Gambling at Groceries

You know that feeling you get just before making a major financial commitment, like buying a house or a car, or making a serious investment? You think you’re ready to sign. But there’s a little nagging feeling that maybe you are making a mistake. One that will mess up your life and be hard to fix. Know that feeling?

There are people who feel that way every time they put something in the grocery cart. Next time you’re at the store, pay attention and you’ll probably see them (unless there’s an Aldi nearby and you’re at a competitor). Choosing carefully. Adding up as they go. Taking things back out of the buggy aisles later – not because they don’t want or need it but because they have traded it out for something more necessary. It gets real tense at the high price items, like diapers or laundry detergent or tampons. And then there’s a last stop before the checkout to re-add, re-consider, think about other expenses (like gas), and then take some more items out. (Btw, I read a lot of financial advice that recommends buying in bulk, but for a lot of people, there isn’t enough money to sink into one item. $15 worth of toilet paper doesn’t do much good if you have nothing to eat.)

Are you able to imagine how stressful that would be? To know that the survival of your family depends on not making a $3 mistake at the grocery store? That probably sounds like hyperbole but when you’re poor the least misstep can totally ruin you. There is no margin for error. If you don’t believe me or understand how this could be, check out this Slate article which gives a real, painful example. The tendency is to dismiss the poor as just bad at managing money but the truth is many poor people are astute money managers. They juggle multiple income streams, manage bills according to their due dates, and stretch the few dollars they get as far as they can go.

And can you imagine living as a kid under such stress? Kids don’t always know the exact source of stress but they can tell a relaxed, secure environment from a tense, insecure one. And it affects them. Negatively. It harms their development in ways that are hard to delineate and harder to repair. Now that half of all public school students in the U.S. are growing up in these conditions (see this NY Times article for more on that alarming stat), we should think and talk about how much stress our present system is placing on so many people. (Charles Blow does a good job of talking about it here.)

And, you know, I bet your local grocery store sells gift cards. Maybe you could give someone a break from the grocery gambling stress.