Broke vs. “Broke”: Bothered by Humble Brags

Nicole1This summer, I had a “stay-cation,” meaning I stayed put in DC where I moved last year to attend grad school.  My “stay-cation” was awful, imposed on me because of my lack of funds; I was completely broke.  I take issue when people flippantly use the term “broke” to describe their financial situation (e.g. the recent Hillary Clinton controversy).

I also understand that the experience of financial deprivation is relative to the person or the family. For my situation, I was “broke” partly because the loan money and funding I had for spring semester could not be stretched to cover me through the summer, partly because I thought my summer job with the university would start in June and not July.

I was broke but very lucky to be only on the very edge of disaster: I was able to contemplate having my utilities and cell phone cut off while I sat in a lit apartment; I was able to think about getting a eviction notice before actually getting one; I was hungry but not starving as I applied for Food Stamps; and I had the ability to learn of resources to access before it all came falling down.

One thing I take issue with is the “humble-brag” of former grad students, professors or other gainfully employed and secure individuals, who reflect proudly on their brief experience of “poverty” or of being a “poor person.” They seem to boast about living off of Ramen noodles or collecting social services, as if it is a right of passage as a graduate student before they obtain their Master’s and a level of financial security.

They give their oration as a response to my moment of sharing, a desperate attempt on my part to get an idea of some untapped resource that would help lift me out of my depression and personal crisis that I was burying inside of myself.

Their reminiscing was punctuated with statements such as “I had to eat Ramen noodles for months…” and “Oh yeah, Food Stamps, I had to apply for that…” I guess that was a form of empathy.  However, I have to wonder how much of these memories for them serve as a way for them to connect with a life they had never lived before. How many of these professionals came from backgrounds where Food Stamps was a childhood reality?

To live on Ramen is not a novel idea for me: I would even venture to say that for those of us who had done so as children and teens would NOT feel nostalgic to return to such a life after having invested in a College and then Master’s education.  I remember using the EBT card with my Mom. I knew the process of applying for Food Stamps and I remember a few times of food scarcity as a child under my dad’s roof; for us the pantry was full and our dad told us times were hard, but he bore the brunt of it (in hunger from missed meals and no lunch at either of his two jobs ) before the food pantry ever went partly bare.

So I’m not trying to relive my past. That is why I’m going to grad school in the first place, to gain economic security for myself and my family.  What working-class or poor person would want to relive poverty???  Is this what we are going to school for? To “rise into the professional middle-class”?

I find professionals with Masters degrees romantically referring back to the brief period of financial desperation insulting to the millions of people who live that life everyday.  Living it is not what is insulting to me, but the romanticizing of the experience is, in my opinion.

The question I think they should ask themselves is why does a person who goes on to higher education, the so-called great equalizer, need to suffer enormous debt and financial desperation in the process?  Is this a “hazing” process, and who decreed that this is necessary? How is this level of “graduate poverty” okay? Why should we tolerate a system that empowers institutions to do this to their student population?  Is this occurring in other countries and if not, why is that?

5 Responses

  1. Lita Kurth
    L.A. Kurth

    Really important issue to raise. Temporary “poverty” which can mean as little as mismanaging a trust fund for a couple months is hardly the same as doing without as an ongoing situation and family background, kind of like how fasting is not like starving

  2. CP

    From my POV, when people do this it’s their way of being unable to deal with or manage the discomfort hearing what I’m telling them is causing. It’s a fake affinity-alliance making phenom. The result is, the person with the actual problem is silenced and the other person feels good because they believe they’ve sympathized with another person.

    Those months living on tortillas made with a handful of rationed flour, water and canned beans and “instarice”, carefully rationed to get through to the next check where we could do that all over again… yeah no. that’s trauma not nostaglia. When I was collecting bottles and cans to put gas in the car so one of us could get to work? That’s not “we all do what we can,” it’s humiliation.

    It’s not much better feeling than the “problem solving” for chronic under or unemployment (especially in middle aged years) done by people in upper classes who say “You just have to be more confident” and “Well you’re sending a negative energy to everyone around you.” and the really lovely gem “You must subconsciously just want to fail.”

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  4. Lara Buckley

    Thank you so much for this..it is so easy to feel bad about oneself when you speak up about this, especially when there is no one to support you. Recently someone was doing this humble bragging thing about being the smartest person at the food stamp office because she had filled out her forms correctly and without assistance. She ones from an upper middle class background and is herself educated. When I speak up about these issues I am made to feel like I’m overly sensitive, or that I’m outright mean. It’s enough to turn me inside out at times. i grew up with my grandma and many times we didn’t have enough for to get through the end of the month. The novelty is infuriating and demeaning..

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