Stress and Survival: a Single Income Earner’s Story

It wasn’t until recently that I became aware of the toll that being a single income earner household had taken on me. In the struggle and stress to survive (while striving for thriving) — to keep my household of four afloat I was living through trauma. In a popular saying…”I was today years old when I learned…the true meaning of trauma.”


a body wound or shock produced by sudden physical injury, as from violence or accident.

the condition produced by this; traumatism.


an experience that produces psychological injury or pain.

the psychological injury so caused.

Up until “today years old,” I had thought that trauma was only pathological. I thought it was physical and/or bodily harm that involved accident. My thoughts were that it was by happenstance, misfortune, and/or bad luck. Part of this had to do with a reality TV show popular in the late 90s called, “Trauma: Life in the ER.” It was broadcast by TLC and was one of the first of its kind. It showcased patients in emergency rooms while undermining the shock, suffering, pain, and agony that individuals endure. Episodes aired with such frequency and regularity that viewers like myself became desensitized to the graphic nature of the program and the reality of seeing blood, bones, tissues, and other fluids exposed frequently. Because of this, “Trauma: Life in the ER” the title of the show became a tagline for an individual’s daily drama instead of the culmination of shared pathological trauma and the experience one has when they suffer an event that sends them to the emergency room.

The psychiatric meaning of trauma is one I have been ignorant of for over 30 years, but nonetheless experienced — one we’ve all experienced. Psychological injury is an event, circumstance, things said, actions, or behaviors that hurts feelings and stirs up painful emotions. Being a single income earning household where I was responsible for four people came with frequent traumas — emotional injuries that I am still recovering.

Sculpture of a bearded individual with head covering bearing the weight of a stone pillar on their neck, shoulders, and back.
Load Weight World by AnabelBugarin


That time in my life where I was taking care of four people (myself and my kids) with one income (that has yet to net over $30,000/year) I was in what I call “survival mode.” Every pay day, I would pay my bills — utilities, insurance(s), auto loan, school loan, credit card minimum payment (depending on the time of year it may be more), rent, and what was left (depending on the number of working days in the pay period) could be anywhere from $20–50 to last until a child support deposit. Those happened on Tuesdays every week and were under $150. My kids came back on Fridays, so I’d often be floating on $20–50 through a weekend until Tuesday. That $20–50 would be what I had to buy food and that’s where the credit card would come into play. The credit card was for those times when my creative and frugal side was diminished and it was a buoy-a line to buy fruits, veggies, and meats that weren’t cobbled together from several parts of an animal or canned.

Cost Saving Creativity

The kids and I were living in a two bedroom, attic apartment of an 1830s home. Three of us were sharing one room — thankfully the bedrooms were large enough to accommodate this. I was within walking distance of work and we were in close proximity to a biking trail that was connected to my job. I was saved on gas for auto and oil changes being low.

These days internet is a necessity — schools make laptops and internet a requirement beginning in junior high. I was not paying for cable, internet, or a laptop at the time. The school had a program where they lent laptops to their students for the school year and also provided internet to families that were within the household income guidelines. While our household qualified, we were not immediately given access to the District internet. I had several paperwork and communication hurdles to complete and jump through because the internet provider was claiming our address already had it installed. Because I couldn’t afford internet for the household and it wasn’t installed for over a year, this meant the kids and I had to fit daily trips to the public library into our schedule. There were sometimes evenings where we couldn’t get there until an hour before close and my kids felt the pressure of racing to study, understand, and complete their homework.

During these years, I was the only mobile user in the household. I had to have the mobile because I sometimes needed it to do work at home. I had a job at the time that was heavy on social media use. It was also like a mini computer for me.

For entertainment, the kids and me often relied on the parks and playgrounds that were nearby. Because we didn’t have cable or internet, we had a decent collection of Blu-rays and DVDs and we’d have snack dinners in front of the TV. The times during the week where I had grocery money, I always made it a priority to cook dinner and sit at the dining room table. One of my kids liked to go around the table asking everyone to list their high and low for the day. Other ways I helped entertain my kids while not spending money were free events that I’d learn about through my job, hiking, and biking.

Card Swiping Sweats

I have painted a somewhat idyllic picture of “bootstrapping,” but the reality was I was making just enough to be poor. Not enough to be considered “poverty threshold level,” but enough to stay frazzled, on edge, and in a perpetual state of worry. There were times that when I was going to the grocery store it felt like I was gambling at the register with my card and its ability to produce a happy message that signals the cart of food we’d selected was ours vs. “Ma’am, it was declined. You want to swipe again?” It’s not that I didn’t know what my checking account balance was or that I wasn’t in a neurotic cycle of tallying the costs of the items in the cart AND always rounding up to buffer for taxes, more often than not it was that some kind of federal holiday or event had pushed my usual Tuesday deposit day to Wednesday. In my fevered impatience to get groceries as soon as humanly possible, I would neglect to check that my child support had actually hit my account on the Tuesday. I would get to the store and get a rounded total cost of the groceries in my cart and be in a panic state the entire time of swipe even when I had slowed my “need groceries for kids” brain down long enough to check that balance I’d still feel the residue of all the other times I had to leave a cart at the register with the cashier. Oh, how my cheeks did burn, my skin would prickle, my hairs would rise, and how my eyes could evade any contact with any human especially the disappointed and heartbroken looks of my kids. There were also the few times my balance was known and I’d still get a declined transaction. Those times were the fault of the bank and those few times were not resolved until the next day or two days later.

I think one of the most humbling and invalidating experiences I had would have been the New Year’s I took us all to Chicago as the kids’ Christmas present. We decided to go for experience and memory creating over material gain. I used a booking app and got a great deal on a well known, elitist hotel within the price range per night I could afford on credit. We took the train and saved on gas, parking, and the anxiety of driving in the city. When we arrived, they wanted a card to hold for incidentals. But the amount they wanted to hold exceeded the amount that my debit and credit cards both had available on them. They refused the cash I had brought as it “was against their policy.” I was brought up that when you take trips you need to bring at a minimum $100 in cash in emergency money. I think I brought $150 for a little buffer. My bank was not in Chicago and I didn’t have any way to deposit the cash onto either of my cards. I remember calling my mom because I didn’t know what to do and also because she is a retired banker. While she talked to me, the hotel staff conspired in a huddle on what to do with my family and me while treating us like pitiless, less than human detritus. The conversation with my mom helped me save face in front of the kids. It was their first time in Chicago, taking the train, and doing anything vacation-like with me. After 30–45 minutes the hotel decided they could give us a room (I had paid for one already!). The provision being that I was telling the truth about my pay day happening the following day and they would not put a hold on my card until that day. (After doing that, it took them nearly a week to remove the hold on my money, in which, we didn’t owe them anything extra because we slept, showered, and watched TV, and that was all.) The kids and I took the elevator to our rooms, dropped our bags, freshened up, and got the hell away from there. It was time to explore! And explore, we did! That foray into uncertainty did not detain us from one of the best memories we have ever made.

Curveball in the Fall

One freak of nature day in 2014, my youngest was having surgery to remove some tissue (as hereditary skin disease runs in their dad’s family this was a necessity). On the way out of the hospital to return them home, the oldest kid’s school calls to say that they aren’t feeling well can I come pick them up? They were on the way home, so I did. As the three of us are finishing up eating lunch, the middle kid’s school calls to say they think my child broke their arm at recess. In the matter of three days, my two youngest kids had their first (and hopefully only) surgeries. Because my middle kid had indeed broken their elbow there were several doctor visits billed — the orthopedic surgeon who first diagnosed the break by x-ray, their billing of the surgery two days later, the surgery center’s billing of the surgery, the follow-up with the ortho post surgery and one or two more appointments for re-setting after that, and then four to six weeks’ worth of physical therapy. There was also my youngest child’s pre-assessment appointments, surgery — doctor billing and center billing, and post-assessment appointments. In addition, the two youngest kids’ pediatrician also billed us for their referral appointments for each surgeon. Even with their father’s insurance coverage, we were still billed around $5,000 — $6,000 for out of pocket expenses total, but we split medical expenses 50/50. Thankfully, their dad, my mom, their stepmom, and me were all able to share in the transportation to and from office visits.

I into We

It’s times like Chicago, the grocery store, and the one “freak of nature” day, or the times I got paid and watch the end result turn into donuts (and not the good kind) that built up this shaky, uncertain, doubting stress. So much so that now that I have been in a dual income earning household for almost two years I still sometimes am triggered back into these patterns my kids and me survived. There are still some pay days where I pay all the bills and see that there’s very little left. And single income earner me starts getting the sweats and my mind starts going into this panicked planner mode of “where am I going to get the money for groceries? and do I have stuff I can sell? how long can I stretch this amount?” Thankfully, I have a financially stable, financially supportive, and financially responsible partner. Eventually, my mind reminds the single income earner she is not single anymore — it’s not a where am I…and do I…and can I… — it’s a talk to your partner and “we will work it out together.”

I still make very little money, but am doing better with financial security. I have learned how to do a lot with very little and be resourceful, how to have fun with my kids, and pay off my debts by eating a lot of canned fish dinners and snack dinners. I hope my kids learned compassion and empathy from these experiences and that’s what they’ll take away instead of the emotional trauma and burn of humiliation — schooling is hard enough. If one thing is certain, these experiences showed them that mom can be trusted to take care of them despite the bad donuts in the bank.