Black Friday, the day that foreshadows how the market will perform through the new year, was actually a dark day in history (in case you didn’t know) representing a large-scale financial crisis because of greedy Wall Street financers in the 1800s.
Gosh, sounds familiar.
Now we’ve reclaimed the meaning of that day, or rather, corporations have reclaimed it and turned it into a day of splurging and materialism. Cash flows from regular folks’ pockets into the wallets of billionaires and executives who source labor from the underemployed and materials from China. I mean, I am exaggerating a little.
Let’s Back Up a Bit
I used to spend the day after Thanksgiving going on hikes or long runs and enjoying how empty everything was that wasn’t a store. The outside world was my oyster for that quiet, quiet day.
I refused to utter the words “Black Friday” because I staunchly opposed what the day had come to mean: greed and a blatant disregard for the environmental destruction that comes with unfettered materialism.
Instead, I called it Buy Nothing Day along with millions of other environmentalists who human-cott the spending spree that is Black Friday.
On Buy Nothing Day, I distanced myself from over-stressed employees and screaming throngs of people breaking down doors, running people over, and fighting over highly discounted flat-screen televisions. I was horrified by this violence that resulted in mountains of plastic, cardboard, and Styrofoam and; inevitably, piles of broken electronics and discarded toys after mere months of use.
To me, Black Friday represented the worst humanity has to offer – a piling up of vices so-to-speak – and I stayed as far away as possible.
Then My Life Changed
In 2013 I was diagnosed with a disease that runs in my family (Ankylosing Spondylitis) that upended my world and disabled me in a matter of a few years.
As soon as I was no longer able to work to support myself, money became a finite symbol of my poverty. It was no longer a renewable resource and I no longer had value in a capitalist system, where worth is assigned to bodies for their ability to produce profit.
Disability – in capitalism – is punished as a personal, moral and physical failure; reinforced by the lack of living wages provided by federal disability programs like SSI and SSDI. In response, nondisabled workers fear becoming disabled, realizing the only way to have an acceptable status in society (and live comfortably) is by continuing to work for pay regardless of impairment.
In my new reality of extreme poverty, I realized that it was privilege that allowed me to previously shame Black Friday shoppers. Privilege that comes with financial security.
The privilege of having enough.
I had enough, pre-diagnosis. But after 2013, my enoughness shot right down the drain with my physical health until I was wading in the dregs without any options. When I was no longer able to work for pay, my value plummeted; my inability to labor for profit meant that I had nothing to provide the system.
The dregs would become my stomping grounds from where I would eventually reconfigure my life around lack and constant need.
Basic Needs Are My Top Priority
I currently live on around $1000/month from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), plus money from occasional writing assignments. Broken down, that’s about $30/day or what amounts to a dollar less than federal minimum wage based on a 40-hour workweek. By definition, I’m 100% impoverished.
I lack consistent and guaranteed basic needs. I perpetually hover between the two bottom levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:
- Physiological needs, like food and shelter
- Safety needs; like financial stability, resources, health, and property
Maslow argued that fulfilling each level allows you to proceed up to the next (love and belonging) and the next (esteem) and the next level (self-actualization) to finally reach your full human potential.
While Maslow’s theory is simplistic, individualistic, and orderly (but of course there are grey areas!), there is truth in it: I don’t have a fair shot at achieving my full human potential as long as I’m disabled in a system that measures worth by productivity. As long as I lack basic needs, I don’t have the tools to progress upward to achieve my full potential.
Education vs Lived Experience
I graduated from a prestigious women’s college with a degree in Sociology. I learned plenty about poverty and social structure in textbooks; you know, the structured, intellectual vocabulary of a magna cum laude bachelor degree earned from a private college. I earned A-pluses on multi page papers exploring the power of media and money and people who have enough, and how that impacts other groups of people.
Speaking of ‘other’ – I learned plenty about ‘us’ and ‘them’ language and how it shapes social movements and political power.
Now I’m literally living what I learned in the classroom. I am the statistics I studied, I am the papers I wrote, the thesis I researched, the textbooks I read. I am disabled, queer, and poor. I am an ‘other;’ a ‘them’ – a minority without economic clout or political power. My wealth lies in my education alone, and I apply my formal education about poverty to my own impoverished life in a sort of hands-on, real-life application of learned knowledge. But I won’t be getting a grade or a raise for simply knowing the vocabulary of my life.
Knowing the right words doesn’t pay my mortgage.
And knowing the vocabulary doesn’t explain what life feels like; poverty and disability are two things you can’t fully understand, explain, or teach unless you have personal experience with them. Impoverished, sick and disabled folks live in the opposite of excess. We always need more than society provides us, yet we simultaneously must handle invasive judgments of our personal lives: obviously we should just choose to be less disabled. Obviously we should just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.
What if we don’t have bootstraps?
The Power of Buying a Coffee Maker
Years ago, I had enough. Not excess, but enough.
Enough in the way that I didn’t have to think about whether I could afford my utility payments or buy enough food for the month.
Enough in the way that I didn’t fear becoming homeless, ever.
Enough in the way that I could make some impulse buys and not worry about it putting me in the red.
That enoughness made it possible for me to elect not to participate in Black Friday, knowing that if my coffee maker broke the following week I could buy a new one at full price without blinking twice.
If my coffee maker broke now, I’d be making coffee with pantyhose until I could get a new one, probably months down the road.
Those of us living on fixed incomes have fixed budgets with little to no wiggle room. I’m fortunate to be able to add to my income with occasional writing gigs, yet I remain unable to buy everything I need, including surprise needs like coffee makers.
Where were we? Yes, Buy Nothing Day.
The problem with the Buy Nothing Day movement is that it assumes people have the ability to withhold money for the sake of political and environmental activism. The perception that anyone can choose to not spend money on a single day comes with an assumption of financial stability and renewable wealth that people like me simply don’t have.
Movements that stress financial restraint to make a statement ignore the fact that impoverished people are forced to refrain from spending money as a matter of survival every day. Us not spending money is not a statement, it’s how we survive.
Money carries a lot of purchasing power, but you don’t really think about it unless you don’t have it.
Black Friday: A Day for Poor People
Poor people’s money doesn’t go far. We are frugal because we don’t have a choice not to be.
But on Black Friday, we can participate in an activity financially secure folks take for granted almost every day: spending money.
We scour the deals for that coffee maker we’ve needed so we can retire the pantyhose. We shop for medical supplies our insurance won’t cover, and perhaps, if we’re lucky, a few gifts for those close to us. Many of us shop for steeply discounted staples: toilet paper, laundry detergent, air filters, bed sheets, socks and underwear.
We the disabled also shop for products that help us function: a self-cleaning blender or a smart home device that gives painful joints a break from flipping switches or turning knobs. What may seem like convenience appliances to others – like a dishwasher or that smart home device – are actually adaptive tools that help us function in our inability to hand-wash dishes or flip switches.
The Self-Esteem That Comes With Purchasing Power
There is an emotional response that comes with being able to provide, choose, and buy for oneself. Self-sufficiency and independence have a big impact on self-esteem.
It’s empowering to be able to buy something I need when I need it. It’s more empowering to have enough to make a frivolous purchase. When you don’t have enough, being able to buy something you don’t need – even a candy bar or pack of gum – comes with a simultaneous pang of guilt and a glimpse into the joy of spontaneity that many take for granted.
Spontaneous purchases are a largely inaccessible feat for poor disabled folks. We are allowed to want frivolous things, but we are not often allowed to purchase them for ourselves.
Black Friday allows that.
So where will I be on Black Friday this year?
At home, in bed, shopping online for items for the as-is falling-apart house I managed to buy on disability income – the house that needs $50,000 of work. I’ll be shopping for appliances and home improvement items and maybe even checking out the cost of a washer-dryer combo to make my laundry room more accessible. And you know what else?
I might buy some plants I don’t need.
What Can You Do With Your Privilege?
Being shamed for participating in the economy on one of the most opportunistic days of the year is emotionally traumatizing to experience as an impoverished disabled person.
So, for you who choose not to spend your money on Black Friday, I’m happy for you to continue calling it your own Buy Nothing Day. But please, don’t shame poor folks for spending money on the one day each year when we can actually buy what we’ve been saving for. And another thing – recognize that Buy Nothing Day and movements like it, simply put, are embodied in class privilege.
Finally, if you have the kind of money that allows you to refrain from shopping on Black Friday because you have enough, consider giving some of that spare money to people like me (I’m sure you know someone in your life who could use a financial boost), whose lives are built around forced frugality, so we can buy that coffee maker. Or a beer. Or a new mattress. Or a candy bar.
Because we, more than most, truly appreciate the power that money can bring, and we use every last penny to make our lives better.
P.S.: If you’re living in ‘enoughness’ and would like to share some excess with me this season, I’d love a $3 tip at ko-fi.com/beingcharis. You can count on it going towards … well, whatever I choose.