On Using Tech While Poor

The sheer mental stress of poverty utterly changes our relationship to technology

AtAt a family get-together one year, an older relative asked me what had been the most exciting Christmas present of my life. My first thought was the PlayStation console one of my mom’s boyfriends got me when I was little. I remember finally feeling like one of the other kids, the “normal” kids who seemed to get nice things at every holiday.

I’m on the older end of the millennial spectrum, and while a lot of us are assumed to be digitally savvy, I wasn’t until later in life. I bought my first smartphone with Christmas money after I graduated college, and I’ve had it for five years now. I was slow to adopt social media, and only joined Instagram when I started pursuing photography about a year after I bought my phone. I avoided using the new gadgets, or apps, my friends did because I didn’t see the point. I’ve had the same laptop since 2009; I paid for it with my student loans, loans I haven’t even started paying off yet.

My parents divorced when I was four, and doing without was common in the two households where I grew up. My mom worked at a bank, my dad as a general contractor, and neither of them made much money. (Later, I’d find out there was another culprit behind our perpetually tight resources: alcohol. But that’s another article entirely.) There was little room in the budget for luxuries like the internet.

At my mom’s place, where I lived until I was 16, we’d use something until it broke, then use it some more, patching it together with Band-Aids and workarounds. She wouldn’t spend on anything, even when it made sense. My dad’s spending depended on how much work he had.

Research has shown that just being poor puts people in a state of chronic stress and impedes their ability to make decisions.

By the time I had to pay for my own stuff, I’d internalized their flawed behaviors around money, often paralyzed into inaction whenever I had a few dollars extra to spend on anything beyond necessities. I saved what I could when I got my first job, but there never seemed to be enough. I didn’t understand how to invest in things that would help me get ahead, or how to decide what was worth spending money on. Money — or lack of it — came to define my life, including the technology I had access to and how I used it.

Research has shown that just being poor puts people in a state of chronic stress and impedes their ability to make decisions. A study published in the journal Science found that the difference between economically stable people and people in poverty amounted to around 13 IQ points — equivalent to the average difference in cognitive capacity between chronic alcoholics and normally functioning adults.

The study had a series of people, rich and poor, solve simple cognitive tests after being asked to think about a $150 repair and one that would cost $1,500. Affluent subjects performed the same regardless of the cost, but those without a lot of money did worse after being asked what they would do if confronted with a $1,500 problem. Chronic economic stress reduces people’s mental bandwidth to such a degree that just thinking about an expensive repair impeded their decision making.

Less than a year out of college, I suffered a serious injury to my back and was laid off from my job. Bills drained the savings and retirement money accrued through six years of work, and $77 every two weeks from the Employment Development Department didn’t help that much, especially in California. Eventually I got some minimum wage work but it threw me into years of economic limbo, living on a teenage budget with adult expenses and chronic pain in a bad home environment. I made just enough to get by but not enough to get out. Staying sane and keeping my bills paid became my top priority. I managed to work on writing projects where I could, but anything more was outside my bandwidth.

My connection to the internet via that old laptop probably saved me during my darkest moments. It let me publish my writing when I could eke out the time and energy, helped me understand my depression and anxiety through videos and essays by other people dealing with it, and opened up a vast library of music. It gave me tools I could use, and it provided an escape. It let me know what was out there beyond the rails of my commute, my job, and my bedroom, even if I couldn’t get my hands on it yet.

A friend of mine, who’s come through some rough times financially and personally in the past few years, told me that at one point she made $7,000 in an entire year. During that time, she found herself escaping into social media, using the web to apply for jobs, and chronically tracking her mounting expenses via her banking app.

“I used my phone more than ever during that time, both as a tool and a release,” she told me. “I spent a lot of time looking for ‘quick fixes’ to being that broke… I downloaded some apps to try to make extra money, like Wag and Rover. I was constantly looking at my banking app, checking every penny that went out since I had so little money.”

She was also able to find support by posting on an anonymous Twitter account, until she earned the stable job she has now. The happier she got, she says, the less time was spent on social media. “I don’t believe money buys happiness,” she said, “But being able to afford life does relieve a lot of stress and makes it easier to pursue happiness.”

People resist new technology because it threatens their established norms. I think that’s one reason I resisted technology for so long; my norm was the bare minimum.

The journalist Rebecca Renner grew up in Daytona Beach, Florida, and though there wasn’t much money, she was surrounded by engineers working on the space program and a father skilled at computer repair.

“I grew up with computer parts strewn around my house,” said Renner. “People would give my dad broken computers they didn’t want anymore, and he would fix them like it was no big deal. At one point, we had maybe five or six fully functioning computers he built at home, but we didn’t necessarily have food on the table every night. That’s how I learned to make do with whatever tech I can afford. I can basically gut a computer and make it do what I need it to do. I’m not sure where I would be as a writer without that skill.”

Harvard professor Calestous Juma said that people resist new technology because it threatens their established norms. I think that’s one reason I resisted technology for so long; my norm was the bare minimum. I thought I didn’t need it, that I’d gotten by with less so far and I’d just keep doing it. I might’ve also been afraid of being sucked into the void, burning hours on YouTube or Instagram, or rabbit-holing through pointless blogs instead of doing something that might’ve helped change my circumstances. I kept it all at arm’s length and as a result, it was harder to see the good in tech.

When I wanted to upgrade, I couldn’t afford the necessary hardware or software. I was terrified that any money I spent on a new computer or a camera would be money I wouldn’t have when I popped a tire or needed new brakes or just didn’t make enough to pay my bills that month.

Today, I live with family in Houston, Texas. Moving here broke the cycle of minimum wage work, helped reduce my expenses, and let me devote more time to writing. Technology is, in essence, helping me write the next chapter of my life. I’ve met and talked with some truly interesting people here through Instagram and Facebook, and I work as a remote freelancer, relying on my computer to pay my bills. It’s not a place I would’ve imagined myself in even a couple of years ago.

At the end of 2018, I invested in my freelance photography business with a refurbished iMac, my first big electronics purchase made entirely with my own money. It’s a 2013 model, but a 27-inch screen means I don’t have to lean forward and squint to make out the photo I’m working on, and compared to my laptop, it processes like the wind.

I’m not completely on the other side of this yet. I still struggle financially, so dropping that much cash on a new computer made my stomach clench. But I’m coming to understand the broken pattern of thinking that gives rise to fear, and that investments toward a long-term goal made intentionally aren’t wasteful spending. Because I’ve managed to save a little money, I finally have a little room to breathe. My job now is to make that space bigger.

Journalist. Writer. Photographer. Human-er.

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