Saturday, September 4, 2021

About "Frivolous" Expenses, Emotional Flashbacks, and Reserving Judgment

I know a lovely woman who is involved in a lot of community work and charities. She recently reached out to me, knowing finances have been tighter for me, and told me that there is an organization that is happy to fund a grocery shop for people who could use the help, on condition that they send in a receipt and that it isn't spent on frivolous stuff.

She told me that in the past, upon receiving the receipt, the organization didn't reimburse a specific family because they felt that they were being wasteful since they bought a six pack of Coca Cola. For that to not happen to me she told me to stick to basics, produce, chicken, fish, milk, cereal, rice, pasta, and things of the sort and not include frivolous things.

I wasn't sure what would count as 'frivolous' stuff by this organization so I kept asking her questions, like if ground beef was ok, cheese, cheap wine, etc… and she gave me an answer for each one.

I definitely appreciated the financial help, but honestly trying to figure out what would be accepted as necessary and what would cause me problems because they viewed it as 'frivolous' stressed me out to no end.

You see, unfortunately, my financial situation used to be extremely, extremely bad. Hard core poor you could say. Maybe destitute? And because of our situation, I had to ask myself as I put each thing into my grocery cart "Is this actually necessary?" For those who are long timers reading this blog, way back in the day, when I was that impoverished, I even had a series of posts on here talking about whether something was a need or a want, and I covered things as basic as electricity, running water, cell phone service, internet, etc. To be honest I was in that bad of a situation that I needed to ask myself those things and contemplate what the bare minimum that we'd need to survive (and unfortunately, even with that, we were still struggling to pay our bills). So grocery shops were legitimately the bare, bare bones, other than the one cheap "splurge" I'd allow myself, because even I knew that such extreme penny pinching wasn't sustainable, even for the short term, if I didn't allow myself the smallest of luxuries.

Some experts consider poverty a type of trauma with long lasting repercussions on one's mental health. I can attest to that, because I definitely have a lot of trauma from those times. So many things trigger me from that, giving me emotional flashbacks from that scary time of not knowing if we'd have money to buy food and if so, how much.

I remember one time I went to the grocery store without cash, trying to put some groceries on my tab there and being told that I'd reached my limit and couldn't put anything else on the tab until I'd paid it off. I came home from the grocery store crying. We needed food, so I went to the open air market with a bit of cash, so I could get the best prices, and bought a package of rice, a package of flour, white beans, and cucumbers. Needs- carbs, proteins, vegetables. Check, check, check. I spent less than $5 on that shop, because even that was more than we really had available. Within that week was our anniversary, and I remember trying to make the nicest meal I could with what we had in the house. It was buns of bread with homemade baked beans (I had sugar, yeast and tomato paste in the house) with cucumber slices. Imagine that for your "fancy" anniversary dinner.

When I lived in that situation, I couldn't acknowledge the trauma. In such circumstances, one is essentially living in survival mode, and in survival mode you can't stop to think about how you feel emotionally because otherwise the situation would incapacitate you. So you shut down your feelings and just go through day to day, somehow managing, but you build up trauma that can have long term effects.

Currently, my finances, while still difficult, are nowhere near what anyone could call destitute and I'm able to admit that what I went through was traumatic and face the repercussions and attempt to heal myself (via therapy and other things). Unfortunately, along with my awareness of the toll my experience had on me, comes triggers causing emotional flashbacks. And I have a lot.

When I see someone being extremely frugal like I used to be, my heart drops, my stomach clenches, I get agitated, and I just 'can't deal' because with that trigger, my brain thinks I'm back in that situation experiencing it again and I get all the feelings associated with my difficult past.

Similarly, when I need to cut back more than slightly on certain expenses, especially groceries, I literally get into panic mode, because my triggered brain is flashing neon lights, sirens blaring, and the words 'Danger, danger!' are being shouted on repeat because my subconscious thinks I'm destitute and can't handle it. (Terrible for a frugal blogger. Fortunately, when I make a conscious choice to buy cheaper things instead of feeling I absolutely have to, it doesn't trigger me.)

As mentioned, my financial situation now is much improved, even if I'm not rolling in it now, and as such I don't have to ask myself constantly if everything I am considering in the grocery store is a want or a need.

I did my grocery shop, as mentioned above, knowing that my receipt would be perused, and I'd only get reimbursed if I wasn't spending any money on frivolous things.

But what even is frivolous??

As I walked through the grocery store, attempting to fill my cart, I'll admit I was very triggered, needing to ask myself about everything "Is this necessary or is it frivolous?" because it brought me back to those times where I did just that, not because I wanted reimbursement, but because we couldn't survive otherwise.

And I found myself back in that mindset again.

I looked through the produce section, and, having done a recent frugal grocery shop for cheap produce, I was looking to fill in with produce we didn't already have at home. I looked at the peaches and nectarines and told myself I couldn't buy them because they are significantly more expensive than apples, so they were clearly a frivolous luxury. Same with grapes and plums. What about sweet potatoes? Would they call them a frivolous expense, since they weren't super cheap? I decided to chance it and bought them. In the end, I bought very little produce, only some lettuce, scallions, and sweet potatoes.

When I went to get the cheapest sliced cheese, I questioned whether cheese was frivolous or not, because legumes were a cheaper source of protein. When I was at the meat counter, I questioned whether chicken breast and ground beef would be considered an extraneous purchase because chicken wings are cheaper.

And when they’d see I bought ground beef, chicken breast, and cheese, but so little produce, would they think I'm very wasteful buying expensive proteins instead of cheaper produce?

I put a 10 lb bag of basmati rice in my shopping cart with trepidation, because what if they consider my spending more on basmati rice, instead of Persian rice, wasteful, even though my kids prefer basmati and Persian rice often gets rejected by my kids, and even though I was buying a ten pound bag because that way it works out less per pound?

Olives? Can I buy them? They aren't actually necessary, just an extra. Cereal? Is it frivolous when I could be serving something cheaper, like hot cereal, for breakfast? How about ketchup or sweet chili sauce? Are bottled condiments a frivolous expense? You can season with salt and sugar and spices which are cheaper and go further….

On and on it went like this in my head. It was very triggering to be asking myself those questions, and it filled me with anxiety, making me an anxious wreck.

And together with that, I was angry and pissed. At the people who supposedly wanted to help but were filled with judgment, making assumptions about people, deciding what is or isn't necessary for them. Of course these people were all in my head, and I was angry at them, because I have no idea what actually is behind the decision making process of the sponsoring organization. I was triggered because it felt like I was being judged unfairly, with people making assumptions about me and my life without having a blessed clue what I was going through.

I passed by the ramen, the cheapest ramen, which I sometimes buy, and I got upset, because even though it's more expensive than regular noodles, and even though it might be seen as an extra, they have no idea what it's like to be in a lot of pain and exhausted and totally lacking any spoons to prepare a meal and having your kids clamoring for food because it is supper time, and how necessary that ramen is so that they can have something to eat.

I gritted my teeth when I passed up on 'frivolous' disposables, because how dare they judge me for using disposables when I am in excruciating pain from washing the dishes even for a few minutes, and my dishwasher is broken despite bringing and paying for repairmen twice, and the kids refuse to wash dishes because they are grossed out, but they still need to be able to eat off something. Frivolous? Totally not. Definitely a necessity.

And on and on it went.

How dare they judge me? How dare they presume to know what is going on with my life so they could be god and make a judgment call on my life about what I actually need?

I remember now, with embarrassment, when someone was asking us for charity to pay for diapers, and I was upset because I was using cloth diapers since disposable diapers were a luxury we couldn't afford and people wanted us to fund that 'luxury' of theirs? But I realize now that those judgments of mine were coming from a place of trauma myself, of not being able to even afford diapers, and I had no right to judge them. No one has any right to judge someone for their expenses when they have no clue what is actually going on in their lives.

As I mentioned, no one was actually doing this to me, but because of trauma I have from being invalidated and judged in the past, combined with my being told not to include anything frivolous in my shop, this led me to getting triggered the entire shop. This turned what I wished would have just been a shop filled with gratitude to one that was quite triggering, even while I was trying to remind myself the entire time to be appreciative of the people helping me.

I’m sitting here at my computer, trying to figure out how to end this post. What was my point of writing it in the first place, because that would help me wrap it up? Well, it was a few things. First, because I felt the need to share what it was like to shop being told not to include frivolous things. I also wanted to bring to awareness what kind of trauma one can have from having been destitute. Third, I wanted to explain what triggers and emotional flashbacks are and how they work to people that may be less familiar with them. I also wanted to remind people not to judge others for how they spend money, because what might be an extraneous expense for someone may actually be quite a necessity for another.

And lastly, when you, personally, give someone help or charity, give with a full heart and without stipulation, because when someone gives with stipulations it can cause all sorts of triggery things like this to happen. I don’t judge the organization for making these criteria for their help, because I don’t know their reasoning. But if individuals do want to help others, try to keep in mind what helping conditionally can do. (By the way, I asked my friend, the middleman, if she was ok with me writing this post and got the go-ahead.)


  1. I have been in the same place as you as well. To the point of having my electricity shut off and living with no running water. I remember also feeling angry because someone made a comment about my son's shoes, saying thta if she didn't have money, she wouldn't buy her son name-brand sports shoes. I explained to her that my son wore size 48 shoes and there are no cheap shoes here in that size. Another person made a comment about our flat screen TV, without knowing that we had been given it. It is wrong to make assumptions and judge others, especially if you are doing it from a place of privilage. I feel for you and all I can say is keep up your good work and write some more inspiring blog posts like this one.

  2. I agree with everything that Cathy said! And I also have some food triggering issues that I haven't entirely figured out yet. It has to do with food security, but I'm not really sure why. Sorry you had to deal with all those emotions during a shopping trip that should not have been stressful. Did you end up submitting the receipt? Please update us on the results. Maybe if it works out, next time you could separate your groceries at the check out into two different groups so you have a "staples" reciept and a "might be a want" receipt. I hope you have a restful night and wake up refreshed tomorrow. Hugs

  3. Seems to me that organization should just make food baskets up with what they consider "non frivolous foods" and go that way instead of critiquing a grocery receipt. To me, any fruit or veggie isn't frivolous. It's healthy. Dry beans and grains and rice would be considered "non frivolous" to me. Also, when I looked up Persian rice it said it was Basmati rice. Maybe because I'm in the US and it's different where you at. Who knows.
    I'm sorry you had to go through this but I know you do what you can with what you have.
    Now the kids not washing the dishes....yeah, it's time to get them to help out especially when your in pain. I've noticed that you do so much for them, now teach them how to help you as best as they can. Especially your oldest. He's getting so big!
    Thanks for another great post and sharing what many people don't even realize is happening to them.

  4. Hi hope you are well and hving a good day you deserve it! Thank you for writing the post about your past struggles and also the advice on what vegetables to throw away. I had a very similiar past and can understand your traumas and difficulties. Keep writing you are reaching out to people and helping many.. thank you.. June from UK


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