There’s a point every week when someone asks me if I’d like to grab dinner, and it immediately puts me into stress mode and I start crafting my excuse. Going out to eat is a luxury I can’t really afford. Talking about money is never easy, but somehow being broke in San Francisco means people groaning about their Lyft Line while ordering their food via Instacart, which isn’t what it means for me by far.
San Franciscans love to talk about our thin wallets but there’s definitely a spectrum to how much scraping we’re each actually doing to get by. There’s being bougie poor, like buying groceries at Whole Foods and then complaining about not having enough money, and there’s being strapped for cash, where using a Safeway card to get additional savings is the only way to shop. Of course, there’s also true poverty where going grocery shopping is about getting only the bare necessities, if there’s even money for that at all. As an intern who’s worked two to three jobs to pay rent and carefully thinks about every dollar I spend, grocery shopping in this city means budgeting for every item, forgoing fresh, organic produce, and buying the store brand at all times.
There’s an accepted idea in San Francisco — and honestly, in most cities — that it’s okay to call yourself poor while still being able to live your life pretty much as you’d like to.
I consistently hear people complaining about “having no money” after spending their weekends out to brunch and hitting Tahoe twice a month. Their offhand comments are completely disconnected from what it’s actually like to count pennies, as if the word “broke” was little more than slang for being slightly cheap at the moment. For those of us whose bank accounts regularly hover around $20, the word has deeper consequences. It means all the great things we’d love to experience, from Off the Grid to NightLife at Cal Academy to Bay to Breakers, are off-limits. It involves dealing with friends who make fun of Muni while taking rideshares everywhere, without remembering that public transportation is my only choice for getting around the city (besides walking). It’s living in a constant state of tiredness — planning out paychecks to make rent, making sure there’s enough food for dinner and a packed lunch, and hoping that someday this will end and you can feel normal.
There’s an accepted idea in San Francisco — and honestly, in most cities — that it’s okay to call yourself poor while still being able to live your life pretty much as you’d like to. Sure, some of these “broke” people might have student loans, but if they wanted to, they could still buy a sandwich from Ike’s every weekend. For those who can afford some financial flexibility, it’s awful to wonder what they’d think of my actual financial hardships when comparing their lifestyle to mine. My days are spent budgeting every dollar I have and consistently checking my bank account after any purchase. I’m constantly reminded that I can’t keep up with my friends economically — they tell me to "have some fun" as they casually drop $300 on an exorbitant weekend trip.
Here’s the thing: I’m not complaining about not being able to go Napa on sunny weekends or indulging in boozy Friday night benders. I love finding bars that have $1 margarita days, going to the museum on free days, or just sitting in Dolores Park without an expectation that I need to buy a coconut rum or make a run to Bi-Rite. And don’t write me off as an entitled millennial; I grew up in a household that sits barely above poverty level even now. I’m just saying we need to stop talking about living paycheck to paycheck as if it’s a punch line right along with eating kale and $4 toast, when it is so far from that.