvet cake, tapas, a netflix account, or an internet connection ever could.