The first time 29-year-old Roger stumbled across Reddit’s r/povertyfinance community, he felt like he’d just come home. A freelance writer whose income was as variable and unpredictable as a POTUS tweet, he’d blown through his savings years ago waiting for his checks to arrive and barely scraped by as a bouncer in the long stretches of time in between. “My savings account consistently had like, $31 in it,” he not-so-fondly remembers. “I wouldn’t eat or go out if it meant I had to dip below that.”
Meanwhile, he was surrounded by people who seemed to have achieved that ever-elusive (for him at least) financial success. They were having destination weddings, buying houses, opening successful small businesses and complaining about annoyingly trite middle-class things like how there were “no nonstop flights to Milan.” Most painfully, one of his friends even spent $26,000 — Roger’s entire annual income — on an imported Italian espresso machine he used all of six times at his upscale San Francisco restaurant. (“Pours too slow,” he told Roger.)
Thinking about how far off he was from attaining this kind of financial stability made him deeply depressed. He wasn’t sure why everyone else seemed to have figured out this money thing but him. Fed up, frustrated and feeling alone, he Googled “low income problems” one night just to see what would come up. Povertyfinance stood out, so he gave it a click and was floored at what he found. An uncharacteristically warm and fuzzy corner of the internet where people offered opportunities and guidance to those with real financial struggles, it was filled with post after post of people just like him: who couldn’t afford therapy, who just wanted an affordable solution for their acne and who were being kept alive on $5 frozen pizzas.
As a guy who’d spent the past five years shame-eating canned beans in a cockroach-infested apartment in L.A., coming face-to-face with 174,000 other people who wanted to know how much plasma they had to sell in order to pay their rent that month was, in short, “transcendent.” “It actually helped me see I was lucky to have what I did,” Roger says.
It didn’t hurt that he’d learned about five crucial ways to save on food and car insurance right off the bat, too (for example, canceling your current car insurance policy and getting a new one through the same company is often cheaper than renewing the same plan, and how you can make a few days of pretty boss crockpot meals for $24 per week). “I saved $150 in the first month I started going to the sub,” he says. “That Reddit page taught me everything I know.”
Povertyfinance isn’t just a subreddit for talking about the pains of being poor, though — it’s a close-knit and uniquely supportive community where people band together to lift each other out of poverty with a surprising amount of success. They share resources, offer ingenious advice and lend an empathetic digital ear to those struggling with the day-to-day grind of trying to make ends meet, a service that’s not only useful for its subscribers, but in some cases, vital to their survival.
According to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, poverty and low income are strongly associated with depression and anxiety, substance abuse and suicidality. The adjacent problems — limited resources, poor nutrition, inadequate education — can also cause a ton of stress, which as we know by now, is the culprit behind everything from reduced brain functioning to heart disease to cancer (and about a million other diseases). Worse yet, the mental and physical illnesses that come with being poor often make it harder to find and keep work.
Given these findings, it’s not surprising that more than a quarter of people below the poverty line suffer from some form of mental illness, 8.7 percent of which the CDC qualifies as “severe.” Meanwhile, the mental health options to address these options are scant — not only are low-income people less likely to seek out mental health services, but a considerable amount of research shows that the mental health professionals who do work with low-income clients aren’t always equipped to address their specific needs.
Having what Roger calls “crafty fellow poors” who understand exactly where you’re coming from can give you a voice, make you feel seen and help you feel like you’re part of something. It can also help you find an unforeseen path out of poverty. Roger, for example, didn’t know he could eat for free by subscribing to meal-kit services, then canceling his subscription before he was charged. Nor was he aware that canceling credit card accounts instead of just leaving them inactive after you pay them off can be worse for your credit. “Learning things like that was its own kind of therapy,” he says. “Reading all these people’s experiences made me feel like I could regain control.” So did poring over their rants — seeing his own struggles and anxieties reflected in others made them seem a little less dire and him a little less alone.
This is something Povertyfinance moderator F4celag says he sees a lot on the sub. “When you feel lost or unsure about what to do in a given situation, it’s not always easy to see a way out yourself,” he writes over DM. “Sometimes we need other people to give us meaningful insight to move forward.”
On Povertyfinance, most of that insight comes in the form of refreshingly practical money advice — the kind few of us are lucky enough to receive in school or from our parents (only 17 states require high school students to take a personal finance class, and over half don’t even offer economics in their curriculum). For example, did you know you can spend $3.94 on 40 caffeine pills instead of dropping $4 on one latte? Or that you get 50 percent off Amazon Prime if you’re on EBT or Medicaid?
Maybe you’re just looking for some basic banking or personal finance advice. In that case, you’ve hit the jackpot: the sub is filled with sage wisdom from redditors who seem to feel it’s their duty to pass on their knowledge. One guy won a Povertyfinance “Best of 2018” award for posting a brilliant guide to banking spun through the lens of someone who doesn’t actually have a lot to put in the bank, while another wrote a fantastic finance 101 guide in response to a 15-year-old’s earnest questions about how to save for her future.
In fact, it was through reading posts like these that Roger figured out another hack: he could set up automatic withdrawals from his checking to his savings account every two weeks. “Maybe it’s obvious to some people, but I never had enough money to save, so that was new info to me,” he explains. So far, he’s saved around $350 using this method, an amount that he hopes to “never, ever touch until there are some more zeros in there.”
Lots of people save money on Povertyfinance. This user added $200 to their savings based on advice given to them on an earlier post, while this one gleefully saved $70 per month by switching auto insurance companies and setting up biannual payments. There are also inspiring success stories like this freelance web designer who finally got a job after declaring bankruptcy and surviving homelessness, and a humbling post from someone who was ecstatic about finally being able to afford a microwave.
Incredibly, some people go Povertyfinance to remap their financial landscape entirely. In a post called “A Number to Be Proud Of,” Zorgsmom talks about the struggles of growing up poor and working her entire adult life to keep her head above water. However, after following advice from her fellow subredditors — which she says was effective because it felt “tailored to her actual financial situation” — she was able to add more than $1,000 to her savings, refinance her car from 13 percent to 2 percent interest, boost her FICO credit score to over 750 and pay all her bills on time. “While I don’t have a stock portfolio and a 2nd house in the Hamptons, I’m finally pulling myself out of the poverty pit,” she writes. F4celag also tells me one woman reached out to him via Modmail to say that since she found the sub, she’s been able to quit sex work and save up enough money for medical school. “I’m in a better situation now than I have been in years,” she told him.
Roger is making significant strides as well. Saving a couple dollars here and there based on what he’s learned in Povertyfinance has meant he can afford to go out with his friends every now and then, which has made him feel more connected and less depressed. It’s even meant that he was able to take a day off, a mental health moment he’d needed for a long time. “I did absolutely nothing other than read and vegetate,” he says. “I feel a million times better.”
That said, Povertyfinance isn’t all sunshine and zeroed balances, nor is it completely immune to trolls or the general cringe-worthiness of the internet (it is Reddit we’re talking about, after all). Every now and then, F4celag and the other moderators have to remove disparaging comments like, “You’re poor because you’re lazy,” or “You have to be stupid to think you can pay off your credit card.” But the vast majority of conversations tend to be overwhelmingly useful and positive. “We do feel a bit responsible for the people and the content in here because it’s such a sensitive topic,” he says. “However, we try not to remove too much because you never really know what could help people. Our community is very kind and welcoming, and we’ve gotten surprised several times by the extent of that fact.”
As for Roger and his freshly honed economic smarts, he plans to keep up with Povertyfinance until he’s able to post a success story of his own. “I’m trying to focus on one thing at a time and treat saving money like a journey, not a destination,” he laughs, suddenly aware of how much like an inspirational plaque he sounds. “I don’t expect it to make me rich, but if I can end up just a little more well-off than I was before, I’ll be a happy man.”