The Price of Normal

Normal families have sofas, she says, and you’ll do what it takes to feel normal.

via Rental America: Why the poor pay $4,150 for a $1,500 sofa – The Washington Post.

There’s a chain of rent-to-own stores where we live called “Majic Rent to Own”. They have a top hat and wand as their logo, and when I first saw it I honestly thought they sold supplies for magic tricks. When I realized they sold furniture I thought “why would you rent furniture?” and thought it was about furnishing short-term housing or something.

Only more recently did I realize that I was clueless about why these stores existed because I’ve never been a member of the class they cater to. Like payday loan sharks, they weren’t even on my radar.

One of the most shocking aspects of becoming more socially aware in America is realizing just how expensive it is to be poor. And realizing that there is a whole segment of industry dedicated solely to capitalizing on the plight of people who live paycheck-to-paycheck.

(There are industries dedicated to milking the middle class too. I’m looking at you, every bank ever. And to some degree, the federal government itself.)

Once upon a time I would have responded “who cares about feeling ‘normal’, anyway?” to the quote at the top of the post. “Spread some nice cushions, sit on the floor and save your money!”

But even we, with our middle-class lifestyle, have sometimes felt the strong urge to be a little more “normal”. Between our choice to have lots of kids on one income, and our policies on not carrying debt, we’ve often lacked the niceties that neighbors have. The shiny new car. The big TV and the 5.1 sound system.

And we’d look and say “what are we doing wrong? don’t we deserve that too?”

It’s 10x harder with kids. You can tell yourselves that you’re perfectly happy bohemians and you don’t need the kinds of friends who care about that stuff anyway. But try to explain that stuff to a 6-year-old whose friends are starting to get their own phones…

I think if I lived in a trailer and ferried chicken guts for a living and was never sure if I would have enough money for rent, that brand new 17% leather couch would be an island of refuge for me.

We know what the trappings of normality look like. We see them on every TV show and in every magazine. And those trappings seem to be becoming less and less attainable.

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  1. Kenneth A. Grimm October 27, 2014 at 18:34

    Paycheck loansharks can be a lifesaver when the power company is threatening to turn off the lights. But paying $45 per month trying to climb out of a $300 debt, still not out of it six months later…
    Yes, it is very expensive to be poor.

  2. Bought my sofa from Aaron’s rent to own after looking at reviews online
    of the various rto stores here. The situation – I had gotten my own
    apartment a few months ago after living with my son – so didn’t have (or
    previously need) a sofa. Or any other furniture except my bed. Used
    folding chairs and cushions. Not in a rush to get a sofa because so
    often, someone ends up sleeping on it. (Very unhospitable of me, I
    know…) So I’m having the kids, and one of the kids’ friends, over for
    Christmas. And I realize, there is no comfortable place for my guests to
    sit. And having just moved I was a little short on money. And, had
    never bought myself new furniture, always had second and third hand,
    beat up, ugly, what am I working my butt off for if I can’t have
    something halfway nice? So I go down to Aaron’s. Got this sofa for $740,
    No interest if paid off in a year. Made sure I got that sucker paid off
    before the time was up.Otherwise I would have had a $500 sofa (not
    kidding myself about their markup) for $1200. I’m happy because knowing
    me I never would have gotten the money saved up for furniture and if I
    did I wouldn’t have wanted to spend it. It’s easier for me to hand it
    over a hundred at a time. I am a miser, it’s in my genes. A couple years
    later, the sofa is still in good condition (and there’s somebody
    sleeping on it!)

    Another time I used rent to own – many years
    ago – my washer and drier bit the dust. I went to the laundromat for a
    while. That’s a PITA with little kids. A local rent to own (not a
    national franchise) had a laundry set for about the same amount weekly
    that I was spending at the laundromat. It didn’t cost me any more, I got
    to do laundry at home, and when the washer didn’t work, I just called
    the rental people and they came and tried to fix it, then replaced it
    free. Did I pay more for the washer and dryer than I would had I gone to
    Sears? Probably. Did I spend less than if I had used the laundromat
    indefinitely? No doubt.

    The thing I like about rent to own vs.
    buying on credit is that if your financial situation changes or you
    decide you don’t want the item, you just send it back and you’re done.
    You’re out the money you paid but you don’t continue to owe for
    something you no longer want or can afford.

    People who move
    frequently (for whatever reason – sometimes legitimate like working in
    construction) sometimes rent furniture to avoid having to move it. Good
    idea especially at the income level where your movers are your friends
    and the truck is your friend’s pickup.

    Payday loansharks – yep,
    the fee for borrowing $200 for two weeks is about the same as the
    electric company’s reconnection charge, and you get to keep your lights

    I think the trick with both rent to own and payday loans is
    you can only use them for cash flow problems, not to buy stuff you can’t
    afford. Like you just got a job and your first paycheck comes two days
    after the cut off date for the electricity. You have to be able to pay
    them back right away. You start rolling those loans over and you’re in
    big trouble. When you walk in Cash2Go and they greet you by name, that’s
    a bad sign – they might be glad you came but it’s not Cheers. Not that
    that ever happened to me…

    Agreed, it is expensive to be poor. In so many ways. (Try paying for health care…)

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