Surviving Paycheck to Paycheck

Recently, Laura Ip, Resource Development Coordinator for YWCA Niagara Region, spoke at “One Small Thing,” a symposium on poverty in Niagara put on by Essential Collective Theatre and Community Partners. One thing Ip highlighted, was that poverty (and indeed homelessness) can happen to anyone. Especially when we live in a society where 80% of those living in poverty work full-time jobs.

I know I grew up living in poverty. Raised by a single mother, working two jobs most of her life to help us survive. Even still, working more than full-time hours some weeks, never enough child support payments, balancing raising children with maintaining household chores and still managing to survive “paycheck to paycheck.”

Trent Hamm defines living paycheck to paycheck as what happens when you are regularly waiting for your next paycheck before you make basic financial moves like paying bills or buying food or doing something fun.

Few could capture the devastating hardship this is better than Linda Tirado, author of Hand to Mouth. Although she is criticized for an angry tone and tirades in her book, she is able to capture what most books and articles do not include about what it means to be poor:  “not just the logistical nightmare of juggling bad jobs, bad credit and bad housing, but what it feels like, for the entirety of your life, to be despised by the culture you live in.” (source)

One of the real tragedies of living paycheck to paycheck is the false “solutions” that are put forward to what could only be described as a systemic issue. “Save what you can when you can.” “Scrutinize every penny.” “Work More.” “Earn More where you can.” “Don’t shop for entertainment’s sake.” “Cap your non-essential spending each month.” “Look for regular expenses you can trim away.”

The advice out there boils down to two basic things:

  • Save what you can.
  • NEVER spend on what is not imperative to your basic needs.

My question is, when people are already doing this, what option do they have left? To say a mother must deny her children the luxury of a school trip, an occasional movie, an ice cream cone. To say she cannot buy new clothes though it improves self-esteem, respect and chances of getting a job, or a better one. To deny the fact that you can save and save and save, but can and will lose it all at the first unexpected car or home repair, vet
payment, medical bill. You can’t just buy a car that uses less fuel, because you don’t have money for a new car even if it will save in the long run. You can’t buy new tires that will last longer instead of used because you can only afford $50 on a tire as you need it and not $1000 all at once. You can’t waive the monthly bank account fee, because you don’t meet the minimum account balance. The examples go on. It costs more to be poor.


It is only when we understand that living paycheck to paycheck, while survivable by an individual, is not an individual’s choice nor is it in their power to change it. It is a systemic issue resulting in poverty. Only when we have looked at better systems like a basic income guarantee, rather than a system of entrapment like the current welfare system, that we can look toward a hopeful future for those who survive paycheck to paycheck. Because that’s all it is: surviving. Not living. You don’t have permission to live.

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