The day I started my new job as a cashier at Tedeschi Food Shops, I went in for my training feeling more hopeful than I had in a long time. I’d had the 1998 Buick my grandmother left behind when she died for a little over four months, so I finally had a better chance at making some extra money. I was already dreaming about everything I could do: buy my textbooks at the cheapest price in advance of the semester instead of relying on my scholarship money and the campus store, and be able to contribute next year by buying a set of new utensils for the on-campus apartment I was going to be sharing with three people.
But when my manager was giving me paperwork and collecting my forms of identification, I realized this job would be yet another situation where not having a bank account would be a problem.
Tedeschi Food Shops didn’t offer paper checks as a form of my payment, like my other jobs tutoring and grooming dogs had. There were two options: Sign up for direct deposit with a bank account, or have your paycheck put on a payroll debit card, which would charge me a fee of around $5 for every ATM transaction. The use of payroll cards is on the rise, particularly among freelancers and independent contractors. In 2016, 8.7 million people received payroll cards, compared to just 5.5 million employees receiving paper checks.
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I was part of the 8.4 million households who are unbanked in the U.S. as of 2017, according to a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation survey. I didn’t have an account because of former credit and account issues, like 14 percent of unbanked people; when I was 17, my dad and I purposefully overdrew my bank account by about $400 to cover basic necessities when he lost his job for a few months. We both thought we’d be able to pay it back fairly quickly, but we couldn’t, and my account closed.
People who are unbanked (or underbanked, meaning they have some access to financial services, but not everything they need) spend an average of 10 percent of their annual income just to access basic services like check cashing or credit. I had so little already, with barely any cash saved and an hourly job that paid Massachusetts minimum wage ($8 per hour at the time). I couldn’t afford to lose a portion of my paychecks to ATM fees.
Instead, I built up the nerve to talk to my girlfriend of four years and ask her if she’d let me use her bank account to get paid.
Like many people who grow up poor, my relationship to money impacted all my other relationships. I didn’t want to be financially dependent on my girlfriend. I wanted us to be able to make the decision to share our finances someday when we lived together and both felt we were ready. But I also didn’t have many other options; my dad had been without a bank account for longer than I had, and he was my main support system after my mom passed away.
My girlfriend said yes, and I put her account details down on my direct deposit form. I started picturing how I would feel when I got the money out of the ATM after being paid the following week. It was more money and more hours than I’d made at my on-campus tutoring job. I just wished that finances didn’t have to complicate my relationship all the time. I wanted to save up to take my girlfriend to Provincetown for her birthday that summer, but I didn’t want to share every single detail of my financial situation with her yet.
Sharing a bank account required an immense level of trust. I was putting all the money I was making into her account and relying on her to take it out of the ATM and give it to me. She had access to find out exactly how much I was making per paycheck and if I decided to make an online purchase with her permission, she could see every detail in her account statement.
It made me feel extremely vulnerable. I scrutinized a lot of my own purchases — would buying this make me seem irresponsible? Then I scrutinized my relationship — what if she no longer wanted to be in a relationship because she realized what a burden it was to date someone who was poor? What if I never climbed out of poverty like I hoped I would after college, and I had to rely on her and her bank account for the rest of our lives?
And then, a few weeks after I started at Tedeschi, my girlfriend also got a job there. We both needed summer jobs to save between our junior and senior years of college, and it was the perfect fit for her, within walking distance of her house. The day she went in for her training, she got frustrating news: Because her bank account was already attached to my direct deposit, she couldn’t get paid the same way. She had to use a payroll debit card and lose the $5 every time she took her paycheck out of the ATM. We talked about seeing if I could switch and let her use her own account to get paid, but she said it seemed like more trouble than it was worth.
She was essentially being punished for doing me a favor.
All relationships have their challenges, but I felt the strain of our socioeconomic differences. There was a power dynamic underlying every interaction. I felt like I had to be the “perfect” poor person: I couldn’t make any reckless decisions, couldn’t spend my income on anything frivolous, had to work as hard as humanly possible to get over the poverty line. My girlfriend never made me feel lesser because my family had less money, but I felt it all the same.
When you’re poor, all your relationships are strained by your lack of money. I’d felt it in moments where my best friend had to drive me to Walmart when my dad and I didn’t have a car so I could get school supplies. Or when my friend printed my high school papers for me because we didn’t have a printer. When I had to turn down opportunities to go out with my friends because I knew I couldn’t afford dinner and a movie. When all my friends had brand new decked-out dorm rooms and mine was decorated in hand-me-downs and DIY collages I made for less than $10.
At the end of that summer, my girlfriend and I took our trip to Provincetown. We both took work off for the long weekend and headed out in my green Buick. The hotel I’d booked as a birthday gift to her was one of the cheapest I could find that was three stars or more, and it was squarely in between all the things we wanted to do on our trip.
On our way to the hotel, we stopped at a bank branch to deposit some money into my girlfriend’s account to use during our trip. A bank associate asked me if I wanted to open my own account. I told her I thought I wouldn’t be able to because of past account issues and she encouraged me to apply anyway.
After 15 minutes, I learned I was approved. It could have been because I’d been building credit with a Discover credit card for several months, because I paid my Sprint phone bill on time, or because I’d been under 18 when I overdrew my checking account. I wasn’t sure but didn’t question why the bank was allowing me to open a new account; I’d rarely had good fortune when it came to finances and I didn’t want to jinx what was a step in the right direction. After four years, I was able to open my own account again. I could buy gifts online for my girlfriend as a surprise without worrying she’d see the cost on her statement. I could make financial decisions that were visible only to me without worrying how they might impact someone else’s life.
I could have control over my own money: How I kept it, how I spent it, where it went.