What It Was Like Living Off $384 A Month In New York City

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
For days, I’d been dodging her call. One of my classmates from business school was trying to get in touch with me, likely to make good on an invitation to dinner. We’d been out several times, always to the same restaurant, and always with a cadre of fellow MBAs. Each time, we ordered more drinks and more food than we could eat — and paying the bill resulted in a flurry of large bills and credit cards. My cards had been cancelled years ago, and any flurry of "bills" in my possession would be overdue ones, not cash.

I was on public assistance, and I had no money for dinners.

First off, I should say that being on welfare was a new experience for me. I grew up as an only child in a solidly middle-class family. My dad worked full-time and also had his own business on the side. It wasn’t because we needed the money; it was because my father wanted to provide my mom and me with everything we ever wanted. And he pretty much did, except for that Rolex I wanted for my 16th birthday. (Not that I’m still bitter about not having a $1,500 watch in high school; the point is that I was so spoiled, I can clearly remember the one time I didn’t get a gift I’d requested from my parents.)

Money was important in my household. As a child, I remember my dad spreading our vacation money across the bed — so many $100s and $50s — to show me and my mother that we had thousands to spend in the two weeks we’d be away. It excited me — not the money itself, but all the things and experiences it could buy.

Eventually I graduated from college, and then business school, and achieved the six-figure salary that I’d been taught was a marker of success. The money was good for me, because I could go wherever I wanted and buy whatever I wanted without worrying. I traveled. I gave money to my now-retired father. I bought tons of clothes and socialized frequently with my friends, most of whom made my salary or better. At my height, I probably made about $170,000, including salary and bonus. Life looked rosy.

Until it didn’t.

In 2013, I had to leave my job because I couldn’t do it any more. I have bipolar disorder, and I was in the middle of a serious depressive episode that landed me in the hospital twice in two years. During that process, I applied for Social Security disability benefits, which were denied because I have a long work history. I got a lawyer and filed an appeal, which would take over a year to complete — all the while draining my pension, 401k, and savings accounts until I was completely broke.

For a while, I tried to cover up my finances. I borrowed money from family. I sold my grandmother’s jewelry. I found unworn clothes in my closet, complete with tags, and returned them to the store. Then I realized that I needed to brave the world of public assistance in order to make ends meet, as I still couldn’t work, and I was still waiting for a decision from Social Security disability.

By the time I got my money — which consisted of $194 of SNAP benefits and $190 in cash — my mood had, thankfully, improved. I was ready to socialize, but $190 a month wasn’t enough money for a social life plus necessities like electricity and soap and tampons. So I started dodging my friends, saying “I don’t feel well” to keep from having to disclose my financial condition. I was absolutely miserable. Imagine coming out of a long, deep depression only to realize that you can’t afford to do anything that makes you happy.

I thought I had to hide my financial situation from my loved ones. Only one cousin and one friend knew about my public assistance. The truth is, I was embarrassed. When I had money, I’d been so free and generous, and probably very fun, because I wasn’t preoccupied with my spending. Without ample funds, I felt like my wings had been clipped, freedom curtailed, because everything costs money. Even free events cost the train fare, and I was always afraid to spend, lest I be left without food until my next check.

Then, something changed inside me. After months of being on welfare, I could no longer handle lying to people about why I couldn’t socialize; it was too hard to keep the lies straight, along with the stress of constantly counting my pennies. So I started telling the truth. Not to everyone, but to my closest friends and family. My dad was happy that I could afford food and wouldn’t starve. My friends were fine when I told them that I couldn’t afford to go out because I didn’t have any money. Usually I reminded them that I wasn’t working, and that I could really only afford necessities like food and shelter. Sometimes they invited me along anyway and offered to pay. Sometimes they helped me find cheaper activities for our outings. Sometimes they suggested we go out another time.

I was surprised to find out how generous and flexible my loved ones were, though I shouldn’t have been shocked. These people were close to me, people who cared about me without condition. They understood why I needed public assistance and accepted whatever information I told them. My friends were happy to rearrange plans in order to hang out with me. Sometimes I accepted their offers to pay. Sometimes I rejected the free dinners and drinks because it was still hard for me to accept help without feeling guilty. My best friend even paid for me to drive cross-country with her. About halfway through the trip, I got used to not reaching for the check, and remembered that I was there because she wanted me there.

Now, after over a year of getting government checks, I’m finally working again. I have to fight the urge to pay back everyone who supported me when I could barely support myself. Of course, there’s more to friendship than just going out to expensive dinners. So I’m going to pay everyone back with my companionship and whatever kind of generosity I can afford.

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