Financial Stress: It Started with a Shoe

Elizabeth had ten minutes left to her break as she peeled back the lid covering her wilted salad. She swiped some leftovers after an all-staff meeting the other day. It wasn’t pretty but it was vegetables, which Elizabeth knew her body needed.

Buzz. Buzz. She reached into the pocket of her khakis and retrieved her phone.

“Hello? Yes,” Elizabeth whispered as she scanned the break room around her. Her colleagues appeared undisturbed.

“Ms. Samson, Elijah was roughhousing with the other boys and somehow tore the sole of his left dress shoe,” the principal explained in a rush. An intercom blared in the background. “We had a pair of sneakers in our lost and found he’s wearing for the remainder of the day but we wanted to call and let you know what happened.”

“Oh goodness, thanks,” Elizabeth said, grateful her eight-year-old son wasn’t in trouble or hurt. His public charter school’s faculty were exceptional when it came to communication. Elizabeth took comfort knowing her son was at a good school with attentive staff.

“He needs to have the shoes replaced soon or he’ll face demerits,” the principal added before a quaint goodbye. Click.

Elizabeth’s heart plummeted to the floor. Her face grew hot as her cheeks turned crimson. Those shoes were supposed to last at least half the year. It is only October.

The offending black shoe, a mandatory dress code requirement, cost about $55 a pair. As a single mom to two young, and at times, rambunctious boys, resources were scarce. Elizabeth couldn’t ask her parents for money. Her father was battling cancer and her mother quit her job to stay home and care for him full-time. They relied on social security checks and Medicare to get by. It was tough and they never had a cent to spare.

Elizabeth’s credit cards were dangerously close to being maxed out. The interest payments were making it impossible to pay them off. And the boys’ father? Elizabeth had not heard from him since the day he left the family and didn’t look back. She had no idea where he was.

Payday was six days away. The current state of Elizabeth’s bank account was dismal: $23.43. She would need at least $15 to buy gas before her next paycheck. It was the worst time for something unexpected to happen. In truth, there never was a good time. Elizabeth felt she was a hamster on a wheel, always running but never getting anywhere.

Buzz. Buzz. Elizabeth hastily retrieved her phone. An unknown number. She considered ignoring it, but answered anyway.

“Hello? Yes…”

“Ms. Samson, we have been trying to reach you. This is Rachel with the gas supply company informing you of your overdue bill of $152.32. If you fail to pay by this Friday, we will be forced to shut off your gas until you rectify your outstanding balance. Thank you.” Click

Elizabeth didn’t even have a chance to ask a question, plead her case, or get a word in. Without gas, she and the boys wouldn’t have hot water, heat or be able to turn on the stove. She was forced to play “payment roulette” each month with the utilities. Sometimes the electric was paid on time. Sometimes her basic cell phone plan. Other times the water bill was the lucky one. Apparently, the gas bill had lost the game quite a few times. With caring for the boys, checking in on her father, work, and constantly struggling with her finances, Elizabeth did not realize she failed to pay the bill several months in a row. The monthly late fee was the cherry on top.

Elizabeth ran her fingers through her brown hair and glanced at the clock. Her salad sat in front of her, untouched due to the lunchtime interruption. Elizabeth lost her appetite anyway. Maybe she’d eat the salad for dinner.

Just breathe. Elizabeth told herself. She took her place at the front of the store, flipping on her cashier light as she prepared for an onslaught of post-lunch customers.

Could I paint his white sneakers black? Could I ask the neighbors if they had a spare pair of black dress shoes? Their son is about the same age as Elijah. And how in the hell am I going to get by without hot water? I can’t even boil water if I don’t have gas. The stupid stove is gas. Maybe I could microwave water…

“Ma’am? I believe you rang that yogurt up three times. I only purchased one,” a man’s voice broke through Elizabeth’s thoughts. She was running on autopilot, lost in her financial demise.

“I’m sorry,” she said with a forced smile as she voided the yogurt purchase.

Stay focused. You have to make it through this day.

But it was a moot point. Elizabeth continued to make small mistakes while her brain was on overdrive. Nearly all of her customers were forgiving and somehow her manager never caught her absentminded transgressions, but as the day came to a close, Elizabeth still didn’t have a solution. She trudged to her locker and retrieved her belongings when suddenly her colleague Marcy appeared next to her.

“Hey Liz, we’re each chipping in five dollars for Brandon’s birthday cake for Friday. Can we count you in?” Marcy asked eagerly.

Elizabeth sighed. This was not the time. She had a headache from thinking about the shoe incident and the gas bill. She felt depleted. “No, Marcy. You can’t. Can he make do with a cupcake?” Elizabeth asked sharply.

Marcy’s eyes widened as she slowly backed away, tucking the envelope of cash into the back of her pants silently. Elizabeth glanced over, watching Marcy walk away.

I wonder how much they’ve collected so far, Elizabeth thought, eyeing the envelope. Elijah needed uniform shoes. Brandon did not need a birthday cake. In fact, Brandon could use a birthday salad…like the one uneaten in the refrigerator.

I couldn’t. Elizabeth shook her head rapidly. She had never stolen before, but it would be so easy to make that envelope disappear. No one would suspect her. Marcy probably already chalked Elizabeth’s outburst up to lack of sleep or too many disparaging customers.

Elizabeth watched Marcy walk out of the break room. She didn’t realize she had been holding her breath. With a long exhale, she shook her head rapidly, disgusted with herself that she even entertained the idea of thievery.

I’ll figure it out. I always do.

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