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How I Cope With The Humiliation Of Being Low-Income

When was the last time you felt so desperate it was humiliating? For me, it was this past summer, applying for apartments and getting denied over and over due to my income.

My husband Brandon and I had recently made a series of risky life decisions. Specifically, we had just moved from Ohio to North Carolina to chase our dream careers of acting and filmmaking, respectively. There’s nothing more rewarding to me than bringing a character or idea to life, and I have almost ten years of training to keep pushing me forward. Brandon loves telling stories through film, and while he was working in video, he wanted to get out of the world of marketing. 

We were both working 9-5 jobs and while we loved the people around us, Ohio didn’t have the artistic opportunities that we craved. After we took a vacation to New York, attending workshops and learning new artistic skills, we decided to pursue our dreams. I called a friend in North Carolina for advice, and he invited us to his acting agency. Our plan was to house-sit for a few months and find an affordable apartment during that time. But with the increased cost-of-living, this was a bigger struggle than we anticipated. However, there was no turning back. We had already given up our home in Ohio —  a calculated risk I very nearly regretted.

Financial rejection takes an emotional toll.

We’d been searching for a nice place to live for weeks, but even when we applied to low-income housing, we were rejected again and again. We earned so little compared to the living wage, that we didn’t even qualify as low-income. I didn’t mind not making a lot of money before, because I trusted myself to budget and make it work. But consistent rejection, despite our solid financial history, was discouraging. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to process how I felt. When our house-sitting gig was coming to an end and we still hadn’t found a place, I was in a constant state of panic. I questioned myself constantly, asking if I made the right decision to move and whether it was selfish and impulsive to chase my dreams. Was it fair to put my husband through the trouble of finding new employment and a new home, all while he was trying to reassure his manic wife that everything would fall into place?

Thankfully, it did. While doing a final, desperate scan of Craigslist, I found our current apartment. We met with the landlord and were approved almost immediately, based on our solid credit score. The landlord was used to renting out to students and young professionals, so as long as we had a proven history of paying our bills, they didn’t care how we made it happen.

I’m still learning to appreciate our lifestyle.

I feel frustrated to be a young adult in a society that has made it so difficult for people to build a life — for example, there’s the cost of education compared to income. Today, I work full-time doing media management and graphic design for a church, bringing in around $1,200 a month. Brandon gets freelance work in videography and design, but he’s recently picked up a job at our local Olive Garden to help us financially through the slow season. The majority of our income goes directly toward our student loans, as well as furthering our education for personal and professional growth. When I think about our lifestyle, it angers me. I regret the student loan that I pay for every month, and I hate that my decisions make life harder on my employer and my husband. 

To make life work on our income, we have to prioritize what is important to us and make sacrifices to compensate.  But when I take a moment to remind myself this is just a season, and I can do what I need to do for my financial security and mental wellness, I appreciate my life the way it is.

We were relieved when we finally had a safe place to live, but we weren’t quite prepared to live in an area with a higher cost of living than we were used to. During our transition, I felt poor, and I hated it. We had to cut things like date night from our budget completely. On our first date in months, I cried because I didn’t realize how much I had missed it. Occasionally, we might split a restaurant meal, or share a piece of cake at a local chocolate lounge. But mostly, we cut costs everywhere. 

One of the main ways we stretch our finances is by sharing a car. We live simply and have learned to make sacrifices when necessary, and one of the main ways we stretch our finances is by sharing a car. My car was totaled a few months into our marriage, and while we could have bought another one with the insurance money, having that money in our savings helped make our recent move possible. When we both need to get someplace, one of us drops the other off. Even if I were to take a different job, I’d have to be making enough to support a second car for it to be financially worth it.  We also rent out the spare room in our apartment. We keep the small bathroom clear of our belongings, and we happily share anything of ours with our roommate.

Sharing our car and apartment saves us almost $1,000 a month, which is easily more than a third of the amount of our monthly income. While we hope to one day have our own apartment that’s just us, we’d like to keep one car working for us and move to a city with reliable public transportation.

Expenses that we intentionally prioritize are things that affect our physical and mental health. I’m excited to one day have actual health insurance (I’m currently enrolled in a bill-sharing program) but in the meantime, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the next best thing. We eat wholesome meals by shopping at ALDI to minimize our expenses, and because the YMCA offers income-based payments, I can comfortably take fitness classes and prioritize working out.

When people want to help, it’s okay to accept.

The most humbling part of this experience for me is accepting support from loved ones. There’s a part of me that wants to remain independent and do everything without outside help. When I first told my boss I was considering moving to North Carolina to chase an opportunity, I was expecting to be let go. I was shocked when he said, “I want to enable you.” He’s the only person who has said this to me explicitly, but we’ve experienced support in so many ways.

My job took a risk allowing me to try working remotely. Before we were able to move into our apartment, we spent a whole month traveling because we had friends and family offer to host us. Our close friends are aware of the risks that we took to be where we are, and none of them tell us we’re stupid for doing it. If our finances were to run out, or if we decide to leave our dreams behind and start over, we have people ready to support us. This gives us a sense of security to keep pursuing our dreams. 

I constantly need reminding that I’m not a burden to those who have helped and enabled us. I have to remember that if they offer to help us, it’s because they are genuinely happy to do so without expecting anything in return. When we emerge from this stage of our life, we want to help others and return the favor.

These past few months, we look back at our choices with gratitude. We sacrificed a lot to chase our dreams, but we’re the happiest we’ve ever been. I used to feel degraded because of our super-frugal lifestyle. I’m still scared of not having enough, and occasionally, I still feel “less than” due to our finances.

But when I accept that this lifestyle is what makes our goals possible, I’m humbled.  And now, I’m part of an acting agency that’s encouraging me, giving me opportunities to learn and work. Brandon is constantly finding new opportunities for his film work. We’re actively searching for ways to increase our income to live more comfortably and less like we’re financially walking on eggshells. It’s discouraging sometimes to see our savings dwindle during the times that we struggle, and we know life won’t always be this way for us — but for now, it’s what works.

Rosebelle Easthom works remotely as the media director for a church in Ohio while she studies acting in North Carolina. She enjoys photography, hiking, and cooking with her husband. 

Image via Pexels

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