MONEY is a complicated topic of discussion. It is, in many ways, taboo to talk about money in real terms. We can comfortably talk about high prices, sales and taxation, but it is more difficult to discuss, in concrete terms, salaries, expenses and what we can and cannot afford.
Even within households, it can be a difficult subject to broach. Many of us have no idea what our parents’ earn(ed), what they have in debt or savings, or how they manage to keep the bills paid. Many of us have not talked to the people in our households — whether spouses, friends or children — about streams of income, spending or saving.
We go through the motions of making ends meet, ensuring utilities are not disconnected for non-payment, never talking about what individual members of the household can afford. This can increase inequality and help to maintain the cycle of poverty. The silence about money also keeps us — especially women — from being properly compensated for our work. We need to make a better effort to have these conversations.
Every now and then, a conversation about money is sparked, but in a way that alienates or shames the most vulnerable people. Yesterday, Governor of the Central Bank of The Bahamas John Rolle made comments about Bahamians’ savings following the release of the Fiscal Stability Report. It was noted that some Bahamians have less than $1000 in savings. This should not be surprising to anyone who is paying attention. In 2017, we learned that 90 percent of Bahamians had less than $5000 in savings.
When the issue of low savings is raised, many get on their high horses, talking down to the people who do not have money saved. Low-income people are characterised as lazy and irresponsible for whom the cycle of poverty continues. The assumption is they do not want to save, no consideration given to the low income many receive.
Good advice that just won’t work
To say the lack of savings “reflects patterns” of households is misleading. Households are limited by their incomes. It is not possible to save money you do not have. It was disappointing to read the commentary on the news report because so many people were enthusiastic (and some were even well-meaning) in their suggestions to people who do not save, refusing to acknowledge they are unable to do so.
One person shared her personal story of paying off her credit card and tracking her spending. Some do not even have a dream of a credit card and have no frivolous spending to cut. Another person said everyone can save, even if it is only $5. This completely ignores the fact the unemployment rate was 10.7 percent in May. Another person said he once made $75 per week and saved $20. It important to ask questions about these kinds of stories. Three hundred dollars per month is not much to live on, but it is completely possible if you do not have to pay rent or buy groceries. For a debt-free person living with parents who both earn more than minimum wage, it can be easier to save.
The reality of minimum wage
Let’s look at a single mother receiving minimum wage — $210 per week. We can make a conservative deduction of $10 per week which leaves the person with $800 per month. A quick look at the Classifieds will make it clear that a two-bedroom apartment would cost $800 and electricity is separate. This single mother shares a two-bedroom apartment with another person, so she and her child share one bedroom. She pays $400 in rent and $100 for electricity. Add $20 for cellphone credit (which is not a luxury in 2019, especially as a parent), $150 for groceries, $100 for bus fare. She now has $30 left. She has not bought clothes, alcohol or drugs, or fast food at this point. She has not had her hair or nails done. She also has not bought school uniforms or books. The remaining $30 will not go very far.
Get real about the situation
We need to move away from the idea that Bahamians choose to “borrow rather than save”. Borrowing and saving are not opposites, nor are they substitutes.
We certainly need to increase financial literacy, address the low incentive to save with commercial banks and better promote credit unions, but we also need to address the high cost of living and the unliveable minimum wage. We need to decrease spending on unnecessary products and services where it compromises people’s ability to take care of themselves and their responsibilities. At the same time, we need to understand that there are circumstances many of us never have to consider.
Poverty is not a result of bad decisions. It is a cycle, and it is exacerbated by decidedly unequal systems that benefit the rich, disadvantage the poor, and make those in the middle just tired and fed enough to be indifferent. No savings account, asue, or money-making scheme will remedy the issue when the system issues persist as we blame people for their vulnerability.
Take a break - even if it’s just looking at something beautiful
A close friend of mine is on an adventure during her break from university, driving across Canada. She is following a loose plan this summer, setting up camp wherever she finds a good spot. Along the way, she has been able to stop and visit good friends she has not seen in a long time. I am enjoying the photos and stories she shares whenever she gets good internet service. Another friend is on a road trip from Texas to California with her siblings. It has been fun to see photos of her group, all adults, letting themselves be silly together for a few days. Another friend has ventured to New York City from Trinidad & Tobago, taking in all the theatre she can handle.
I do not often travel for leisure and definitely not without a plan. Most of my trips are for work but I do try to squeeze in a few days to actually see the city I visit. Conferences, trainings and workshops tend to keep participants in hotels with little time or energy at the end of the day to explore, so it is important to have plan.
Watching friends travel for leisure can stir up the wanderlust spirit. I have been trying to actively see daily experiences and interactions in the same way we often view the social media shares of our friends. Recently, I was near the end of a very long and challenging day, telling myself to keep looking for the bright spots. There was a road ahead with several speed bumps, and I wondered if that was a sign. The real sign was just a few seconds ahead in the form of a poinciana tree. I parked in a vacant lot to take a picture of it in all its glory. At a different time of year, it is naked with no sign of colour, but that day, it was brilliant in colour and fullness. It was, in its own way, a brief vacation.