Should I pay for gas or buy fresh fruit for my kids? These are my impossible choices

This First Person piece is written by Danielle Barnsley who lives in Leduc, Alta. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

My bank account is overdrawn by at least $100. I’m late on all my bills, my gas tank took double the amount to fill, and I got less than half the groceries than I normally would for the $150 I spent. I already know where the money I get for the rest of the month is going — rent, groceries, gas and those overdue bills. At the end of that, there’s barely anything left over.

I’ve been poor or as the government likes to say, “below the poverty line” for the past seven years. I knew when I left my marriage that life as a single mom would be significantly harder. I knew I’d be doing more work, more parenting and it would be exhausting.

I had a plan though: Go back to school, get an undergraduate degree, then work for a year before getting my master’s.

Everything was in motion and going according to plan. I had a 3.8 GPA while juggling volunteering, a busy week of extracurricular activities for the kids and parenting basically on my own.

It was a lot.

I was living off of student loans, child support and other government benefits. It was far from ideal, but it was manageable.

It wasn’t permanent, I told myself back in 2017. It wouldn’t last forever.

I didn’t think it could get worse. Then the pandemic hit.

There were other factors also involved, but suddenly, the balancing act of school and my kids, the fear of COVID-19 and my declining mental health hit me hard. Somehow, I kept making things work because what choice did I have?

In October 2021, my fiancé and I broke up. I was back on my own again, with my two kids, too ill to work, and no school to fall back on because my GPA had tanked under personal stress beyond living through the pandemic. My mental health required full-time attention and care. I went from managing it to what I am now: barely surviving.

Slowly, I watched the prices go up at the grocery store. The rising cost of gas. At first I thought it was me just not pinching pennies enough. It wasn’t.

A woman shops in a grocery store.
Food prices rose 9.7 per cent in May compared to the previous year, according to Statistics Canada. Just about everything is up from meat to fruits and vegetables to pantry staples like flour and cooking oil — which rose 30 per cent. (Robert Short/CBC)

Everyone around me was suddenly collapsing financially under the weight of what we were told was inflation, while some companies dealt with their own higher costs by raising prices to consumers — and taking in record profits in the process.

I canceled subscriptions. I stopped eating out. When my kids are with their dad, I don’t leave my house just so I can save gas money. It’s like living in lockdown — from poverty — rather than the fear of the virus. I live off whatever non-perishables I have in the house and somehow cut my grocery bill by 75 per cent, but that has meant not getting as many healthier foods. The amount of fresh fruits and vegetables I buy has dwindled because it’s simply not affordable. I’ve accessed the food bank sometimes when there just isn’t enough.

We rarely do anything other than hang out at home because everything costs money in some way. When I do treat myself or my kids, I feel guilty because I’m too poor. Isn’t that what we are taught? That the poor don’t get to enjoy life the same way? Well, I was poor before but this is a whole new level of poor.

My kids come first, my bills come next, and I go last. Every nickel is accounted for, every dollar placed toward something. Yet even with all the ways I scrimped and saved, it hasn’t helped. It used to be paycheque to paycheque, now it’s paycheque to 10 days before paycheque.

It’s been like this for nearly a year — more if you count the time before that where I was doing OK with what minimal amount I had.

Danielle Barnsley’s two youngest children walk down a street. (Submitted by Danielle Barnsley)

As a society, we talk about the cost of living like it’s just numbers. The cost of living is much more than just dollars and cents. It’s about how you live your life. When you dread the grocery store because the prices fluctuate intensely. When you have to choose between meat or a full tank of gas. When you have to spend time going over your expenses to see if you can get your money to stretch a little further. When you hide any sort of purchase that might seem frivolous because you know that people judge poverty hard.

The cost of this living is high, but we fail to recognize how much of a toll it takes for people to live like this. Living in a state of anxiety over food insecurity, worrying about your bills, and if you will stay afloat is a perpetual cycle of trauma, repeating every two weeks as you have to always pay attention.

The deep shame of not being able to do more, even though you really are doing everything you possibly can.

When people ask what we are doing for vacations, I have to shrug and hope they don’t ask anything further because fun in this economy? When you live in poverty?

I don’t know how we solve this, but I can say that I know that this is not sustainable. I’m working as hard as I can, but the inflation just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and the gap of having and not having is widening every month. As a society, we simply cannot outrun it anymore. As for me, I just have to hope that at some point, it will return to being more balanced.

Then, maybe, I’ll be able to breathe again.


Do you have a similar experience to this First Person column? We want to hear from you. Write to us at firstperson@cbc.ca.

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