AskReaders Fact List

AskReaders: What do insanely poor people buy, that ordinary people know nothing about?

Long time ago, we asked our regular contributors through e-mail, What do insanely poor people buy, that ordinary people know nothing about? We got many interesting responses. Here are some of them. We have just copied and pasted their responses, not editing them in any way and most of the respondents have requested to stay anonymous, so no names will be published.

1-5 Things Poor People Buy

School Lunches

01. Lots of school systems do free lunches for kids under 18 during the summer. When I was a kid I remember my dad taking us to get lunch at the school then go play disc golf, soccer, or do something else free and fun. It was a blast and I had no clue it was because we were poor.

Dollar theaters, and sometimes they have a free afternoon/evening show for kids with the purchase of a parent ticket. Many movies were seen by the three of us for $4 with a shared popcorn and coke.

My dad was amazing at making us feel rich on basically nothing.

02. This is actually a good question that can illustrate something: When you are poor, the “system” is set up to keep you that way. For example, how much do you pay to cash your paycheck?

If you aren’t and have never been poor, you probably said “Pay?”, because you don’t. Your check probably goes via direct deposit right into your checking account. But what if you have bad credit history such that you can’t get a checking account? Well, now you have to go to a check-cashing service and pay money to get it. This means that, out of your already low check, you get a few dollars down. If you are lucky, you can find a grocery store that will give you fee back in certificates to the store, but even then they might charge you a small fee on top of that.

How about this: How much is your car insurance? Did you know that if you have bad credit it’s higher? So, now that you are poor, you get to pay more money for your insurance. And you’ll find that the only landlord that will rent to you (at a place not in the absolute worst part of town) will ask you to double your deposit since you’ve had financial trouble in the past.

It gets worse. Your bad credit combined with your shaky job history and a barren wasteland of a savings means your options for transportation are severely limited. If you need a car, you will have to go to one of those lots. Have you ever driven a car into the ground? I mean, put 200k miles on it and drive it until it just doesn’t want to go anymore? Then you take your jalopy into the local, reputable Honda dealer and they give you 20 bucks and a Snickers bar for it.

What do you think they do with it? They certainly don’t sell it at their lot, that’s for damned sure. They aren’t going to park your ridiculous next to their brand new Accords and Civics. Just being in the same vicinity of it drops their value. No, they usually have a deal with (or ownership in) one of those lots. Those lots are in bad parts of town. The office looks like a tool shed. They offer to finance at rates that would make a loan shark uneasy. Their cars usually have a lot of miles and are “guaranteed” only to make it off the lot. Some of them will even rig up the cars with tracking devices so their repo men can find you easier.

That lot will sell this hunk-a-junk to the kind of person who, more than anyone else, needs it to start every day and get them to work. When your car breaks down, what do you do? You probably take it to the shop to get it fixed. What if you had no money and no credit cards? And what if you were a week into a job in which you were as replaceable as a number 2 pencil?

Well, hope you don’t have any kids. At least then you might be able to call a friend or family member to help you out. If you have kids, now you have to find someone to help you drive them to your child care provider (which you can barely afford as it is anyhow) and take you to work, then pick you and your kids up. If you don’t have kids, you can probably at least take a cab today.

And then you can fall into another trap: You can get a short-term loan! At 300% APR! People who have credit don’t get these loans because they are predatory and shi*ty. They take advantage of people who have no other options. Ordinary people may know a little about them, but usually just say “What kind of stupid person gets themselves into that?” without realizing that it’s not a stupid option so much as a last resort for many people in poverty.

When you are poor…you pay for everything…many things that other people don’t have to pay for or just don’t have to worry about. This is one of the fatal flaws of the bootstrap mentality in which fixing poverty is simply a matter of will. When you’re that far down, the deck is stacked entirely against you. The world is rigged to keep poor people poor.

03. I had to move out on my own when I was 17. I had no money at all and drove an old clunker Camry. I got a flat tire to match the flat spare in the trunk. I went to the Discount Tire on the East Side of Indianapolis, where I was living, to see if they could patch it. When they got it on the rack, they said that belts were showing around the tire, in fact, all of the tires and I would have to replace all four tires.

I thanked them, went outside, sat in my car and started crying. The manager came out and knocked on the window. He said that he had a set of tires that would fit my wheels that someone left when they got new tires. I told him thanks but didn’t have any money. He told me not to worry about it and when I graduate, to come back and buy my tires from them.

04. I have been both very poor and very comfortable. When you are broke, you can’t plan ahead or shop sales or buy in bulk. Poor people wait to buy something until they absolutely need it, so they have to pay whatever the going price is at that moment. If ten-packs of paper towels are on sale for half price, that’s great, but you can only afford one roll anyway. In this way, poor people actually pay more than others for common staple goods.

05. My office only has a unisex bathroom so it has the facilities for men and women. Naturally, there’s a tampon machine, and tampons are only 5 cents. Once a month I’ll work late, get a roll of nickels and fill up a grocery sack with tampons for my wife.

6-10 Things Poor People Buy

Donating Plasma

06. After selling plasma I would walk to Wendy’s and eat the crackers and ketchup for dinner. Someone I know sold so much plasma in college that folks thought he had track marks from drugs.

07. You can get new car parts from the junkyard for virtually nothing, with added discounts if you remove them from the junkers yourself. I had a 12-yr-old car in college and when it blew a tire, I went to the junkyard and found a decent set of tires. Bought all 4 for $70, which reduced my food budget to $16 for the next two weeks. Some lady in the grocery store saw me with a calculator trying to figure out how much ramen I could buy with $16 and handed me a $20. It made me cry. (I’m glad I’m not poor anymore. But I’ll always remember that lady).

08. My house burnt down when I was about 5 years old, 25 years ago. We lived in the Oregon wilderness. We were already very poor and I don’t know if we had fire insurance. Essentially my family had nothing but a van, the clothes we were wearing, and about $80 or so in the bank. We drove down into Portland to stay at a church for a couple days while we figured out what to do. We went to a grocery store one day to get some food. My parents were in the checkout line with 4 loaves of bread and two cans of peanut butter and the checker saw me and my siblings looking with hungry eyes at all the food and candy around us. Somehow they got talking about our situation and the checker lady called her boss down. He got on the loudspeaker and said they were doing an impromptu fundraiser to help us out. Random shoppers raised about $1200 in an hour or so. The manager also gave us $200 worth of groceries for free. My parents were blown away. It got us into a two bedroom apartment and without that help, who knows where we would be. I honestly think us kids would have gone into foster care and my dad (who despite our turn of luck, dealt with years of depression and other psych issues) would have probably killed himself. This act of kindness shown to us has permanently implanted a desire in me to help those who need it.

09. The first four years of my life were spent in abject poverty. As a child, I would ask my Mom if we could get a candy bar. She would explain to me, at age 3, that we could get the candy bar, but if we did, it meant we couldn’t afford a 2 liter of Coca-Cola. She would phrase it like so, “If you get the candy bar, it’ll be gone in a few days, but if you get the Coca-Cola, we can have Coca-Cola for the whole week.”

Amazingly, I knew enough to understand that Coca-Coca for over a week was a better deal than two days of a candy bar. As a side effect, I was regularly told “No” when I asked for things I wanted… mostly Lego sets or He-Man toys.

Around age 6, my father’s stake in a mineral prospecting company finally paid off. Turns out he had been putting every dime he had into it since before I was born. We went from surviving on mayonnaise sandwiches to having 2015’s equivalent of $10,300 per month in income. My little sister was around 2 or so at this time, and she was getting everything she wanted. For the first 6 years of my life, I had learned that asking for things I wanted would always end with a “No”, so I never asked for anything.

My parents weren’t able to put it together until my grandmother got very sick and came to live with us. The whole family was out shopping, and my grandmother knew I loved Legos, but I didn’t ask for a set of them. Meanwhile, my little sister had a Barbie doll and a My Little Pony in each hand.

She stopped and asked me, “John, you don’t want a Lego set?” “Mommy and Daddy always tell me no, Grandma. We can’t afford them.” I have only a very vague memory of this, but before she died, my Grandmother told me this story and said that my Mom broke down in tears in the middle of the store, sobbing. My Dad had a look of defeated failure on his face (according to her). Apparently, it simply never occurred to them the reason I never asked for anything was because I had always been told no.

For Christmas, I got three Lego Technic sets.

10. When I was a child, Burger King ran a special kids meal where it was two mini Burgers that were attached to each other like a weird conjoined burger experiment. Sometimes we would go. My dinner was 1.5 of the mini burgers. My mom’s dinner was the half I didn’t eat and she would fill up on the free refills of soda.

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  • I moved out when I was 17 while my family moved to Florida I stayed behind because I was a senior in high school and didn’t want to leave. It was a stupid decision seeming as I was working in a fast food restaurant and sleeping in the back of my jeep. I would wake up and go to anytime fitness workout and shower there then go to school go to work and I would park my car and sleep in the Walmart parking lot until I saved enough money to put a down payment on a apartment.

  • Wow, a lot of these are terrible and miss the point of the question completely. It’s not a contest of poverty of or sad story time.

    Here’s just a few of the things poor people buy, that ordinary people probably don’t know about:

    1.) Flavor-Aid, think of it as Kool-Aid’s second cousin, minus all of the flavor. It was only 10 cents cheaper than Kool-Aid, but when your broke every little bit counts.
    2.) Powdered milk, we got it as kids from the food boxes that the government gave us. But trust me, it wasn’t remotely reminiscent of milk.
    3.) Clothing Dye. You can buy this stuff for like a buck, so when your black slacks are fading this will make them look brand new. It’s pretty awesome, you can fix up at least 10 pairs with single bottle.

  • Spam and rice.
    Not spam, cooked, and rice, cooked.
    But a cup of rice, out of the six you have left, cooked in the same rice cooker, as one quarter of the two cans of spam you have left.
    Manna from heaven.

    Also Arroz Caldo. Which is rice stewed with whatever leftovers you have and everything in your seasoning selection.
    Sometimes amazing, sometimes sad.

    I have always been too proud to ask for money.
    My parents, though wealthy, don’t know this about me.

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