I’m that designer handbag carrying girl with food stamps, talking on her iPhone 6. And I have had my own critical eye on the system, knowing first hand some terrible people who have managed to scam it. My sister in law for one, my brother as the other.
I know that when I stand in line at my local Winco, coupons in hand, ledger of what is in my cart and how much each item costs, I look like a couponer. When I pull out my EBT debit card (aka what has replaced the old food stamps system), I know that many question my couponing and math and designer handbag. I think how unfortunate it is that a system meant to help people became so flawed that no one using it is trusted as responsible or worthy.
But I was responsible. I paid off 15year student loans in three. I budgeted and saved and penny pinched. I simply pick an unfortunate mate in life. And when I was suddenly unable to work because of a chronic and incurable medical condition, we lived comfortably on my ex husband’s salary. He became in charge of the money and suddenly debts weren’t being paid off anymore. Only minimum payments. Money wasn’t being saved anymore. Just spent. But he made enough that it wasn’t the end of the world for us financially.
Until it was the end of mine.
Or at least the end of my road with him.
He decided that he didn’t want a disabled wife. Especially not one that was also chronically ill. And suddenly, I was left with no income, no insurance, no means of making any money and a ways to go on my disability case. I was housebound and largely unemployable. I had an average of two to three doctor’s appointments a week. And at that time, I still had trouble putting shoes on.
When I was finally accepted into my state’s assistance program the woman was very kind. She didn’t judge my designer purse as I handed her court documents saying that he was only legally required to give me $600 a month to cover food, transportation (which I had to pay for because I was unable to drive) and the dogs whom I have sole custody of.
He paid most of the bills, but $600 still isn’t much to live one when you are 100% dependent on others for basic things and have to pay some of them. So, documents in hand, I swallowed the pride of a girl who knew exactly what it was going to look like to outsiders, and I started making phone calls.
I applied to every program I could think of. Even ones I knew I wouldn’t qualify for… yet. I called non-profits, the state, and looked for programs. I got signed up to have my library books delivered to my door each month and for a volunteer to come and help me with house work. Some give me discount or free transportation, some helped me help myself. Many are disability and income based. All are services I wish I didn’t need. All are services that I always felt should go to those who really need it; I never ever felt that I was one of those people. My pride still sometimes feel that way.
Then, a couple months after my husband informed me he wanted a divorce, when my life was a chaotic whirl of uncertainty, I sat down and ate my humble pie. I reached out to friends and family. I called non-profits. I called every number in the state I could think of. I called anyone who could even possibly point me in the right direction. I had no other choice.
Once affluent, I was now living on $600 and while most bills were paid, the cost of paying for a divorce with $600 a month to cover everything from legal fees to my food meant I was often not able to buy food. And as I got into programs, they were able to then help me get into others. And the burden eased a bit. While I still have a soul crushing and ever increasing level of debt from the divorce, I found it became a little easier when I knew for sure that I had $97 each month just for food.
So, once a month, my food allowance refills and my mom drives me to Winco with my pile of coupons and helps push my cart as I write down the price of every item I put on my grocery list. I freeze what I can when it’s on sale. I cut cheap paper towels in half so they last longer, I rely on community volunteers to get to the doctor and to help me clean the house and do laundry.
And I stand in line, holding my fancy iPhone, my expensive purse, using an EBT card pulled out of an expensive wallet, all harkening to a time when my bank account matched them. And once the divorce is final, I will be able to sell them off, one by one, to pay off my debts and legal fees. Along with the rest of what I take with me to my new life. And maybe, soon, I’ll be healthier and able to work. Or at least will have won my disability case.
But until then, I’m the girl with the designer handbag using food stamps to pay for her groceries.