When Are You “Broke”?
by Chanel Dubofsky
There is this sensation that I get in the back of my throat in moments of pure panic: it gets icy, and the skin feels like it’s leaping, quickening. It happened one night when my partner had to go to the emergency room. It happens every time a strange number appears on my phone and the caller doesn’t leave a number. It happens when my bank account balance is in the double, or single, or negative digits.
Of course. Those small numbers are terrifying. Usually, though, after I fight past the “shit fuck shit I have no money why am I so useless why am I so always so fucking broke,” I do have a moment of wondering if “broke” is actually what I am. After all, money is coming. I have work, even if I don’t have a savings account right now. There is the ability to save: I can sublet and go somewhere else for a while, or rely on any number of strategies I’ve developed for coping when finances are scary.
But this is just me. My expenses and my access to resources are unique to me (at least on some level), so my perception of myself as broke or not must be different than other people’s, right? I talked to some folks about what makes them feel financially insecure, and when they’re “broke.”
I’m usually broke when I’m somewhere between not being able to pay bills and scraping the couch for change for food, though that hasn’t happened in a while, thank god. Also, because I’m broke it doesn’t mean I won’t use money I shouldn’t spend on doing something fun because frankly, it’s one of those things that I feel I need to do to keep me sane. “Fun” could include buying a new book, eating at a cheap restaurant or any number of things like that. Not being able to pay bills is so fucking stressful that sometimes I think you just have to give yourself permission to do those things.
You don’t really understand the next level of broke unless you experience it. Broke might be, “I can’t afford to do take out for a third night in a row,” or “I really shouldn’t get this pair of shoes.” Or, broke might be, “I literally cannot take this job because I cannot afford the gas it will cost me to get there.” Or, “I need to choose which student loan payments I will skip this month, because I’m obviously not paying them all.” I’ve been in both.
When I was in my deepest unemployment, and at one point had less than $10 total in my bank account (and I’d closed out my savings), I didn’t consider myself broke. I had borrowed rent that month from a relative, and knew that in a few days I’d get a check for temp work that would cover my food and utilities until the next check. Not an sustainable situation, but I didn’t fear being on the street. But I was super lucky to have family who let me know I could live with them if need be, who loaned me money, and who did not demand to exert an undue level of influence on my life as compensation for that.
Broke is not having a savings because you blew it on medical expenses and buying dollar pizzas for lunch and dinner daily. No need for breakfast. And having your checking account below negative so you can pay for your phone. Because you choose to pay your phone bill over food because you need internet service to receive emails for possible job opportunities and to find out if your jobs that owes you money will pay up. This was like the last year and half before I started teaching.
To me, at the very least it is when there isn’t enough money in your bank account to cover your bills that month. Most broke people don’t have savings accounts, since they live hand to mouth. I’m always a little annoyed when people with huge savings accounts and ample income say they are broke. To me, broke is panicking about how to come up with money for the rent, having to figure out if there is something to sell or if you can pick up some extra work to scrounge together enough. It’s the worst.
“Poor” and “broke” are different things. A lot of working Americans are “broke” at the end of the month or after having a big unexpected expense like car repairs or medical bills. But poverty is different. Poverty is chronically broke. So middle class people can be broke. In fact, I think most of us are, most of the time, in contemporary America.
I think it’s important to think about broke in relationship to debt. Just because you don’t have money doesn’t mean you can’t spend it. The mental stress of being in debt impacts some people disproportionately. When some of my friends say broke, they don’t mean that there’s another pot they can touch, they mean there’s no more money, but I often hear the word used by young people in their 20’s who have wealth, like it’s a performative thing. They don’t have the actual experience on not having food. I don’t think it’s a term I should use the term, ever. It means different things to different people, but if it’s people who have class privilege using it, that word isn’t ours.
What do you think? When do you get to say you’re broke?
Chanel Dubofsky’s writing has been published in Cosmopolitan, RH Reality Check, Previously.TV, The Toast, The Forward and more. She is the creator of The Marriage Project, an interview series about marriage in the media, experience and imagination. She has an MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
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